Monday, July 04, 2011

A terrific book well worth reading (and pondering about)

Sandy Levinson

I just finished a new book by David Nichols, Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis--Suez and the Brink of War (Simon and Schuster). I can't recommend it highly enough, not least bccause it's a real page turner, even if one knows the outcome (i.e., World War III doesn't break out as the result of Soviet intervention in the Suez crisis). But it also has extraordinary resonance with regard to our situation today. Let me suggest a number of things well worth thinking about:

1. We were, overall, very lucky to have Dwight Eisenhower as President instead of Adlai Stevenson, at least with regard to foreign policy. What is really impressive is how committed Ike was to the US not getting into new wars. He won in 1952 on his promise to end the war in Korea (which he did by accepting a staelemate that we live with today), and he vetoed going into Vietnam. He was absolutely insistent that the US not back the colonial powers France and Great Britain in their misguided effort to "teach Nasser as lesson" by occupying the Suez Canal after his nationaliztion (caused, to be sure, in substantial measure by Eisenhower's mistake in accpeting Dulles's advice to cut off an offer to finance the Aswan Dam). Reading this book has led me to believe that Ike may be the only President since World War II whom one should really have trusted as Commander-in-Chief.

Stevenson, on the other hand, seems a more disappointing figure the more one actually finds out about him. Arthur Schlesinger's collection of letters, published a couple of years ago, revealed that Stevenson was at least as cool to civil rights as Ike was. Stevenson, after all, selected Alabama Sen. John Sparkman as his running mate in 1952. There is no reason to believe that Stevenson would have ever named anyone so progressive as Earl Warren to the Supreme Court or appointed such a progressive Attorney General as Herbert Brownell. Moreover, turning back to the point at hand, Stevenson was a hawk on Suez, advocating supporting our purported allies (who absolutely betrayed Ike by lying to him about their plans in the Middle East) in the name of the fight against Communism and supporting Israel (which also behaved perfidiousy, in alliance with France and Great Britain). (Eleanor Roosevelt was similarly supportive of Israel.)

2. Apropos the current discussion of unilateral presidential power, much of which is dominated by Yale faculty, former and present, and Yale alumni, Ike turns out to be a classic Whig, totally out of sympathy, I think it is fair to say, not only with the executive-branch exuberance expressed most strongly by John Yoo, but also, I strongly suspect, with a milder version, by Akhil Amar, whose contribution to Slate was titled "Bomb Away, Mr. President," defending what many of us think is an extraordinarily dubious interpretation of the War Powers Act proferred by former Yale Dean Harold Koh. (Obviously, the War Powers Resolution, for better and worse, entered American politics and law more than a decade after Ike was President.) Over and over, Ike emphasizes that he can employ no force in the Suez Canal unless the Egyptians "attacked our people" (p. 136). "Anything more, [Ike] believed, would require congressional approvalm" according to Nichols. On July 31, 1956, after Congress had adjourned--another reminder of what a remarkably different world it was then--Eisenhower ordered Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to go to London immediately "and make clear how impoossible it would be to obtrain Congressional authorization for participation by the United States in these circumstances." (p. 140.) In a telephone conversation with the almost hysterical Anthony Eden, who almost demanded that the United States offer full support to the UK, Eisenhower "remineded Eden that the United States could join in military action only if Congress was called into special session. For Congress to approve intervention, 'there would have to be a showing that every peaceful means of resolving the difficulty had previously been exhausted.'" (p. 142). "The country will not to war ever while I am occupying my present post," Eisenhower told a news conference, "unless the Congress is called into session, and Congress declares such a war." (p. 167).

It is inconceivable, I believe, that Ike would have thought himself authorized to go to war in Libya. There was, after all, no attack, or threat of same, on any American. And I can't imagine that we would view "hostilities" as involving only threats to American lives and not the use of military force in circumstances that could (and amlost inevitably would) take on added implications after the initial decision. I sus pect, therefore, that he'd be quite sympathetic to the critiques that Yale professors Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway have leveled at the Obama Administration's assessments of its own powers.

To be sure, there were limits to Eisenhower's Whiggery. "Our people should be alert," he told a meeting of advisors. "If the Soviets attack the French and British directly, we would be in war, and we would be justified in taking military action even if Congress were not in session." (p. 250). The reason is tht Ike took NATO with great seriousness, and an attack on the French or British, even if they were illegitimately in the Suez (which was Ike's view), would be treated as an attack on the US. This seems to support Robert Taft's view that NATO did indeed fundamentally reorder the United States Constitution by empowering the President to enter unilaterally into war even in the absence of an attack on the United States or even American soldiers serving abroad.

3. Ike was far sicker than the American public was told. His White House doctor seems only semi-competent. Stevenson made Ike's health a campaign issue, but the White House, not to put too fine a point on it, lied through their teeth about the actualities. Given that there is some reason to believe that Ike was less than taken by the qualifications of his Vice President, Richard Nixon, it was almost criminally irresponsible of him to run for re-election, perhaps at all, and/or to do so with Nixon as his running mate. It is a miracle that he survived (and, indeed, didn't die until well into the 1960), but that doesn't justify his lack of candor and irresponsibility vis-a-vis Nixon.


Republican demogoguery on communism, and the Democrats' reaction to that, caused as much harm to the country as the reaction by Bush to 9/11. We should be grateful Eisenhower was immune, his nutcase Sec'y of State notwithstanding.

The Suez Canal had to be naturalized? Didn't it have berth-right citizen-ship?

Good point about the Suez Canal! I'll change the text accordingly.


Good discussion. Would Ike favor some sort of U.S. supported coup instead in Libya?

As usual, Joe asks a good question, since one of Ike's downsides (for liberals) was his support of coups in Guatemala and Iran. I presume that he justified both as, first, part of resisting Communism and, secondly, as "local" coups (even if supported by the CIA) rather than involving the overt use of American military force. Similarly, he seemingly signed off on the Bay of Pigs project, and we'll never know if, unlike Kennedy, he would have committed American force to the insurgents upon their spectacular failure.

Ike was scarecly a perfect president, but I do think that, all in all, we were probably very well served by his leadership. Of course, one of the realities of today's Republican Party is that Ike would scarcely fit in. One of the other things that comes through in the book, for example, was hie genuine commitment to strenghtening the United Nations.


Thanks for the reply. I think the overall discussion is fine but the Libya reference w/o citing the "alternatives" seemed a bit incomplete. The library has the book & I will check it out.

1952 was the first federal election in which I voted. Here in the Boston area there was a recognition of Nixon as villain. As for Ike, he was indeed a war hero and as such was wooed by both parties for 1952. So there was recognition of his hero status and appeal to voters. His campaign promise on Korea was important to the voting public whose sons were subject to the draft. As to Nixon as his VP, is it clear that this was Ike's choice? Nixon in CA campaigns for the House and the Senate was as far right as could be at the time. Nixon may have been selected to satisfy the base Republican base.

Did Ike have any idea just how progressive Earl Warren would be? It would seem he did not, based upon his subsequent statements of his mistake with that appointment. But maybe he did.

By the Bybee [expletives deleted], it seems to be a claim of "Rehabilitating Lochner" (aka "Rehabilitating Much Ado About Nothing") that progressive actions of the Warren Court may have been attributable to the Lochner supporting Justices and not the progressive Justices in the Lochner Era.

Regarding Egypt, perhaps Ike was following the line established by FDR on protecting America's energy sources, keeping in mind the Cold War and preventing it from getting hot.

And I'm surprised Sandy did not mention Ike's farewell speech in 1961 on the military-industrial complex that might have had in mind the events Ike faced in 1956.

Back in 1956, I was a US Army draftee, paying my dues following deferments during the Korean Conflict. During the Egypt crisis, my fellow draftees and I were troubled that our peacetime stint would send us there. I took the liberty of penning a parody of "You Belong to Me" with its "See the Pyramids Along the Nile" by adding lines such as: "while serving with the rank and file," "spend your weekends in Alexandria, riding on a camel not a car, with those Arab girls you can far, while performing your duty." [I can hear Jo Stafford's lilting voice even now.]

As to Ike's illness, perhaps what kept him going was the thought of Nixon at the trigger. I recall when Nixon had his problems as the 1956 campaign began when there was some question whether Nixon should be on the GOP ticket, someone at a press conference asked Ike about any Nixon redeeming features, responding (in effect) "give me a couple of weeks to think about it."

Eisenhower apparently believed as I do that the Declaration of War Clause only requires declarations for offensive wars and that a declaration is moot once an enemy attacks us and we are in de facto war.

It is also interesting to note that Dubya was even more of a Whig than Eisenhower in going to war, requesting Congress' authorization to go to war in both offense (Iraq) and after we were attacked (Afghanistan). Contrast this with Clinton in Bosnia/Kosovo and Obama in Libya & Somalia. (Yes, we have boots on the ground to go along with our drone attacks in Somalia).

With regard to Mr. DePalma's last post, much depends on what one means by "us." One consequence of what Washington called "entangling alliances" is that the United States, thanks to Bill Clinton and a supine Congress, is apparently supposed to consider an attack on Budapest or Bucharest an attack on the American heartland, with attendant unilateral authority to the Commander-in-Chief to do whatever he/she believes best.


Speaking of supine Congresses, the Senate is considering a bill to approve the Libya War after the President started the war and after President blew off the WPR.

If Congress genuinely thinks our policy in Libya serves the national interest (however defined), then they are not being "supine" in endorsing it. It's a real dilemma as to what exactly Congress is supposed to do when faced with Executive overreaching with regard to policies Congress in fact supports. Impeachment would make sense if the policy were thought to be disastrous (as well as illegal), but it really doesn't have any purchase in this case, even among militant anti-Obamites who hold public office.


We definitely disagree on this one. From my POV, the Senate will be ratifying the President's unconstitutional act of waging offensive war without the required declaration if it approves of the illegal war after the fact.

What makes this worse is that Obama blew off Congress in favor of seeking UN and NATO approval.

If the Senate approves this behavior, the Declaration of War Clause will effectively become a nullity.

If the Senate approves this behavior, the Declaration of War Clause will effectively become a nullity.
# posted by Bart DePalma : 3:51 PM

You seemed to have no problem with that when Cheney/Bush were lying their way into Iraq.


For the purposes of this thread, Bush sought and received a AUMF from Congress to go to war. Even if Bush was the devil incarnate you assume, he followed the Constitution.

Blankshot, lying your way into a war is not "following the Constitution".

In any case, your problem now is that the people who Obama "blew off" also happen to support what he is doing.


The only concern the GOP has with pulling the plug in Libya is leaving our NATO allies in the lurch. If this was an Obama only operation, the House would have massively voted to defund the war with a coalition of anti-military Dems and almost all the GOP majority.

The original post mentions numerous worthwhile topics, viewed especially thru the lens of the Ike era in the then still-postbellum US.

When elements in the GWBush-2 executive were penning demurrers to congressional committees, and refusing to provide documents or even to appear and testify, or even to meet with congressional representatives in an adversarial, sworn format interview which could be recorded, some of the claimed precedents for that standoffish approach had formed in memos and comments among Ike and his cabinet during the postwar early coldwar epoch, wherein basically Ike both claimed the right to refuse to let his folks testify, and his right to fire them if they did so speak.

In other theaters, I believe Ike's Nato involvement formed part of the background for what both the UN resolution on Libya did, and the Nato followup action attempted with the US executive's robotic war elements deployment.

The ennui with wartime as a protracted state, during Ike's tenure afforded him a shield of evasion with respect to the concepts which led to the 1973 War Powers Resolution in congress. There are several zones on the globe in which that applied on Ike's shift, as the post author alludes. The postbellum history of coldwar central and eastern Europe is one such record; also, the beginnings of the three successive leaderships in Egypt extend back to those times.

The only concern the GOP...blah...blah...
# posted by Bart DePalma : 5:18 PM

The only concern, and I do mean ONLY, is how to get back control of the White House.

Andrew Bacevich had a stimulating review of this book in the London Review of Books, Vol. 33 No. 12, 16 June 2011.

It might be available to non-subscribers, and is at least available to subscribers, at

A sample:

"In the midst of this commotion, Eisenhower angrily declared his intention to do the right thing, the implications for his re-election be damned – a claim Nichols takes at face value. In public, the president repeatedly asserted his commitment to equality before the law as the basis of peace. ‘We cannot,’ he insisted, ‘subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us’ – noble sentiments that had not stayed Eisenhower’s hand when dealing with matters in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam and elsewhere."

I've now read the Bacevich review (after subscibing to the London Review of Books in order to do so). It's a typically interesting view, which places great emphasis on the enunciation of the "Eisenhower Doctrine" after the Suez crisis was over that, in effect, put the US permanently into Middle Eastern politics in place of the now displaced British. I think that Bacevich is quite rigtht about the post-Suez events, not to mention Ike's willingness to trust the CIA with regard to the "necessity" of overthrowing governments in Iran and Guatemala (and signing on to the Bay of Pigs). All of that can be recognized, but I remain very glad that Ike, and not Stevenson, was Commander-in-Chief in 1956. Would that someone other than John Foster Dulles been Secretary of State, but as we saw with Dean Rusk, getting a Democratic President certainly didn't guarantee a more perspicacious SofS during the height of the Cold War.

I have not read Prof. Bacevich's review as yet, although I have read at least two of his books and many op-eds going back to 9/11. I had the good fortune to audit two of his courses on foreign policy/international affairs after 9/11. As I recall, before the "Eisenhower Doctrine" post-Suez Canal, there was the FDR middle east "protective" of energy sources in that area, particularly the understanding with respect to Saudi Arabia. By the time of FDR's "protective," there had been a recognition that American oil would no longer suffice for purposes of national security. Perhaps Truman had this in mind with the US recognition of the UN's establishment of the nation of Israel. From FDR on the Executive has expanded on his "protective" not only during the Cold War but beyond to the present. Doubting Thomases might check out National Security Strategies over the years.

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