Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Ike's Bluff, by Evan Thomas (2012)

Ike's Bluff, by Evan Thomas, 2012.

President Dwight Eisenhower.
Evan Thomas’s 2012 book Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, completely refutes the stereotype of Dwight Eisenhower as a caretaker president who only cared about his golf handicap. Thomas focuses his book exclusively on Eisenhower’s foreign policy, and he paints a portrait of an engaged leader who was extremely skilled at using psychology to get what he wanted. 

The central thesis of Thomas’s book is that Eisenhower was determined to keep the United States out of war during his Presidency. As Thomas writes in the introduction to his book, “Having done as much as any man to win World War II, Ike devoted the rest of his public service to keeping America and the world out of World War III.” (p.16) Eisenhower was successful in his goal, as he avoided confrontations with both the Russians and the Chinese during his two terms. Eisenhower disliked war, and he wrote in his diary on Memorial Day 1951: “Another Decoration Day finds us still adding to the number of graves that will be decorated in future years. Men are stupid.” (p.11)

Despite his reputation as a genial grandfatherly figure, Eisenhower was someone who played his cards very close to the vest. His son John Eisenhower told Thomas, “I don’t envy you trying to figure Dad out. I can’t figure him out.” (p.38) Thomas takes on the tricky task of parsing Eisenhower’s often garbled syntax to figure out what was really on his mind, or what his true intentions were. Eisenhower was an excellent card player, adapt at both poker and bridge. He was good enough at poker that he eventually stopped playing, because he was beating his fellow officers too often. He shared this skill at poker with his Vice President, Richard Nixon, who won a significant amount of money playing poker while in the Navy during World War II. However, I don’t think that Eisenhower and Nixon ever played cards together, since they had a relationship that was awkward at best. One of my favorite quotes from Ike’s Bluff is from the diary of Ann Whitman, Eisenhower’s White House secretary, as she wrote about Richard Nixon, “the Vice President sometimes seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one.” (p.389) 

Eisenhower was an excellent bridge player. As Thomas writes, “He was always thinking several moves ahead, trying to read his opponent and figuring out how to lead him on or trump him.” (p.41) This skill would serve him well during the gamesmanship of the Cold War. Complimenting his skills as a card player, Eisenhower didn’t like to use the telephone to conduct business. According to Thomas, “He wanted to see people face-to-face, the better to read them.” (p.42) Golf and cards, Eisenhower’s two main forms of recreation, also taught him patience, which was something that served him well throughout his Presidency. In a crisis, Eisenhower time and again was unwilling to make a rash snap decision that could have provoked war. 

Thomas does an excellent job throughout the book of articulating Eisenhower’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Ike was someone who trusted his subordinates; he was not a micromanager, which was both a strength and a weakness. Eisenhower was someone who was willing to share credit and take the blame alone. Because he didn’t need to always take credit to feed his ego, many people underestimated Eisenhower’s intelligence. Thomas is not uncritical of Ike, as he thinks that Eisenhower could have done more to calm the Cold War fears of the American public. 

Eisenhower’s ability to get inside the head of his opponents allowed him to analyze the leaders of the Soviet Union, and he used face-to-face summit meetings to help him figure out the contradictory Nikita Khrushchev. But Eisenhower’s trust of his subordinates made him look like a fool during the U-2 incident in 1960, when a U-2 CIA spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. This incident soured the Paris summit held shortly afterwards, as Khrushchev demanded an apology from Eisenhower and stormed out of the summit when Ike didn’t offer one. Eisenhower had always been cautious about the U-2 spy plane, even as it delivered photographic confirmation that the United States was well ahead of the Soviet Union in the race to build nuclear weapons. Richard Bissell was the CIA man in charge of the U-2 flights, and he assured Eisenhower that it would be impossible for the Russians to detect the high altitude plane. Bissell was incorrect. The Russians detected the very first flight of the U-2 in 1956. Russians planes couldn’t fly as high as the U-2, so they couldn’t shoot it down, but it was only a matter of time before they could. Unfortunately, Bissell didn’t tell Eisenhower that the plane was detected, and he instead carried on with the lie that the plane was impervious to Soviet radar. After the U-2 was shot down in 1960, the White House, thinking that the pilot of the plane was dead, put out cover stories that it was a high-altitude “weather plane” that had strayed off course. When Khrushchev revealed that the pilot was in fact alive, the White House had to change their story. Of course, Eisenhower had been assured by the CIA that there was no way a U-2 pilot could survive a crash of the plane. The U-2 incident destroyed the trust that had slowly built up between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, and it put to rest Eisenhower’s hopes of negotiating an arms limitation settlement between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the U-2 incident, Eisenhower should have demanded Bissell’s resignation, and probably that of complacent CIA director Allen Dulles as well, but true to his hands off management style, he didn’t. (Bissell and Dulles would later be forced to resign by JFK after another CIA foul-up with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.)

President Eisenhower’s main nuclear strategy was “massive retaliation,” which meant that the United States might use nuclear weapons during any confrontation, and that we would not hesitate to, well, massively retaliate against our enemies. The policy’s main proponent was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, the solemn and humorless John Foster Dulles. While massive retaliation might sound insane to us today, Thomas illustrates how the strategy worked for Eisenhower during his Presidency. Because no one besides Eisenhower really knew when, or if, he would use nuclear weapons in a confrontation, our opponents backed down from escalating international crises. Thomas makes the point that Eisenhower’s personal history, and his lifelong service in the military, gave him the standing necessary to back up the policy. No one really wanted to mess with the man who had masterminded the D-Day invasion and won World War II on the Western front in Europe. Had a president with a different background attempted the policy of massive retaliation, it might have backfired disastrously. 

Throughout Ike’s Bluff, Thomas is incisive about Eisenhower’s complex personality, using excerpts from the medical diary of Howard Snyder, Eisenhower’s doctor, to shed light on Ike’s mood swings. Despite his seemingly endless patience at the bridge table, Ike had a terrible temper which he struggled to keep under control, and he once hurled a golf club at Dr. Snyder. Thomas also illuminates Ike’s health issues, as he suffered a heart attack in 1955 and a stroke in 1957. After his heart attack, Eisenhower was out of the public eye for about six weeks as he recovered. It’s difficult to imagine that a president now would be able to stay out of the public eye for so long in our over-saturated media culture and still win a resounding re-election victory the following year.

Ike’s Bluff is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to get a better idea of what kind of President Dwight Eisenhower was. Evan Thomas is a skilled writer who creates a compelling narrative about a fascinating man and the global challenges he faced as president.

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