21: On the Edge of Armageddon Part I (Dwight D. Eisenhower)


In our previous episode, we covered the first President of the Cold War era, Harry S. Truman. It was under President Truman that America initiated its policy of containment, to contain what it considered the greatest threat to world peace, the Soviet Union. This new conflict, the Cold War, was unlike anything before it. Now, two nations dominated the globe and, with the development of thermonuclear weapons, had the capacity to destroy civilization itself. History had entrusted Harry Truman with defense of the free world and he confronted crisis after crisis, always with the specter of nuclear war in the background. But now Truman’s presidency was over and he had left the world stage.

In his place was one of the most capable and experienced leaders in American history. His name was Dwight David Eisenhower, the great hero of World War II, the supreme allied commander who invaded Normandy, defeated Hitler, and liberated Europe. Now, Eisenhower, or Ike, as his friends called him, had the responsibility of leading the free world during this dangerous time. 

Few people today can recall the major events or accomplishments of Eisenhower’s presidency. To many, he is a mere transitional figure, the president who served during the stale and cookie cutter 1950s, between years of war under FDR and Truman and social upheaval under Kennedy and Johnson. But Eisenhower was no mere interlude. Like Truman, his presidency was one of crises—when American credibility and nuclear war were constantly at stake. Every decision he made involved the delicate balance of terror that could mean either peace or annihilation. How Eisenhower maintained that peace and avoided Armageddon is the subject of this episode of This American President.


Dwight D. Eisenhower was a man of humble beginnings; he was born in 1890 in Denison, Texas; the third of seven boys. His father owned a general store, but when it failed he later worked on the railroads as a mechanic and then at a creamery. His mother was a Mennonite, and later a Jehovah’s Witness. She was also an avowed pacifist—ironic considering her son Dwight’s future career path. The Eisenhowers soon moved to Abilene, Kansas. Young Dwight had an idyllic childhood; he worked hard at his chores but he also enjoyed the outdoors—he would go hunting and fishing for hours. Like his predecessor Harry Truman, he became an avid reader, especially on military history; something that would serve him well throughout his career. Of his childhood, Eisenhower would later write “I have found out in later years we were very poor, but the glory of America is that we didn’t know it then.” 

Eisenhower’s family lived frugally. When his father’s general store failed, the family was forced to tighten their belts; that lesson, the importance of living within one’s means stuck with Eisenhower for his entire career, as we will see. This led Ike to consider going to either the Naval Academy or West Point, since both offered a free college degree. He was beyond the age limit for the Naval Academy so, in 1911, he became a student at West Point.

At West Point, Eisenhower was an average student, but he did well in sports, playing for the varsity football team and taking up fencing and gymnastics. After graduating in 1915, he married a woman named Mamie Doud. Soon, America entered World War I and, like many young men of his day, Eisenhower hoped to get in on the action overseas, but he would end up disappointed. Instead he was given assignments in the United States. He was stuck training tank crews that never even saw combat. He never got to fight abroad during the war, which left him feeling depressed and bitter. 

Throughout the next couple of decades, Eisenhower worked either with or for many of the men who would emerge as the top military figures of World War II. He collaborated with George Patton on new ideas for tank warfare—ideas that were ahead of their time. He served under General Fox Conner, who was an intellectual mentor to Eisenhower. Through him, Ike studied Clausewitz and other military classics. By then, Eisenhower was a serious student and had come into his own intellectually. From 1925 to 26, he attended the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth and graduated first in his class out of 245 officers. Eisenhower later worked as General Douglas MacArthur’s military aide in the Philippines. That experience taught him two things: first, how to handle relations with a foreign ally and second, how to handle a man with as massive an ego as General MacArthur.

When America entered World War II in 1941, General George Marshall hired Eisenhower as a war planner. Marshall had an eye for talent and realized that Eisenhower was one of the best men he had, maybe the best. Thus began Ike’s meteoric rise. Within a year, he was running the Allied operation in North Africa. His success there impressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the military planned for the critical invasion of the France to liberate the European continent from Hitler’s rule. Many observers believed that Roosevelt would put Marshall in charge of the invasion, and FDR knew that whoever would lead it, if successful, would be remembered as the great American military hero of World War II. He felt that Marshall deserved the honor and recognition, but he also wanted Marshall by his side. And Roosevelt also knew that Eisenhower had considerable skill in military planning and in maintaining coalitions. By December 1943, FDR decided that Eisenhower would command the invasion, known as D-Day. Now, Eisenhower would lead the largest seaborne invasion in world history, involving over 2 million men. The president announced the decision in a fireside chat in December 1943.

Franklin Roosevelt: The Commander selected to lead the combined attack from these other points is General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His performances in Africa, in Sicily and in Italy have been brilliant. He knows by practical and successful experience the way to coordinate air, sea and land power. All of these will be under his control.

The world’s hopes for defeating Hitler rested on his shoulders. Eisenhower spoke to his men just before the invasion began on June 6th, 1944.

Dwight Eisenhower: Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!  You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.  Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.  But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!  I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!  Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

At the same time Eisenhower had a statement prepared in the event of failure. It read: 

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Thankfully, he never had to read that statement. The operation was a great success. Less than a year later, May 1945, Hitler was dead and the Allies were victorious in Europe.

By the end of World War II, Eisenhower was a national hero. And it’s not surprising that he was immediately being discussed as a presidential candidate. After all, victorious generals, going back to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, had a good track record for winning the presidency. He was so well respected that the incumbent president Harry Truman even verbally offered Ike the presidency. Truman told Ike that he would willingly give him his spot on the top of the ticket and run as his running mate in 1948. Eisenhower was taken aback by the comment and demurred. He publicly refused to become a candidate. But his supporters feared that Eisenhower was missing his one chance for the presidency if he didn’t run in 1948. The Republicans were heavily favored to win that year and it was assumed that New York Governor Thomas Dewey would get the GOP nomination. After winning in 1948, Dewey would likely run for re-election in 1952, leaving 1956 as the earliest Eisenhower could run. By then, he would be 65 years old – perhaps too old to run. But in the end, Dewey was defeated in 1948 by President Truman in one of the greatest upsets in American history. 

History thus left the door wide open for Eisenhower in 1952. Throughout the post-war years, Ike wrote his memoirs and served in other leadership capacities. He became the President of Columbia University and then the Supreme Commander of the NATO. In this latter position, Eisenhower remained on the world stage. He was the leader of the world’s most powerful alliance and basically a head of state in his own right. Few men ever had a better preparation to be president. But he had to go through the political process at home if we wanted to run for president. He revealed that he considered himself right of center, more aligning with the Republican Party. But he differed with many Republican politicians that identified with the Old Guard—those Republicans who hoped to roll back FDR’s New Deal and who supported a more non-interventionist foreign policy, one leery of too much involvement in the world. Eisenhower, the man who led the allied effort in Europe during the war and was now head of NATO, was an internationalist—he believed that, in the Cold Ware era, America had to lead in the cause of freedom. Although he was conservative in temperament, he was not a conservative ideologue. He was what one might consider, a moderate conservative.

In the 1952 election, conservative Robert Taft, son of former President William Howard Taft, was the front-runner for the GOP nomination and an Old Guard conservative. Eisenhower feared America would reject internationalism if Taft won the presidency. Thus, Eisenhower became a candidate and won a close and controversial race for the nomination. Ike’s aides recommended that he select a young senator from California, Richard Nixon, as his running-mate. The 38 year-old Nixon had made a name for himself as a staunch anti-communist. They made for a fascinating comparison; Ike was the elder statesman and military hero while Nixon was the young attack dog. Facing them was the wonky Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

The election had its controversy—the most famous being allegations that Nixon had a secret slush fund with donations from rich businessmen. Nixon deflected the allegations with his famous Checker’s Speech. Either way, Eisenhower was the most popular man in America so Stevenson didn’t have a chance. It was a choice between the victorious general of World War II or a guy some labeled as an egghead intellectual so I’m sure you can see where this is going. On election night, Eisenhower won a landslide victory, winning 39 out of 48 states. 

It was a resurrection for the Republicans; they had lost the previous five presidential elections. Dwight Eisenhower, a poor boy from Abilene, Kansas, was now the 34th President of the United States.

1950s America

When people look back at the fifties, they generally picture a quiet, peaceful time—the era of suburbs, housewives, and wholesome TV programming like Dobbie Gillis, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and The Donna Reed Show. To an extent this is true, especially compared with the upheavals in the previous and subsequent decades. But, when Eisenhower took office, there was a real sense of fear and foreboding about the future. At the eve of the new decade, in 1949, America’s great adversary, the Soviet Union, attained nuclear capability. The United States no longer had the nuclear monopoly. Joseph Stalin, the butcher of millions, now had the power of the atomic bomb. It’s kind of like the fear people have about Kim Jong Un having nukes, but imagine if Kim Jong Un was in charge of the biggest country in the world. And both the Americans and the Soviets were racing to build ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons across the globe in hours, even minutes. People felt that World War III and nuclear holocaust were becoming real possibilities, and that civilization might actually destroy itself. 

To Americans, communism was a very real threat. At almost the same time that the Soviets got the bomb, the most populous nation in the world, China, fell to communist leader Mao Zedong. That meant that additional 500 million people, or a fifth of the world’s population, were now under communist rule. For many Americans, it seemed as if communism was destined to spread in the same way that fascism did in the 1930s unless painful sacrifices were made to stop it. 

That fear wasn’t just an external one. There was a genuine threat of Soviet espionage in the United States. After all, Klaus Fuchs was a German physicist working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and was supplying the Soviets with nuclear secrets. The Rosenbergs had also been convicted of espionage. Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, had spent his years in Congress attacking communist infiltration in the United States. He specifically went after Alger Hiss, a prominent State Department official, for being a Soviet spy. 

The man who defined this age of paranoia was the infamous Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. McCarthy, who enjoyed high approval ratings from the public, claimed several times to have lists of government officials who were communists. He publicly accused officials at the highest levels of government of being Soviet agents, usually with little to no evidence. The most absurd example was his attack on General Marshall, Ike’s mentor and one of the great heroes of World War II. 

This era of fear and paranoia defined the early Cold War. But the war wasn’t always cold… there were times when hot wars would break out. And, by 1952, America was well into its first hot war of the nuclear age. In 1950, the communist government of North Korea invaded anti-communist South Korea. The Truman Administration feared that the fall of South Korea, so soon after the fall of China, would mean the spread of communism all throughout Asia. It viewed the conflict as just one theater in a global struggle between the free world and the communist world, and it remembered the lessons of appeasement just before World War II—that appeasing Hitler only invited further aggression. To many Americans, the communist invasion of South Korea was further proof that a communist block led by the Soviet Union and the new People’s Republic of China was pursuing global domination. And it was true that both the Soviets and the Chinese were aiding the North Koreans. So, Truman led an international effort under the United Nations to repel the invasion. 

Although General Douglas MacArthur was able to push the North Koreans back, the Chinese intervened and invaded the Korean peninsula. This forced the United Nations forces back south and resulted in a bloody stalemate. In just three years, the United States had suffered over 30 thousand deaths in combat, less than one decade after World War II. One American citizen wrote to President Truman, “In heaven’s name, what are you doing? The blood hasn’t dried from World War II.”

While running in 1952, Eisenhower announced he intended to end the war by going to Korea. Those words electrified the nation and gave it hope that peace was around the corner. Less than a month after his election, on December 2nd, 1952, Eisenhower arrived in Korea. He inspected the troops and met with American commanders. Some advised Eisenhower that the war could be won. Generals Mark Clark and James Van Fleet suggested that the use of nuclear weapons and an expansion of the war against China could lead to victory.

Now, it might strike you as alarming that anyone would advise the use of nuclear weapons, but this was a reality of the Cold War. It was something that General MacArthur talked about in Korea just before President Truman had fired him. And it was something that would come up time and time again, as we’ll see, in Eisenhower’s presidency. The Cold War was full of unprecedented dilemmas. 

In Korea, American and Chinese forces engaged in combat. Americans were confident that they could win—after all, they had defeated both the Nazis and the Japanese (in partnership with the Allies, of course). China was a third world country. Surely China would be an easy opponent.

But America was unprepared for the Korean War, especially since it had demobilized after World War II. And the Chinese had an enormous number of forces. By virtue of sheer numbers, they pushed back and a stalemate ensued. The United States now faced a dilemma. In order to win, the U.S. might have to intensify the war effort, sending more forces to fight. But some wondered, well, if we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them? I mean, otherwise, what’s the point of having them? And as the body bags piled up, more Americans kept wondering, why are we letting our soldiers get killed if we have a weapon that could end the war once and for all? 

Nuclear weapons are the most terrifying weapons ever devised by man, but you can see why some people might be at least tempted to think this way, especially if you fear the spread of communism and if you are sick and tired of a bloody stalemate. But, of course, there were fears for what this meant. If we used nuclear weapons against North Korea, or against China, the world could be revolted by their use. America’s prestige could be damaged forever. The fallout from nuclear warfare could lead to unprecedented collateral damage. And what if the Soviets responded, given their relationship with China and North Korea? They had hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Europe. What if they retaliated by invading our allies in Europe? What if they blockaded and attacked our presence in Berlin? And, now that they had the bomb what if they used it against us or our allies.

While most people shuddered at the thought of starting a nuclear war with the Soviets, some felt that this was the time to do it. The Cold War was relatively new. The Soviets did have the bomb but were a few years behind the United States in nuclear firepower, in the development of the hydrogen bomb, in the means to deliver it. Why allow them to catch up? Why not hit them now with what we’ve got so they never get to the point of competing with us? After all, didn’t the West wait too long to stop Hitler? Wouldn’t more lives have been saved had we taken on Hitler earlier? Was Stalin that much different than Hitler? And wasn’t Stalin more dangerous than Hitler now, considering he had the bomb?

Of course, the situation was more complicated than that. Hitler and Stalin were both totalitarian tyrants and ruthless killers but their circumstances weren’t exactly the same. 

Still, most people feared what Stalin could do, especially since he had successfully imposed his grip on Eastern Europe and supported communist movements around the world. They also feared the worst case scenario in all of this: that the Soviets would respond in kind to a nuclear attack against itself or its allies with a nuclear attack of its own. And then a nuclear war might ensue. The specter of nuclear holocaust hovered over everything.

These were the debates that were raging on in the early Cold War. And Korea would be the first decision for the new president. Despite the advice from generals Clark and Van Fleet, Eisenhower refused to expand the effort in Korea. He rejected their request and moved forward with negotiations. For now, America’s president would not go anywhere near using nukes in Korea. But the temptation to use them or threaten their use would continue to arise throughout Eisenhower’s administration.

Becoming President

On January 20th, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the age of 62, took the oath of office and became the 34th President of the United States. Fully aware of the immense burdens he was undertaking, the new President began his inaugural address with a prayer:

Dwight Eisenhower: My friends, before I begin the expression of those thoughts that I deem appropriate to this moment, would you permit me the privilege of uttering a little private prayer of my own. And I ask that you bow your heads: Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.  Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.  May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen.

Cold War Strategy

In the weeks after his election, Eisenhower sketched out an agenda for his administration. There were two overriding concerns, one immediate and the other long term. The immediate concern was the Korean War—and the plan was to negotiate an end to the war. The long-term concern was the Cold War and how to contain the Soviet Union. 

Things were ripe for change. America wanted to move past the stalemate of the Korean War. But there was also big news out of the Kremlin. Joseph Stalin, the totalitarian dictator of the Soviet Union, the godfather of the communist movement for almost three decades, had died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5th, 1953.

There would be a new Soviet leader, although it would take some time to figure out who won the power struggle. With new leadership in the White House and the Kremlin, there might be a new way forward in the Cold War.

In our previous episodes we covered President Harry Truman and his containment strategy. It was summed up by George Kennan, who said that, “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” It was the middle ground between appeasement (or allowing the Soviets the expand) and roll back (which meant confronting the Soviets and pushing back where they already were). Originally, Truman had adhered to what was called a strongpoint defense strategy. He felt it would be too expensive and difficult to stop the Soviets everywhere. As powerful as America was, it would cost too much to defend a giant swathe of international territory and counter the Soviets wherever they expanded, whether it was my military force or aid to communist groups around the world. That could the Soviets the initiative and allow them to bog us down in conflicts around the world. They would be able to decide where conflicts would start if we promised to stop them wherever they expanded – they could start them in areas and arenas that played to their strengths. 

The strongpoint defense strategy called for providing economic assistance to allies at certain points around the world so that they could become centers of military and economic strength. That way, those allies could stand up on their own feet and bear the burden of containing Soviet expansion. This strategy was made manifest in the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, which provided economic aid to Greece and Turkey. It also meant that America wasn’t on the hook for defending every country threatened by the Soviets or the Chinese, and it would detract from the Soviets’ ability to dictate where a conflict or competition would occur.

Well, the Korean War changed all that. Although Korea was not originally considered a strong point, the possibility of millions more falling under the orbit of communism called into question America’s commitment to its allies. The Truman Administration now believed that the defeat of South Korea meant a victory for the communists and decided to commit forces to save it. 

By then, a new strategy document, known as NSC-68, had been in circulation. It rejected strong point defense and called for a dramatic increase in the defense budget. Truman originally requested $13 billion for defense in 1950. NSC-68 called for increasing that number to $40 or $50 billion, almost triple what was originally requested. It called for increasing both conventional and nuclear capabilities. And it replaced strong point defense with perimeter defense. Now, America committed to defending a large perimeter as opposed to merely supporting certain key locations. With the Korean War, American foreign policy was now guided by NSC-68. By 1952, the defense budget reached $60 billion.

Some feared that America couldn’t afford this increase in the defense budget and might bankrupt itself by overspending. But Truman believed that the American economy could sustain it. When he was a senator, he was a loyal New Dealer and believed that government spending could stimulate the economy—classic Keynesian economics. But instead of domestic spending as a stimulus, it would now be defense spending. Many had argued that economic growth in World War II was proof of this theory, since government spending had increased to build American tanks, ships, planes, and ammunition. Besides, Truman believed that spending now to prevent the communist advance now would be less expensive than fighting a war with communists after they expanded and were in a stronger position. As Truman said in 1952:

The real threat to our security isn’t the danger of bankruptcy. It’s the danger of Communist aggression. If communism is allowed to absorb the free nations, one by one, then we would be isolated from our sources of supply and detached from our friends. Then we would have to take defense measures which might really bankrupt our economy and change our way of life so that we wouldn’t recognize it was American any longer.

President Eisenhower sharply disagreed with President Truman and the premise of NSC-68. I mentioned earlier in the episode about Eisenhower’s frugal background. Well, this would come to define his Cold War policy, perhaps more than anything else. In the Truman episode, I discussed the paradox of Cold War. Both sides felt compelled to outdo the other every time. When one side built a tank, the other side built a better tank. Same thing for planes and for ships. When America built the atom bomb, the Soviets were compelled to do the same thing. When the Soviets got the bomb, the Americans built the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. And so on and so forth. But there was a potentially self-defeating logic to all of this. Did outdoing the other side necessarily mean superiority or greater security? What if those weapons had diminishing returns? What if there were cheaper alternatives to achieving safety than matching our opponents? And what if spending all this money meant potentially bankrupting yourself and destroying your nation’s credit? Wouldn’t that be self-defeating? Would American really win the Cold War if it destroyed its own fiscal health? Eisenhower said as much when he said of the Soviets, “It is more than merely a military threat.  It has been coldly calculated by the Soviet leaders, for by their military threat they have hoped to force upon America and the free world an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.” But, to some extent, we had to spend for these new weapons. We had to be able to defend ourselves against the communists by some measure, at least to deter them when they were tempted to use force. We had to be able to back up containment with some measure of force if containment were to mean anything. So what is the right balance? How do you maintain superiority with the other side without overextending yourself or busting your own budget?

Eisenhower saw the Cold War primarily in terms of economics. While his Secretary of State john Foster Dulles believed the Cold War was essentially a moral conflict, Eisenhower wrote “We are a product and a representative of the Judaic-Christian civilization, and it does teach some concern for your brother. And I believe in that.” But he added, “The minimum requirement is that we are able to trade freely, in spite of anything Russia may do, with those areas from which we obtain the raw materials that are vital to our economy.” Dulles summarized this view when he said, “If economic stability goes down the drain, everything goes down the drain.”

Eisenhower obsessed over the cost of the Cold War. He saw defense spending in terms of what it cost the American people. Just three months into his term, Eisenhower delivered a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors that outlined that cost:

Dwight Eisenhower: A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations… What can the world, or any nation in it, hope for if no turning is found on this dread road?  The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.  The worst is atomic war.  The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.  Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.  The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.  It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.  It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.  We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.  We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.  This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking.  This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Eisenhower did not see defense spending as a stimulus to the economy. He saw it as a burden… something that took away from American prosperity and the thriving of American civilization. After all, increased defense spending meant higher taxes on the American people and it could also mean a higher national debt. 

It’s fascinating that a military man—a man who spent his career rising in the Army was talking about the defense budget in negative terms.  Perhaps Eisenhower was the last president who could do this. Since he was not a professional politician, he was not much into political ideology. And since he was a national military hero, he had the clout to espouse policies that contradicted the desires of either party and combined aspects of both. 

There are many who agree with Eisenhower’s warnings on defense spending and hope to reduce the budget. Eisenhower would have counseled us to be wise about what we spent money on but this didn’t mean he didn’t recognize the Soviets as a threat. The whole point of his frugality was so the US could compete with the Soviets in a cost-effective way. Eisenhower clearly saw America as a positive moral force and the Soviets as an immoral totalitarian government. In his eyes, it was the Soviets who were responsible in the Cold War. Eisenhower stated:

Dwight Eisenhower: The Soviet government held a vastly different vision of the future.  In the world of its design, security was to be found, not in mutual trust and mutual aid but in force: huge armies, subversion, rule of neighbor nations. The goal was power superiority at all cost. Security was to be sought by denying it to all others.  The result has been tragic for the world and, for the Soviet Union, it has also been ironic.  The amassing of Soviet power alerted free nations to a new danger of aggression. It compelled them in self-defense to spend unprecedented money and energy for armaments. It forced them to develop weapons of war now capable of inflicting instant and terrible punishment upon any aggressor.

In August of 1954, Eisenhower would say that “the central core of the great world problem is the aggressive intent of international communism.”

Project Solarium

So, while Eisenhower feared the cost of the Cold War, he still maintained that the Americans had a job to do. He may have disagreed with Truman’s methods of containment—the increased spending, the perimeter defense—but not with its goal. The Soviet Union had to be contained. But how? How do you reconcile the paradox of the Cold War with the goal of winning it?

To answer that question, Eisenhower decided to explore all possible options while making use of the best minds he could find. It was named Project Solarium, since it had been hatched in the Solarium room in the White House. He convened a group of brilliant men from the federal government and academia in the summer of 1953 for a critical exercise. The men were divided up into three teams, with each team exploring the three major strategies under consideration. 

Team A was led by George Kennan—considered by many to be the father of containment. They were tasked with defending Truman’s current policy of containment. Team B was tasked with taking a tougher line against the Soviets and focus more on using U.S. nuclear weapons as a deterrent. And Team C was also tasked with taking a tough line on the Soviets, with a focus on an aggressive policy called roll-back. Instead of merely containing Soviet expansion, the team would look into whether it would be possible to push them back from where they were. The entire Solarium project was so secretive that it remained declassified until the mid-eighties. 

The New Look Strategy

Out of the project came a new strategy that would replace NSC 68. The new document was NSC 162 and the new strategy was called “The New Look.” And it was a dramatically different view of containment. The goal now of the Cold War was to win by not bankrupting ourselves. This meant getting America’s fiscal house in order through major cuts in defense spending. This was a time when defense spending took up about 2/3rds of the federal budget. Compare that to now, where it’s less than 15%, which, by the way, includes both discretionary and non-discretionary spending. So that was the first element of New Look. The new strategy also meant staying away from foreign wars as much as possible, like the kind Truman got us into in Korea. After all, wars are very expensive. It was kind of like a race to frugality where the most cost-effective side wins. But how were we to maintain deterrence and counter the Soviets if we were reducing defense spending? The answer came in two words: massive retaliation. NSC 162 said that the United States would maintain “a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power.” But if the military budget was slashed, where would that power come from? Again, NSC 162 reported that the United States, “will consider nuclear weapons as available for use as other munitions.” Essentially, the Eisenhower called for a greater reliance on nuclear weapons—rather than on conventional forces, like tanks, ships, planes, and personnel—as a way to deter communist aggression, whether it came from the Soviet Union of the People’s Republic of China. To add credibility to this shift in strategy, Eisenhower, very early in his presidency, took control of the nuclear stockpile away from the civilian Atomic Energy Commission and gave it to the military. 

To some, this was a terrifying prospect. Did this mean that the United States would threaten to use nuclear weapons whenever Russia or China acted aggressively? So, if another Korea happened somewhere, did that mean that, this time, we would respond with nuclear weapons? And if the strategy were to work, if nukes were to deter, we would have to be willing to actually use them.  Were we really willing to use nukes? What would happen if we did? What about the international blowback? What about radiation poisoning and the damage to the environment? And if we weren’t really willing to use nukes, what would happen if we threatened to use them in a crisis and either the Soviets or the Chinese were willing to call our bluff? Wouldn’t our credibility diminish?

To Eisenhower, the policy of massive retaliation was about reducing costs. In fact, in 1955, Eisenhower would cut $4.8 billion from the defense budget. $4.1 billion of those cuts came from the Army. But it was also more than that. Again, he feared that the alternative would be to outmatch the Soviets everywhere – countering their every move whether it meant building a better tank or confronting them wherever they acted aggressively. As we said earlier, this was the path to national bankruptcy and it gave the Soviets the initiative to choose where geographically or figuratively to fight. But Eisenhower had a different strategy. In the words of Vice President Richard Nixon, “Rather than let the Communists nibble us to death all over the world in little wars, we would rely in the future primarily on our massive mobile retaliatory power which we could use in our discretion against the major source of aggression at times and places that we choose.”

Instead of countering the Soviets’ strength, we would try to offset those strengths by hitting their weaknesses. This took the initiative away from the Soviets and gave it back to the United States. It was risky. Some claimed that it was “defense on the cheap.” Also, it meant we would be accepting vulnerability in one area while trying to counter them in another area. Many felt Eisenhower was playing dice with the security of the country. Others, including Eisenhower’s own former Army colleagues, felt Eisenhower had betrayed them because he was slashing the defense budget – specifically the Army budget – in favor of nuclear weapons. But Eisenhower believed the risk outweighed the potential cost. 

There was another paradox to the Cold War. Many people are disgusted by what they consider the immorality of nuclear weapons. But it seemed that, to Eisenhower, as evil was they were, there was something self-reinforcing about them. The very purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter their actual use. He had no illusions about their destructive power. In fact, Eisenhower had opposed their use at the end of World War II against Japan and lamented that America was the first and only country to use them. But it appears that he felt that peace was actually more attainable through relying on nuclear weapons. He seemed to feel that relying on a lesser deterrent, like conventional weapons or even smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, made war more likely. Political leaders would be more tempted to use those weapons because they didn’t seem to threaten the destruction of civilization. If the threat of nuclear weapons hovered over every decision, they would be far less likely to use force. He also appeared to believe that those who advocated relying more on lesser weapons were deluding themselves. In this new era, almost every conflict had implications for the broader Cold War. Anything could spark a general war among the powerful nations. That’s what had happened in World War I – the killing one of man, Archduke Frans Ferdinand, led to a broader conflict. Eisenhower felt that it was just reality that in the Cold War, small events could spark bigger ones. If you relied on conventional forces or tactical nukes, you might forget that and accidentally provoke a confrontation between the Americans and the Soviets. If you knew nuclear weapons were always a threat, you no longer had that delusion. You would be deterred from taking hasty action. In Eisenhower’s eyes, it appears, the irony was that the most destructive weapon in history might lead to the most stable situation among the superpowers. 

So the question was how to establish credibility that you really were willing to inflict massive retaliation. Part of this came from tough talk. President Eisenhower, in future crises, would issue public statements that hinted that the United States was considering the use of nuclear weapons. Sometimes, his administration would let it be known through back channels that military plans were being drawn up involving the hydrogen bomb. NSC 162 itself said that in the event of war with the Soviets or the Chinese, “The United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.” And some of it involved unpredictability. The American nuclear arsenal was being expanded into what it today known as the Nuclear Triad. We could now deliver nukes, not just with bombers, but with ballistic missiles from silos and from submarines. With multiple nuclear options, the Soviets wouldn’t necessarily know where we might hit them. And the Triad also gave us a greater sense of security. If the Soviets tried to attack our siloes or bombers, we would still have the nukes in our subs left. 

Eisenhower and Dulles were embracing what has been called brinksmanship—the willingness to go to the brink of nuclear war as a part of national security policy. To these Cold Warriors, brinksmanship was an art – it was a form of dealmaking with the highest stakes possible. There was a certain swagger here, a willingness to play a massive geopolitical game of chicken, to go to the edge of Armageddon. Eisenhower was willing to go to the brink, in part, because Eisenhower had the credibility to do so. Remember, this was the victorious general from World War II who had taken on and vanquished Hitler’s forces. He was the most respected man in the world. No one could question whether he was soft. Maybe he was the only one that could do it. He came into office with far more prestige than most of his predecessors and successors. Those presidents who came after Eisenhower didn’t have had the same clout. America’s adversaries couldn’t take them as seriously as they would General Eisenhower. 

In addition to massive retaliation, New Look highlighted the importance of allies as a means to enhance deterrence. Alliances would help serve as a trip wire. If the enemy was encircled by American allies, it might know that any form of expansion would risk a conflict because Russia would be encroaching on nations America was obligated to defend. So, under Eisenhower you saw the creation of the SEATO Treaty—basically NATO but in Southeast Asia—CENTO—this one in the Middle East—and a host of bilateral treaties. This also meant that allies could contribute their own forces in the event of a regional conflict. As Eisenhower said, the idea was “to develop within various areas and regions of the free world indigenous forces for the maintenance of order, the safeguarding of frontiers, and the provision of the bulk of ground capability.” This would make it less necessary for American forces to police the entire world and achieve cost savings for the United States.

The strategy also embraced something that Truman was unwilling to do: rollback. Remember, containment was a compromise between those who advocated appeasement and those who advocated rollback. While Eisenhower supported containment, he also believed that the United States might be able to take an aggressive posture and push back against the Communists—perhaps ejecting them from where they were. But how could he do this without sending in ground forces or starting a major conflict?

The answer involved covert operations. Now, Truman definitely dabbled in covert ops, but, as we’ll see, Eisenhower took it to the next level. And this took on a host of various tactics. Under Eisenhower, the CIA and other U.S. government agencies employed propaganda, aid to anti-communist guerillas and other underground resistance movements, and other methods of deception. Some of the more controversial tactics involved government overthrows and plots to assassinate foreign leaders. While many consider these actions heavy-handed examples of American imperialism, of unjust interference in the affairs of other countries, the Eisenhower Administration believed they were justified as part of winning the Cold War and far less costly than overt military action or diplomacy.

But even if Eisenhower and Dulles embraced brinksmanship, it didn’t mean that he didn’t understand the destructive power of nuclear weapons, nor was he opposed to peaceful overtures or negotiations with the Soviets. In that same speech he gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Eisenhower called for working with the Soviets to reduce weapons of war:

As progress in all these areas strengthens world trust, we could proceed concurrently with the next great work–the reduction of the burden of armaments now weighing upon the world. To this end we would welcome and enter into the most solemn agreements. These could properly include:  1) The limitation, by absolute numbers or by an agreed international ratio, of the sizes of the military and security forces of all nations.  2) A commitment by all nations to set an agreed limit upon that proportion of total production of certain strategic materials to be devoted to military purposes.  3) International control of atomic energy to promote its use for peaceful purposes only and to insure the prohibition of atomic weapons.  4) A limitation or prohibition of other categories of weapons of great destructiveness.  5) The enforcement of all these agreed limitations and prohibitions by adequate safeguards, including a practical system of inspection under the United Nations.

These were lofty words that looked forward to international cooperation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They would be echoed by future presidents, who sought disarmament and a new understanding in the Cold War. This was not some naïve vision of a president who believes that arms limitation agreements could end the Cold War or fundamentally change the nature of the Soviet Union, but Eisenhower believed that such agreements might help stabilize the Cold War competition. There was also a real hope that nuclear power could be a major source of energy. And if arms agreements could led to cost reductions, perhaps by warding off an expensive arms race, all the better.

Eisenhower made a specific proposal for using nuclear power for peaceful purposes. In December of 1953, he gave a speech at the United Nations where he discussed the horrors of nuclear war:

Dwight Eisenhower: Atomic bombs are more than twenty-five times as powerful as the weapons with which the atomic age dawned, while hydrogen weapons are in the ranges of millions of tons of TNT equivalent.  Today, the United States stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of the Second World War. A single air group whether afloat or land based, can now deliver to any reachable target a destructive cargo exceeding in power all the bombs that fell on Britain in all the Second World War.

But he added that nuclear power could be used peacefully under the auspices of an international agency:

Dwight Eisenhower: The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.

This speech would lay the foundation of that international body that would regulate nuclear power for peaceful, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It would be one of his major international legacies.

Regardless, with the New Look policy, Eisenhower had set forth his version of containment. Essentially, it meant restoring America’s fiscal health through massive defense cuts and reliance on the threat of nuclear weapons, a willingness to engage in brinksmanship, and the lessening of these risks through alliances, covert action, and engagement with the Soviet Union. How this strategy played out in the messy reality of the Cold War will be the subject of our next episode.

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This American President is produced by myself Richard Lim and Michael Neal. Thanks to my Dad, Bert Chiu.

The music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.

I’m Richard Lim, we’re back next time with more This American President.