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Getting Ike Right

Claiming Eisenhower for the liberal internationalist crowd isn’t just a simplification—it’s plain wrong.


Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most successful foreign policy presidents of the modern era. Under his leadership, Americans enjoyed peace abroad and prosperity at home. Yet, despite his presidency’s lessons for today’s policymakers, Eisenhower remains one of our most misunderstood chief executives.

In a recent column, the New York Times’ David Brooks misremembers Eisenhower’s policies. Brooks casts Eisenhower as an internationalist who successfully battled isolationist forces within his own party, setting the course for GOP foreign policy for the next seven decades. Ike, he writes, “gradually created a party that helped defeat Communism and ushered in more global prosperity.” He compares the positions of Eisenhower’s opponents, like Senator Robert Taft, to current trends in the Republican Party. 


Taft ran against Eisenhower for the GOP nomination in 1952. The Ohio senator supported the America First movement before the United States joined World War II, and afterwards he “opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was designed to lower trade barriers,” Brooks notes. Taft was the likely nominee in 1952—a fact that compelled former nominee Thomas Dewey, among others, to encourage Eisenhower to run. They staunchly opposed many, but by no means all, of Taft’s views on America’s role in the world. Brooks argues that today’s Republicans are analogous to Taft. He presents them as “isolationists” whose views run counter to the internationalism that Eisenhower embodied. 

This misunderstands many of today’s Republicans. It also misunderstands Eisenhower.

Wanting allies in Europe and elsewhere to share more of the defense burden isn’t “isolationism”; nor is believing that the United States must prioritize the threat posed by China; nor is recognizing that national security strategy must account for constraints imposed by the nation’s fiscal state and popular will. A look at Ike’s presidency suggests that he may have shared some or all of these concerns.

Eisenhower took office at a perilous moment in American history. The Cold War was new. The United States had recognized, albeit belatedly, the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism. Ike’s predecessor, Harry Truman, had overseen the establishment of a vast national security architecture, including the creation of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. He set a foreign policy that was cognizant of the Soviet thirst for expansion, recognizing—quite rightly—that communism needed to be contained.

Yet under Truman the defense budgets had seesawed, eventually reaching astronomical heights with the Korean War. Ike worried that the present fiscal course was unsustainable. As his biographer William Hitchcock notes, he “abjured” the drastic swings in defense spending that occurred under Truman, “believing that they suggested an unwillingness to think ahead and stay prepared for future conflicts.”


 Sustainability, he knew, was key to crafting an enduring strategy. Ike believed that Truman’s foreign policy had been too haphazard, lurching from one crisis to the next. Stolid and dependable, Eisenhower sought to bring order and definition to American foreign policy at a time of great uncertainty. As he remarked: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. If you haven’t been planning, you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.” 

As President, Ike empowered the moribund National Security Council, attending 90 percent of its meetings. The modern conception of a White House chief of staff dates to Eisenhower, who largely created the title, his military experience having taught him the importance of delegating. Project Solarium, a national-level exercise convened at the beginning of his presidency, was designed to impose order and consensus among policymakers during an early period of the Cold War that was fraught with uncertainty.

Eisenhower recognized reality, bringing troops home from the stalemated war in Korea and even employing threats of a potential nuclear war to cajole friend and foe alike to that end. But the centerpiece of Ike’s national strategy—dubbed the “New Look”—was predicated on America’s financial, and spiritual, health.

Despite his robust concern for American security and his own career as a soldier, Eisenhower feared America becoming a “garrison state.” He knew that defense budgets, like all budgets, could be chock full of waste and pet projects. And he was keenly aware of the cost of maintaining a massive military. Ike knew that the Soviet Union threatened the American way of life, but he didn’t want America to lose itself in confronting that threat.

“Rather than turn the country into a garrison state built upon a command economy, Eisenhower proposed to wage the cold war along free market principles moderated by wise fiscal management,” Hitchcock observed.

To Eisenhower, a strong foreign policy was inseparable from long-term fiscal health. He believed that America must play to its strengths. As Hitchcock noted: “To win the Cold War, Eisenhower believed [that] the United States must remain economically dynamic, robust, and expansive. Spending huge sums on armaments and national defense might be unavoidable, but it had to be done carefully.” 

Truman’s last budget had proposed a total spending of $78.6 billion against a revenue of $68.7 billion—leaving a deficit of $9.9 billion. The cuts, Ike knew, would have to come from the military. This was the key basis for the “New Look,” which consciously emphasized collective security agreements, burden sharing, and a reliance on armaments and tech instead of personnel. 

Eisenhower was no dove. Defense spending grew steadily under his watch. But he sought to provide order and planning to expenditures. This meant ensuring deterrence—“no more Koreas,” as the refrain went—but it also meant being judicious with hard power.

Eisenhower eschewed military force on several occasions. In addition to ending active hostilities in Korea, he avoided U.S. military intervention in Indochina in 1954 and declined to involve U.S. forces in Hungary in 1956, among other instances. Ike’s strategy was predicated on preventing war.

A lifetime soldier and student of Clausewitz, Ike understood that nations embarked on war were often overtaken by events. He also knew that in the modern age, warfare was industrial slaughter; once committed, half-measures would not suffice. Accordingly, he sought to impose discipline while avoiding conflict at all costs. 

Eisenhower, Hitchcock notes, wielded a “nuclear stick.” On several occasions, he and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened to use nuclear weapons, successfully deterring incursions by Communist China into the Taiwan Strait in 1955 and 1958. One senses that today’s media would have had a field day with the president’s 1955 press conference in which he said of nuclear weapons, “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” The Chinese and Soviets certainly paid attention.

“Wars,” Joseph Stalin allegedly remarked, “are won in the factories.” As a young soldier, Eisenhower summed up the great lesson of World War I: “When great nations resort to armed conflict today, the readiness of each to meet promptly the needs of its armed forces in munitions, and of its civilian population in the necessities of life, may well prove to be a decisive factor in the contest.” 

Early in his military career, Ike spent years studying the problem of industrial mobilization in wartime, touring factories and plants and publishing his findings in a journal. As Hitchcock notes, “As early as 1930 he grasped the need for modern states to build a standing ‘military–industrial complex.’” He recognized that economic power—when properly harnessed—was key to military strength. NSC 162/2, authored in the Eisenhower administration’s first months, illustrated Ike’s recognition of the importance of the defense industrial base by calling for stockpiles of munitions and securing raw materials and key industrial plants.

Eisenhower “built the United States into a military colossus of a scale and lethality never before seen,” but he was conscious of its limitations. Ike believed in deterring and intimidating his enemies, but he didn’t believe in writing checks that the United States couldn’t cash.

And he knew that a massive undertaking—be it fighting war or preserving peace at times of great peril—required consensus. Accordingly, he viewed himself as both responsible for building consensus, but also beholden to the limitations of popular will. This goes far in explaining his reluctance to intervene in Indochina, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Ike mobilized science and universities to fight the Cold War, recognizing that American ingenuity and innovation were key to defeating totalitarianism. But he also appreciated that the battle was a spiritual one, putting values and religion front and center. Eisenhower, who was not a regular churchgoer prior to his election, remains the only president to be baptized while in office. If war was politics by other means, Eisenhower was keenly aware that politics itself was downstream from culture. An America that believed in itself and its greatness was an America that could defeat its enemies; nothing less would suffice.

Eisenhower presided over peace and prosperity, yet he was widely mocked by the liberal intelligentsia, many of whom labeled him as dimwitted and ill-spoken. The record, of course, shows that he was neither. And it also shows that the characterization of Eisenhower as the antithesis of today’s Republican party is too simple by half.