Evan Thomas' IKE'S BLUFF: PRESIDENT EISENHOWER'S SECRET BATTLE TO SAVE THE WORLD
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
My parents, near-working-class white-collar workers who came from families damaged by the Great Depression, didn’t think much of Ike. To them Ike represented solid old-style Republicanism. His fiscal austerity regarding pay raises to government workers seemed to fly in the face of the post-World War II economic boom that everyone else was experiencing. I was thus quite interested in reading what Thomas has to say about Ike, having enjoyed his Sea of Thunder so much.
Thomas’ thesis is that Ike kept the world from sliding inexorably into a civilization-ending World War III through deft avoidance of direct conflicts with China and Russia. He makes a good case for this so-called “revisionist” view, but I’m left wondering about the things that aren’t really explored here, questions such as,
- How could the man who led the Allies to victory In Europe and kept the world from perishing in nuclear hellfire have been so reluctant to confront Sen. McCarthy more directly? Thomas discusses McCarthyism but does not really try to get at why Eisenhower was so unwilling to spend political capital opposing him.
- As a military man, why did Ike tolerate the “wild west” behavior of his CIA? Was it because he liked the results, preferred deniability —- or was it because he was so “aloof” he didn’t really know what was going on?
- Did Ike have any sense that his insulation from common people and his circle of millionaire friends would have repercussions on his presidency?
Thomas doesn’t try to answer such questions given the focus of this book on nuclear gamesmanship. That’s understandable but it left me wondering how much credence to give to the overall assessment of Ike. With his emphasis on nuclear war and the “big games” represented by China and Russia, Thomas seems to be re-promoting the “great man” theory of history, given his portrayal of the critical role Eisenhower played in keeping the peace.
Definitely, Eisenhower was one of the key players who, in the vast geopolitical game of nuclear chess in the 1950s, collectively rolled the dice away from Armageddon. Yes, Eisenhower was a key player, but so were outsized egos like Kruschev in their own pushes to obtain total destructive force. Could you then argue that it was the network of all these players acting together that collectively decided not to push the red button? (For me one of the scariest parts of the book is the depth of discussions about using nuclear weapons to help the French at Dien Bien Phu.)
I definitely want to read more about this era and its politics. Obtaining an understanding of the times, and a more complete picture of Eisenhower, requires more attention to domestic issues as well as international. I wonder, for example, what the link is between Eisenhower’s reputation for “aloofness” about domestic issues and the cards-close-to-the-chess nuclear machinations that are Thomas’ theme?
Was he bored with domestic politics and the economy having been involved in saving the world during WWII? Was he not really invested in issues of social and economic justice given his socially isolated upbringing?
Thomas hints at these topics but, frustratingly, this reader was left hanging, despite the great amount of research and interviewing that obviously went into this fascinating book.
Addendum: I really enjoyed Thomas’ extensive Acknowledgements section. I also wonder what Richard Bissel would have said about Thomas’ (negative) characterizations of him?
Book review copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald