Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end as he had achieved success throughout his military career, not through inspiration but unremitting and intelligent application to the problem. During the election campaign, on October 25, 1952, he administered a stinging but meticulously documented and factual critique of the origins of the war, and added the dramatic line: “I shall go to Korea.”
And so he did, only a few weeks after the election. He ate chow with the soldiers of his old regiment, and most importantly climbed into the back seat of a two-man single-prop artillery-spotting aircraft and flew the length of the battle line, studying the cold, muddy hills that had so much blood now in their soil. No Secret Service agent today would possibly have permitted such a trip. It was vintage Eisenhower: He was going to understand this thing, and he was going to do so by seeing for himself.
Upon his return and on taking office he commissioned a major review of Korea policy by the National Security Council staff. The language of NSC 147 did not sing, but it looked at six different courses of action, weighed their pros and cons, and considered a range of possibilities up to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Eisenhower’s key foreign-policy and defense advisers deliberated fully over its recommendations. It was the kind of staff work that had, less than a decade before, enabled D-Day.
There was no stroke of genius that ended the Korean conflict: Stalin’s death helped most of all, although broad hints, deliberately dropped, that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was being considered probably did not hurt. But end it Eisenhower did, without paying the Communists the price they hoped to exact for ending the war, namely, control of their soldiers who had been taken prisoner by United Nations forces and did not want to return to dictatorship.
Eisenhower’s foreign policy was hardly beyond criticism: In retrospect, even he seems to have concluded that his harsh treatment of Britain and France over the Suez crisis may have been a mistake. His Atoms for Peace program was no help in limiting nuclear proliferation. But it was, on the whole, like the man himself, solid and sensible, grounded not simply in an American version of realpolitik, but in his understanding of a larger contest of values as well. “We failed to read and outwit the totalitarian mind,” he told voters in October 1952, and “I know something of this totalitarian mind” because throughout World War II “I carried a heavy burden of decision in the free world’s crusade against the tyranny then threatening us all.”
Ike was a product of his time and place. His contact with Jews throughout most of his military career was limited, but in 1945 he made sure that Signal Corps photographers would record the images of the Nazi death camps. Almost immediately after the liberation of Ohrdruf camp he visited there, bringing along his senior leaders, including George S. Patton, who vomited at the sights. “I made the visit deliberately,” Eisenhower said later, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” He ordered the widest possible dissemination of the photographs.