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May 9, 2012
TORONTO, ON, May. 9, 2012/ Troy Media/ – There was a time when it was fashionable to think of history in terms of the influence of great men. The 19th century Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle was clear on this, noting that ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’
It’s a view that no longer prevails. Still, individuals can make a significant impact in specific situations. So let’s ask a question: What, if anything, would have been different had Dwight Eisenhower gone ahead with his plan to divorce his wife and marry Kay Summersby?
Kay 18 years younger than Eisenhower
First, a little background. Kay Summersby was Anglo-Irish, having been born Kathleen McCarthy-Morrogh in County Cork in 1908. This made her 18 years younger than Eisenhower. In May 1942, she was assigned as his driver in England, later graduating to the role of secretary, companion, confidante, and perhaps much more.
While it’s unclear whether the relationship was consummated (in the strict sexual sense of the term), there’s little doubt but that the two had a very close personal attachment. Indeed, academic biographer Jean Edward Smith gives credence to the story that, in 1945, Eisenhower wrote to his Washington superior General Marshall concerning his intention to divorce his wife and marry Kay. In response, Marshall let him know that this would be a career limiting move.
Given the prevailing values, Eisenhower’s image as the All-American war hero would certainly have been tarnished. And absent that special status, it’s difficult to see how he could have been elected president. In fact, he wouldn’t even have been the 1952 Republican candidate.
That nomination contest was a close run thing. Heading into the July Chicago convention, Eisenhower and Senator Robert Taft of Ohio were virtually tied in the delegate count. Stir in the damage that would have inevitably accrued from a very public divorce, and Taft would have carried the day.
And if the damage had prevented Eisenhower from running in the first place, the very conservative Taft – known as Mr. Republican – would have had little by way of serious competition. After losing three consecutive elections with candidates from the north-eastern moderate wing, the base of the Republican party would have wished to follow its heart.
Of course, Taft might not have won the subsequent general election. But if he had, what kind of president would he have been?
Domestically, there’d have been some differences from Eisenhower. For instance, Taft might not have been as enthusiastic on issues like building the St. Lawrence Seaway or the interstate highway system.
However, the most important break would have come on foreign policy. Taft, you see, was an old fashioned isolationist.
Prior to Pearl Harbour and the consequent entry into World War II, isolationism was a powerful mindset. With a largely self-sufficient America seeing itself as protected by two broad oceans, foreign quarrels that took place thousands of miles away were of little consequence and less concern.
The war changed things. Internationalism became the new orthodoxy, and America took the lead role. And Taft strongly dissented.
He was skeptical of NATO, opposed to the idea of keeping American troops in Europe, generally in favour of a policy of non-intervention, and ready to balance the budget by cutting defense. Undoubtedly, two terms of a Taft administration would have left America’s relationship with the world quite different from what it was when Eisenhower finally departed the White House in January 1961.
But there’s a complication. Even if he’d been elected, there wouldn’t have been much of a Taft administration. With little by way of advance warning, he died of stomach cancer on July 31, 1953. He would have been president for little more than six months.
So it would all have come down to who Taft selected as his vice-presidential running mate. If he’d opted for a ticket-balancing strategy and gone with a moderate internationalist, then overall policy direction wouldn’t have been significantly different from the course charted by Eisenhower. But if he’d chosen someone whose convictions matched his own, it would have been quite another matter.
Perhaps what we’re left with is this. By placing his ambition over his affection for Kay Summersby, Eisenhower might have prevented the election of Robert Taft, thereby dramatically impacting the trajectory of post-war American foreign policy.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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