Dwight D. Eisenhower is looking better and better. A recent poll of historians ranks him as the fifth-best president in our nation’s history.
The top four—Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt—remain unchanged from previous surveys done in 2000 and 2009. The big story in the 2017 C-SPAN poll is Eisenhower. In two previous polls, Ike came in eighth and ninth. This year, he surged up the rankings, leapfrogging perennial favorites Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, and John F. Kennedy.
This result would have stunned his contemporaries. Although Ike always enjoyed high approval ratings while in office, he rarely found favor among academics. A 1962 poll conducted by Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. ranked Ike 22 out of 34. And there he stayed for years. Not until 1994 did Eisenhower make it into the top ten.
What explains the changing view of Eisenhower among historians? Why this sudden spike in Ike?
One part of the story may be that there has been slippage in the reputation of two of the usual upper-tier contenders. Woodrow Wilson, ranked sixth in 2000, has dropped to eleventh, as historians give greater weight to his active embrace of racial segregation. And Kennedy sank from sixth in 2009 to eighth this year. While scholars admire JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they seem ready to admit that his brief presidency was short on enduring policy achievements.
Eisenhower, meanwhile, has improved over time. According to the poll, historians particularly gave Ike high marks in three areas: his handling of global crises and international affairs, his management of the economy, and his moral authority.
These look like sound judgments. Eisenhower’s approach to international affairs, for example, was masterful. In 1953, he used his considerable political capital to bring about an armistice in the Korean War, halting an unpopular conflict that had taken the lives of more than 36,000 Americans.
He declined to bail out France in its doomed colonial war in Indochina, refusing to send American troops there in 1954 despite immense pressure from his military advisers to do so. He used American economic pressure to compel Britain and France to halt their ill-conceived invasion of Egypt in 1956 following Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.
In 1957, in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, Eisenhower initiated a massive program to build a new generation of rocket and space technology that positioned the United States to dominate the aerospace industry for the rest of the century. And he was always willing to talk to his Soviet adversaries, going so far as to welcome Nikita Khrushchev for a memorable visit to Camp David in 1959. His foreign and security policies combined restraint and vigilance in equal measure.
The historians who answered the poll were not given an opportunity to evaluate a less admirable part of Ike’s legacy: his extensive use of the CIA to conduct secret and illegal operations against foreign governments. In countries such as Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and even Tibet, Eisenhower gave CIA director Allen Dulles carte blanche to cause havoc. The CIA in the 1950s triggered coups, plotted assassinations, and shipped arms and cash to authoritarian regimes. Eisenhower was a cold warrior, and there was no lack of brutality in the means he adopted to wage that ideological conflict. These facts, however, do not seem to have weighed heavily in the poll numbers.
Evaluating his stewardship of the economy, historians gave Eisenhower high marks, ranking him sixth in this category, just behind Bill Clinton. This assessment may be based more on the reputation of the booming ‘50s than on Eisenhower’s economic policies. True, the GDP of the United States increased by an astonishing 60 percent during Ike’s administration. Because of his antipathy toward budget deficits and inflation, however, Eisenhower kept a tight hold on the federal purse-strings. He balanced three budgets and came close on five others.
But fewer federal dollars in the economy translated into sharp recessions in 1953-1954 and 1958, with unemployment spiking significantly in 1958. Still, Ike demonstrated real creativity: He found a way to expand defense spending, boost the minimum wage, widen Social Security, and invest in infrastructure—especially highways, school construction, and public housing—all while maintaining tight fiscal policies. He rightly deserves to be known as one of the shrewdest managers of the nation’s economy.
Finally, historians rate Eisenhower fourth among all presidents in moral authority. Only Washington, Lincoln, and FDR surpassed Ike in this category. And no wonder: Americans viewed Eisenhower as a legendary hero even before he entered politics, and his time in the White House strengthened his reputation as a man of integrity. He gave his life to public service in war and in peace, and his administration was remarkably free of scandal—unlike Truman’s irregular relations with old cronies, or Kennedy’s appalling personal behavior in the White House.
Still, Eisenhower was not a transformative president. He proved to be a wise manager and a man who governed by resorting to common sense and prudence. His leadership did not thrill Americans as Kennedy’s did; nor did he use the power of his office to construct a lasting legacy of social progress like FDR or LBJ.
But context matters. C-SPAN conducted this poll in the fall of 2016, in the midst of one of the most polarized, and depressing, national elections in modern history. It is highly likely that the vulgarity and bitterness of the 2016 campaign shaped the outcome of the poll. Ike was an admirable, decent, rational, and non-ideological man who believed the best of people, loved his country, and did not seek power to push a narrow and self-interested agenda. At a time when our contemporary leadership class has failed the nation so dramatically, it is no wonder that we might cast a fond eye back to the age of Eisenhower.