The president who has had, perhaps, the most surprising year is none other than No. 34, Dwight Eisenhower. Continuing a recent reappraisal by historians, Jean Edward Smith published a well-received and largely admiring biography of Eisenhower in February. Now, as another campaign season has just ended, Evan Thomas offers Ike's Bluff, a perceptive analysis of the Republican president’s penchant for combining patience and secrecy to avoid nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The central premise of Thomas’ book is that the staid 1950s were anything but and, in turn, the grandfatherly, confused Eisenhower was, in fact, a shrewd operator who never let anyone – including his son – know whether he would use nuclear weapons. Maintaining inscrutability allowed Ike to avoid war at a time when the world’s two superpowers flirted with what later came to be known as mutually assured destruction.
Or, as Thomas writes of the man who first found fame leading the D-Day invasion of 1944, “Ike was more comfortable as a soldier, yet his greatest victories were the wars he did not fight.”
Unlike Smith’s biography, Thomas opts against a full life story in favor of his presidency. And the book delves into a narrower topic than just the White House years, as its main emphasis is on foreign policy. Defense spending (it was Eisenhower, of course, who rued the “military-industrial complex,” presciently so), diplomacy, occasional saber-rattling and plenty of CIA miscalculations proliferate.
Equally important, this history charts the personal ups and downs of Eisenhower amid the mounting pressures of nuclear threats. The warm, genial figure the public saw as their president simmered behind the scenes. Eisenhower had a quick-trigger temper and bore a series of ailments while trying to cope with the stresses of the presidency.
As commander-in-chief, Ike endured a heart attack, a stroke, and intestinal surgery during his two terms in office. The effects of international summits and various standoffs with the Soviets and others caused Eisenhower debilitating stomach problems and other sicknesses.
To be sure, Eisenhower was hardly a saint. He lived in a male-dominated world and could be cold to subordinates and family members alike. His dutiful wife, Mamie, once said, “I have one career and his name is Ike.” Still, he loved her and, in many ways, relied on her, as well as on his personal secretary, Ann Whitman.
Ike proved too loyal and was loath to fire anyone. And the charge by many critics that as president he was often absent is at least partially true. Thomas recounts typical workdays of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a regular informal meeting with secretary of state John Foster Dulles. Eisenhower would indulge in a pre-dinner cocktail and spend his hours after dinner reading Western novels or painting. And, most days, he practiced or played golf, or both.
Occasionally, he flashed a sharp sense of humor. In 1955, he was scheduled to deliver the commencement speech at Penn State University. Organizers asked whether he preferred to speak indoors, avoiding possible storms.
“You decide,” the president answered. “I haven’t worried about the weather since June 6, 1944.” (D-Day, remember?)
During his eight years in office, Eisenhower played 800 rounds of golf, including 200 at the storied Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, according to Thomas’ tally. The US Golf Association built a practice putting green and bunker for the president on the South Lawn of the White House in 1954.
With the exception of Ulysses Grant, no other president brought as much military knowledge to the White House. It served Ike, and the country, in good stead.
For starters, Eisenhower could, and did, ferret out military bluster, both in budgets and proposed tactics. Nuclear expansion frustrated Eisenhower as it grew into overkill, spurred by congressional, military, and contractor fearmongering.
“How many times do we have to calculate that we need to destroy the Soviet Union?” the president asked. Ike knew the Soviets were outgunned and, unlike then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and others of influence, put minimal stock in the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
His military pedigree as leader of the World War II victory gave Ike substantial public and political capital to debunk conventional wisdom. In some cases, he did. In many others, the president chose to leave matters muddled, a technique that gave him cover while giving other countries pause. At times, Thomas writes, this strategy also left millions of Americans fearful, such as the almost routine school exercises across the nation in the 1950s to duck-and-cover in preparation for an expected Soviet missile strike.
He was, as Thomas describes it, “willing to appear less than sharp, even a little slow-witted, if it served some larger purpose.”
Perhaps most surprising to those unfamiliar with Eisenhower beyond his war heroics and the building of the interstate highway system was his abhorrence of war. In 1951, a year into the Korean War, Ike gazed upon soldiers’ graves on Decoration Day and later wrote in his diary, “Men are stupid.”
As president, the former war hero bungled covert operations by allowing the disengaged CIA director, Allen Dulles, to stay on the job too long. For that mistake, Ike paid with the humiliation of the U-2 spy plane, an embarrassing episode involving an American pilot captured after being shot down in Soviet air space.
Still, Eisenhower enjoyed many more triumphs than embarrassments as president. And he averted both nuclear and protracted brush-fire wars. Thomas describes his methods as a mixture of “cleverness, indirection, subtlety, and downright deviousness.” Ike, as the author sees it, knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
When the stakes for America and the world were highest, Eisenhower played a winning hand. So, too, does his latest biographer.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.