Ike’s Bluff


There are advantages to having a president of the United States that has served in the military, as Ike’s Bluff, a book about Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms as US President, particularly in terms of foreign policy, points out. . One advantage was that he knew what combat did, though he never served in combat himself. It was quite ironic that a highly successful general hadn’t actually fought in either World War I or II, though available in both. In the First World War he had been deemed more valuable in training troops; in the Second his contribution was to manage the invasion of Europe–a very complex and difficult assignment.

That was just part, though a large part, of the training he’d undergone to become president of the United States of America. Other parts of it had included playing poker and bridge, learning to control his temper (a lifetime struggle for him), and, after World War II, being charged with desegregating the Armed Forces. So he brought a lot of experience to the job. He wasn’t even sure he wanted it, until he found out how much people revered him. He had never aligned himself with a political party, so both parties were after him. It was the Republicans who finally got him, and they were lucky to have him. In my opinion he’s one of the few Republican presidents I think did much for the country after Lincoln, and even his legacy is debateable. What exactly did Eisenhower do? He presided over probably the one time the economy was working for a majority of Americans, and he kept us out of war.

That didn’t make him perfect, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to name a president who was, but consider what we’ve had since. And not only did he keep us out of war, but this was at a period when the great temptation was to use atomic weapons. He was elected when the war in Korea had become deadlocked, after the Chinese had joined the North Koreans. Eisenhower caught a break there, because very shortly after he was inaugurated, Stalin died. That meant the Russians had more important things on their minds than the Korean peninsula, so Eisenhower could push both sides into signing a ceasefire, though Syngman Rhee, the South Korean leader didn’t want a divided Korea. He was persuaded, and that ended that.

The next thing was Vietnam, where the French thought Eisenhower had promised he’d support them. It may have sounded like that to them, but Eisenhower had no intention. He didn’t think the French tactic of building a fortress at Dien Bien Phu and allowing the Viet Minh under General Giap to atttack it made much sense. The French eventually lost and pulled out, Vietnam became divided, with the south becoming a client of the USA (since no country was allowed to turn Communist, or even look like they might be contemplating it), which would come back to haunt us after Eisenhower left office. Eisenhower was no fan of Communism, but he wasn’t a fanatic about it either. He allowed Senator McCarthy to bully as many people as he wanted until he picked on the Army. That’s when Eisenhower began resisting McCarthy through the use of what he called Executive Privilege, which would be heard from again in a couple of decades, in a rather different context. In this case, Eisenhower was preventing McCarthy from getting personal information about members of the Army, and without that he couldn’t bully effectively. The USA had just about gotten tired of McCarthy anyway, so Eisenhower’s timing was perfect.

This was as graphic an illustration of how Eisenhower operated as could be desired. He didn’t make a lot of emotional speeches. He didn’t bother fighting against McCarthy when it would have been a waste of energy. He almost always tried to be calm in his speeches. Behind the scenes he could yell and swear at a number of people, but he couldn’t allow himself to do that in public. When people asked him questions he didn’t want to answer he would often play dumb, mangling his sentences to confuse, and leaving hearers to assume what he’d meant, when he often hadn’t made up his mind what he wanted to do. His style with advisors was to ask what they felt about various questions, or even say things to set them off, so he’d know he was getting the total picture. He pointed out to President Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs, that the way to get information was to have all the informants in the room at once, rather than seeing them separately. Eisenhower also had personal friends who weren’t politicians that he could use for sounding boards. Ultimately, his method was to put off making a decision until he was sure he was making the right one, and that was a very personal thing for him. His experience in the politics of being a soldier and running a very large campaign successfully had given him a wider experience than most people had, even if he wasn’t so familiar with national politics. His experience had also given him a strength that most people didn’t have, and a trust in his own judgement. On the negative side, the stress of keeping quiet publicly about issues that concerned him, made his health increasingly poor. He had a heart attack, a stroke, and bowel surgery while in office, and his health was probably permanently damaged during that time. He had originally thought he’d retire after one term, but realized there were still things he wanted to accomplish, so ran and was elected again.

Keeping the country out of war was something important to him. Although he hadn’t experienced combat, he’d seen battlefields not long after combat, he’d visited one of the German death camps, and he’d flown low over the path of the Russian army invading Germany all the way back into Russia, never seeing a building standing along that whole route. Though never in combat, he’d still seen war from the inside on a scale that few could match, as well as having to deal with out-sized and quarrelsome personalities in both the American and British armies, to say nothing of foreign politicians. When he decided to run for President he decided to never say exactly what he felt about nuclear weapons. He was the first president to have them in place and already having been used once. The author, Evan Thomas, thinks that Eisenhower intended never to use the bomb from the beginning, though he can’t exclude the possibility that Eisenhower might have used it in a sufficiently extreme emergency. But he managed to keep his maneuverability intact so that he never got into anything that extreme.

That wasn’t easy, not only because foreign leaders, like Syngmann Rhee, Krushchev, and Mao could be intransigent, but because national politicians could too. Eisenhower kept trying to reduce the number of atomic weapons, on the way to disarming entirely, while others kept the number and forms of them going up, along with military expenditures. Eisenhower wasn’t technology-averse, and he wanted the armed forces to be suitably supplied, but at the same time no one knew better than him that the Pentagon wanted weapons and systems it didn’t need, and that those things came at the expense of others that benefited all citizens. He wasn’t always successful at keeping the number of weapons and spending down; they kept going up in spite of him, but he tried very hard.

One place where he was imperfect was the CIA. He liked the idea of having a secret force that would do things he wanted done without a lot of questions being asked, but he lost control of them eventually. Coups in Iran and Guatemala seem to have been undertaken with his general approval, which set a bad precendent. Both were democratically elected governments that were overturned partly because Americans in general were paranoid about Communism, but also because a lot of people in the government owned shares in the United Fruit Company, in the case of Guatemala. By the 1950s it was practically traditional for the military to intervene on behalf of United Fruit. General Smedley Butler, who joined the Marines in 1898, had served in (when he wasn’t in charge of) incursions in Haiti, Mexico, and Honduras at least, and later said he’d been a strikebreaker for United Fruit.

The CIA was the undoing of two things Eisenhower desperately wanted to achieve: detente with Russia, and disarmament. That was because Eisenhower needed intelligence about the Soviet Union, and Allen Dulles, head of the CIA and brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, wasn’t getting it for him. Dulles preferred using spies, but the Russians were effective at counter-intelligence, so Eisenhower turned to technology for his intellegence: the U2 spy plane. It was able to cruise at 70,000 feet, take amazingly clear pictures, and was supposed to be undetectable. It turned out the U2 wasn’t undetectable, but it flew high enough that the Soviets couldn’t shoot it down, and from it Eisenhower learned what he wanted to know: that contrary to the opinion of a lot of analysts the Soviets had neither a bomber nor a missile lead on the USA. Their country hadn’t yet had a chance to recover from the war, and it was where most of the European fighting had happened. The analysts may have believed what they were saying, but it was also convenient for them to believe it, because if it had been true (and for a long time Eisenhower simply didn’t know if it was true or not) it justified a lot of military spending, which was profitable for the defense industries and a lot of congressmen. Eisenhower didn’t want to overspend on the military, but without data he couldn’t know what was overspending and what wasn’t. The U2 got him that data, but he was always uneasy about it. He had to deny to the Russians that the USA were overflying the country, and he knew that eventually the Russians would manage to shoot the plane down. He was having a satellite built for the same purpose, but the project wasn’t going well. He wanted to stop the U2 flights, but authorized one final flight. That was the one that got shot down.

The plan had been that the pilot would suicide if shot down, but he was unable to. It was also supposed to be a civilian flying, but it wasn’t. This happened just when the US and Russia were to meet for summit talks about detente. Eisenhower had to admit what had been done, and Khrushchev denounced him. That ended detente for another 15 years. Eisenhower’s health had already gotten bad, he was nearly at the end of his second term, and he didn’t have a lot of energy left. He finished his term, but probably not as effectively as he could have, much less as he had wanted to.

He lived another eight years after his presidency. He’d had military and political leaders who had been eager to use nuclear weapons, but he’d managed to prevent that from happening. And the way he’d done it was by affirming that if necessary he would use the weapons, and massively. He was believed because of who he was and what he’d accomplished. That was something no one else had or could have, so that he’s probably responsible for taking the nuclear option off the table. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to take the smaller war option off the table. When newly elected President Kennedy asked him if the USA should invade Vietnam or get some other country to do it, Eisenhower answered, “Neither.” Both Kennedy and Johnson thought they had to do it, while Eisenhower would have probably found another way around the problem. Either that, or he would have gone in with everything. He didn’t believe in using the military without being pretty sure he could win, and doing what he could to win.

The thing that I most remember him for, when I was just beginning to be aware of such things, was his speech about the military/industrial complex. He knew that complex very well, and understood that it was necessary, but also that it was greedy. The military always wanted more weapons and more weapon systems, whiled the industrialists wanted government contracts. Let them have thier own way too much, and the military budget would overwhelm the rest of it, which is more or less what’s happened now. That’s what I wish politicians would particularly remember about Eisenhower, and that they’d see through his eyes how important it is.

But making nuclear war unacceptable had been very largely Eisenhower’s doing, and he’d done it with a bluff.








One thought on “Ike’s Bluff

  1. How he managed public perception during his presidency is also interesting. A lot of people thought he spent half his time playing golf. Perhaps we were more complacent as a nation back then, but some of this has to do with his style of management, too.

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