Review of “Eisenhower: The White House Years” by Jim Newton

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In a previous post I reviewed another product of current scholarship on Eisenhower, Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas. (You can read that review here.) This second review is best read in conjunction with the first. I listened to this book rather than read it; accordingly, I have not included quotes from the author.

Newton’s book is more comprehensive than Thomas’s; it does not have the narrow focus on Ike’s nuclear strategy that the Thomas book has. Thus we learn more about Ike’s early life, his relationships with his wife and his brothers, his somewhat ambiguous position on civil rights, his appointments to the Supreme Court and subsequent dealings with the Court, and his illnesses during the presidency, all of which Newton covers admirably.

In particular, Newton recounts Eisenhower’s stand on civil rights thoroughly and sympathetically. When, in 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas defied the Court’s order to desegregate Little Rock’s schools by using the National Guard to keep blacks out of high school in Little Rock, Ike was incensed. While he privately disagreed with the Court’s desegregation decision, he believed it was his responsibility to enforce the law and decisions of the Supreme Court. Not trusting the Arkansas Guard, he first nationalized them and then ordered them to return to their armories. Next, he sent in the redoubtable 101st Airborne Division to carry out the Federal court order and protect the black students.

[Faubus responded by shutting down Little Rock high schools for the 1958-1959 school year. Incredibly, this elevated him to the Gallup Poll’s 1958 list of “Ten Men in the World Most Admired by Americans.”]

Newton’s analysis of Eisenhower’s famous valedictory speech in January, 1961, in which he coined the term “military-industrial complex,” is fair-minded and enlightening. Ike decried the expansion of the complex, but he realized that growth was necessary to cope with the exigencies of the Cold War. Eisenhower deplored not so much the existence of the complex as its necessity. [You can read the full-text of this speech online, here.]

Eisenhower delivering his farewell address on January 18, 1961

Newton maintains that Ike was powerful and effective in such a quiet, low-key way that recognition of his brilliance eluded many. But his leadership qualities are such that those who are now involved in politics would do well to take a closer look.

Discussion: I did not detect serious differences of opinion between the two writers, although Newton gives more credence to the conveyance through India of a threat to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War than Thomas does.

Newton emphasizes Eisenhower’s natural inclination and consistent policy to seek a middle ground in domestic controversies. He also applauds Eisenhower’s legacy of peace and prosperity in spite of continuous and serious challenges. Like other authors, he argues that Eisenhower’s penchant for golf and cards did not diminish his ability to attend to his presidential duties.

Newton does not totally neglect Ike’s flaws, such as his somewhat mixed record on civil rights. Also, he attributes Ike’s long silence regarding the outrages of McCarthyism as a deliberate strategy, believing that McCarthy would fall from his own excesses. In this Ike was correct, but the process took a longer time than many critics would have preferred.

Eisenhower endorsing McCarthy’s reelection bid for the U.S. Senate in 1952

Moreover, while Ike avoided large-scale conflicts, he delighted in covert action such as the CIA sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala. Although sometimes successful in the short term, some of these adventures had long-term adverse effects. For example, he tolerated the planning of a small-scale invasion of Cuba, which ultimately morphed into the Bay of Pigs disaster. And the U.S. is still suffering from the blowback of the CIA-backed overthrow in Iran in 1953.

As befalls many historians, an admiration for the subject of study leads to an accentuation of strong points and a diminution of failings. This book is not a hagiography, but Newton does manage a subtle skewing, in Ike’s favor, both in what he omits, and how he interprets that which he includes.

Evaluation: I found this book absorbing and entertaining. Since I already know something of Ike’s history, I slightly preferred the more succinct and focused book Ike’s Bluff to this more comprehensive biography. Both books provide a very positive take on Eisenhower. Like any histories, they are best read in conjunction with other treatments from across the interpretive spectrum.

Rating: 4/5

Unabridged Audiobook published by Random House Audio, 2011


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8 Responses to Review of “Eisenhower: The White House Years” by Jim Newton

  1. c clarkson says:

    No president has been more important for civil rights than Eisenhower..
    Newton attempts to attribute all the judicial appts,integration of DC and military,1957 Civil Rights act etc to Att Gen Brownell- as though Ike didn’t know what was going on. Perpetuation of the dimunition of Ike’s record here is just a continuation of the Kennedy propaganda. Please be aware JFK voted against the1957 act and appt terrible segregationist judges like Harold Cox- who turned his back to the wall if a black lawyer was in front of his bench. Newton claims to know Ike’s mind and ignores the many quiet but powerful actions of Eisenhower

  2. Barbara says:

    Thinking of Ike makes me nostalgic. He was the last Republican presidential candidate I voted for, the quiet but effective president in charge when life seemed so much simpler. People underestimated him, but his military career made him a master of delegating authority and standing firmly in charge. Looking back, of course, life wasn’t simpler then at all, but I still admire Eisenhower’s record in transitional times.

  3. I”d probably need to read this book first since I don’t know much about Eisenhower. Y’all are too smart for me!

  4. Great review! I love that your hubby reviewed this. My hubby hates to read…. *sigh*

  5. I love it when your hubby reviews books for us. Sometimes they’re ones that I’m sure my own hubby would read. I always feel a little smarter when I’m done! 🙂

  6. Jenny says:

    I don’t know much about him so I think this would be the better read for me before the other one, but I’m glad to hear that the authors’ opinions don’t differ too much.

  7. bookingmama says:

    I bet my dad would like this one.

  8. Great review! I like Ike’s tendency to be more of the “strong, silent type.”

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