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April 3, 2008

Eisenhower historian: Ike misunderstood

By Jake Palmateer

ONEONTA _ The author of a "groundbreaking" book on Dwight D. Eisenhower said Wednesday the nation's 34th president has been misunderstood by historians for decades.

Part of the reason is Eisenhower has often been judged on what he said and not what he did, said presidential scholar David Nichols, who spoke at Hartwick College.

"He didn't win the war in Europe by making speeches," Nichols, 69, said of the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II who served as president from 1953 to 1961.

His book, "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution," was published by Simon & Schuster last fall.

When it came to civil rights in the 1950s, Eisenhower outshone contemporaries such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson, Nichols said during a lecture at Hartwick's Anderson Center for the Arts Theatre.

But Eisenhower was most misunderstood in terms of his civil rights record, which included the desegregation of Washington, D.C., the implementation of military desegregation ordered by President Truman, the proposal of the first civil rights act in more than 75 years and the use of federal troops to protect black students attempting to attend an all-white school in Little Rock, Ark.

One of his greatest legacies was the appointment of federal judges, including five Supreme Court justices, who were against segregation, Nichols said.

The news media had a "particular liberal bent" and myopia when it came to reporting on the Republican Eisenhower, said Nichols, who described himself as a Democrat and named his own son after Kennedy.

The perception that Eisenhower was racist is not accurate, Nichols said, and is based in a large part on unsubstantiated comments attributed to him by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in Warren's memoir.

But Eisenhower, who died in 1969, contributed to his own myth, which included the perception he was disinterested.

"Eisenhower hated to make speeches," Nichols said. "He was a planner."

He also did not handle himself well in media conferences, Nichols said.

Eisenhower would not do well among today's field of presidential candidates because of the public's appetite for sound bites, Nichols said.

"This was one of the most in-charge presidents we've ever had," Nichols said.

Nichols' lecture attracted an audience of about 100 students, faculty and members of the public.

While introducing Nichols, Scott Dalrymple, chairman of the business administration department at Hartwick, said Nichols' work is groundbreaking.

"His research has open really opened up a new way of looking at Eisenhower," said Peter Wallace, a Hartwick history professor.

Wallace said Nichols, who is a former college professor and dean from Kansas, also made the subject interesting during the lecture, which prompted about a dozen questions from the audience.

"He's a consummate historian," Wallace said.

Nichols' book also shows what can be done when historians revisit a subject after new materials come to light and government documents are released, Wallace said.