Eisenhower and the Cold War

Events 15-07-2018, 08:05

The one – the only – way to win World War III is to prevent it. 

Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower and the Cold WarIn the very preface, Robert A. Divine explains why Dwight Eisenhower`s period is an interesting topic to study as he became an exception of a characteristic pattern for the twentieth-century American presidency: unlike other presidents of his century, Dwight Eisenhower had little experience at home but enjoyed a broad background in international affairs. Therefore, he was quite active rather abroad, doing his best to keep the United States at peace and to avoid military involvement in the crises in the 1950s. 

According to the author, the badly underrated President eventually failed to resolve the dilemmas of the Cold War (and by the time he left the office in early 1961, crises had broke out in Berlin, the Congo, Laos and Cuba further intensifying the Cold War), he was still skillful and active in directing the U.S. foreign policy. 

Instead of researching a full-scale account of Eisenhower`s foreign policy, Divine approaches the issues selectively by concentrating on several crucial episodes of the epoch, ranging from the ending of the Korean War to the U-2 incident, to demonstrate President`s dominance in his administration when it came to external affairs. 

 

Eisenhower and the Presidency

In the first chapter, the author presents two ways to view Dwight Eisenhower`s path to the White House: 

It was circumstances that dragged Eisenhower to the top office. His role in the World War Two and iconic status in the aftermath made him a desirable candidate for both the Republicans and Democrats. Initially, non-partisan, Eisenhower entered the presidential race to defeat in the Republican Convention Robert Taft and his policy of international isolationism.

The second scenario could be less flattering. Even in the mid-World War Two, Eisenhower was quite aware of his growing popularity in the American society and the possibility of reaching the White House someday. Thus, while developing his post-WWII career through the Columbia University presidency and NATO command, he kept in close touch with political circles, gradually paving his way to the Oval Cabinet. 

The Cold War was at its height in spring 1952, when Eisenhower made a decision to seek the Republican nomination. The Korean War had been pushed into a deadlock, while in Europe a weaker NATO was being outnumbered by the Soviet forces. The latter had already broken America`s monopoly on nuclear weapon. Moreover, both superpowers were already working on hydrogen bomb. 

Upon his victory in the election, Eisenhower chose John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. Active in diplomacy since 1907, JFD was a good option for the new president. However, contrary to the widespread assumption, the U.S. foreign policy did not rest only on Department of State and was not monopolized by Dulles, as Eisenhower had several foreign affairs experts, too. 

Despite forming an effective team, the two mean had different world outlooks and foreign policy views: Dulles, a civilian lawyer, was convinced of America`s moral superiority and fond of threat of force, while, Eisenhower, a military man, preferred peace over conflicts. As a pragmatic politician, Ike wanted to keep the Cold War manageable, to diminish tensions, and to avoid any potential nuclear crisis. 

As the new president, Eisenhower played quite an active and successful role in ending the active combat in Korea. His purpose was to finish the war by letting the Chinese, Russians and North Koreans know that the United States could use the atomic bomb. It coincided with the drastic changes among the Soviet and Chinese hardliners following Stalin`s death in March 1953. Despite the disapproval and objections of the South Koreans, the armistice agreement was reached in July 1953. 

Although “we have won an armistice on a single battleground, not peace in the world” said Eisenhower, it was still an impressive achievement. Just six months after taking office, the president fulfilled his campaign promise and ended the bloody conflict in East Asia. 

 

Eisenhower and the Middle East

In the 1950s, the uneasy Middle East lent President Eisenhower an even bigger challenge. When the General took office in 1953, the Cold War had not yet covered this region; nevertheless, a number of factors promised a troubled future for the Middle East. Once dominant in the area, former colonial powers, Great Britain and France, were no longer able to exercise control but did not want to leave it smoothly either. A new nationalist regime led by Naser in Egypt was demanding retake of the Suez Canal. The birth of Israel in 1948 and its successive victory over the Arab neighbors had only strained the region more. The Western corporations took a deep interest in the the Gulf`s newly discovered vast oil reserves. 

President Eisenhower realized that more active American involvement in the region was necessary for two reasons: 1) “An adequate supply of oil to Western Europe ranks almost equal in priority with an adequate supply for ourselves”; 2) The British and French retreat would create vacuum, which the USSR might be willing to fill in, a situation that the United States would not allow to happen. 

One of the most interesting episodes of the Middle Eastern theatre of the Cold War was staged in Iran, when a CIA-orchestrated operation in 1953 toppled Mossadeq; Iran`s nationalistic Prime Minister had earlier nationalized the oil fields and refineries and pushed his country closer to the USSR. Even the Iranian shah welcomed the coup: previously just a figurehead he also received the real power. The new government in Tehran resolved the oil issue through uneasy negotiations, while American companies, despite their reluctance, also entered the Iranian oil market to defend national interests at the insistence of President Eisenhower. 

He always viewed the settlement of the Iranian crisis among the positive accomplishments of his tenure. Not only did it gain economic dividends for American corporations, but could also maintain stable oil supplies to Western Europe and contain the Soviet Union in the region. However, as Divine also notes, Eisenhower sowed the seeds of future trouble in Iran – a short-term triumph led to a long-term defeat for the United States. 

The Suez crisis of 1956 presented Eisenhower with an even more problematic situation. Despite the election campaign Eisenhower had to run simultaneously, he could nevertheless focus on the crisis and put his best efforts to handle it. 

Throughout the 1950s Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser`s pro-Soviet policy deteriorated his relations with the Western powers, while nationalizing the Suez Canal became a crushing hit to strategic interests of Britain, whose citizens possessed most of the stock of the canal company. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden notoriously likened Nasser to Hitler and Mussolini and vowed to take harsh steps. The French rapidly aligned the British as the former considered Nasser the major cause of the problems in Algeria. 

Throughout the crisis, Eisenhower repeatedly ruled out a military solution and several times strove to find diplomatic one, although he realized that the shutdown of the Suez Canal “would seriously cripple Western Europe” by cutting of strategic oil supplies and was therefore “unthinkable”. When the Western powers depleted peaceful options, Great Britain, France and Israel (who had entered into a secret agreement with the former two) launched attacks on Egypt in late October 1956. Although the Israelis took control of the Gaza Strip and Sharm-al-Sheikh as they had wished, the mission of the British and French forces did not reach the desired target. 

In the midst of his presidential campaign, Eisenhower had to cope with in the crisis, condemning the Franco-British action. Moreover, the conflict involved the USSR as President Eisenhower had earlier forecast. In November, the Soviet leadership threatened Great Britain and France with military attacks if the invasion did not stop. At this point, Eisenhower used his authority to put pressure on London and Paris, understanding that the crisis could lead to a major war. Finally, Great Britain and France agreed to halt the invasion and withdraw their troops. 

In fact, the Suez crisis brought Eisenhower a great opportunity to demonstrate his decisiveness and eventually secure his re-election that autumn. The vacuum left by the Suez crisis in the region (with the retreat of British and French influence) demanded a more vigorous U.S. policy and eventually resulted in what would later be known as Eisenhower Doctrine. According to the doctrine, U.S. President asked for $200 million in economic assistance and military aid to maintain the independence of any nation or group of nations in the Middle East. He also called on Congress to permit him to use the armed forces to protect Middle Eastern nations in the face of a potential Communist aggression.

The weaknesses of the doctrine soon became the subject of criticism both at home and abroad (many Arab politicians warned the United States beforehand on remaining out of the region). Nonetheless, Eisenhower personally believed in America`s duty to block the Soviet Union`s penetration into the region and its oil reserves. 

When Israel in February 1957 announced that it would maintain control in Gaza, Egypt refused to reopen the Suez Canal – this situation promised problems in oil supply to Western Europe. 

To solve the problem, Eisenhower put efforts to introduce economic sanctions against Israel to reach its full retreat from Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh. Although the Senate resisted this idea, Eisenhower in his television speech to the nation warned that “the future of the United Nations and peace in the Middle East may be at stake.”

The President`s firm stand was persuasive. In March 1957, Israeli troops left the Sinai and the Suez Canal was reopened: oil flows to Western Europe resumed, thus relieving the intense fuel shortage in the region. 

The Eisenhower administration was considered the only “winner” in the Suez crisis, as the United States had emerged as the “presumptive protector of the Middle East” and the guardian of the oil so vital to Western Europe. Certainly from this time forward, the United States would be dominating in the area, while American corporation would possess a larger portion of the Gulf oil prior to the appearance of OPEC. Eisenhower implemented his goal of filling the vacuum in the Middle East, replacing Britain and France (interestingly, a similar development could be observed in Indochina, where the United States was replacing France as the major power).

The Lebanon crisis that occurred following Suez further reinforced American position in the Middle East. The domestic sectarian clashes in Lebanon and the coup d`etat in Iraq in 1958 compelled Eisenhower to take firm actions. The “garrison move” (not an invasion) involving 14,000 American soldiers lasted 102 days and solved the political crisis in Lebanon. Eisenhower`s determination to make Lebanon a display of American resolve in the region impressed Arab leaders. The new Iraqi government quickly assured that they would keep oil exports to world markets, the primary concern of American president. 

 

Eisenhower and the Russians 

The quest for peace with the Soviet Union was one of the main concerns of Dwight Eisenhower, a military man by profession. Ike generated a number of peaceful initiatives that actually contrasted sharply with the distrustful and antagonistic policies by Dulles-led State Department. 

With the death of Stalin in March 1953 arose a first chance for rapprochement. “Both their government and ours now have new men in them… Let us begin talking to each other,” said Ike, when expressing his interest in the future interactions with the Soviets. 

And it was that time when Eisenhower delivered his historic statement in April 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” By mentioning the necessity of Austrian peace treaty, armistice in Korea and reunification of Germany, he further called on the Soviet Union for nuclear disarmament. 

Winston Churchill responded to Eisenhower`s speech by proposing a summit conference with the Russians as soon as possible. However, delays for such a summit continued until Malenkov was replaced by Khrushchev, who had a more difficult personality who preferred confrontation to reduction of tensions. 

The nuclear arms race was probably the most worrying question in Soviet-American relations in the mid-1950s. Just three days before Eisenhower`s elections in 1952, the United States had detonated its first thermonuclear device in the Pacific. As soon as he took office, Eisenhower sought to make public the dreadful realities of the nuclear age. His concern deepened in summer 1953, when the Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb. 

In December 1953, Eisenhower delivered his famous “Atoms for peace” speech at the United Nations. Pointing out to the ever-growing danger of nuclear weaponry, President proposed for both the United States and Soviet Union to cut down their atomic stocks, which would be subject to international control. Although praised by many, President`s statement could not halt the overall technological developments. 

The world leaders from the USA, UK, France and USSR met in Geneva in 1955 where they acknowledged that “the modern war, that is nuclear war, was quite impossible and could only lead to mutual destruction.” Nikita Khrushchev also expressed similar thoughts that Geneva had “led to recognition by the Great Powers of the senselessness of war, which in view of the development of atomic and hydrogen weapons, can only bring misfortune to mankind.”

This universal understanding of the nuclear danger was already a great achievement. Equally important was the emergence of Dwight Eisenhower as the world`s most persuasive spokesman for peace with his transparent sincerity and honest desire. 

The hopes lifted by the Geneva summit did not proceed that long. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis in 1956 dragged the world back into the tensions of the Cold War. The nuclear test ban negotiations between the Americans and Soviets first failed but later resumed with an ultimate agreement on a three-year break in nuclear tests both by the USA and Soviet Union. Divine calls it a historic diplomatic victory of Eisenhower by taking the initiative in halting the nuclear tests and thus winning worldwide approval. However, this optimism was also ended by with the 1958 Berlin crisis flamed by Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet management intended to isolate Western Berlin inside East Germany, while the Western countries led by Eisenhower were committed to stand resolute on Berlin. 

Khrushchev`s visit to the United States in 1959 lent a good opportunity for the two leaders to discuss numerous issues, including Berlin. Without any concrete settlement, the two leaders, however, simply agreed to continue talks. 

Both Berlin and a comprehensive test ban were two major issues to be discussed in the 1960 Paris conference. The failed U-2 flight mission doomed the summit conference in advance. President Eisenhower had to take full responsibility for the spy flight but, despite the Soviet demands of official apology, did not apologize for what he thought to be protection of U.S. national security. (Interestingly however, Ike had already ordered an finish the U-2 missions before Paris.) Khrushchev replied by walking out of the conference: the Paris summit was over before it ever began. The failure of the summit left no chance for easing Cold War tensions in Eisenhower`s last year in White House. 

The sense of an escalated Cold War (Castro revolution in Cuba, instability in Africa, growing Communist insurgency in Southeast Asia) troubled Eisenhower as his left office. Moreover, in fall 1960, Eisenhower`s Vice President Richard Nixon lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, a man Ike felt lacked the experience and maturity to conduct American foreign policy. 

President Eisenhower`s own record in U.S. foreign policy was much better than it could actually seem. He had stopped the Korean War six months after taking office. In the following seven-and-a-half years he had kept the United States out of international conflicts. In the Middle East Eisenhower had managed to contain the Suez crisis and restore short-term stability. In Asia, he had balanced the rather loud rhetoric of his secretary of state with his own restraint and reached a fragile stand-off between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the Formosa Straits. In Europe, he had stood firm before Khrushchev`s threats over Berlin, maintaining the American obligation to that city while avoiding any quarrel. And while he had failed in his most ambitious mission, the control of the arms race, at least he had achieved a cessation of nuclear testing, with its potentially lethal fallout, during the last two years of his tenure. 

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A Robert Divine book, Eisenhower and the Cold War, is not a thorough study of Eisenhower`s presidency, although it can still serve as a good means in understanding his foreign policy and constructing President`s operational code.