Thomas also adeptly integrates recent research on Soviet leadership and decision making. A central challenge for Eisenhower during the fifties was figuring out who was in charge in Moscow, particularly after Stalin’s death in 1953. Not until the 1955 summit meeting at Geneva, where Nikita Khrushchev overruled Nikolai Bulganin to nix Eisenhower’s proposal to open the skies of each superpower to reconnaissance flights by the other (a rejection that cost the United States little, as the U-2 program was well under way), did American leaders perceive how the struggle was playing out. “I saw clearly then, for the first time, the identity of the real boss of the Soviet delegation,” Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs.
Yet discerning Khrushchev’s emergence afforded only modest guidance to American policy. Khrushchev was unpredictable, blustering one day, backtracking the next. Uncertainty about Khrushchev and his intentions was part of the grand imponderable facing American policy makers during the Cold War. And it necessarily affects any judgment of Eisenhower’s presidential performance. A president may be decisive, bold, articulate and charismatic. Eisenhower was sometimes these and sometimes not. But the most basic question about a president is: Is he right? Does he accurately perceive the world? Does he understand the motives and intentions of his competitors and counterparts? Does he foresee the consequences of his actions?
American strategic planning and foreign policy during the Cold War were designed to deter or defeat an attack by the Soviet Union. The United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to that end, and it engaged in wars in Korea and Vietnam that claimed nearly a hundred thousand American lives. Was the money well spent? Were the deaths necessary? Did the Soviet Union ever seriously contemplate attacking the United States?
Regarding the Eisenhower years, Thomas thinks not. “The fear of Soviet attack that gripped policy makers in the early 1950s seems exaggerated, even paranoid, from a post–Cold War perspective,” he says. “It turns out that the Soviets were even more afraid of an attack than the West was.” Thomas doesn’t address the likelihood of a conventional attack in Europe, but on the subject that kept Americans awake at night he declares, “During Dwight Eisenhower’s term of office, the chances of the Soviet Union even trying to launch a nuclear attack on the United States were remote.” Soviet nuclear capabilities were no match for those of the United States, and the Soviets knew it.
Eisenhower knew it too. Thus, Thomas wonders why the president let Americans think a Soviet attack was a genuine possibility, especially during the post-Sputnik period when fears of the apocalypse reached alarming proportions and eroded his standing with the American people. “It is puzzling that Eisenhower did not do more to reassure his frightened countrymen,” Thomas says. He suggests that this was part of Eisenhower’s big bluff. “Perhaps he believed that for the American nuclear threat to be credible to the watching Russians, the Americans, too, had to believe that nuclear war was a real (if remote) possibility.”
ALL THIS points to an inescapable conclusion: the angst Americans felt about nuclear war during the fifties was largely self-inflicted. The foremost threat to world peace in that era was not the Soviet Union or China but the United States. Soviet aggression consisted almost exclusively of ill treatment of those already in the Soviet sphere; Soviet foreign policy was marked by caution rather than adventurism. The Chinese sent troops to Korea after American troops approached the Yalu River, but otherwise they too stayed close to home. When Eisenhower and Dulles fretted about the need to go nuclear, they were responding not to threats to American security but to challenges to American credibility—to their credibility. And when that credibility was strained, the strain owed to such improbable guarantees as the one given to Chiang over the offshore islands.
Eisenhower wasn’t cynical, but he recognized that cynicism—and narrow self-interest—drove much of American Cold War policy. The army and its political and industrial sponsors resented, resisted and ultimately defeated his emphasis on nuclear weapons. The New Look lost its way not only because Eisenhower was never willing to pull the nuclear trigger but also because Congress refused to unfund conventional forces. The result was the worst of both worlds: the high risk of reliance on nuclear weapons along with the high cost of procurement of conventional arms. Eisenhower was a proud man who didn’t lightly admit defeat, but his farewell address, delivered in the weary tone of an old man finally showing his age, essentially acknowledged that much of American national-security policy was being dictated by a “military-industrial complex” for purposes only tangentially related to American security.
The subtitle of Thomas’s book—“President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World”—sounds like something the marketing department at Little, Brown and Co. cooked up. But to the extent that the subtitle captures the reality of Eisenhower’s presidency, the reader is compelled to ask whom Eisenhower was saving the world from. He himself wouldn’t have said he was saving the world, but he would have said he was guarding America and its allies against communism. And in defending his nuclear brinkmanship, he would have argued that strong measures were required to hold back the communist tide. Yet, as the crisis in the Taiwan Strait revealed, these strong measures entailed risks of nuclear war for which Eisenhower and the United States would have borne the blame. Arthur Radford wanted just such a war to demonstrate America’s seriousness. But most of the world would have thought the Americans were out of their minds to launch a nuclear war over islands the Americans themselves judged inconsequential. And the ironic result doubtless would have been to win far more converts to communism.
Eisenhower wasn’t out of his mind. But the policy structure over which he presided verged on the irrational. Eisenhower held back the irrationality, with difficulty. He saved America from itself—and in doing so, maybe he did save the world.
H. W. Brands has written various books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent title is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (Doubleday, 2012).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