Faced with a war against communists on the Korean peninsula that could not be won, the American people understandably had a great deal of confidence that the Supreme Allied Commander of World War Two, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, would be a trustworthy person to negotiate a difficult peace. Sixteen years later, facing a war against communists in Vietnam that could not be won, the American people understandably trusted a man who had built his political career on staunch anti-communism to use his “secret plan” to win the peace. It seemed unlikely that Richard M. Nixon would be weak in the negotiations. Whether you were Madly for Adlai or correctly saw Nixon for the man he actually was, in retrospect it’s easy to see why the American people voted the way that they did. I don’t know if we’ll ever feel that way about Donald J. Trump.
People have started comparing our current political environment to 1968 for some obvious reasons. The country seems more divided than it has been at any point since 1968. But the situation actually bears much more resemblance to 1953. That’s the year that the Republicans won the trifecta, and controlled both the White House and Congress for the first time since the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. It’s also the year that Eisenhower brokered the uneasy truce with North Korea that is currently under so much stress.
Looking back sixty-four years, through sixteen presidential elections, it’s easy to see the parallels to today. And we can also see how things worked out then and assess how likely it is that things will turn out as well in our own times.
The truce with North Korea has held and we did our part to make sure that South Korea became a case study of how our values could benefit the people more than the values espoused by Mao and Stalin. It wasn’t a straight line, and South Korea struggled through its own dictatorships and oppression which we enabled and tolerated at the time. But, from where we stand today, we can be proud of what South Korea has become and proud that we sacrificed blood and treasure to make it possible. Eisenhower deserves credit for knowing when to stop fighting and how to negotiate a peace that would have endurance. Only a handful of knowledgable people think our current president is likely to navigate our current crisis with the same deftness, and literally no one thinks Trump carries the respect of the people or commands the deference of Eisenhower.
In Congress, things are also interesting. When Eisenhower became president, the New Deal had been ongoing for twenty years. Then, as now, the rightwing of the country expected that a Republican Congress and a Republican president would be able to roll it all back. But that’s not how things worked out for the 83rd Congress. Eisenhower wasn’t interested in rolling back most of The New Deal, and the most memorable thing that happened in the Capitol came on December 2, 1954, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy was censured by his colleagues. Second to that, the Republicans created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
It’s little wonder that modern day conservatives don’t celebrate the presidency of Eisenhower. But his steady leadership through the height of the second Red Scare on Korea and on domestic legislative policy already stands in stark contrast to the leadership we have right now. The contrast is so great in fact, that it seems almost irrelevant to discuss Eisenhower’s mistakes and shortcomings. Anyone with any sense would trade Trump for Eisenhower in a second.
On the other hand, it all looks very calm and seamless and inevitable from the remove of sixty-four years. In truth, the country and the Republican Party were as divided then as they are now. Back then, the GOP didn’t want to own The New Deal. Today, the Republicans don’t want to own Obamacare:
[Sen. Rand] Paul warned Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that if Republicans vote for a replacement plan that keeps core elements of ObamaCare in place, “the Republican name will be on health care and this isn’t going to work.”
“You’re going to end up having Republicans absorb the blame for a terrible health-care system,” he said.
When the American people went to the polls in November 1954, the Republicans lost control of the Senate and did not gain it back until 1981. They lost control of the House and did not gain it back until 1995. They didn’t know how to operate as a majority back then even with a Republican president, and they still don’t know how to do that today. But, in 1954, they had steady leadership at the top. In 2018, the Republicans will have Donald Trump.