The first public photograph of President Eisenhower following his intestinal surgery at Walter Reed Medical Center, June 27, 1956. Photo Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

By David Kurlander

President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 sent shockwaves through his re-election campaign and raised questions about the presidential line of succession, the ethics of medical press conferences, and Trump’s chances for reelection. Journalists are searching for precedent, citing Woodrow Wilson’s battle with the 1918 flu, Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s panicked declaration that he was in control following the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan, and FDR’s deteriorating condition during his final year in office. In terms of pure election year tension, however, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 intestinal surgery may be the closest analogue of presidential illness to Trump’s Walter Reed misadventure…

By the time that President Eisenhower began putting together his reelection campaign in May 1956, the 65-year-old leader had gone through his fair share of health crises. Shortly after his inauguration in 1953, he almost fainted during a speech; the incident was dubbed food poisoning, but may have been a cardiac episode. And in June 1955, Eisenhower had weathered “the big one,” a massive heart attack that left him in a Denver hospital for six weeks. Death was very much on Eisenhower’s mind. In February 1956, as he pondered whether his body could withstand another four years in the Oval Office, he wrote on White House stationary, “As I embark on the last of life’s adventures, my thoughts will be for those I’ve loved, family, friends and country.” He decided to continue on after receiving a clean bill of health at Walter Reed Medical Center… 

Three months later, however, on the night of June 7th, 1956, Eisenhower complained to his wife Mamie of severe stomach pain. By the next morning, he was vomiting and bedridden. His physician, Howard Snyder, orchestrated an ambulance to transport Eisenhower to Walter Reed. Once Eisenhower arrived at the hospital, doctors quickly identified that he was suffering from ileitis, a blockage of the lower intestine. The doctors knew that Eisenhower needed emergency bypass surgery to move his intestinal tract around the block, but—according to Snyder—“everyone hesitated to put a knife in his abdomen.” Despite the surgical hesitations, the two-hour operation was a success, wrapping up just after 2 A.M. on June 9th. 

As with today, Eisenhower’s medical crisis led to a politicized media blitz. James M. Hagerty, the White House press secretary, was the point-person for the response effort. “Iron Man Hagerty,” a no-nonsense former New York Times reporter, organized a press conference with Eisenhower’s surgeon, Major General James M. Heaton, who reassured the press that the President could safely run for re-election. Heaton even drew a lower intestine on a chalkboard to demonstrate the simplicity of the bypass.

Paul Butler, the notoriously fiery Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a loyalist for eventual Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, held an angry press conference at the Chicago Hilton four days after Eisenhower’s surgery. Butler argued that Hagerty had “propagandized” Eisenhower’s condition. He also laid blame at the feet of the Walter Reed doctors, who he argued had created a “new science of politico-medicine” and that the physicians had “done a terrific job of trying to convince the American people that a man who had a heart attack and then was afflicted with Crohn’s Disease is a better man physically.”  Butler was particularly irked that the medical team had dubbed Eisenhower’s condition “regional ileitis,” obscuring its more famous name, Crohn’s Disease, which he used liberally throughout the presser. 

Eisenhower recovered at Walter Reed for three whole weeks. During his convalescence, he battled both a wound infection and a deep depression, recalling to a friend, “I not only mistrusted the doctors’ prognosis, but I doubted seriously that I would ever feel like myself again.” He was especially anguished by the doctors’ admittance that they had held back evidence of abnormality in his intestinal track during his monthly checkup in May, not wanting to cause him “undue anxiety.” Eisenhower kept these personal frustrations and pains about the operation private during his lifetime. His eventual discharge was a media event, with cameras and 200 cheering spectators across the street. Eisenhower teared up at the send-off and headed off to his Gettysburg Farm, where he spent two more weeks getting up to full strength. 

The President returned in mid-July to a frenetic White House. He traveled to Panama City shortly thereafter for a taxing meeting with Central and South American leaders. He accepted the Republican nomination in August. And right before his triumphant re-election, he played a crucial role in de-escalating the Suez Crisis, a complicated quasi-War between Egypt, Israel, France, and Britain sparked by pan-Arabist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. Ironically, the Suez situation had actually been spurred in part by the surgery: During the time that Eisenhower was mostly sidelined at Walter Reed, his comparatively mercurial Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, moved to abandon an American agreement to subsidize Nasser’s construction of the Aswan High Dam—an act which influenced Nasser’s closing of the Canal.

The Suez Crisis was not the only fiasco that Eisenhower had to clean up after his surgery. After his heart attack a year earlier, Eisenhower had already instructed his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, to produce a proposed amendment to fix the Constitutionally-vague protocols for delegating presidential duties in times of temporary illness. The Brownell Amendment arrived shortly after Eisenhower’s re-election and gave the Vice President additional powers to serve if the President determined he was not up to the job, as well as the ability to determine—along with the Cabinet—when the President was unable to perform. The Amendment died in the Lyndon Johnson-controlled Democratic Senate, which was wary of putting any further momentum behind Vice President Nixon’s political rise. A concerned Eisenhower ultimately wrote Nixon a letter guaranteeing many of the same powers. Both Kennedy and Johnson ended up writing similar letters, and Eisenhower’s fix became the standard until the 25th Amendment was finally ratified in 1967.

Eisenhower’s intestinal surgery, an event largely forgotten by the American general public, had a significant impact on American political gamesmanship, foreign policy, and constitutional law. In addition to their potential for lasting influence, moments of presidential peril are profoundly trying times; the intestinal surgery and its aftermath pushed even the shockingly disciplined Eisenhower to the brink. If history is the judge, the stakes of President Trump’s rhetoric as he returns to the White House could not be much higher…

For more on Eisenhower’s profoundly exacting 1956, read David A. Nichols’ Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War. And to learn more about Eisenhower’s health crises, check out Robert E. Gilbert’s fascinating article, “The impact of presidential illness on the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

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