After leaving the White House in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower fretted about what future generations would think of his legacy, stating that the peace and prosperity that marked his two terms “didn’t just happen, by God.” But as Evan Thomas writes in his study of the Eisenhower presidency, “[Ike] had trouble articulating just how that had happened. He never could admit that he had kept the peace by threatening all-out war. His all-or-nothing strategy worked brilliantly.”
A mystery that will never be resolved to the satisfaction of most historians is whether Eisenhower would have used the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the event of war with the Soviet Union. At one point, Mr. Thomas hedges the answer by writing that “It is likely that Eisenhower had no intention of ever using nuclear weapons, as his closest aide, Andy Goodpaster, believed.”
But who can be sure? Ike kept his own counsel on the subject of how to maintain credible deterrence in eight years of incessant confrontation with Moscow. In years of meticulous research, Mr. Thomas found not a person — nor a document — that revealed Ike’s intentions. But Mr. Thomas hints at his own conclusion in the very title of his book “Ike’s Bluff.”
With the Soviet Union defunct and the Cold War long ended, many younger Americans do not realize the fears that gripped much of the country during the 1950s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a master of bluster who boasted, falsely, that his factories were grinding out missiles “like sausages.” He used his claimed nuclear superiority in an attempt to bully Eisenhower over such issues as control of West Berlin.
In making his scare claims, Khrushchev had as unwitting allies the U.S. Air Force and its industry constituents, plus leading Democratic politicians such as Sens. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and many media figures.
Foremost among the critical columnists was Joseph Alsop of the New York Herald Tribune, who said that “highly placed sources” in the Pentagon worried that the “American government” (read Eisenhower) “will flaccidly permit the Kremlin to gain an almost unchallenged superiority in the nuclear striking power that was once our specialty.” As it turned out, one of the “highly placed sources” was a retired Air Force officer who lobbied for an aerospace firm. (Eisenhower fumed privately that “Alsop is the lowest form of animal life on earth.”)
Ike came to appreciate intelligence — and its sometime flaws — while commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II. He had the insight to pose tough questions to uniformed and civilian officials alike. When White House apologists tried to fault him for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, a chastened President Kennedy visited Ike at Camp David and claimed that “everyone approved — the JCS, the CIA, my staff.” Eisenhower put the younger man in his place. “Mr. President, before you approved the plan did you have everyone in front of you debating the thing so you could get the pros and cons yourself and then make a decision, or did you see them one at a time?” Kennedy smiled “ruefully” and acknowledged that he had not forced a full or formal airing of the plan.
Ike was also a master of deception. When he proposed an “open skies” agreement with the Soviets so that the adversaries could monitor mutual missile strengths, Khrushchev angrily refused, saying he would consider any invasion of his airspace to be an act of war. Ike remained silent — and sure enough, Khrushchev launched the Sputnik communications satellite, which made repeated flights over the United States. The Soviets had a brief propaganda bonanza — but freed Ike to start Corona’s other satellite overflight programs. Although the U-2 spy planes had been flying for a couple of years, Corona’s first flight exceeded the coverage made to date by the smaller manned craft.
As Mr. Thomas writes, Eisenhower was especially suited to lead the United States in a time of near-war because he followed the Roman aphorism “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” (“If you want peace, prepare for war.”) A serious student of Carl von Clausewitz, he frequently proclaimed the Prussian strategist’s paramount message: War is not static, but competitive and evolving, an endlessly mutating monster. As he told the National Security Council in August 1960, “the one axiom that is trustworthy in time of war is that whatever comes and however it happens will be a surprise.”
Throughout Ike’s reign, he lived with the fear of nuclear war. He fretted that the three services had at least 15 tactical nuclear weapons systems, the accidental firing of which would precipitate general war. But, as Mr. Thomas writes, “Vietnam was precisely the sort of brushfire war Eisenhower managed to dodge during his presidency.”
A career soldier who grasped the realities of Pentagon politics, he groused about the military-industrial complex long before he used the term in his famed farewell address. Goodpaster said the president would have referred to the “military-industrial-congress complex” but left out Congress “out of respect for the other branch of government.”
Mr. Thomas, formerly an editor of Newsweek, knows the Washington media well. He faults his fellow newsmen for picturing Eisenhower as “granddad in a golf cart, the do-nothing, platitude-spouting, syntax-mangling over-the-hill oldest man ever to occupy the White House. The hatchet job was one of the most lasting and effective in political history.”
Works such as “Ike’s Bluff” are encouraging historians and the media to take a closer and more objective look at Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Mr. Thomas concludes, “The United States was blessed to be led by a man who understood the nature of war better than anyone else, and who had the patience and wisdom, as well as the cunning and guile, to keep the peace.”
Thank you, Mr. President.
• Joseph C. Goulden, formerly Washington bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of 18 books.