Crean on Worthen, 'George Humphrey, Charles Wilson and Eisenhower's War on Spending'

Author: 
James Worthen
Reviewer: 
Jeff Crean

James Worthen. George Humphrey, Charles Wilson and Eisenhower's War on Spending. Jefferson: McFarland, 2019. Illustrations. 268 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7785-9

Reviewed by Jeff Crean (Tyler Junior College) Published on H-Nationalism (May, 2022) Commissioned by Douglas I. Bell (Rotterdam International Secondary School)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56264

Charles Wilson’s time as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first secretary of Defense is best remembered for what he said during his confirmation hearing, aptly illustrating his rather forgettable tenure in that position. Yet he is still better known than Eisenhower’s first secretary of the Treasury, George Humphrey. James Worthen’s detailed and insightful dual profile of these cabinet secretaries is thus a welcome window into two generally overlooked actors who helped craft and implement Eisenhower’s vision of a sustainable Cold War-era fiscal-military state. Worthen also reminds his readers—albeit more implicitly than explicitly—of the differences between that era and our own, militarily, fiscally, and politically, while providing applicable insights into what personal attributes make for successful cabinet service.

In his introduction, the author promises to present the reader with examples of “how personality can affect political behavior,” and in this he delivers (p. 3). The two men had similar backgrounds as midwestern corporate leaders of a mid-century modern Republican mold evident in the fact that Wilson and Humphrey, as the leaders of General Motors and the M. A. Hanna steel company respectively, made peace with industrial union leaders, then at the postwar apogee of their power. Their nominations represented the esteem Eisenhower and many others had for the acumen of such corporate organization men, while the questions they faced from Senate Democrats in their confirmation hearings illustrated the lingering skepticism of big business leaders’ altruism less than a generation after the end of the Great Depression.

To allay such fears, Wilson, having been head of what was then the nation’s largest corporation and by far the more prominent of the duo, notoriously told senators, “for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa” (p. 50). Naturally, the press seized on the “and vice versa” portion, to Wilson’s lasting detriment. Al Capp, creator of the most prominent comic strip of the decade, “Li’l Abner,” introduced the character of General Bashington T. Bullmoose, a bumbling industrialist known for intoning “what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A.!”[1]

This gaffe proved a harbinger of Wilson’s performance as Defense secretary. Trying to tame the monstrous bureaucratic leviathan that is the post-1947 Pentagon while simultaneously battling the hydra-headed combination of rivalrous service chiefs, meddling congressional committee chairs, and grasping defense contractors has always been a Herculean task for any mere mortal. Doing so under the watchful eye of a former five-star general who desired both absolute control over national security policy and near-complete delegation of its implementation only added to the burden. Wilson proved nowhere near up to the task. Despite—or perhaps because of—his sterling corporate background, Wilson not only was unwilling to learn what he needed to know but also proved to be unable to realize what he did not know, displaying the trademark arrogance of an accomplished ignoramus, prompting the president to exclaim “Damn it, how did a man as shallow as Charlie Wilson ever get to be head of General Motors?” (p. 98).

After quickly dispensing with Wilson as an overmatched irrelevancy, Worthen spends the bulk of his book analyzing the interplay between Eisenhower and Humphrey. In a position that afforded him more unilateral power than Wilson, and in charge of a policy matter on which Eisenhower did not consider himself to be an expert, the new Treasury secretary quickly put on display both his confidence and acumen. It did not hurt that his interpersonal skills ingratiated him to the president, allowing Humphrey to become Eisenhower’s “only close friend among top administration officials” (p. 223). Still, this by no means made the president in thrall to all of Humphrey’s policy suggestions. Eisenhower believed in the strongest military the economy could comfortably bear, which he termed “security with solvency” (p. 100). Eisenhower demanded a balanced budget, which required both controlling expenditures and ensuring healthy tax revenues. On the former, Humphrey and the president were of one mind. On the latter, they often clashed.

As a businessman, Humphrey had made his peace with big labor. As a government official, he would not do likewise with big government. He wished to slash both spending and income tax rates, which for the upper brackets were at the time more than double what they are today. Worthen does very well to note that Humphrey anticipated the arguments of later Republican supply-siders, arguing that reducing taxes on high income earners was the best way to boost economic output. This establishes an overlooked 1950s link between the approaches of Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon in the 1920s and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

During Humphrey’s tenure from 1953 through 1957, the federal budget shrank by more than 10 percent, with a majority of the cuts absorbed by the Pentagon, which at that time consumed about two-thirds of federal spending, compared to only one-fifth today. This explains why Eisenhower’s refusal to significantly cut taxes did not elicit more of a backlash from Republicans who have long supported robust defense spending. Wilson was left to bear the brunt of the generals and admirals’ ire, as the army lost a quarter of its budget and the navy one-eighth, while the air force claimed nearly half of Pentagon expenditures as part of Eisenhower’s “New Look,” which leaned into US technological strengths in air power and ballistic missiles to asymmetrically counter the massive Soviet quantitative advantage in ground force capabilities.

Worthen’s narrative details illuminate the 1950s as an era of great consensus when the stakes of national politics were shockingly low compared to today. While today’s Congress negotiates the parameters of infrastructure spending in terms of trillions of dollars, the press viewed the size of the Defense Department’s eventual 1957 budget as a major political defeat for Eisenhower, because the Democratic-controlled Congress insisted on spending one billion dollars more than he had requested. That he makes these tales of mere tinkering so interesting speaks to the author’s abilities as a writer and historian.

Worthen largely sticks to the “hidden-hand” model of Eisenhower’s leadership style first formulated by Fred I. Greenstein (The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader [1982]), with the president firmly in control of the internal decision-making process, despite the outward appearance of disengaged delegation. His one divergence from this consensus is where I found my one area of mild disagreement. The author does well to emphasize the political importance of the oft-forgotten short-but-sharp 1958 recession, which had a lasting legacy for fiscal policy. Eisenhower and his party suffered significant damage from the president’s unwillingness to engage in Keynesian countercyclical spending increases and tax cuts to alleviate a spike in unemployment, as reflected in the party’s massive losses of congressional seats during that November’s midterm elections. This provided the healthy majorities that, augmented by the coattails of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, enabled the passing of landmark Great Society legislation in 1965, such as the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and massive increases in Social Security spending.

Though Humphrey was no longer Treasury secretary in 1957, Worthen blames his lingering influence for Eisenhower’s politically costly fiscal parsimony. Yet it is difficult to imagine Eisenhower acting any differently had Humphrey never served in his cabinet due to the nature of Eisenhower’s conservatism, which emphasized moralistic discipline and painful zero-sum trade-offs. His actions and rhetoric both before and during his administration evince a deeply held belief that short-term deficit spending only increased inflation in the long term, leading to negative economic outcomes. In his mind, spending one’s way out of a recession was akin to drinking one’s way out of a hangover. Humphrey had Eisenhower’s ear when Eisenhower approved of his advice (which was often) and when Humphrey was competent enough to enact the president’s wishes (which was always). When it came to the postwar Keynesian Revolution in American economic policy, Eisenhower did not need Humphrey to make him a Bourbon.

Note

[1]. David Haven Blake, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 258.

Citation: Jeff Crean. Review of Worthen, James, George Humphrey, Charles Wilson and Eisenhower's War on Spending. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56264

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