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William I. Hitchcock, author of The Age of Eisenhower, explains how Dwight D. Eisenhower inspired his country and led Americans through times of uncertainty and radical change.
There was very much a sense in Eisenhower’s worldview, and of the worldview of people who supported him, that everything was fragile. The good times could come, but they could also go.
What mattered most was a kind of sobriety—a balance and preparedness. When times were going well, you stored up for when times were not going to go well. Everybody anticipated the possibility that there could be problems ahead. There was a degree of optimism and caution. After all, he comes into office and the Korean War is still going on; the Soviet Union is gaining the ability to project power around the world; China has just gone communist in 1949, and war is raging throughout Asia, and already in Indochina. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Eisenhower’s worldview was that Americans could deal with any crisis around the world, provided that they maintained a sense of their own personal responsibility for supporting the country in times of need. Individualism was to be welcomed up to a point, but only up to a point.
This is something that he pitched to Americans: finding the right balance between individualism and community. We don’t want to be like a totalitarian country, we don’t want to have the government do everything for us, we don’t want to become robots in which the government determines our future and shapes our lives. We want to encourage innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and individuality. We want self-reliance, but not selfishness. We want to maintain the strength of the community so that in times of trouble, the community would be resilient.
Quarterly: Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, famously said, “What’s good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Was that Eisenhower’s take as well?
Hitchcock: Yes, it very much was. I don’t think Eisenhower found that to be an objectionable statement. He felt that business—by which he meant the process of innovation, improvement, applying reason, science, and rational judgement to the challenge of making people more comfortable, healthier, and more prosperous—was in every respect emblematic of the American way. That is what differentiated the United States from its communist rivals in the Cold War. The business sector was where the action was. Business was to be encouraged and rewarded because it was building prosperity.
People criticized Charlie Wilson for that comment, but it was actually a pretty good example of the thinking of Eisenhower and his circle. I would stress, though, that Eisenhower did not believe that corporations should transform themselves into behemoths and acquire wealth for only a select few. The notion of corporate greed was an anathema to him. He felt that corporations were at their best when they worked in the public interest. He would be dismayed to see immense corporate wealth accumulated without a sense of social consciousness. It’s part of what makes Ike interesting, complicated, and a little bit of a shape-shifter.
Quarterly: And a lot of “interesting and complicated,” to say the least, was coming at him: Sputnik, Suez, Iranian revolution, and the risk of global thermonuclear war, to name just a few. How did Eisenhower adjust and adapt his decisions, real time, under radical uncertainty?
Hitchcock: The way he approached uncertainty is a big part of what set him apart. Eisenhower was a world-class poker player. He was so good that he had to quit playing, because he took so much money off of his Army buddies. He was also a world-class bridge player. The key thing about being good at those kinds of games is that you have to know, or believe you know, how to read your enemy. What does he want? What risks is he willing to take? What are his goals? What are his vulnerabilities? What’s the probability that he’s in a stronger position than I am? Eisenhower had a profound instinct about reading his rivals. Did the Soviets really want war? How far were they willing to go to risk a war with us? Where were they bluffing and where were their absolutely crucial existential interests on which they would never bluff? So, number one: know your enemy.
Second, know yourself. What’s your bottom line? How far are you willing to go in this moment of uncertainty? What are the things that you’re willing to sacrifice, to put on the line? Are you willing to go all in? Eisenhower occasionally used poker metaphors in the National Security Council. Do we want to push all our chips in? Do we want to go in small quantities or just push all-in right from the beginning? If you have a strong sense of your opponents’ vulnerabilities and strengths, and then you have a strong sense of your fixed bottom line—what are you willing to give up, what are you willing to lose if you’re wrong—it has the effect of putting a sense of boundaries around the crisis. It removes some of that uncertainty.
Third was a maxim he said constantly, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Plans are worthless because the situation always changes. But if you have been planning all the way along, you have a sense for how to reason through a crisis, especially at those moments when time is of the essence. That means knowing how you are going to manage a given crisis from an institutional point of view. What kind of intelligence do I have? What kinds of diplomacy? What’s the situation of our allies? What is congress going to say? Is the military ready, and what are their capabilities? Have a checklist that you’ve run through a thousand times, and you know more or less what the order of battle is going to be once the crisis hits.
Ike was used to doing that. In our own lives, we tend to think that crises are anomalies; they never happen, or maybe they happen only occasionally. Eisenhower felt that crises happened all the time. He was always preparing for the hidden crisis that was coming around the corner. That put him in a very strong position when something turned bad.
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William I. Hitchcock is the William W. Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (Simon & Schuster, 2018). This interview was conducted by David Schwartz, a member of McKinsey Publishing based in McKinsey’s Tel Aviv office.