The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower

But Ike was an all-or-nothing man. He knew from his own experience and his close reading of Clausewitz's On War a fundamental truth: War is a constantly mutating monster. Politicians who think they can control it are fooling themselves. Little wars become big wars with consequences few can anticipate. So Ike was determined not to fight any war. And, once he had ended the Korean conflict (partly by threatening to use nukes) six months after taking office, he kept America out of even small wars for the next eight years.

He was able to do this by bluffing. His aides urged him to use small or "tactical" nuclear weapons in crises in 1954-5 -- to stop communist advances in Vietnam and Red China from taking National Chinese islands off the coast. Ike blandly, and a little scarily, publicly avowed that nuclear weapons had become "just like bullets" and suggested he was willing to use them. He never did, and his closest aide, General Goodpaster, always insisted that Ike never would have used nuclear weapons. But Ike never told anyone his true intentions, which was the only way to be credible about the threat.

Unlike more modern politicians, Eisenhower had an enormous capacity to both accept responsibility and keep quiet about it. (Warned by advisers to watch what he said about a crisis with Red China at a press conference in March 1955, Eisenhower replied, "Don't worry, I'll just confuse them" -- and he did. Ike was not afraid to appear a little slow if it suited his purposes.) In his second term in office, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite, in October 1957, many Americans were near hysteria. Was a Soviet surprise missile attack next? Eisenhower's handling of the crisis shows a leader who refused to pander, who understood he was playing a long and dangerous game that required patience and a shrewd gambler's instinct.

Eisenhower came under immense pressure from Congress and within his own administration to build up U.S. forces. He resisted: he believed that too much military spending would hurt national security by running up a vast debt and harming the economy (Defense spending was over half of federal spending in those days, as opposed to less than one quarter today). He privately scorned "those boys" over at the Pentagon (his former military colleagues) who clamored for bigger weapons. He imitated Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas trying to whip up public fears by raising his arms heavenward and crying out, "How long? Lord, how long?" That November, the poet Robert Frost came to see Eisenhower in the Oval Office and gave him a book of poems inscribed, "The strong are saying nothing until they see." "I like this maxim perhaps best of all," Ike wrote in his memoirs.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev shared a secret. The Soviets were not as threatening or powerful as they seemed to be. Khrushchev's claim that the Soviets were cranking out missiles "like sausages" was an empty boast. Weakened by Nazi invasion and Soviet rule, Russia could barely feed its people. In 1959, the Soviets had some obsolete bombers but no nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States. Eisenhower knew this, or was able to surmise it, because America had developed a spy plane, the U-2, capable of flying over the Soviet Union and taking detailed photographs. In some 20 flights over three years, the U-2 had not located a single operational ICBM.

To be sure, Eisenhower worried deeply about nuclear war. After a secret briefing about the impact of bombs a thousand times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (a 200-foot tidal wave would swamp New York), he gloomily remarked that he felt like shooting himself. At the same time, he was on guard against hype and hysteria. Entering a massively reinforced shelter built for the president and his entourage in the North Carolina mountains, Eisenhower remarked to an aide, "My God, until now, I didn't realize how scared we are." He was doubtful of Pentagon estimates that the Red Army could overrun Western Europe in a couple of weeks. "It took us three months just to take Sicily," noted that former Allied commander.

Eisenhower wanted to meet Khrushchev face to face, to take his measure and get past the angry threats. In September 1959, he invited the Kremlin leader to the presidential retreat at Camp David. "Kemp David?" Khrushchev asked, recalled his son Sergei. "What sort of camp is that?" He wondered if it was like Prinkipo Island in the Black Sea, were Soviet leaders had been asked to meet with Western envoys in 1919, a bleak place where "stray dogs were sent to die."

Khrushchev insisted on flying to Washington on the huge new Soviet airliner, the Tu-114, despite safety concerns over cracks in its engine, because it would tower over American airliners. Ike took Khrushchev on a helicopter ride over the Washington suburbs at rush hour to show him American prosperity -- housing developments and highways. Khrushchev claimed to see only traffic jams, but he asked about buying three helicopters (and a Boeing 707).

Eisenhower could see that Khrushchev was canny and capable of human warmth, even empathy. He seemed not at all mad, certainly not suicidal. Khrushchev had, after all, survived Stalin's purges. He wanted respect from the west -- but also peace, and he was willing to reach for it. Still, years of misunderstandings and mistrust are hard to overcome. After two days, the informal summit seemed headed nowhere. "Impasse," Eisenhower's aide Andy Goodpaster scribbled on a notepad.

But Ike had an idea. He asked Khrushchev if he'd like to visit his farm at Gettysburg, just 20 miles away. When Khrushchev calmed down enough to say yes, Eisenhower quickly called his son's wife, Barbara, and told her to produce the three Eisenhower grandchildren, all scrubbed up, on the porch of the farm in 30 minutes. That worked. As Eisenhower had divined, Khrushchev was a sentimentalist; he too worried about his grandchildren in a nuclear-armed world. The Kremlin boss removed his ultimatum to the West to get out of Berlin.

The next spring, his last in office, Eisenhower wanted a full-fledged summit meeting to try to formally ease East-West tensions with a nuclear test ban agreement. His advisers pressed that the United States first needed more U-2 flights to spy on possible Russian missiles.

Eisenhower "agonized," he later recalled. Khrushchev knew about earlier U-2 flights -- they had been picked up by Soviet radar. But the Soviet leader had said nothing, rather than admit that the Americans could fly overhead with impunity. At the same time, the Soviets were developing surface to air missiles that were climbing towards the U-2's 70,000 foot ceiling. Ike feared that a shoot-down on the eve of the summit could wreck his delicate peace dance with Khrushchev. The decision whether to fly the U-2 had long eaten at Ike, who often got down on his hands and knees on the floor of the Oval Office to trace the route of the spy plane on giant maps. After reversing himself twice on a U-2 go/no-go decision in April 1959, Ike tried to unwind on the golf course. He ended up throwing his sand wedge at his personal doctor, Howard Snyder. Snyder had innocently yelled out, "Nice shot" after a wobbly attempt, and Ike had exploded, "Nice shot, hell!" and tossed his club so hard it nearly broke Snyder's leg.

Ike had a penchant for subterfuge. Rather than deploy whole armies, he preferred covert action. In his first term, he had approved of CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala. The U-2 program was run by an ambitious CIA man named Richard Bissell. Eisenhower, who usually liked to be in control, gave Bissell and the CIA considerable leeway in the secret world. Bissell was brilliant, but reckless as well as deceitful. He did not tell the White House about an Air Force study showing that the Soviet SAMs were now capable of bringing down a U-2.

A Soviet missile shot down an American U-2 on May 1, 1960, just two weeks before the scheduled summit meeting in Paris. "I want to resign," Ike said to his faithful assistant, Ann Whitman, as he entered the oval office after hearing that the Soviets had captured the American pilot, Francis Gary Powers (the CIA had misled Ike into thinking U-2 pilots would die by their own hands or when the plane blew up). The summit meeting was over before it began. Arriving in Paris, Khrushchev, who had his own hard-liners back home to worry about, walked out after an angry tirade.

The Cold War entered its darkest period. Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, may have been young and vigorous and a good deal more glamorous that Ike. But he lacked Ike's experience and cunning. JFK allowed himself to be bullied by Khrushchev at a summit meeting in 1961 and fell for the "flexible response" theories suggesting that Americans could and should fight "limited wars" against global communism. The result was U.S. combat troops in Vietnam.

Eisenhower should have tried harder to educate JFK, whom he regarded as green and callow. But by January 1961 - by this time, the first president ever to reach age 70 - Ike was worn out. He had suffered from a heart attack (1955), an intestinal operation (1956), and a stroke (1957). He was taking too many sleeping pills and not sleeping. His advisers kept telling him to rest, lest he agitate his heart with stress. "What do they think this job is?" Ike wondered.

We now think of the 1950s as a calm and complacent time (aside from fall-out shelters and pervasive fear of nuclear war). But if the 1950s were somehow safely boring, it's partly because Ike made them so. The United States saw steady peace and prosperity. "By God," Ike said more than once. "It didn't just happen."

This post is adapted from the forthcoming Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World.

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