At present Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoys a presidential stature that ranks just below the greatest of the American presidents, especially Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. This has not always been the case. For the last thirty years Eisenhower revisionism has been underway rehabilitating his image. We are currently pursuing a major Eisenhower memorial in Washington, D.C., to cement this positive attitude toward his presidency.
In essence, Eisenhower gained stature as a president years after he left office because the bar was relatively low to start with. One could agree with many of Fred Greenstein’s arguments about Eisenhower in The Hidden-Hand Presidency (1981) that Ike was much more than his critics in the 1950s thought. Further, one can accept that he worked hard behind the scenes to provide a steadying influence on national strategy. Eisenhower especially attained lofty status as a grand strategist of the Cold War, setting in motion the policies that eventually led to the American victory over the Soviet Union.
This seems overblown to me. For example, with American prestige clearly at stake in the Cold War during the 1950s it is puzzling that the chief executive should have been so reluctant to recognize this fact of life. Eisenhower totally mishandled a long list of international intrigues with the Soviet Union, completely misinterpreted the nationalist fervor of former European colonies, displayed alarming incapacity to understand anything happening in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and the list goes on and on.
So what might we make of Eisenhower’s leadership in the Sputnik winter of 1957-1958? There are several important questions that beg discussion. Most important, how did he so miss the psychological implications of Sputnik in the minds of the American people? There are, of course, many other issues of a more sublime nature, but focusing on this question promises a few useful insights.
Failure to appreciate the prestige associated with spaceflight is seemingly unfathomable for an individual of Eisenhower’s savvy, cagey, strategic nature. Both military and civilian observers had been discussing it for more than a decade. Under the Department of Defense and its predecessor a series of important studies on the use of space systems for national security and other purposes pointed this up quite well. Perhaps the key one appeared in 1946 from the newly established RAND Corporation published a Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. This study explored the viability of orbital satellites and outlined the technologies necessary for its success. Among its many observations, this one proved especially prescient: “A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the Twentieth Century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb.” Moreover, Eisenhower had been explicitly warned of this potential in 1955 in a critical National Security Council document.
This perspective is a classic application of what analysts often refer to as “soft power.” Coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, the term gave a name to an alternative to threats and other forms of “hard power” in international relations aimed at co-opting or attracting potential adversaries to accomplish the desired ends. As Nye contended in 2003: “Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important…but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.”
In essence, spaceflight represented a form of soft power, the ability to influence other nations through intangibles such as an impressive show of space capability. It granted to the nation achieving it first, rightly as James Lipp forecast, an authenticity and gravitas not previously enjoyed among the world community.
Failure to appreciate the role of national prestige in space endeavors suggests an overriding tin ear in perceiving political issues. In addition, despite warnings from key administration officials, the President refused to accept his advisors conclusions. Eisenhower utterly failed to, in the words of historian Robert A. Divine in his 1992 book on Sputnik, to “quiet the fears of the American people that Sputnik represented a fundamental shift in military power and scientific achievement from the United States to the Soviet Union.”
As president, and there is a long list of U.S. chief executives who have led more effectively than anyone thought possible—Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Reagan come immediately to mind—one critical responsibility is to provide the guidance and direction that calls the American people back from despair and dread to forthright action. Since he did not accept the premise that a psychological effect could result, Ike proved incapable of responding with the leadership required even if he had it within him to do so.
Instead Eisenhower and his lieutenants fumbled about, incurring criticism from all sides, and if any leadership was to be offered it had to come from other sources. Ultimately, a coalition of political opponents, scientists, military space advocates, space exploration enthusiasts, and leaders in the aerospace industry seized the initiative. Eisenhower during the Sputnik crisis may be compared to Chip Diller, the pathetic character played by Kevin Bacon, at the end of the 1978 slob humor feature film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, who screams for people to remain calm in the face of riot and anarchy on the streets when the Delta fraternity attacks a homecoming day parade for Faber College. Eventually the character was flattened on the street by a screaming herd of terrorized spectators. So was Eisenhower.
Was Eisenhower, a military leader used to giving orders and having them carried out without question or criticism, incapable of providing this type of effective leadership? Was it something in his background or psyche or persona that kept him from offering strong leadership during this situation, outlining effective methods for recovery from what was without question a political setback in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union?
Instead, his persistent cries of “all is well” without any reason offered to believe that reminded everyone of just how ineffective his leadership had become. Perhaps he never had it in him to offer this “priestly function” of the presidency. Throughout American history it has fallen to the president to offer consolation and clear vision in the face of crisis. Those who have done so effectively are remembered as great leaders who responded to the trials of their ages.
Despite whatever other qualities they might have possessed those who failed to do so, and Eisenhower must be placed in this category, have appropriately been assigned lesser significance. No matter the time or circumstance, the critical component of the president’s skill set must be the ability to master the issues and offer perspective, rationale, and clear vision for the nation’s course. This Eisenhower utterly failed to do in the context of the Sputnik episode.