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The President and the Apprentice

Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961


Irwin F. Gellman


New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Hardcover. xviii+ 791 p. 16 p. of plates. ISBN 978-0300181050. $40


Reviewed by Françoise Coste

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès




Irwin F. Gellman’s book fills a historical vacuum by detailing the relationship between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard Nixon between 1952 and 1961. Gellman’s research is remarkable, based as it is on extensive archival research in several presidential libraries (Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s libraries of course, but also Johnson’s and Kennedy’s). Gellman also used the papers of many key figures of the period, like John Foster Dulles, Adlai Stevenson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Robert Taft. One must also stress the interviews conducted with a few surviving Nixon aides, like General Donald Hughes or Herbert Klein. This research led to a long book (34 chapters) which is animated by a thesis the author obviously feels passionate about, given how stern his tone is when denouncing the “conventional understanding,” the “impressionist accounts” [xi] and the “incorrect information” [9] other historians rely upon when writing about Eisenhower and Nixon: Gellman rejects the traditional view according to which Eisenhower disliked Nixon; instead, he intends to prove in this book that the relations between the two men were very good and that Eisenhower let Nixon become a very powerful vice-president. The book consequently presents Eisenhower as “a mentor” [89], an educator, and Nixon as his “eager to follow” student [12].

To demonstrate this point about what he calls “the beauty of their relationship” [569], Gellman revisits the main episodes of the Eisenhower presidency in very detailed chapters (though one may regret that they are not always very logically linked): the reasons explaining Nixon’s selection as vice-presidential candidate in 1952; the famous Checkers Speech (illuminated here by one of the most fascinating documents Gellman found, the handwritten notes taken by Eisenhower during Nixon’s television speech—reproduced in the appendix [571-576]); the fall of Joseph McCarthy; the Brown decision; the issue of Eisenhower’s cardiac health; Nixon’s re-nomination to the Republican ticket in 1956 which allowed him to be the first vice-president to serve for two terms since 1836; or the anti-Nixon riots in Lima and Caracas in 1958… Gellman particularly insists on the international dimension of the Eisenhower-Nixon relationship: Eisenhower tasked Nixon with many trips abroad, particularly after his health began to decline, and these missions were, in Gellman’s assessment, quite successful. They gave the young vice-president credibility on the world stage and they helped him grow as a political leader (he thus became an “expert”, says Gellman [231]), which convinced Eisenhower to give him more and more responsibilities, including domestically.

The reader may regret that the editing of the book appears shoddy at times, because of the repetitions of nearly-identical sentences in different passages of the book (two examples among many: “For nearly a month, Nixon wrote in his diary, Eisenhower had been unable to make ‘a great decision. He had advanced to the point that he can be consulted and not make great decisions.’” [270] and: “Nixon concluded that for two weeks afterwards, Ike could not make ‘a great decision.’ He added on October 10: ‘The President in condition has advanced to the point that he can be consulted and not make great decisions.’” [292]; or: “Ill health prevented John from attending Ike’s funeral in 1969, but he was named an honorary pallbearer.” [130] and: “When the president died at the end of March 1969, John Moaney, though too sick to attend the funeral, was named an honorary pallbearer.” [424]).

More problematic is the general tone of the book. Gellman’s thesis is admittedly original, interesting, and largely supported by the facts he has uncovered. Still, the author sometimes finds it difficult to conceal the great sympathy he feels for his two subjects, especially Nixon. A certain dose of subjectivity on such a topic may be inevitable, but it leads Gellman to some historiographically unexpected positions. One may think of the way Gellman tends to minimize the corruption scandal which led to the Checkers Speech [chapter 2]. In the several passages devoted to civil rights, Gellman also seems, at times, to go too far in his reinterpretation of history. Because of his pro-Nixon bent, he is probably excessively negative when writing about Harry Truman [chapters 7, 8, 25 and 26] and he tries too hard to prove that Eisenhower and Nixon were deeply outraged by racism—the only elements he uses to defend this thesis rely mostly on personal anecdotes, not political facts, particularly in the passages about Brown or the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (for which Gellman thinks then-Senator Lyndon Johnson gets too much credit, and whose “weaknesses” have been “too much emphasi[zed]” by historians).

Overall, The President and the Apprentice : Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 is a very complete book and its most valuable aspect lies in the rich and complex analysis it presents on the vice-presidency, its function, and its powers. It shows how much the institution as we know it today was actually shaped by the Nixon-Eisenhower years. Thus, the fact that, despite the opposition of leading republicans like Harold Stassen, Eisenhower chose to keep Nixon on his ticket in 1956 has strongly influenced political history, as all incumbent presidents have since then followed this example. And the powers that Eisenhower progressively delegated to Nixon are a foreshadowing of the very influential vice-presidents the United States was to know in the following decades.



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