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Eisenhower's "The Great Equation" - a Guest Post

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker, the author of "The Eisenhower Chronicles"


Dwight Eisenhower (Ike) had considered his time as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II to be his greatest achievement. In hindsight, we can see his presidency produced perhaps an even greater legacy. He reigned during the height of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons were so new that even their limited use could have normalized them as conventional weapons. Instead, he kept the peace and built an architecture that subsequent Presidents used to avoid nuclear war - from JFK in Cuba to Biden in Ukraine.

Ike was aware of the race between American and German scientists to build the first atomic bomb during WWII. Officials from Washington told him about the Manhattan Project and made predictions about the German project. They told Ike where they thought the Germans were working on the bomb. Ike ordered air strikes at these locations. He believed these attacks delayed the German effort.

Allied leaders met in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. Ike was notified of Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan to shorten the war. He was the only Allied leader at Potsdam who opposed this decision. He believed Japan was prepared to surrender and that the bomb was not necessary. He also feared that using this new weapon would hurt America’s global image. Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted him throughout his presidency. He thought asking the Soviets to intervene in the war against Japan was also unnecessary.

Ike ran for President to end the Korean War and to build the conditions to avoid World War III. His National Security Council (NSC) feared that the Soviets would obtain Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) by the end of the decade and would pose an existential threat to America. The NSC debated whether to launch a nuclear preventive strike to destroy the Soviet Union and prevent this from happening. Ike rejected the idea on humanitarian grounds.

The Great Equation was the core of Ike’s presidency and ideology. It linked the relationships between world peace, military spending, and the national debt. Ike wanted to further peace in part because he wanted to cut defense spending and balance the budget. These considerations played into his reevaluation of Cold War strategy in the fall of 1953. He believed Truman’s strategy of containing communism through limited wars like Korea was too costly for the long-term. He ordered Project Solarium, which saw three teams create Cold War strategies to replace Truman’s model. Team A, led by George Kennan, proposed containing communism through alliances, primarily in Europe. Team B proposed threatening to use nuclear weapons to contain communism. Team C proposed rolling back communism wherever possible.

Ike melded all three proposals into the New Look, which became his signature national security strategy. He expanded America’s nuclear arsenal and threatened a large-scale nuclear response (Massive Retaliation) against the communist world if the communists tried to expand anywhere. Ike, who led Operation Overlord and defeated Nazi Germany, was uniquely credible in making this threat. While Massive Retaliation checked major communist aggression, Ike used the CIA to roll back communism where it was vulnerable. The most notable examples were in Iran and Guatemala. Once Ike effectively thwarted Soviet expansion he wanted to negotiate a reduction of nuclear weapons.

Ike used his poker skills to make his nuclear bluff credible. He wanted to make the Soviet government and American people believe he was serious. He intentionally sought to appear less than intelligent so others would believe that he did not understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons. He suggested there was no difference between nuclear weapons and bullets during a press conference. He pretended to misunderstand his translator when meeting with foreign leaders so they’d think he was dumb.

Ike was willing to let Americans fear the increased risk of nuclear war if it let him contain communism while cutting military spending. He played golf to seem uninterested in his presidential responsibilities. The purpose was to make the American people believe that the Cold War was not as dangerous as it seemed. Ike calmed the country’s anxieties, but this contributed to his reputation as a do-nothing president.

The New Look allowed Ike to cut military spending and balance the budget. He was able to cut conventional forces, which were more expensive than nuclear weapons. Reducing conventional forces also removed America’s abilities to fight limited wars like Korea. By removing the means to fight a limited war, he meant to eliminate the temptation to participate in limited warfare. Relying on nuclear weapons to contain communism, as opposed to conventional forces, allowed Ike to prevent any communist expansion for eight years without losing any American soldiers.

Shifting containment from conventional forces to a nuclear deterrent was much more affordable and allowed America to contain communism until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This means Ike was a major architect of the West’s victory in the Cold War.

It is still unclear whether Ike was bluffing about Massive Retaliation. He never told his advisors or Mamie. He was afraid they would leak this critical secret. He valued government secrecy and hated leaks.

Massive Retaliation was an enormous gamble. Ike needed to convince the world he would use nuclear weapons while, at the same time, doing everything in his power to prevent war. The communist world was unstable after Stalin’s death, and there were not yet international norms regulating the use of nuclear weapons. These factors led to a series of crises that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1950s. They included Korea in 1953, Diem Bien Phu in 1954, Taiwan in 1955 and 1958, Suez and Hungary in 1956, and Berlin in 1959. Ike defused each one.

Ike became President determined to achieve nuclear disarmament between the superpowers. This quickly became his main goal. He made his first major proposal, Atoms for Peace, in December 1953. The proposal was for the world’s nuclear weapons to be given to the UN, who would dismantle them. The UN would create an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would aid nations around the world in achieving peaceful nuclear energy. Most of the world endorsed Atoms for Peace. The Soviets rejected the proposal. Their government was paralyzed for the first two years after Stalin’s death, and they were not receptive to Ike’s idea. He had hoped to achieve nuclear disarmament in his first year in office. Now, the threat of nuclear war and the goal of nuclear disarmament would dominate his entire presidency.

Ike and his advisors met with a Soviet delegation in Geneva in 1955. He proposed Open Skies, which would allow the US and USSR to fly spy planes over each other’s countries. This would build trust between the superpowers and could lead to nuclear disarmament. Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin was interested in the idea, but Nikita Khrushchev, the real power in the Kremlin, rejected it. Khrushchev said Open Skies was an American ploy to penetrate the Soviet government.

Ike was disappointed by Open Skies’ failure and approved the Killian Report in 1955. The report suggested investments in aerial spying technology. This led to the U2 program, which saw CIA spy planes fly over the Soviet Union and taking aerial photographs, giving the Eisenhower administration information about the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Ike knew the flights violated international law, but he felt they were necessary for national security. He kept them secret from the public until the 1960 U2 Incident. The Soviets, embarrassed that their anti-aircraft weapons could not reach the U2 planes, also kept the program a secret.

Ike also approved of the Corona program. These spy satellites became operational in the late 1960s and replaced the U2 as America’s primary method of collecting foreign intelligence. The Corona program remains active today.

Ike believed World War III meant humanity’s extinction. He predicted that 65% of Americans would be killed or wounded. He told his advisors that, in the event of nuclear war, “You might as well go out and shoot everyone and then shoot yourself.” An economic advisor in the NSC explained what it would take to restore the dollar after a nuclear war. Ike interrupted him, “Wait a minute, boys. We’re not going to be reconstructing the dollar. We’re going to be grubbing for worms.”

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. This meant that they had won the first victory of the Space Race and, more importantly, could soon have an ICBM that could launch across the Atlantic. A panic broke out across America. The administration organized a panel of scientists and military experts to assess the situation. The result was the Gaither Report, which reported that America would not survive the decade unless the government built a series of fall-out shelters across the country and that the rest of the economy was put into military spending. Ike thought this was an enormous overreaction. The Gaither Report recommended turning America into a garrison state, where the military would control the country. Ike had long sought to avoid this potential outcome of the arms race. Secretary of State Dulles was the only member of the National Security Council to agree with Ike. Ike rejected the report’s advice. Someone leaked the report and Ike was nationally criticized. It was the only time his approval rating went below 50%. Kennedy and other Democrats said Ike was being irresponsible and that they would have authorized it. Even his Army friends said he was wrong. This cost him political capital and credibility in foreign policy. He refused to increase military spending, and instead, convinced Congress to create NASA and invest in education as the nation’s response to Sputnik. He also designed the Nuclear Triad to guarantee that America could always deliver a second-strike, even if the Soviets destroyed the continental US. This increased the country’s nuclear deterrence. The Triad included bomber aircraft, land-based missiles, and submarine-based ballistic missiles. It is the most powerful weapon in human history.

Khrushchev became the dominant figure in the Kremlin by the mid-1950s following the Suez Crisis and Sputnik. He built on these victories by placing an ultimatum on West Berlin in late 1958, threatening war if the city was not surrendered. Congress and the military wanted to put more troops in the city. Instead, Ike withdrew troops, saying that his only option was to use nuclear weapons. Khrushchev, his bluff called, allowed the ultimatum’s deadline to expire in spring 1959. Ike was so stressed during this crisis he threw his golf club at his personal doctor.

Tension between the superpowers defused after the 1959 Berlin Crisis. Khrushchev came to America, toured the country, met Marylyn Monroe, and threw a tantrum when he was not allowed in Disneyland for security reasons. He met with Ike at Camp David for two days of talks. Ike was skeptical about the meeting and told Khrushchev that Americs would defend Berlin and other Western interests. He also said that Khrushchev could be remembered as a great peacemaker if he and Ike reached a deal on nuclear disarmament. The two men announced they would meet again, in Paris, in May 1960 to continue their discussions.

Ike told de Gaulle he wanted to end his presidency with an agreement between East and West. He thought that Khrushchev, his main adversary as president, could be his partner in disarmament. The odds were against the summit. The American press, CIA, JSC, and Defense Department were all opposed to an agreement. Ike also insisted on mutual inspections between the American and Soviet governments to make sure both sides abided by the deal. Not having inspectors meant putting America’s security at risk. Khrushchev was paranoid about American inspectors, so a deal would have been difficult.

Ike had banned U2 flights in 1958 to calm the Soviets. But he feared the Soviets could have a new weapon system that Khrushchev would use as a bargaining chip in the Paris Summit. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, convinced him to send a single U2 over the USSR to photograph the Soviet arsenal. The plane was shot down on May 1, 1960. The CIA told him the pilot was dead. Ike trusted them and said it was a weather plane that had gotten lost over Russia. But Khrushchev had captured the pilot, Garry Powers, alive, and got him to admit that he was a spy. Khrushchev caught Ike in a lie and embarrassed America.

Ike went to the Paris Summit hoping to salvage an agreement. He met with Khrushchev, de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Macmillan in May 1960. Khrushchev condemned American actions and demanded an apology. Ike said he would agree to a statement by the four powers agreeing not to spy on one another. Khrushchev said this was not good enough. De Gaulle sided with Ike, and Khrushchev stormed out of the room. The summit was dead.

Ike, Macmillan, and de Gaulle speculated on why Khrushchev ruined the summit. He could have easily hidden or downplayed the U2 Incident if he wanted to make a deal. The leaders decided Khrushchev had wanted to revoke Ike’s invitation to visit the USSR after the summit for fear he would promote anti-communist ideas.

Ike had failed to stop the arms race. It was the greatest failure of his career. However, this failure does not overshadow his achievement. Ike was President during the most dangerous decade of human history. He was so effective at keeping the peace that it looks boring in retrospect.

Perhaps Ike’s greatest legacy was that his repeated refusal to use nuclear weapons, in spite of crises like Korea, Diem Bien Phu, Taiwan, Suez, and Berlin, raised the threshold on their use. Most Americans, including Ike’s advisors (like Dulles and Nixon), thought it was logical to use the bomb to address these crises, but Ike refused each time. Even the limited use of nuclear weapons in the 1950s could have made them a routine tool in foreign policy. That would have been catastrophic in the long-term. International norms that regulated their use developed by the end of Ike’s presidency. Countries now shun any use of nuclear weaponry; international norms turned them from a tool of first resort to a nonconventional weapon that could never be used by the end of Ike’s presidency. This dramatically reduced the likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used. This means Ike and the New Look are the main reason nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. This was his most important achievement.


Get M. B. Zucker's book - "The Eisenhower Chronicles" now!


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