As the Middle East has trembled in recent weeks
As the Middle East has trembled in recent weeks, the Obama administration has struggled for a coherent and forceful response — one that reconciles American interests with American values, that balances geopolitics with the moral example of democracy. For an object lesson, the administration might look to the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and might start by reading David A. Nichols’ new book on that fateful year.
Nichols’ “Eisenhower 1956” captures the president and the nation as both battled a series of difficulties, including the president’s shaky health, his reelection and a pair of overlapping foreign crises. The result is a riveting and relevant analysis of a sequence of events that placed the great nations of the period at the brink of a world war. That we know so little about the clashes of 1956 is testament not to their unimportance but to their deft handling by a great American president.
A word about the author: Nichols is a pioneer in the Eisenhower landscape, now increasingly populated by followers, myself included. His 2007 look at Ike’s civil rights record, “A Matter of Justice,” has rightly been described as “revisionist history at its best.” I don’t subscribe entirely to his view of Eisenhower on civil rights — the Ike that I read is a bit less broad-minded than the one Nichols presents — but Nichols’ work was refreshing, enlightening and overdue. As is true of the best revisionist history, he challenged conventional thinking and forced a new conversation about the civil rights period of the 1950s, in its way more important than the more conventionally chronicled decade that followed.
Now, Nichols is back with a different type of history. “Eisenhower 1956” is less argumentative, more narrative, a study that does not so much re-argue its subject as exhume it.
Eisenhower, of course, stands at its center, and the book finds Ike at a crucible moment in his presidency. In September 1955, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack, and his recovery was long and difficult. Prolonged bed rest was followed by the slow resumption of his official duties, made somewhat easier by the commendable performance of Vice President Richard Nixon, who led the Cabinet while studiously avoiding any suggestion that he was seizing power (he refused to sit in Ike’s chair). Eisenhower gradually returned but chafed against the restrictions imposed by his condition. Among them: Doctors insisted that he watch his temper and avoid stress. In response, Eisenhower complained: “Just what do you think the presidency is?”