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Epistles from the Eisenhower Age

The Eisenhower administration on the whole was not a bad administration so far as its policies and achievements were concerned: very little that was undertaken by the government of the United States might have been better—or even different—had we in 1952 placed our destinies in anyone else’s hands. What would have been different was the tone of those eight years, the style of public demeanor and public rhetoric that was created to some extent by the President himself, but to an even greater extent by the men around him. The disappearance of this tone is the most notable—and perhaps the only significant—change that has taken place since the Eisenhower Age ended.

The memoirs of five participants in the Eisenhower government have so far been published,1 and it is already clear that the tone in question derived from the peculiar pietism of Eisenhower’s inner circle. Each of his servants not only had a supremely confident sense of his own divine election to lead a divinely elected America in its struggle against the godless forces of Communism, but each seems also to have treated the President as his religious background had trained him to treat God.

Sherman Adams tells us, for example, that John Foster Dulles had said to the President-elect: “With my understanding of the intricate relationships between the peoples of the world and your sensitiveness to the political considerations involved, we will make the most successful team in history.” We could hardly find a neater summary of a certain sort of orthodox Presbyterian’s attitude toward his God.

Emmet Hughes was the youngest man at Cabinet meetings; yet he was with Protestants and knew himself, as a Catholic, automatically their elder. We have only a fragment of what promises to be the most intriguing memoir of them all, but the outline of Hughes’s Eisenhower is plain. He is the Deity both lazy and vigorous, comfortable at a distance, terrible up close, dissolving into mystery with contact : the Deity, in other words, of Graham Greene, in whose country, as someone once said, God’s in His heaven and all’s wrong with the world.

Then there is Sherman Adams’s attitude toward the President. One afternoon Adams was talking by telephone to the Secretary of Defense when the buzzer sounded its call to the President’s office. Adams hung up the phone, gathered his papers, and started out of the office. The President buzzed again. Said Adams to Gray, secretary to the Cabinet: “What does he think I am, a God-damned gazelle?” A lifetime of New Hampshire winters does not condition a man to be patient with the Heavenly Powers.

Lewis Strauss’s favorite verse is one from Leviticus that amounts to an adjuration to the butcher to keep his thumb off the scales. From Micah, Strauss also took the advice to walk humbly in the sight of his Lord, which precaution enabled him to tread arrogantly in the presence of anyone else. He seems to have applied this doctrine to his relations with the President; but then his affronted inferiors got him. It is seldom wise to modernize the wisdom of the ancients by excerpting only what happens to be convenient.

None of these memoirists had responsibilities so awful as Strauss did in chairing the Atomic Energy Commission, and none seems to have met them with less question about the doctrine that guided all of Eisenhower’s servants—the idea that the cold war could be exhaustively defined as a struggle between a God-fearing America and a league of godless Communists. Admiral Strauss remembers with pride the letter he wrote in 1949 to President Truman-—the only head of state so far to have given an order to use the atom bomb—listing his arguments for developing the hydrogen bomb. His third argument, entire, is: “A government of atheists is not likely to be dissuaded from producing the weapon on ‘moral’ grounds.”

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Our concern here is with faith and not works, and this is not the place to argue whether Strauss was right or wrong about the hydrogen bomb. He himself admits of no doubt on the subject; his role in its development is the proudest page in four hundred and eighty without a single modest disclaimer. What does strike the observer, however, is how bold Strauss could be in the large and how timid in the small. He was convinced, as an instance, that British security was so casual that it would be dangerous to share our atomic secrets with the British; he seems to have felt that it was an extraordinary demonstration of dubiously deserved faith when we offered them our findings on the “effects of radiation resulting from atomic explosion.” Strauss had that obsession with security which marks a man terrified of small mistakes. He was reckless only about mega-dangers.

This caution about minor risks and complacency about infinite perils seems to have been a characteristic consequence of belief in the Eisenhower doctrine. Why indeed not? It is an article of folk wisdom so ancient as almost to be discredited that, once a man is assured of his moral perfection, no sin is beyond him. The figure of Dulles offers incredible support for this prejudice. He was a brave man laboring selflessly for his God; yet he was distrusted by every ally who dealt with him and with good reason in every case but that of Adenauer, whose nature distrusts everything. Richard Goold-Adams effectively persuades us that Dulles’s duplicity was as much to blame for Suez as Eden’s intemperance. From the belief that any outbreak of violence in the Middle East would endanger the President’s chances of re-election, he lied, paltered, and procrastinated. The French and British endured Dulles’s evasions to the point of conviction that he would not support even limited action against Nasser; he was so hostile to sensible measures that by the time they had turned to senseless ones, they had cut off all communication with the American State Department. Yet when—after Eden’s collapse and the British evacuation of Suez—British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd came to Washington and visited the Secretary of State in the hospital, Dulles’s first question was: “I thought you did the wrong thing at Suez; but once you had done it why didn’t you finish the job?”

Eventually the situation was settled—“somehow” is Adams’s adverb and defines how helpless they had all felt until it was. The French and British withdrew their forces; Dulles, hospitalized during the heat of the crisis, returned, heroic if not always gallant. There remained the Israelis, who clung to the Gaza Strip refusing to leave for want of trust in Dulles’s assurances of his good offices with the Arabs. The Israelis were brought to surrender in the end because Dulles made it plain that the United States would join the UN in voting economic sanctions against them. The President announced his support of sanctions against Israel in a television address composed by Dulles, of which one paragraph so neatly summarizes the doctrine that only the President could have inserted it.

“Eisenhower,” says Adams,

did not avoid the “double-standard argument” which pointed to the United Nations’ failure to punish Russia for its invasion of Hungary but he disapproved of the comparison: “There can, of course, be no equating of a nation like Israel with that of the Soviet Union. The people of Israel, like those of the United States, are imbued with a religious faith and a sense of moral values. We are entitled to expect and do expect from such peoples of the free world a contribution to world order which unhappily we cannot expect from a nation controlled by atheistic despots.”

By the rules of this epistle, moral pressure is to be applied only to those atheistic despots with whom, by definition, it is useless. Statesmen who share the covenant are to be set right by direct material pressure : Israel needed help from the Export-Import Bank and it was made clear that she could not hope for any while her troops were in Gaza.

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The assurance of moral worth by election is accompanied by a recurring need to discover high-minded reasons for sensible and hardly blameworthy actions. Strauss, for example, began his public career as an unpaid assistant to Herbert Hoover in the European Relief program. At the end of the war, Mortimer Schiff offered him a place in Kuhn Loeb. Young Strauss accepted after talking with Oscar Strauss, Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce, who explained that “banking could be a constructive profession, that it was very well-rewarded, and the means it provided enabled those who succeeded at it to engage in good works.” Then Strauss was offered a $10,000-a-year place as Comptroller of the League of Nations. “The offer from the League of Nations presented a dilemma. There was no doubt that Mr. Schiff would scarcely hold me to the undertaking, but I felt bound in honor.” Any young man with a sense of his future was justified in going to Kuhn Loeb; but only Strauss had a compulsion to assert that, having accepted a wealthy banker’s offer to make a poor young man rich, he had bound himself in honor.

Another example of the same habit of mind can be found in Ezra Benson’s memoirs. Early in 1960, the Secretary of Agriculture had the unexpected experience of being tumultuously received by the Young Republicans in Washington and by the American Dental Association in Chicago. Could this be the groundswell? He talked to his son Reed, who urged him to run for president. The Secretary and Reed (who has since gone into missionary work for the John Birch Society) flew to Salt Lake City to seek the spiritual guidance of David O. McKay, the Mormon prophet. Ezra Benson explained that, although “I had no aspirations whatever for political office,” there was this evidence of a call, “usually by word of mouth.

“Following these preliminary remarks, Reed made an excellent presentation of the entire issue.” McKay, “the venerable, gray-haired eighty-eight-year-old prophet, listened intently. Then, speaking in his quiet forceful manner, he appraised some of the political developments and current national leaders. . . . Finally he suggested that we watch this developing ground swell closely for the next few weeks and that, if we did, we should have the answer by the time of our Church conference in April.” Plainly when the aspiration stirs for higher service, there is comfort in spiritual counsel as practical as any state chairman’s.

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Adherence to the Eisenhower doctrine further served to refine the believer’s assurance of his motives to that state where he can no longer understand them. Strauss and Benson show themselves to be the most highly developed specimens of this process.

Strauss, of course, had sat as judge in the matter of Robert Oppenheimer. His memoir has a chapter on this unhappy instance of our national ingratitude, as it has a chapter on his own bad treatment by the Senate when he was rejected as the President’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce. He feels that he was convicted by innuendo, rumor, prejudice, and personal spite—and this may well be true; he in fact persuades us that the record of his trial was very like the one which his appointee, Roger Robb, wrote in the Oppenheimer case. This comparison does not occur to Strauss, but certain unexpected cautions do. For example, in a memoir cluttered with documents over his signature, Strauss leaves out entirely the opinion which rejected Oppenheimer’s appeal from the recommendation that his security clearance be withdrawn. Strauss does not even tell us that he had any part in that decision or any opinion except that of a detached observer. He merely reports that a majority of the AEC was persuaded that Oppenheimer’s continued employment was “‘not clearly consistent with the interests of national security’. . . . I believed so then and do so as this is written.”

Strauss’s employment of quotation marks in this instance is rather a puzzle because the phrase quoted nowhere appears in the AEC opinion which finally denied Oppenheimer’s clearance and upon which the signature of Lewis L. Strauss leads all the rest. That document speaks in a tone of pride at the refusal to evade delicacies about clear consistency with the national interest; it pronounces flat, harsh judgments about “falsehoods, evasions, and misrepresentations,” and “fundamental defects of ‘character’” and “failure to measure up to exemplary standards of reliability, self-discipline, and trustworthiness.”

Now, Strauss is also a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He tells us that he had offered Oppenheimer the position as director of the Institute which he held at the time his security clearance was withdrawn and which he continues to hold today. Strauss explains that the mere finding that Oppenheimer was a security risk to the Atomic Energy Commission “did not mean that I considered him unfit to continue as director of the Institute for Advanced Study. His intellectual attainments were his qualifications for that post. I not only voted for his re-election as director of the Institute after the hearings and the decision, but offered the motion myself.”

To read that paragraph is to understand the service of whatever guardian angel instructed Strauss to leave out the text of what he had actually said about Oppenheimer in his final AEC decision. He would otherwise have to explain just why he conceived it his duty as the trustee of an institution not merely to vote for its highest executive, who had a record of “falsehood, evasion and misrepresentation,” but to make the motion for his reelection. The proper explanation is simple. Strauss’s part in the Oppenheimer case had affronted the very scientists of whose friendship he boasts in his memoirs. It had disturbed and in a few cases also frustrated his brother trustees at the Institute. He could not further punish Oppenheimer. A man of conscience might at least have kept silent as an expression of faith in the moral judgment he had rendered. Instead Strauss made the motion to keep Oppenheimer, and he is proud of having done so. He is proud of everything he has ever done.

As for Benson, in 1955 he refused to hire Wolf Ladejinsky as an agricultural attaché because he was a security risk. Ladejinsky had powerful friends; there was a dustup; at one point, Benson says, “my new executive assistant” called a press conference to announce new evidence against Ladejinsky just offered by a “former officer of the Russian Czar.” The new evidence turned out to be that Ladejinsky was Jewish. Benson defines this action of his subordinate as “an error of judgment due to inexperience.”

In 1959, he was embarrassed once more, this time by the cranberry scare. The Food and Drug Administration had warned that the year’s Thanksgiving cranberry crop had been treated with an additive since found to have caused cancer in rats. Secretary Benson remembers this warning about cancer as a suspicion of “questionable wholesomeness.”

The cancer scare proved, of course, to be fantasy; but usually the genteelism of the Eisenhower litany was required for the softening of reality. In either case, the point was how things looked: “When Little Rock came into the news as the scene of a disturbance over plans to desegregate the schools,” Adams could not help recalling “Eisenhower’s appearance in that capital city of Arkansas on September 3, 1952, during his first Presidential campaign. The arrangements had been made with the usual precautions that we followed in the South, with the rally being staged outdoors so the segregation question would not mess things up.”

There seems to be a kind of New England faith that God does not know what He is not explicitly told about. Adams brought this doctrine to President Eisenhower’s service with such fidelity that, Gray complains, “Adams spared the President from people and papers that could have made possible earlier action in such important developments as the 1957—58 recession and in preparing for the propaganda and psychological aspects of the first sputnik.” Adams had learned in youth what a terrible temper God had, and President Eisenhower fulfilled that image.

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Adams went out at the end as a victim of his own rule that what counts is how things look. His friendship with Bernard Goldfine, the cause of his fall, was, he says, a complex of “mistakes of judgment, not of intent. . . . In answer to one question, I said that I might have acted with a little more prudence. The observation was not by any means a slip of the tongue. I said it deliberately; I had been imprudent and I was ready to admit it.”

Adams, for one, never pronounced a moral judgment and he does not deserve one now. No moral consideration entered into his expulsion from the temple. When, in September, 1958, he returned from a fishing trip,

. . . the President was away from the White House at his vacation quarters in Newport. He had been told by [National Chairman] Meade Alcorn that some of the largest contributors to the Republican campaign fund in past years were reluctant to support the party . . . unless I resigned. Disturbed by this report, Eisenhower asked Nixon and me to talk with him about it. But the President did not ask me to resign and neither did Alcorn or the Vice President. The decision was left to me.

Adams could be trusted to understand how it could be made to look.

The adjuration to purify the raiment was the central tenet of the Eisenhower gospel, and the largest part of what it has left behind. Richard Nixon, as inheritor of the ashes, was the embodiment of this tenet. Five of his six crises involve nothing more than decisions on the proper way to behave in public.

Ezra Benson says he learned very young “the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evil.” He had been unjustly accused of cheating in high school. “Though I was innocent, circumstances made me look guilty. Since this could so easily be true in many of life’s situations, I made a resolution to keep even the appearance of my actions above question, so far as possible.”

This rule of conduct has never commended itself to the older theologies for the sound reason that once everyone in the congregation accepts it, somebody in the congregation is certain to become its victim.

Gray picks from his memory a glowing example of Vice President Nixon’s dexterity at the manipulation of how things look. Nixon had come to the 1960 Republican convention assured that his chances depended on avoiding even the appearance of association with Secretary of Agriculture Benson. But then Benson showed up to greet President Eisenhower upon his arrival at the convention:

Secretaries Summer-field, Seaton, Rogers, Fleming, and Mueller gallantly passed Mrs. Benson to the head of the receiving line and her husband followed with her. At the last moment the Vice President and Mrs. Nixon emerged from the hotel to find the valued moment of endorsement by the popular Eisenhower about to be soured by the fact that they would be sharing the limelight with the politically leprous Benson.

The Vice President, whose mental agility in similar situations had aided his other abilities in meteoric political ascent, turned to me and asked, “Bob, are we in protocol order?” This is the order in which cabinet officers are ranked, primarily for social purposes, according to the date of creation of their departments. I replied that it would only take a moment. That put Rogers, Summerfield and Seaton ahead of the Bensons and moved them out of camera range.

The succession had been solemnized by ritual sacrifice. But of course, there was no succession; and, with that understanding which makes the gods superior to their servants, President Eisenhower seems always to have doubted that there would be. “The fact is, of course,” he told Hughes, “I’ve watched Dick a long time and he just hasn’t grown. So I just honestly haven’t been able to believe that he is Presidential timber.”

Some of this unease reflected that public temper of which the President was always so precise a mirror. But some of it came from his prejudice against men whose whole life had been politics: “The President,” Hughes tells us, “felt deeply the exceptional respect the military always reserves for triumph in the business world; such triumph always seemed the ultimate in civilian achievement, certainly surpassing the value of mere ‘political’ attainment or distinction.”

There remained the hope that Providence, in the President’s person, might dispose of Nixon. But Providence, as the oldest church knows, does not intervene. Nothing describes Mr. Eisenhower’s special quality as a President like his acceptance of an heir designated for him by others.

Still, in the last weeks of October, he fought for the succession with some passion, and he almost saved it. That he came so close with an instrument of which he and so many, many Americans thought so poorly proves how strong the doctrine still was in American life and how comfortably the President, with his good will in general and indifference in the particular, represented the dominant national faith.

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Eisenhower’s own sense of divine election, while under more decent restraint than that of his ordinates, does peek through in his repeated reminders to the members of his Cabinet that they were the wisest men in America. His Cabinet, of course, represented the resolution of pulls and tugs of conflicting political calculations, which, being the result of human endeavor, can deliver you Arthur Summerfield in one package and Earl Warren in the next. The President could only think that such a process had brought him the wisest men in America if he believed that the Holy Ghost had intervened in its operations. He must, in this instance anyway, have believed that America was under divine protection, in Benson’s Mormon phrase, “the chosen land.”

This conviction of America’s divine election was the rock from which all public pronouncements of the Eisenhower doctrine were issued. It set the tone of those years. Now, most blasphemy is embarrassing and tedious, but the piety that opens all discourse by affirming the glory and wisdom of God on no better evidence than His choice of you as His vessel, is the most tedious and embarrassing blasphemy of all. Everything that follows such an affirmation has to be empty; it leaves no room for speculation or apology or even any persuasion except, as in poor Dulles’s case, the occasional display of that holy relic, proof of our election, which God had given us at Los Alamos. The President’s theology seems never to have risen above the conception that there was a Man Upstairs Who was a good American and looked rather like Robert E. Lee. He had come very close with that image to the religiosity of a period when no one could ask questions because the question period was used up by the oath of allegiance.

Eisenhower’s belief in the simple existence of the godly and the godless fits perfectly the America he came home to rule. Americans could name and feel proud of these differences from the Soviet Union: (1) we were of the godly; (2) next in importance, we believed in free enterprise; (3) of minor but useful importance, our government does not expect children to turn in their parents for counter-revolutionary activities.

But if Eisenhower’s sense of duty and ceremony compelled him to this deplorable public tone, he nevertheless had the habit of command and he had discretion, and his private tone could be far better. Sherman Adams remembers Eisenhower’s explaining to the cabinet the danger of the Bricker Amendment to give Congress treaty-making power: “Can man govern himself?” he asked suddenly. “It’s just that simple. Can man operate by co-operation? We have got to get our struggle understood by the whole world, for this is the struggle of man to rule himself. We talk about France and her political troubles and then we see our own people want to pass a Bricker Amendment. Then we see that we rule by prejudices, by shibboleths and by slogans. Well, we better get going to something else before I get worked up.”

Here we glimpse, even if for just a moment, an Eisenhower who understood the one thing that had never occurred to the rest of them: there is a dog beneath every man’s skin, even a Cabinet officer’s. It seems a pity that theology interested such a man so much less than it did most of the others; he was far better equipped than they to use it. And so there was no one with the proper authority to instruct them in the fact of original sin.

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The faith we have been assessing died at its center the morning after the 1960 election. Gray found the president with his back to his desk, looking at his hands.

“I have,” he said, “never felt so old as I do today.”

After the cabinet meeting, Mr. Eisenhower was observed “walking across the lawn toward the car which would take him to his airplane and a brief vacation in Augusta, Georgia. His usually erect carriage was noticeably stooped, and his walk was so slow it was almost a drag.” One of the cabinet assistants asked of three others who had joined him at the French doors to watch the Chief Executive’s departure, “How old is the President, now?” “Only seventy,” said another. “Could you believe it?” The history of this religion had run just eight years, and its embodiment was looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty bubbletop car and on a dead faith.

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Footnotes

1 The memoirs from which this estimate is rather freely abstracted are: Robert K. Gray, Eighteen Acres Under Glass (Doubleday, 348 pp., $4.95); Ezra Taft Benson, Cross Fire (Doubleday, 627 pp., $6.95); Sherman Adams, First Hand Report (Harper & Row, 481 pp., $6.50); Lewis L. Strauss, Men and Decisions (Doubleday, 480 pp., $6.95); and Richard Goold-Adams, John Foster DullesA Reappraisal (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 309 pp., $5.50). Emmet J. Hughes has published excerpts from his Eisenhower, A Political Memoir (Atheneum, 384 pp., $5.95) under the title “The Eisenhower I Knew” in Look (December 4, 1962).

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