Some readers, I learned, had been unaware of the scope of Ike’s accomplishments. Some young people have scarcely heard of the thirty-fourth president.
By contrast, many more people are aware of the leadership of John Kennedy, Ike’s successor. JFK is routinely ranked among the presidents most admired by Americans today.
There may be lessons in the differing public understandings.
Eisenhower Accomplishments Overlooked
Eisenhower was immensely popular as president—and would have been readily reelected to a third term in 1960, were it constitutionally possible. Yet, in subsequent years, he was neglected by many historians and other observers.
More recently, Ike has been rediscovered. In his new book, Eisenhower in War and Peace, respected historian Jean Edward Smith makes the case for Eisenhower’s exceptional leadership in war and politics.
Ike: Civil Rights, Space
The Eisenhower administration broke ground in the long overdue struggle to accord African-American civil rights. Examples cited by Smith include:
–Ike appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren and four other Supreme Court justices who would usher in a what is fairly seen as a “revolution” in civil rights jurisprudence. So, too, the Eisenhower administration appointed high quality judges in the South who would emerge as historic heroes of civil rights, such as John Minor Wisdom and Frank M. Johnson.
–Eisenhower completed the long overdue process of desegregating the armed forces.
–Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne to break the resistance to integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
So, too, he initiated the American space program, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in response to the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik launch.
And yet… how many Americans today recall Eisenhower’s decisive role in civil rights or the space program?
JFK: Civil Rights, Space
By contrast, John Kennedy is indelibly identified with each.
It is impossible to know what Kennedy might have accomplished in the civil rights arena, had his life not been tragically truncated. As it was, his administration’s accomplishments were limited. In significant part this was because of his party’s reliance on the “Solid South,” and the conservative, rural coalition that held great sway in the Congress.
JFK did convey public support at key moments. One was his celebrated telephone call of support to Mrs. Coretta Scott King, following the jailing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960 campaign.
Most memorable was Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 speech on civil rights. He brought the American past, present and future together, declaring:
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
King was moved to dispatch a telegram in response, calling the speech “one of the most eloquent, profound and unequivocal pleas for justice and freedom of all men ever made by any president.”
It is difficult to imagine Eisenhower evoking such a response, despite the clear direction of his civil rights policies, and his personal expressions of commitment in various settings.
So, too, JFK reframed the space race, urging the American nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
This extraordinary stretch goal was achieved, with the entire world witnessing it on television, on July 20, 1969.
Though Eisenhower set the stage for the moon shot, it would seem out-of-place for him to cast such a vision, set off such a mission.
The Power of Vision
Dwight Eisenhower was, fundamentally, a military man. In many ways, his presidency represented the best of the armed forces. Ike was publicly modest, chastened by the keen awareness of war, fateful decisions and ever-present contingencies. He was down-to-earth, focused intently on results. His manner of communication was skilled yet unpretentious. He was not eloquent per se, other than in the sense that his presence and accomplishments lent eloquence to his statements and sentiments.
Though he accomplished important things in civil rights and space, he is not generally recalled for his historical role in either. Ike was, ultimately, a president whose leadership was based built on management.
By contrast, John Kennedy was a man of history and words. He was a skilled writer. He undertook to make himself a great speaker.
Where Eisenhower sought to inform, Kennedy sought to inspire. His ennobling vision, evidenced in the civil rights and space examples, created its own power. He would lead first, with management harnessed to serve its ends.
Where Ike achieved eloquence by appreciation of his past, JFK achieved eloquence by sharing a glimpse of the future.
To be sure, each leader could have benefited from learning from the other at his best.
Had Kennedy fully appreciated Eisenhower’s deft management of large enterprises, he might well have avoided early missteps, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Had Eisenhower had Kennedy’s skill with vision and communication, he might well be remembered more passionately, his achievements more clearly recognized.
From a distance, one might say that Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s strengths as leaders were paired with their weak spots. Perhaps. Yet that need not stop us from striving to learn from both of their examples.
These lessons are all the more compelling for 21st century leadership. Leaders must seek influence through persuasion, rather than control. Communication, always a binding element, is, if anything, more important than ever before.
Eisenhower, Kennedy & The Power of Vision