About the Book
The greatest American leader of his time would have to confront the greatest American dilemma of all time. It was a battle he did not want but could not avoid. And it was a battle that would change history.
This is Ike’s Final Battle.
|Video:Kasey speaks about his book Widows Media Quicktime|
|Video:Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Little Rock unrest Widows Media Quicktime|
A few minutes before 8:00am on the morning of September 24, 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower walked toward his office in Newport, breathing in the sea-kissed air of Newport. “There’s a cold wind blowing up,” he said, not making it clear whether he was referring to the Newport breeze or the political storm weather in Little Rock.
At 8:35am, Attorney General Herbert Brownell called for the first of many updates that would come that day. The two men talked about issuing a statement if hostilities continued in Little Rock, which they both fully expected would. Brownell thought it was important to point out that there had been previous disturbances in American history where a President had to act, such as the Whiskey Rebellion. Eisenhower liked the reference and thought that it might be worth reminding the public of “like emergencies.” He also thought it was important to not merely state that the “law has been defied.” He wanted to express his sympathy to those involved.
The discussion moved to tactics. Brownell had already talked to General Max Taylor, Army Chief of Staff, about utilizing the National Guard troops in Little Rock. Eisenhower cautioned that this might create a “brother against brother” environment since they would be going up against their own families and friends inLittle Rock. Instead, he recommended using National Guard troops from other parts of the state.
Having given Brownell his preliminary orders, Ike turned to other business. His friend, General Al Gruenther, had urged him to return to the White House from his vacation. In response, the President wrote that the “White House office is wherever the President may happen to be.” He then specifically addressed the tumult inLittle Rock:
“I do not want to give a picture of a Cabinet in constant session, of fretting and worrying about the actions of a misguided governor who, in my opinion, has been motivated entirely by what he believes to be political advantage in a particular locality.”
Besides, Ike continued:
“The Federal government has ample resources with which to cope with this kind of thing. The great need is to act calmly, deliberately, and give every offender opportunity to cease his defiance of Federal law and to peaceably obey the proper orders of the Federal court.”
By pursuing this dispassionate course of action, Eisenhower hoped to avoid a situation where people like Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus “ are not falsely transformed into martyrs.”
Having completed this letter, Eisenhower now returned to managing the federal response to Little Rock. He called Brownell at 12:08pm. In the few hours since their first call that morning, Ike had changed his mind on tactics. “In my career,” Eisenhower said, referring to his decades in uniform, “if you have to use force, use overwhelming force and save lives thereby.” He would nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and take those troops out from under Faubus’ command. But he would also send in perhaps the most famous military unit in America: the 101st Airborne Division. This same division had been visited by General Ike in the hours before D-Day. He had counted on them before. And he knew he could count on them again. Plus, they were specifically trained for crowd-control challenges.
In the meantime, Eisenhower issued an executive order federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and authorizing the use of active duty troops to enforce the law. He personally called General Taylor at 12:15pm and told him to mobilize the 101st for duty in Arkansas.
At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, one thousand soldiers from the 101st Airborne prepared to leave that day forLittle Rock. The first elements would arrive that afternoon, the rest by nightfall.
While the 101st soldiers were escorting the kids into CentralHigh School the next morning, Ike returned to Newport. On the plane ride, he gave a lift to a reporter from Time Magazine. John L. Steele was the magazine’s White House reporter and knew Ike well; well enough to coax the President into a candid post-mortem. The conversation aboard the Columbine II that day was the closet thing to an after-action report that Ike ever uttered on the subject. In an off-the-record session, he spoke of the pain of the past few days.
Sending in troops “really doesn’t settle anything.” He paused, then clarified: “It really doesn’t settle anything except the supremacy of the federal government.” Sending in troops to an American city was the hardest decision he’d ever had to make, save possibly for D-Day.
Steele observed a “sad man flying back to Newport.” It had given him no joy to intervene militarily. “The issue here is not, repeat not, segregation,” Eisenhower re-iterated. “It isn’t even the maintenance of public order. It is a question of upholding the law; otherwise you have people shooting people.” Steele said that Eisenhower worried that people would misunderstand his motives. No, it was not part of a crusade for racial justice. But neither was it an effort to disperse with mob rule. Simply put, it was to enforce the law of the land. This was an important distinction to Ike, and one he would continue to emphasize for the rest of his life.
Ike expressed a particular animus for the agitators. “This thing is going to go on and on and on in other places; these damned hooligans. I was trying to speak last night to the reasonable people, the decent people in the South.”
Eisenhower had always hoped that moderate people of goodwill would solve the problem of racial injustice. At Little Rock, he learned just how naive he had been. It wasn’t just Karam’s hoodlums who had chanted obscenities in front of Central High. It was some of the finest of Little Rock society” doctors, lawyers, professionals. Eisenhower, sensing that his faith in the people of the South may have been misplaced, complained bitterly to Oveta Culp Hobby. Hobby had left the Eisenhower administration and returned to Houston to care of her ailing husband in 1955. Ike told her that only Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, had spoken up in support of the President’s position at Little Rock.
Meanwhile, Ike’s efforts at spiritual reconciliation were also failing. During the Little Rock crisis, a member of Billy Graham’s staff penned an articled called “No Color Line in Heaven,” which showed that Graham generally opposed segregation. Graham himself enjoyed friendly relations with Dr. King. But when King asked Graham to stop including segregationist public officials on the platforms of his rallies, the relations between the two men cooled a bit. Part of the power of a Billy Graham crusade was its quasi-official status, testified to by the presence on stage of elected officials. Graham was unwilling to kick these people off the stage, even though he didn’t share their segregationist views. Sadly for Ike, there was a limit to what white ministers were willing to do in confronting racism. Dr. King would learn this lesson anew six years later in a Birmingham jail.
When the Supreme Court in 1958 unanimously upheld the federal government’s actions in Little Rock, Faubus did what Eisenhower had always feared he would do: he simply closed down the public schools inLittle Rock for the school year. But even politics is not a strong enough force to match economics. And since many white families couldn’t afford to send their kids to private schools, the pressure soon mounted to re-open the public schools. In the late summer of 1959, the public schools ofLittle Rock were opened again. And they were operated on an integrated basis.
At last, the Battle of Little Rock was over. But the fallout was just beginning.