Gambling with the Fate of the World

Gambling with the Fate of the World

Mini Teaser: Why has there been no World War III? A new tome probes the Cold War policy most relevant to this puzzle—Eisenhower’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” threatening a nuclear response against conventional threats.

by Author(s): H. W. Brands

Nor does Thomas cover the waterfront of foreign policy. Africa gets scant mention and Latin America little beyond an account of the CIA’s part in the 1954 overthrow of the Jacobo Arbenz regime in Guatemala. The Middle East is treated sporadically. Thomas discusses Iran and the restoration of the shah in 1953, the Suez War of 1956 and the landing of U.S. troops in Lebanon in 1958. This crisis-driven coverage is appropriate to Thomas’s purpose, which is to examine Eisenhower’s approach to the big issues of national security. But it leaves the reader wondering whether Eisenhower’s responses always suited the stimuli. Mohammed Mossadegh had powerful enemies within Iran; his government might have fallen without the push from the United States. If it had, subsequent generations of Iranians would have had a harder time making a villain out of America. Thomas quotes Eisenhower as asking, at a meeting of the National Security Council on Iran, why it wasn’t possible “to get some of the people in these down-trodden countries to like us instead of hating us.” He seemed honestly puzzled. Yet he signed off on an operation that increased the hatred for the United States. If the decision was necessary—if Iran and its oil were in imminent danger of a Soviet takeover—the anti-American sentiment Eisenhower’s decision generated may have been a necessary cost of defending American security. But Thomas’s tight focus on Eisenhower gives us the view from the Oval Office without allowing us to assess the accuracy of that view—and therefore the wisdom of Eisenhower’s decisions.

THE AUTHOR recounts an intellectual exercise conducted at the beginning of Eisenhower’s first term in which the policy of containment inherited from the Truman administration was revisited and critiqued. The participants in Project Solarium (named for the White House room where they met) examined alternatives to containment, most notably an aggressive policy designed to roll back Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The group concluded that the aggressive policy, which prominent Republicans such as John Foster Dulles had endorsed while in attack-Truman mode during the 1952 political campaign, was dangerously irresponsible. Yet the exercise underscored the principal deficiency of containment: its escalating and evidently unlimited expense. Eisenhower was a fiscal conservative, and he feared that the United States might spend itself into oblivion manning the ramparts of the free world. His preoccupation became containing spending while containing communism. It inspired his adoption of the “New Look,” a strategic posture based on the expectation that nuclear weapons would be readily available to counter Soviet aggression.

Eisenhower approved the New Look, but he left its elaboration to others in the administration. Dulles took the lead, explaining to the Council on Foreign Relations in early 1954 that the United States would not allow America to be nibbled to death fighting brushfire wars in out-of-the-way places. Only months after the end of the war in Korea, a conflict that seemed to epitomize what Dulles was describing, the new approach appeared straightforward and resolute. “The basic decision was to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing,” Dulles said. His audience and foreign-policy analysts interpreted him to mean that the United States might use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union or China should those countries allow or encourage their communist protégés to attack noncommunist regimes.

This was indeed what Dulles meant. But he couldn’t follow through because the “massive retaliation” policy, as it came to be called, was incredible on its face. Would the United States really launch a nuclear war over some peripheral interest? It strained belief. Eisenhower and Dulles had the opportunity to demonstrate their nuclear resolve—or lack of resolve—that spring when Vietnamese Communists besieged the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu. Some of Eisenhower’s top military advisers, including Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought Dien Bien Phu provided the perfect opportunity to show the world that the administration was serious about making nuclear weapons part of its available arsenal. Eisenhower danced around the subject before deciding that Vietnam was a bad place for American intervention. “No military victory is possible in that kind of theater,” he wrote in his diary. Yet he pushed responsibility for America’s nonintervention onto Congress and onto the British, saying he would deploy American force only with legislative approval and with allies. He knew neither would be forthcoming. Neither was.

EISENHOWER LATER had an even better chance to show he was willing to use nuclear weapons. China claimed authority over Taiwan, to which the Nationalists had fled in 1949 after losing to the Communists on the mainland. But China lacked the amphibious ability to cross the hundred-mile Taiwan Strait, and so Beijing fulminated at the Nationalists from a distance. A couple of islands claimed by the Nationalists, however, lay within shelling distance of the mainland, and periodically the Chinese opened fire. The Eisenhower administration, in keeping with a partisan Republican fondness for the Nationalists, signed a mutual-defense pact with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, making Washington indirectly responsible for the vulnerable islands.

To the Eisenhower administration, the islands became the Sudetenland of the Cold War: strategically insignificant but politically essential. Communism was on a roll in Asia, administration officials reasoned, and to lose the offshore islands would signal that America’s guarantees were no better than those of Britain and France to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. The islands were indefensible by conventional arms, which meant the United States would have to go nuclear if the Chinese assaulted them in force.

Again, some of the president’s top advisers lobbied for a nuclear response. Chairman Radford contended that if the United States didn’t deliver at least a tactical nuclear riposte to China’s blatant provocation, the world would conclude that the New Look and massive retaliation were a sham and the Americans would never go nuclear. Dulles told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States needed to push back hard against China. “We have got to be prepared to take the risk of war with China, if we are going to stay in the Far East,” Dulles said. “If we are not going to take that risk, all right, let’s make that decision and we get out and we make our defenses in California.”

Eisenhower appeared to agree. A reporter asked him if the United States would use nuclear weapons in the event of war with China. The president replied, “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

But then he backed away. Perhaps he thought he had made his point sufficiently. Perhaps he estimated that the war fever rising on the Republican Right was getting out of hand. In any event, he deliberately muddled the question of nuclear weapons at a subsequent news conference. His press secretary, James Hagerty, cautioned him against talking the administration into a corner. Eisenhower replied with a smile: “Don’t worry, Jim, if that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.”

So he did. “The only thing I know about war was two things,” Eisenhower said, continuing:

***The most changeable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor about war is human nature. And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred and the way it is carried out. So that for a man to predict, particularly if he had the responsibility for making the decision, to predict what he is going to use, how he is going to do it, would I think exhibit his ignorance of war; that is what I believe. So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a President.***

Eisenhower was pleased with his obfuscation, but matters had gotten beyond his control. He had placed himself and the country in a position where the decision to initiate war—a war that would require a nuclear response from America—lay with the Chinese. And he couldn’t say what the Chinese would do. In his diary, he remarked that war was “entirely possible.” And it would be over some trivial bits of real estate. “Those damn little offshore islands,” he muttered amid the crisis. “Sometimes I wish they’d sink.”

The Chinese spared Eisenhower and the world a war. Continuing to denounce the Nationalists and the Americans, they settled for sporadic shelling of the islands rather than a concerted assault. Thomas gives Eisenhower more credit than he deserves for the outcome. Thomas concedes the president took a gamble, but he likens it to that of an experienced poker player. “Eisenhower was able to bluff without showing his hand,” Thomas says, employing the metaphor of his title. “Such were the odds of the gambler.”

Thomas’s book breaks little ground unfamiliar to Eisenhower specialists. The revision of Eisenhower’s reputation as a divot-chopping dullard began three decades ago. Thomas cites the pertinent academic sources and the documents on which the revision was based. The masterful Ike he portrays has been a standard feature of the literature for some time. Thomas’s treatment is valuable nonetheless for the verve of its telling and convenience of bringing disparate and specialized sources together.

Pullquote: Eisenhower wasn’t out of his mind. But the policy structure over which he presided verged on the irrational.Image: Essay Types: Book Review