The Age of Eisenhower
America and the World in the 1950s
William I. Hitchcock
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2018, 672 pages
Book Review published on: June 28, 2019
The decade between the World War II and the turbulent 1960s is often looked upon, in retrospect, with a great deal of nostalgia as a period of relative peace, economic prosperity, and innocence. Baby boomers may recall a less complicated time of Hula-hoops, drive-ins, and early rock and roll, with the notable exception of the Cold War tensions punctuating the period. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency (from 1952 to 1960) encompasses eight years of this era and is the subject of William Hitchcock’s masterful new work The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s. Hitchcock takes aim at the notion that Eisenhower was a disengaged chief executive, more interested in his golf game than tackling tough issues head-on. He also reminds us that the “age of Eisenhower” was fraught with peril, belying the general, benign way it is presented in contemporary society. Indeed, Eisenhower faced some of the headiest issues of his or any other time, sealing his legacy for future generations.
The Age of Eisenhower is not a biography per se; rather, it is a portrait of a president and his times. While it does focus on the key issues and challenges of his eight years in office—and there were many—the book’s primary value is portraying Eisenhower the man, as opposed to Eisenhower the chief executive. What Eisenhower truly believed and valued, and how these affected the decisions he made in office, provide a more intimate look and represent the book’s greatest strength. Using new sources and meticulous, in-depth research, Hitchcock admirably achieves the goals set forth in his preface—to show that Eisenhower did indeed make a difference by laying a framework strategy for the Cold War, defining for the American people the role the government should have, and instilling a sense of discipline and process throughout his administration.
Hitchcock divides the book chronologically into three sections: “Duty”; “Age of Peril”; and “Race, Rockets and Revolution.” The first highlights Eisenhower’s stellar military career as well as his campaign for the presidency once Harry S. Truman announced he would not run for a second term in 1952. Most military students will be familiar with Eisenhower’s meteoric rise within the Army—first in his classes at both the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College, mentorship by such luminaries as Douglas MacArthur and George C. Marshall, and selection by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944). Indeed, this operation marked a turning point for Eisenhower—the cache and popularity he gained because of this assignment paid great dividends, making him a popular, trustworthy name for Americans in the 1950s. His wartime reputation more than once buoyed him during some tough times, and helped him maintain a remarkable 65 percent average approval rating throughout his eight years in office.
The latter two sections of the book demonstrate the crucible of the presidency once Eisenhower took office. While too numerous to encapsulate in this brief review, the issues Eisenhower confronted represent some of the most crucial that America faced in the twentieth century—the early Cold War, Sputnik, the U-2 incident, Iran, China, Vietnam, the Suez Crisis, Cuba, the list goes on. Domestically, Eisenhower faced the scourge of McCarthyism and the challenges of desegregation, thorny issues that tested his mettle almost as much as his wartime crises. Hitchcock does a masterful job of melding Eisenhower with the events of the era; looking back it is difficult to imagine this period as solely one of “peace and prosperity.” To the extent that characterization holds at least partially true, to Eisenhower goes much of the credit.
The Age of Eisenhower, however, is no mere hagiography. While Hitchcock renders an admirable and generally favorable portrayal of Eisenhower, he pulls no punches regarding Eisenhower’s greatest policy failures and shortcomings. Chief among these was the U-2 reconnaissance plane shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. The author argues that this set back a hugely important big-power summit with Premier Nikita Khrushchev that could have done much to relieve Cold War tensions at the time. Domestically, Eisenhower is faulted for not taking a more visible, aggressive stance on the anticommunist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as well as confronting the challenges of desegregation, which most of the southern conservative wing of his own Republican Party vehemently opposed. Hitchcock effectively argues that Eisenhower preferred to “go slow,” working quietly but effectively behind the scenes to get the Nation’s business done, without ever resorting to grandstanding or self-promotion. This version of a perhaps “more hidden” Eisenhower is another of the book’s many strengths.
The Age of Eisenhower is a tour de force that will appeal to the specialist as well as the generalist. Written in an elegant style that is never stifling or pedantic, Hitchcock’s book effectively conveys the essence of the Eisenhower administration and the global context in which it served. Military readers familiar with Eisenhower’s wartime years will note how much that experience helped buoy him through eight years of trials and tribulations as the head of state. The Age of Eisenhower makes a valuable contribution to this oft-forgotten period of our history.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia