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PolitiFact: Doris Kearns Goodwin incorrect on combat deaths in Eisenhower's administration

The statement

During the Eisenhower Administration, "not a single soldier … died in combat."

Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian, on NBC's Meet the Press

The ruling

We knew that Goodwin's claim had problems when we checked the starting and ending dates of the Korean War. It was an active conflict through the signing of a truce on July 26, 1953. Since Eisenhower was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1953, he served as commander-in-chief for the final six months of the war. His presidency ended Jan. 20, 1961.

How many casualties were there during those six months? We didn't find any official government data separated by year, but the Korean War Project has a website that offers day-by-day casualty figures. We looked at the first six months of Eisenhower's presidency and found 3,406 casualties.

Casualties, however, include noncombat deaths and nonmortal wounds, so we took casualty ratios for the entire Korean War and determined that combat deaths accounted for 24 percent of casualties. Multiplying this percentage by the number of casualties produces roughly 800 combat deaths during Eisenhower's six months in charge. (The total for the war was almost 34,000.)

The figure we came up with isn't exact, but it seems combat deaths during that period numbered in the hundreds.

In addition, Eisenhower was president during the start of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, the names of the fallen begin with Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., with a casualty date of June 8, 1956. The first battlefield fatality came in late 1961, in the Kennedy administration.

Eisenhower also presided over some small-scale military deployments in or near Taiwan, Lebanon and Cuba, and he was president during the Suez crisis of 1956. But we were unable to confirm any casualties for these events. Meanwhile, a lower-profile source of U.S. casualties stemmed from covert operations related to the Cold War.

When we contacted Goodwin, she acknowledged her error.

"What I was reaching for when I talked was a more general point — which is accurate — that the general who had overseen major battles in a time of war was basically a man of peace during his presidency, thus fitting the idea that Americans love men of peace who can also kill," Goodwin said. "That would have been a better way of putting it!"

We agree Goodwin's broader point is reasonable. Still, she made a pretty clear-cut mistake. We rate her statement False.

Louis Jacobson, Times staff writer

Edited for print. For more rulings, go to PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Doris Kearns Goodwin incorrect on combat deaths in Eisenhower's administration 05/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 9:16pm]
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