Sending in federal troops… Little Rock 1957

The threat by President Trump to send in federal troops to quell riots in US cities prompts me to prepare a reprint of a paper I did as a student when at the University of Pennsylvania.  I completed a research project on the decision by President Eisenhower to commit federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, to enforce a federal court order to integrate the Central High School in Little Rock.

The order was consequent to the holding of the US Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation was unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  Various southern states resisted desegregation, not least Arkansas under Governor Orval Faubus.  Faubus used the National Guard, ostensibly to maintain order at the central high school, but in practice to prevent desegregation taking place.  The district court ordered the removal of the troops.  This was followed by riots, a mob of one-thousand, ‘stirred up’ as Eisenhower later wrote, ‘by recent events and Governor Faubus’, attempting to storm the school to remove nine African-American pupils who had managed to slip in unseen.  Despite Eisenhower calling for the rioting to stop, the following day it was even more extensive.  The President, advised by his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, decided that action was necessary and issued Executive Order 10730.

The order federalised the National Guard.  (Eisenhower did not want to use the National Guard in order to prevent sending brother against brother.)  A thousand paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division were sent to enforce the district court’s order.  Faubus went on television and spoke of ‘the warm red blood of patriotic American citizens staining the cold, naked, unsheathed knives’ during the ‘military occupation’ of Arkansas.  (One demonstrator had been pricked slightly by a bayonet; another received a superficial scalp wound.)  The troops were able to ensure that desegregation went ahead.  They stayed for some months and were eventually withdrawn in May 1958.  Faubus then closed the schools, but the federal courts declared them reopened and after police had dispersed a mob of 250, African-American students were able to enter the school.

The purpose of my paper was to analyse Eisenhower’s decision in terms of the institution of the presidency and of the President.  It was an action that was seen as atypical of his presidency.  I employed different approaches to presidential power to explain the decision.  (Students will not be surprised to see the works of Neustadt, Barber and Hargrove cited.)  I concluded: ‘To understand the exercise of presidential power in committing troops to Little Rock, it is necessary to understand Eisenhower’s character.  When analysed in terms of the President’s character – his conservatism and his inbred sense of duty – then this otherwise seemingly atypical exercise of power becomes explicable and consistent with Eisenhower’s general conduct of the Presidency of the United States’.

The study was subsequently published, after my appointment to Hull, in a series of Hull Papers in Politics, published by the department.  That was before the days of word processors.  I will see if I can make it available electronically.

Making it available may have some contemporary relevance.  President Trump’s statement about sending in federal troops to enforce order appears, on the face of it, to be comparable to Eisenhower’s action.  However, once one analyses the differences in character between the two men and the decision-making process – the extent of reflection, experience and taking advice – it becomes an exercise in stark contrasts.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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3 Responses to Sending in federal troops… Little Rock 1957

  1. William MacDougall says:

    Aside from the difference in character, Eisenhower was enforcing Federal law, while Trump is talking about using Federal troops for domestic State law enforcement. That is contrary to the American federal system; riots now matter how serious are a State matter as long as the State is not acting contrary to Federal law and Federal court rulings.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Indeed, but it is not really aside from character, but rather dependent on it. What you have written is unlikely to have seen the light of day were it not for what Donald Trump has said and, although it cannot be proved (as only one person is President at any one time), it is plausible that had someone else been President they would not have made the same threat as Trump has made.

  2. It is however important to remember the period of military reconstruction in the Southern states after the Civil War. The interplay with political Reconstruction was very complicated. Further, the formation of the states has left a different political mark on various states. Thus States Rights has a unique quality among all federal forms everywhere.
    The National Guard is under the command of the Governor till it is Federalized. Then it is under Presidential authority. Many states have in history created a home guard when the National Guard or official militia were all Federalized or Nationalized. These troops stay under the Governor for the duration of the emergency. However, to deploy Federal troops which are not part of the National Guard is vastly more significant.
    It is a step of Constitutional weight

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