Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Andrew Sullivan Gets Eisenhower Wrong

Andrew Sullivan has an innovative video feature on his blog, The Dish, now at the Daily Beast. In "Ask Andrew Anything," Sullivan gives video replies to reader questions. These replies are an interesting way of expanding blog content, but today's installment gets some history quite wrong.

The question was "Why do you think Eisenhower was the greatest president of the 20th century?" I agree with the general thrust of the reply, which echoes the revisionist case that Ike was far more effective than people at the time realized.

However, comparing Ike to JFK, Sullivan says: "You can certainly say this thing: that Eisenhower would never, ever, ever have done the Bay of Pigs in a million years.... and I doubt would have gotten us entangled in Vietnam either."

Both of those speculative statements are contradicted by the historical record.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in which CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried to overthrow the Castro government, took place less than three months after Kennedy took office. The planning was not a Kennedy initiative, but had begun a year earlier during the Eisenhower administration, when the president approved a National Security Council paper calling for covert action to overthrow Castro. The specific Bay of Pigs plan was approved by Eisenhower after the election, in late November 1960. Kennedy inherited the operation from the Eisenhower administration. It is simply wrong to say "Eisenhower would never, ever, ever have done the Bay of Pigs in a million years." Ike approved it. It was Ike's plan.

Now, some might quibble that JFK didn't actually implement Eisenhower's plan because he did not supply American air cover. Without delving into the morass of that particular controversy, let me simply say that Sullivan's argument is based on the premise that Ike was prudent and cautious, a president who "presided," while Kennedy was rash and "radical." Ike's approval of a more provocative step than JFK took is hardly evidence of that.

On Vietnam, Sullivan might seem to be on stronger ground--his claim is less absolute ("I doubt") and since Ike was not president, we'll never know with absolute certainty.

But we do know what Ike advised LBJ to do in 1965. Johnson knew that the prestige Eisenhower enjoyed could be a politically effective tool in garnering public support for escalation. When Ike was briefed on Gen. Westmoreland's recommendation for escalation in June 1965, Eisenhower reportedly said "We have got to win."

More conclusively, thanks to LBJ's telephone conversation recordings, we have direct, irrefutable evidence of Eisenhower's thoughts. Johnson spoke to the former president on the morning of July 2, 1965. Ike said: "You've got to go along with your military advisers ... My advice is, do what you have to do." He advised LBJ to say to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese: "Hell, we're going to end this thing and win this thing.... We don't intend to fail." His final word to LBJ? "I would go ahead and ... do it as quickly as I could."

We don't have to guess what Ike thought about escalation in 1965. Sullivan's view initially seems plausible, given Eisenhower's own decision in 1954 not to bail out the French at Dienbienphu. Less than a year after ending the Korean War, Ike had no interest in getting into another land war in Asia.

But (and this is what Eisenhower admirers overlook) he did commit the United States to maintaining an independent South Vietnamese government. That commitment, the one LBJ always said his policy was meant to keep, was Eisenhower's commitment. When it came down to it, Eisenhower supported troop escalation in 1965 to keep the commitment he himself had made.

There was much that was prudent about Eisenhower's presidency. He did end the Korean War, he did avoid direct American involvement in the French war in Vietnam. But he also endorsed what in retrospect were clearly counterproductive and even reckless covert operations in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, and those "successes" gave rise to the hubris of the Bay of Pigs. He made the ill-advised commitment to South Vietnam, leaving his successors to make good on it. In neither case do his actions fit Sullivan's admiring portrait.

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