Dwight D. Eisenhower is recalled today as a man of war — the consummate military politician, commander of D-Day, liberator of Nazi Europe. In memory, his presidency is but a bland afterthought, a time when little was questioned and little accomplished.
But in recent years a new burst of scholarship has emerged, challenging the conventional notion that the 34th president was a pleasant placeholder between the transformative administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and the Harry Truman coda that followed) and John F. Kennedy (and the Lyndon B. Johnson epilogue).
First came Fred I. Greenstein, who portrayed Eisenhower as a lot shrewder than we thought, followed earlier this year by Jean Edward Smith, whose magisterial biography portrayed Ike as the canny architect of eight years of peace amid Cold War tensions and Sputnik scares. Evan Thomas’s “Ike’s Bluff’’ is the latest brick on the load, arguing that the old warrior became the most thoughtful, most committed peacekeeper of his time.
This portrait breaks itself into two parts, “Duty’’ and “Honor,’’ beginning in 1953 and covering both of Eisenhower’s terms. Here is its thesis: Shocked by what he saw in the Nazi death camps, scarred by humankind’s willingness to employ the inhumane in the service of mechanized killing, terrified by the superpowers’ growing capacity for annihilation, Eisenhower developed what Thomas called an “overwhelming, single, fixed pre-occupation: the avoidance of war.’’
“Ike’s Bluff’’ is an imaginative, approachable volume that may well accelerate Eisenhower’s slow but seemingly inexorable movement toward presidential greatness, much as David McCullough’s popular histories revived the historical reputations of Harry Truman and John Adams, both left for dead on the scrap heap of history. Indeed, in his 2010 book “The War Lovers,’’ Thomas, a veteran journalist and historian, already has managed the unimaginable. He actually got 21st century Americans, many of whose idea of history begins with Civil War re-enactments and ends with History Channel documentaries about World War II, to read about the Spanish-American War.
The “bluff’’ of Thomas’s title is Eisenhower’s wager that by publicly asserting his openness — even his promiscuous willingness — to use nuclear weapons he could assure that they would not be used.
In the view of Vice President Richard Nixon, perhaps the most complex and devious figure of the time, Eisenhower was “a far more complex and devious man than most people realized.’’ The former general, an accomplished bridge and poker player, sometimes compared national-security decisions to the maneuvers and feints at the card table. Those games, after all, require players to think strategically and to take a measure of rivals.
As a result, a man nearly obsessed with the fear of nuclear conflict and contemptuous of excessive defense spending — and passionate about assuring America not become a garrison state — emerged, in actions as in words, as an accomplished master of the obfuscatory arts.
Though the president, who once asked how many H-bombs it would require to knock the earth off its axis, had contemplated using nuclear weapons, by 1957 he had sworn them off — though not publicly. “If he ever let on, even to his most intimate friends, that he had no intention of using nuclear weapons, he risked undercutting his entire strategy,’’ Thomas writes.
In truth, Eisenhower saw danger ahead: not only foreign Communism but also domestic economic ruin. He was a man of exquisite balance at a time when there was no diplomatic, military, or political equilibrium, all of which makes his achievement the more remarkable.
To this effort, Eisenhower, who read Clausewitz three times as a young man, mobilized his intelligence, his judgment, his experience, and his worldwide credibility — and, alone save Abraham Lincoln and perhaps Lyndon B. Johnson, sacrificed his own profile among contemporaries to his broader goals.
“For a strong man with a sizeable ego, Eisenhower was remarkably willing, on occasion, to let himself appear disengaged, even weak,’’ writes Thomas. “He kept the presidency above the political fray, while pretending to be oblivious to the carping of pundits, a price he was willing to pay to further the larger end of keeping America out of war.’’
To be sure, Eisenhower spoke belligerently — or at least Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who originated the phrases “brinksmanship’’ and “massive retaliation,’’ did — and carried a big stick. But that was the whole idea. “Ike wanted the world to believe that America would go to the brink of nuclear war if it had to — indeed, that the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in even a small conflict,’’ Thomas argues.
And because he didn’t think modern conflict could be contained he resisted preparing for limited wars and was deeply skeptical of civil-defense spending, even using his own bomb shelter for golf practice. His military budget was so spare that Congress appropriated much more than the president requested. He was focused, privately but systematically, on disarmament — and on dismembering what he called, in his farewell address, the military-industrial complex, a phrase and a concept that have outlived him.
In all of this Eisenhower, ridiculed for a generation as a symbol of shallowness and post-war conformity, had one great insight, appreciated only now: that his great opponent wasn’t Khrushchev but war itself. And so Evan Thomas is right. The greatest victories of the man who helped win World War II were “the wars he did not fight.’’David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.