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 World War II, Eisenhower approved massive bombing raids that pursued civilian targets, so he had already shown he was capable of stifling any personal misgivings about massive civilian deaths. And in the early months of his presidency, Eisenhower contemplated the scenario for a preemptive nuclear strike.
In the wake of the Soviet’s first thermonuclear test blast, Eisenhower wrote on Sept. 8, 1953, to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that an arms race could lead to a “garrison state” that might force the U.S. “to consider whether or not our duty to future generations did not require us to initiate war at the most propitious moment we could designate.”
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. China was trying to weaken the U.S. bond with the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa (now Taiwan). The Red Chinese army began shelling Quemoy and Matsu islands, just a few miles off the mainland and 100 miles from Formosa, in September 1954 to drive out some 70,000 Nationalist Chinese troops stationed there. Pressure grew on the U.S. to intervene, and in early 1955 Eisenhower made vague statements to reporters in which he left open the possibility of using nuclear weapons on Chinese military bases to defend Formosa.
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 Pentagon requests to build up conventional forces to “fight small wars. It was not just a question of saving money. By removing the means to fight limited war, the president meant to eliminate the temptation, the illusion — on both sides — that war could be contained.”
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 Abraham Lincoln’s during the 1860s. Both men shared an outward humility masking an inner canniness and a self-confidence that removed the need to be the smartest person in every room, he writes.
“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.
Martelle is an Irvine-based writer whose most recent book is “Detroit: A Biography.”