Surveying the Eisenhower presidency, Jean Edward Smith (cf. link, link, link) writes with obvious fascination about one of its most inglorious moments: the occasion in 1960 when the Soviets brought down an American spy plane over Sverdlovsk, bringing the pilot home alive. As Smith shows, Ike and Khrushchev had been moving delicately towards closer cooperation but the U2 episode hurled the improving relationship off track. Smith recounts how the administration tried at first to defang the incident but that Ike finally chose to face up to the fact that they had been caught red-handed. Smith:
The president telephoned Secretary [of State Christian] Herter and instructed him to issue a new statement acknowledging that for the past four years, U2s had regularly been sent into the Soviet Union under orders from the President. [Emphasis added]....Focus on that "personal responsibility" stuff.
Milton Eisenhower....told his brother that he must not take the rap for the U2. Ike disagreed. He said he would not blame subordinates for his decisions. It would be a glaring and permanent injustice. John [Eisenhower, Ike's son] suggested that his father fire Alan Dulles; again, Ike said no. "I am not going to shift the blame to my underlings."Smith is impressed.
Eisenhower's decision to accept personal responsibility for the U2 flights may have been the finest hour. of his presidency. Rather than force Alan Dulles and Richard Bissell to walk the plank for reasons of state, Eisenhower acknowledged his own culpability. FDR would not have not have done so. Ronald Reagan was shielded from Iran contra.But then:
In Eisenhower's case the President, by taking direct responsibility, doomed the Paris summit, scuttled an impending nuclear test ban treaty blew the chance to reduce defense expenditures and forfeited the possibility of progress on the German question. "I had longed to give the United States and the world a lasting peace, Eisenhower said later. I was able only to contribute to a stalemate." His sense of decency and personal sense of responsibility had carried the day. ... Cynics would argue that such sentiment is out of pace in the oval office but it was not out of place for Eisenhower. Ike knew the difference between right and wrong. and tried to apply that knowledge to politics and diplomacy. That is why the country always trusted him.The reader is invited to consider whether the "cynics" were right; whether, to put it differently, this outburst of moral purity was an adolescent indulgence on his part; that he would have served the country better by throwing Dulles and Bissell under the bus and (perhaps more important) that they expected nothing less when they signed up for the job.