Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World

  • By Evan Thomas
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 496 pp.
  • Reviewed by Stephen P. Randolph
  • November 7, 2012

This biography shows the commander-in-chief as a subtle but brutal strategist who staved off war in uncertain times.

Evan Thomas’ Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret War to Save the World joins the flood tide of recent Eisenhower biographies, all aimed at countering the memory of Ike as a detached, ineffectual president. Thomas focuses on Ike’s foreign policy, contending that the massive retaliation strategy adopted by Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was all a bluff — that the core of Ike’s foreign policy was his absolute rejection of war as a policy option in the nuclear age, and his greatest success was its avoidance in a tense, eventful time.

In a narrow sense, Thomas’ thesis is very arguable. By the evidence presented and by the author’s own assessment, Eisenhower was quite prepared to use any weapon at his disposal if forced into war. That was no bluff. The most positive contribution of the book, though, is in outlining Ike’s understanding of the nature of war, in particular its relentless tendency toward escalation. It was an understanding developed over a lifetime of study and hard experience. It was both intellectual and visceral.

That understanding enabled Eisenhower to scout the road ahead in the successive crises that marked his presidency — from the Taiwan Straits to Indochina to Suez to Budapest to Beirut to Berlin — and to avoid the pathways of escalation into mass warfare. It shaped his decisions, from the highest level of policy to the tactical placement of troops. Given that understanding, Eisenhower gave full rein to every alternative instrument of power — covert operations, economic coercion, diplomacy, psychological operations, any instrument appropriate to the situation — to minimize the terrible risk of war. He was, as Thomas accurately and vividly portrays, a subtle and brutal strategist, both in the measures he took and in those he avoided.

Thomas’ background as a journalist shows on every page. His style is clean and crisp, and he has a fine eye for telling details. Like others dealing with Eisenhower, he takes advantage of the testimony of those closest to the president — his physician, his secretary, and his family — to paint a vivid portrait of Eisenhower as he wrestled with the enormous tensions of the presidency. The book answers the question of how people sleep, facing the overwhelming burdens of this office. The answer, at least in Eisenhower’s case, is that he didn’t — at least, not well, and often only with the assistance of Seconal. The larger narrative of the Eisenhower presidency and his health crises is well known — heart attack, stroke, recurrent flares of Crohn’s disease.  His chronic ailments were less noted, as was the volcanic temper he masked throughout his life. The genial, avuncular Ike of memory was a product of his self-discipline, not always maintained.

Thomas’s account is comprehensive and balanced enough to support some elements of the older view of Eisenhower, though that is not his intent. In particular, Ike’s Bluff repeatedly returns to the president’s inability to take the measures essential to control the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite repeated, urgent warnings, he permitted the agency to pursue high-risk covert operations throughout his presidency, with a very high failure rate. Worst of all, in Thomas’ telling, was the Agency’s handling of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, in which the program’s leaders deliberately withheld information on Soviet air defenses that would have persuaded the cautious Eisenhower to cancel the overflight program. Even after the Francis Gary Powers shoot down and its humiliating aftermath, Eisenhower failed to rein in either CIA Director Allen Dulles or his subordinates. It was a strange tolerance, given the price Ike had paid for the CIA’s transgressions.

Ike’s Bluff focuses predominantly on Ike’s role in crisis management, with little attention to another subtle and distinctive focus that Eisenhower brought to his presidency. He had learned through long experience that structure is the platform for action — that no organization can perform effectively over the long term, unless its structure supports its function. As president, he worked for two years to reshape the Department of Defense through fundamental legislation. His success in the 1958 DoD Reorganization Act stripped the military services of their roles in the chain of command, creating the system of unified commands that still executes American military action. It empowered the Secretary of Defense and strengthened the Joint Staff. Eisenhower didn’t get everything he wanted in this legislation — opposition in Congress and among elements of the defense establishment prevented him from achieving his full range of reforms. But he compromised where necessary, won the essential elements, and moved the Department of Defense toward the joint operations that now characterize American military action.

Thomas correctly emphasizes Ike’s intimate knowledge of the men and the issues driving defense budgets during his presidency, and the importance of that understanding in limiting the wild growth of the military budget in that era. While that is a valid and important point, his role in restructuring the department was much more profound and powerful, and had effects that continue to work today. It is an integral part of the story of Ike as strategist.

Unfortunately, Ike’s Bluff is marred by errors, ranging from the egregious to the merely puzzling. Thomas’ account of the 1958 Lebanon crisis, for example, is so cursory as to be misleading. This was the largest American military deployment in the years between Korea and Vietnam, and its histories are readily available online. Thomas’ brisk summary, that Eisenhower prohibited the American soldiers from leaving the beaches, is flatly wrong. In fact, they occupied the port and airport of Beirut and patrolled 20 miles into the countryside. Given the absolute lack of local intelligence available to the forces deployed, the unclear mission, and the chaotic situation on the ground, it was a tribute to the common sense of all involved on scene that the deployment remained peaceful.

Thomas’ account of the Strategic Air Command’s Operation Home Run in 1956 represents another caricature of a major operation. By that time the feverish buildup of America’s bomber force had yielded a massive strike capability. But to have a realistic capability, SAC needed intelligence on the planned ingress routes into the USSR, over the North Pole and into northern Russia. With Eisenhower’s approval, the command structured a very careful, highly disciplined program of visual and electronic surveillance of that region, launching a total of 156 reconnaissance sorties from Thule, Greenland, between March and May 1956. The biggest single flight was the last, with six RB-47s flying across northern Russia in a line abreast formation.

It was an incredible operation, deserving much better than the account found in this book. In Thomas’ telling, the operation morphs into another example of SAC commander Curtis LeMay’s disregard for civilian control, launching “squadrons of bombers” into Siberia “just for practice.” The image of LeMay turning loose squadrons of strategic bombers to joyride across the Soviet Union coincides nicely with the image of the cigar chomping general, but it is unfair in this case.

These issues notwithstanding, Ike’s Bluff has some outstanding qualities. Its central thesis is very important to our understanding of this great leader, and the account provides a clear, vivid picture of Eisenhower as an individual and as a public servant — struggling with himself, a complex world and his subordinates to sustain the peace in a risky time.

Dr. Stephen Randolph served for 27 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 2001. From 1997-2011 he taught military strategy and national security strategy at the National Defense University. He now directs the history program at the Department of State.

Note:  The views expressed in this review are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. 

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