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Ike's troop surge

Back-to-school | Mobs tried to stop some students from going back to school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. Author Kasey S. Pipes on the commander in chief's historic response

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

Next month brings the 50th anniversary of the showdown that desegregated at gunpoint Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously struck down in 1954 the concept of "separate but equal" education, and three years later the school became desegregation's first major battlefield: Nine black students tried to enter the all-white institution on Sept. 3, 1957, but not until Sept. 25 were the students able to stay-with protection by the 101st Airborne Division that President Dwight Eisenhower ordered there.

Kasey S. Pipes brings that story to life in Ike's Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality (World Ahead, 2007). Pipes is a former student of mine at the University of Texas, but I've never taught writing to anyone who had less to learn. Pipes worked in the Bush White House, was chief author of the 2004 Republican Party National Platform, and now runs his own corporate communications consulting firm. He describes Eisenhower's tough decision regarding Little Rock as the culmination of a racial education that began during World War II.

WORLD: Peculiarly enough, the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 influenced Eisenhower's thoughts on integration . . .

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PIPES: After the Germans pushed his line back in the Ardennes, Ike decided he needed more troops. But where to find them? He realized there were 300,000 African-American troops in the Supply Service-soldiers driving trucks and working in kitchens but not allowed by War Department policy to fight at the front. Ike offered them the chance to be trained and sent to the front. Thousands jumped at the chance. Though the Bulge ended before they were ready, they did fight in later battles. Ike was impressed with their courage. He never saw race the same way again.

WORLD: But Eisenhower was ambivalent on civil rights during his first term as president . . .

PIPES: On civil rights, Eisenhower wanted an evolution, not a revolution. In this, he was surprisingly conservative. He believed that "hearts and minds" had to be changed, not just laws. Early on, he also had a premonition that a Little Rock-type crisis just might erupt if he did not move cautiously. And so he moved first to desegregate the District of Columbia. Then he finished desegregating the military, which had begun under Truman. These were incremental steps he was comfortable with. But the Brown ruling challenged his approach. It was nothing if not a revolution. Eisenhower, and the country, had to adjust.

WORLD: What did he think about the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that school segregation is unconstitutional?

PIPES: Eisenhower's leadership model was to solicit different opinions from people on different sides of an issue. Leading up to Brown, Ike talked to Attorney General Herbert Brownell. He also spoke with South Carolina Governor Jimmy Byrnes. Brownell and Byrnes were polar opposites on school integration. In the end, Ike agreed with Brownell and filed a brief on behalf of the NAACP case. But he clearly had mixed feelings about Brown. After the ruling, Brownell never heard Ike say what he thought of it. Instead, Ike said it would be difficult to enforce it and yet he was determined to do just that.

WORLD: So Little Rock, Ark., became the center of civil-rights attention in 1957 . . .

PIPES: In the aftermath of the two Brown cases, local school districts were charged with developing integration plans. Little Rock was ready to send nine African-American students into Central High in September 1957. Governor Orval Faubus, largely trying to connect with his white voter base, helped orchestrate mob demonstrations that gave him the pretext to use troops to stop integration on law-and-order grounds. This was one of the first and most important tests of whether integration would go forward. And it was not at all clear if or what the federal government should do about it.

WORLD: How did Eisenhower initially react to the Little Rock impasse?

PIPES: He was outraged at the "hooligans" in Little Rock. He thought Faubus was ridiculous. And he never doubted that the court order would prevail. But he was determined to use every possible option short of sending troops. Here is the heart of the criticism against Ike's handing of Little Rock: Why didn't he send troops right away? He didn't because, as he said to his attorney general that September, he was "loath" to use troops. And that is as it should be. No president should resort to force against Americans with any less deliberation or patience than Ike demonstrated in 1957.

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