Ike the Winter Soldier

Eisenhower's glowing foreign-policy reputation ignores his tragic post-White House cheerleading for escalation in Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson visits Dwight Eisenhower as he recuperates after a 1968 heart attack. (Associated Press)

Today, everybody likes Ike. Liberals see Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy as a model of strategic restraint. Conservatives view him as a tough but shrewd warrior president.  But there’s another side to Ike, one that’s often ignored: The story of his political life after leaving the White House. Ike in winter became a ferocious hawk on Vietnam who helped propel America deeper into the quagmire.

Eisenhower was the son of pacifist Mennonites who fretted about his love of military history. He became a hero of World War II and the architect of D-Day. And Ike also understood the price of war. After becoming president in 1953, he hammered out a truce in the Korean War. In 1954, Eisenhower resisted entreaties to intervene in Vietnam following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Indeed, during the last seven-and-a-half years of Eisenhower’s presidency, only a single American service member was killed by hostile fire (in Lebanon in 1958). Eisenhower famously left the White House in 1961 warning about “the military-industrial complex.”

Some commentators have seen Obama as a successor. Both presidents entered office in the shadow of a stalemated war; both favored foreign-policy restraint and cool-headed realism. Fareed Zakaria wrote on “Why Barack is Like Ike.” “Eisenhower understood, as Obama surely does,” Jeffrey Frank wrote, “how America’s role can change indelibly in a moment: that sending a single air strike, or soldier or, as happened with later Administrations, thousands of soldiers, binds us to the outcome.”

These odes to Eisenhower’s foreign-policy judgment always end with his retirement in 1961 to a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But Eisenhower lived for another eight years. He didn’t retreat from public life and paint pictures of world leaders like George W. Bush, but remained a major figure on the national stage. He enjoyed enormous respect and credibility as a war hero, the Republican Party’s elder statesman, and after 1964, one of only two ex-presidents still alive (the other being Harry Truman). Lyndon Johnson relied heavily on the counsel of a man who knew the burdens of office.

With the United States on the brink of a major intervention in Vietnam, the nation needed Ike’s sense of caution and restraint, and his recognition that the use of force can trap a country in foreign adventures. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s good judgment vanished during the 1960s, as he urged officials into ever-greater escalation in Vietnam. As Andrew Johns detailed in his book on the Republican Party and the war, Vietnam’s Second Front, Eisenhower sought victory in Vietnam by almost any means.

In February 1965, Eisenhower spent two hours explaining to LBJ’s inner circle the vital importance of “denying Southeast Asia to the Communists,” and the need to massively expand the bombing of North Vietnam. But air power didn’t work, and by the summer of 1965, South Vietnam was crumbling in the face of a Communist insurgency. LBJ faced a critical decision about whether to send large numbers of American troops, and Ike urged the president to Americanize the war. “When you once appeal to force in an international situation involving military help for a nation, you have to go all out!” Eisenhower told Johnson. “We are not going to be run out of a free country that we helped establish.”

As the fighting descended into stalemate, Eisenhower resisted a negotiated peace: “I have no patience whatsoever with the people that want to pull out of Vietnam at once, or are otherwise prepared to surrender principle.” In 1966, he spoke to LBJ by phone, telling him that winning in Vietnam was more important than fighting poverty or reaching the moon. The following year, Eisenhower urged Congress to declare war on North Vietnam, so that Americans would stay focused on the mission rather than getting distracted by the Great Society. Meanwhile, he exhorted LBJ to expand the war. “This respecting of boundary lines on the map, I think you can overdo it,” he said. The U.S. should pursue the Communists into Laos, Cambodia, and even North Vietnam, and ignore the “‘kooks’ and ‘hippies’ and all the rest that are talking about surrendering.”

The plan was so hawkish it made Richard Nixon nervous. Nixon felt that Ike may be right from a “military standpoint,” but the diplomatic and political consequences would be dangerous, running “a substantial risk of widening the ground conflict in Vietnam.”

In the lead-up to the 1968 elections, Ike threatened to hammer candidates who took a dovish stance: “If any Republican or Democrat suggests that we pull out of Vietnam and turn our backs on the more than thirteen thousand Americans who died in the cause of freedom there, they will have me to contend with. That’s one of the few things that would start me off on a series of stump speeches across the nation.”

If Ike in winter had retreated from public life, and railed against the peaceniks from his farm in Gettysburg, it might have mattered less. But Eisenhower was still a highly influential player who reinforced LBJ’s hawkish views and made it more difficult to find an exit strategy from a tragic conflict.

General Douglas MacArthur once said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. The nation might have been better off if Ike, as a counselor on Vietnam, had faded away.