September 23, 2012


The Brilliant Prudence of Dwight Eisenhower (Evan Thomas, 9 SEP 19 2012, The Atlantic)

In the summer of 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower flew to Geneva for the first summit meeting of the Cold War. Two and a half years into his presidency, Eisenhower was not sure who was running the Soviet Union. Was it Nikolai Bulganin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers? Tall and smiling, Bulganin seemed relatively benign. (With his goatee and white suit, Bulganin bore a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain.) Eisenhower hoped the real power lay with Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army field marshal who had been Ike's comrade in arms in World War II. Having seen so much war, Zhukov hated it as much as Ike did. But when Ike sent his son John, an army major, out to do a little informal spying at "tea" (cocktails), John reported back that Zhukov seemed subdued and shaken. "Things are not as they seem," Zhukov whispered John Eisenhower.

Eisenhower found out who was really in charge four days later when he unveiled his major peace initiative, called "Open Skies," to allow the Soviet and American reconnaissance planes to freely fly over each other's territory. The idea was to reduce the threat of surprise attack, the great fear of the new nuclear age. After the speech, a short, round man came straight for the American president wagging a stubby finger and saying, Nyet, nyet, nyet. "Open Skies," said Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party chairman, was just a chance for the Americans to peer into Russian bedrooms.

In his diary kept at Geneva, British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan wrote, "Khrushchev is a mystery. How can this fat, vulgar man with his pig eyes and ceaseless flow of talk really be the head -- the aspirant Tsar -- of all these million of people of this vast country?" The French foreign minister described Khrushchev, as "this little man with his fat paws." Khrushchev seemed to be equal parts bluster and insecurity. He worried to his son Sergei that he was not properly dressed for dinner at the summit and that he had arrived in Geneva in a plane that was smaller than the planes of the western leaders.

Eisenhower reserved his judgment of Khrushchev, or at least concealed it from others. He did not believe in showing his cards until he absolutely had to. At West Point, young Eisenhower had skipped cadet dances to play poker. (He later bought his fiance, Mamie, her wedding dress with his card game winnings.) 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. He was not much fun to play with, recalled his son John, who finally quit playing with him because he found his father too humorless and demanding as a partner. Ike's famous, sunny smile was to some degree a fa├žade. 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.") When I interviewed John Eisenhower, a retired ambassador, brigadier general and professional historian, then in his mid-80s, the son pondered his famous father, with whom he had a loving but complicated relationship. He said Ike seemed evenly balanced between open warmth and cold-bloodedness. He thought for a moment and said, with a slight smile, "Make that 75 percent cold-blooded."

In the game of bridge, partners are not allowed to speak with each other. But they can subtly signal each other by the cards they bid. Eisenhower was accustomed to difficult partners, including Generals Bernard Law Montgomery and George Patton in his role as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. Comfortable with a hidden hand, Eisenhower was one of those great leaders who are confident enough to appear humble. He had a giant ego, as well as a huge temper he struggled to contain. But he knew when to stay quiet, to appear to acquiesce, while thinking how to gain advantage several moves ahead.

In waging the Cold War, Eisenhower had many partners -- America's allies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, and the growing national security establishment. But his most important partner, Eisenhower understood, was his nominal enemy, Nikita Khrushchev. in large part what makes Ike's a failed presidency.  Not challenging the New Deal is the other, though the former made the latter inevitable.

Posted by at September 23, 2012 6:59 PM

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