Books #7: Ike’s Bluff

Another in the recent series of reexaminations of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, Ike’s Bluff uses Ike’s prodigious card skills as the prism through which to view a foreign policy that relied on feints and the threat of overwhelming force. Although loath to fight a nuclear war with China over Quemoy and Matsu, and resistant to French, British, and Israeli bleatings of despair over Egypt’s effrontery in taking control of the Suez, Eisenhower never once publicly ruled out the possibility of aiming thermonuclear weapons at threats, confident that world leaders would know he meant what he said. Evan Thomas, a solid writer who heretofore had subsumed historical narrative beneath glossy magazine narrative, eschews parallels between Ike’s time and ours; we learn no lessons about the presidency other than to at all times debate the merits and demerits of policy proposals, and, when possible, command the largest army in modern times. No president, Thomas argues, can emulate Eisenhower because none of them served as victorious Supreme Commander during World War II. None can say he knew Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and De Gaulle. To no surprise when analyzing a book beholden to a thesis that its subject possessed wizardly powers of concealment, I balked at Thomas’ reluctance to reckon with the consequences of Ike’s infatuation with covert operations. Conceding in asides that his book does not concern itself with such things does not absolve the author of the responsibility of explaining how putting the shah’s fat ass on the Peacock Throne or destabilizing Guatemala at the behest of United Fruit Company burnished Eisenhower’s reputation for democratic statesmanship. The Bay of Pigs survives in Thomas’ account as an excuse to reprise the can-we-hope-it’s-apocryphal account of an anguished, sobbing JFK calling his Old Frontier predecessor to Camp David for tough love.

But Ike still emerges as the most impressive post-WWII president, canny about power, impatient about received wisdom, and ruthless about maintaining a public image of smiling banality; it’s impossible to believe that reporters thought this man the Reagan of his time unless they wanted to be deceived. He used the dyspeptic John Foster Dulles as a mouthpiece and could thus bask in his astonishing seventy percent approval rating, which held for most of his presidency (and remains unequaled by successors, even Saint Ronnie).

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