As President Obama contemplates his second term, he has been talking to historians about another two-term president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
We think of Ike as a great military man, but as president he used his understanding of the military to rein it in. Obama is said to be looking for a low-key way of managing America’s global role while minding Ike’s credo that true national security begins at home with a sound economy, shored up by a careful balance of resources and commitment.
How did Eisenhower do it? Once Ike extricated the United States from the Korean War in 1953, he managed to cut the defense budget over his two terms by about a quarter, from about 70 percent of the federal budget to 60 percent. (Today, defense is about 20 percent of federal spending.)
Aware from reading Clausewitz and his own experience that small wars have a way of becoming big wars, Eisenhower was determined to keep the United States out of any war. He resisted the temptation to send ground troops into Vietnam after the French military collapsed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The jungle, he told his National Security Council, would “absorb our troops by divisions.”
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower was under tremendous pressure, especially from Senate Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, to increase military spending. The president, however, quietly scoffed at the hysteria over a “missile gap,” which he suspected — after he saw secret intelligence from a U-2 spy plane — to be phony. In the winter of 1958, the poet Robert Frost gave Ike a book of his poems with an inscription, “The strong are saying nothing until they see.” Ike wrote a friend, “I like his maxim best of all.”
Can Obama emulate Ike, as he pulls America out of Afghanistan and tries to draw down military spending? The answer may lie less in policy than in a certain habit of command.
Eisenhower had one big advantage over Obama, or any president drawn from civilian ranks: “I know those boys down at the Pentagon,” Ike liked to say. As a former commanding general and Army chief of staff, he understood how the military hyped enemy threats to extract more money from politicians for men and weapons.
Eisenhower was also blessed that he did not have to deal with cable news shows and the relentless pressure of the 24/7 news cycle and social media. With high approval ratings (average 65 percent), he could afford to float above the fray.
Although the media of the time condescended to Ike as not much more than a genial golfer, scholars have known for years that Ike operated with what political scientist Fred Greenstein of Princeton called “the hidden hand.” He was a “more complex and devious man than most people realized,” wrote his vice president, Richard Nixon, who added that he meant that “in the best sense of those words.”
Ike could be cunning and, if necessary, brutal. But if Obama wanted to borrow a personal characteristic from Ike, it should be this: the confidence to be humble.
Obama often seems peevish and irritated by having to deal with Congress. At times, he appears cocky and a little smug. Eisenhower had a big ego too, but he hid it.
He too was exasperated by posturing congressmen. In his diary in the fall of 1954, Ike wrote of Republican Senate Majority Leader William Knowland, “In his case, there seems to be no final answer to the question, ‘How stupid can you get?’ ” But Ike made sure to keep smiling around congressmen, never letting on his true feelings.
He liked to tell a story about his days as a West Point cadet, about getting knocked down by his boxing instructor. The young Ike got up grimacing, and the instructor stopped the fight. “If you can’t get up smiling, you’ll never lick me,” said the instructor. It’s a corny story, but it had real meaning to Ike.
Obama is a different person who faces different demands. But when he wants to stand up to generals and congressmen — to the “military/industrial complex,” as Ike first described it in his farewell address in January 1961 — Obama would do well to seem serene, not burdened by it all; to be magnanimous in victory, or at least appear to enjoy the game.
It’s not just a matter of body language. It’s about leadership.
Evan Thomas is the author of the just-published “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.