Liking Ike

    Derek Chollet

    History, Americas

    Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wikimedia Commons

    William I. Hitchcock’s The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s explains why Ike embodied what Americans expect from public service.

    William I. Hitchcock, The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 672 pp., $ 35.00.

    LAST OCTOBER, NEARLY two decades after Congress ordered work to begin, construction finally got underway on a $ 150 million memorial located just off the National Mall in Washington, dc to honor Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    Developed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, the monument had been the subject of a protracted battle—one that lasted far longer than the thirty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Critics worried about its cost and size, traditionalists scoffed at its unorthodox design and Eisenhower’s descendants claimed it was too modest, failing to evoke the glories of Ike’s military and political career.

    In the end, the site—which will be known as “Eisenhower Park,” marked by a steel tapestry with eight-story-high columns spread over a four-acre public space—reflects a compromise among the different ways we remember Eisenhower: the everyman from Kansas and the commanding general who liberated Europe; the reluctant, neophyte politician who was beloved by the public, modernized campaigning and tried to remake the Republican Party; and a presidency that evokes a simpler time, yet charted America’s global dominance and presided over the rise of the national-security state.

    Such controversy over how Eisenhower should be memorialized is not surprising, because his legacy has never been a simple one. Ike’s political opponents on the right and left initially defined him as an amiable old duffer who could never quite rekindle his World War II heroism. This popular perception prevailed for several decades. Yet since the 1980s, when the Eisenhower archives started opening up, a revisionist interpretation gained momentum. Scholars suddenly heralded Ike’s “hidden hand” approach, marked by deceptively sophisticated thinking and disciplined decisionmaking.

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