Using newly released documents and digging carefully through materials in the Library of Congress and the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Kansas, a host of historians have portrayed President Dwight D. Eisenhower as far from the avuncular, congenial leader smiling before the nation in the 1950s. He was, in fact, a shrewd and confident leader who guided the nation through treacherous waters during the height of the Cold War.
So what more could be said of his presidency?
Historian Evan Thomas endeavors to convey Eisenhower’s astute stewardship in his latest book, “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World” (Little, Brown, 2012). Thomas’ thesis is that Eisenhower, in a discreet and masterful way, labored diligently behind the scenes to prevent small wars that could blow up into world wars, and implicitly threatened the Soviet Union with the use of nuclear weapons if it declared war on the U.S.
“Ike’s Bluff” is not a biography of Eisenhower’s life – the first chapter opens with his inauguration in 1953 and the book ends with his exit from office in 1961. Thomas chronicles primarily the various political challenges and crises that arose during Eisenhower’s presidency and how the administration worked through the problems. Peace and prosperity “didn’t just happen, by God,” Eisenhower reportedly said more than once. But, as the book notes, “he had difficulty articulating just how they had happened.”
Clearly, a great deal of Eisenhower’s strength came from his vast experience as a successful military man. He was, after all, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the final year of World War II, collaborating closely with leaders such as Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Charles de Gaulle. Eisenhower understood the U.S. military system, had studied the great treatises on war and battle strategies and had come to believe in overwhelming force: “If you have to fight, don’t hold back, go all the way,” he said.
Eisenhower employed a raft of strategies to uphold the peace during his presidency. The most interesting example features Thomas’ description of the Suez Canal crisis of 1957. When Egyptian strongman Gamal Nasser seized the Suez Canal in 1956, ending its control since 1869 by Egypt’s former colonial rulers (Britain and France), Britain, France and Israel moved troops into Egypt to regain control. The Soviet Union acted quickly to side with Egypt as a way of gaining support in the Middle East, hinting that the Soviets were willing to exercise extreme force in support of Egypt. In a nutshell, Eisenhower put pressure behind the scenes to delay badly needed funds to Britain and deny Britain and France oil in the coming winter months unless they discontinued their pursuit of the canal.
“Ike’s Bluff” is an extremely well-researched book that describes political machinations in a compelling way. Eisenhower’s character shines through in the tales of his anything-but-serene behavior when the media left the room.
Book clubs that enjoy reading biographies should love this book.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two books clubs.