Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Ike’s Chance for Peace

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chance for Peace, April 16, 1953

Get Flash to see this player.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace Speech, which he delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  Although often remembered as a man of war, in his book, Ike’s Bluff, Evan Thomas argues that President Eisenhower feared the consequences of an all-out arms race with the Soviet Union, nuclear conflict and excessive spending on defense. He had, according to Thomas, an “overwhelming, single, fixed pre-occupation: the avoidance of war.”

In an attempt to take advantage of Joseph Stalin’s death, Ike delivered the “Chance for Peace” address on April 16, 1953 as a means to reach out to the new leadership in the Soviet Union and to propose disarmament. Couching the consequences of continued tense relations and rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in moral terms, President Eisenhower stated in the speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Nixon Supported Gun Control

Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon

Official White House photo of President Richard Nixon, 24 December 1971. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, PD.

As Congress debates passing new gun control measures, it’s worth looking back in recent history at the relationship between a Republican President and Democratic Congress on this issue. As taped conversations from our presidential recordings archives reveal, President Richard Nixon expressed private support for banning handguns altogether and publically proposed banning “Saturday night specials” in response to gun violence against politicians in 1972 and 1973. Yet, he deferred to Congress to hammer out a legislative deal, which never fully materialized.  

Taped conversations with aides on May 16, 1972, the day following an attempted assassination that paralyzed presidential candidate George Wallace, reveal Nixon’s personal position on hand guns:

I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house…The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth…can’t we go after handguns, period?

I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it. [But] people should not have handguns.

But, a few days later, Nixon expressed opposition to measures that would go beyond banning handguns. He asked rhetorically:

What do they want to do, just disarm the populace? Disarm the good folks and leave the arms in the hands of criminals?

In another taped conversation, Nixon told his assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, “We’ve got to be for gun control, John. I mean for hand gun control.” In response to a memo he was reading at the time, Nixon told Ehrlichman that state and local controls on guns have never worked and therefore it was a matter of federal concern. The conversation continues:

Nixon: We just ought to say that the bill is a matter for concern and we I feel we ought to outlaw them …

Ehrlichman: You can say you wholeheartedly support Congressional action on that front.

Friday Feature: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Ceases Riding the Tiger

Image copyright Elizabeth Shoumatoff (1945), all rights reserved.

On this day in 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt collapsed and died while sitting for a portrait in Warm Springs, GA. Harry Truman took the oath of office that same day. Seen here is the unfinished painting of FDR, done by Elizabeth Shoumatoff.

Despite his declining heath, Roosevelt's death came as a shock to the world--Churchill later described learning of FDR's death as comparable to having "been struck a physical blow."

Read more from the American President essay.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

This Day in History: LBJ Signs Fair Housing Act Into Law

Lyndon Baines Johnson, Remarks on Signing the Civil Rights Act, April 11, 1968

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed, or national origin. President Lyndon B. Johnson had failed to persuade Congress to pass a civil rights bill in 1966 with a fair housing provision. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and amidst the riots in the wake of his assassination, Congress passed civil rights legislation, which included Title VIII that banned discrimination in the sale and rental of 80 percent of housing. The bill also contained anti-riot provisions and protected persons exercising specific rights—such as attending school or serving on a jury—as well as it protected civil rights workers urging others to exercise these rights.  The bill included the Indian Bill of Rights, which extended constitutional protections to Native Americans not covered by the Bill of Rights.

Upon signing the bill into law, President Johnson delivered remarks to Congress and the nation on the progress made:

I shall never forget that it was more than 100 years ago when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—but it was a proclamation; it was not a fact.
In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we affirmed through law that men equal under God are also equal when they seek a job, when they go to get a meal in a restaurant, or when they seek lodging for the night in any State in the Union…
In the Civil Rights Act of 1965, we affirmed through law for every citizen in this land the most basic right of democracy—the right of a citizen to vote in an election in his country. In the five States where the Act had its greater impact, Negro voter registration has already more than doubled.
Now, with this bill, the voice of justice speaks again.
It proclaims that fair housing for all—all human beings who live in this country—is now a part of the American way of life.

The Iron Lady, Reagan and Bush

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David, 22 December 1984. White House Photo, PD.

This morning former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died from a stroke at the age of 87. Serving as the first female Prime Minister in the U.K., Thatcher won three general elections for the Conservative Party and shaped British politics for a generation. We culled through the archives of the Miller Center's Oral History Projects and present in this post key excerpts from the interviews in which former administration officials recollect the relationships between Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and “The Iron Lady.”

Presidential Recruitment of Former First Families for Diplomatic Posts

Last week, the media reported that President Barack Obama is likely to nominate Caroline Kennedy as the Ambassador to Japan. Kennedy was an early supporter of the Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and she served as a co-chairwoman of his 2012 re-election campaign. The appointment would continue a tradition since the 1970s of appointing well-known American political figures to the post, including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and former Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley. If confirmed by the Senate, Kennedy would also leave her own mark as the first woman to represent the United States in Japan.

Recruiting members of former first families to serve in diplomatic posts is nothing new. As a telephone conversation from the Miller Center’s presidential recording archives reveals, President Richard Nixon attempted to recruit two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons for ambassadorships in 1972. Although he didn’t recommend it because it was “probably a pain in the neck,” Nixon asked James and John Roosevelt whether they would like to undertake an ambassadorship:

But there are areas of the world where having somebody who has, frankly, prestige, so forth, could mean a great deal to us. And I have found in my own travels around that, while we have some good State Department bureaucrats who are ambassadors, that there are many places, and I think John agrees after his travels abroad, where having somebody who's directly responsible to the President and holds his allegiance to the President, as well as to the State Department, is very important. Now, I just throw that out as something to think about. What do you think?

Friday Feature: James K. Polk Riding a (Sickly) Tiger

James K. Polk, image is United States public domain.

An individual's personality and past experiences contribute in a significant way to their approach of public office. (And in the case of the presidency, it's a very public office.) For today's Friday Feature, here's an excerpt from the American President essay about James K. Polk.

The eldest of ten children, James K. Polk lived in a tidy and well-organized household supervised by a stern mother, Jane Knox Polk, who believed in raising her children according to the strict Presbyterian "gospel of duty." But he was not a healthy child. The trip west had taken its toll on him, and James suffered most of his youth from one sickness or another, especially gallstones. This, along with his staunch Calvinist upbringing and education in Presbyterian schools, accounts for James's determined and even unhealthy work ethic. He seemed to work and study as hard as possible to make up for his real or imagined physical defects.

Click through to read more from American President.

This Day in History: The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer, 18 January 1964. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. PD.

Today marks the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At 6:01 P.M. on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M. At 9:07 P.M. that same evening, President Johnson read a short statement for radio and television broadcast from outside the entrance to the West Lobby of the White House:

America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King. I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence. I pray that his family can find comfort in the memory of all he tried to do for the land he loved so well. I have just conveyed the sympathy of Mrs. Johnson and myself to his widow, Mrs. King. I know that every American of good will joins me in mourning the death of this outstanding leader and in praying for peace and understanding throughout this land. We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people. I hope that all Americans tonight will search their hearts as they ponder this most tragic incident. I have canceled my plans for the evening. I am postponing my trip to Hawaii until tomorrow. Thank you.

Reagan Administration Officials on How the Falklands War Affected America’s Reputation

Argentine prisoners of war - Port Stanley.

Argentine prisoners of war at Port Stanley, June 17, 1982. By Griffiths911. PD.

The Reagan administration played a key role shuttling between the parties leading up to and during the war. The Reagan administration played a key role shuttling between the parties leading up to and during the war.

This week marks the 31st anniversary of Falklands War. On April 2, 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland-Malvinas Islands, as part of a protracted historical dispute over the sovereignty of the islands. Argentina claims that the islands have been part of the country since the 19th century and Britain lays claim to islands based on colonial negotiations with Spain in 1770. The 74-day war cost 649 Argentine and 255 British lives.

The Reagan administration played a key role shuttling between the parties leading up to and during the war.  In 2003, the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program conducted the "Falklands Roundtable" in conjunction with the Institute of Contemporary British History (ICBH).  The Falklands Roundtable was designed to capture the recollections of key participants from the Reagan administration who were involved in the Falklands crisis. Participants included former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; David Gompert, a key member of Alexander Haig's mediation team who served as the Deputy to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs; Lawrence Eagleburger; Harry Shlaudeman, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina; Edward Streator, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Court of St. James; General Paul Gorman, who was Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Falklands crisis; Admiral Thomas Hayward, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1978-1982; and Admiral Harry Train, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command and the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

In this post, we highlight some excerpts from the "Falklands Roundtable" transcripts regarding the role of the United States in the conflict and how the conflict influenced America’s reputation in the region.

This Day in History: Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War on Germany

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, causing the United States to enter World War I. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress, PD.

Today’s guest post comes from Rebecca Lim, a Miller Center Student Ambassador and a second year student at the University of Virginia double majoring in East Asian Studies and Political and Social Thought.

On this day 96 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address to Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany. The request was approved, and four days later, on April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. The U.S. had remained neutral since the outbreak of the war in 1914, and American public opinion highly opposed entering the war. Just three years later, however, a series of events infuriated the American people and galvanized public opinion in the opposite direction: the revelation of the German empire’s decision to recommence unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, under which German submarines, called U-boats, could attack both military and non-military vessels without warning; and the interception of the infamous Zimmermann Telegram.

The Zimmermann Telegram, sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, in January 1917, was intercepted and decrypted by British intelligence and shared with President Wilson. In it, Zimmermann notified Eckhardt of the plans to resume submarine warfare, and the prediction that this action would pull the United States into the war on the side of the allies. Upon U.S. entry into the war, he instructed Eckhardt to propose a military alliance with Mexico in exchange for the return of formerly Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, they were to broker an alliance with the Japanese Empire.

Wilson understood that war could no longer be evaded. Still, he recognized the gravity of his decision and the effects the war would have on the nation and the world. In his appeal to Congress, Wilson mentioned not only Germany’s offenses, but also the implications of the country’s actions as “warfare against mankind” and “a war against all nations.” Wilson recognized a cause worth fighting for beyond national security—he saw it as America’s duty to not only protect its own borders, but to be the “single champion” of human rights, to which Germany posed a grave threat.

Fun Historical Tidbits About White House Easter Egg Rolling

Easter Egg Rolling at the White House in 1911.

Easter Egg Rolling at the White House in 1911. Photo by Harris & Ewing, courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

On Monday April 1, 2013, the First Family will host the 135th annual White House Easter Monday Egg Roll. The White House expects some 35,000 people to attend the event on the South Lawn (that’s still not as many as the more than 51,000 who attended in 1941). The event has become increasingly elaborate in modern times, incorporating celebrities, musical talent and more organized activities. This year, the event will also include more sports activities and cooking demonstrations related to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Here are some fun tidbits from our archives about the history of the Easter Monday Egg Roll.

Friday Feature: Benjamin Harrison Riding a [Goat]

Pictured: Benjamin Harrison’s son, Russell Harrison, with his children and their supposedly-ornery goat, “Old Whiskers.”

Did you know? Although stiff and formal with acquaintances, Benjamin Harrison opened up with his family. During his one term as President, he spent as little time as possible in the office, usually working only until noon. He loved to play with his grandchildren, many of whom had moved into the White House with their parents—Russell Benjamin Harrison, age thirty-six in 1890, and Mary Scott McKee, age thirty-two.

Perhaps most interestingly, the children were allowed to keep as many pets on the grounds as they wanted, including a goat whom they named Old Whiskers. One memorable story told of Harrison chasing the goat down Pennsylvania Avenue with his three grandchildren in tow and top hat in hand while waving his cane. Harrison also tried to escape Washington as often as possible, frequently going on hunting trips in secret. One trip made the national press when he shot a farmer's pig by mistake.

Read more in the Miller Center’s Benjamin Harrison essay.

This Week in History: Reagan Targeted in Assassination Attempt

Photograph of President Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shot in an assassination attempt

Photograph of President Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shot in an assassination attempt, Washington Hilton Hotel, March 30, 1981. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

On March 30, 1981, barely two months into his presidency, President Ronald Reagan was the target of an assassination attempt, which left him and three others seriously wounded. Press Secretary James Brady suffered a gunshot wound to the head that would leave him permanently injured, while Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the chest and Washington, DC police officer Thomas Delahanty was hit near the spine. As Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery, administration aides downplayed the severity of the injuries. However, inside the operating room, the situation was anything but humorous as Reagan lost nearly half his blood supply and had to endure hours of surgery to remove a bullet lodged less than an inch from his heart.

The Reagan Oral History Project examined this event with each participant that was in the administration at the time of the shooting. Read on for excerpts of these officials' reactions to the assassination attempt and how each responded to the early phase of the crisis.

Calvin Coolidge: That Vision Thing

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge by Charles Syndey Hopinknson, 1932. PD.

Amity Shlaes new book, Coolidge, has proven that it is vital to examine all the presidents, even the obscure, to fully appreciate historical developments we see today.  Shlaes asks why such a popular president in his own time became largely forgotten.  She argues two main points: his personality was not a big one, especially compared to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, and Coolidge’s presidency focused on economics, mainly reducing the federal debt after World War One.  There are other factors, as well.  Coolidge’s reputation got trashed when the Warren Harding administration faced many scandals and people blamed both Coolidge and Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression.  People wanted to forget that past. In his book, Calvin Coolidge, David Greenberg adds another important element to this discussion: Coolidge did not have much of a vision for his presidency.  Robert Sobel, in his 1998 book, Coolidge: An American Enigma, also argues that the popular perception of Coolidge is as an accidental president, someone who had no agenda. Coolidge was buried under a new active presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt and was fully realized by his cousin Franklin. 

Sobel writes that Coolidge believed in a “passive executive branch” (pp. 14).  For Shlaes, “Coolidge is our great refrainer” (pp. 9).  For modern readers, this is hard to comprehend, a president who does not act or waits to act.  This usually means trouble for a modern president. 

Shlaes correctly draws our attention to the fact that Coolidge did do something. Coolidge wanted to balance the books.  He represented fiscal discipline in an environment where people around him, mainly members of Congress and Hoover, wanted to spend federal dollars.  Yes, you read correctly, Herbert Hoover.  Near the end of his term, Coolidge did not favor Hoover, because he worried that Hoover would ruin his budget legacy by spending money on the Colorado River dam project, among others.  By the time Coolidge left office in 1929, he had managed to cut over $10 billion of debt in eight years.  To do this, he had daily meetings with his budget director, Herbert Lord, held the line against Congressional spending, and spent a large amount of political capital on tax reductions with the help of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

Rethinking the Triangle: Washington-Beijing-Taipei

This week, the Miller Center will host an international workshop on "Rethinking the Triangle: Washington-Beijing-Taipei.” The workshop is an attempt to bring the three sides of the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle together to discuss the possibility of moving from the Cold War model of an exclusive security triangle to a more realistic inclusive, opportunity-driven triangle. Public sessions on Thursday, March 28 will feature three perspectives from experts from China, Taiwan, and the United States in an attempt to explore a new paradigm for these interrelationships based on inclusiveness and opportunity rather than each hedging against increasingly unlikely crises.

Brantly Womack, the Miller Center’s C. K. Yen Chair, Professor of Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and the workshop’s organizer, recently published an article in the Asia Times Online explaining the need to rethink the relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States. Although the Cold War defined the relationship between the three states for several decades, since 2008, the relationships have become fundamentally unstable and more complex. According to Womack:

The rivalry in the relationship between Washington and Beijing has become more global but also more cautious since each needs the other in many facets of global governance.

Meanwhile, the relationship across the Taiwan Strait has become a mainstay of Taiwan's economic prospects, and avoiding crisis is now vital to the careers of the leadership on both sides. The Washington-Taiwan relationship was strained by the brinksmanship of Chen Shui-bian, president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, and currently doubts are raised about continuing arms sales.

Meanwhile, China has developed the military capacity to render American military assistance to Taiwan either ineffective or too costly. Thus many American analysts consider "the Taiwan problem" the greatest strategic flashpoint in Asia.

Womack argues that the relationships between the states have been too focused on the security aspect and should instead shift to creating new opportunities. Womack asserts that the United States can take concrete steps to facility the transition from a security triangle to an opportunity triangle.