Imagine if former President Dwight Eisenhower ("Ike") had been around to advise President George W. Bush during the 2001 crisis, instead of Dick Cheney.
General Eisenhower ran for President in 1952 and assumed office in early 1953. He was conservative, but he was a calm conservative who was willing to leave most of the New Deal intact. He was anti-communist, but unlike many Republicans of his era he did not believe that Democrats were communists, or that it was impossible to negotiate or even cooperate with communist governments. After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed him Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the European theater during World War II, Eisenhower had worked with communists, including Joe Stalin himself, to defeat Nazi Germany in battle.
Senator Joe McCarthy, Ike's own vice-president Richard Nixon, and other Republicans (and quite a few democrats, notably John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey) had made anti-Communism the center of both domestic and foreign policy. The Korean War was basically in a stalemate, with North Korea and the U.S. facing off near the 38th parallel, roughly where they had been when the war began. Red Scare politicians wanted Ike to conquer the whole peninsula.
Although the U.S. refused to officially recognize the then-popular new regime in China because it was communist, Eisenhower opened secret lines of negotiation. After a couple of false starts, sabotaged by South Korea's fascist leader Syngman Rhee, on July 27, 1953 a truce was signed.
Meanwhile the French were unable to muster sufficient military force to crush the Vietnamese independence movement (which had been pro-U.S. until Harry Truman decided to allow the French to re-colonialize Vietnam after World War II). They wanted Eisenhower to bomb the Vietnamese, and almost all of Eisenhower's advisors thought that was a good idea. But Eisenhower, and General Matthew Ridgeway, thought Vietnam was lousy terrain to fight on.
Eisenhower was a big-picture guy who was willing to let subordinates handle details, unlike most recent U.S. presidents. He understood that Communism had an appeal to some people; it was not just something imposed by Joe Stalin. He did not want to bleed America to death fighting peasant rebellions. He also understood that, even at a time when the U.S. economy was riding high (the only major rival at that time being communist Russia, the U.S.S.R.), military spending had a dark side for any economy.
Even so, Eisenhower allowed the French $385 million in military aid specifically for Vietnam, and the continued use of 200 U.S. Air Force advisors authorized by President Truman.
When Joe Stalin had died, Ike had said:
"The jet plane that roars over your head costs three-quarters of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning ten thousand dollars a year is going to make in his lifetime. What world can afford this sort of thing for long? We are in an armaments race. Where will it lead? ... to robbing every person and nation on earth of the fruits of their own toil."
So here is what Ike would have told Bush: send in the CIA. Back them up with Special Forces if necessary. But don't increase the military budget, and don't get involved in a ground war in Asia.
Instead Bush listened to Dick Cheney and crew, the spiritual and mental descendents of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. He enlarged the military budget and invented the Homeland Security boondoggle. At the same time he cut taxes on the highest income Americans to the lowest level since 1933, resulting in the highest annual budget deficits ever. Combined with the Clinton-era banking "reforms," this set the stage for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The thing was, because Americans saw General Eisenhower as one of the greatest military leaders of the era, he was able to resist pressure for military expenditures and unwinnable wars.
Now we are in the second term of the Barack Obama administration, and another weak President has neither the backbone nor the gravitas to do what is right for America. In 2006 U.S. citizens voted to end the war in Afghanistan. Obama bought peace with the Pentagon by staying at war with the Islamic world. He has extended the war to North Africa. He is even looking to evade his won 2014 deadline for Iraq.
Now "everyone" of importance in Washington, Democrat and Republican alike, believes that more economy-crippling military and homeland security spending is justified. Damn the free markets, what business people really want is guaranteed profit government contracts.
I like Barack Obama's speeches, mostly. When it comes to actually doing the job, I Like Ike.
Agree? Disagree? You can leave feedback below.
Note: The Eisenhower quote above is from page 807 of William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, to which I am also indebted for many of the historic details used in this essay.