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  Cool-Headed Ike

Nearly 40 years after Hopkins editors first began compiling the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the project is at last complete. History professor Louis Galambos has been co-editor since 1971. In the essay that follows, he makes the case that Ike's policy of containment ultimately led to U.S. victory in the Cold War.

By Louis Galambos
All photos reproduced with permission from The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Johns Hopkins University Press

Opening photo: Eisenhower leads the U.S. delegation in the NATO summit meeting in Paris, December 1957. As president of the United States (1953-1961), Dwight Eisenhower's major accomplishment was to guide the country successfully through the repeated crises of the Cold War. Pressure from the expanding Soviet empire and its communist allies ensured that there would always be new crises to manage. Each new source of tension generated pressure within the United States to invest more in national security than President Eisenhower thought the economy could afford over the long term. Each new collapse of a colonial outpost of one of America's allies seemed to call for a military response to defend the status quo, a strategy that Eisenhower knew was doomed to failure. Through all of these struggles and controversies, Ike kept a cool head and a firm hand on the tiller of national policy. He understood that if the United States and its allies stood firm and resisted the temptation to shoot first and think later, they would eventually win the Cold War. He was right. Years after he left office, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the dwindling of communism's appeal and power confirmed the basic strategy of containment and Eisenhower's patient, thoughtful approach to national security.

Long before he was president, Eisenhower had demonstrated how he would respond to war scares. As chief of staff of the postwar U.S. Army, Eisenhower sent the following memorandum in 1946 to Secretary of Defense Robert Porter Patterson. Patterson had received a message from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover that "a reliable confidential source" had reported that the Soviets had ordered all of their ships in U.S. ports to leave "as quickly as possible." The implication was that hostilities were imminent. Eisenhower responded as follows:

"The following outlines my present conclusions on the significance of subject message. At present there is no reason whatsoever for the U.S.S.R. to consider actual hostilities with any nation in the world for the simple reason that she is in actual possession of every area where she has shown acute interest, except for a few bases to which she has entered claim in the Mediterranean." Eisenhower speculated as to why the Soviets might have issued such an order and explained what was being done "to arrive at a definite conclusion." "We are watching the situation throughout the world to determine whether U.S.S.R. action elsewhere conforms to any pattern of which this particular piece of information might be a part." Nothing developed, of course, and the issue quickly died, but Cold War tensions continued to mount throughout the world.

Eisenhower started his September 1959 tour of Europe with a motorcade in Paris with General Charles de Gaulle. In Asia, communist advances continued, and by 1954, the French were facing a final defeat in their efforts to preserve their position in Indo-China. The United States was under substantial pressure to intervene militarily and extricate the French from a situation that was "desperate."

President Eisenhower wrote to his old friend General Alfred Gruenther: "While I had some secondhand reports of your feeling that the French leaders had practically abdicated, I had not before known of your personal views with respect to the astonishing proposal for unilateral American intervention in Indo-China. Your adverse opinion exactly parallels mine.

"As you know, you and I started more than three years ago trying to convince the French that they could not win the Indo-China war and particularly could not get real American support in that region unless they would unequivocally pledge independence to the Associated States upon the achievement of military victory. Along with this--indeed as a corollary to it--this Administration has been arguing that no Western power can go to Asia militarily, except as one of a concert of powers, which concert must include local Asiatic peoples.

Sir Winston Churchill paid a visit to Eisenhower in Washington in May 1959. "To contemplate anything else is to lay ourselves open to the charge of imperialism and colonialism or--at the very least--of objectionable paternalism. Even, therefore, if we could by some sudden stroke assure the saving of the Dien Bien Phu garrison, I think that under the conditions proposed by the French the free world would lose more than it would gain. Neither the British nor the French would now agree with the coalition idea--though for widely differing reasons. Consequently, we have had to stand by while the tactical situation has grown worse and worse...." Eisenhower found the situation "frustrating and discouraging." The French, he said, needed "a new and inspirational leader" but "I do not mean one that is 6 feet 5 and who considers himself to be, by some miraculous biological and transmigrative process, the offspring of Clemenceau and Jeanne d'Arc." But General Charles de Gaulle, who always gave Ike fits, would not return to power until 1958, the United States would not use its military power to defend the French empire, and France would be defeated in Indo-China.

While communist power was contained in Europe, Eisenhower wrote to another close friend, Edward Hazlett Jr., that by 1956 "the Mid East thing is a terrible mess. Ever since July twenty-sixth, when Nasser took over the Canal, I have argued for a negotiated settlement. It does not seem to me that there is present in the case anything that justifies the action that Britain, France, and Israel apparently concerted among themselves have initiated....

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev posed with Eisenhower in front of the Aspen cottage at Camp David in September 1959. "The real point is that Britain, France, and Israel had come to believe--probably correctly--that Nasser was their worst enemy in the Mid East and that until he was removed or deflated, they would have no peace. I do not quarrel with the idea that there is justification for such fears, but I have insisted long and earnestly that you cannot resort to force in international relationships because of your fear of what might happen in the future. In short, I think the British and French seized upon a very poor vehicle to use in bringing Nasser to terms.... I think that France and Britain have made a terrible mistake. Because they had such a poor case, they have isolated themselves from the good opinion of the world and it will take them many years to recover.... Only a star-gazer," Eisenhower said, "could tell how the whole thing is going to come out."

Concerned about the "critical international situation," Clare Booth Luce, U.S. ambassador to Italy, urged the president to take "drastic" action in 1956. As Eisenhower would explain to her husband, Time publisher Henry Robinson Luce, "In essence, she believes-- that the time has come to challenge Russia openly, with force of arms. While I have no doubt that as of this moment we are in as good a relative position of power as we ever will be, to undertake such an adventure, I am quite certain that the implications and inescapable results of an all-out war have not sufficiently impressed themselves upon her as to make her realize that such a war must be a decision in extremis and not one to adopt as long as there remains the faintest possibility of reaching a solution by some other method. She seems convinced that all these other methods have been tried and have failed. But she possibly forgets that these other methods depend upon patience, steadiness, firmness, and time.

"Actually, I have no trouble understanding her forebodings, and the convictions she holds. As I told her, I have stayed awake many nights pondering these things in the hope of finding some way of improving the methods we are now using to maintain and make progress toward better arrangements in the existing world. Moreover, I feel that if the time ever comes when I am convinced that the final and ultimate decision must be made, I will have the fortitude to do it. But I repeat--the inescapable results on the civilization of the northern hemisphere would be something almost beyond the comprehensions of the normal individual.

"I write this letter only because you know of my affection for you both and of my hope that by quietly contemplating methods other than war, she will finally come to see that as of this moment neither limited war nor a hydrogen bomb war could really settle anything either in the Mid East or in our relationships with the Kremlin...."

Eisenhower met with President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of Vietnam in Washington on May 8, 1957. While Eisenhower was certain time was on the side of the United States and its allies, there still seemed to be a new foreign crisis every few months, and in 1959, the hot spot was Asia. Following Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States, Eisenhower wrote to the Soviet chairman about the situation in the Taiwan area. "You left me with the clear impression that you thought the People's Republic of China had the right to seek to take territory of the Republic of China, that is to say Taiwan, the Pescadores and other islands, by force of arms. If I understood you correctly, you further thought that this was a question of civil war.... You emphasized that in your view this grave question relating to China was a domestic question and not an international question....

"The world in which we live is in a sense an indivisible one. I must say that I find a disturbing contrast between what you said to me on China toward the close of our talks and what you said to me with regard to the question of Germany, which is also a great--and divided--country. You spoke of the need for a peaceful solution of the German question but you said the People's Republic could legitimately use force in China. We, of course, disagree with this view. In my view both are international matters. I have expressed my willingness to discuss the German question seriously with you and the other interested parties in the hope of reaching a peaceful conclusion in the interest of our two countries and mankind as a whole. I think that the question of China can, in time, be resolved the same way."

Time, it turned out, was indeed on the side of the United States and its allies. The abrupt end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought a quick end to a struggle that Eisenhower had long conducted with patience, skill, and an overwhelming desire to avoid the destruction of war. Containment was not a strategy that many Americans in the 1950s found intrinsically appealing. Anxious always for the quick fix, they periodically grew impatient. With the advantage of the hindsight provided by history and the insights we can gather from The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower and other sources, we can now appreciate more fully the manner in which Ike held his country to that winning strategy during the most dangerous years of the Cold War.

The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower were published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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