Analyse the contribution made by President Eisenhower to world politics and the Cold War between 1953 and 1961.


Dwight David Eisenhower was elected in defiance of his party’s isolationist instincts. In 1952, Robert Taft and John Bricker, both of Ohio, were much more in sympathy with Republican members; in those primaries that were held, Taft won 35% overall to Eisenhower’s 26%. In addition, during the Republican convention—which was entered with no candidate having a majority—Eisenhower’s supporters had to resort to rule changes to exclude Taft’s Southern supporters and to secure the nomination. The furious reaction to these events of Taft followers, such as the highly influential Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, illustrated how far from the GOP mainstream ‘Ike’ was, and was the principal reason why Eisenhower was saddled with Richard Nixon as a running mate and a requirement that, at some point, he shake the hand of Joe McCarthy.

The circumstances of Eisenhower’s nomination may not seem immediately relevant to the foreign policy pursued by his administration, but in truth they are. Eisenhower’s backers in the Republican Party were men like Henry Cabot Lodge, and Thomas Dewey. Both were members of the interventionist, globalising wing of the Eastern Establishment who had bet heavily on the former Supreme Commander of European Forces when he was simply President of Columbia University. Once nominated, Ike had to balance such people against his own grassroots and party opponents. This set the tone for his later government.  Given the circumstances of his elevation, it is not difficult to see how Ike could be at once perceived as pro-coexistence and pro-confrontation when it came to US-Soviet relations.  The facts that he was elected as the Korean War was still ‘hot’, at a time when Stalin was securing his grip both on atomic weapons and Eastern Europe, but also when the United Nations Organisation was still seen as a viable independent international entity also helps explain the conflicted nature of Ike’s performance and legacy.

Eisenhower began his time in office with the ‘New Look’, a supposedly hard-headed rejuvenation of policy based on the idea of communist ‘rollback’ and massive retaliation. He followed with the domino theory of East Asian vulnerability, focussing on the mineral and energy resources of the region as well as the possibility that Western allies might be forced into China’s orbit should the US not take up the strategic defence of Korea and Vietnam. It should be stressed that none of these ideas were unique to Ike; in fact, his administration, as Harry Truman feared, followed the path laid out by the Pentagon in general and the Strategic Air Command in particular. This is in itself ironic given the later association in the public mind of the retiring Ike with his farewell address, in which he warned of the alliance of a military-industrial complex with congressional majorities.

There was a much darker side to the Eisenhower administration, which was probably a combination of pro-active CIA and Defense Department methods and learned behaviours from World War Two. It also followed directly from the Truman Administration’s NSC-68 endorsement of anticommunist efforts. This was reflected in the coups which the US government clearly sponsored in Iran in 1953, and Guatamala in 1954, as well as its clandestine behaviour in Cuba after 1959. The United States also directly supported dictators in Venezuela, Paraguay, Dominica, and right-wing groups in Peru, with Nixon not only sent to suffer the opprobrium of Latin American crowds but also to endorse Fulgencio Batista as 'comparable' to Abraham Lincoln.

Despite this, Eisenhower’s policies were more complex than simple anticommunism. For instance, Eisenhower did force Britain, France and Israel back to genuine engagement with the United Nations and away from their classic Imperialism during the Suez crisis. He did so by means of the US Treasury and the Bretton Woods system, by ordering his administration to sell pounds in such a volume that the UK was forced to choose between expending its gold-backed dollars or withdrawing from the Suez Canal. This action was taken at the expense of UK and French investment in the removal of a Third World nationalist. It can be linked to the way in which Ike refused to respond outside of the UN to Imre Nagy’s request for US help in the Hungarian Uprising, and to his sponsorship of diplomatic settlements in 1954 and 1955 of the Vietnam and Austrian issues respectively. Eisenhower and Dulles were also quick to propagate the idea of a ‘Spirit of Geneva’ and a ‘Spirit of Camp David’ in the later 1950s, having sponsored the visit of Nikita Khruschev to the USA.

Over the course of his administration, Eisenhower also revealed himself as a fiscal conservative who preferred to spend on the elimination of risk. From one point of view, the doctrine of massive retaliation—a form of diplomacy and military policy predicated upon the threat being great enough to effectively exclude the execution—was a policy that created a kind of safety so long as both sides were rational. NSC 162/2, which created the doctrine, should be seen in this light, since it simultaneously guaranteed American behaviour and cut $5 billion from the US budget.

There was also a strong lobby, centred on Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command, which sought between 1953 and 1955 to promote the idea of a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union. This group was bureaucratically outmanoeuvred by Eisenhower in three ways. Firstly, the president skilfully used the National Security Council to coordinate and constrain the dissonant military lobbies; secondly, Ike sponsored a Weapons Evaluation Group which discounted the major arguments of the first-strike ‘bombing party’; and thirdly, Eisenhower removed targeting and launch decisions from the commanders of individual services and made sure that they were concentrated in civilian hands. This was the beginning of the Single Integrated Operating Plan, which should be distinguished from continuity of government plans in the earlier part of the fifties that had pre-authorised particular generals to use nuclear weapons. The effect of SIOP, which Ike enforced by demanding that commanders accept it or resign, especially alongside the Suez crisis, was to focus the policy of the Western Alliance on the president of the United States.

One consequence was therefore a continued increase in the power and prestige of the presidency in world affairs. By 1960, the US President could sponsor assassinations, through the CIA, launch spy satellites, receive secret information from the U-2 programme, and in theory unilaterally destroy the world on his exclusive thermonuclear order. Though Eisenhower characterised this as a concentration of civilian power, and in his farewell address opposed a ‘military industrial complex’ of ‘unprecedented’ national influence, it was a double edged-sword. The policy cleared the path for the high drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could very easily have resulted in the destruction of humanity, and which was essentially predicated upon the personalities of the President of the US and of the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party.

It is possible to read too much into one administration, however. Many of the developments on Ike’s watch were driven by technology—the ‘war party’ placed great emphasis on their IBM targeting computer, until other services got access to computer technology, and something like SIOP was in part always going to emerge once liquid and solid fuel problems for ballistic missiles had been resolved, so as to make ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons possible. It is also the case that the Soviets of 1960, for all Khruschev’s bluster, were not the Soviets of 1953. Stalin had led a genuinely totalitarian and unpredictably aggressive state, which Khruschev did not. The US population, wearied by a Korean War which killed 33,000 and wounded 103,000 more, were not going to support aggressive rollback in Europe or elsewhere. They were especially attuned too to the dangers of nuclear war after the series of public nuclear drills between 1954 and 1961, known collectively as ‘Operation Alert’.  Eisenhower’s ‘raised eyebrow’ treatment of these drills, which he used to remind the cabinet that a real war would not be a drill and would involve a great deal of hysteria and panic, perhaps illustrates his scepticism of the war party’s preparation plans.

Ultimately, Eisenhower was eclipsed by others, who sought to move away from the balanced and almost tactile approach he had shown to international affairs. Most of these people were from the Democrat side. John Kennedy, for instance, took his fellow Democrat’s ‘missile gap’ rhetoric and mixed it with the idea of a pro-active US approach to the decolonising world. By 1960, vice-president Nixon could be said to have a similar view. In like vein, Lyndon Johnson, who was close to the administration as Majority Leader, rose to national prominence by emphasising space technology, rockets and satellites after the Sputnik panic.

By 1960, the U-2 incident denied Eisenhower a final successful summit with Khruschev; the Cuban Revolution threatened to break his policy of resorting to clandestine activity and the UN in the third world; the exact attitude of the USA to the UN Secretariat-general and to UN autonomy in world affairs was untested (it would soon be in the Congo); and the US reputation in Latin America was at a low. On the other hand, the Western Alliance was solid, the emergence of a divided Germany and a Soviet bloc had been handled without war, and East Asia was not threatening to turn into a renewed zone of ‘hot war’ because both North Korea and North Vietnam had been effectively suppressed. SIOP had, however, left the presidency at the heart of nuclear policy, and had removed many of the blocks which held back a weak or malign future president from, in theory, causing Armageddon. This was achieved, however, at the expense of the freedom of groups within the military who may well have welcomed an immediate Day of Wrath. On balance, therefore, Ike’s legacy is mixed-to-positive, and in terms of achievements, compares well to that of his successors.

Comments