President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World
Little, Brown: 481 pp., $29.99
For even cursory students of the 1950s, Evan Thomas' new book, "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World," offers little in the way of fresh material. But by zeroing in on Eisenhower's handling of the itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger, Thomas has come up with an interesting if narrow portrait of the former president in the face of nuclear annihilation.
Thomas clearly is enamored with Eisenhower, and "Ike's Bluff" falls in line with the modern revisionist movement that has added an aura of canniness to a man previously viewed as bored and boring, more interested in playing golf and bridge than in leading the country. It's an enjoyable book, fast-moving and packed with anecdotes.
But in the end, Thomas doesn't quite make the case. He interprets Eisenhower's political detachment and lack of direct leadership to be, in fact, strong leadership. Eisenhower had a predilection for ambiguity, and by not making his position clear on when he would use nuclear weapons, Thomas argues, Eisenhower achieved the end he sought: nuclear deterrence.
Yet Thomas also indicates that Eisenhower's ambiguity grew out of very real, personal uncertainty. During
In the wake of the
Eisenhower clearly was wrestling with where he thought the threshold might lie, which weakens Thomas' argument that Eisenhower was engaging in a willful bluff. As Thomas points out, the U.S. nuclear arsenal under Eisenhower rose from 1,000 bombs to nearly 20,000 even as he decried the buildup and privately voiced disappointment in his inability to stop it. In this case, it seems Eisenhower's own ambiguity before top staff gave freedom to the military-industrial complex that he warned against during his final presidential address. So the very thing Thomas sees as a strength helped fuel the nuclear buildup.
The 1950s were marked by an intense fear of war as large sections of the world rebuilt after World War II. Until his death a few weeks after Eisenhower took office in 1953, Stalin — shrewd and brutal — jockeyed with the West for geopolitical dominance, then was replaced by the mercurial Khrushchev. Both superpowers were trying to make nuclear weapons bigger and more powerful even as they realized the foolhardiness of using them.
Thomas does make a convincing case that Eisenhower's ambiguity helped defuse a 1955 crisis in the Formosa Strait.
It's unclear whether Eisenhower's implied readiness to nuke Mao Tse-tung's airfields gave the Red Chinese pause, but an April 1955 conference among 29 former colonial nations did, Thomas writes. Faced with pressure not to provoke an American nuclear attack, Chinese foreign minister Chou En-lai responded "flatly by saying that China did not want war with the United States" and called "for talks to relieve the tension. The showdown in the Formosa Strait was over."
But Eisenhower's main focus — and thus Thomas' — was the Soviet Union. As a key architect of the Allied victory in Europe, Eisenhower understood the mind-set of his former allies. While American anti-communists agitated for war and spread fear of imminent Soviet aggression, Eisenhower believed otherwise. "Their people had suffered so much in world wars, but more to the point, the current Soviet leadership included some of the world's great survivalists," Thomas writes. "They had outlasted Hitler and the brutally lethal Stalin, who used the gulag and the firing squad almost indiscriminately."
A small entanglement with the Soviets could easily escalate into a conflagration: So Eisenhower avoided the small skirmishes and rebuffed
Late in his presidency, Eisenhower believed he would not use nuclear weapons unless the Soviet Union launched an all-out war. But he never said so publicly, since that would have signaled to the Soviets exactly how far they could go — the linchpin of this book's argument.
All of this, Thomas argues, made Eisenhower a great man. He concludes with an over-the-top comparison of Eisenhower's performance in the 1950s with
"Eisenhower never compared himself to Lincoln; he was no Great Emancipator, and he did not pretend to be," Thomas concludes before making the comparison himself. "But his challenge, as he understood it, was no less great. Lincoln went to war to save the Union. Eisenhower avoided war to save the world."
Maybe. Or maybe war avoided Ike.