Arthur Schlesinger's Swipe at Ike

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Snead is an assistant professor of diplomatic and military history at Texas Tech University.

In a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argues that John F. Kennedy abandoned Dwight D. Eisenhower's national security apparatus because of its ineffectiveness. While the focus of the article and Schlesinger's arguments was the Bay of Pigs, Schlesinger's placing of blame for the fiasco on the Eisenhower administration raises some significant questions as to how presidents make and then follow through on decisions. Although Eisenhower's decision-making system did not always work completely to his liking, it was markedly better than the ones used by either his predecessor or his successors.

It is not the purpose of this essay to analyze Schlesinger's contention that it was Eisenhower's national security apparatus that led to the Bay of Pigs. While this will be addressed briefly, the larger issue is how well did Eisenhower's decision making process work throughout his presidency. Passing blame for the Bay of Pigs to Eisenhower casts a shadow over his presidency and his effectiveness as president. Most historians who have studied the 1950s and early 1960s over the past twenty years have come to much different conclusions than Schlesinger concerning Eisenhower's involvement in the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's own responsibility for the invasion, and the overall effectiveness of Eisenhower's decision-making system. The historical record indicates that Eisenhower's national security apparatus examined different policy options, provided thoroughly analyzed and debated advice, and generally helped the president make the best decisions.

The first issue that has to be addressed is who should be blamed for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Schlesinger implies that since the Eisenhower administration developed the initial plan for an invasion, it was responsible for its outcome. There are several fallacies at work here. There is an assumption that Eisenhower would have approved the launch of the invasion when in January 1961 it was only a contingency plan. Recently declassified documents clearly indicate that Eisenhower was not happy with the plan and did not believe it had much chance for success. While he told Kennedy that Castro had to be removed from power, the new president was free to do whatever he wanted. If Kennedy did not support the operation, he should not have reappointed Allen Dulles as CIA director and continued preparation for the invasion. From his inauguration in January to the launch of the operation on April 15, Kennedy received numerous assessments questioning the overall chances that an invasion would succeed. Yet, he continued to support and encourage the plan. Ultimately, Kennedy, not Eisenhower, was responsible for authorizing the invasion.

The larger question Schlesinger raises concerning the overall effectiveness of Eisenhower's national security apparatus is more important. He implies that it failed and allowed the creation of dubious policies like the Bay of Pigs invasion scheme. In fairness to Schlesinger, he was responding in a very limited way to a very narrow article. While scholars who studied Eisenhower in the 1960s and 1970s generally presented a negative view of his presidency in line with those expressed by Schlesinger, the scholarship beginning in the 1980s that is based on the actual documents from his administration has been much more favorable. Granted there are still disagreements, but there has been a clear trend to show that Eisenhower was one of the more effective presidents in the 20th century.

When Eisenhower ran for office in 1952, he claimed the Truman administration failed to take a realistic view of the national security needs of the country. He based this conclusion in part on his view that Truman did not have an effective decision-making system in place. When he entered office, one of his first priorities was to study this system and to make it more effective. The result was the transformation of the National Security Council into a much more important part of the advisory system. Scholars such as Fred Greenstein, Richard Immerman, Chester Pach, and Pasi Tuunainen have written works based on the best available evidence detailing how Eisenhower utilized the NSC as well as other advisory bodies to solicit information, examine policy alternatives, and obtain advice. The system was not perfect as it sometimes focused too much on developing policy papers and too little on discussing different alternatives. However, on the whole, it provided carefully conceived advice for the president to use in making well-informed decisions.

Eisenhower was one of the best-prepared presidents in American history when he entered office in terms of his understanding of and experience in dealing with national security issues. He had led coalition armies in World War II, served as Army Chief of Staff, and commanded the first military forces established by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He understood, like few others, what the military could and could not do and the importance of careful planning. He also recognized that despite his experience and own knowledge, he needed the assistance of expert advisors to understand issues as completely as possible. His national security apparatus provided the means to obtain this advice and to make difficult decisions. Although he was not always right, most of his major decisions make sense when examined with historical hindsight. Being president is not an easy job. The best anyone can do in that office is to obtain and use the best advice possible before making decisions. No president since 1961 has done this as well Eisenhower.


The article in the New York Times referred to in the opening paragraph was written by David E. Sanger:"War Was Easy. The Rest of the World Is a Mess" (April 21, 2002).

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More Comments:

Mark Wong - 3/31/2003

Dear, Mr. Arthur Schlesinger
My name is Mark Wong and I am a student at the University of Central Florida. I am doing a paper on abolishing the Electoral College and I need a professional opinion on this matter. And if you can just answer a few questions and then email me back as soon as possible.It will be a great deal of help to me.

1. Should the Electoral College Be Abolished if so Why or Why not?

2. Do you think that the Electoral College is out dated if so why or why not?

3. What was the main purpose of the Electoral College?

4. (If abolished)In your opinon, how would this change the Presidental Election? Can you give some examples.

Thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.

Sincerely, Mark Wong

Rogelio F. Arteaga - 5/8/2002

Mr. Snead's political affiliation isn't of concern to me. I simply stated that he uses a tactic far more popular with the right-wing than with the left.

I fear Mr. Snead is being coy when stating he doesn't know what I mean by a "straw man" argument, but I'll humor him anyway with a definition and an example. A "straw man" argument is putting words in a person's mouth not uttered by said person, then using those words to criticize that person. Example: "To claim Eisenhower is some how responsible for the invasion when Kennedy had almost three months to abandon it does not make sense to me." Neither Schlesinger, in the letter Mr. Snead quotes, nor I, in my reply claim any such thing. This is why I replied to his column in the first place and labeled his criticism of Schlesinger's letter as "intellectually dishonest."

I enjoy reading historical perspectives from all sides, whether I agree with them or not. I simply wish points of view would be criciticized on what actually was said than on whatever implications the critic may have gleaned from his or her reading.

Rogelio F. Arteaga

David L. Snead - 5/8/2002

I have to say that I find Mr. Arteaga's comments quite interesting. Since I don't know him and he does not know me, I was surprised that he would associate me with the "right" and to call me "intellectally dishonest". I'm also not quite sure what he means by the "straw man" argument. I simply stated the facts. While the initial plans for the Bay of Pigs Invasion were made under Eisenhower, the decision to implement the plan were made by Kennedy. Furthermore, in the time Kennedy was in office the plan underwent numerous changes. As president, Kennedy was the person who implemented the plan. To claim Eisenhower is some how responsible for the invasion when Kennedy had almost three months to abandon it does not make sense to me. I would like to think this is a reasonable conclusion whether someone comes from the "right" or the "left".

In terms of exaggerating Schlesinger's comments, I specifically stated in the essay his comments were brief. In fact, I quoted his comments in their entirety. I based my views on the historical record and the Schlesiger's brief letter. When Schlesinger stated that "Kennedy tossed it out," he was referring to Eisenhower's national security apparatus. Maybe I was mistaken, but it seemed to me that Schlesinger was attacking Eisenhower's decision-making system beyond simply the Bay of Pigs.

Mr. Arteaga has every right to his opinions and I hope he believes they are based on the factual record, but I would appreciate not being castigated for holding an interpretation that is shared my many regardless of political affiliation and is based on the historical record.

Rogelio F. Arteaga - 5/6/2002

David L. Snead employs a favorite tactic of the right: he creates a straw man and then proceeds to attack Arthur Schlesinger based on that "straw man" argument. Here are the only words in the letter Snead quotes that are truly Schlesinger's: "But the Bay of Pigs misadventure was precisely the creation of Eisenhower's national security apparatus! No wonder Kennedy tossed it out."

From that Snead forms his straw man: "Schlesinger implies that since the Eisenhower administration developed the initial plan for an invasion, it was responsible for its outcome. There are several fallacies at work here. There is an assumption that Eisenhower would have approved the launch of the invasion when in January 1961 it was only a contingency plan..."

Snead's use of the words "implies" and "implication" reflect HIS interpretation, not Schlesinger's. Schlesinger is correct. The Bay of Pigs was a "misadventure" and it was created by Ike's national security apparatus. Those are his ONLY points. And Snead even corroborates them by acknowledging that Ike didn't like the plan!

Schlesinger isn't wrong. Snead is just intellectually dishonest.