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  • The International Origins of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Political Economy
  • Grant Madsen (bio)

“It would be impossible for me ever to adopt a political philosophy so narrow as to merit the label ‘liberal,’ or ‘conservative,’ or anything of the sort,” explained Dwight D. Eisenhower late in his eventful life. Instead, he “came to believe . . . that an individual can only examine and decide for himself each issue in a framework of philosophic conviction . . . and let the pundits hang the labels as they may.”1 Indeed, scholars have tried to hang labels on Eisenhower almost from the moment he left office, particularly as a way to make sense of his “middle way” approach to domestic politics in the 1950s. Exactly how did he split the difference between the ideological impulses that dominated the postwar era?

By now, the historical assessment has become familiar to anyone interested in this period. In the decade after his presidency, scholars saw in Eisenhower a “Roosevelt in reverse,” a president who did little to resolve the political tensions of his time, instead letting “the tides of economic history have their way.”2 After the United States suffered the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate—and as more archival material on Eisenhower’s presidency became available—a revisionist generation appreciated a president who showed restraint and a “hidden-hand” style of leadership.3 These scholars revealed an Eisenhower who effectively promoted his own agenda while appearing “above” politics.4 [End Page 675]

Yet we still have a poor sense of Eisenhower’s formula for balancing liberalism’s faith in the state and conservatism’s faith in the individual. This is surprising since he spent so much of his life searching for this formula. As he outlined the problem to friends, “the progress of the industrial revolution” had brought about dramatic changes in America, and these changes suggested that “government had to establish many rules and regulations in the human and industrial fields that would have been completely unjustified fifty years [earlier].”5 In short, the line between state and individual needed to be redrawn. But where to draw it? “The problem of our day and time,” he lamented, “is how to distinguish between all those things that government must now do in order to perpetuate . . . freedom from economic as well as political slavery . . . while, on the other hand, we combat remorselessly all those paternalistic and collectivistic ideas which . . . will accomplish the gradual . . . collapse of self-government.”6

Among scholars, Robert Griffith was one of the first to take seriously the import of this problem for Eisenhower. Griffith placed Eisenhower within the “organizational revolution”; he argued that Eisenhower (in concert with America’s managerial elites) hoped to build a “harmonious corporate society by limiting the New Deal state, forging cooperative relations between business and government [and] promoting social harmony and consensus.” Eisenhower’s “corporate liberalism” included both “a series of programmatic commitments and a style of leadership.” But, in the end, the latter determined the former. According to Griffith, Eisenhower believed that he could “carefully” limit state power, “prudently” manage federal budgets, and defuse social conflict “through skillful governance and public relations ” (as opposed to institutional reforms or policy initiatives). Indeed, in Griffith’s view, Eisenhower believed that all these matters could be “resolved only through the leadership of public-spirited and professionally skilled managers such as himself.”7 In short, Eisenhower had decided to answer the “how” of balancing state and individual with a “who”—himself.

But by placing Eisenhower within the organizational synthesis, Griffith forced the question of policy to the terrain of psychology where most scholars have remained. Over the subsequent decades, historians have made repeated appeals to the “essence” of Eisenhower’s character to explain his policies. For some, Eisenhower was “deeply conservative” or an “instinctive conservative.”8 For others, he “instinctively sought the middle ground” and pursued “moderate” and “liberal Republican” policies.9 Many have credited his military training or Midwestern upbringing for his politics, as if these experiences had clear and inherent political values.10 Some have tried to have it both ways, arguing that Eisenhower’s first-term liberalism gave way to second-term conservatism.11 [End Page 676] By contrast, others...


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