The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower

Never showy or impulsive, the 34th president always played for the long term. As voters consider what qualities they want in a leader, a new look shows why Americans were right to like Ike.

In his January 18, 1961, farewell speech, Eisenhower coined the term "military-industrial complex." (Associated Press)

Dwight Eisenhower is a president whose reputation has improved over time. When he left office, he was regarded as a genial, grandfatherly figure but also as a caretaker who was a little out of it. At the time, in January 1961, his Farewell Address presciently warning against the "military-industrial complex" was little noticed; far more attention was paid to JFK's soaring (and, in hindsight, overreaching) inaugural speech, promising to "bear any burden."

We know now that Ike was quietly powerful, that he operated with a "hidden hand," as Princeton professor Fred Greenstein once put it. In my new book on how President Eisenhower kept America out of war, I examine his ability to bluff and outmaneuver the Soviets and, when necessary, his own generals. The Eisenhower leadership style sharply contrasts with what we have come to expect in our celebrity culture and tit-for-tat politics. Eisenhower was never showy or impulsive; he disdained partisanship and always played for the long term. He was patient and calm in the face of uncertainty. He needed to be, for he faced an unpredictable and dangerous foe.


In the summer of 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower flew to Geneva for the first summit meeting of the Cold War. Two and a half years into his presidency, Eisenhower was not sure who was running the Soviet Union. Was it Nikolai Bulganin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers? Tall and smiling, Bulganin seemed relatively benign. (With his goatee and white suit, Bulganin bore a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain.) Eisenhower hoped the real power lay with Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army field marshal who had been Ike's comrade in arms in World War II. Having seen so much war, Zhukov hated it as much as Ike did. But when Ike sent his son John, an army major, out to do a little informal spying at "tea" (cocktails), John reported back that Zhukov seemed subdued and shaken. "Things are not as they seem," Zhukov whispered John Eisenhower.

Eisenhower found out who was really in charge four days later when he unveiled his major peace initiative, called "Open Skies," to allow the Soviet and American reconnaissance planes to freely fly over each other's territory. The idea was to reduce the threat of surprise attack, the great fear of the new nuclear age. After the speech, a short, round man came straight for the American president wagging a stubby finger and saying, Nyet, nyet, nyet. "Open Skies," said Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party chairman, was just a chance for the Americans to peer into Russian bedrooms.

In his diary kept at Geneva, British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan wrote, "Khrushchev is a mystery. How can this fat, vulgar man with his pig eyes and ceaseless flow of talk really be the head -- the aspirant Tsar -- of all these million of people of this vast country?" The French foreign minister described Khrushchev, as "this little man with his fat paws." Khrushchev seemed to be equal parts bluster and insecurity. He worried to his son Sergei that he was not properly dressed for dinner at the summit and that he had arrived in Geneva in a plane that was smaller than the planes of the western leaders.

Eisenhower reserved his judgment of Khrushchev, or at least concealed it from others. He did not believe in showing his cards until he absolutely had to. At West Point, young Eisenhower had skipped cadet dances to play poker. (He later bought his fiance, Mamie, her wedding dress with his card game winnings.) He was so good at poker he had to give it up--he had won too much money from his fellow officers, and his reputation as a card shark was hurting his career. He continued to play bridge, however. He was not much fun to play with, recalled his son John, who finally quit playing with him because he found his father too humorless and demanding as a partner. Ike's famous, sunny smile was to some degree a façade. Eisenhower was "far more complex and devious than most Americans realize," recalled his vice-president, Richard Nixon, in his memoirs. (Nixon added, "in the best sense of those words.") When I interviewed John Eisenhower, a retired ambassador, brigadier general and professional historian, then in his mid-80s, the son pondered his famous father, with whom he had a loving but complicated relationship. He said Ike seemed evenly balanced between open warmth and cold-bloodedness. He thought for a moment and said, with a slight smile, "Make that 75 percent cold-blooded."

In the game of bridge, partners are not allowed to speak with each other. But they can subtly signal each other by the cards they bid. Eisenhower was accustomed to difficult partners, including Generals Bernard Law Montgomery and George Patton in his role as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. Comfortable with a hidden hand, Eisenhower was one of those great leaders who are confident enough to appear humble. He had a giant ego, as well as a huge temper he struggled to contain. But he knew when to stay quiet, to appear to acquiesce, while thinking how to gain advantage several moves ahead.

In waging the Cold War, Eisenhower had many partners -- America's allies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, and the growing national security establishment. But his most important partner, Eisenhower understood, was his nominal enemy, Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1956, Eisenhower had written a private letter in which he said the problem was no longer "man against man or nation against nation. It is man against war." Eisenhower had to find a way to make Khrushchev his partner in avoiding war. The Kremlin leader was not an easy comrade in this endeavor. He threatened the west ("We will bury you!") and constantly boasted about Soviet bombs and missiles. In November 1958, the Soviet boss delivered the West an ultimatum to get out of Berlin, 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled East Germany. The city was a beacon of freedom, as well as a potential flashpoint. Khrushchev, who liked crude metaphors, compared Berlin to the "testicles" of the West that he wished to "squeeze."

By the winter of 1959, Eisenhower was under great pressure from his advisers to build up conventional forces to face off against the Soviets in Berlin. The official policy of the Eisenhower Administration was "massive retaliation" -- if the communists attacked anywhere in the world, the United States was prepared to respond with the nuclear weapons. Massive retaliation seemed like a very heavy hand -- a use-it-or-lose-it, all-or nothing approach. Wouldn't it make more sense, asked strategic gurus like Henry Kissinger and forward-thinking military men like army General Maxwell Taylor, to be able to fight back with a "flexible response," gradually ratcheting up the level of force before going all the way to what the planners called "general war", a full-scale nuclear exchange?

Presented by

Evan Thomas is the author of eight books, including The War Lovers and Sea of Thunder. Editor-at-large of Newsweek until 2010, he wrote more than 100 cover stories there and won numerous journalism awards, including a National Magazine Award. He teaches writing at Princeton and is writing a biography of Richard Nixon.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

Just In