President Donald Trump’s much-touted “celebration of America’s military” on the Fourth of July would not have surprised the man who became the nation’s second president.
In 1776, John Adams predicted that future generations of Americans would mark the day with patriotic displays, right down to “Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other.”
What the 34th president, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, likely would have thought and preferred is another matter.
The only career military man who served in the White House during the 20th century, Eisenhower consistently chose sober reflection on special occasions over extravagant display or military posturing such as was then — and is now — prevalent in autocratic and totalitarian regimes.
Search Ike’s public papers as president and you will find only one specific reference on July 4 to the nation’s founding: a 1959 radio address in which he observed, “If my message to you on this Fourth of July could be put into one sentence, it would be this: State the facts of freedom and trust in God, as we have ever done.”
Eisenhower is best known for his magnetic smile, not his bombast. He served the nation with a kind of above-the fray-steadiness during two productive terms in the White House (1953-1961), a period of notable peace and prosperity, against the backdrop of an often tense Cold War with the Soviet Union.
During Eisenhower’s presidency, the United States enjoyed noticeable gains in gross national product and average Americans lived better than ever, thanks in part to strong unions and low inflation. During the Ike Age, a newly invigorated civil rights movement was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which banned racial segregation in public schools, and Eisenhower’s effective response when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied federal court orders to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
Eisenhower was a quiet champion of equal rights, as David Nichols has documented in an important revisionist book, “A Matter of Justice.” But that was Eisenhower’s style. He preferred behind-the-scenes maneuvers to public lobbying. He did not seek credit when his initiatives went well, though he did take responsibility when things did not go as planned. (Consider the U-2 shoot-down in 1960 that destroyed Ike’s hopes for detente with the Soviet Union.)
When Eisenhower took note of special anniversaries, including Memorial Day and Independence Day, he tended to express himself less in terms of celebration than by emphasizing the sacrifices that kept Americans free and American democracy vibrant.
In a diary entry on May 30, 1951, Eisenhower wrote that Memorial Day reminded him that the U.S. — then engaged in a brutal, stalemated war in Korea — was “still adding to the number of graves that will be decorated in future years.” He added: “Men are stupid!”
Unsurprisingly, spearheading a potentially lethal American rivalry with a communist adversary, Ike was committed to strong alliances and a strong military. He had, after all, served as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, leading the Normandy invasion that changed the course of World War II.
But it is worth noting that, as president, Eisenhower cut military spending, notably on “boots on the ground,” in favor of high-tech and atomic power. There, as his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles famously put it, the American taxpayer could get “more bang for the buck.”
Ike would never have put it that way. He did not engage in rhetorical flourishes of the sort Dulles favored. Moreover, Eisenhower was determined, as Evan Thomas put it in his best-selling study, “Ike’s Bluff,” never to use nuclear weapons. At the same time he would “tell no one” what was on his mind about this ultimate presidential power.
That said, a consistent thread running through Eisenhower’s public and private statements was his hatred of tyranny and his commitment to democratic traditions. Ike believed to his core that war was folly. He promoted unity, peace and cooperation among our allies, as well as dialogue with adversaries. As he put it in a July 4, 1947, address in Vicksburg, Mississippi, “A nation’s success in war and peace demands participation in the community of nations.”
No “America first,” no “go it alone” for President Eisenhower. Alliances and teamwork were his mantra. And in the end, while Ike liked fireworks as much as the next person, he would leave the emphasis on military parades and flyovers to the autocrats and totalitarians.
Michael J. Birkner is professor of history at Gettysburg College. He has written extensively on the Eisenhower presidency.