President Ike: The Legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower

William Hitchcock / University of Virginia

Presented by:

In 2017, the influential C-Span ranking of U.S. presidents carried some surprising news: in the opinion of the hundreds of historians that were polled, Dwight D. Eisenhower now ranked as our fifth best president, right next to Lincoln, Washington, Franklin, and Theodore Roosevelt. Ike? Fifth best? For decades, Eisenhower’s presidency had been underrated. Long considered a do-nothing, lazy president who played a lot of golf and presided over the boom years of the 1950s, scholars of the presidency had written off Eisenhower as a mediocrity. But something has happened to the 34th president’s reputation: when the 2021 C-Span ranking was published, Eisenhower remained in fifth place, among the very greatest chief executives.

What explains this significant change in how we see Dwight Eisenhower? Partly, it has to do with his moderation: in our polarized era, a moderate Republican president now seems attractive. Partly, it has to do with his reputation for public service and integrity: he gave his entire life to public service as an Army officer, a university leader, and president. But it also has to do with the real results he achieved in office: he wound down the Korean War, avoided other conflicts, affirmed the New Deal, fought the demagoguery of Joe McCarthy, and advanced civil rights for African Americans. He also warned us of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” This lecture will assess Ike’s legacy and the example he offers for today.

Recommended Readings:

Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, by William Hitchcock

Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith

Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, by David Eisenhower

How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions, by Susan Eisenhower

Discussion Questions:

How did Eisenhower’s military service shape his presidency?
Was Eisenhower a liberal, a moderate, or a conservative?
Did Eisenhower ease the Cold War or make it worse?
What role did Eisenhower play in advancing civil rights for African Americans?

William Hitchcock

University of Virginia

William I. Hitchcock is the James Madison Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He studied at Kenyon College and Yale University, and has written numerous books, including The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, which won the 2009 George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is the New York Times bestseller Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s.

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