Podcast: Irv Gellman on Eisenhower and Nixon
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon. (Hank Walker/Time Life Pictures-Getty Images)
Irv Gellman is author of “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s World War II Hero General, the planner of Normandy, and the 34th President of the United States.
Richard Nixon served as Vice President under Eisenhower. The two enjoyed a friendship and complex relationship that would last nearly two decades.
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast we speak with Irv Gellman. Dr. Gellman is a Nixon biographer. His first book about Nixon, “The Contender” covered the Congressional years. His most recent book is “The President and the Apprentice, Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952 to 1961.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s World War II hero general, the planner of Normandy, and the 34th president of the United States. Richard Nixon served as vice president under Eisenhower. The two enjoyed a friendship and complex relationship that would last nearly two decades.
Our guest today is Nixon biographer, Irv Gellman. Gellman’s first book about Nixon, “The contender,” covered the congressional years. His most recent book is, “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.” Dr. Gellman, welcome.
Irv Gellman: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, Nixon in his memoirs characterizes Eisenhower this way. “He had a warm smile and icy blue eyes. It was not a case of being outwardly warm and inwardly cold rather beneath this captivating personal appearance was a lot of finally tempered hard steel.” When Richard Nixon served in the navy during the war as a junior officer, Eisenhower was commanding a Normandy invasion. What was Nixon’s perspective on Eisenhower early on?
Irv Gellman: Quite frankly, the quote that you gave is very good. Ike had this wonderful, smiling grandfatherly exterior, but he was as skilled, as anyone as I’ve ever seen in running the enormous operation of the executive officers of the White House. He was very, very skilled at that
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Nixon an admirer of his?
Irv Gellman: I think that he was not only an admirer, in many ways, he tried to duplicate some of the functions and the ways that Eisenhower operated but because Eisenhower was such an epical figure, that wasn’t to come to pass. And in addition to that, because of the growth of polarization of the country, that was even more difficult. Eisenhower served at a time when we were still thinking about the greatest generation that came out of World War II, but the time that Nixon became president, we were talking about the crumbling of the generation that was coming to pass.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the two gentlemen first meet? How did Nixon meet Eisenhower for the first time?
Irv Gellman: Well, he met him the first time traveling to an event in Switzerland in 1951. And they sat down and they had about a half an hour, or 45-minute conversation at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Paris. And Nixon did not know that Eisenhower had followed his efforts in the Alger Hiss case, and Alger Hiss became one of the most famous Soviet spies. And they created this enormous controversy of whether Hiss was a spy or he wasn’t a spy. And it’s pretty well conceited now that Hiss was a spy and that Nixon was right, but very few people want to go back and revisit that and give Nixon credit.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned that Nixon duplicated or tried to duplicate much of what Eisenhower accomplished during his presidency. Were the two of them kindred spirits philosophically?
Irv Gellman: Very much so. The remarkable thing is that they thought far more alike than different. They were both relatively fiscal conservatives and internationalists and foreign affairs. The difference is that Nixon was very political and Eisenhower simply did not get it. He didn’t like slapping the backs of people and kissing babies and being a politician that grew from the embryonic stages to the presidency, whereas Nixon started out in the House of Representatives, went to the Senate, and then went to the vice presidency and ultimately went to the White House.
Jonathan Movroydis: You mentioned the Hiss case, Eisenhower viewing, you know, watching Nixon’s performance on the Hiss case. How did Eisenhower come to choose Nixon as his vice-presidential candidate in 1952?
Irv Gellman: He didn’t. He gave me a list of several names and those names went to the smoke-filled room. The people that chose Nixon really were Tom Dewey and other people at the convention. Eisenhower didn’t even realize it was his responsibility to select his own vice president. The nature of how Nixon came to pass was not only the names, but Herbert Brownell who becomes Eisenhower’s first attorney general comes back to Eisenhower after this group of individuals select Nixon as their recommendation and Eisenhower says, okay.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did he like the choice of his vice-presidential candidate?
Irv Gellman: Yes. He thought that Nixon was a good choice. He wasn’t, again, political in the sense that he chose him for deep political motives because that wasn’t an Ike psyche, but he chose him because he respected his judgment and thought he was well-reasoned in his efforts to expose Hiss as a Soviet spy.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did Eisenhower throughout the final campaign stretch after the convention, how would Nixon fit in with Eisenhower’s presidential campaign?
Irv Gellman: Well, there were two separate campaigns, pretty much. Just about in every presidential election, the coordination between the presidential campaign and the vice president campaign is subject. The only time they really get together, so to speak, is over the alleged secret fund controversy in September of 1952.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you expand on the fund case just a little bit. Nixon was accused of financial impropriety. Could you talk about what the allegation was and what was Eisenhower’s reaction to it?
Irv Gellman: Yeah, the general allegation was that Nixon, you know, had some kind of secret fund. The fund was not secret, many people knew about it. And that he was using it for personal benefits, which was fundamentally untrue. What happened was because, a number of critical Republican newspapers and politicians called upon his resignation that he ended up, one, having the fund taken through accountants and taken through a law firm to prove, one, that the fund never went to him personally. And two, it was completely above board and legal.
And Eisenhower said at a meeting with reporters that he wasn’t going to make a judgment about Nixon until after the facts came out. And even though there was significant pressure on him to have Nixon be removed from the ticket, Eisenhower was steadfast and ultimately Nixon gives a speech called the Checkers speech to people that found Nixon less than appealing to Nixon who calls it the Fund speech, which basically went millions and millions of homes and made Nixon even a stronger candidate than he was. And just as an aside, Adlai Stevenson also had a fund which the press never went after, which was suspect and Stevenson used for personal benefit.
Jonathan Movroydis: It’s been written about that Eisenhower kind of vacillated on Nixon during what Nixon called a crisis. Is that fact or fiction?
Irv Gellman: Again, most of what you have as far as how Eisenhower responded and how Nixon behaved is fiction. It’s not history done through the painstaking research, it’s wannabe history to show the deep differences between the two men when that was fundamentally untrue. And part of the mythology that still remains is that these two men were really very far apart, and Eisenhower always looked upon Nixon with a jaundiced eye and never really appreciated Nixon skills, all of which is untrue.
Jonathan Movroydis: So, the two get elected in 1952. Eisenhower is known for his cabinet style of government. Very top down, he runs a tight ship. But where does Nixon fit in as vice president? Does Eisenhower envision a portfolio for his number two?
Irv Gellman: Sort of. It grows as time goes along and as Nixon shows by him to be a better person in various fields. He initially uses Nixon to understand the nature of the politics within the Republican Party and within the Democratic Party. As he starts off, Eisenhower makes Nixon the chair of the committee on government contracts, which is really ordained for Nixon helping Africa. Can Americans get more jobs to become more in the mainstream? Nixon does a very good job at this. He then, Eisenhower, gives Nixon a number of foreign assignments. i.e., in ’53, he goes to Asia and other places. He goes to the Caribbean and Central America, he goes to Hungary after the Hungarian revolution in 1956, he goes to Africa. He goes to Moscow to meet with Khrushchev in the kitchen debates. There’s all kinds of added assignments that Ike gives him, from foreign affairs to domestic policy to African-American inclusion. And again, the idea of the mythology is that Eisenhower did not rely on Nixon which is fundamentally false.
Jonathan Movroydis: When you go through Nixon’s writings here at the Nixon Presidential Library, you often see Nixon’s reflections on various world leaders from Lee Kuan Yew, to Konrad Adenauer, to Winston Churchill, to Charles de Gaulle. Nixon took extensive notes. In his correspondence and his conversations with Eisenhower, what sort of stuff did he learn from Ike?
Irv Gellman: Well, he is brief. And the interesting thing again is that before Nixon leaves on every trip, he visits with Ike to get briefed. When he finishes his trip, the first thing he does when he comes back is to be debriefed by Ike. Again, all of these trips in some ways are critical to what Eisenhower is doing. Probably the best example is, Nixon when he goes to the Soviet Union in July of 1959, comes back to the United States, briefs Eisenhower on what he believes Nikita Khrushchev is all about. And very shortly thereafter, Khrushchev is invited to the United States to meet with Eisenhower and to work out some form of accommodation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It doesn’t work that way, but Eisenhower’s using a whole series of individuals, for one of a better word, is foreign observers, people that do legwork for him so he is able to have a broader view of the world situation.
Jonathan Movroydis: In 1960, did Eisenhower support Richard Nixon in his run for the presidency against John F. Kennedy?
Irv Gellman: Again, the nature of the question is, why would you ask that? How in the world could Nixon become the presidential choice of the Republican Party without Eisenhower’s support? The remarkable thing about it is nobody’s ever looked at the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship during 1960. And one of the main themes of the manuscript observation now on the election of 1960 is appalling how incorrect authors have gotten the role of Eisenhower at his mammoth role in aiding and abetting Nixon, his quest for the presidency in 1960.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did he maintain a correspondence with Ike following the election during the so-called wilderness years?
Irv Gellman: They both have extensive telephone conversations, meeting letters, work on building the Republican Party. And again, the remarkable thing about this is that Eisenhower leaves an enormous collection of private papers, story in the wilderness years which to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever systematically gone through.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did Eisenhower provide any counsel? Nixon is running for president in 1968. The Vietnam War is raging. There’s obviously issues with the Soviet Union, some of which the Eisenhower administration had to deal with, similar issues that the Eisenhower administration had to deal with in, you know, throughout the 1950s. Did he counsel Nixon throughout the campaign, especially in the areas of policy?
Irv Gellman: Of course, he did. And not only does he counsel him in policy, but for the first time in Eisenhower’s life, he actually endorses Nixon for the presidency before the convention in Miami in 1968.
Jonathan Movroydis: Ike was alive for the first two months of the Nixon presidency. Could you touch upon their relationship in this period of time? This is the first three months of 1969, basically.
Irv Gellman: Well, Nixon doesn’t come in to office until, you know, the middle of January and Eisenhower dies at the end of March. My understanding from what I have seen so far, and I’m not definitive on this because I haven’t reached any conclusions, is that yes, they came in contact regularly. And not only that, but Eisenhower even though he was dying of a series of heart attacks and strokes, etc., remain cognizant almost up to the day he died.
Jonathan Movroydis: The name of your book is, “The President and the Apprentice.” What effect do you think…? What is the legacy that you believe, in your opinion of Eisenhower’s influence over Richard Nixon into, you know, influencing him through his presidency and I guess the ultimate impact of that?
Irv Gellman: That’s a very, very good, and a very complex question. Eisenhower had this great skill on how to manage people and how to bring them together at cabinet meetings, at National Security Council meetings, at legislative meetings, where he would bring in both Democrats and Republicans and basically use them as teaching tools. And because he was such a revered apical figure, that it really worked very well for him, and he was able to do this because of his enormous standing.
Nixon never had that kind of commanding respect from the amount of people that he dealt with, nor did he feel as comfortable in directing people as Eisenhower. The interesting thing about the Nixon cabinet as compared with the Eisenhower cabinet, they were very, very skilled individuals of who he chose and how he chose them. The difference was the time and place. Eisenhower team and a time and place where you don’t have the sort of enormous amount of agitation, i.e., for civil rights, i.e., there was no Vietnam situation there.
The idea of Eisenhower managing us to stay out of war at the same of time of being a world power. Nixon doesn’t have the calm blush that Eisenhower has in wanting to calm the country. And in addition to that, Democrats and Republicans, by the time that Nixon reaches the White House, are really becoming incredibly polarized. Not as bad as they but they’re already on the march in 1968 and what you find happening is a lot of decisions that are made in Congress with the president are made in relationship of not only what Nixon wants but how does Congress and certain leaders who despise Nixon want to be remembered for this kind of stuff. And so very, very complex differentiation between time and space of the two gentlemen.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Irv Gellman, bestselling Nixon biographer and historian. Our topic was, “The fascinating personal and political relationship of Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Dr. Gellman, thank you so much for joining us.
Irv Gellman: Thank you for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.