The Eisenhower 50’s
University of Virginia history professor, William Hitchcock has a written a very sympathetic, and I think accurate, history of the Eisenhower era of 1944 – 1961. I grew up as a child of the era in a middle class apartment neighborhood in Queens. To us the 1950’s was not an era of blandness and racism as liberals would describe it, but rather it was one of hope and optimism. It was truly a time of a broadly shared prosperity. We were well aware of Jim Crow in the South, but every day Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers we cheered him on and knew that the world was becoming a better place.
Eisenhower’s opening acts were to make peace in Korea and to stay out of France’s war in Indochina. To be sure his time represented the heyday of the CIA with successful coups in Guatemala and Iran. Further he deftly dealt with Senator Joe McCarthy watching him burn out.
Just before the election of 1956 Eisenhower faced the dual crises of the Hungarian Revolution along with the Anglo-French/Israeli invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis. Hitchcock calls Eisenhower a realist in failing to intervene in Hungary after the Soviets invade. I am not so sure, The U.S. could have done more. As to the Suez crisis he completely ignored the reason for Israel’s participation. Namely it was a reaction to the Egyptian sponsored fedeyeen raids from the Sinai into Israel attacking civilians. He is too casual in lumping Israel in with Britain and France with respect to motivation.
The Russian launching of their Sputnik satellite in 1957 triggered a major crisis in the administration and led to calls of a missile gap. Although there may have been one in 1957, by 1960 the U.S. had clear military superiority over the Russians with the development of the Atlas, Titan, Minuteman and Polaris missiles. The missile gap that JFK talked of in 1960 was a myth.
Throughout his administration Eisenhower concentrated his efforts on building up U.S. strategic forces and trying to reach a modus vivendi with the Soviets. He tried with a Summit meeting in 1954 and tried again with the planned summit meeting in 1960. That summit blew up when Eisenhower was caught lying about the failed U-2 over-flight mission over the Soviet Union. Here Hitchcock is particularly acute in going through the “tick-tock” of the entire episode.
One of the heroes of the book is Attorney General Herbert Brownell who was leading the charge on civil rights. It is here where Hitchcock differs from Caro in his telling of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. According to Caro Johnson was the prime mover, but according to Hitchcock it is Johnson who so waters down the bill to make it far less relevant. Remember the Senate was voting on the Eisenhower Administration’s bill. It is also here that Hitchcock makes an error in recounting that it took 60% of the Senate to over-ride a filibuster. That is true today, but in 1957 it took 67%.
Although many historians are critical of Eisenhower’s slow walking civil rights in the 1950s. Hitchcock rightly notes that Eisenhower used federal troops to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 and was vilified throughout the south. Kennedy was no different as he also slow walked civil rights until 1963.
Hitchcock notes that Eisenhower leaves Kennedy with crises in Laos and Cuba where a CIA sponsored invasion is on the offing. Unfortunately Kennedy got caught up in the momentum of the moment with disastrous results. But that all takes place prior to Eisenhower’s farewell address where he warns of the power accumulating in the military-industrial complex he largely created.
All told William Hitchcock has offered a terrific history of the era and foreign policy of the Eisenhower Administration. I highly recommend it for both lay and professional readers.
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