President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World
By Evan Thomas
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was the commander of the allied forces in the European theatre during World War II and the 34th President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. In the wake of a succession of disastrous Presidents – Richard M. Nixon and especially George W. Bush – Eisenhower’s statute has soared among historians. Seen from the wreckage of the Bush Presidency, Eisenhower was the last real Republican, a man to whom balancing the budget was more important than cutting taxes, making peace was better than waging “pre-emptive” war, and the country invested in infrastructure to build the national highway system.
When Ike left office in 1961, he was not well thought of either by historians or many of his contemporaries. Made old and gray in the service of his country, Eisenhower seemed almost decrepit when compared to the younger, dynamic John F. Kennedy.
The Eisenhower who emerges in Evan Thomas’ “Ike’s Bluff” is a far different figure. Eisenhower was well prepared by his long career in the military for the Presidency, and was the right figure at the right time for America.
Thomas’ thesis is that Eisenhower bluffed for eight years by threatening to use nuclear weapons against America’s Cold War enemies, the Soviet Union and Red China. This enabled Eisenhower to reduce the Defense budget, to balance the overall federal budget, and to restore America’s fiscal health.
“In truth, Ike was just as weary of the generals as he was of hawkish diplomats, if not more so,” writes Evans. “He knew how the top brass used worst-case scenarios to frighten their civilian masters into spending more on unnecessary new weapons systems and pet boondoggles.”
“Look, let me tell you something,” Eisenhower said to his press secretary,” I know better than any of you fellows how waste in the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut – because I’ve seen those boys operate for a long time.”
Eisenhower was able to play nuclear poker with the Russians because of the aura around him as the man who ordered the 1944 invasion of France. It gave him credibility lacking in his two successors, Kennedy and Johnson. The Soviet Union believed Eisenhower when the U.S. President talked about using nuclear weapons.
Started in Korea
Ike’s first bluff took place in Korea, where American troops were entangled in a bloody stalemate with Red China. Eisenhower made noise about using tactical nuclear weapons, shipping them to Korea, and having studies done on which North Korean airports could be nuked. The Chinese and North Koreans hurriedly made peace.
Over the next eight years Eisenhower played his cards closely, hinting that he had a royal flush, while leaving the Soviets or Chinese wondering if Ike would play his nuclear ace. When Red China launched artillery barrages of Quemoy and Matsu, the two islands between mainland China and Taiwan, the Communists did not go any further because of fear Eisenhower would use nuclear weapons on an invading force.
Yet Eisenhower was deathly afraid of nuclear war. Thomas recounts in one chilling passage a National Security Council meeting in which Eisenhower asked how many nuclear bombs it would take to make the world 100% radioactive. He was told that it was 10,000. Eisenhower then asked how many nuclear explosions it would take to knock the earth off its axis. Knocking the earth of its axis would have totally destroyed life on this plant, and prevented another civilization from arising.
Dwight Eisenhower was a conservative who balanced America’s budget, kept the peace, and gave the United States a period of prosperity. No wonder historians of both the right and left are looking closely at his Presidency.