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Top 10 Foreign Policy Presidents, Number 1: Dwight Eisenhower

I know, I know, this is no surprise to anyone and half of you are probably accusing me of bias. But there are reasons why Ike is my political hero and his foreign policy is the main one. I credit him with stabilizing the nuclear age, the largest and complex achievement of any President and, in all likelihood, of any leader in world history.

(Image from The Spokesman)

He inherited the High Cold War from Truman, which included both the stalemated Korean War and a memorandum titled NSC 68.  This document described the Soviet Union as an existential threat and recommended quadrupling the military budget which Truman authorized. Ike pulled from his career as an Army officer and leadership against Hitler to restructure America’s containment of communism.

The Great Equation was the core of Ike’s presidency and ideology.  It linked the relationships between world peace, military spending, and the national debt.  Ike wanted to further peace in part because he wanted to cut defense spending and balance the budget. These considerations played into his reevaluation of Cold War strategy in the fall of 1953.  He believed Truman’s strategy of containing communism through limited wars like Korea was too costly to maintain for the long-term.  He ordered Project Solarium, which saw three teams create Cold War strategies to replace Truman’s model.  Team A, led by George Kennan, proposed containing communism through building alliances, primarily in Europe.  Team B proposed threatening to use nuclear weapons to contain communism.  Team C proposed rolling back communism wherever possible. Ike melded all three proposals into the New Look, which became his signature national security strategy.  He expanded America’s nuclear arsenal and threatened a large-scale nuclear response (Massive Retaliation) against the communist world if the communists tried to expand anywhere.  Ike, who led Operation Overlord and defeated Nazi Germany, was uniquely credible in making this threat. Once Ike effectively thwarted Soviet expansion he wanted to negotiate a reduction of nuclear weapons.

Ike used his poker skills to make his nuclear bluff credible.  He wanted to make the Soviet government and American people believe he was serious.  He intentionally sought to appear less than intelligent so others would believe that he did not understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons.  He suggested there was no difference between nuclear weapons and bullets during a press conference.  He pretended to misunderstand his translator when meeting with foreign leaders so they’d think he was dumb.

Ike was willing to let Americans fear the increased risk of nuclear war if it let him contain communism while cutting military spending.  He played golf to seem uninterested in his presidential responsibilities.  The purpose was to make the American people believe that the Cold War was not as dangerous as it seemed. Ike calmed the country’s anxieties, but this contributed to his reputation as a do-nothing president.

The New Look allowed Ike to cut military spending and balance the budget.  He was able to cut conventional forces, which were more expensive than nuclear weapons.  Reducing conventional forces also removed America’s abilities to fight limited wars like Korea.  By removing the means to fight a limited war, he meant to eliminate the temptation to participate in limited warfare.  Relying on nuclear weapons to contain communism, as opposed to conventional forces, allowed Ike to prevent any communist expansion for eight years without losing any American soldiers.

Shifting containment from conventional forces to a nuclear deterrent was much more affordable for the US and allowed the US to contain communism until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This means Ike was a major architect of the West’s victory in the Cold War. 

Massive Retaliation was an enormous gamble.  Ike needed to convince the world he would use nuclear weapons while, at the same time, doing everything in his power to prevent war.  The communist world was unstable after Stalin’s death, and there were not yet international norms regulating the use of nuclear weapons.  These factors led to a series of crises that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1950s.  They included Korea in 1953, Diem Bien Phu in 1954, Taiwan in 1955 and 1958, Suez and Hungary in 1956, and Berlin in 1959.  Ike defused each one.

Ike became president determined to achieve nuclear disarmament between the superpowers.  This quickly became his main goal.  He made his first major proposal, Atoms for Peace, in December 1953.  The proposal was for the world’s nuclear weapons to be given to the UN, who would dismantle them.  The UN would create an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would aid nations around the world in achieving peaceful nuclear energy.  Most of the world endorsed Atoms for Peace.

The Soviets rejected the proposal.  Their government was paralyzed for the first two years after Stalin’s death, and they were not receptive to Ike’s idea.  He had hoped to achieve nuclear disarmament in his first year in office.  Now, the threat of nuclear war and the goal of nuclear disarmament would dominate his entire presidency.

Ike and his advisors met with a Soviet delegation in Geneva in 1955.  He proposed Open Skies, which would allow the US and USSR to fly spy planes over each other’s countries.  This would build trust between the superpowers and could lead to nuclear disarmament.  Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin was interested in the idea, but Nikita Khrushchev, the real power in the Kremlin, rejected it.  Khrushchev said Open Skies was an American ploy to penetrate the Soviet government.

Ike was disappointed by Open Skies’ failure and approved the Killian Report in 1955.  The report suggested investments in aerial spying technology.  This led to the U2 program, which saw CIA spy planes fly over the Soviet Union and taking aerial photographs, giving the Eisenhower administration information about the Soviet nuclear arsenal.  Ike knew the flights violated international law, but he felt they were necessary for national security.  He kept them secret from the public until the 1960 U2 Incident.  The Soviets, embarrassed that their anti-aircraft weapons could not reach the U2 planes, also kept the program a secret.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.  This meant that they had won the first victory of the Space Race and, more importantly, could soon have an ICBM that could launch across the Atlantic.  A panic broke out across the US.  The administration organized a panel of scientists and military experts to assess the situation. The result was the Gaither Report, which reported that the US would not survive the decade unless the government built a series of fall-out shelters across the country and that the rest of the economy was put into military spending.  

Ike thought this was an enormous overreaction. The Gaither Report recommended turning the US into a garrison state, where the military would control the country.  Ike had long sought to avoid this potential outcome of the arms race.  Secretary of State Dulles was the only member of the National Security Council to agree with Ike.  Ike rejected the report’s advice.  Someone leaked the report and Ike was nationally criticized.  It was the only time his approval rating went below 50%. Kennedy and other Democrats said Ike was being irresponsible and that they would have done it. Even his Army friends said he was wrong. This cost him political capital and credibility in foreign policy.  He refused to increase military spending, and instead, convinced Congress to create NASA and invest in education as the nation’s response to Sputnik.

Khrushchev became the dominant figure in the Kremlin by the mid-1950s following the Suez Crisis and Sputnik.  He built on these victories by placing an ultimatum on West Berlin in late 1958, threatening war if the city was not surrendered.  Congress and the military wanted to put more troops in the city.  Instead, Ike withdrew troops, saying that his only option was to use nuclear weapons.  Khrushchev, his bluff called, allowed the ultimatum’s deadline to expire in spring 1959.  Ike was so stressed during this crisis he threw his golf club at his personal doctor. 

Tension between the superpowers defused after the 1959 Berlin Crisis.  Khrushchev came to the US, toured the country, met Marylyn Monroe, and through a tantrum when he was not allowed in Disneyland for security reasons.  He met with Ike at Camp David for two days of talks.  Ike was skeptical about the meeting and told Khrushchev that the US would defend Berlin and other Western interests.  He also said that Khrushchev could be remembered as a great peacemaker if he and Ike reached a deal on nuclear disarmament.  The two men announced they would meet again, in Paris, in May 1960 to continue their discussions.

Ike had banned U2 flights in 1958 to calm the Soviets.  But he feared the Soviets could have a new weapon system that Khrushchev would use as a bargaining chip in the Paris Summit.  Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, convinced him to send a single U2 over the USSR to photograph the Soviet arsenal. 

The plane was shot down on May 1, 1960.  The CIA told him the pilot was dead.  Ike trusted them and said it was a weather plane that had gotten lost over Russia.  But Khrushchev had captured the pilot, Garry Powers, alive, and got him to admit that he was a spy.  Khrushchev caught Ike in a lie and embarrassed the US. 

Ike had failed to stop the arms race.  It was the greatest failure of his career.  However, this failure does not overshadow his achievement.  Ike was president during the most dangerous decade of human history.  He was so effective at keeping the peace that it looks boring in retrospect.

Perhaps Ike’s greatest legacy was that his repeated refusal to use nuclear weapons, in spite of crises like Korea, Diem Bien Phu, Taiwan, Suez, and Berlin, raised the threshold on their use.  Most Americans, including Ike’s advisors (like Dulles and Nixon), thought it was logical to use the bomb to address these crises, but Ike refused each time.  Even the limited use of nuclear weapons in the 1950s could have made them a routine tool in foreign policy.  That would have been catastrophic in the long-term.  International norms that regulated their use developed by the end of Ike’s presidency.  Countries now shun any use of nuclear weaponry; international norms turned them from a tool of first resort to a nonconventional weapon that could never be used by the end of Ike’s presidency.  This dramatically reduced the likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used. This means Ike and the New Look are the main reason nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. This was his most important achievement.

It’s true that other parts of his foreign policy are more controversial, such as using the CIA to undermine Soviet-leaning governments in Iran and Guatemala. I think these actions were morally-gray at best and hypocritical given Ike’s belief in the equality of nations. But as ugly as these actions may appear, they are minor compared to both Ike’s achievements in stabilizing the nuclear age and compared to the missteps of other Presidents of that era, from FDR’s agreeing to Stalin’s ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and Truman’s NSC 68 to JFK’s reckless escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis to LBJ’s expansion of the Vietnam War.

If humanity is still around in 2500, I believe two Presidents will stand out from the first couple of centuries of American history: George Washington, for leading the rise of modern democracy, and Dwight Eisenhower, for stabilizing the nuclear age. Ike’s achievement dwarfs any by Lincoln or FDR, and not only is central to the modern age but has few parallels in all of humanity. It is for these reasons that I rank Ike the greatest foreign policy President and hold him in such high regard.

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