Apr 19, 2008
Hair vs No Hair
So, name the top five most legendary Americans of the latter half of the 19th century. I'll give you a minute.

So who'd you come up with?

It's kind of slim pickings, actually. Lincoln, obviously. Then maybe Thomas Edison, who gets entirely too much credit (seriously, if this blog were entitled "Inventors and Soul" the first entry would undoubtedly be about how Nikola Tesla and Otis Redding are the least fortunate people in American history). Perhaps you'd throw in John Rockefeller and Mark Twain, depending on your leanings. One could make more in-depth arguments for other characters - Booker T? Louis Sullivan? Grover F. Cleveland? - based on whatever perspective you want to take on the era. The last one should be, for all intensive purposes, be Ulysses S. Grant.

The list would be longer if I asked you to do the same for the period between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Almost every president, with the exception of Ford and Carter, could have a case made, for better or for worse. You could get into the technological moguls, the media icons, the scientists and the civic leaders and still end up with a list from which you'd like to cut no one. Unlike the corruption and general grime of the late 19th century, the Pax Americana produced more notables than any period since the founding fathers.

I suddenly would like to play a video game that pits Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, and Ben Franklin against FDR, JFK, LBJ, MLK, IKE and... Truman. There could be racing and perhaps baseball. I am convinced that these are the two toughest groups of motherfuckers in our national consciousness, even if the latter group had two sickly, sickly men (JFK would have snapped like a twig). It is obvious that I have been playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Shit's ridiculous.

But whatever.

Point is, Eisenhower would be somewhere among that list. If you were to list the top military minds of our nation's history, the top three would include Grant, Eisenhower, and Washington. Washington is an interesting enough guy - probably one of the most low-key guys to ever occupy the White House, but I'd instead like to compare Ike and Grant. Eisenhower was a president, and Grant was a general. How did that happen?

I believe it was Richard Neustadt who once said that in the history books, one-term presidents get paragraphs, and two-term presidents get chapters. There are a few exceptions to the rule - for instance, one-termer James K. Polk is certainly more influential than most of the two-termers that followed him. Conversely, Grant is a two-term president who didn't make much of a splash in the history books - he's routinely cast aside amongst the Hardings, Pierces and Buchanans in the lowest tier of presidents.

Grant and Ike were relatively similar presidents - both were relatively nonaligned, politically, and both were military geniuses presiding during peacetime. Both had some significant domestic accomplishments, as well - Eisenhower presided over a long period of economic prosperity and, while largely putting his faith in the free market, put fiscal responsibility in front of tax cuts, refusing to lower taxes without a balanced budget. Likewise, Grant reduced the federal debt enormously and vastly improved the nation's credit. Eisenhower championed the Interstate Highway System, Grant oversaw the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Grant was a strong supporter of Civil Rights and attempted to annex the largely black Santo Domingo not only for militarily strategic reasons but also in an attempt to push Cuba to abandon slavery and to provide a place for former slaves to escape southern whites (thereby reminding southern whites how important former slaves are to the economy and de-racisting them). Likewise, Eisenhower used the National Guard to forcibly integrate an Arkansas school.

Eisenhower did have some seriously mixed legacies - the Interstate Highway System is generally hailed as a great civic infrastructure project, but one might wonder whether it'll be viewed as such as the climate change movement kicks up. The highways certainly made longer trips a lot more convenient, and that's doing CO2 emissions some favors. Eisenhower was a bit passive in his dealings with McCarthy, as well, and perhaps most damningly, allowed construction of nuclear weapons to skyrocket far beyond reasonable levels. While I understand the need for a sizable nuclear arsenal - MAD and all - it got a little crazy under Eisenhower. During his presidency, the number of nuclear weapons skyrocketed from under 1000 to over 20,000, a trend that continued until Lyndon Johnson was president and the number began to fall. If anyone can think of a scenario where we'd have any use for nuclear weapons after the first 500 were launched, you're a more brilliant political mind than I.

Grant, in his own right, had some other similarly poor showings - much like Harding, he was a trusting man whose faith in the inherent good nature of the human race was upset by his staff, as scandal after scandal interrupted his administration. Crédit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, the Sanborn Incident, Black Friday. Grant was largely uninvolved in all the scandals - he himself wrote to congress, "Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."

Grant and Eisenhower were actually pretty similar in this respect too - where Grant's largest failure was that he couldn't make the political alliances necessary to combat the scandals and didn't take a stand against the bad elements in his administration, Eisenhower was also limited in his effectiveness because he didn't want to take any political positions that might make him unpopular and avoided making a public stand against McCarthy. Neither of these men were politicians.

So why was Eisenhower such a rollicking success and Grant such a dismal failure?

There are a couple things you can point to. For one, it's a consequence of the era in which they lived. The Interstate system was championed primarily as a system of national defense for quick movement of supplies and troops in the event of an emergency - an eventuality that thankfully never has tested the highways. And until very recently, the boon to interstate commerce has far outweighed any carbon emissions downsides. Similarly, there hasn't yet been a nuclear attack anywhere - so for now, Mutual Assured Destruction succeeded and nuclear proliferation is a reluctant success. Ike presided over an era where the United States was increasingly prosperous (average family income rose by 20% during his presidency), mostly at peace, and globally dominant. Politically, he aimed low and hit.

Most of Grant's accomplishments, on the other hand, are regarded as eventual failures. Reconstruction was perhaps too heady a task for an inexperienced politician - he had to help defeat the secessionist sentiment of the South and prevent the inevitable postwar resentment while simultaneously trying to minimize the KKK and ensure civil rights. While Eisenhower had a few recessions in his term, Grant had two full-fledged panics - the Fisk-Gould scandal and the Panic of 1873. In the former, Fisk and Gould recruited Grant's brother in law and they successfully conned the executive branch; in the latter, Grant simply neglected to react effectively.

In the end, Grant and Eisenhower had very similar governing styles - few risky political strategies and an aim of postwar normalization. Both were noble men to different ends - Grant was honest and trusting enough that he was taken advantage of, Eisenhower was humble enough about his accomplishments that he sometimes appeared to be a do-nothing president. But Grant inherited a divided and unstable nation in crisis, while Eisenhower inherited a postwar boom in the world's most powerful nation. This isn't to say that Grant was unjustly screwed - just that the crises and tough decisions that Grant faced were more suited for a professional politician who could build coalitions and make compromises, while the opportunities presented to Eisenhower were perfectly suited to a military man concerned with getting things done.

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