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Evan Thomas Explains 'Ike's Bluff'

Journalist's new biography paints Dwight D. Eisenhower as a cagey pacifist with a fistful of nukes

AF: What was "Ike's bluff"?

ET: First off, Ike's basic insight as a military man was that small wars lead to big wars, so he wanted to avoid little wars. Two, he didn't want to spend a lot of money on armaments and soldiers. Third, he feared the "garrison state," as he put it — the idea that the military would get so powerful it would take control.

All these reasons made him not want to build up armies and fight conventional wars, but how do you avoid that? Ike's solution: You bluff with nuclear weapons. It's called massive retaliation. The doctrine was enunciated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, but written behind the scenes by Eisenhower. It was a pretty clear threat: "If you attack us anywhere, we feel justified in using nuclear weapons against you."

AF: You've said that "the misimpression of Ike as a genial dope has been remarkably enduring." Is Eisenhower enjoying a "reputation rehab"?

ET: Yes — it could even happen to Nixon! When Truman left office, his approval rating was in the low 20s. But over time, people came to understand Truman's gifts —  his gritty, regular-guy courage. You can see it happening right now with the Clintons. And it's happening with Eisenhower, frankly. Mine is one of several books that look back at Ike and take a more benign view.

But I'm not the one who discovered this. The scholars have known for 30 years that Eisenhower was a much tougher, wilier, smarter, better president than the public realized.

I'm a Kennedy fan, so I don't mean to be too hard on them, but when the Kennedys were coming in in 1961, they did a brilliant job —  a hatchet job — of driving home the contrast between vigorous, young, charming, coatless JFK and the slower-moving Eisenhower. It was a useful contrast for them, but an unfair one.

AF: But Eisenhower didn't do much to dispel it, right? Your premise seems to be that he didn't care about the image he created as long as the result was world peace.

ET: Well, I believe that Ike was capable of a kind of confidence that is so true it allows you to be humble.

AF: You drew partly on accounts by his personal physician, Howard Snyder, to sketch this new portrait of Ike.

ET: Right. Dr. Snyder kept a daily diary from Ike's heart attack in September of 1955 to the time he left office in 1961. His doctors worried that Ike would have another heart attack from stress, so Dr. Snyder carefully recorded the presidential mood every day. You can imagine how useful that is to a biographer.

AF: You also spent time with Eisenhower's son, John.

ET: Right. One time at lunch we were talking about the balance between the sunny, genial Ike and the cold-blooded Ike. John thought for a moment, then smiled and said, "Make that 75 percent cold-blooded."

John was a great guide in helping me understand the many levels upon which Eisenhower operated. He once told me, "Good luck trying to figure out Dad. I'm still working on it." He was 90 years old at the time.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower, like Abraham Lincoln, led the country during difficult times. See Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's biopic, Lincoln.

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