Excerpts for Ike's Bluff : President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World

Ike's Bluff

President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World

By Evan Thomas

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Evan Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-09104-6



Eisenhower's inauguration as the thirty-fourth president of the United States on January 20, 1953, did not begin as warmly or triumphantly as his return home after VE-day in the spring of 1945. On a leaden, foggy winter's morning, sitting side by side in the presidential limousine on the drive from the White House up Pennsylvania Avenue, Eisenhower and President Truman rode in icy silence. Neither man liked the other and neither pretended otherwise. In his final days in office, the president, who had been blamed for "Truman's War," was bitter about Ike's vow to go to Korea. After the election, he offered Ike a plane to fly there, adding, "that is, if he still wants to go."

The sun broke through shortly before noon—"Eisenhower's luck," according to the pundits—in time for the swearing-in on two Bibles: one used by George Washington and the other used by Ike as a West Point cadet. Shortly after twelve thirty, as he stood on the speaking platform on the east facade of the Capitol, Eisenhower briefly flashed his grin and raised the V sign to the vast crowd, which cheered but otherwise remained mostly hushed throughout his inaugural speech. He looked "somber-faced," according to the New York Times. Eisenhower's twenty-minute address was lofty but abstract, framing the Cold War in Manichaean terms but offering no way out other than by persistence and vigilance. The address was not particularly memorable and is rarely quoted, but it did include a chilling line, intoned in Eisenhower's wintry, grating voice: "Science seems ready to confer on us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life on this planet."

Eisenhower chose not to share with the American public how much progress the scientists were making. Three months earlier, on November 1, 1952, at a Pacific atoll in the Marshall Islands, sailors had watched agog as a giant, multihued pillar of fire rose five miles into the sky, completely obliterating everything beneath it. The bomb's fireball, four miles wide, would have incinerated San Francisco in a flash. The H-bomb, five hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb, had been born. ("It's a boy!" exclaimed the bomb's champion, Edward Teller.)

Eisenhower was on a postelection golfing vacation when he got his first formal briefing on the new weapon, code-named "Mike," from Roy Snapp, secretary of the Atomic Energy Commission. In the manager's office at the Augusta National Golf Club, Snapp handed Eisenhower a top-secret memorandum from the chairman of the AEC, Gordon Dean. Dean laconically wrote that the island base for the test was now "missing." The underwater crater was fifteen hundred yards in diameter.

As Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower had always been unusually open to new scientific research on weapons and intelligence gathering. To the briefer, the president-elect now said that, while he favored scientific research, he wondered at the reason "for us to build enough destructive power to destroy everything." He brooded for a moment, accepted what he could not change, and began to think how he would handle this terrible new reality.

The scale of the blast and the technological leap from fission bomb to the far more powerful thermonuclear bomb were, at Eisenhower's request, kept secret at first. Once president, he ordered the word "thermonuclear" be kept out of government press releases. ("Keep them confused as to fission and fusion," he instructed.) Despite his open demeanor, at press conferences Eisenhower would from time to time pretend to know less than he did, leaving the illusion that he was distracted and ill informed about matters that deeply engaged him.

Indeed, Eisenhower was willing to appear less than sharp, even a little slow- witted, if it served some larger purpose. Unlike most politicians, he was not driven by an insecure need to be loved and recognized. He possessed an inner confidence born of experience. This is not to say, however, that he was serene. Accustomed to the "august calmness" of his old boss, General George Marshall, national security aide Bobby Cutler recognized that he was in for a different experience when he went to work for Eisenhower. Ike would restlessly twirl his glasses, spin in his chair, doodle, jump up and pace, grab at the air with his huge hands, all while prodding and probing his aides in a sharp, flat, rapid- fire voice. When he was mad, which was often, a blood vessel in his temple would throb ominously. He hated wasting time and would terminate conversations, not because he was rude but because there was always something more to be done. "One could almost hear the whirring of a dynamo," recalled Cutler.

After commanding in a world war alongside the likes of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, and Joseph Stalin, Ike was not intimidated by anyone. The presidency was at some level more of the same. After his first full day in office, he wrote in his diary: "My first day at the president's desk. Plenty of worries and difficult problems. But such has been my portion for a long time—the result is that this just seems (today) like a continuation of all I've been doing since July 1941—even before that."

Pressure and anxiety were familiar companions to the sixty-two-year-old Eisenhower. He had learned to make light of hard choices, while subtly reminding others that he knew about stress in ways they could only imagine. In 1955, Eisenhower was invited to give the commencement address at Penn State, where his brother Milton was president. As the big day arrived, rain threatened. Did Ike want to move the ceremony indoors or take his chances in the bigger outdoor stadium? Eisenhower shrugged and said, "You decide. I haven't worried about the weather since June 6, 1944." This was not true; an avid golfer, he worried about the weather all the time. But it was useful to make others think that he was imperturbable.

And yet he knew that he was entering a new and uncertain world. Before he left the Oval Office on that first day, he received a brief phone call from General Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Turning to his secretary, Ann Whitman, Eisenhower said that he had just learned a lesson. His old friend Brad, who had entered West Point with him in 1911 and had been his comrade in arms throughout the Second World War, had addressed him not as "Ike" but as "Mr. President." From that moment, Eisenhower later wrote, he knew he would be "separated from all others, including my oldest and best friends. I would be far more alone now than when commanding the Allied forces in Europe in World War II."

Vice President Richard Nixon had reason to resent President Eisenhower. Although Ike was friendly to his running mate on the 1952 Republican ticket, Nixon couldn't help but feel like a junior officer in the presence of the commanding general. Ike's geniality masked a reserve, a coolness, which Nixon felt keenly. Nixon's insecurities had turned to anger when Ike kept his distance from Nixon during a campaign-fund flap just six weeks before election day. The California senator had been able to save his place on the GOP ticket only by appealing to the public with his maudlin but effective "Checkers speech." Nixon understood and admired two important truths about Eisenhower. "He was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized," wrote Nixon in his 1962 memoir, Six Crises. (Nixon added, "in the best sense of those words.") And Nixon could see that Eisenhower identified himself with the nation. There was no point arguing "what's best for Eisenhower" versus "what is best for the nation," Nixon told friends and colleagues. In Eisenhower's mind, they were one and the same.

Eisenhower had been taught at West Point to give credit to others and to avoid casting blame by name. Indoctrinated in the virtues of the team, he tried to convince himself that he was essentially replaceable. He went so far as to carry around a corny anonymous poem:

    ... Take a bucket, fill it with water,
    Put your hand in—clear up to the wrist.
    Now pull it out; the hole that remains
    Is a measure of how you'll be missed ...

    The moral of this quaint example;
    To do just the best that you can,
    Be proud of yourself, but remember,
    There is no Indispensable Man!

The evidence is overwhelming that he believed quite the opposite. Dwight Eisenhower recognized in himself the one man who could lead the United States in an era, when—for the first time in history—not one but two nations, mortal enemies, had the power to plunge the world into darkness. The image of Ike as a Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier reluctantly but dutifully brought back from his retirement to lead his nation, glosses over Eisenhower's own fierce ambition. Eisenhower played hard to get in 1951 and into 1952, but he could easily have said no and retired with his honor intact. He wanted to be in charge because he believed he was the man for the age.

Eisenhower was not above politics; he had been a superb military politician and learned several valuable lessons from the experience. He was critical of the Democrats, who, he feared, were determined to spend the country into bankruptcy and risked that a totalitarian state might rise out of the ensuing chaos. Fascism was a very recent memory for the man who had, at a very high cost, defeated it. But he was even more disparaging of his own party, certainly its dominant wing, which was at once isolationist and obsessed with Communist plots.

Eisenhower disliked strutters and desk pounders, especially after working for General MacArthur in the 1930s. He preferred to operate by indirection and behind the scenes.

But he wanted to be in control. His first battle in life was to tame his temper. As a boy, denied permission by his parents to go on a Boy Scout event, he beat his hands against a tree until they bled. Fond of quoting scripture, his mother, Ida, had taken him aside and said, "He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city." Shortly after Pearl Harbor, General Marshall informed Eisenhower that he was too valuable as a staff officer in Washington to be sent overseas to fight. Brimming with self-pity, Ike burst out bitterly that he would do his duty—"if that locks me to a desk for the rest of the war, so be it!" The next day Ike was full of regret. He wrote in his diary, "Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly."

Ike credited the warm, pacifist Ida for teaching him self-control. "I thought to myself what a poor job she had done," recalled an aide, Bernard Shanley. Ike's subordinates were awed by his capacity for rage. "It was like looking into a Bessemer furnace," recalled one of them, Bryce Harlow. Ike's personal doctor, Howard Snyder, noted that during World War II a journalist had dubbed Ike "the terrible tempered Mr. Bang," and Snyder himself observed "the twisted cord-like temple arteries standing out of the side of his head" when Ike became angry. If Ike felt an outburst coming on, he sometimes simply got up and—even more frightening to his staff—walked out of the room. When he was president, Ike and Mamie would occasionally retreat to the small White House movie theater, though most feature films bored Eisenhower or were too mushy for his tastes. ("Can't you find a new western?" he would demand of the White House staff.) An exception was a 1951 film entitled Angels in the Outfield, about an irascible baseball manager named Guffy McGovern, who is about to lose his job because his team is so awful. An angel appears from heaven to offer the manager a deal: God will let the team win if McGovern learns to control his temper. Through various twists and turns, redemption is achieved. Sergeant John Moaney, Ike's manservant, claimed to have run the movie thirty-eight times, according to Ike's grandson, David. As the lights came on, Ike would say "Wonderful show" almost inaudibly, and head for bed, resolved to keep his temper with difficult politicians in the morning.

Eisenhower never entirely tamed his emotions. But he did not bully, and his outbursts would pass. On occasion, he used anger to advantage. As a five-star general, he took for granted the retinue of horse-holders in constant attendance, but at the same time he could be sweet with his staff, bestowing small kindnesses. In return, they were loyal; Eisenhower's White House staff turnover was very low. He was blessed with a natural likability. "He merely has to smile at you, and you trust him at once," conceded Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, who was, by nature, suspicious and churlish. "No one hated him. His enemies didn't even hate him," recalled Karl Harr, a national security staffer.

Ike learned to keep up a genial manner, to seem interested, and, when necessary, to hide his true feelings and intentions. His motives were in no way malevolent. To the contrary, he was commanding himself to rise above pettiness, pride, and jealousy, human weakness he knew and understood. Eisenhower was confident in a way that transcended arrogance. He did not need to show off. He knew that he had a gift: the power to make people—indeed, whole peoples—trust him.

Certainly, his allies in World War II sorely tried his patience. The British chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, initially thought he had "only the vaguest conception of war." (Early in the war, British officers often referred to the Yanks as "our Italians.") In his dealings with the haughty Montgomery, Ike managed to be warm, open, and inclusive, even as "Monty" tested the limits of his short-fuse temper. "God damn it, I can deal with anybody except that son of a bitch!" Eisenhower once exploded. But for the most part, Ike knew he could afford to be patient with the likes of Montgomery. Ike confided to speechwriter Arthur Larson that he had tremendous arguments with Prime Minister Churchill, who was demanding and impulsive. "But it didn't really matter," Ike added quietly, "because I was the boss."

Eisenhower was sometimes even accused of being too agreeable. General George Patton railed that Ike was "damned near a Benedict Arnold" and groused that, as a result of Eisenhower's amiability, the British "are playing us for suckers." But Ike's friendliness was often underwritten not by a sense of emotion but alliance. Indeed, Eisenhower put up with the bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic Patton, resurrecting Patton's career after he struck an enlisted man and relieving him of his command only after he announced at the end of the war that the Americans should join up with the Germans and invade Russia. Ike was fond of Patton and knew he needed him as a war fighter, especially as a tank commander pursuing a defeated enemy—but then, when the war was done, he needed him no longer.

In one of his memoirs, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, Ike portrayed himself as a somewhat lazy student who liked to relax by reading westerns and listening to his favorite dance band, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. Elsewhere he described himself as a "simple country boy," and mournfully responded to a reporter's question, "That's just too complicated for a dumb bunny like me." Eisenhower was, in fact, a well-read humanist. As a boy, he had become so entranced by volumes of Greek and Roman history that his mother, irked that he was neglecting his chores, locked the books in a closet. Eisenhower found the key and read while she was off doing errands (another of his heros, or in this case an antihero, was Hannibal, a magnificent loser). Ike's high school yearbook predicted that he'd end up as a history professor at Yale. His de facto graduate school was the three years he spent in the early 1920s under the command of General Fox Conner, a genius soldier-scholar, in a remote outpost in the Panama Canal Zone. (It was Conner who taught Ike, "Always take your job seriously, never yourself.") With Conner, Eisenhower read Plato, Tacitus, and Nietzsche, among other philosophers and thinkers.


Excerpted from Ike's Bluff by Evan Thomas. Copyright © 2013 Evan Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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