Eisenhower at Columbia

Despite a voluminous body of literature on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command of Allied forces during World War II and subsequent presidency, the years of his life between the end of the war in 1945 and his election to the presidency in 1952 have received little attention—even from Eisenhower’s biographers. During these years, as the Cold War gathered steam, Eisenhower continued to play a prominent role in public life. He served as chief of staff of the army, president of Columbia University, acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He was also one of the country’s most popular, and most closely followed, political figures. His notoriety attracted considerable media attention; virtually every public utterance of the wartime hero was considered newsworthy.

William B. Pickett and Travis Beal Jacobs reexamine this period of Eisenhower’s life and challenge long-standing interpretations in the historiography. Pickett revisits Eisenhower’s decision to campaign for the U.S. presidency. According to conventional wisdom, Eisenhower did not seek the office; it sought him. Pickett thoroughly debunks this notion that Eisenhower was “drafted”—or compelled by popular demand against his wishes—to run for the presidency. He persuasively demonstrates that as early as 1943 Eisenhower was “deeply involved in promoting his presidential fortunes.”

Eisenhower recognized that the best way to win the presidency was to appear as if he were not seeking the office. In the fall of 1947, for example, Eisenhower wrote a fascinating letter to his wartime associate Walter Bedell Smith, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, referring to the history of presidential drafts. Eisenhower commented that such drafts, “at least since Washington’s time, have been carefully nurtured, with the full, even though under cover, support of the ‘victim.'” Eisenhower coyly refused to admit in the letter that this was the strategy he was pursuing, but at the same time he betrayed more than a passing interest in the office. Expressing his disenchantment with current trends in American politics and foreign policy, Eisenhower admitted to Smith that, under the right conditions, he would accept a nomination as a presidential candidate. Pickett shows that in the ensuing years Eisenhower worked quietly behind the scenes actively to court the Republican partisans who promoted his candidacy. Despite Eisenhower’s Machiavellian promotion of his political fortunes, Pickett concludes that he felt compelled to run for the presidency because of his remarkable sense of patriotic duty and his passionate conviction that the Cold War demanded his leadership and expertise.

Pickett’s comprehensive study makes a valuable contribution to the literature on Eisenhower, American politics, and the early Cold War. The study extends well beyond the events surrounding Eisenhower’s decision to run for the presidency to explore broader developments in the history of American politics and foreign policy from 1946 to 1952. The resulting account is arguably the most thorough and comprehensive treatment of these years of Eisenhower’s life. It is also an insightful history of American politics during the early Cold War that should interest a wide audience.

Travis Beal Jacobs’s study of Eisenhower’s tenure as president of Columbia University also challenges the existing historiography. Most historians have assessed Eisenhower’s years at Columbia critically, suggesting that his decision to accept the position as president of the university was a mistake for Eisenhower and a disaster for Columbia. According to Jacobs, however, Columbia owes its vaunted reputation as a premier institution—at least in part—to Eisenhower and the prestige he brought to the university. Jacobs concludes that Eisenhower “had a dramatic impact on Columbia, and his appointment was a publicity coup for the University. . . . Eisenhower brought Columbia’s name to people who had not known what or where Columbia was.”

The overall picture that emerges from Jacobs’s narrative, however, supports the assessments of the historians he seeks to revise. Whatever the public relations benefits of Eisenhower’s tenure at Columbia, he was clearly an uninterested and detached university president. Eisenhower viewed the position primarily as an opportunity for semiretirement—a chance to write his memoirs, give an occasional speech, and indulge in painting, yachting, and golfing. He disliked the job; he avoided administration; he dodged fund raisers; and he alienated the faculty. The one area in which Eisenhower exerted any leadership was to promote the teaching of American citizenship as a premier goal of the university. This view was opposed by the faculty who believed, as one professor commented, they “were not there to propagandize the American way of life.”

In numerous cases, Jacobs provides his readers with tantalizing references to Eisenhower’s views on domestic politics and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union. These references (together with Pickett’s book) suggest that Eisenhower was as involved in foreign policy and domestic politics as he was in Columbia University’s administration, if not more so. Jacobs, however, mentions these issues only in passing. He thus skims over a central component of Eisenhower’s public life during this period. The book is narrowly focused—one might say too narrowly focused—on Eisenhower’s relationship with Columbia University. The narrative provides a blow-by-blow account of Eisenhower’s tenure as university president that is exceedingly detailed on the mundane matters of university business. While this narrative may prove useful to Eisenhower’s biographers and readers interested in Columbia University, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Jacobs missed an opportunity to address a broader audience and to demonstrate the larger significance of his study.

Kenneth A. Osgood
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Florida