The Eisenhower leadership style sharply contrasts with what we have come to expect in our celebrity culture and tit-for-tat politics. Eisenhower was never showy or impulsive; he disdained partisanship and always played for the long term. He was patient and calm in the face of uncertainty. He needed to be, for he faced an unpredictable and dangerous foe.(..) He was so good at poker he had to give it up—he had won too much money from his fellow officers, and his reputation as a card shark was hurting his career. He continued to play bridge, however. (..) Eisenhower was “far more complex and devious than most Americans realize,” recalled his vice-president, Richard Nixon, in his memoirs. (Nixon added, “in the best sense of those words.”) (via The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower - Evan Thomas - The Atlantic)
- By the winter of 1959, Eisenhower was under great pressure from his advisers to build up conventional forces to face off against the Soviets in Berlin. The official policy of the Eisenhower Administration was “massive retaliation” — if the communists attacked anywhere in the world, the United States was prepared to respond with the nuclear weapons. Massive retaliation seemed like a very heavy hand — a use-it-or-lose-it, all-or nothing approach. Wouldn’t it make more sense, asked strategic gurus like Henry Kissinger and forward-thinking military men like army General Maxwell Taylor, to be able to fight back with a “flexible response,” gradually ratcheting up the level of force before going all the way to what the planners called “general war”, a full-scale nuclear exchange?
- But Ike was an all-or-nothing man. He knew from his own experience and his close reading of Clausewitz’s On War a fundamental truth: War is a constantly mutating monster. Politicians who think they can control it are fooling themselves. Little wars become big wars with consequences few can anticipate. So Ike was determined not to fight any war. And, once he had ended the Korean conflict (partly by threatening to use nukes) six months after taking office, he kept America out of even small wars for the next eight years.
- He was able to do this by bluffing. His aides urged him to use small or “tactical” nuclear weapons in crises in 1954-5 — to stop communist advances in Vietnam and Red China from taking National Chinese islands off the coast. Ike blandly, and a little scarily, publicly avowed that nuclear weapons had become “just like bullets” and suggested he was willing to use them. He never did, and his closest aide, General Goodpaster, always insisted that Ike never would have used nuclear weapons. But Ike never told anyone his true intentions, which was the only way to be credible about the threat.
- Unlike more modern politicians, Eisenhower had an enormous capacity to both accept responsibility and keep quiet about it. (Warned by advisers to watch what he said about a crisis with Red China at a press conference in March 1955, Eisenhower replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll just confuse them” — and he did. Ike was not afraid to appear a little slow if it suited his purposes.) In his second term in office, after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, in October 1957, many Americans were near hysteria. Was a Soviet surprise missile attack next? Eisenhower’s handling of the crisis shows a leader who refused to pander, who understood he was playing a long and dangerous game that required patience and a shrewd gambler’s instinct.
- Eisenhower came under immense pressure from Congress and within his own administration to build up U.S. forces. He resisted: he believed that too much military spending would hurt national security by running up a vast debt and harming the economy (Defense spending was over half of federal spending in those days, as opposed to less than one quarter today). He privately scorned “those boys” over at the Pentagon (his former military colleagues) who clamored for bigger weapons. He imitated Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas trying to whip up public fears by raising his arms heavenward and crying out, “How long? Lord, how long?” That November, the poet Robert Frost came to see Eisenhower in the Oval Office and gave him a book of poems inscribed, “The strong are saying nothing until they see.” “I like this maxim perhaps best of all,” Ike wrote in his memoirs.
- A Soviet missile shot down an American U-2 on May 1, 1960, just two weeks before the scheduled summit meeting in Paris. “I want to resign,” Ike said to his faithful assistant, Ann Whitman, as he entered the oval office after hearing that the Soviets had captured the American pilot, Francis Gary Powers (the CIA had misled Ike into thinking U-2 pilots would die by their own hands or when the plane blew up). The summit meeting was over before it began. Arriving in Paris, Khrushchev, who had his own hard-liners back home to worry about, walked out after an angry tirade.
- The Cold War entered its darkest period. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, may have been young and vigorous and a good deal more glamorous that Ike. But he lacked Ike’s experience and cunning. JFK allowed himself to be bullied by Khrushchev at a summit meeting in 1961 and fell for the “flexible response” theories suggesting that Americans could and should fight “limited wars” against global communism. The result was U.S. combat troops in Vietnam.
I always liked this guy and though he gets a lot of credit, I feel he’s not getting as much as he should. How did we get to expect anything other than true leadership from our leaders?!