The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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