Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

What Would Eisenhower Do?

American foreign policy today is in disarray. Faced with three major challenges to Western democracy — a restive Russia, an economically ascendant China, and Islamic extremism emanating from a strife-torn Middle East — President Obama has struggled to formulate a coherent strategy. His September 28 address to the United Nations General Assembly summed up the conceptual confusion that has bedeviled his presidency. He spent most of his speech scolding Iran, Russia, and China for their various transgressions. But he concluded by saying he was “prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict” in Syria.

Obama admitted that he had left “a vacuum” in Libya by ensuring the fall of Moammar Qaddafi. But the president’s ideal outcome in Syria remains “a managed transition away from Assad.” In his U.N. speech, Obama alluded disdainfully to the “rule that applied for most of human history . . . that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones.” But his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is showing him that weak states can sometimes impose their will on stronger ones if they know the rudiments of strategy.

They did things very differently 60 years ago, when a retired five-star general was president — a man who, behind his genial country-club exterior, understood strategy better than almost anyone in his generation. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower became president as the Soviet Union was beginning to close the nuclear gap. In August 1953, the Soviets tested their first hydrogen bomb. “Ike” understood what that signified. “Let me tell you that if war comes, it will be horrible,” he told South Korean president Syngman Rhee in 1954. “Atomic war will destroy civilization. . . . There will be millions of people dead. . . . The results are too horrible to contemplate. I can’t even imagine them.” A top-secret assessment a year and a half later persuaded him that — as he summarized the assessment’s claims — in the wake of a full-blown nuclear war, “something on the order of 65 percent of the [U.S.] population would require some kind of medical care, and in most instances, [would have] no opportunity whatsoever to get it. . . . It would literally be a business of digging ourselves out of the ashes, starting again.”

Eisenhower also feared the economic consequences of an unbridled arms race. “Spiritual force, multiplied by economic force, multiplied by military force, is roughly equal to security,” he wrote in his diary. If the cost of the arms race eroded the American way of life and the country’s economic health, it would be self-defeating. What was more, the Soviets understood this and were deliberately seeking “by their military threat . . . to force upon America and the free world an unbearable security burden leading to economic disaster.” Ike’s “Chance for Peace” speech of April 16, 1953, sincerely lamented the expense of the arms race. (“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.”)

The Soviet threat took multiple forms in the 1950s. Though Senator Joseph McCarthy gave anti-Communism a bad name, there was legitimate public anxiety about what Eisenhower himself called an “organization in [our] midst which, purporting to be a political party within the normally accepted meaning, is actually a conspiracy dedicated to the violent overthrow of our entire form of government.”

With the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in October 1957, the Soviets appeared to be catching up not only in military terms but technologically, too. And, crucially, they appeared to be gaining the upper hand in what would become known as the Third World.

As the European empires fell apart or dismantled themselves in the great post-war scramble to “decolonize,” Moscow saw a huge opportunity. In January 1961, Khrushchev explicitly pledged Soviet support for “national wars of liberation.” The idea was to ride the wave of decolonization by representing Moscow as the ally of all revolutionaries and branding the United States as the new imperialist. It looked like a winning strategy. “Almost any one of the new-born states of the world,” grumbled Eisenhower, “would far rather embrace Communism or any other form of dictatorship than . . .  acknowledge the political domination of another government.” The “new countries” reminded him of a row of dominoes waiting to topple one after another — an image that would prove one of the most enduring of the Cold War.

In short, despite its manifest strength, the United States in the mid 1950s felt menaced by the Soviet Union: militarily, economically, internally, technologically, and geopolitically.

In deciding how best to respond, Eisenhower considered three strategic options: to maintain the status quo; to complete a defense perimeter that would have encircled the Sino-Soviet bloc; or (most radical of all) to roll it back, reducing its territorial extent. The final report of “Project Solarium,” a strategy-formulating exercise that provided the basis for National Security Council document NSC-162/2, called for the “capability to inflict massive retaliatory damage by offensive strategic striking power” as the keystone of Eisenhower’s strategy.

With a couple of exceptions, this strategy of brinkmanship worked. Cuba and, arguably, North Vietnam were the only countries lost to Communism on Eisenhower’s watch. The arms race continued, but it did not inflict significant harm on the U.S. economy. The “red scare” subsided. And, despite Sputnik, the Soviets got no nearer their goal of matching American technological innovation.

Eisenhower succeeded partly because the theory of “massive retaliation” was ingenious. Not only would the Soviets be deterred, Eisenhower calculated; so, too, would American generals — from demanding unaffordably large conventional armed forces. Yet Eisenhower secretly retained an intermediate option: a limited use of nuclear weapons. As he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “We should use the bomb in Korea if the aggression is renewed” by the Chinese. (The JCS took that to include targets in China, too.) “The United States cannot afford to preclude itself from using nuclear weapons even in a local situation,” Eisenhower stated in early 1955, “if such use will bring the aggression to a swift and positive cessation, and if, on a balance of political and military consideration, such use will best advance U.S. security interests.” He repeatedly told the U.S. military that “planning should go ahead on the basis of the use of tactical atomic weapons against military targets in any small war in which the United States might be involved.”

The reason for this was clear. The threat of massive retaliation had a defect, as critics such as the young Henry Kissinger pointed out. Quite simply, there were many moves the Soviets could make that would not seem — at least to the American public — to merit a threat of world destruction. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization of 1954 looked superficially like an Asian equivalent to NATO. But it was already hard to see how its disparate members would be able to respond effectively to guerrilla wars of the sort that Communist insurgents liked to wage. Likewise, there was broad congressional support for Eisenhower’s vaguely worded resolution of January 1957, which pledged the United States to defend “the Middle East” against “overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” But how exactly was such aggression to be resisted?

Limited nuclear war — using tactical nukes to check the vast Red Army — was an option that was never used, so we shall never know whether such a war would have escalated into Armageddon. But Ike had other options, too. Rather than being drawn into fighting multiple Korean-style wars, Eisenhower preferred to rely on what was then known as “psychological warfare” — a huge campaign of “gray” and “black” propaganda and covert operations. South Vietnam was flooded with anti-Communist literature produced by the United States Information Agency; North Vietnam was penetrated by CIA-trained saboteurs and provocateurs; Indonesia, Laos, and Thailand were swamped with American propaganda. There was also a huge effort to lock Pakistan into a “northern tier” of pro-Western states (along with Turkey, Iran, and Iraq) and to overcome India’s neutrality between the West and the Soviet Union.

This was a multimedia campaign that involved not only economic and military aid but also trade fairs, exchange programs, cultural tours, libraries, mobile cinemas, and radio broadcasts. Psychological warfare was of a piece with contemporary trends in commercial advertising: The assumption was that “hidden persuaders” could be as effective in foreign policy as in sales.

When persuasion failed, the alternative was subversion. To CIA director Allen Dulles and his contemporaries, who had learned their craft during World War II and had then watched with dismay as the Soviets ruthlessly changed regimes in Eastern Europe, there was no obvious reason the United States should play by different rules.

The overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh had in fact been a British initiative following his nationalization of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but the CIA soon got involved, greatly increasing the resources available to fund the coup. In Guatemala, the initiative came from an American business interest, the United Fruit Company, which had been nationalized by Jacobo Arbenz after his election in 1951. The CIA organized a military coup that overthrew Arbenz, painstakingly fabricating and spreading the story that he was a Kremlin stooge. This kind of operation was confirmed as legitimate by NSC 5412, approved by Eisenhower on March 15, 1954, which entrusted responsibility for planning covert operations to Dulles but ensured that the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department had the right of approval through the so-called Special Group, a subcommittee of the National Security Council.

When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, then, it was only natural that the CIA should begin work on an operation to get rid of him, too. As deputy director for plans, the ebullient Richard Bissell was quite ready to contemplate assassinations, not only of Castro but also of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese prime minister. Though those who killed Trujillo and Lumumba in 1961 were not themselves CIA agents, the weapons they used were supplied by the agency.

The big difference between then and now is not that the United States has forgotten how to do such nasty things. On the contrary, modern technology makes it far easier for the CIA to carry out targeted assassinations than it was 60 years ago. (In Pakistan alone, between 2,000 and 3,400 people have been killed by drone strikes since 2009.) The difference is that today the United States does not have as clear a strategy as it did then.

First, the Obama administration seems inclined to underestimate the magnitude of the threats we face. Testifying in February before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry called it “counterintuitive but . . . true” that “our citizens, our world today is actually, despite ISIL, despite the visible killings that you see and how horrific they are, we are actually living in a period of less daily threat to Americans and to people in the world than normally — less deaths, less violent deaths today than through the last century.” This might have been plausible in 2010, but since that time there has been a roughly fourfold increase in worldwide fatalities from armed conflict and a sixfold increase in fatalities from terrorism.

Second, the president remains firmly convinced that American power should also be understated. “No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy,” he told the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, “we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” This is a version of his earlier statement at the time of the Syrian “red line” crisis that the United States is “not the world’s policeman.” The problem is that the states the president wants to work with — the likes of Russia and Iran — are not much interested in police work. Rather the opposite.

Yet perhaps the most striking difference between now and then is this administration’s deep reluctance to call an ideological enemy by its real name. The Communist Control Act that Eisenhower signed into law in August 1954 was explicit. In the president’s words, “any citizen who knowingly and actively participates in the Communist conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence should be regarded as renouncing his allegiance to the United States and forfeiting his right to citizenship.” Compare those words with President Obama’s statements on the subject of what he prefers to call “violent extremism” — from “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam” in 2012 to “ISIL is not Islamic” in 2014.

Today’s threats are of course quite different from the threats of the 1950s. It is not immediately obvious, however, that they are smaller. Modern Russia may not be the Soviet Union. But Islamic extremism would appear to be spreading rapidly, and not only in the Middle East and North Africa. And China’s economy has overtaken that of the United States, when adjustments are made for domestic purchasing power — a feat the Soviet Union never came close to achieving.

Future historians will be perplexed by the Obama administration’s insouciant response to these challenges. And they will wonder, unjustly, why National Review did not do more to arrest the decline of American strategy and power.

– Mr. Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist, which has just been published.

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