Editor’s Note: William I. Hitchcock is the author of “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s” (Simon and Schuster). He teaches history at the University of Virginia. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The Trump presidency is a study in chaos: improvisational, reactive, and unpredictable. Policy priorities change daily, and so, it seems, does the personnel. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn are just the most recent of some two dozen senior officials who have been kicked to the curb after brief stints in the Trump administration.
President Trump thinks unpredictability is good. “I like conflict,” Trump has said. Bitter arguments between White House advisers help him make decisions. “There is no Chaos,” he tweeted on March 6, “only great Energy!” But his style cuts out his closest advisers and deprives him of their advice.
His startling agreement to meet with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un was not run through the State Department. Gary Cohn quit when he learned of Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Trump likes to keep everyone guessing – even his own staff.
There is an alternative model to such chaos, one that illustrates that even in the absence of political experience, leadership is more valuable than bluster or gamesmanship. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower led what was arguably the most disciplined presidency of the postwar years. Like Trump, Ike had never run for office before he became a Republican candidate for president. But he came into the White House with immense leadership experience, having led the allied forces that defeated Hitler in Europe from 1942 to 1945. He brought a disciplined mindset into the White House that reflected that military background.
How does Ike’s disciplined approach stack up against Trump’s chaos theory? Ike’s discipline made midcentury America into a global powerhouse. Trump’s chaos threatens to leave it weakened and adrift.
Unlike the Trump administration, Eisenhower picked a team of seasoned professionals, and stuck with them. John Foster Dulles served as secretary of state for seven years; his brother, Allen Dulles, ran the CIA throughout Eisenhower’s presidency. Eisenhower had only three national security advisers and two secretaries of the treasury in eight years. James Hagerty, the press secretary, was on the job for every day of the Eisenhower administration; Trump has gone through four communications directors so far.
Continuity in personnel allowed Eisenhower to deliver a consistent political message. The press, the Congress, and the public understood exactly what Eisenhower’s priorities were: to protect the homeland by building up the military power of the United States, to control government spending, and to invest in infrastructure. At various times, Donald Trump has asserted that he shares similar goals, but he has little to show for those priorities so far. By contrast, Eisenhower’s discipline got results.
Eisenhower’s first priority as President was to prepare the nation for a long-haul struggle with the Soviets in the global Cold War. That meant building up the nation’s military strength. In the Eisenhower years, the United States expanded the Air Force’s fleet of long-range bomber aircraft and spurred a dramatic technological revolution in missile technology. The Atlas and Titan rockets that became operational in the Eisenhower years could send nuclear warheads to strike an enemy almost anywhere in the world. By 1960, the Polaris missile could be launched by submarines cruising beneath the world’s oceans. New technologies like the U-2 spy plane and the Corona spy satellite gave the United States a huge intelligence edge over the Russians.
These investments in defense cost money. In the Eisenhower years, the United States spent about 10% of its GDP each year on the military – a higher percentage than any peacetime administration ever (in 2016, according to the World Bank, the US spent 3.3% of GDP). But because of Eisenhower’s strict control over the federal purse, these measures did not break the bank. In fact, Eisenhower balanced three budgets in his eight years in office and came close on five others. Ike insisted that the Cold War must be waged in a manner that avoided big deficits or spurred inflation. He stated this as a principle from the start of his presidency and never wavered.
Like Trump, Eisenhower also wanted to improve the nation’s infrastructure. He knew the network of highways running across the country was inadequate for a growing superpower. But who would pay for it? Eisenhower created the Highway Trust Fund, which was supplied by taxes on gasoline, diesel oil, tires, trucks, buses and trailers. The highways, 40,000 miles of them, would be built without any federal budget appropriations. On June 29, 1956, the President signed the Interstate Highway Act into law, in a bold stroke that spurred the growth of the American economy for the rest of the century.
Eisenhower got results by using the levers of government well. On security matters, he ran everything through his National Security Council, which he personally chaired during its weekly meetings. In the Cabinet, he invited debate but stuck to his main principles: balanced budgets alongside investments in infrastructure and defense.
Trump’s brand of chaos yields no such results. Indeed, as a governing strategy, it takes a toll. Sudden moves on trade policy create dramatic swings in the markets. Improvisation in foreign policy alienates key allies. And the constant outflow of fired staffers deters talented people from working in the White House. And yet, Trump has said how much he admires Eisenhower, who was the President of much of his boyhood.
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Eisenhower proved the point: a president succeeds when he builds a competent team, sticks to a clear agenda, and delivers on his promises. Discipline in the White House, not chaos, is what made America great.