I stood, not long ago, on a chilly, damp, and windy Korean hill at the edge of the Demilitarized Zone. With 40 of my students and half-a-dozen faculty we were conducting what the military calls a staff ride—a kind of in-depth treatment of a campaign as a case study in leadership. Mine was one of the concluding talks, in which I played President Dwight D. Eisenhower, telling the American people on July 26, 1953 that the Korean War had ended. But, he reminded them “we have won an armistice on a single battleground—not peace in the world.” His was a sober, moving tribute to America’s allies as well as her soldiers, an expression of “sorrow and solemn gratitude,” ending with a quote from Lincoln’s second inaugural, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
Eisenhower’s story has something to offer the beleaguered moderate conservatives of America. He was not particularly ideological, though he had core convictions; but his was a life that sets an example worthy of emulation and reflection. He was no Lincoln, but for American conservatives in the years to come he may be more appealing than Reagan, embodying as he did qualities of prudence, diligence, and broad-mindedness that are the antithesis of politics in the age of Trump.
Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end as he had achieved success throughout his military career, not through inspiration but unremitting and intelligent application to the problem. During the election campaign, on October 25, 1952, he administered a stinging but meticulously documented and factual critique of the origins of the war, and added the dramatic line: “I shall go to Korea.”
And so he did, only a few weeks after the election. He ate chow with the soldiers of his old regiment, and most importantly climbed into the back seat of a two-man single-prop artillery-spotting aircraft and flew the length of the battle line, studying the cold, muddy hills that had so much blood now in their soil. No Secret Service agent today would possibly have permitted such a trip. It was vintage Eisenhower: He was going to understand this thing, and he was going to do so by seeing for himself.
Upon his return and on taking office he commissioned a major review of Korea policy by the National Security Council staff. The language of NSC 147 did not sing, but it looked at six different courses of action, weighed their pros and cons, and considered a range of possibilities up to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Eisenhower’s key foreign-policy and defense advisers deliberated fully over its recommendations. It was the kind of staff work that had, less than a decade before, enabled D-Day.
There was no stroke of genius that ended the Korean conflict: Stalin’s death helped most of all, although broad hints, deliberately dropped, that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was being considered probably did not hurt. But end it Eisenhower did, without paying the Communists the price they hoped to exact for ending the war, namely, control of their soldiers who had been taken prisoner by United Nations forces and did not want to return to dictatorship.
Eisenhower’s foreign policy was hardly beyond criticism: In retrospect, even he seems to have concluded that his harsh treatment of Britain and France over the Suez crisis may have been a mistake. His Atoms for Peace program was no help in limiting nuclear proliferation. But it was, on the whole, like the man himself, solid and sensible, grounded not simply in an American version of realpolitik, but in his understanding of a larger contest of values as well. “We failed to read and outwit the totalitarian mind,” he told voters in October 1952, and “I know something of this totalitarian mind” because throughout World War II “I carried a heavy burden of decision in the free world’s crusade against the tyranny then threatening us all.”
Ike was a product of his time and place. His contact with Jews throughout most of his military career was limited, but in 1945 he made sure that Signal Corps photographers would record the images of the Nazi death camps. Almost immediately after the liberation of Ohrdruf camp he visited there, bringing along his senior leaders, including George S. Patton, who vomited at the sights. “I made the visit deliberately,” Eisenhower said later, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” He ordered the widest possible dissemination of the photographs.
He seems to have had racial attitudes typical of the Army officers of his generation. But when the governor of Arkansas attempted to block African American students from enrolling at Little Rock’s Central High School, Eisenhower federalized 10,000 National Guardsmen and, to make the point crystal clear, dispatched a thousand paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the court’s ruling. The issue was rule of law, but it reflected as well his view that respect for individual rights and liberties was the bedrock of American values at home, and indispensable to our position abroad. “In this faith in human dignity is the major difference between our own concept of life and that of enemies of freedom,” as he put it in 1954.
Eisenhower was no military genius. He handled the North Africa landings poorly; he held together the coalition that surged across France in 1944, but bears some responsibility for the vulnerabilities that the Germans exploited in the Battle of the Bulge. He had a fierce temper that he struggled to control. He was rumored to be unfaithful to his wife while serving as Supreme Allied Commander, and then, with a stunning coldness dropped his supposed mistress, Kay Summersby, upon his return to the United States. He did not always take the courageous stand, and was mute when Senator Joe McCarthy launched a particularly vile attack on General George C. Marshall, the man who had made Ike’s career.
But overwhelmingly, he was a good man and a good president. His virtues were the virtues of hard work, discipline, judgment, and at its core, fair mindedness. He had an open mind, and he could reconcile personalities as difficult as those of Generals Bernard Montgomery and Patton. He could soothe and he could command. He knew the core of what made his America great, and he embodied many of those qualities.
The most moving and characteristic thing he wrote can be found on the National Archives website. It is the note he wrote on the eve of D-Day, in the eventuality that the landings failed. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have therefore withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Can one imagine Donald Trump writing that last line?
Eisenhower’s greatest leadership quality was this ability to accept responsibility. At a time when it is acceptable for politicians to walk away from their jobs because they fear defeat or simply have something else they would rather do, when a draft-deferred president brandishes missiles but studiously avoids battlefield visits with the men and women he commands from Afghanistan to Syria, when America’s rhetoric is one of invective rather than uplift, we need to be reminded what a real leader looks like. And for those of a conservative bent, that would be Ike.