Friday, October 26, 2012

What We're Reading: New History

We are currently in the midst of a period of historical revisionism about the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s time in office has been until recently viewed as a period where the heroic general of World War II ascended rather naturally to the American presidency in the years after the war, an office in which he did not so much govern but reign during the complacent and prosperous 1950s, a period remembered culturally as a uneventful and harmonious time in American history. His job, like the era itself, has been thought of as a kind of reward and leisure that justly followed the work of winning the war. Victory was an engine that moved the country forward while a somewhat aloof Ike played the links.

Recent books on Eisenhower have revisited the early years of the Cold War and the Eisenhower presidency, and they present a different portrait of the period, reminding us of the dangerous state of the world at the time and the international challenges that faced Eisenhower (see for example Jim Newton’s Eisenhower: The White House Years, previously reviewed in this blog, Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World by William Lee Miller, and Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith). These authors show us an engaged and, indeed, beleaguered president, one who was intimately involved with each crisis and made critical decisions that preserved American interests and kept international peace. The public image projected by Eisenhower’s administration was one of competence and patience. Such deliberation was sometimes branded by rash critics as behavior that was slow and oblivious, but Eisenhower was ever the enemy of what he referred to as hysteria and knee-jerk reactions. One of his favorite cautions was “let’s not be in a hurry to make our mistakes.” The low-key public image was a calculated choice, meant to reassure the American public and American allies and to project confidence and strength. Bluster was neither politic nor the Eisenhower style.

Thomas’s book, like these other recent titles, presents a similar picture of an active and engaged president, but it is Thomas’s desire to understand Eisenhower’s thinking and character, and relate that portrait to his decision-making, that makes this book particularly successful. No recent book will leave the reader with a better understanding of Eisenhower’s character, of what motivated him, and how he led, than Ike’s Bluff. A sense of intimacy is achieved because Thomas does more than recount the more commonly known anecdotes. He has mined the rich resources of oral history archives to be found at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and elsewhere, as well as unpublished diaries of principal players in the Eisenhower administration. He also conducted extensive interviews with John Eisenhower, Eisenhower’s son, and Eisenhower’s grandchildren. He has skillfully integrated the apposite stories and insights he found in these sources with words spoken by Eisenhower in speeches, press conferences, and in meetings of the National Security Council.

All of this is in service of giving us an understanding of how Eisenhower governed in what were in fact very dangerous years, of understanding his achievement and realizing not only how he kept international peace but the personal toll it took on him. It makes a reader realize how lonely and difficult a job the presidency can be. Eisenhower brought to the office the experience and perspective of a military commander, and that at times seemed to make him almost isolated in his own administration. But it let him stand as well outside the domestic political distortions that so often become entangled with critical foreign policy decisions and decisions about when to use military force. He did not challenge the basic assumptions and goals of American Cold War policy. His object was to find the best way to use American military strength to achieve those goals while preserving peace. His “bluff” was to avoid engaging in conventional ground wars and to convince enemies that the United States, when it came to issues that it identified as critical to its security, would use every tool in its arsenal, including nuclear weapons. This was a policy known as “massive retaliation,” one that as the Soviet arsenal grew was replaced in the next decade by an understanding that nuclear war would result in mutually assured destruction and that military action less than “nuclear” would perhaps need to be employed through an application of “flexible response.” To make this bluff credible, he used his more hawkish secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to hint often at a more aggressive course of action than he himself might be willing to take in the end. His strategy for the time was the measured response of someone who knew the cards he held and the way they most effectively might be played. His experience and perspective seemed to make him exactly the right person to guide American international affairs at the time, and it is hard to imagine someone from a political background being able to perform in the office with the same effectiveness Eisenhower demonstrated.

Thomas’s portrait of Eisenhower suggests faults as well: his struggles to be patient, his lifelong battle to control his temper, and his penchant for covert actions that led him to give a loose reign to CIA Director Allen Dulles (covert actions and plans that were to cost the United States international goodwill and trust for decades to come). And a misjudgment on his part--granting permission for a U-2 flight over Soviet airspace just before an important summit with the Soviets in Paris--set back détente for many years after the Soviets downed the plane and dramatically walked out of the conference when it convened a short time later. It was an incident that Eisenhower believed was the greatest mistake of his administration. The crisis came late in his administration and it derailed what Eisenhower hoped would be his great legacy, détente and a negotiated end to the growing nuclear arms race.

The lessons that Eisenhower had learned from experience were that new weapons, however terrible, will be used in warfare if a nation’s survival is at stake, that small-scale conflicts can easily escalate into larger ones, that combat forces should not be put into battle unless there is a clear route to victory, and that arms races and large arsenals weighted political deliberations in favor of decisions to go to war. He realized that a modern military nation, even a democracy, whose business becomes that of endlessly arming itself can do so not only at a great economic and social cost but at the price of liberty itself. For Eisenhower, the passionate commitment was not to be found in extremes but in holding to moderation and the middle road. It was a view of a boy from the Midwest who grew up poor and had a conservative sense of responsibility when it came to the waste of money or the lives of soldiers. They were values that served us well as America, the greatest power in the world in the wake of the Second World War, began under Eisenhower’s leadership to shoulder its international responsibilities.

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