“Th[e] problem is not merely man against man or nation against nation. It is man against war.” At first glance, this remark by Dwight Eisenhower in April 1956 appears to have been a strange thing for him to write. Eisenhower, after all, was a career military man who had commanded the greatest amphibious force ever assembled on a “crusade” (his word) to liberate Europe from Hitler’s tyranny. Without this “Good War” he would not have even merited a footnote in history, much less have become president of the United States.
It is part of the puzzle of understanding this president, who enjoyed high popularity ratings yet suffered the general disdain of the intellectual and media cognoscenti of the day. He was sometimes compared to Ulysses S. Grant, another successful general who, unlike George Washington and Andrew Jackson, found himself over his head when he entered politics. Eisenhower was seen by the Best and Brightest of the liberal set as being sadly detached from the essential workings of government, a bit past his prime (assuming he ever had a prime), a tool of corporate privilege, out of step with the progressive currents of the age. Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 was based on a pledge “to get this country moving again.” He surrounded himself with second-rate subordinates such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who actually ran the show. Eisenhower’s apparent intellectual laziness, reflected in his frequent mangling of syntax and his preference for western novels, supposedly culminated in a clumsy and dangerous national security policy, widely known as Massive Retaliation.
How times have changed. The serious rehabilitation of Eisenhower’s political legacy began in the early 1980s with the publication of political scientist Fred Greenstein’s study, The Hidden Hand Presidency (1982). Greenstein demonstrated that Eisenhower actually had been deeply engaged in the decision-making process and that he had proven remarkably adept at the management of government. Eisenhower was able to get his way on most matters without having to show his hand. He appeared to rise above politics and thus preserved his greatest assets, his wartime prestige and his appeal to the American public as a disinterested public servant. If things went badly, he left himself an avenue for a graceful retreat while the blame fell on others. Even the mangling of syntax was often a deliberate ploy to avoid answering a politically difficult question. Meanwhile, Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis concluded that Eisenhower’s national security policy, in contrast with those of his immediate predecessor and successor, successfully balanced means and ends. According to Gaddis, Eisenhower was “the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age.” (For an assessment of the current state of the literature on Eisenhower’s presidency, see Michael Nelson’s “Eisenhower as Statesman” in the Summer 2012 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Interestingly, Grant’s reputation as president has also enjoyed a historical boomlet over the past decade.)
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Journalist Evan Thomas’s new book, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, selectively popularizes many of the then-revisionist, now standard, interpretations of Ike, including more recent contributions such as those by historian Campbell Craig. Thomas adds a psychological dimension, highlighting the stresses and illnesses that Eisenhower endured in carrying the burdens of office when the world seemed about to tip over into the nuclear abyss.
Eisenhower, according to Thomas, saw himself as uniquely qualified to keep the peace in a violent and revolutionary era. Eisenhower’s strategic approach was based on the insight, drawn from Carl von Clausewitz, that violence has an inherent tendency to escalate. “Remember this: when you resort to force as the arbiter of human difficulty, you don’t know where you are going;…if you get deeper and deeper, there is just no limit except what is imposed by limitations of force.” Eisenhower warned that small wars can quickly become big wars, and that a nation that believes it is fighting for its survival will stop at nothing. Under the stress of crisis and war, political leaders and military commanders tend to behave irrationally, not rationally; they will destroy a village in order to save it. Modern technology and economic interdependence had reached the point, even before nuclear weapons came on the scene, that war between great powers threatened to destroy civilization. Therefore, the prevention of war, not fighting and winning wars, was, according to Thomas’s interpretation, the highest task of Eisenhower’s statesmanship.
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How to do so? One might assume that Eisenhower, the old soldier, would follow the old Roman saying, si vis pacem, para bellum: if you would have peace, prepare for war. According to Eisenhower, the problem with this approach is that just as war by its nature tends to escalate out of control, so too do preparations for war—especially if those preparations attempt to take into account every possible contingency, are based on trying to close illusory “gaps,” or are accelerated needlessly to meet putative “years of maximum danger.” Prudent defense policy should be sustained for the “long haul.” Eisenhower complained about the unproductive nature of peacetime military spending: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” More fundamentally, he believed unchecked defense spending threatened to turn America into a garrison state, with society altered by the debilitating effects of inflation or through the regimentation demanded by economic controls.
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The paradoxical solution for Eisenhower was to place the most destructive means and manner of warfare—thermonuclear war—at the center of American national security policy, or at least give the impression that this was so. In the words of Dulles’s often-quoted speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in 1954, a “deterrent of massive retaliatory power” would convince would-be aggressors that they dare not assume that they could dictate the terms of a conflict. “The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of our own choosing.” (Dulles did not use the expression, “massive retaliation.”) Eisenhower, who vetted all of Dulles’s key statements carefully, assumed that Soviet and even Chinese leaders would behave rationally if they were confronted with a clear choice before irrational escalatory pressures took over in the midst of a conflict. By means of subtle—or not so subtle (“brinkmanship”)—messages, the United States would remind its opponent of the consequences of proceeding along a dangerous path.
Eisenhower’s so-called “New Look” accordingly reconfigured the defense establishment heavily around nuclear weapons, both strategic (those capable of reaching the Soviet Union) and tactical (those that might be used on the battlefield). This was also the cheapest kind of military, offering “more bang for the buck,” which took pressure off the U.S. economy. In this same spirit, Eisenhower said that he was determined to avoid future Korea-type or “brushfire” wars, in which the United States would be bogged down for years in expensive conventional conflicts that the enemy could start or stop as it saw fit. The Communists must be made to understand that they could no longer play the limited war game—the United States was prepared to escalate its way out of the situation (or at least could credibly threaten to do so).
Would Eisenhower actually have pulled the nuclear trigger, or was he bluffing? How would he have responded to a situation in which the Soviets or Chinese had “raised the pot” to the point where his own public policy pronouncements—and the character of the “New Look” military—seemingly committed him to “go all in” with nuclear weapons? (Thomas’s use of the analogy is a considered one: Eisenhower was such a skilled poker player as a young officer that he reportedly gave the game up to avoid the problem of taking so much money from his messmates, and he frequently used such expressions when discussing politics and strategy.) We can never know for certain because Eisenhower made a point of never showing his hand, even to his closest friends and associates. Thomas’s title gives one a strong sense of what he thinks the answer was. “Eisenhower managed, by cleverness, indirection, subtlety, and outright deviousness—and by embracing the very weapon he could never use—to safeguard his country and possibly the rest of mankind from annihilation.” He could rely on his “table image” as a former Great Captain to convince his enemies that he meant what he said, while also offering reassurances that he was in full control of his own defensive establishment.
As an aside, Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, also developed the reputation of being a highly skilled poker player while serving in the military, although at a much less exalted station than that of Eisenhower. In strategic matters, Nixon liked to cultivate the image of being a madman, someone who during a crisis might play his cards in a highly unpredictable and seemingly risky fashion.
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Eisenhower not only had to bluff his way out of international crises, according to Thomas, he also had to finesse his own government and people—a slight of hand designed to prevent them from understanding fully what he was about. For instance, he had to fend off what he famously termed the “military-industrial complex” (what Thomas believes should have been called the “military-industrial-congressional complex”), which overhyped the Soviet military threat and pressed incessantly for ruinously higher defense spending.
Eisenhower’s efforts to defeat the crass pressures of the military-industrial complex were complicated by the apparently more sophisticated intellectual and political critique of his “New Look” and “Massive Retaliation” by the Best and Brightest, including Army General Maxwell Taylor, who later became a key official in the Kennedy Administration. They condemned the New Look for its brittle all-or-nothing characteristics. The Soviets and Chinese, they argued, would adopt “salami slice” tactics and seek to gain advantages in the “gray areas” of the world. The United States could not credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons in those circumstances, especially as Soviet nuclear capabilities increased. The answer was “flexible response,” in which the United States had the capabilities and will to meet the Communists at any level of conflict and be able to “control escalation.” The Best and Brightest, Thomas observes, with their belief in the rationality of the limited use of force, gave us Vietnam, a conflict that Eisenhower had avoided by his policy of bluff and deception.
Eisenhower was never required to turn over his cards. War did not occur and so his “New Look” strategy arguably proved successful. Thomas is not uncritical of Eisenhower—for example, he complains that the president kept reassuring intelligence about Soviet nuclear capabilities to himself, for reasons of secrecy, despite the tremendous psychological burdens this placed on the American people (and apparently on a very young Evan Thomas, according to a biographical aside by the author). Eisenhower’s sophisticated strategy was, like that of Bismarck, a tour de force that lesser men could not hope to duplicate and that created its own problems once the original left office.
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What are we to make of Thomas’s account? Eisenhower left an immense public and private paper trail, and verbal record, which is full of apparent contradictions. At one moment he declared that nuclear war would be the end of mankind; but at another, in private as well as in public, he spoke of using nuclear weapons exactly as one would use conventional arms—”like bullets.” Thomas works his way out of these apparent contradictions by saying that they were part and parcel of Eisenhower’s highly sophisticated, if paradoxical, approach to strategy. This not only confused adversaries, it left him as the master of his own house. He would throw out provocative lines to generate internal debate and to smoke out the positions of others, while keeping his own hand hidden. Based on the documentary evidence alone, however, one can make an argument that Eisenhower, far from being a sophisticated strategist, was in truth superficial and confused. Like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, he may have believed six impossible things before breakfast. Or to put it more kindly, like many of us, he compartmentalized ideas to suit the needs of the day, dealing with the resulting contradictions only when circumstances force one to do so.
In connecting the dots in a certain way, Thomas certainly highlights important aspects of Eisenhower’s approach, including his concern that excessive defense spending would lead to a “warfare” state that would threaten basic American liberties and limited government. The narrative as a whole, however, arguably reflects more of Thomas’s views of the world than those of Eisenhower. Thomas clearly has in mind the contrast between his understanding of the New Look and what he regards as a much less successful strategic approach, the subject of his 2010 book, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898. Here, Thomas argued that the American Century was conceived in sin and violence by a cadre of jingoists. By comparison, in Ike’s Bluff he tells the story of the former five-star general who saved civilization from the jingoists of his own time. Just as it took a Nixon to go to China, one might say, it took an Eisenhower to make peace possible.
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This ignores the possibility of constructing the narrative in a different way, focusing on Eisenhower’s tougher, more assertive views and treating Thomas’s preferred collection of evidence as the deceptive part of Eisenhower’s strategy.
Let us look at this strategy in light of Eisenhower’s stated objective of preventing war in the nuclear era. To seek peace does not make one a dove or an appeaser. Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, among others, had impeccable credentials as Cold Warriors and strategic hard-heads, and all insisted that they sought peace. (For Churchill’s views on the matter, see the “Addendum” in the December 2012 Notes on Strategy and Statesmanship.) Churchill and Reagan advocated negotiations with the Soviets, at the proper time and for the proper purposes. But “peace” and “war” are not mere abstractions—to prevent a particular war, one must understand and address the particular conditions that would cause that war.
War, Clausewitz tells us, is an act of violence designed to compel one’s enemy to do one’s will. What would cause one side to try to force another to do its will—and why would the other side use force to resist? The simplest explanation, proposed by an Englishman about the cause of war with Germany in 1914, was that “we had it, and they wanted it.” Thucydides offered his famous typology of fear, honor, and interest. Contemporary international relations theory tries to abstract from the determinative notion of friends and enemies—wars result from the anarchic structure of the international system; from misperceptions driven by cultural misunderstandings or by the “security dilemma” (Side A takes defensive measures that Side B interprets as offensive, Side B responds with measures that Side A interprets as offensive, and so on); or from technical factors that cause political restraints to fail (e.g., the dynamic of arms races or mobilization schedules).
Thomas essentially makes the case that the major risk of war during the 1950s was driven by domestic pressures on both sides, particularly in the United States, and not by clashing ideologies or cultural or psychological misunderstandings. These pressures for war stemmed from narrow, self-interested constituencies, and not from the legitimate pursuit of the true national interest. A combination of rabid anti-communist Old Guard Republicans, opportunistic Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, military officers aiming to promote the interests of their respective services and their own personal advancement, industrialists looking for huge profits, CIA “cowboys” running amuck around the world, and intellectuals and media commentators with no experience with war, all combined to exaggerate vastly the Soviet threat. They argued for huge and unnecessary increases in the U.S. national security budget—including boondoggles like a nationwide civil-defense system—and a more aggressive posture overseas.
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This unholy combination, as Thomas’s Eisenhower saw things, not only threatened to bankrupt the country but also to spook Soviet leaders who, after Stalin’s death, faced pressures to get tough from their own military-industrial complex. According to Thomas, Eisenhower, the sophisticated strategic card player, read the Soviet “tells” correctly—he appreciated that Soviet bellicosity, such as that demonstrated so memorably by Khrushchev, reflected the weakness, not the strength, of the Kremlin’s position at the strategic card table. Even the seemingly irrational Chinese Communists were not going to kick the table over when they were outplayed. The key to Eisenhower’s strategy, as portrayed by Thomas, was not merely to bluff the Soviets but also effectively to make them partners in preventing atavistic forces in American society, and unruly allies, from forcing Eisenhower to show his hand—either resorting to nuclear weapons or backing down.
Thomas argues that the U-2 spy-plane shoot-down in 1960, which resulted from the CIA’s recklessness and hubris just before the scheduled four-power summit in Paris, effectively derailed Eisenhower’s last best effort to achieve peace through disarmament and détente. The incident put Khrushchev in a position where he gave into his own worst instincts and accommodated the hard-liners in the Kremlin. This foiled Eisenhower’s effort to change the Cold War relationship from poker to bridge, in which Washington and Moscow became partners (however reluctantly) in peace.
Thomas’ account includes a few seemingly throw-away lines: “To Ike, the defeat of fascism in World War II was but prelude to a larger struggle…this new and greater test of good and evil.” Unless great leaders acted soon, Eisenhower wrote, “there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.” Eisenhower, writes Thomas,
believed that the United States was already at war—not a hot war, but a long-term struggle between East and West that had to be won. Ultimately, peace could not be negotiated, though negotiations were necessary; rather, the Western nations had to keep the pressure on the Communist bloc until Marxism-Leninism collapsed from its own internal contradictions.
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In these few here-and-there lines, we would suggest that Thomas, the journalist, buried the lead. In fact, Eisenhower said such things repeatedly, in public and private, and they are the key to understanding his sense of the ultimate cause of war that the Free World must address. He agreed with Churchill’s famous formulation that Soviets—unlike the Nazis—did not seek war, but the fruits of war, through subversion, intimidation, propaganda, and deception. Eisenhower believed that unless the United States placed its moral, economic, and military weight behind those who were subject to Communist pressure, the balance of power could tip rapidly and dangerously against the Free World. Eisenhower believed in the domino theory, writ large (he coined the expression in 1954, in the context of Indochina, something that writers such as Thomas have tried to explain away, when in fact there is every reason to think that Eisenhower meant it seriously). The security interests of the non-Communist world were tied so closely together, at least in a psychological sense, that the loss of nominally peripheral areas could have a cascading effect as the communists seemingly developed an unstoppable momentum. As he reflected to Churchill,
We have come to a point where every additional backward step must be deemed a defeat for the Western world. In fact, it is a triple defeat. First, we lose a potential ally. Next, we give to an implacable enemy another recruit. Beyond this, every such retreat creates in the minds of neutrals the fear that we do not mean what we say when we pledge our support to people who want to remain free.
In the face of Soviet political aggression, Eisenhower believed that the Cold War was most likely to become a hot war not as the result of U.S. aggressiveness driven by domestic pressures, but rather by America’s withdrawal from the responsibility of global leadership. Eisenhower, in his own mind, entered politics not to fight the American military-industrial complex but to ensure that there would be no backsliding from internationalism (he had supported all of the major foreign policy initiatives of the Truman Administration, even if he disagreed over the precise strategy). One of the main reasons that he wanted to hold down defense spending—and to avoid seemingly inconclusive wars such as Korea—was that he feared the American people would weary of the task if global leadership involved infinite sacrifice. If America retreated to isolationism, war could result either from Soviet and Chinese overconfidence and miscalculation (which happened in Korea in 1950), from local Communists trying to ride the wave of history, or from the West’s need to make a last desperate stand before the final domino fell. The surest path to war was to lose the political and strategic initiative to the Communists.
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To mitigate these potential causes of war, Eisenhower’s New Look did more than rely on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation. Responding vigorously “at places and with means of our own choosing” included various cost-effective means short of open war, and certainly well short of nuclear war. The United States would apply its strengths against communist weaknesses, in part by being willing and able to shift the nature and location of the struggle, thus retaining or regaining the initiative. Eisenhower sought to wage the struggle at levels where he believed that escalatory pressures could be contained—e.g., psychological warfare, covert action, and the use of innovative means of intelligence collection (the U-2 spy plane and reconnaissance satellites) that violated Soviet sovereignty. The most famous, or notorious, of these operations included CIA support of coups in Iran and Guatemala. Eisenhower’s apologists have attempted to explain away such activities as a romantic attachment to covert action stemming from his years as Supreme Allied Commander. In fact, they were integral to his approach to the world and to war avoidance, which required retaining the initiative over the Soviets at levels that did not create direct escalatory pressures.
Eisenhower, to be sure, was concerned that open-ended commitments and psychological operations might become excessively expensive and dangerous. He sought to shift the burdens of local defense to American allies, with American sea and air (nuclear) power deployed as an offshore backstop. He was undogmatic about the indivisibility of the Free World’s security interests when he did not think that the United States could prudently go “all in”—for instance, he dodged French pleas to intervene on their behalf in Indochina. Most notably, despite campaign rhetoric of “liberation” and “rollback,” he stopped short of openly supporting the overthrow of existing regimes clearly within Moscow’s sphere of influence. (Covert action did continue, however.)
Dwight Eisenhower understood that he was “bluffing with the best hand”—American nuclear superiority—which was bound to lose value over time, at least in its then-present form. It would be up to others to find ways to maintain the peace by retaining the initiative and keeping “the pressure on the Communist bloc until Marxism-Leninism collapsed from its own internal contradictions.”