Originally published in The Chronotype, November 2014
The president’s advisers gathered in the Oval Office, and the news was grim: an overseas ally was being threatened with imminent invasion by a neighboring power. The advisers, both civilian and military, all agreed that U.S. intervention was the only thing that would prevent catastrophe. In fact, they urged the president to use nuclear weapons. The president considered his options and said no. He would not commit American forces and most certainly would not unleash his nuclear arsenal. He refused to be pushed into rash action that might actually make the situation much worse, action that could draw the Russians into a direct confrontation and ignite a much wider conflict
The year was 1954, and the president was Dwight Eisenhower. According to Stephen Ambrose’s biography of our 34th president, this happened not just once but five times that year. Among those urging drastic action was Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon. It was the Chinese threatening Taiwan, holding American pilots captured in Korea, Vietnamese rebels besieging the French at Dien Bien Phu. At a news conference in November of that year, Ike responded to the latest war fervor this way: “Don’t go to war in response to emotions of anger and resentment; do it prayerfully.”
Ike the warrior.
Eisenhower knew a lot about war. After graduating from West Point in 1915 in the middle of a star-studded class which produced 59 general officers, he served primarily in the capacity of a trainer of troops, doing the job so well that the Army kept him stateside in World War I. He became an expert in tank warfare and worked closely with another young tanker, George Patton. Later he served in the Philippines under Douglas MacArthur, and by 1942 he had risen to the post of commander of Allied forces that invaded first North Africa, then Sicily and Italy. Having earned the confidence of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, he was placed in charge of Operation Overlord. Within 11 months of the D-Day landings, Germany surrendered.
Ike the president.
After the war Ike presided over that part of Germany controlled by the U.S., replaced George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff and refused to run for president in 1948. Instead, he took a civilian job, president of Columbia University, a job he came to dislike because the professors he led were more interested in talking than getting things done; the faculty felt Ike was using his post only to further his own interests. Back in uniform by 1950, Eisenhower served as NATO Supreme Commander, finally resigning for good in 1952 to run for president. Elected by a landslide and re-elected by another in ’56, he presided over eight years of peace and prosperity for the nation, something the country has not seen since.
Although he defied his advisers in ’54, Ike knew how and when to threaten the use of force. He let it be known to the Chinese that he might be inclined to drop a bomb or two on them if they didn’t agree to peace in Korea. The armistice was signed just months after he took office. Early in ’55 he asked Congress for authorization to use force in the defense of Taiwan, including nuclear weapons. Both houses passed it overwhelmingly and the Chinese backed down. When Eisenhower drew a line, it stayed drawn.
Sixty years later we find ourselves in yet another war, under another president who has consistently resisted the advice of his generals. That’s where the comparison stops, though. Ike had experience in dealing with a vicious and battle-hardened enemy. He knew how to manage the personalities he needed to bring together in order to get the job done, and his political acumen was so deft that it often appeared he wasn’t doing anything at all, yet the politicians gave him what he needed and stayed out of his way.
We’ll never know exactly how Eisenhower might have managed today’s conflicts, but we can be assured he would’ve been meticulous in his preparation and decisive in his actions. Most certainly he would have set a goal: victory. And he would’ve achieved it. Whether we achieve that goal now remains to be seen.