Eisenhower’s Common Sense Leadership on National Security and the Economy

“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”              

 – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no amount of military force that can possibly give you real security, because you wouldn’t have that amount unless you felt that there was almost a similar amount that could threaten you somewhere in the world,” Eisenhower told reporters early in his Presidency. “Now, you finally have to make certain very tough decisions. I know of no better way to express it than George Washington did, many years ago. He said this country must always be careful to have a reasonable posture of defense.”

With this new conference in March 1953 Eisenhower began the long pursuit of balancing between fiscal responsibility and the proper level of defense for the country during his Presidency. Eisenhower hated waste, and having served in the military most of his career, he knew there were opportunities to save money without risking the safety of the country. He was “dedicated to one idea, which is to get less money spent for overhead and” eliminate “certain duplications and unnecessary expenses, and to get out of that same money more combat strength.” [1]

John Foster Dulles was an American statesman w...

John Foster Dulles and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Achieving a balanced budget was a priority for Eisenhower, despite the Cold War and despite calls for tax cuts. And since the defense budget was the largest component of the Federal Budget, Eisenhower was determined to get it under control. Unlike many military men of the past, he understood the need to prepare to fight the next war, not the last one.

The game had changed the moment the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949.  He wanted a fresh look at America’s defenses, and established five principles to guide him and his team: when attacked, America did not have to respond “in kind” (e.g. if Europe was invaded with troops, the U.S. did not have to use troops, it could use other weapons); since a nuclear war would be catastrophic, America needed enough strength to deter a conflict; “military and economic strength were intimate and indivisible”; modern armed forces were essential, since we could “no longer afford the folly … of beginning each war with the weapons of the last”; and lastly, the need for alliances since America’s resources were finite. [2]

It was also necessary to conduct a horizontal analysis — a strategic look across all the services to optimize the allocation and deployment of forces at home and around the world. The guidelines and analysis resulted in Eisenhower’s “New Look” – a defense program which reallocated resources between the armed forces, with a greater reliance“ on the deterrent and destructive power of improved nuclear weapons, better means of delivery, and effective air defense units.”  More resources would be moved from the other services to the Air Force, and an overall reduction in conventional services would occur, with the greater emphasis on nuclear deterrence. [3]

As he expected, Eisenhower received pushback from many quarters, from the Army, the Navy, from Congress on the closing of bases, and even within his own administration. When his Secretary of State John Dulles protested that the priority for a balanced budget would put the country at risk Eisenhower disagreed, once again telling his cabinet that security required a sound economy, which required a balanced budget.

For the rest of his Presidency, Eisenhower stood firm against pressure from the Pentagon, Congress and others to increase defense spending in his goal to achieve the balanced budgets required for a sound economy. In his first Federal Budget for 1955 he was able to reduce overall defense spending from $48.7 billion in 1954 to 44.9 billion. In three of his eight years in office, Eisenhower managed to deliver a small budget surplus (1956, 1957, 1960). The country did go through two recessions during his administration, one he inherited in 1953, and the other in 1957. But overall, the economy thrived under his leadership.

America had the strongest economy in the world in the 1950s. Business and manufacturing thrived, with exports at all time highs, and U.S. GDP grew from $284.6 billion in 1950 to about $500 billion by the end of the decade. The country prospered in large part because of Eisenhower’s leadership and insistence on the proper allocation of resources and fiscal responsibility, especially his resistance to increase defense spending and reducing taxes.

[1] PP, 31 – The President’s News Conference of March 19th, 1953, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu
[2] Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 446
[3] Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 451

Eisenhower’s Leadership Mentor

“Always take your job seriously, never yourself”                                                                         
                                                                                                                                                                           – Fox Conner

On a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1919, the George Patton and his wife invited the Eisenhowers over for dinner. George Patton also invited another guest, Brigadier General Fox Conner, an expert in military strategy and administration. Conner graduated from West Point in 1898 and had served as General John J. Pershing’s Chief of Operations and trusted aide during World War One. Conner was an intellectual and an avid student of military history and operations and well respected throughout the military – Pershing believed him to be indispensable.

After dinner, Patton and Eisenhower took Conner for a tour of the base, and discussed how tanks would influence the future of warfare. They conversed into the night with Conner taking a keen interest, questioning them intensely about their ideas about using tanks in war. Conner was impressed with Eisenhower, and when he received command of an infantry in Panama he asked Eisenhower to join him as his executive officer.

Eisenhower learned from many of those around him but he had a special mentoring relationship with Conner, who he described as “a natural leader and something of a philosopher”. Conner believed that the lessons of the past could be applied to the future, and he was a shrewd judge of talent. In the 1920s he predicted there would be another global conflict, telling Eisenhower “We cannot escape another great war. When we go into that war it will be in the company of Allies….We must insist on individual and single responsibility-leaders will have to learn how to overcome nationalistic considerations in the conduct of campaigns. One man who can do it is [George] Marshall – he is close to being a genius”. [1]

English: Fox Conner from http://www-cgsc.army....

During his tenure under Conner they embarked on a learning experience that Eisenhower would call“the most interesting and constructive” tour of his life. Conner encouraged Eisenhower to read historical novels and military literature. Eisenhower read Clauswitz’s On War three times, and read many books on the battles of the Civil War. Conner and Eisenhower would often reinforce this book knowledge by having long discussions about the contents, and exploring alternatives to the way various battles were fought. Conner would have Eisenhower write essays on the reading material, and edit them mercilessly to make them clear and concise.

In later years, Eisenhower wrote “It is clear now that life with General Conner was a sort of graduate school in military affairs and the humanities, leavened by the comments and discourses of a man who was experienced in his knowledge of men and their conduct…In a lifetime of association of great and good men, he is the one more or less invisible figures to whom I owe an incalculable debt.” [2]

In 1925 Conner had Eisenhower enrolled in the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, Kansas. The course was extremely intense and the competition among the attendees was fierce. But rather than shrink from the pressure, Eisenhower eagerly embraced it. He went into the school with every intention to be number one in his class.

Eisenhower excelled at solving the case studies with his teammate Leonard Gerow, which sharpened his strategic and analytical skills.  He believed it was better to solve problems with a rested mind so he would limit his study time. When he did study it was with intense focus and concentration, which allowed him do accomplish more in less time. He was able to grasp critical details but not get overwhelmed by them. When establishing various strategies he would turn ideas into actionable plans, emphasizing the need for teamwork and a smooth running organization. His years of study on his own and with Conner paid off as he displayed a mastery of his profession, and when the course was over, Eisenhower was ranked number one in the class, just as he intended.  It was a great accomplishment, and one that didn’t go unnoticed by Eisenhower’s senior commanders.

[1] Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 18
[2] Eisenhower, At Ease, 187