In his new Eisenhower biography, “Ike’s Bluff,” Evan Thomas explodes the stereotype of President Eisenhower, revealing a man fully aware of the implications of the new nuclear age, and determined to set a template for deterrence that would save the world from annihilation. Thomas speaks with anchor Marco Werman.
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Marco Werman: In his speech, Romney quoted General George Marshall, saying the only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it. But it was Dwight Eisenhower who really mastered the art of prevention. Eisenhower was president from 1952 to 1961. In the popular imagination, at least the popular white imagination, it was an idyllic period in America, a mostly peaceful interlude between the Korean and Vietnam wars. In his new biography of Eisenhower, author Evan Thomas argues that if the 1950s were peaceful, it was because of Eisenhower’s cunning. Ike combined the skills of a brilliant military strategist with a savvy card player. The book is called Ike’s Bluff.
Evan Thomas: Ike’s central insight was that small wars lead to big wars. It may sound obvious but the fad of the day was this idea of limited war and that you could fight these brush fire wars. And most of the intellectuals, Henry Kissinger and so forth, believed that. Ike did not. Ike was a war hero who had seen a lot of war and he knew from his own experience in reading Clausewitz’ On War that wars are mutating monsters. They can get out of control. So Ike’s bluff was to threaten the ultimate war in order to avoid fighting any war, because he feared that once we started fighting a small war it would spiral into a big one. So the bluff was to threaten to go all the way.
Werman: Give us an example of how Eisenhower takes the poker face and works it into his military strategy.
Thomas: Well, Eisenhower had frequent crises with Communist Bloc countries, and in Berlin in 1958-59, Kruschev, the Soviet leader, said the West has got to be out of Berlin in six months. Ultimatum. Now this is a huge crisis for the West, and most people want to rush troops to be able to fight some kind of conventional war against the Russians. Eisenhower cuts our troop strength, because he wants to make it clear, and he says this in the National Security Council, we’re not going to gradually start with the white chips and get to the blue chips, the blue chips being nuclear weapons, it’s all or nothing. It’s all or nothing, that’s the only strategy I have, and in fact, the Russians backed off.
Werman: Did Eisenhower play poker? Was he a good card player?
Thomas: Yeah. Eisenhower was the greatest, he was so good that he had to quit, because he was taking too much money away from his fellow officers, and it was hurting his career. He switched to bridge.
Werman: Now, Evan, you recount this chilling story which happened after Eisenhower left office, about what one of Kennedy’s informal advisors, Dean Acheson, told JFK about what he should consider for when he might use the bomb. And he says, you need to give that question the most careful and private consideration well before the time when the choice might present itself. Reach your conclusion and then, and this is the really eerie part, tell no one about it at all, what your conclusion is. I mean, such a heavy piece of advice. Did Ike have kind of similar secrets bottled up inside?
Thomas: Yes, I was reading McGeorge Bundy’s book when I saw that and it just popped out at me because that is the story of Eisenhower. Talk about the loneliness of command. Eisenhower never told anyone whether he was willing to use nuclear bombs, and this is really the advice that Acheson was giving Kennedy. The ultimate responsibility for the chief executive in this age is that you can’t tell anybody because if you do, you’ll lose the deterrent effect. If you start talking about when you’d actually use these things, the deterrent effect is gone. So Ike had to hold it, this terrible knowledge, to himself, never told anybody whether he would or would not have used these weapons. His aides speculated that he wouldn’t have, but he never said.
Werman: He was dealing with this new nuclear reality, as you point out, Evan, a reordered world. Do you see any resonance with what President Obama and his successors may be facing with a nuclear Iran or other countries acquiring the bomb?
Thomas: Well, it’s like Ike all over again because we’re going to have to figure out whether to go for it or not. It’s a terrible decision facing Obama. He has said we’re not going to contain Iran. That’s what he’s said. So that means if Iran gets the bomb we’re going to have to take it out. I think Ike, if he was alive, would have been furiously doing covert action, as we are, actually, as the Israelis are, Stutznet, you know, and these computer viruses or bugs, and trying to kill Iranian scientists. I think under Eisenhower the CIA would be all over Iran. Ultimately, though, I think if Eisenhower felt that Iran had the bomb, he would not want the Israelis to do it. Not because of some diplomatic reason but because the Israelis are not that capable of it. They don’t have bunker busters, they don’t have the bombs you really need to get it done, they can’t refuel, they can’t have waves of aircraft. I think if Eisenhower would go for it, Eisenhower was an all or nothing guy, and I think that if he thought the Iranians had a bomb, he would seriously consider using a US force to take it out.
Werman: Back to that Black Ops secret that the president keeps to himself, as Eisenhower did, as Kennedy did, is that still how it works at the White House? Does anybody in the White House today know what Obama is thinking about the bomb?
Thomas: I don’t think it’s the same because you don’t have the same nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. And I think, I hope, Obama really talks out these difficult decisions about Iran. You know, I was reading, Michael Lewis had a piece about Obama in Vanity Fair, and it sounded like Obama was a fairly Socratic questioner of his own age. He wanted to have intense internal debate. I hope so, I hope he’s not just holding it for himself.
Werman: Evan Thomas, the author of Ike’s Bluff, just out. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
Thomas: Thank you. This was great.
Werman: We have more great material on Ike’s Bluff, including a blog post and a largely forgotten Eisenhower speech where he proposed abandoning the nuclear arms race altogether. They’re at TheWorld.org.
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