Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eisenhower: hidden hand, or itchy trigger finger?

Review of Evan Thomas's "Ike's Bluff"

I picked up, from my library's wonderful "new" rack, a biography of Dwight Eisenhower that focuses on his foreign policy as president. The H-bomb was created while he was in office, multiplying the conundrum (and unthinkability) of pulling the trigger. These bombs can be made to literally any scale desired, given enough materials.

The conundrum it presented Eisenhower was that he wanted to save money and reduce the size of the military by brandishing various nuclear threats, but he didn't actually want to use them. The author tries to make the case that Eisenhower was perhaps the only person respected and feared enough to pull off such a bluff persuasively, and to do so, he knew that he had to tell no one of his inmost decision, whether or not to drop the bomb. It was a lonely position.

So the country practiced its duck-and-cover drills, built its bomb shelters, and employed the "Bland" corporation to devise ever more esoteric, even shamanic, rationales for mutual assured destruction.

But this kind of bluffing that wears thin pretty fast. A few crises further along, (at least), it became clear that no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons under any non-existential circumstances, (or even then), so we went back to fighting wars the old-fashioned way, with guns and proxy fighters in far-away countries. The Korean war had already demonstrated all this, so the idea that anyone, including the Russians, took Eisenhower seriously when he dropped his various hints about using nuclear weapons is really a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas works valiantly to make Eisenhower look commanding and wise in his conduct of all these policies, heading an administration noted for its ostensible blandness while a happy and prosperous country took its cue from its chief and went golfing. Internationally as well, Eisenhower was mostly respected and even loved, as America was still the colossus, leading the way both morally and materially out of World War II.

Retrospectively, there are definitely high points, such as Eisenhower's brutal string-pulling to march the English and French out of their Suez adventure. It is not well remembered that less than a decade after Israel declared itself a country, it launched an unprovoked war on Egypt, after Egypt started buying arms from Russia and nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel's attack plan was hatched in secret with Britain and France, who were supposed to magnanimously broker a peace where the European powers would take back ownership of the canal- for the good of all, no doubt. The US was also playing for influence in the Mideast, and, with some lip service to anti-colonial principles, used its dominant financial position to destroy England's exchange rate and starve it for oil.

Another positive was the U2 spy plane program. Eisenhower was receptive to technological advances, and was intimately involved in the approval and running of this plane that flew at 70,000 feet, twice the height of today's commercial airliners, and (for a time), beyond the Soviet air defenses as well. The U2 gathered immensely useful photo reconnaissance, making it clear to Eisenhower that the Soviets were far behind the US in nuclear armaments. There was no bomber gap, and no missile gap.

But did Eisenhower tell his jittery countrymen? No. I find this very hard to understand. The rationale was that such announcements would betray the U2 program, so its findings needed to kept secret. But it was not as though we had no other capabilities, and couldn't just generally state that we had, through various means, a very good idea of Soviet capabilities. It would have been very positive for US leadership on all fronts to make it clear that we had no doubt of our overall position in this arms race, preventing the kind of domestic fears, divisive politics, and foreign adventurism that happened through this time.

Unfortunately, the blowup over the U2 after Gary Powers was shot down derailed the blossoming detente that Eisenhower was pursuing with Khruschchev, whose sight-seeing trip through the US had been so successful in thawing up the cold war. But it really wasn't Eisenhower's fault, in my view. The more information was available, the better, both for us and for the general stability of the world, as Eisenhower had earlier advocated with his "open skies" program. And which would later be implemented in various test ban and arms control agreements.

Eisenhower also refused to get involved in Vietnam, letting the French face anihilation (decolonialization?) at Dien Bien Phu. On the other hand, Eisenhower coined the fateful "domino" theory of communist expansion in Southeast Asia, and started US support for the disastrous Ngo Diem in Vietnam. Would he have gone back in later on, when the South came under mortal danger? It is doubtful that he would have done nothing, but, having extricated us from Korea, I think he would have been very reluctant to escalate into another quagmire on China's doorstep.

On the other hand, Eisenhower let the CIA run horribly amok, staging coups and other more or less amateur operations all over the world. Meddling freely without getting the US into a shooting war seems to have been the theme of the Eisenhower presidency. Coups in Iran and Guatamala, attempted coups in Indonesia and Syria. This theme continued through the cold war, with the Bay of Pigs and the overthrow of Allende in Chile by the Nixon administration. Our record of picking rulers for other countries, has been, to say the least, poor (cough... Karzai). And the eventual blowback from our meddling in Iran in particular has been epic in scale and duration.

So on the whole, I find the Eisenhower foreign policy to fall short of the model of far-seeing statesmanship. Notably unsuccessful in his own stated goal of reducing the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower did keep the US out of wars small, large, and apocalyptic. But then we were the most powerful nation by far, making that task a little less difficult. His enthusiasm for covert operations was not only damaging by its direct effects, but infected future administrations with misguided bravado and sullied the US's reputation into the present day.

  • Conversely, how has Hillary done?
  • Meanwhile, we are slipping into our own rogue policy problems.
  • Filibuster, still killing democracy and government.
  • Geithner, stabilizer of finance, blind to the long term.
  • Car of the future?
  • Bill Black continues on the toxic and ideological pusillanimity of our current elites.
  • A glorious anniversary- the income tax is 100 years old.
  • The university is so yesterday.
  • But Facebook is evil.
  • Austerity- cover for class war. And for pro-cyclical futility.
  • Dell deal is a tax dodge.
  • Why some people just aren't very good at lying, or even BS. (Or religion.)
  • Economic graph of the week- :

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