top of page

How a President Can Change: the Eisenhower Years - a Guest Post by M. B. Zucker

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker, award-winning author of "The Eisenhower Chronicles"


Historians in the first generation after Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency believed he was indifferent to civil rights for African Americans. They claimed he only enforced the Brown v Board Supreme Court decision at Little Rock because he was legally obligated to do so. This opinion underwent revision once the Eisenhower administration’s archives opened in the 1980s. The biggest hero of the twentieth century’s relationship with that century’s most important social issue can now be understood in all its nuances and humanity.

Eisenhower (Ike) grew up in Abilene, Kansas, a midwestern town lacking in racial diversity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Memories from his formative years foreshadowed his attitudes as Supreme Commander and President. Ike’s parents taught him and his brothers about egalitarianism and to not care about their fellow man’s race or wealth. A high school football game became the most important story from this era. His football team played a game where the other team had an African-American player. Ike was the only member of his team willing to play opposite the black player, allowing the game to resume. Ike shook his hand before and after the game.

He commanded more soldiers than any other general in history during World War II, including millions of black Americans. He knew they wanted to see action and looked for ways to do this. While working in the War Plans Division following Pearl Harbor, he sent a black unit to Australia to defend against a potential Japanese invasion. The Australian government said they prefered white soldiers. Ike responded that he would only send a black unit. The Australians acquiesced. Later, while desperate for reinforcements during the Battle of the Bulge, he took advantage of the crisis to send black units into combat. They served well in this greatest of battles. Ike later told a black aide, “They fought nobly for their country. And I will never forget.”

The years after World War II were a low point. President Truman asked Ike, who was Army Chief of Staff, to speak to the Armed Service Committee about integrating the military in 1948. Ike did so and talked to a group of officers about this issue. He did not realize all the officers were southerners. Ike told the Committee his officers opposed integration and that passing laws enforcing integration would not change anyone’s minds. Ike later realized his mistake and apologized to his black aides.

Let’s talk about race in Ike’s personal life before turning to his presidency. He did not have the most enlightened views on race. He was not immune to racial stereotypes and occasionally referred to black crowds as “you people.” He supported equal opportunity but objected to racial mingling, especially intermarriage. Ike only had a son, but said he did not think, “a [black man] should court my daughter.” This was the view of most white Americans in the 1950s, but it is unattractive in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, he was repulsed by individual acts of bigotry. When a white guest used a racial term Ike leapt to his feet and declared, “You will not speak that way in my house again!” Most importantly, we cannot understand Eisenhower and race without knowing John and Delores Moaney. Sergeant John Moaney was an African American volunteer who joined Ike’s staff in 1942. He and Delores, his wife, served as Ike and Mamie’s aides until Mamie died in 1979. Ike said he was closer to John than anyone besides his wife. The Moaneys resented any claims that the Eisenhowers were racist and Delores said Ike treated her like a lady.

In spite of his shortcomings, Ike told Herbert Brownell, who became his Attorney General, that he wanted to continue Lincoln’s legacy by ending segregation within federal jurisdiction before announcing his candidacy in 1952. Ike wanted to move the country closer to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He said during the campaign that, “Discrimination is criminally stupid.” He visited a naval academy shortly after taking office and was pleased to see several African-American officers in leadership roles. He had been told that white men would not willingly serve under black men, but that “was evidently not true.”

As President, Ike developed a strategy for ending segregation that engaged each branch of government. The first step was to end segregation under federal jurisdiction. He did not need Congress’ approval to do this because he was head of the Executive Branch. He completed the integration of the Armed Forces that had begun under Truman by threatening to withhold funds. He did the same for military academies and bases, including in the South. He outlawed poll taxes and most importantly, he desegregated Washington DC, making the nation’s capital a model for the rest of the country.

The second step was to only appoint federal judges who supported integration. Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers said they always looked for Ike-appointed judges for their cases because they knew they would win. Ike appointed five justices to the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Earl Warren. All five supported integration. Ike and Warren later fell out. Warren thought it was because of his pro-integration views, but Ike said he only disapproved of Warren’s liberal stance on criminal justice issues.

The Warren Court unanimously desegregated America’s public school system in 1954 with Brown v Board of Education. Ike had mixed feelings about this outcome. He knew it was an important step in ending segregation, but also knew it would provoke a backlash and disrupt society. He was not at home in social struggle. He wished the Court began desegregation with older people, like graduate students, as people were more emotional with children.

Ike never endorsed Brown, saying, “The Supreme Court has issued its opinion, and I will obey.” Historians criticized Ike for this cautious statement. But Ike believed in results, not rhetoric, and believed a strong endorsement of Brown would turn the South against him. He would be unable to coax them into accepting segregation if that happened. He also did not think Presidents should give their honest opinion of Supreme Court cases, since it would raise the question of whether the President would execute the law if he disliked a Court decision.

Brown stimulated the large-scale Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many activists demanded the government take immediate action in outlawing segregation. Ike thought this was a mistake. He was a gradualist who believed societies could only change incrementally. He did not understand why black activists resented his calls for patience. Ike believed gradualism allowed for necessary change but minimized the backlash from conservative forces. He thought the world could be improved by not perfected, and any attempts at perfecting it, like the French or Russian Revolutions, ended in catastrophe.

Martin Luther King came to national prominence late in Ike’s presidency. King recognized that he and Ike agreed on the goal of racial justice but disagreed on the approach. King wanted rapid change and saw Ike as temperamentally conservative and resistant to revolution. King said Ike, “could not be committed to anything which involved a structural change in the architecture of American society. His conservatism was fixed and rigid and any evil defacing the nation had to be extracted bit by bit with a tweezer because the surgeon's knife was an instrument too radical to touch this best of all societies.” The two men did not let their disagreement over tactics lead to antagonism. Ike described King’s assassination in 1968 as “a disaster.”

Congress was the third branch that Ike engaged, and he waited until after his landslide reelection to do so. Ike believed guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote was the most important thing he could do to advance their interests. Voting rights would give them political influence. Other rights would follow. That’s why he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, at the beginning of his second term. The bill would give the Justice Department the power to prosecute any one who violated a voter’s Fifteenth Amendment rights. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson feared that allowing a Republican president to sign major civil rights legislation would cause African Americans to return to the GOP, so he used his legislative influence to weaken the bill. Many of Ike’s advisors told him to veto the weakened bill for symbolic reasons. He signed it, saying a weak bill was better than no bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 became the model for Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Little Rock Crisis began shortly after Ike signed the Civil Rights Act. The local school district ordered Little Rock High School to integrate in autumn 1957. Nine African American students were set to attend the school. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus wanted segregationists’ support in the next election and ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students from entering the school. A white mob joined Faubus and screamed at the Little Rock Nine. Ike thought Faubus and his followers were demagogic extremists and would not allow them to violate federal law. But he was hesitant to send soldiers into a Southern state. He wanted to give Faubus the chance to back down. They met, and Faubus agreed to cooperate. Then he continued denying entry to the black students. Ike felt lied to and double-crossed. Now it was personal. Ike nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to leave the area. Then he deployed the 101st Airborne Division to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school. The paratroopers stayed with the black students for months. Ike had deployed the 101st Airborne on D-Day, so his decision to use them was symbolic. Had he failed to act at Little Rock, the Civil Rights Movement would have lost momentum and the Supreme Court would have weakened. Little Rock made Ike reevaluate his view of southerners. It was not just thugs who opposed the black students’ entry; it was professionals like doctors and lawyers. He thought his faith in southerners was misplaced.

Ike’s support of the Civil Rights Movement grew in the early 1960s, after he left office. He supported Kennedy’s civil rights initiative and endorsed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He campaigned for African-American candidates throughout the decade. Ike said Senator Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act made him “sick.” Goldwater said his vote was based on states’ rights. Ike said race was a federal issue and feared Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 would lead the GOP to becoming a white supremacist party. He vowed to oppose any Republican politician who sought votes by encouraging the white backlash to civil rights. On the other hand, Ike did not like that certain elements of the Civil Rights Movement became more radical in the late 1960s. He supported equality of opportunity, but this was not good enough for those who only accepted equal outcomes. Ike was bothered by extreme rhetoric, saying, “No one has defined what black power means. If it means using legitimate voting power, that’s one thing. If it means reckless, destructive power by force, that’s something else.”

Eisenhower was not a civil rights revolutionary; he was not Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King. But he was among the five best Presidents on this issue, and through his gradual, behind the scenes strategy, he built the judicial architecture for the rights revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s and stimulated the greatest fulfillment of America’s promise since Reconstruction. That earns him an important spot in our civil rights history.


Ike's Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality by Kasey Pipes

Mrs. Ike by Susan Eisenhower

The President and the Apprentice by Irwin Gellman

Eisenhower: The White House Years by Jim Newton


"The Eisenhower Chronicles" by M. B. Zucker


bottom of page