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Reviewed by:
  • General Eisenhower: Ideology and Discourse
  • Meena Bose
Ira Chernus , General Eisenhower: Ideology and Discourse. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002. 366 pp. $59.95.

Presidential rhetoric has often signaled turning points in American foreign policy from the inception of the United States to the present. In the early days of the American republic, the Monroe Doctrine and George Washington's admonition to avoid "permanent alliances" identified the extent of and limits to U.S. interests. During the Cold War, presidential speeches often conveyed signals to Soviet leaders about U.S. policy. Presidential addresses continue to define American priorities in the post-Cold War era. Yet few scholars have sought to discern the values and goals of presidents by exploring the rhetoric they used before assuming the presidency. Ira Chernus's thoughtful and thorough analysis of Dwight D. Eisenhower's public and private communications before 1952 makes an important contribution to our understanding of the origins and development of a president's ideology. [End Page 136]

The extensive declassified archival record permits a full evaluation of Eisenhower's letters, speeches, and writings during his military career and his presidency. Although most scholars today agree that Eisenhower was a skilled politician (even if they disagree with the merits of his leadership style or his policy positions), they continue to debate the goals of his presidential communications and their consequences. By concentrating on the prepresidential career of the renowned World War II hero, Chernus traces the development of Eisenhower's political views on the Cold War and shows how firmly entrenched those positions had become by the time Eisenhower entered his first political campaign in 1952.

Chernus examines Eisenhower's public and private communications from 1941 to 1952, stating at the outset that he is focusing on words, not policies. Writing from the discipline of religious studies, Chernus seeks to identify "the constantly shifting meanings of symbols within a system of discourse" (p.6). He finds that Eisenhower's communications "were constructed on a superficial clarity that masked deep underlying contradictions" (p.17). Such contradictions were especially apparent in Eisenhower's words on war and peace, from World War II to the early stages of the Cold War.

Eisenhower's communications during World War II reveal recurrent parallels between individual responsibilities and broader political goals. For example, Eisenhower frequently discussed the importance of duty, restraint, and self-control for individuals. Similarly, he advocated a political system that would embrace "self-reliance and voluntary self-restraint" (p.41). He identified the goals of World War II as the preservation of "individual freedom" and "social order" (p.55). After the war ended, Eisenhower continued to emphasize these goals, insisting that the United States remain prepared to fight future conflicts even as he called for the preservation of ties with the Soviet Union.

In 1946 and 1947, when Eisenhower was back in Washington, DC, as Army chief of staff, he began to question whether U.S.-Soviet friendship was feasible. He argued that the United States was leading "the banner of civilization against the forces of communism" (p.89), and he declared that government must find a "middle way" (p.90) between promoting individualism and requiring cooperation to achieve its goals. As Cold War tensions increased, Eisenhower envisioned a choice "between peace and extinction, because of the unprecedented destructiveness of war" (p.102). To keep the peace, the United States, in his view, would have to maintain its military strength while ensuring that its defense goals did not hinder its economic productivity. In a prelude to his presidential Cold War policy, Eisenhower said that the United States must remain vigilant in warding off both internal and external threats to its security and way of life.

After completing his tenure as Army chief of staff, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University, where he continued to be an important voice in foreign affairs. He saw the Cold War as fundamentally a moral conflict, with the forces of democracy, capitalism, individualism, and duty fighting "all the institutions built on selfishness" (p.176). His first memoir, Crusade in Europe, focused on World War II [End Page 137] but also emphasized the postwar era's continuing ideological struggle...