on September 22, 2012
As a historian who has done research on Eisenhower, and as an admirer of the General/President, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Evan Thomas' book. I have had my copy since Tuesday, and have been reading it every spare moment I can get since I acquired it.
I agree with Thomas' overall thesis of the book, which is that Eisenhower was long overlooked as a President. Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and others from his generation wrote off Ike as the bubble-head who played golf for eight years as President. Therefore, any book that shows the falsehood of that assessment and presents a more accurate picture of Eisenhower's presidency is welcome.
In terms of Thomas' scholarship on Eisenhower and his thesis on Ike's presidency, the author does not really present anything new in his narrative. The assessment of Eisenhower as a cunning and insightful President who staved off war with the communist block was one that was already successfully pioneered by both Stephen Ambrose and Fred Greenstein back in the 1980's. The work of those two authors (Ambrose's Eisenhower-the President and Greenstein's Hidden Hand Presidency) started the modern age of scholarship on Eisenhower. That work has continued to produce work on Eisenhower's presidency. In recent years, new work from Jean Edward Smith and Jim Newton have also continued to support Ike's importance as a president. Therefore, if you are already someone who is well read on Eisenhower, you are not going to find much that is new on his presidency with Thomas' work.
That being said, this fact should not detract too much from Thomas' work on its own merit. Thomas' narrative is well composed, well researched, and an example of great historical storytelling at its finest. Those readers who are already familiar with the history of Eisenhower's presidency will still enjoy this book as a reaffirmation of Ike's importance to American history as a president. For those who are not familiar with Eisenhower's presidency, and thus not familiar with earlier scholarship on Ike, will learn much from Thomas' book.
I thoroughly recommend this book for both Ike aficionados and the uninitiated to Eisenhower's history. Thomas' book confirms the place of Eisenhower as one of our most important presidents. The author effectively presents the story of a president who now ranks in the top tier of U.S. Presidents for both his skills and his accomplishments in that office.
on September 30, 2012
This is a good book on Eisenhower during his presidency. Evan Thomas gives an excellent narrative, and it reads so well that there are times that you resent the call to dinner and are reluctant to put the book down.
A most recent biography Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith continued my interest in Eisenhower and thus, the purchase of this book. Even after reading the story, it is still hard to define this man. You would think that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe would have been a hard lined supporter of a strong military, but Ike was everything but that. He knew the high cost of the military, and during his presidency he worried about the smoke and mirrors that the Pentagon and their scores of generals were constantly using to promote more and improved weaponry. Ike had seen it all, and he saw it in terms that the average man could understand, for example in translating the cost of a destroyer versus the social benefits that could be attained with the same money for schools, hospitals, etc., and he was the one who warned of the military industrial complex. He simply mistrusted the people that he knew the best through decades of service to his country.
As his son once said, that in forty six years of knowing him, there were things that he still did not know about hsi father, as he held his cards close to his chest. Eisenhower during his career was careful of his friends and I got the impression that he trusted no one, maybe with the exception of his family.
His greatest challenge during his years in office was the recognition of the new technology that resulted in the capacity to wage atomic (or nuclear) war. For some time, he struggled with the very concept that man had at last developed weaponry that could destroy mankind and he was horrified by it. His maturation continued as advanced concepts arrived to show how artillery could be fitted with nuclear warheads, torpedos, and even a rocket launcher that could be fired from a jeep and whose blast would kill not only the enemy in the area but the very soldiers who launched the demon. And there were times that he felt, especially in Euroope that a nuclear response would be the last ditch effort against overwhelming numbers of Soviets.
Eisenhower from a personal side, was an excellent and brutal bridge player and early in his career with the Army, he had to quit playing poker because he had taken so much money from fellow officers that it went beyond just a game or comradery. Indeed, he held his cards close to his chest and much of this followed with the mannner that he treated his subordinates. John Foster Dulles is an interesting case in point. While many of the intellectuals scorned Dulles (Dull, Duller, Dulles) Ike kept him for years as Secretary of State until he died of cancer. The book tells little about Richard Nixon which is understandable but there was talk of dropping him from the ticket for the second run.
Also of interest is Ike's development of the interstate highway system. We take it for granted today, but Ike felt that it was necessary for people to get out of cities quickly in the event of nuclear attack.
There is interesting information on Krushchev and his insecurites and dealing with Eisenhower. Finally the author shows how when Kennedy failed with the Bay of Pigs, Ike explained to him how the CIA had bungled this operation and that JFK had not gathered all the information and conducted extensive meetings to examine the proposal from a variety of sources.
All in all, a good book. As the previous reviewer stated, there is no new material, but all of it is presented well and in a fast pace and the reader will enjoy this work immensely
on October 3, 2012
Anyone who grew up in the 1950s remembers the stereotype of Ike as a Mr. Bluster-esque fuddy-duddy, inevitably compared unfavorably with the youthful New Frontiersmen of JFK's presidency. How wrong this is! The great strength of Evan Thomas's reporting on Ike is that we see him here not only as the leader of the Free World (a title he earned the hard way during World War II) and a judicious statesman -- but as a genuine human being, with anger, passions, and profound wisdom -- displayed with the likes of Churchill and Krushchev but also with his own family (human but not always endearingly). We see him jousting with the cowboys in the CIA and throwing a golf club at his doctor. Thomas has made wonderful use of the intimate diaries and papers of his secretary, his doctor, and the Dulles brothers (themselves fascinating cases) -- as well as revealing interviews with his children -- to create the best portrait we have of Eisenhower, the man who made some of the wisest and most difficult decisions of the 20th century. Thomas's book advances the revisionist scholarship on Eisenhower to give us a fully realized portrait of a man who was up to the demands of the job -- something we wish could be said for more Presidents.
on March 10, 2013
1. Inspirational book on accountability in decision making
2. Sharp contrast to the broken #PoliticalClass concepts of leadership in America today
3. "His greatest victories were the wars he did not fight" -Evan Thomas #indeed
1. "Eisenhower was the first President to use TV as a bully pulpit, but he was not particularly good at it" (pg 16) #authenticity
2. "The people, judging from Eisenshower's high poll ratings, believed that he had sound judgment" (pg 16)
3. "too many cups of coffee, smoked too many cigarettes, slept badly, and worried far too much." (pg 18) #accountability
4. "He knew that he had a gift: the power to make people - indeed, whole peoples - trust him" (pg 28) #trust
5. "His firstborn child... "Icky", died of scarlet fever in 1921... and he never really recovered from the loss" (pg 30) like #Jefferson
6. "Eisenhower had grown up poor in Abilene, Kansas" (pg 33) #perspective
7. "President Eisenhower's day usually proceeded with the precision of a military band." (pg 43) very #process/routine oriented
8. "Let's not make our mistakes in a hurry" was one of his standard sayings." (pg 45) very #patient, risk manager of a man
9. "Never get in a pissing match with the skunk" (pg 57) to his brother Milton about #McCarthy
10. "What we found was the result of seven years of yapping was exactly zero. We have no plan." (pg 59) Ike on #Stalin's death
11. "Miss America contestants were asked to state their opinion of Karl Marx" (pg 69) #1950 zeitgeist in America during Korean War
12. "More significant was the death of Stalin, the leader most responsible for the conflict" (pg 81) good chapter contextualizing Korea
13. "The war is over and I hope my son is coming home soon" (pg 81) wars different vs recent US Presidents; #personal responsibility
14. "Learning To Love The Bomb" (pg 101) Chapter 7, illustrates how politicians in America marketed/sold #fear
15. "we live by emotion, prejudice, and pride" (pg 105) Ike in an excellent leadership note to #Churchill
16. "Eisenhower, himself a heavy editor, fiddled with his speeches until the last possible moment" (pg 111) #accountability
17. "You've got to stick your butt out more, Mr President" (pg 115) loved #golf, this was advice from Sam Snead at Augusta
18. "Eisenhower was astonished at the foolishness of the French" (pg 120) annoyed w/ France at Dien Bien Phu #Vietnam
19. "You have a row of dominos set up, and you knock the first one over" (pg 127) why he kept USA out of Vietnam #1954
20. "Eisenhower was an expert in finding reasons for not doing things" (pg 130) -Andy Goodpaster, his Staff Secretary
21. "Scientists and industrialists must be given the greatest possible freedom to carry out their research" (pg 146) #evolve
22. "Don't Worry, I'll Confuse Them" (Chapter 10) fascinating #strategy chapter on how he's play the Chinese
23. "Chiang might have dragged out the crisis had the Red Chinese not backed down. But they did." (pg 164)
24. "Eisenhower had read Clausewitz's On War - three times" (page 203) #study
25. "This fellow's licked and what's more he knows it" (pg 209) Ike on Adlai Stevenson's challenge for the Presidency #1956
26. "icy with anger, warm with satisfaction, sharp with concern" (pg 215) when Ike learned of the #U2 intelligence on Russia
27. "A crisis in leadership" (pg 255) that's what Time Magazine said about Ike in #1957, #embarrassing editorial times
28. "The President must be in some kind of partial retirement" -Walter Lippmann (pg 255) #1957, not knowing what Ike knew
29. "You can understand that there are many things that I don't care to allude to publicly" -Eisenhower (pg 260)
30. "Patience and privacy were virtues of leadership, vices of politics... he was the lonely keeper of the nation's secrets" (pg 260)
31. "Psychologically, he could handle the pressure. But physically, he could not" (pg 260) I get it
32. "The Roman Empire controlled the world... Now the communists have established a foothold in outer space" -#LBJ! (pg 276)
33. "Ike, who regarded LBJ as a phony" (pg 277) Life Magazine put Lyndon Johnson on the cover, Russian space #FearMongering
34. "Alsop did what newsmen do: he found other sources. One was Johnson, who cultivated Alsop" (pg 310) gotta love #NYTimes
35. "Eisenhower was, in effect, his own secretary of defense" (pg 314) #experienced practitioner, not political parrot
36. "honesty of purpose, calmness, and inexhaustible patience" (pg 331) Ike, on himself, and virtues of #leadership
37. "Khruschev was surprised and overjoyed to be invited to America by Eisenhower" (pg 335), keep your #enemies close
38. "He found her and crawled in beside her" (pg 352) Eisenhower's best friend, his wife #Mamie
39. "I'm Just Fed Up!" Chapter 25, classic - U2 crisis blows up with Russia/Khruschev; Eisenhower diffuses the risk, again
40. "Ike was more comfortable as a soldier, yet his greatest victories were the wars he did not fight" (pg 404) #conclusion
A great rewind of uniquely American-style Presidential leadership - buy the book.
For 40 adult years, this reader has poured over Presidential biographies and historical studies. After reading Evan Thomas's latest book, it is this reader's opinion that this biographer has hit the nail right on the head. Eisenhower is America's least appreciated President of the 20th century. It is also not generally realized that he was among our most successful Presidents (more on this later).
If you read this astute biography, the author captures the essence of the man, and his extraordinary 8 year run in office unlike his predecessor or his successor. It may probably be another generation or so before a true understanding of what Evan Thomas realizes makes it into the general history books. Too much of our history is formed by the opinions of a small group of biased intellectuals who seem to have an axe to grind. This is simply not true of this biography. Consider what it is in this book and then you be the judge as to whether you should read it.
* During the 8 year run of the 34th President, America did not go to war. The Korean War was settled very quickly when the communists knew that they would have to come to terms with the General.
* Khrushchev did not play games with Eisenhower. Is there anyone who thinks that the Russians would have even thought of precipitating a Cuban Missile Crisis if the General were President at the time?
* Is there any historian that believes that Eisenhower could even remotely be sucked into the Bay of Pigs invasion which occurred under Kennedy's watch in April of 1961? Yes, the invasion was planned while Ike was President, but there is some difference between planning and going ahead. Besides, President Kennedy to his dying days said privately "I never asked the Joint Chiefs the right question, which is I want to make this a military operation, how many Marines do we need to send in." The generals would have replied 250,000, and the JFK would have known he was being had. He would have realized "These guys want me to send in 1500 Cuban exiles to do a job that they say I would need 250,000 Marines to do." JFK would have cancelled the invasion right there and then. Ike had he been President would have asked that question. Nevertheless, historians like Arthur Schlesinger who are totally jaded towards an honest assessment of JFK because of loyalty continue to still exercise outsize influence over history's judgment of these Presidents.
* Does anyone think that Eisenhower would have gotten trapped in Viet Nam the way JFK (my personal hero by the way) and LBJ did?
* Eisenhower's parting gift to America was the speech given regarding the Military Industrial Complex. It will probably take another generation before it is considered a watershed moment in American history. It is a time when an President cried out for the citizens to become informed and take action against sinister, selfish forces that were trying to wrest control of America away from its citizens. Yes the book points out that Ike had his dark side and he could play politics in the street if he had to. At the same time, who would not associated the words integrity, and above board with the General.
* It is clear in the book that this is the only American President since the creation of Israel to stand up to our allies France, England and Israel and tell them that they were wrong and to back off over the Suez Canal crisis. All by itself this was an extraordinary decision to make.
* It is a little known fact that 8 times during his Presidency, the Joint Chiefs came to him and asked permission to use nuclear weapons, and 8 times he turned them down. He cut defense spending when all other Presidents increased it. He said, "We need to spend every dollar we must on defense, but NOT ONE DOLLAR MORE than is necessary." What a breath of fresh air he would be today.
* Many historians like to portray the President as slow, average intelligence, and boring. This is totally refuted in this wonderful, far ranging biography. Here's the other side of the story. The smartest man in the military in the 20th century was probably Fox Connor, an intellectual without equal. Ike as a young soldier spent 3 years under General Connor being tutored for the future, being prepped for World War II twenty years before the war.
The future President then goes on to serve General without equal Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines for several years. When the Japanese invade the Philippines, Eisenhower is summoned back to Washington DC where General George Marshall immediately puts him in a room and tells him, "Put together a plan for the defense of the Philippines, and come out when it's finished." As we all know Marshall has much responsibility for making Ike the future President by having him command of the Normandy invasion and race across Europe.
Marshall knew full well that whoever had that command could probably be a future President. Now these three generals, Connor, MacArthur, and Marshall were three of the most demanding men of the 20th century, and they all thought highly of the future President when he was under their commands. These men did not suffer fools, or people of average intelligence working for them. All of them pegged the future President as an extraordinary person years before he became famous which is why they had him with them.
It is this reader's opinion that this book will begin the careful reexamination of Dwight Eisenhower's Presidency which is so sorely needed to create a much more realistic assessment of what really happened and what really mattered in the mid-20th century. If you were to read and you should, David McCullough's dazzling and thoroughly engrossing biography of President Truman, and then read this book by Evan Thomas you will possess a much better understanding of the relative positions of the two men. History has re-examined Truman and elevated him to near-great status. This has not happened yet with the General, and this reader believes it is coming. The McCullough book is clear that during the Truman Administration there was crisis after crisis that Truman had to deal with, and then 8 years of peace and economic growth under the General.
How does one simply explain these constant crisis that occupied during the years before Eisenhower and after Eisenhower but not during his years in office without giving Ike the credit for bringing about a period of calm, peace, and sustained economic growth. You will have to read the book to find out. Evan Thomas has done some job with "Ike's Bluff".
If you have read the Stephen Ambrose's biographies of Eisenhower than you know that Ambrose the historian is a great admirer of the General, and this has done much to FORCE historians to reassess Ike in terms of other Presidents. Evan Thomas is now continuing this tradition and through the sheer energy of this brilliant and wonderfully readable narrative will cause historians to re-think Eisenhower's place in history which he so deserves.
When one compares this man's extraordinary life and achievements to the media created Presidents of both parties of the last 20 plus years, Eisenhower's place in history will take on an even stronger standing. Thank you for reading this review, and I hope that you will take the time to read this author's wonderful appraisal of a miss-understood gifted leader.
on October 10, 2012
My parents met campaigning for Adlai Stevenson in the mid-1950s and were linked by their disdain for Eisenhower. I grew up learning how the 1950s were a do-nothing decade and how Ike golfed and napped through his Presidency. Ike always suffered in my parents' comparisons to President Kennedy: classless, inarticulate, and complacent.
But Evan Thomas has changed my mind on Eisenhower. Ike was so much more than his carictiture - competitive, decisive, angry, driven - and with a world view that was almost always dead-on. Thomas is among our most gifted biographers - he brought to life for me someone with extraordinary capacity to think, process and maneuver - but who had some real limitations in his ability to persuade and inspire.
I've already sent two copies to friends.
on October 21, 2012
One of the book's blurbs emphasizes the author as a "storyteller", and this is the defining characteristic of the book. If you are unfamiliar with the Eisenhower presidency, this is a brisk, well-written account of the foreign policy during those years. It has vivid descriptions that you are likely to remember and lots of interesting tidbits that will likely enhance your understanding of the issues. But the demands of the narrative lead to oversimplifications.
However, if you have moderate familiarity with the period, your reaction is likely to be "Nice overview, but nothing new here." The book suffers badly from a lack of focus on the purported topic, for example, Ike's golf outings are treated on par with critical meetings with advisers and adversaries. Similarly, his medical issues get substantial coverage, but are so weakly connected to policy issues that I was often left wondering whether they were relevant or had simply been included as part of the chronology.
Be warned that this book is largely a hagiography, with some mildly critical passages appearing in the second half. If you are thinking critically while reading, you may well come to a more negative assessment of the Eisenhower presidency than the author appears to intend. A more critical approach to the problems would have enabled a better explanation and defense in the book.
The title of the book and the advertising indicate a fresh perspective. First, that perspective can easily be expressed entirely in the review, interview, or promotional essay that you likely encountered before getting here--the book adds nothing to that. Second, the perspective is _wrong_, and this inhibits the presentation and consideration of events. A "bluff" involves creating a false impression of strength, resources, self-confidence... The US was not weak, Ike knew it wasn't, knew the Soviets knew...
What this book repeatedly describes is Ike using the _possibility_ of nuclear war to keep the Soviets, and factions in the US, from stepping onto the slippery slope (irrational, unpredictable, uncontrollable course of war). He used _ambiguity_ (hints, leaks, ...) rather than bellicose threats to highlight that possibility. Although the book's accounts of the individual incidents clearly describe this approach, the author's chosen narrative limit its exploration. The irony is that the book attributes Eisenhower's accomplishment as being based on his appreciation of the dangers of the slippery slope, but its title represents an easy way to make that fatal mistake.
Also contrary to its title, the book is only modestly about the largely successful containment of the Soviets, instead giving much more emphasis to Ike's often unsuccessful efforts to contain the burgeoning military-industrial-nuclear-congressional complex. Many other histories wrongly present Ike's famous "military-industrial complex" farewell warning as a badly belated recognition of the situation.
The book mentions the supposed "Bomber Gap" and "Missile Gap", and explains that the gaps were actually in the US's favor. For example, the US had 8-30 _times_ as many strategic bombers as the Soviets. However the book doesn't highlight Eisenhower's courage and discipline in absorbing a prolonged barrage of criticism and personal attacks, especially knowing that some of those behind those attacks knew the truth. Eisenhower chose to not call the Soviet's bluff because that would likely have caused them to take destabilizing actions (such as putting offensive missiles in Cuba during Kennedy's presidency). This is another example of where the book's ill-advised title may have impeded making an important point effectively.
As the book points out early and often, Ike's method was to use the "hidden hand" -- working through subordinates and others and keeping his own thoughts private until very late in the decision process. This is a well-known but difficult management technique, in which a good manager is defined as one where the subordinates don't quite know what he is doing, but know things are going well. The problem with this for history is that in the absence of detailed diaries, it is impossible to distinguish (1) when the manager could see the path and was guiding the subordinate to it (so that the subordinate has the understanding needed to execute the plan or policy) from (2) when the manager is pushing the subordinate to explore and then accepting the discovered path as good-enough. In this book, the author repeatedly _asserts_ that with Ike it was the former case. (Classic treatment: The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader by Fred Greenstein).
The careful reader is likely to notice that the book's claims of Ike's greatness are largely based on assertions and speculation about what his role actually was, and this does a great disservice to Ike. Since direct evidence is hard to come by, for me the best evidence is viewing his presidency as part of a progression, and this requires a much better assessment of his career than the reader will find here. The book mentions that he operated the same way during WW2 as Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe, but does not give adequate weight to this: Ike was widely derided as being a "political general", not a military one, but most of his detractors would also admit that they could think of no one else who could have done that job (other than Marshall). And it barely touches on the formative experiences of his earlier military service, except his mentoring by General Fox Connor. His service under Douglas MacArthur is widely regarded as being highly influential (what not to be), but receives only a single bland sentence here. Ike's military career shows him being highly valued as a planner: working the intricate details, identifying consequences, and exploring alternatives, all while not losing sight of the goals. All the while ensuring buy-in from those required to execute the plan.
The reader will encounter many examples of subordinates deliberately thwarting the goals of the leader, with glimpses of why immediate firing wasn't pursued (not a real alternative, etc). This is a useful lesson that gets blurred out in many histories. Ike comes across as excessively tolerant of bad behavior by subordinates, and although the book acknowledges this, it doesn't try to address it. I have wondered whether this is a carry-over from his WW2 situation, or goes back further.
What intrigues me the most about Eisenhower is "What made him so very different from the other officers of his generation (despite similar experiences and opportunities)?" Probably unknowable, since so many historians have failed to produce a satisfactory explanation.
Why 3-stars ("It's OK")? While reading a history or management book, I flag passages to recommend to others, but here there was not a single one was substantial enough to warrant that. What I would have liked to recommend was too widely scattered in small passages. I worry that they don't have enough salience to be retained by the reader. But on the other hand, reading the book wasn't a waste of time.
-- Douglas B. Moran
on November 9, 2012
If you think about it (just a little bit) the idea that Eisenhower was a clueless fuddy-duddy means that a clueless fuddy-duddy rose to the highest military rank in the world and crushed the Nazis during WW II.
Does that sound very plausible to you? It doesn't seem plausible to me, though I more-or-less believed it while the media were going mad over Camelot. I was much younger then, but I'm older than that now.
A new perspective arises: the military genius who arrived in the White House with one main goal: NO MORE WAR. As the commander of the Allied Forces, Ike had seen enough slaughter to make him sick (although it was actually Patton who threw up during a visit to a concentration camp).
Let me put it this way: you didn't want to play poker with Ike. He was highly intelligent, cunning, and devious. The Army finally told him to stop the poker because he was bankrupting his opponents.
Perhaps more telling is the testimony of Kennan, the Russian expert who attended a White House meeting with this hayseed soldier, only to swallow his pride and confess (in writing) that Eisenhower soon demonstrated his intellectual ascendance over every man in the room. Surprise! You can't win a World War if you are really a clueless fuddy-duddy! But Eisenhower, like Reagan, had a carefully crafted public image that included, for Ike, a great willingness to be considered a dim lightbulb.
There is a lot to learn in this book, and a lot to enjoy. But one question still hangs in the air: the people around Eisenhower and Reagan felt that they didn't really know them. Perhaps, like good poker players, they didn't want to show their cards. But, in many instances, they did not show them to anyone.
on November 13, 2012
With so many reviews ahead of this - it's best to be brief at this ignored end of the list. Well written - and that is not necessarily routine with history. Mr. Thomas shows a clear even hand with his prose and aligns the stories and characters in a straightforward, easy to follow style.
President Eisenhower is sometimes treated dismissively in modern political history - In fact, as Mr. Thomas' book illustrates, he deserves our respect and probably, admiration. Mr. Thomas deftly shows the reader the accomplishments of Ike's eight-years as well as the miscues and occasional backfires. The central theme is Ike's aversion to war and abhorrence of the potential for a nuclear version. The author illustrates Ike's strategy as one of bluffing acceptance of nuclear war where the bluff is used to prevent the unthinkable.
The author reminds us that president Eisenhower served at a time when there were all too many for whom nuclear war was quite thinkable - even desirable in the macabre. His presidency may well have prevented a holocaust. And to some this may be especially ironic, yet as a former general officer he knew war and its consequences far better than most. A thoroughly recommended read, even as a first of this great man.
Well done: properly hyperlinked with table of contents & notes. The book works as expected with the dictionaries. There are a number of photographs - many that are not especially well formatted in size or crop for the e-book. Hardcopy page numbers may be shown at page bottom when the menu & tool bar display is activated (tap page top). The publisher, Little Brown & Co, solves the problem of hyperlinking the index by eliminating it altogether! e-Book publication quality ★★★☆☆.
on November 1, 2012
History's take on presidential performance is subject to change. Dwight Eisenhower is a case in point. As historian Richard Norton points out, Eisenhower "was considered something of a do-nothing president...Indeed, the Supreme Commander of the Normandy invasion was so subtle and self-effacing as president that historians judged him mediocre." The New Yorker's Richard Rovere, regarded Eisenhower as "a bland `standard American' incapable of nuance or subtlety." Now, fifty years after Eisenhower left office, historians are presenting his presidency in an entirely different light.
No one has done so more persuasively, dramatically and definitively than journalist-historian Evan Thomas in his new book, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World. Thomas reveals Eisenhower in thought, word and deed to be both a "deeply human" man and a courageous and consummate dissembler in the ultimate game of chance--maneuvering to prevent nuclear war.
Leading while living on the brink of nuclear annihilation brought forth Eisenhower's presidential genius. "Ike governed by indirection," Thomas writes, "not just because he preferred to, but because he had to. His ability to save the world from nuclear Armageddon entirely depended on his ability to convince America's enemies--and his own followers--that he was willing to use nuclear weapons. This was a bluff of epic proportions."
No one was better equipped by temperament and experience to pull off this sustained misdirection. Eisenhower was an ambitious, supremely confident, triumphant war hero, a skillful judge of character and motivation, a leader of focused purpose who inspired public trust and who retained presidential approval ratings of at least sixty percent for most of his eight years in office.
And, apropos of the book's title, Eisenhower was something of a card shark. For Ike, playing cards (bridge) "was a relaxing way of doing what he did all day: reading minds, weighing options, (his own and others'), thinking ahead, and concealing his intentions."
Yet despite the extent to which Ike in all ways "fit" the fundamental challenge of his presidency, the relentless pressure from foes and friends alike made Eisenhower's terms in office far more gut wrenching than glamorous. What Thomas says of Ike's sense of military responsibility applies equally to his approach to the presidency: "Always, and inescapably, Eisenhower felt the weight of command."
Descriptions of Eisenhower's loneliness, anxiety, rumination, risk, excruciating pain and declining health provide a visceral and poignant sense of his presidency. Eisenhower's torment seems inevitable given the rapid advance of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by superpowers jockeying for global supremacy, a predicament made more vexing by lack of definitive information.
The Korean War, leadership change in post-Stalin Russia, France's clumsy attempt to retain control of colonial Indochina and the aftermath of a partitioned Vietnam, regime change, to put it politely, in Iran, conflict over control of the Suez Canal, China's muscle flexing bombardment of the islands Quemoy and Matsu, all these and other situations were potential flash points which could have lead to wider, armed conflict. According to the classic military theory, once started, such conflict would eventually provoke the use of nuclear weapons. To this reader, each flare up Thomas chronicles seemed like a Cuban Missile Crisis in the making.
Some of Eisenhower's advisers seemed eager "to see the rubble bounce" and urged the use of nuclear weapons to resolve these situations. (An entire chapter of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders could be devoted to Strategic Air Command General. Curtis LeMay, after whom George C. Scott's character in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, must have been modeled.) To avoid tipping his hand to international adversaries, however, Eisenhower had to give the impression that such insanity could not be ruled out, all the while pursuing more workable and humane alternatives.
The reader is mercifully given occasional comic relief from the narrative's no exit tension. Most amusing to me is Eisenhower's comment on Republican Senate Minority Leader, William Knowland of California. Reportedly "dumfounded" by Knowland, Ike wrote in his diary, "In this case there seems to be no final answer to the question, `How stupid can you get?'" There is also Eisenhower's outburst upon realizing that a meeting had not begun in the prescribed manner: "Jesus Christ! We forgot the prayer!"
For the most part, though, Ike's Bluff is a razor's edge read--thought and discussion provoking. Questions about the balance between secrecy and disclosure in a democratic society come to mind. Ike's Bluff is an unusually rich source of for wide ranging inquiry and debate. The book should quickly become required reading for students of international affairs, leadership, power and the presidency itself.
The 2012 presidential election also came to my mind frequently as I read Ike's Bluff. (Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be presidents!) The candidate who is driven more by ego than aspiration, who does not realize, as did Eisenhower, that war is the real enemy, will not serve himself or his country well.
For Eisenhower, with his sense of purpose and duty to America, and to all the world's people, his presidency was a meaningful but self-sacrificial enterprise. Eisenhower's brilliance and Lincolnesque fortitude saved the day, or the decade. As Thomas puts it, "The 1950's were boringly peaceful (or are remembered that way) only because Eisenhower made them so."
Now that we seem to be in a condition of what some have called perpetual or continuous war, an interval of peace with justice would seem anything but boring. After dealing with nuclear threats, Eisenhower famously and prophetically warned of a different kind of fallout--the way the emerging military industrial complex, with congress doing its bidding, could contaminate the atmosphere of civil society. Hopefully a leader capable of taking on this bureaucratic colossus will come forward in time to be profiled by Evan Thomas.