By David A. Nichols, Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y., 336 pages, $27

In September 1957, the governor of Arkansas ordered his National Guard to physically prevent eight African-American high school students from attending Little Rock high school. Rather than obey a district court order to stop such restraints, the governor disbanded the National Guard and abandoned the state, leaving the students to an angry mob of over 1,500 people.

After a three-hour riot, local police were forced to remove the students for their own protection. The Southern Governors’ Conference issued a resolution supporting the Arkansas governor’s open defiance of federal court orders.

Barely 50 years later, in November 2008, an African-American has been elected president of the United States, with greater support from white voters than any recent nominee from his own party.

America has moved a long way, in a comparatively short time, toward its goal of a color-blind society. Much credit is no doubt due to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places and employment.

But as demonstrated in David Nichols’ “A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution,” the ’64 Act would not have been possible without the ground-breaking efforts of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his energetic attorney general, New York lawyer Herbert Brownell Jr.

The received wisdom is that Eisenhower’s administration was largely passive in the civil rights arena and, even worse, that Eisenhower himself was borderline racist. As Nichols convincingly demonstrates, this received wisdom is patently false.

Eisenhower took office in January 1953, and his administration immediately, albeit quietly, started implementing his campaign promise “to eliminate discrimination of black citizens in every area under the federal government” and continued to do so for the entire eight-year run of Eisenhower’s presidency.

Ike eliminated all segregation in the armed forces, in federal bathroom facilities and shipyards, and in schools on military bases. He appointed the first black cabinet minister, J. Ernest Wilkins. He passed two important civil rights acts in 1957 and 1960. (Hoover condemned the 1957 act as communist, and a southern governor called it “more tyrannical” than anything done by Stalin). He sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the district court’s orders and declared that he would use “the full power of the United States including whatever force may be necessary to prevent any obstruction of the law and to carry out the orders of the Federal Court.” His justice department intervened in favor of civil rights plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in his most pronounced and lasting contribution to the elimination of racial intolerance, he appointed integration-friendly judges to the federal courts – Warren, Harlan, Brennan and Powell to the Supreme Court, and a cadre of courageous judges to the district courts, including Elbert Parr Tuttle, John Brown, John Minor Wisdom, and Frank M. Johnson Jr.

Eisenhower’s appointment of pro-integration judges was deliberate. Many were recess appointments, to avoid the opposition of Southern segregationists. The choice of Harlan, the grandson of the sole dissenter in the noxious Plessy case, appointed while Brown II was pending, was a deeply symbolic statement of the administration’s commitment to integration.

Similarly false is the charge that Eisenhower was personally racist, a charge which found ammunition in Eisenhower’s falling-out with Earl Warren. Eisenhower has been quoted as saying that his appointment of Warren was “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.” (The quote is apocryphal, although similar enough to things Eisenhower actually said). His disagreement, however, was with Warren’s criminal law decisions. Eisenhower “agreed with [ Brown] absolutely” and his administration actively, if silently, worked to implement the decision.

Rather more problematically, Warren accused Eisenhower of trying to influence his decision in Brown at a cocktail party, by asserting that Southerners were “not bad people” but only wanted to prevent their sweet little girls from being required to sit in school alongside “big overgrown Negroes.” Warren is the only source for this story.

Even if the quotes are accurate, Eisenhower’s record of action, both at the personal and presidential levels, is more persuasive than cocktail party chatter, no matter how offensive it might ring to modern ears. Throughout his life, Eisenhower acted against the petty bigotries of his peers in small ways as well as large. As a youth, he convinced his football team not to boycott a game against an integrated team. As commander in World War II, he insisted upon the scrupulous enforcement of equal opportunities. As president, he refused to attend segregated theaters and desegregated the Easter egg roll.

The biggest knock against Eisenhower’s civil rights record is that he did not truly support the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown. This, too, is incorrect. It is true that Eisenhower did not trumpet the correctness of the opinion; he responded simply that, “The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to obey the constitutional process in this country; and I will obey.” But he said nothing to undermine the court’s authority, and did not delegitimize the decision, as is now routine, by labeling it “judicial activism.” And, when push came to shove, he sent armed federal troops into a sovereign state and vowed to do whatever was necessary to ensure that court orders were not violated. “The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms,” he declared, “rests upon the certainty that the president and Executive Branch of government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the federal courts.”

So why has Eisenhower not received the credit he is due?

One reason is that the political terrain took a 180-degree turn, as far as civil rights were concerned: the Democratic party, which had ironically watered down Eisenhower’s civil rights initiatives, embraced civil rights, at the price of losing the entire South. The Republican party, which had laid the ground for Johnson’s civil rights triumph in 1964, embraced the segregationists, and gained both the South and the White House for most of the next two generations.

A more nuanced reason is the nature of the man himself: As a manager, Eisenhower maintained his distance. He delegated. He sought to retain flexibility as long as possible. He didn’t claim credit or confront critics. His response to personal attacks was “don’t see, don’t feel, don’t admit, and don’t answer.” He was reluctant to associate himself personally with difficult policy decisions. He disdained symbolic acts and preferred action to rhetoric. In short, the very qualities that made Eisenhower great – and he was indisputably one of the great persons of the last century – worked against his historical reputation.

Phil Schatz is a member of Wrobel & Schatz.