Opening Remarks at “Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century”

On March 7-8, 2013, The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute hosted an academic conference on the Eisenhower presidency entitled, “Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.” Panels consisting of notable Eisenhower biographers and scholars examined several aspects of the Eisenhower Administration’s foreign and domestic policy, including civil rights, science, highway development, Middle East policy, and nuclear proliferation. Jonathan Fanton set the stage for the second day of the academic conference by remarking on Eisenhower, and his connection to Franklin Roosevelt, below. For more information on “Ike Reconsidered,” click here.

FDR and Eisenhower

I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the second day of our conference on “Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.”

Among the lessons we will explore today is the importance of balance as a strategy for getting things done, keeping expectations in line with real possibilities, making choices in the present that enhance future opportunities.

We gather in the homes of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin’s mother, Sara. Sara built these twin townhouses and gave one to Franklin and Eleanor as a wedding gift in 1908.

This is where the Roosevelts raised their family, Franklin began his law career, recovered from polio, and planned his re-entry into public life as Governor. And it was upstairs in the second floor parlor by the fireplace that he made his first address to the nation as President-elect on November 9, 1932 on NBC radio.

When you walk around be sure to visit FDR’s study, also on the second floor, where the New Deal was shaped, Cabinet secretaries like Frances Perkins recruited, and commitments made to programs like Social Security.

The houses came to Hunter in 1942 after Sara’s death, made possible by an initial gift from Franklin and Eleanor. The houses were an interfaith and student center from then until 1992 when they closed in disrepair.

Thanks to the vision and determination of Hunter President Jennifer Raab, the Roosevelt Houses were renovated three years ago and now host the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. The Institute offers two undergraduate programs, one in Public Policy and the other in Human Rights. And it sponsors a robust program of lectures, conferences and discussions of important domestic and international issues meant to bring scholars and policy makers together with the general public.

Our conference last year on the domestic accomplishments of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency yielded practical lessons for those in power today about how to make Washington work. And we hope that this reconsideration of the Eisenhower presidency will offer us another model for leadership.
While our conference focuses on Dwight Eisenhower, it seems appropriate to reflect for a moment on the relationship between Eisenhower and FDR.  Ike, after all, achieved military fame under Roosevelt, opening a path to the White House that would have otherwise been unlikely. Even though Eisenhower did not place Roosevelt among the presidents he most admired, we can identify certain parallels between them.

Hear the President’s words at a rally in the public square in Cleveland.

“… what has your Government been doing? In virtually every area of human concern, it is moving forward.  Government has had a heart as well as a head. … I hope you will not take it that I am boasting. There will never be room for boasting … until there is not a single needy person left in the United States, when distress and disease have been eliminated. I am talking about progress …  Social Security has been extended to an additional 10 million Americans – unemployment compensation to an additional 4 million Americans. Our health program has been greatly improved…. Research into the causes of crippling and killing diseases has been markedly stepped up. The minimum wage has been increased, even though my recommendation for its wider coverage was not acted on in the Congress…”

When that quote started, I thought I was listening to Franklin Roosevelt. Only near the end did I recognize Dwight Eisenhower. His embrace of core New Deal programs gave them bipartisan legitimacy, strengthening the foundation for government’s responsibility for human security and opportunity.

Yet there was no special warmth between the two men, perhaps the result of something that happened early in World War II.  Eisenhower had risen very quickly to high rank, due to his own gifts as a military planner and the sponsorship of General George Marshall.  Ike was placed in command of the first major Allied amphibious operation of the war, the invasion of North Africa, then under Vichy French control.  The landings had gone about as well as could be hoped, and he also had shown skill in his dealings with the various French factions.

But his initial performance as a commander of troops in the field had been lackluster.  He had failed to prevent German reinforcements to Tunisia and American troops suffered a humiliating defeat in early 1943 at Kasserine Pass.  There were real doubts in Washington and London about whether Eisenhower had the “right stuff” to run major military operations.

Roosevelt let Eisenhower dangle for a while, refusing to promote him or confirm that he would command the upcoming invasion of Sicily.  The President wanted to see more.  Though his caution was rational, Eisenhower could not have been happy about it.  In the end, of course, Allied forces prevailed in North Africa, and the American troops improved quickly.  But a coolness may have lingered.

Ike also was not happy about some of the political decisions Roosevelt made.  Roosevelt decided to demand the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.  Although Eisenhower understood that the Nazi regime had to be eradicated root-and-branch, he also believed that the announcement of the policy would make German troops fight harder and cost more American lives.

But no doubt, Eisenhower witnessed in Roosevelt a political master at work.  We can reasonably conclude that some of the lessons influenced Ike’s own leadership style.  Consider his own unpleasant experience in North Africa.  Roosevelt showed that a president must set high performance expectations for his key subordinates – the fate of his administration, and the nation, depend on it.  Being president requires a measure of ruthlessness.  FDR had it, and Eisenhower experienced it.

FDR also recognized the importance of freedom of action.  As Andrew Polsky points out in his recent book, Elusive Victories, this was the cornerstone of Roosevelt’s wartime leadership.  He made a point of holding meetings with his military chiefs at which no notes were taken so he could backtrack when necessary and leave no fingerprints on controversial decisions.  He had an elaborate vision for the postwar world, but he never laid it out in a speech and always left room to adjust to new international conditions along the way.  He carefully juggled domestic constituencies ranging from conservative Southern Democrats to organized labor to big business.

Eisenhower, too, would nurture his freedom of action when he became president.  The “hidden hand” leadership style that Fred Greenstein has described was carefully calibrated to help Ike avoid the kinds of public stands and commitments that leave a president trapped, without options.  While this style, to the public, can appear to lack boldness and assertiveness, it is also one that stirs less opposition, alienates fewer political allies, and enables political leaders get things done.

It is very appropriate, then, that we gather in the home of one distinguished chief executive to examine what we can learn today about another.  Rarely do we think of Roosevelt and Eisenhower together.  Certainly they were not friends.  But Eisenhower spent the crucial war years observing a political master, and he absorbed some useful lessons along the way.

Either Roosevelt or Eisenhower could have concluded “We live in a shrunken world, a world in which oceans are crossed in hours, a world in which a simple minded despotism menaces the scattered freedoms of scores of struggling independent nations. … There can be no enduring peace for any nation while other nations suffer privation, oppression, and a sense of injustice and despair. In our modern world, it is madness to suppose that there could be an island of tranquility and prosperity in a sea of wretchedness and frustration.” So said Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to the Republican Convention.


This conference is a partnership between Hunter College’s Roosevelt House and the Eisenhower Foundation whose President, Dan Sharp, first proposed it. After Dan offers his perspective, Professor Andrew Polsky will frame the day’s program. Professor Polsky did a magnificent job in organizing the conference and recruiting our outstanding group of panelists to take a critical look at the Eisenhower legacy. Julia Kohn, Director of our Public Policy Program and Ellen Murray, our Research Associate, and Roosevelt House Deputy Director, Fay Rosenfeld, deserve our thanks for putting this conference together.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dan Sharp.

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