The Soldier President and the Conservative Philosopher

“We know more than we can tell.”   – Michael Polanyi.

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight Eisenhower.

Historical amnesia began reaching new proportions in the 1960s, especially in the United States. Baby boomers in their salad days felt the impact of network colour television and its depiction of the Vietnam War. Among many of them. even the major two most destructive wars of all time in 1914-18 and 1939-45, , and the first decade of the Cold War were almost consigned to oblivion.

Supercharged amnesia
This supercharged amnesia extended to the eventful eight-year Republican Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, (1890-1969) a balding grandfather replaced by the dashing young Jack Kennedy. Yet Eisenhower had appeared splendidly qualified when he was elected in 1952. He had been the Supreme Allied Commander who had defeated the Nazis in Western Europe in 1944-45; had written an impressive book about it; and had proved a successful postwar president of Columbia University.

His earlier background also held surprises. A rebellious West Point student, he had nonetheless been so talented in calculus that he introduced a novel proof still used, and he spent years as a skilful poker player. His 1952 campaign used posters and buttons showing his winning smile and the ‘I like Ike’ slogan. Adlai Stevenson, twice his Democrat opponent, once ruefully reflected, “What was I doing, running against George Washington?”

Second term failure?
By his second term, however, Eisenhower was frequently viewed as a disappointment, even a failure: both too bellicose and not bellicose enough as a Cold Warrior; doing too little to resist the demagogy of Senator McCarthy; too slow to respond to the 1954 desegregation decision of the Supreme Court, even though he sent National Guard troops into Arkansas to enforce school integration. He was thought to be inattentive, too fond of golf.

The left denigrated him as a ruthless international interventionist; the Republican right, who had long preferred Robert Taft, intensely disliked his full support of the expanding welfare state. Above all, despite the fact that he was a good writer, and could deliver a good prepared speech, he often seemed a terrible public speaker. Commenting when the Soviets shot down a high-altitude U-2 spy plane, he sounded almost mindlessly incoherent.

But a re-appraisal began in 1967, with the publication of a famous essay in Esquire (a more influential periodical in those days) by Murray Kempton. Kempton was an eccentric leftist who, like his politically-opposed friend William Buckley, wrote so well as to win the grudging respect of readers with different political views. He pointed out that Eisenhower’s occasional incoherence, as in the case of dealing with the U-2 flight, was actually his ingenious way of dealing with situations in which candour would be dangerous. He showed that this wise ex-soldier always knew exactly what he was doing, founded in principle but indifferent to popular enthusiasms of the moment. His ‘inactivity’ was thoughtful statesmanship, hence backing the French in Vietnam until their defeat, but disinclined, unlike his successors, to replace them with American troops. All later scholarly biographies, written with full access to Eisenhower’s private papers and correspondence, have largely supported Kempton’s original insight.

Dwight Eisenhower and Michael Polanyi
I read Kempton’s persuasive essay when it appeared, and found that it strongly reminded me of the theories of thought and action being advanced by the polymath physical-chemist-turned-philosopher-of-science, turned philosopher in general, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Polanyi, born in Hungary and beginning his scientific career in Germany, emigrated to England when the Nazis came to power. At the University of Manchester., where he spent most of his later career, he continued research in chemistry, but by the latter 1930s, much disturbed by the growing fashion of Marxism-Leninism, with its own explanation of science, he began rethinking the foundations of scientific reasoning, and then of reasoning in general. He eventually became an internationally recognized philosopher. His many books over three decades included a magnum opus. Personal Knowledge (1958), and the shorter and less intimidating summary, Tacit Knowledge (1966). All his works have defended intellectual and political freedom, but in unconventional ways that would make most modern liberals uncomfortable, at odds with progressivism, scepticism, and modernist or post-modernist theories of knowledge.

Polanyi built on two main concepts: first, that serious thinking begins in a kind of ‘fideism’, or act of faith, sometimes replaced by a false ‘inversion` (not only mistaken, but tending to destructive fanaticism); and second. that everyone knows a great deal, used constantly in understanding, but which is not explicitly formalized in speech or writing, or even as private thoughts, as when we instantly recognize a familiar face among thousands, without drawing on a chain of reasoning. He called this the ‘tacit dimension’, and while Eisenhower probably never heard of him, few modern democratic leaders so aptly demonstrated what Polanyi was getting at.

Eisenhower not only ‘knew more than he could say’, there was so much real depth in his experience of human beings and practical action, so much truly firm self-confidence, that he entirely lacked the compulsion imposed on countless men and women in politics, which is to speak constantly, even when they have nothing so say. For decades now, reporters and pundits on cable television have parroted this vacuous substitute for arguments of substance, by now hour after hour, with most elected politicians then in turn ‘re-parroting’ the media onslaught. Hence both regularly forget what is tacit in the thoughts and actions of others they observe, and what is tacit in their own assumptions and explanations, until their incessant yammering at least half drives out awareness of the tacit in the minds of their viewing and half-listening audiences.

Character leads to accomplishment
Theodore H. White, longtime political journalist who gained fame at a new level with his ‘insider’ book on John Kennedy’s campaign, The Making of the President 1960, has remarked that, ‘Power in America today is control of the means of communication’. This seems obvious, but it not only gives no attention to just what is being communicated, but about the quite frequent possibility that it is only sound and fury. Previous generations of Americans, whether they would now be labelled ‘mass’ or ‘elite’, thought that young people dreaming big dreams of future political leadership should read history and biography, including that of the Greeks and Romans (as Eisenhower, and many of his predecessors, did) and that they should mix patient study with varied experience of life. So, gradually, they would construct a character that could navigate with skill difficult and unpredictable domestic and international circumstances, unreliable and uncomprehending supporters, and constant media misrepresentation and superficiality, and still accomplish things of value for their country.

Eisenhower was not infallible, but he understood this; he saved toughness and close reasoning for important private correspondence, while for public purposes, he mostly, save in his famous farewell speech, seemed to agree with Talleyrand that God gave men language so that they could conceal their thoughts. But he did always say that he hated war as only a soldier could, and that economic policy could not be reduced to simple formulas. He was not a populist.

[Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and Discourse Online contributor. This article was first published in the Prince Arthur Herald.)