Dwight Eisenhower: Lessons from the ‘balancer in chief’

Here is an excerpt from an interview of William I. Hitchcock featured by the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
* * *

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.

Seventy-five years ago, the supreme allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force dictated a message simple and sublime: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945. Eisenhower.” It was the end of World War II in Europe, a victory then as now venerated by millions. It also marked an amazing achievement for Eisenhower himself. When German and Soviet tanks rumbled across Poland to start the war in September 1939, Ike had been a mere lieutenant colonel (and a major, stuck in rank for 12 consecutive years before that). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, bringing the United States into the conflagration, he had been promoted to a one-star brigadier general only a few short months before. Yet Eisenhower concluded the war as a five-star general, the architect of Operation Overlord—the allied invasion of Normandy—and the indispensable man who had balanced the interests and egos of a galaxy of generals and political leaders.Balance and mission would distinguish Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s. For Eisenhower, it was the “Great Equation.” How could the United States afford to project military power against expansionist, totalitarian regimes abroad, while at the same time foster economic prosperity at home and do so for decades, if needed, without going bust? It’s a choice commonly referred to as “guns or butter.” 1 But for Eisenhower, it was both guns and butter, today and tomorrow, and more—a shared sense of national purpose. When the newly elected Eisenhower took office in early 1953, America was embroiled in the Korean War, Western Europe seemed to lay open before the USSR, and the Great Depression still weighed heavy in Americans’ recent memories. Eight years later, when Eisenhower gave his farewell address, America had extracted itself from the Asian land war, avoided a European war, and was deep into what’s remembered as a halcyon era of good jobs, comfortable suburbia, and “Happy Days.” The ’50s have come down to us as a golden age.For many Americans, it wasn’t that, of course. When the decade began, segregated schools were still legal in the United States; by the time Eisenhower left office, the Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, 2 but racial inequality remained, both by custom and terror. Red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy dominated the national stage, and “McCarthyism” entered the lexicon. So did “duck and cover,” “NASA,” “H-bomb,” and “ICBM.” Death-toll estimates from nuclear war with China and the Soviet Union ran to the hundreds of millions. Tanks rolled into central Europe and a world war very nearly erupted in the Middle East—all in the same week. A flu pandemic, originating in Asia in 1957, killed more than a million people, more than 100,000 of them in the United States. Even the weather seemed to go haywire. The decade began with a wave of hurricanes and tornadoes. Then the Great Texas Drought settled in and lasted most of the decade, parching the country’s South and Southwest. “The time it never rained,” novelist Elmer Kelton termed it.That America and its economy pulled through was remarkable. That Eisenhower solved the Great Equation seems almost incomprehensible. His administration bolstered America’s defense (increasing military spending to an unprecedented peacetime level of 10 percent of GDP), embraced business (and saw GDP rise by more than 4 percent per annum, even accounting for the Korean War and its conclusion), and approached or achieved a balanced budget nearly every year in office. Eisenhower brilliantly steered a course to win the Cold War 20 years after his passing. Yet the man was not without his faults, some of them hard to let pass, even now. In a recent interview, McKinsey’s David Schwartz spoke with William I. Hitchcock, author of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (Simon and Schuster, 2018), to learn more about President Eisenhower and his principles, how he approached decisions and made them, and what lessons—inspiring and cautionary—his legacy can teach leaders today.The Quarterly: What did Eisenhower promise Americans, and what did he expect of them?William I. Hitchcock: I think the key to Eisenhower’s political identity, and his pitch to the American people, was the ethic of service and sacrifice. 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. Many people who voted for Eisenhower remembered the Great Depression all too well; some had been ruined by it. When he became president, the country was only eight years removed from the end of the Second World War. Virtually all of the people who voted for him had either served in the war or had family members who served in the war. They had been touched by its sacrifices, and also by its fears, struggles, and losses.

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.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.