Americans Certainly Liked Ike. As For His Coin, That’s Complicated…

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

As we’ve seen, politicians from silver-producing states have, historically, had an outsized amount of influence when it came to dictating coinage policy in the United States.

In the 1960s, though, opponents of silver coinage struck back.

Appropriately enough, the battle between these forces took place over how to honor one of the greatest military and political leaders in American history.

One of the best paths to the White House is through the armed services. Of our 46 Presidents, 31 have served in the military, with 12 rising to the rank of general (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Dwight D. Eisenhower — although some of these were in state militias during the Civil War).

Other well-known military figures have been nominated by major parties to run for president, including Winfield Scott, Lewis Cass, John C. Frémont, George McClellan, Winfield Scott Hancock, John Kerry and John McCain. Additionally, Generals Douglas MacArthur and Colin Powell flirted with White House runs, Wesley Clark waged an unsuccessful campaign in 2004 and Norman Schwarzkopf and David Petraeus were recruited but declined.

It’s not hard to see why American voters respond so well to military leaders. To be a great one, you have to be bold, decisive, intelligent, capable and charismatic. And perhaps no one on that above list had the kind of track record of success and personal charm that Eisenhower had.

With his genial nature, magnetic smile, and a military resume that ranked alongside Washington’s and Grant’s, Ike was seen as the perfect Presidential candidate by both the Democratic and Republican parties. Despite (or maybe because of) a lack of knowledge of his politics and ideology, both parties courted him to run in 1948. Incumbent president Harry Truman even offered to step aside if that’s what it took for Eisenhower to run as a Democrat.

Ike declined, but four years later, he decided to take the plunge, winning the Republican nomination after a contentious Convention battle with Ohio Senator Robert Taft. His campaign slogan, “I Like Ike” wasn’t just straightforward, it was true. Eisenhower’s personal popularity and prestige did, in fact, make him the perfect Presidential candidate and, during a time when Democrats had a huge Electoral College advantage, Eisenhower won easily in both 1952 and 1956, becoming the only Republican to win the White House from 1932 to 1964.

1974-D Eisenhower Dollar. (Image via me)

After Eisenhower’s death in March 1969, there was a drumbeat of support to memorialize him by putting him on American coinage. There were some proposals to have Eisenhower replace Washington on the quarter, but there wasn’t much support for that. Instead, the consensus was to mint new one dollar coins bearing Ike’s likeness.

Perhaps the most important supporter of honoring Eisenhower was his former Vice President and the person whose Presidential inauguration had taken place two months before Ike’s death: Richard Nixon.

[O]ne section in which I have a particular interest would authorize the Treasury to coin and issue cupro-nickel one dollar coins. As you know, if this authority is granted, it is our intention that the new coin bear a portrait of President Dwight David Eisenhower. The birthday of President Eisenhower is October 14, and various events are being planned to honor this very great American. I think it would be most fitting if congressional action could be completed in time to include an announcement of the new coin in the events of the day.

President Nixon wrote to the House Committee on Banking and Currency in September 1969.

Nixon’s reference to “cupro-nickel” foreshadowed the battle ahead. Politicians from silver-producing states were outraged at the notion that silver dollars might actually be comprised of base metals.

While I have no quarrel as to the design of this new coin, I think it is very important that it contain silver content of approximately 40 percent. I recognize that old silver dollar cannot be reproduced in large quantities, but I would not like to see a complete abandonment of the silver content. In the eyes of my constituents, nothing could be worse than a large round coin made of a variety of alloys. People of the West do not want a phony dollar. They want with a proper amount of silver.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), October 2, 1969

For Mansfield, the fight over the composition of the Eisenhower dollar was a continuation of the one he had first waged in 1964. As part of an annual appropriations bill, Mansfield had pushed for a provision authorizing the striking of 45,000,000 new silver dollars starting in 1964.

1977-S Eisenhower Dollar (Proof). (Image via me)

The Mint was reluctant for several reasons. The price of silver had risen leading to widespread hoarding — especially of the 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar, which had been released in tribute to the recently assassinated President. The overwhelming demand for that coin had led to depletion of the country’s silver supply, spurring anti-silver politicians to act.

Additionally, silver dollars had never circulated well and the original dies for the Morgan and Peace Dollars had been either destroyed or were in poor condition. But Mansfield insisted and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mansfield’s friend and predecessor as Majority Leader, decided to support his former protege and directed his Treasury Secretary to do it.

As such, we got the famous 1964-D Peace Dollar. In 1965, the Mint struck over 300,000 coins and prepared to release them when dealers started lining up to buy them, vindicating critics who had argued the coin would not circulate. Amid a growing backlash, Congress hastily called Treasury officials in for a hearing and Mint Director Eva Adams claimed the Peace dollars were trial strikes and would be melted down.

Later that year, the Coinage Act of 1965 seemingly put an end to silver power as the ongoing coin shortage and high price of silver meant that quarters and dimes would now be made of a copper-nickel alloy and half dollars would see their silver content go from 90 to 40 percent. Additionally, the act stated that no silver dollar could be produced until at least 1970.

The Act easily passed both houses of Congress with only token opposition from some Western politicians. The bill put Mansfield, the Majority Leader, in a difficult position since the Johnson Administration had supported it. Ultimately, he chose to abstain from the final roll call vote and then, being a good soldier, attended the signing ceremony at the White House.

The Eisenhower dollar was his chance to get silver back into the equation. Some other Senators backed him up, including James McClure of Idaho, who would go onto greater fame as the father of the Silver Eagle program. “It is somehow beneath the dignity of a great president like General Eisenhower to withhold silver from the coin,” McClure stated.

In the end, Eisenhower’s widow may have helped forge a compromise. Mamie Eisenhower wrote a letter talking about how much her late husband had enjoyed giving out silver dollars minted during the year of his birth as gifts. Additionally, the proposed Eisenhower dollar would honor the Apollo 11 moon landing on the reverse— a point of personal pride for many in the country and an appropriate tribute to Ike since NASA was created during his administration.

Ultimately, the Senate came to a compromise: circulating Ike dollars would be made of the cupro-nickel alloy but proof and uncirculated coins would be made of 40% silver.

That wasn’t good enough for Wright Patman. The powerful Texas Democrat chaired the House Banking Committee and was opposed to using any silver in coins. The sponsor of the Coinage Act of 1965, Patman wanted to extend its spirit to the proposed Ike Dollar and blocked consideration of the Senate bill for over a year.

In the end, the Senate added the Eisenhower compromise as a rider to the Bank Holding Act Amendments of 1970, a bill Patman supported. That did the trick and Nixon signed the bill on December 31, 1970.

Mint Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro was given the task of memorializing Ike, as well as designing the moon landing reverse. Gasparro based his Eisenhower bust on an old drawing he made of the general after seeing him at a World War II victory parade in New York.

As for the reverse image, Gasparro more or less copied the patch sewn on the astronauts’ uniforms during the Apollo 11 mission. After some pushback from Mint officials, Gasparro made the eagle on the reverse look less menacing and the dollar coins hit the market in 1971. (As with the quarter and half dollar, in 1975, the reverse of the Eisenhower dollar was re-designed to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial.)

1976-S Eisenhower Dollar (Deep Cameo). (Image via me)

While demand for the Eisenhower dollar was initially high, much of it was driven by people who wanted the coin as a souvenir or keepsake. The Mint packaged their collectible Eisenhower dollars in brown cases (“brown Ikes”) and blue boxes (“blue Ikes”), as well as your typical proof and uncirculated coin sets. The 1971 silver coins sold extremely well to the point that the Mint could not fulfill all of the orders that year.

A blue-toned “Brown Ike” — so a blue-brown Ike? (Image via me)

In subsequent years, however, sales for the silver coins dropped. While the clad coins caught on with Nevada casinos, who used them in slot machines and as gaming tokens, the general population mostly ignored them. The Mint tried to experiment with a smaller-sized coin or an 11-sided one — two things that came in handy when designing the Ike’s successor, the even more maligned Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. But in 1978, officials bowed to the inevitable and took the Ike dollars out of circulation.

Since then, Ikes have been largely denigrated by collectors and experts.

As a piece of art, the Eisenhower dollar is one of the poorest products to emanate from the U.S. Mint. While Frank Gasparro was a dedicated civil servant who fully understood the mechanical requirements of mass coining, he was not an inspired artist. After having contributed only single sides for the Lincoln Memorial cent and the Kennedy half dollar, the Eisenhower dollar was his design alone and should have served as a showcase for his talent. Sadly, it is a mediocre design that reveals his typically unnatural treatment of Ike’s hair and the eagle’s feathers. John Mercanti’s commemorative dollar of 1990 is a far better tribute to the late general and president.

Numismatist David Lange wrote on
1990 Eisenhower Centennial Commemorative Coin designed by John Mercanti. (Image via me)

Unlike Lange, I actually like the Eisenhower Dollar design a lot and think it’s far superior to either the above 1990 Eisenhower commemorative or the one issued in 2015 as part of the Presidential $1 coin series. Bowers noted that the Ike dollar failed to capture the warmth and genial nature so central to his appeal, however I would argue that the above-mentioned 1990 and 2015 coins are even less effective on that front. I think Gasparro’s design is quite striking and captures Eisenhower’s distinguished and authoritative features well. I also like the moon landing design on the reverse. I think it’s much better than the bicentennial design of the Liberty Bell and moon.

A lot of the issues with the Eisenhower dollar’s design stem from its cupro-nickel composition. As we’ve seen with nickel-based alloys, they can be hard to strike and wear down easily. Indeed, the lack of detail on the cupro-nickel Ikes reflect those difficulties, but they have proven to be quite resilient and durable. Unlike some of the early nickels, gem-quality Ikes are fairly easy to find, and because of the overall unpopularity of the series, can be quite affordable. Charles Morgan writing for Coin Week, noted the incredible technical challenges in striking the Ike and argued that “[i]t stands today as the greatest achievement in clad coinage in U.S. history.”

Nevertheless, Lange’s opinion on Ikes, particularly that they “were looked upon with contempt by any collector of that time who considered himself to be a real numismatist” has largely held sway. But there’s some indication that Eisenhower dollars are becoming popular with collectors. Because they weren’t popular at the time, as well as their overall lack of silver content, they are fairly affordable and easily obtainable on the secondary market. While there are some valuable specimens, like Nixon’s presentation coin during the signing ceremony for the Eisenhower dollar or a prototype coin that went for $264,000 in 2022, it’s possible to collect a complete set of high-quality Ikes without breaking the bank.

“On today’s market, a complete set of Eisenhower dollars is relatively inexpensive and, in due time, will undoubtedly become more valuable and certainly more appreciated by the numismatic community,” Bowers wrote in his book, Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States – A Complete Encyclopedia. “By way of comparison, Morgan silver dollars were not in demand by many numismatists during the era in which they were minted, 1878 to 1921, or even for many years after then. Today, Morgans are at the top of the popularity list. Will Eisenhower dollars have their day in the sun? I think they will.”

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