A President's First Term: Eisenhower's Pursuit of "The Middle Way"

By Galambos, Louis; van Ee, Daun | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

A President's First Term: Eisenhower's Pursuit of "The Middle Way"


Galambos, Louis, van Ee, Daun, Humanities


Historians of the twenty-first century will place the first administration of President Dwight David Eisenhower primarily in two contexts. One involves what many see as a swing in the industrial nations of the world away from national public programs stressing security and equity toward greater reliance on the private sector. The other basic context involves the strategy Eisenhower employed to wage the Cold War. While not the author of that strategy, he inherited, modified, and sustained what would arguably be the most successful diplomatic initiative of the twentieth century.

As president, Eisenhower was determined to reverse the trend he saw in U.S. domestic policy toward greater federal involvement in the affairs of the states, localities, and private citizens. Not all who received help were poor or powerless. He began to collect information on domestic policy and formulate his own concept of a domestic program.

Eisenhower did not want to roll back history, junking federal policies that in his view had proven successful. As he told his brother Edgar during an unguarded moment, "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history." He was in fact willing to strengthen those federal programs that had good track records and even to introduce new measures on a selective basis. But at the same time, he wanted to prune programs such as those in public power and agricultural subsidies, whose costs he thought far outweighed their benefits to the nation. If successful, he would slow and perhaps even stop the growth of the administrative state. This was his concept of the "Middle Way."

Eisenhower's effort to stem the expansion of the federal government was one in a long series of such forays that began with the end of the New Deal in the late 1930s. Since 1952 American voters have elected relatively conservative Republican presidents in six of the ten elections, and while Congress has often been a Democratic preserve, a loose coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans has dampened many of the efforts to extend federal power.

Eisenhower's presidency was part of this much broader political epic played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. In dealing with that struggle, Eisenhower was intensely committed to the policy of containing communism by deploying economic and military aid, by forming defensive alliances, and by threatening to exercise-and when all else failed, by exercising-U.S. military power.

The president, his advisers, and key congressional leaders cooperated in keeping the containment strategy viable. The presidents who followed would have similar opportunities. Some would come dangerously close to losing a grip on containment. But in the 1980s that policy would finally achieve its primary goal. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union brought to a sudden and stunning close that long phase of world diplomacy and seems to have vindicated Eisenhower's successful efforts to preserve the Western Alliance and wait out its communist adversaries.

Eisenhower's role in these two historical transitions helps explain the astonishing change that has taken place in scholarly evaluations of his presidency. Contemporary appraisals of the Eisenhower presidency were for the most part critical. The administration's domestic policy in particular aroused criticism, as did the Eisenhower style of leadership. Many of the White House initiatives had a negative tone; after all, the main thrust of the Middle Way was to stop the growth of the federal government, a policy that was not likely to bring scholars out of their seats cheering.

Eisenhower advocated a balanced budget, sought a low rate of inflation, and wanted a rate of growth that was sustainable over the long term. "Under conditions of high peace time prosperity," he said, "we can never justify going further into debt to give ourselves a tax cut at the expense of our children. …

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