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Diplomacy in The 1950s

America has never had a president who was better prepared in the area of foreign affairs than Dwight D. Eisenhower was when he took office. He had been in the international arena for more than a dozen years by that point. He knew many world leaders personally. As Army Chief of Staff (1945-1948) he had charted America's military strategy around the world. As Supreme Commander of NATO (1950-1952) he had been involved in forging the critical European-American alliance of the early Cold War years.

Given the serious and complex problems he faced, Ike needed every bit of this formidable experience. When he took office, America was in the midst of a stalemated and frustrating war in Korea. The country was faced with a powerful, implacable, and unpredictable Soviet enemy that openly sought world domination. And all across the globe, populations festered under dictatorships or colonial oppression.

Eisenhower's approach to world affairs was based on two unwavering principles. First, he was a staunch anticommunist; having helped defeat the Nazis, he was not about to let another form of totalitarianism spread across the world. Second, he a recognized the limits of military power. The nation was already pouring a huge proportion of its wealth into arms spending. To increase defense spending could bankrupt the country, he believed, leaving the US weaker, not stronger.

Ike also applied his own personality to world affairs. He had never been rash and as a rule opted for the moderate course. "Eisenhower's personal inclination has always been to try to talk and to conciliate," observed journalist James Reston.9

Facing the Communists

Eisenhower appointed John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State. Through most of his presidency, Ike and Dulles would play a kind of good-cop/bad-cop routine, with Dulles pushing for harsher and more confrontational policies toward the Russians and Eisenhower often talking about peace and the possibility of cooperation.

The course ahead was not clear to either of them. The Soviets had emerged after World War II as a global superpower. China was also, after 1949, ruled by a Communist regime. To make things even more complicated, less than two months after Eisenhower took office, iron-fisted Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died. Stalin had been the leader of the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years and left no clear successor. Nikita Khrushchev, that country's Communist Party leader, would not fully consolidate power over his rivals within the Kremlin for several years.

President Harry Truman, Ike's predecessor in the White House, had followed a policy of containment—seeking to keep the Soviets, who already controlled Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, from dominating any more territory. Republicans had condemned the containment policy because it meant abandoning those populations that had already fallen under Communism. Instead, Republicans campaigned on a promise to seek "the liberation of these captive peoples" from Communist domination, as Dulles put it.10 But rolling back Communism where it was already well entrenched was easier said than done How could Ike drive the Communists out of, say, Poland without risking a general nuclear war?

Even Truman's less ambitious containment policy had proven enormously costly in both lives and treasure. More than 50,000 Americans had already died fighting against a Communist attempt to conquer South Korea. During the 1952 election campaign, Eisenhower had vowed to "go to Korea," vaguely implying he would find a way to end the war. He did. Through forceful negotiations, he managed to achieve a cease-fire on 27 July 1953, ending the conflict that had begun in 1950. The settlement left the situation on the Korean peninsula almost exactly as it had been when the war started. Containment, that is to say—not rollback.

To the Brink of War

Eisenhower and Dulles came up with a strategy to address the complex situation they faced. Known as the "New Look," it was based on adequate but not extravagant spending to maintain sturdy conventional armed forces. These would be backed up by a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Any country that attacked the United States would face "massive retaliation," a devastating rain of H-bombs. The US promised to respond to aggression by attacking "instantly, by means and at places of our choosing," Dulles warned. He felt the strategy would provide "more basic security at less cost." More bang for the buck, was the phrase commonly used.11 The goal was to discourage the Soviets and Chinese from making aggressive moves in Europe or Asia, while saving the US from having to commit large, expensive armies to posts around the world.

In addition to massive retaliation, Eisenhower's foreign policy was built on what came to be called "brinkmanship." Rather than waiting to be provoked, the US would deliberately push adversaries to the brink of war in order to halt any aggressive maneuvering. It was a high-stakes game of chicken.

A crisis that blew up two years into Eisenhower's first term showed how complicated and perilous this game was. After China's long-running civil war ended in 1949 with Chairman Mao's Communists defeating Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, Chiang and his supporters retreated to the island province of Formosa (now called Taiwan). The US continued to recognize Chiang as the legitimate ruler of not only Taiwan but of all China.

In August 1954, Mao's forces began to shell Quemoy and Matsu, two small island groups in the Formosa Strait, the body of water that divided the island from the mainland. Chiang had fortified Quemoy and Matsu in the unrealistic hope of using them as staging grounds for an invasion of the mainland. Now Mao's Communists were threatening to use them instead as stepping-stones to launch their own invasion of Formosa.

Eisenhower quickly upped the ante. He got Congress to provide him with advanced authorization to use military force to defend Taiwan. If the Chinese amassed troops opposite Formosa, he would bombard them with nuclear weapons. Maybe. He never said exactly what would provoke such a devastating American response. Was he bluffing? Would he really go to nuclear war over a few tiny islands? Nobody knew. "The fog of equivocation Ike generated gave him the supreme diplomatic advantage of flexibility," wrote biographer Piers Brendon.12

In this case, the ploy worked. The Communist Chinese backed off, at least temporarily. But the world had come dangerously close to a nuclear holocaust. And some said the granting of war-making power to a president was an abdication of Congressional responsibility that set a dangerous precedent for the future. And most unsettling of all was the notion that a relatively minor dispute over control over a couple of nearly meaningless islands might be all it would take to ignite nuclear war. The problem with massive retaliation and brinksmanship was that they required a credible threat of near-suicidal aggressiveness with nuclear weapons. It was no accident that terrified Americans began building backyard bomb shelters in hopes of surviving a nuclear Armageddon that seemed a very real possibility.

A Row of Dominoes

The Formosa crisis was not the first time Eisenhower had considered using nuclear bombs. Ever since the end of World War II, the French, with heavy U.S. backing, had been trying to recover their colonies in Indochina. In Vietnam, they had run into fierce opposition from forces under the leadership of Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh, who was a Communist but also a nationalist hero who had been leading the country's struggle for independence since the 1920s. In the spring of 1954, the French tried to lure the Vietnamese into a decisive battle in a remote jungle outpost called Dien Bien Phu. The fighting there turned out disastrously for the French; Ho's forces were able to surround the French completely and threatened to inflict a decisive defeat upon them. The calamitous French position at Dien Bien Phu looked likely to lead to an independent, Communist Vietnam under Ho's powerful leadership.

Eisenhower voiced the worries of many when he warned that the loss of Vietnam to Communist forces could have repercussions for surrounding countries. "You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly."13 This was a statement of what became known as the domino theory—the idea that allowing Communists to take over anywhere would demoralize neighboring countries and lead to a cascade of losses. The theory, which proved erroneous, ignored the nationalistic nature of many of the conflicts in the postcolonial era.

Some American military men urged the president to use atomic bombs to help the French stave off defeat. As a former general, Eisenhower knew such a tactic would not work and he was reluctant to commit the tens of thousands of American troops that it was estimated would be needed to take over the war and win it. Ultimately, he chose not to intervene. With no hope of breaking the siege, French forces surrendered on 7 May 1954.

The treaty ending the First Indochina War temporarily divided Vietnam into a Communist north and anticommunist south, calling for nationwide elections in 1956 to reunite the two halves of the country. Ho Chi Minh was an extremely popular leader who would almost certainly have won that election—if it had ever been held. This might have been a good time for the US to step back and accept the inevitable will of the Vietnamese people, but Eisenhower did not want to be accused of "losing" Vietnam. He refused to support elections and instead threw American support firmly behind Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt and repressive ruler of South Vietnam. A devout Catholic, Diem had lived in the United States since 1950. In Vietnam, he was widely (and probably not unfairly) viewed as an American puppet.

No one in the Fifties could have known that American commitments to South Vietnam would lead to a prolonged and unwinnable war that would cost of the lives of more than 50,000 Americans (and millions of Vietnamese) in the 1960s and '70s. Still, Eisenhower bears some of the responsibility. He had the wisdom not to commit America to war in Vietnam in 1954, but his misguided decision to back Diem ultimately set the United States on that very same path a decade later. If Eisenhower had still been in power in the 1960s, would he have been wise enough to disengage from Vietnam at the moments when presidents Kennedy and Johnson chose instead, fatally, to escalate? There's no way for us to ever know.

Suez and the Middle East

Throughout the 1950s, the Cold War had a nasty habit of flaring up into hotspots of violence in various regions around the world. While Eisenhower was running for reelection in 1956, the Middle East erupted. It was a volatile region, with the Americans and Soviets competing for influence among various nations just emerging from colonial domination and the Americans also trying simultaneously to back Israel in its conflicts against its Arab neighbors while also pursuing alliances with several of those same Arab states. And through it all, the region's immense wealth in oil took on greater and greater strategic importance.

In Egypt, nationalist leader Gamal Abdal Nasser had asked the United States to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a major hydroelectric and irrigation project on the Nile River. But the promised aid was withdrawn when Nasser seemed to flirt with Communism. Nasser's response was surprising—he seized the Suez Canal from the British-French company that operated it. He said he would use the canal revenues to pay for the dam. In response to this "Suez crisis," on 29 October 1956, Israeli suddenly attacked Egypt, smashing the ill-prepared Egyptian army. Two days later, Britain and France also joined the war, bombing Egypt and landing paratroopers to fight there.

Eisenhower, who had not been consulted on any of this, was outraged. He joined the Soviets in supporting a UN resolution calling for the aggressors—his allies Britain, France, and Israel—to withdraw. When they did not, the Russians threatened to intervene with force. Eisenhower put the US military on high alert and vowed to resist any Soviet intervention; he was furious with his allies but he wasn't about to let them be smashed by the Red Army. It was one of the tensest moments of the Cold War. Eisenhower considered all-out nuclear war a very real possibility.

Eisenhower's firmness against both friend and foe paid off when the Russians held back and the French, British, and Israelis agreed to withdraw.

The result of the crisis was to make the US a major player in the Middle East, replacing the British and French as the dominant foreign power in the region. The president solidified this position in January 1957 by proposing what became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. When passed by Congress, it gave the president the authority to intervene in the region with aid, military assistance, or direct force, whenever he felt that a country there was threatened by the Soviets.

Ike applied the Doctrine in 1958, sending 14,000 US Army and Marine Corps soldiers into Lebanon to support the Christian government there against an Islamic faction seen as leaning toward Communism. Though the military accomplished its mission without casualties, the intervention had its drawbacks. By supporting Christians against Muslims in a local dispute, the action erased much of the goodwill Eisenhower had gained among Arabs by his Suez stance.

Eisenhower saw the Middle East as an arena for a grand chess match with the Soviets. He supported or opposed the policies of governments there depending on whether he felt they were leaning toward Communism, not on their own merits. Many criticized him for failing to recognize the complex motivation and desires of Third World leaders and populations. Historian D.C. Watts wrote that Ike's "incursion into the Middle East with the Eisenhower Doctrine was an unmitigated disaster."14

For better or worse, Eisenhower's actions involved the US directly in the tangled and bitterly contested affairs of the region. Half a century later, the United States remains as entangled as ever in Middle Eastern affairs.

Revolt in Hungary

Since World War II ended with the Red Army in control of all territory east of Berlin, the nations of Eastern Europe had lived under the domination of the Soviet Union. The Soviets viewed control over the governments of Eastern European nations as vital to their own security, using Communist regimes in nations like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as a "buffer zone" to block yet another German invasion of Russia (such as those launched in both World Wars, costing tens of millions of Soviet lives). And if the actual people who lived in those Eastern European nations didn't want to live under Soviet-dominated Communist regimes? Too bad. The Eastern Europeans' resentment became more pronounced after Khrushchev denounced Stalin in February 1956. That summer, riots in Poland prompted the Soviets to make reforms.

The people of Hungary began an even more far-reaching uprising against their Soviet-imposed government on 22 October 1956. Prompted in part by Radio Free Europe, the American propaganda broadcast, Hungarians renounced their membership in the Warsaw Pact, which allied Eastern European countries with Russia. On 4 November, Khrushchev sent 200,000 soldiers and 4,000 tanks into Hungary, crushing the rebellion and killing 40,000 Hungarians in the process.

The world was stunned by this brutal demonstration of force, but the United States was impotent to do anything about it. Eisenhower knew that he had no realistic military options. He couldn't start World War III, and he couldn't do anything to help Hungary without starting World War III. All the talk from Secretary of State Dulles about rolling back Soviet influence in Eastern Europe was shown, rather dramatically, to be little more than empty rhetoric.

Unconventional War

Eisenhower introduced covert action into the Cold War contest soon after his inauguration. He had learned the value of clandestine operation during World War II. As president, he made use of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to pursue US strategic goals on the cheap. The CIA, headed by Allen Dulles (the younger brother of the Secretary of State), became closely tied to the White House.

The first significant operation was the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran. The country was ruled by a constitutional monarchy, with the Shah sitting as king and Mohammed Mossadegh as the elected prime minister. In the early 1950s, Mossadegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, which had been controlled by the British. Eisenhower felt that he was moving "closer and closer to the Communists."15

Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy, was sent to Iran to arrange a coup. In August 1953, the Iranian army, backed by mobs of rioters hired with CIA money, overthrew Mossadegh and installed the Shah as the ruler of Iran. The Shah held onto power for another 25 years.

Eisenhower's policy certainly did keep Iran out of the Soviet camp (although it's not at all clear that Mossadegh's plan was actually to lead it into the Soviet camp in the first place). During his long reign, the Shah made efforts to modernize his country, but he also held onto power as a brutal dictator. His reign, propped up by American support from start to finish, caused many ordinary Iranians to come to hate the United States with a fiery passion. When the people of Iran, led by radical Islamic clerics, finally overthrew the Shah in 1979, many Americans were surprised to learn that Iranians viewed them as "the Great Satan." Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held the Americans captured there as hostages for years; the two countries have mostly viewed each other with deep hostility ever since. Some in the United States remained puzzled by the continuing distrust with which so many Iranians view America. But perhaps we should ask, what if a foreign government had used illegal tactics to overthrow a freely elected American president? Wouldn't citizens here be justifiably outraged?

During the Eisenhower years, keeping the Soviet menace from spreading was the first priority. (It often seemed to be the first, last, and only priority.) In a sense, Eisenhower wore blinders. They allowed him to focus on the country's main enemy, but kept him from seeing the complexity beyond the fight against Communism. Historians are still debating whether covert actions such as the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran was a necessary tool in the desperate struggle against Communism, or a misguided and cynical policy that betrayed core American values while setting the stage for later catastrophes.

Latin America

Eisenhower's foreign policy pitted us against them, good against evil, the "Free World" against Communism; Ike barely considered the idea that other countries might want to steer a middle course. About a year after the Iranian coup, Eisenhower sent the CIA into action once again, this time to remove Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the freely elected leader of Guatemala. Arbenz had confiscated uncultivated land owned by the United Fruit Company, the huge American banana grower. Arbenz distributed the fields to Guatemalan peasants, paying compensation to the company.

The CIA organized a small army of mercenaries and launched an effective propaganda campaign. The coup succeeded with the help of a US naval blockade. As a result, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas took power as dictator.

While it achieved its short-term goals, the coup condemned Guatemala to be led by a series of military governments with lousy human rights records. It created distrust of "Yankee imperialism" across Latin America. Historian Stephen Schlesinger called the Guatemala coup "one of the most sordid and inane foreign 'security' operations in American history."16

The blowback from the coup and American support for dictatorships throughout Latin America became clear in May 1958, when Vice President Richard Nixon embarked on a goodwill tour of the region. He was stoned and spat on by students in Lima, Peru; angry mobs attacked his motorcade in Caracas, Venezuela, smashing the windows of his limo and nearly overturning it.

In 1959, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista (another American-supported tyrant) was overthrown by the forces of Fidel Castro. Castro, trained as a lawyer, had begun to fight against Batista's dictatorship in 1953. Castro was not an avowed Communist when his guerillas marched into Havana, but American policy in Latin America gave him reason to be suspicious of the US. Meanwhile, his own behavior—confiscation of foreign-owned land, execution of political opponents without trial—increased American concerns about the direction his revolution was taking. As the new Cuban leader appeared to move toward alliance with the Soviets, Eisenhower ordered CIA chief Allen Dulles to "do something about Castro."17

To many, American policy was hypocritical. Eisenhower said in 1960 that the United States would hold "strictly to a policy of non-intervention and mutual respect" with regard to neighboring nations.18 But his intolerance for any government that leaned toward Communism (whether strongly, like Castro's, or barely at all, like Arbenz's) meant that the United States was willing to intervene and in fact did not respect the right of Latin American people to chose their own governments. Human rights had nothing to do with it; Eisenhower was willing to tolerate brutal and oppressive dictatorships. He just wasn't willing to allow them to go Communist.

The plot against Castro (which included plans to assassinate the Cuban leader via outlandish means such as exploding cigars) culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Planned by the Eisenhower administration, the operation was carried out under the authority of new President John F. Kennedy, who had taken office just weeks earlier. A force of about 1,400 anticommunist Cuban exiles, supported the CIA, tried to invade Cuba's south coast, where they erroneously believed the local population would rise up to help them topple Castro's regime. Instead the disastrous attack ended in catastrophic defeat for the CIA-backed forces, badly embarrassing the United States while leaving Castro even more popular and pushing him more firmly into the Soviet camp.

Thaw in the Cold War

To Eisenhower, the operations in Iran, Guatemala, and other countries were sideshows. The main act was opposing the Soviet Union firmly, but somehow doing so without ending up win World War III. Even as he struck against Communism in Third World countries, he tried to reach an understanding with the Soviets that would limit the arms race and reduce tensions.

One of his early efforts was called "Atoms for Peace," a proposal in December 1952 to share uranium with a United Nations agency so that it could be used to generate energy. At first the idea was warmly received, even by the Russians. Though no country really wanted to share nuclear technology, the UN-affiliated agency Eisenhower envisioned, The International Atomic Energy Agency, was created in 1957 to promote peaceful uses of the atom.

In 1955, Eisenhower traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, for a four-power meeting with the Soviets, the British, and the French. At the meeting, he made his "Open Skies" proposal, suggesting that the Americans and Soviets could share intelligence about each other's forces and allow verification from the air—welcoming surveillance flights by each other's spy planes so that both sides could keep sure that the other wasn't secretly up to no good with its nuclear forces. Again, the Russians did not accept the idea. But Khrushchev made some smaller conciliatory gestures, granting Austria its independence and accepting, in principle, the idea of nuclear disarmament.

This brief thaw did not last. Threatening Soviet actions during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East, and the Red Army's brutal crackdown of Hungary's freedom movement caused the Cold War to go back into deep freeze. But Eisenhower did not give up on his hope of warmer relations with the Russians. In 1959, he invited Khrushchev to come visit him in the United States.

The Soviet leader's historic ten-day trip through America was one of the more colorful episodes of the Cold War. Americans were fascinated by their first glimpse of a Soviet leader in the flesh. Khrushchev talked to farmers in the Midwest and to longshoremen in San Francisco. He viewed the filming of the movie Can-Can in Hollywood and professed to be shocked, declaring that "a person's face is more beautiful than his backside." Disappointed when, for security reasons, he was unable to visit Disneyland, he asked, "Have gangsters taken hold of the place?"19

Talks with Eisenhower helped ease tensions. The two leaders planned to hold another summit meeting in May 1960, where they would talk about disarmament and other issues. Eisenhower agreed to tour the Soviet Union. As his second term neared its end, Eisenhower looked forward to establishing a basis for lasting peace.

U-2 Incident and Failed Hopes

Yet Eisenhower retained a deep distrust of the Soviets. He had ordered high-speed, long-range spy planes (called U-2's) to fly over the Soviet Union at a height of 80,000 feet, where they were supposed to secretly photograph Soviet military installations far below. The data from these flights, which had begun in 1956, proved to Eisenhower that the United States remained far ahead of the Russians in military technology. Because he couldn't reveal the information, though, he was constantly attacked by some in Congress for supposedly failing to prevent the Americans from falling behind the Soviets in military spending. He knew that there was no such thing as a "missile gap" with the Soviets—or rather, there was a missile gap but it the Americans, not the Soviets, who had the advantage—but he couldn't reveal he knew so without also revealing that his planes had been violating Soviet airspace (and international law) to gather intelligence.

Eisenhower suspended the spy flights as the 1960 summit meeting approached. The Russians knew about the planes, but they had always been unable to shoot them down, and chose to keep their knowledge of the spy flights secret. Back in Washington, the president's advisors pushed him for a few more flights. At first he resisted, then gave in. On 1 May 1960, barely two weeks before the summit, a U-2 plane was shot down over Soviet airspace.

Assuming the plane had disintegrated and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had died in the crash or committed suicide, US authorities publicly denied that there had been any spy mission or shootdown. Khrushchev, seeing an opportunity to humiliate the United States before the international public, then revealed that Powers had in fact survived the crash, and confessed his espionage mission. "That we would be caught with our pants down was rather painful," Eisenhower admitted.20

At the summit, Khrushchev demanded Eisenhower stop the spying and apologize. The president did call off the U-2 flights but refused to apologize. The summit collapsed, Eisenhower cancelled his tour of Russia, and the Cold War took another icy turn. It was a disappointing anticlimax to Ike's foreign policy.

The Military-Industrial Complex

Just before he left office in January 1961, Eisenhower went on national television to give his farewell address. In it he said, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."21

By combining the for-profit armament industry and the government's arms-procurement officials into one single, potentially dangerous influence on government policy, Eisenhower raised a warning that critics of the military said should be taken seriously. When a top general and experienced politician said that the "military-industrial complex" was a danger to democracy, it meant something, and his words have been repeated many times since.

But historians have questioned Eisenhower's own commitment to holding the "military-industrial complex" in check. Earlier in his presidency, he had stated that the United States must maintain a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions." Though he resisted even greater increases, he did quadruple defense spending during his time in office. He also discouraged military research and manufacturing of arms by government agencies, giving the profitable contracts to private industry instead. These moves served to strengthen the private arms industry and increase the companies' influence in government.

Partly as a result of Eisenhower's farewell address, citizens became more aware of the influence of the arms industry. But because the world continued to be a dangerous place, and because US commitments around the world only grew after 1960, defense spending also remained a huge portion of the federal budget. Eisenhower himself did not speak about the military-industrial complex again after he retired.

Ike's Defense Legacy

Eisenhower steered America through one of the most dangerous and complicated periods of its history. He had many successes. He kept NATO strong and Western Europe secure. He aptly managed numerous crises, including Dien Bien Phu and the Suez. He held down defense spending; he rarely overreacted to events; he tried to keep Americans calm during a time of high anxiety; and he resisted many calls to resort to a full-blown military solution to international conflicts.

On the other hand, Eisenhower failed to understand the aspirations of the Third World. He tried but was unable to bring the arms race under control. He left intact (or in some cases even created) certain problem areas all around the world that would blossom into major catastrophes in later years: Vietnam would vex the next three presidents; the conflict with Cuba has still not been resolved, even today; Latin American populists still denounce "Yankee imperialism" in the Western Hemisphere; President Obama is only the latest president to be forced to deal with the disastrous Eisenhower legacy in Iran. These failures were real, and they had real long-term consequences.

That said, Eisenhower's one overriding accomplishment was that he avoided war. "The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration," he said later. "We kept the peace. People ask how it happened—by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."22

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