Until recent years, Dwight D. Eisenhower was not held in high regard as a President of the United States. Sandwiched between the colorful Harry S. Truman and the charismatic John F. Kennedy, “Ike” was often dismissed as an affable grandfather who spent more time playing golf than governing. In "Ike's Bluff", historian Evan Thomas pursues the revisionist view of the Eisenhower administration disclosing that a lot more was going on under the surface than the public realized.
Those who did not live during the fifties cannot really grasp the fear and paranoia that were part of that era. While the economy was booming as WWII veterans established their families, found good jobs, and bought homes in suburbia, the world lived under the threat of nuclear warfare and possible annihilation. Americans feared the Soviets and demagogues (such as Joseph McCarthy) fed this fear with the idea that there were Communists in every government agency. At the same time, Thomas argues that the Soviets were just as fearful of the United States and any Western military, economic, or political advantage.
Thomas presents a good case that the United States was never really in any great danger from the Soviet Union. America always had more nuclear bombs and strike capability than the Russians and, due to the U-2 spy plane flights, Eisenhower knew this but could not disclose it the public. On the other hand, the Russians got an early jump in heavy lift missile capability in the mid-50s, and this caused Ike to continually seek nuclear disarmament negotiations to diminish a possible nuclear war.
The “bluff” that Thomas uses in his title refers to the way that Eisenhower used the nuclear capability of the United States to avoid war. Policy makers went back and forth on whether the nuclear option was too horrible to contemplate or a strategic advantage which should be used if necessary. Ike’s bluff was that he never indicated which option he embraced. Like the poker player that he was, he did not show anyone, even his closest advisors, the cards he was prepared to play. Thomas argues that Eisenhower’s strategy kept the possible use of nuclear weapons in play and the Russians at bay (and the Americans as the preeminent world power).
Thomas gives us a total picture of Eisenhower as a man and a leader. He had a terrible temper despite his affable public face, he internalized much of his stress leading to a number of medical crises, and he thought a great deal of his own leadership ability. Ike was a loyal friend, but he tolerated some associates who got him and the nation in difficult situations.
The greatest insight into the character of Eisenhower that Thomas provides was Ike’s fear of a “garrison state” which devoted all of its resources to war or preparation for war. As a military leader, he realized that more is never enough for the generals and admirals!
Late in his Presidency, Ike delivered a speech in which he warned of the growth of the “military-industrial complex” devoted to building bigger and more expensive weapons. One friend noted that the President really wanted to warn of the “congressional-military-industrial complex” but he feared alienating members of his own party. The greatest failure of the Eisenhower Presidency was an inability to rein in excessive expenditures for military projects.
Although Eisenhower had all the vices and virtues that come with a military career, he was committed to providing a positive public example for the nation. From reading Thomas, I perceive a man who believed first in his country, second in himself, and only then in God.
Like all Presidents, Ike had his successes and his failures, but the public often misunderstood which were which! Thomas attempts to clarify the reality.