Review of “Ike’s Bluff” by Evan Thomas

A number of new studies of Dwight Eisenhower have reassessed him in a much more positive light than he was previously considered. (Historical revisionism of the Eisenhower Administration is not a new phenomenon, but it has picked up speed of late.) Evan Thomas joins the latest list of scholars who aim to elevate Eisenhower’s reputation, and he does so by focusing on his handling of the nuclear threat during his time in office. As Thomas demonstrates in this entertaining history:

The peace and prosperity that marked his two terms in office ‘didn’t just happen, by God’ (quoting Eisenhower)… The 1950’s were boringly peaceful (or are remembered that way) only because Eisenhower made them so.”

The principal thesis of Evan Thomas’s study of Eisenhower’s presidency is that the U.S. was able to keep the peace while simultaneously containing communist expansion during the 1950’s by credibly threatening to use nuclear weapons. That doctrine or policy became know as “massive retaliation,” meaning that the U.S. made it clear that it would use nearly its entire stock of nuclear weapons in any conflict. To Dwight Eisenhower, there were to be no small wars — it was all or nothing. Thomas argues (as does Jim Newton in Eisenhower: The White House Years), Eisenhower was so credible that no one, not even the audacious and provocative Mao Zedong, was willing to risk war with the U.S.

Eisenhower (Ike) benefited from his experience as a card shark. He took up poker at West Point, and won so often and so much that he had to quit to save his reputation. Then he took up bridge, and “was a fierce, take-no-prisoners player.” Both games require intelligence, skill at strategy and forecasting, confidence, and the ability to read one’s opponents. Ike, his staff secretary said, was adept at all of these traits.

These were skills he would take with him to the presidency.

Eisenhower at the Summer Bridge Nationals held at Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1961

Ike’s first major challenge was to extricate the U.S. from the Korean War. He was elected partially on his promise, “I shall go to Korea.” President Truman famously queried, “What will he do when he gets there?” What he did shortly after returning was to raise the stakes of fighting for the other side. Some historians have claimed that Ike warned the Chinese, using the intermediary of India, that if the war continued the U.S. might feel compelled to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, some of Ike’s advisors later claimed these secret signals turned the tide. But Thomas questions this, in part because Nehru claims he never passed on the message. In any event, Ike greatly increased the bombing of dams and power plants, causing widespread flooding and ruining a year’s rice crop. The ensuing threat of famine was “deeply destructive and demoralizing” in and of itself to North Korea. In addition, the death of Stalin (who supported a dragged-out war to bleed the West), contributed to bringing the North Koreans and Chinese to the negotiating table.

Eisenhower was terribly concerned about the dangers of nuclear war. Accordingly, he developed a coherent strategy to avoid it. Unlike his Army Chief of Staff, the four star general Maxwell Taylor, and other advocates of developing the military ability to fight small wars, Ike thought small wars led to big wars, and in the nuclear age that might mean total war. The way to avoid small wars was to threaten big wars from the beginning, and mean it. Ike wrote that Taylor’s doctrine of flexible response:

…was dependent on an assumption that we are opposed by a people who think as we do with regard to the value of human life. But they do not, as shown in many incidents from the last war…. In the event they should decide to go to war, the pressure on them to use atomic weapons in a sudden blow would be extremely great.”

[Ultimately, General Taylor, critical of Eisenhower’s military policies, retired from active service in July 1959.]

Eisenhower with the Soviet, French, and British leaders on the eve of the 1955 Geneva peace conference

Ike expended serious efforts to induce the Soviets to engage in mutual reduction in arms. At the 1955 Geneva conference (see picture, above), he proposed “Open Skies,” a policy that would allow the Soviet and American reconnaissance planes to freely fly over each other’s territory. He wanted to reduce the threat of surprise attack, “the great fear of the new nuclear age.”

The Russians would not accept because (as we learned later) they were so weak they did not want the US to have a realistic appraisal of their strength.

But the U.S. was even better at craftiness with Ike at the helm. Thomas writes:

His ability to save the world from nuclear Armageddon entirely depended on his ability to convince America’s enemies—and his own followers—that he was willing to use nuclear weapons. This was a bluff of epic proportions.”

Thomas credits Eisenhower with many other wise choices during his presidency, such as his management of the Suez crises of 1956, his handling of volatile and dangerous characters like Chiang Kai-Shek and Curtis LeMay, his decision to emphasize ICBMs rather than bombers, and his avoidance of involvement in Vietnam despite the pleas of the French.

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[It should be noted that Eisenhower was critical of the way the US under Lyndon Johnson fought the Vietnam war. Ike’s philosophy was to avoid a war unless you were willing to fight to win. One can only wonder how Ike’s Korean policy of relentless attacks on civilian targets, coupled with the threat of nuclear war, might have fared in Vietnam.]

Ike recognized and regretted that part of the price of avoiding nuclear war was convincing the US populace that the threat was both terrible and real. Yet he avoided letting the country devolve into a modern Sparta or a garrison state. Two bon mots from Thomas in the final chapter summarize the thrust of the book:

Ike was more comfortable as a soldier, yet his greatest victories were the wars he did not fight.”

Lincoln went to war to save the Union. Eisenhower avoided war to save the world.”

Evaluation: This is an excellent book not only for those not yet born during this period, but also for those who were around, but unaware of just how dangerous a time it was.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., 2012

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