Dwight Eisenhower loved the army, in which he served for almost all of his adult life. His favorite form of relaxation, after golf, was to sit down for a drink and swap war stories with some old West Point classmates. When he left the White House in 1961, he puzzled his successor, John F. Kennedy, by asking to be returned to his five-star army rank, which meant that in retirement he would be referred to as “General,” not “Mr. President.”
But to know and love the military was not necessarily to trust it, at least when it came to spending money or deciding when to go to war. As president, Eisenhower kept a skeptical eye on “those boys down at the Pentagon,” as he called them. Eisenhower believed in what he called “The Great Equation,” the balance of security and economic needs. Eisenhower knew, from long experience, not the least as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, that the military was skillful at getting politicians to pay for unnecessary weapons systems by exaggerating the threat.
In 1948, reading an Army G-2 (intelligence) estimate that the Red Army could overrun Western Europe in two weeks, Ike jotted in the margin, “I don’t believe it. My God, we need two months just to overrun Sicily.” Eisenhower is remembered for warning against the “military industrial complex” in his 1961 Farewell Address. Less well understood is that Eisenhower devoted himself to keeping the military industrial complex, as well as the war hawks, under control during his eight-year presidency.
Ike was smiling, genial, and easy to underestimate. He liked it that way. By exercising patience, not a little deviousness, and the occasional but well-timed eruption of temper, he knew how to tame giant egos. He had that quality, rare among politicians and public figures these days, of quiet confidence. He didn’t have to posture or show off; he could afford to be humble. During World War II, he once recalled to a friend, he had enormous arguments with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was demanding and impulsive. “But it didn’t really matter,” he added quietly, “because I was the boss.”
As the liberator of Europe in World War II, Eisenhower was enormously popular. Leaders in both political parties—including President Harry Truman—asked him to run for president in 1948 and 1952. Eisenhower, who claimed to dislike politics while excelling at it, understood that the people did not want an authority figure, a man on a white horse. They wanted a military leader who was strong enough to stand up to the Russians—but also to keep them out of war and not bankrupt the country by over spending on defense.
When one of their own became president in 1953, top military leaders hoped they would get what they wanted out of the White House. Military leaders were warning of a “Year of Maximum Danger” in 1954 and demanding more bombers to face the Soviet threat.
Meeting with congressional leaders in late April, Ike was blunt: “I’m damn tired of Air Force sales programs,” he said. “In 1946, they argued that if we can have seventy [bomber] groups, we’ll guarantee security for ever and ever...Now the Air Force has come up with the “trick figure of 141 [bomber groups]. They sell it. Then you have to abide by it or you're treasonous.”
One senator argued that the Air Force knew better than the politicians how best to measure its needs. “Bunk,” Eisenhower scoffed. He told the senators that he knew the Pentagon “as well as any man living,” and he knew how the people who worked there routinely overstated their case.
Eisenhower was hardly a foe of innovation in weaponry. He knew in the nuclear age that the United States had to build ICBMs. Indeed, he gutted his own service, the army, to find the funds to build bombers and missiles.
In 1955, his old World War II comrade in arms, General Matthew Ridgway, quit as Army Chief of Staff, privately accusing his commander-in-chief of trying to ruin the profession of arms.
Ike presided over the creation of an unbeatable triad of submarine and land- and sea-based nuclear missiles and bombers. He approved of the building of bombs of all sizes, including a nuclear bazooka (the Davy Crockett). But Eisenhower kept tight control over the likes of Curtis LeMay, the aggressive cigar-chomping chief of the Strategic Air Command, and he kept everyone, including his closest aides, guessing about whether he would ever use nuclear weapons.
At West Point and as a young army officer, Ike had been a card shark. Indeed, he had to give up poker. He had won the savings of so many of his fellow officers that it was hurting his career.Eisenhower ran a policy of “massive retaliation” threatening nuclear war against any communist aggression. It was all an elaborate bluff. After Eisenhower extricated the United States from the Korean War (partly by hinting he’d use nuclear weapons), Eisenhower never again committed troops to combat.
Eisenhower’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, had been a World War II aircraft carrier commander who boasted that, in air raids over Japan, “we burned the bastards scientifically.” Several times in 1954-5, Radford, backed by senior administration officials including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, urged Ike to use nuclear weapons against the communists in North Vietnam and Red China, which was menacing America’s National Chinese Allies on the island of Formosa. “It’s high time” to break the Cold War taboo against using nuclear war weapons, argued Radford.
Ike threatened to use the weapons but never did. He also refused to send ground troops to Vietnam. Eisenhower was determined to avoid any war. He believed that war is a mutating monster, that small wars become big wars, that only naïve politicians placed their faith in “limited wars.”
When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, “Sputnik,” in October 1957, Eisenhower came under tremendous pressure to quickly ramp up defense spending. He resisted.
Privately, Eisenhower mocked Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who was demanding to know how long the United States would have to endure its inferiority to the Soviet Union. Pretending to be LBJ on the Senate floor, Eisenhower would throw his arms heavenward and cry out, “How long? Oh Lord, how long?”
Modern weapons, Ike groused to his aides, “were just so damn costly.” It was foolish to believe that “money is the cure.” He burst out, “It’s just not right!”
In fact Eisenhower did not increase defense spending during his time in office, despite the Cold War tensions and enormous breakthroughs in technology. (In the 1950s, defense accounted for over half of federal spending, versus less than a quarter today.) When the Air Force warned of a “bomber gap” and a “missile gap,” Ike was dubious. He knew from the U-2 spy plane that if anything the gap ran the other way, although characteristically, he did not play his hand by revealing the secret intelligence from the spy plane.
Ike also resisted massive spending on fall-out shelters. When he was shown a special presidential shelter dug into a mountainside in North Carolina, he turned to an aide and said, “Good God, I didn’t realize we were this scared.” He used the White House bomb shelter as an indoor driving range. Asked if he would contribute to a shelter at his retirement golf club, he demurred, but added drily that they wanted to build a shelter to make sure there was room for the caddies and maids.
Eisenhower was a hands-on commander in chief. He would not let the CIA fly the U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union without his personal approval. Briefers would spread maps over the floor of the Oval Office, and Eisenhower would bend over them, scrunching up his suit. His rubbery face alive and curious, he would frown and nod and deliver surprisingly precise directions, recalled the CIA’s operations director, Richard Bissell. “I want you to leave out that leg,” he would instruct Bissell, “and go straight /that/ way. I want you to go from B to D, because it looks to me like you might be getting a little exposed over here…”
Eisenhower agonized over these flights. He scoffed at generals who wanted to photograph more Russian bridges and rail depots; Eisenhower believed the Strategic Air Command already had enough targets to destroy the Soviet Union. But he wanted to keep looking for Soviet ICBMS, in part because he suspected there were few, if any, and that the missile gap was a phony.
Before a summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in May 1960, he was especially worried that the Russians would shoot down a U-2 and disrupt Ike’s efforts to achieve détente with Moscow. That is precisely what happened, and Eisenhower was depressed by the realization that, this one time, he had failed to stand up to the generals and the spymasters.
But almost always he did. When Defense Secretary Neil McElroy warned him in 1959 that further budget cuts would harm national security, Eisenhower replied, “If you go to any military installation in the world where the American flag is flying and tell the commander that Ike says he’ll give him a gold star for his shoulder of he cuts the budget, there’ll be such a rush to cut costs that you’ll have to get out of the way.”
Eisenhower would periodically sigh to his staff secretary, General Andrew Goodpaster, “God help the nation when it has a president who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”
The warning was not idle. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were politicians who believed in compromise and half-way measures, which they translated into warfare with words like “flexible response,” “surgical strikes,” and “gradual escalation.” The result was America’s descent into the Vietnam War.
Eisenhower, who had run a total war in Europe, was an all-or-nothing man. He warned JFK and LBJ to go all-in or get out of Vietnam. They did not listen. Eisenhower, who as a patriot believed in civilian control and in supporting the presidency (and who was cranky about long-haired anti-war protesters), gave his public support to both presidents. Privately, he was skeptical.
Eisenhower is recalled, though not well, as a smiling, grand-fatherly golf player with shaky syntax. When John F. Kennedy, tanned and handsome, was bravely vowing to “bear any burden” in the cause of liberty in his 1961 inaugural address—a memorable, eloquent speech that was, we now understand, a prescription for trouble—Eisenhower sat a few feet away, bundled in a scarf and overcoat looking old and tired. He was worn out, it’s true—addicted to sleeping pills, suffering from chronic stomach troubles and heart disease. But he knew what he had accomplished.
The 1950s were boringly peaceful (or remembered that way) only because Eisenhower made them so.
Before he died in 1969, he was asked how he wanted to be memorialized. Eisenhower answered, “Just don’t let them put me on a horse.”
He will be honored as the general who helped win World War II but he should also be remembered as the president who kept us out of World War III. The Eisenhower years were a time of peace and prosperity. “By God,” Eisenhower once remarked, “It didn’t just happen.”
Evan Thomas is the author of eight books. His most recent is "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Struggle to Save the World" (2012); he was Editor at Large of Newsweek from September 2006 until he left the magazine in October 2010.