Historian Evan Thomas talks with Diane about why he believes President Dwight D. Eisenhower saved the world from nuclear holocaust.


  • Evan Thomas Journalist and author of "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Ike’s Bluff” by Evan Thomas. Copyright 2012 by Evan Thomas. Reprinted here by permission of Hachette Audio. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Like many children growing up in the 1950s, journalist Evan Thomas says he was scared to death of the nuclear bomb.

  • 11:07:07

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThose memories led him to question how well the country understood the president at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. His new biography is titled "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World."

  • 11:07:19

    MS. SUSAN PAGEIn it, Thomas says the 34th president was a shrewd politician when it came to nuclear war. He embraced the weapons he would never use. Evan Thomas, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:32

    MR. EVAN THOMASHi, good to be here.

  • 11:07:33

    PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. We'll take your calls later in this hour, our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to drshow@wamu.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So you grew up in the 1950s?

  • 11:07:49

    THOMASI did.

  • 11:07:50

    PAGEAnd what did you think about Eisenhower?

  • 11:07:55

    THOMASI thought he was sort of a dull, faceless, golf-playing, grandfatherly figure as a lot of Americans did. He had no particular meaning to me as a little kid, but later on, I drank the Kennedy Kool-Aid and I saw the contrast between the young, vigorous, handsome J.F.K. and the kind of, not doddering, but slightly out-of-it Ike.

  • 11:08:16

    PAGEAnd yet that is not at all the portrait that you portray in your book.

  • 11:08:21

    THOMASNo, it sure isn't. Ike was a very shrewd, manipulative, even devious at times, president, cunning and, you know, this was a revelation to me. I guess, you know, I knew. Scholars have known for about 30 years that Ike was not the dopey grandfather that people thought he was.

  • 11:08:46

    THOMASEver since Fred Greenstein of Princeton got into the archives back in the 1980s, scholars have known this. But it's amazing how the public perception has lasted. I often talk to quite well-read people who say, oh, yeah, Ike, wasn't he kind of this clueless grandfather?

  • 11:09:04

    THOMASAnd I have to say that was sort of my impression too, even though I was dimly aware of the scholarship. But as I got into it, I found out he was a very different person.

  • 11:09:14

    PAGENow Fred Greenstein's book, "The Hidden-Hand Presidency," got to the same point, I think, about the way Eisenhower acted was not the way people saw him as acting, but a reflection really of his personal self-confidence, that he was willing to be seen as, you know, maybe a little vacant.

  • 11:09:33

    THOMASWell, this really interests me because we live in an age of celebrity and being a show-off. I teach at Princeton and I have wonderful kids, but they are proud of their resumes and they're not shy about telling you about them.

  • 11:09:46

    THOMASI mean, we live in an age where you've got to be a brand and journalist. Journalists are brands now and so you've got to show off. Ike was the opposite. Ike delighted in being underestimated. He said that one of the keys to his success or he got as far as he did was because he disguised his intelligence and his ambition. Well, who does that today?

  • 11:10:02

    THOMASNobody or very few people and Ike had this great thing that I just love, that he was confident. It's not that he wasn't confident. He was very confident, but he was confident enough to be humble. He didn't have to show off because he basically knew he had it and he knew that he could be more effective by being low-key.

  • 11:10:21

    PAGEAnd he didn't have to demonstrate he was the smartest man in the room because he usually -- he knew he usually was.

  • 11:10:25

    THOMASYeah, he was enormously confident. Also he had done things. I mean, there is no preparation for being president, but having liberated Europe, right, having been Supreme Allied Commander, having commanded thousands of men, he was accustomed to responsibility and so it wasn't...

  • 11:10:45

    THOMASOn the first night when he went to the Oval Office, he wrote in his diary, well, big challenges and problems ahead, but, you know, it's all kind of familiar. It sort of goes back to even before 1941. So he wasn't intimidated by the job.

  • 11:10:57

    PAGEAnd he also had a very experienced view of war, of conflict, of the costs of war. He was a war hero, a five-star general, but when he took office, it was in the beginning of the nuclear age.

  • 11:11:15

    THOMASHe did. Well, his concept of war was absolutely central to everything he did. Like a lot of real warriors, people who have known war, he hated war and wanted to avoid it and he had a very realistic view of how badly things could go in war.

  • 11:11:29

    THOMASHe, you know, people are generally aware of this idea from Clausewitz, that war is just politics by another means, an extension of politics. That was not the meaning that Ike got from Clausewitz. The meaning he got was that little wars have a way of turning into big wars, that you can't control war and that politicians and statesmen who think they can control war are kidding themselves.

  • 11:11:51

    THOMASThis was Ike's basic understanding and realization and so he was determined not to get into any war. There was a lot of pressure in those days to fight brushfire wars and small wars all around the world because as communism expanded, there were these crises all around the world.

  • 11:12:05

    THOMASAnd Ike was damned if he was going to get into one of these wars and as president, once he got us out of Korea, which took a few months, he never committed combat soldiers again after that. No modern president can claim that and it's because he didn't want to be in a small war.

  • 11:12:19

    PAGEAnd the title of your book is "Ike's Bluff." So what was his bluff?

  • 11:12:23

    THOMASThe book -- well, since he didn't want to fight little wars, but he didn't want to just roll over for the communists and, you know, if you looked at a map in 1953, it was with these blotches of red. It looked like communism was on the march everywhere. That was an exaggerated fear, but it wasn't totally exaggerated in Eastern Europe, Asia. I mean, communism was on the march.

  • 11:12:42

    THOMASSo Ike was no pacifist so he had to find a way to try to stop the Russians and what he did was he bluffed with nuclear weapons. He basically said, if you come, if you challenge us or you try to go to war with us, we'll come after you with everything we've got. He was an all or nothing guy.

  • 11:13:00

    THOMASIt was called massive retaliation. We reserved -- the United States reserved the right to respond with means of their choosing and times of their own choosing, that meant nuclear weapons. And he did it pretty specifically again through these crises all through the '50s. There were these crises in Korea and Vietnam and China and the Suez. Ike threatened to use nuclear weapons.

  • 11:13:19

    PAGEAnd what if someone had called his bluff? Would he, in fact, have used nuclear weapons?

  • 11:13:23

    THOMASWell, that's the great mystery which I never resolved because it's not resolvable because he never told anybody. This was really why I wrote the book. I was just fascinated by this guy. I heard some years ago that Ike had often confided in his security advisor, his informal security advisor, General Goodpaster, who was Staff Secretary.

  • 11:13:47

    THOMASAnd Goodpaster said to a friend of mine, you know, Ike never told me if he was going to use nuclear weapons. And I thought, wow, that is interesting because he's threatening to use these damn things, but never telling anybody. And I thought, this -- as I thought about it, I realized it has to be that way.

  • 11:14:02

    THOMASBecause once you define when you're going to use them, then sort of the cat's out of the bag. Everything in Washington leaks. Your enemies will know soon enough that what your standard is and so he never told anybody whether he would use them. That is an unbelievable burden of command.

  • 11:14:19

    THOMASYou know, this cliché, the loneliness of command, well, it had real meaning for Ike. Think how lonely that was.

  • 11:14:23

    PAGEI wish -- I hope you will read an excerpt from your book that talks about Ike and the man he was.

  • 11:14:30

    THOMASSure, oh, one second. I have to put on my reading glasses. Okay, "Like Lincoln, Eisenhower could be moody and temperamental, but also, like Lincoln, he was supremely confident. His was not the confidence of the weak, the arrogance of the vain and needy, rather he had the kind of confidence that allowed him to be humble.

  • 11:14:54

    THOMASHe was willing to appear slower and sweeter than he was in order to get other people to do his bidding. He knew the nation and the world needed a reassuring and calming figure as it entered the nuclear age. He did not have to be the smartest person in the room to show off or assert his moral superiority.

  • 11:15:13

    THOMASHe listened to Frost, the stronger, saying nothing until they see. Eisenhower knew he was strong and that he could see around corners. He did not feel the need to constantly prove his strength. Eisenhower never compared himself to Lincoln. He was no great emancipator and he did not pretend to be, but his challenge, as he understood, it was no less great.

  • 11:15:30

    THOMASLincoln went to war to save the Union. Eisenhower avoided war to save the world."

  • 11:15:36

    PAGEThat's from "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World." So no one argues that Eisenhower was as consequential a president as Abraham Lincoln?

  • 11:15:48


  • 11:15:48

    PAGEBut where do you think Eisenhower ranks among U.S. presidents?

  • 11:15:53

    THOMASSure, well, he's not in that first tier. He's not Washington. He's not Lincoln. He's not F.D.R. But I do think he's in the next tier. He was president at a very dangerous time. Nuclear weapons were just -- both sides were getting them. There were lots of crises. It was easy to make a false step. He didn't.

  • 11:16:07

    THOMASHe also strengthened the economy, he strengthened the economy. I mean, he understood that real national security, as he often said, comes from a good economy and he was determined to create one and he did. The United States went through a tremendous period of peace and prosperity in his time.

  • 11:16:23

    THOMASAs Ike used to say, though, it didn't just happen, you know. He -- working behind the scenes and made it happen.

  • 11:16:29

    PAGEOne of the interesting things about your book is the use of diaries and writings of some people who knew Eisenhower well, but who have not gotten much attention, one was his doctor.

  • 11:16:43

    THOMASHoward Snyder was aging. He was almost 80, an army doctor, actually not the world's greatest technical doctor. He misdiagnosed. This is incredible. He misdiagnosed Ike's heart attack, thought it was indigestion and then, of course, they covered it up. Wow, but, you know, in the larger sense, he was a good doctor. In the family doctor sense, he knew his patient and Ike had a big temper and had high blood pressure and Snyder understood the pressures that Ike was under and he sought to soothe him and calm him and give him an extra drink when he needed to. He was actually a good doctor, I think.

  • 11:17:21

    PAGEAnd I think your book makes it clear that Eisenhower had more medical problems, more health problems than Americans realized at the time.

  • 11:17:30

    THOMASHe sure did. He had a heart attack in 1955 so bad he was in the hospital in Denver for a couple of months. He had a stroke in 1957. He had ileitis, an intestinal disorder that -- Crohn's disease basically. They had a major operation on him in 1956.

  • 11:17:45

    THOMASBy the end of his second term, Ike was a pretty worn-out guy. I mean, he's been through World War II, the Cold War. He can't sleep. He's taken more sleeping pills than he should and more powerful ones, Seconal in those days, which was a barbiturate and may have given him hangovers.

  • 11:18:00

    THOMASHe was taking an extra drink or two, I mean, not hugely excessive, but a couple times. This was from his doctor's diary. He says to his doctor, let's get drunk and they do. So he was trying to self-medicate, if you will, or medicate with his doctor to deal with the stress of being president.

  • 11:18:19

    PAGEWe're talking with Evan Thomas. He's the author of a new biography, "Ike's Bluff." He's the author of eight other books and professor of journalism at Princeton University. We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to go to the phones. We'll take some of your calls and questions. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850, that's our toll-free number or send us an email drshow@wamu.org or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:04

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Evan Thomas, author of a new book "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World." Now we have some defenders of Eisenhower who have sent us some emails. One write, I think your author sets Ike up as a straw man. He wasn't considered slow and bumbling in my family. I was four-and-a-half years old during his presidency and I remember my very Democratic family being behind him and confident of him. He won World War II."

  • 11:20:32

    PAGEAnd another, Keith, writes us an email, "You don't get to be a Five-Star General, supreme allied commander and later president by being stupid." One more, this one from Sam, "You say that Ike didn't want to get into any small wars. Then why did he go into Vietnam in 1954 that in time led to the stupidest, most costly war that the U.S. got into in the 20th century in terms of blood, treasure and cultural divide?" What about Vietnam?

  • 11:20:58

    THOMASWell, he didn't get into Vietnam. That's sort of the point. In 1954 Vietnam was a French colony and the French were losing surrounded by the North Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu. And there was tremendous pressure on the United States from France and others to send ground troops into Vietnam to intervene. And Ike said at a National Security Council meeting that, the jungle will consume the army by divisions. He knew from his experience as a ground commander what could happen if you fought a land war in Asia. And so he did not send U.S. troops in.

  • 11:21:29

    THOMASHe also was pressured by his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Radford and by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his Vice-President Richard Nixon to use a nuclear weapon. He threatened to do so but didn't. Now...

  • 11:21:42

    PAGETo use a nuclear weapon in what circumstances?

  • 11:21:43

    THOMASOn--Dien Bien Phu on the North Vietnamese, use a tactical -- a small nuclear weapon. But he didn't. Now it is true the United States committed itself to the Dien Regime and that got us into trouble down the road. But I think Ike in the 1960s, when Kennedy and Johnson were getting us deeper into Vietnam, Ike's view of this was if you're going to do it go all the way, declare war, take Hanoi, really do it or don't do it at all.

  • 11:22:13

    THOMASAnd neither Kennedy or Johnson listened to Ike about this. Johnson was more interested in kind of trying to use Ike. In fact Ike said he's using me to get him to support the president, stand by the flag. Ike was a great patriot of course and so he stood by Johnson, but Ike knew he was being used by LBJ.

  • 11:22:30

    PAGELet's go to Ken who's calling us from Weston, Conn. Hi, Ken.

  • 11:22:34

    KENHi. I have a question. It just seems out of character for Eisenhower, and that was the day of his inauguration when he refused to get out of the car and join the Trumans for tea or whatever and he just was very seemingly petulant about the disagreement. And I think it was George C. Marshall. Could you comment on that? I've never been able to really figure that one out.

  • 11:23:06

    THOMASYeah, it is--I agree, it's out of character because Ike was such a genial guy with that wonderful warm smile. But he fell out with Harry Truman. I mean, there were a number of causes. One is that they were on opposing sides in a campaign in 1952 but more immediately Eisenhower's son John was a Major in Korea in combat for the first time. And -- which was sort of remarkable they let John go into combat. But they did in those days although John told me they gave -- his father said, if you get captured, you're going to have to kill yourself. And John -- because they gave him a pistol. When John came home he went to a firing range and the thing didn't work.

  • 11:23:45

    THOMASBut anyways, John wanted to be in combat. And -- but Truman brought him home. And so Eisenhower says to then President Truman and said, why did you -- who ordered my son to come back here, clearly meaning I don't want him to. And Truman said, I did. I'm still the president. Well, that caused a chill, to put it mildly. And they sat there, they didn't speak to each other in the car ride up to the capital, which, as you say, is uncharacteristic of Ike.

  • 11:24:13

    KENWell, what -- how does George C. Marshall play into this? Or do I have this totally wrong?

  • 11:24:17

    THOMASWell--well, no. I think what you're thinking about is a bad moment for Ike in the campaign. Joe McCarthy, "Tail-Gunner Joe," the great demagogue and red baiter is after Marshall. Marshall, the sainted Marshall, the organizer of victory, Army Chief of Staff and Eisenhower's great mentor and friend. And so Eisenhower writes into a speech a sentence defending General Marshall but then takes the sentence out before he delivers the speech in Wisconsin. It's McCarthy's state, it's a swing state. It's seen as a real act of political cowardice on Ike's part that he does not defend his great mentor, General Marshall.

  • 11:24:58

    THOMASAnd, you know, it was an act of political cowardice. Now Ike's defense of this was I'm not going to get in the gutter with that guy. He would say, I'm not going to get in the gutter with him. I'm not going to get into a match with a skunk. And I'm going to let McCarthy hang himself and he did. That happened. It took more than a year. Eisenhower, again the hidden hand working behind the scenes, made it -- or helped it to happen. But Eisenhower did not want to get into a direct confrontation with McCarthy. That was considered to be cowardly, especially by a standup guy like Harry Truman, who was the sort of guy who would stand up for Marshall.

  • 11:25:32

    PAGEAnd what did you learn about what Eisenhower was thinking behind the scenes and why he chose not to take a more kind of forthright public stance?

  • 11:25:41

    THOMASWell, his view was if he got in a fight with his own right wing -- because McCarthy was his right wing -- that that would jeopardize his power -- undermine his power in Washington and he would be less effective. So he -- Ike used Richard Nixon as kind of an outreach to kind of spy on and get along with McCarthy. And not to directly confront his own right wing but sort of disarm it, keep it at bay. And eventually as he -- he knew that McCarthy would self destruct and he did.

  • 11:26:10

    PAGEKen, thanks for your call. Let's go to Indianapolis and talk to Jim. Jim, hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:26:16

    JIMHi. Thank you. First of all, I want to say I just finished the book recently and I really enjoyed it.

  • 11:26:22

    THOMASThank you.

  • 11:26:23

    JIMBut I've read a couple of other treatments of Eisenhower as president and of the combination of these readings, the part that was most meaningful to me was the U-2 spy plane story. And I got the impression, perhaps not quite correct, but my impression was that Eisenhower was not particularly well served by the intelligence community. And that led to some mistakes on his part. It's meaningful to me because I was a senior in high school when the U-2 incident went public. And I felt -- quite honestly I felt like Eisenhower was lying to us.

  • 11:27:09

    THOMASYeah, yeah.

  • 11:27:10

    JIMNow your book, I think, changes my view of that quite dramatically. But my question to you is, is there a parallel -- am I correct in seeing a parallel between the way the intelligence community underserved President Eisenhower and the way the intelligence community mis-served President Bush with regard to Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction?

  • 11:27:39

    THOMASYes. I mean, in both cases the intelligence community was failing the president. They are different situations. And just briefly, there was a guy who ran covert operations at the CIA who also ran the U-2 program named Richard Bissell who was a very brilliant able bureaucrat. But he was a risk taker and he became arrogant. And he suppressed a study that showed that the Soviet antiaircraft missiles could reach the U-2--could shoot down the U-2. He didn't share that study with the president.

  • 11:28:11

    THOMASThat was a fatal mistake because Eisenhower authorized a U-2 flight right before the Paris Summit, not knowing that the U-2 was at risk that way. that was a bad moment for the CIA and they shouldn't have done that. Now in the case of Bush and Iraq, that was more the CIA sort of giving the president the answer that the wanted to hear. They didn't have great evidence about the weapons of mass destruction but Eisenhower -- excuse me, Bush wanted to be told that there was and they gave him that. So it's -- you're right that it's the same miss-service but it's also different.

  • 11:28:48

    PAGEJim, thanks so much for your call. You know, you mentioned Eisenhower's relationship with the CIA. His administration had two CIA-led coups, one in Iran and one in Guatemala. And we have an emailer who writes about the Iran coup. "I agree Ike was a great president and his Cross of Iron speech ought to be memorized by all school children. He believed in public works, thus the interstate highway system, and yet he ousted the democratically elected president of Iran, an act we are still paying for."

  • 11:29:18

    THOMASYeah, we are. I mean, this is--you know, hindsight is always important in these things because at the time overthrowing the government of Iran and then also the government of Guatemala, 1953 and 1954, these two early CIA-led coups were considered to be great successes because we were containing communism on the cheap. Instead of sending in whole divisions we were doing it with a few CIA case officers. So Eisenhower had big celebrations at the White House, secret celebrations to honor the CIA people.

  • 11:29:49

    THOMASBut of course in retrospect it was a mistake. It was a mistake in sort of the larger sense that CIA shouldn't be running around overthrowing governments. But also in the more direct sense that it led to the Iranian government that haunts us today. This is the problem with covert action. It can look great in the short term, cheap, efficient and secret. But it can blow back on you, as they -- as the spooks say, you can have blowback. And this was very bad long term blowback that we're paying for today.

  • 11:30:16

    PAGEYeah, when journalists go to Iran now, this is something that Iranians often mention to them as a grievance with the United States.

  • 11:30:20

    THOMASSure. Sure they do. There's a movie, "Argo," that's sort of -- I think it paints a too sunny view of how things were before we overthrew Mossaddegh. But still the basic point is there, we shouldn't have done it.

  • 11:30:31

    PAGEAnd tell us about the coup in Guatemala, which may be less familiar to a lot of Americans today.

  • 11:30:35

    THOMASSure, sure. The Iranian coup was in '53. A year later, partly because they've had such success in Iran, they overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala because it was perceived to be coming as leaning. I question whether it really was but it sure seemed that way. And a ragtag force put together by the CIA with planes throwing empty coke bottles out the window. It was really sort of a low-key operation, but it worked. The Guatemalan government panicked and gave up. And we though, wow look, we can do this. We can stop the march of communism with just a few agents on the ground.

  • 11:31:12

    THOMASAnd that succeeded but then the CIA got more ambitious and coups began to fail. They failed in Syria in 1957 and Indonesia in 1958. This sort of master spy thing didn't -- started not working out so well.

  • 11:31:27

    PAGEAnd those failures and others derailed Eisenhower's hope at the end of his presidency to have detente with the Soviet Union.

  • 11:31:36

    THOMASWell, the shoot down of the U-2 is really tragic because Ike was working on -- they didn't publicly use the word detente in that, but prior-ly they did. And what they meant was a peaceful coexistence and a ratcheting down of tensions. And Ike really thought that a summit in Paris, they could get a limited arms control agreement and begin this essential reducing of tensions with the Soviet Union. But when the U-2 was shot down two weeks before the summit Khrushchev the Soviet leader had a field day. Because, you know, he would capture these spies and, you know, that was the end of the summit.

  • 11:32:11

    THOMASAnd that was the beginning of this very dangerous period in the Cold War. Really the most dangerous period that led up to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

  • 11:32:20

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You mentioned Khrushchev. It was of course during Eisenhower's first term that Stalin dies, Khrushchev comes to power. What did Eisenhower think of Khrushchev?

  • 11:32:32

    THOMASWell, he spent a lot of time trying to figure him out because of course we didn't have any good intelligence on Khrushchev. Khrushchev was a blustery figure. First meets Eisenhower -- I guess he met him during World War II very briefly -- but first confronts him as a leader at a summit meeting in 1955. Khrushchev has introduced this idea of letting both sides see what the other side's up to on building rockets. And now Khrushchev comes in saying, Niyet, niyet, niyet, wagging his finger.

  • 11:32:56

    THOMASAnd it was sort of downhill from there because Khrushchev was a bolster and a blustery. He said his factories were cranking out rockets like sausages and he used that famous phrase, we will bury you. That's pretty threatening. But Ike understood that a lot of this was bluster. And Ike's basic insight into Khrushchev was that he was a survivor. You know, after all, Khrushchev had survived Stalin and Hitler and wanted to live. And so Ike understood that and so Ike was always looking for ways to get Khrushchev off of his bluster and onto something more constructive.

  • 11:33:29

    PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll go to Pottsville, Pa. and talk to Austin. Austin, thank you for holding on.

  • 11:33:35

    AUSTINOh, no problem. My question is -- it's more in the kind of -- away from this whole defense aspect of things, you know, people often look at the 1950s as the rock and roll era time where girls running around in poodle skirts and all the guys were greasers and whatnot. But I think that clearly, you know, overlooks the fact that for a large portion of the population times were not great and idealistic in the '50s. And I guess my question is, you know, what was -- what's Eisenhower's record on civil rights and why is it so--you know, it's not something that's often thought about. We don't really think about civil rights until we start getting into the '60s.

  • 11:34:15

    THOMASYeah, yeah. No, Ike's record on civil rights is controversial. There was a feeling that he didn't do enough, the he didn't use the bully pulpit of the presidency to get Americans ready for the idea of desegregation. Now having said that, it was Ike's Justice Department that was on the side of desegregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case in 1954. The government, Ike's Administration, supported that result, which called for the desegregation of schools.

  • 11:34:39

    THOMASIke also very importantly appointed federal judges who enforced those decrees -- famous federal judges in the south like John Minor Wisdom. And when the government of -- the governor or Arkansas defied him at Little Rock in 1957, Ike wasn't kidding around. He sent the 101st Airborne in to enforce it. So Ike's record on civil rights, while it was not out front I would say, again using his hidden hand operating often behind the scenes, doing things like desegregating the armed services, desegregating the District of Columbia, working behind the scenes, actually was fairly effective also introducing the first Civil Rights Act in 1957.

  • 11:35:20

    PAGEBut I wonder if it's an example of, as with most of us, our strength is our weakness. So his strength was this ability to use the hidden hand, to use a slight of hand to do the nonpublic thing which worked so well in shaping this new nuclear age. Not perhaps the tactic that works best for something like civil rights or standing up to Joe McCarthy where something that you need to be very public and forthright about.

  • 11:35:46

    THOMASYeah, I think that's fair. You know, Eisenhower -- you know, it's true -- I think an earlier listener said, he didn't seem like a dope at the time. That's true. That sort of came later. I guess some people in the press at the time thought he was a dope but most Americans thought he was an admirable figure. And he was and he conveyed a sense of serene assurance that was reassuring at the time. But that's different from being a moral force who's leading from the front on difficult issues like civil rights. And he didn't. That's true, he didn't.

  • 11:36:18

    PAGEAnd his, of course, very -- continues to be well known for his speech about the military industrial complex. This was something of great concern to him.

  • 11:36:27

    THOMASWell, yes, and that is a case where he did lead. And that's at the very end. that's January, 1961. He's got a few days left in office. That's the speech that people most remember I think about Ike. And he warned against the military industrial complex, which at the time was sort of surprising. Who's this great general? Well, actually he had been working against it for years. A little known fact, Ike actually cut defense spending as president. Now he did it from a very high level during the Korean War, but he was somebody very much believed and not spending too much on defense and controlling his generals.

  • 11:37:00

    THOMASHe used to say, I know those boys down at the Pentagon. And he knew how they hyped the threat. And he was very good at sort of cutting back their overly ambitious plans.

  • 11:37:10

    PAGEAnd had credibility standing -- to stand up to the Pentagon.

  • 11:37:14

    THOMASHe did because he was one of them.

  • 11:37:16

    PAGEWe're talking with Evan Thomas. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. We'll go to the phones and get your calls and comments, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:03

    PAGEHere's an email we got from Priscilla. She writes, "I was born at Washington Adventist Hospital in Tacoma Park, Md., on October 14, 1957. I have been told Ike sent birthday cake to all the babies born that day in the D.C. area. I guess that might have been because that was Ike's own birthday. I have grown up with that story and at one time had the card and flag that came with it." That's a wonderful story.

  • 11:40:25

    THOMASThat is great.

  • 11:40:25

    PAGEHere's another emailer who writes us, "I know it's not the subject of your book, but please comment on Ike's affair with his driver and how that relates to the present situation with General Petraeus."

  • 11:40:37

    THOMASWell, yes. Famously, Ike was rumored to have had an affair with Kay Summersby. I'm not sure it was a physical affair, but in any case that was the rumor. And it goes to the terrible stress that these guys are under. I'm not excusing General Petraeus, but think of the stress that the Supreme Allied Commander had on the eve of D-Day and that Petraeus had as head of the CIA. You know, we are always saddened and disappointed by this kind of behavior and it's foolish, but I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

  • 11:41:11

    THOMASI mean, you know, the standards were different in those days. As I think back on it, General McArthur had a mistress. Allen Dulles, the first head of the CIA, every time he began an extramarital affair he would give a diamond to his wife. So the rules were a little bit different back then. They shouldn't have been, but they were. But, you know, obviously, I feel for everybody involved in the Petraeus thing because it's a mess. We lost a good man.

  • 11:41:38

    PAGEBut Americans weren't aware of whatever relationship--

  • 11:41:42


  • 11:41:43

    PAGE--Ike had with his driver or in the case of the others.

  • 11:41:44

    THOMASWell, I mean a lot of people were. There were a lot of rumors flying around, but, true, there was no Gawker. There was no CNN. The sex lives of public officials mostly remained behind wraps, which was a different age.

  • 11:42:00

    PAGEWe've gotten several emails along this line. Here's one of them. "Ike was a Republican and a conservative. Would he be embraced by the current GOP? Could he be nominated as a Republican presidential candidate today?

  • 11:42:12

    THOMASWell, probably not, which of course is a problem for the Republican Party. I mean Ike had an average approval rating of 65 percent, a number that modern presidents would kill for. He won overwhelmingly in '52, in a landslide in '56. So maybe there's a message there for the Republican Party that they could use a moderate Republican. But I agree, in the current environment I don't think Ike could get nominated.

  • 11:42:36

    PAGELet's go to the phones and talk to Tim. He's calling us from Michigan. Tim, where in Michigan are you?

  • 11:42:42

    TIMOwasso, near Lansing, Flint, right in the middle.

  • 11:42:45

    PAGEOwasso. Well, Tim, thank you for giving us a call.

  • 11:42:49

    TIMYes. Great talk here. Listen, as far as "Ike's Bluff" goes, I was wondering maybe if you could give us a couple of examples of did he make overt statements or maybe some sly statements about, I could use nukes? Were there photo ops he took next to the Titans or anything like that?

  • 11:43:08

    THOMASYeah, I mean, he once said during a crisis with red China that nuclear bombs are just like bullets, that they're conventional weapons. We can use them. And Mao was listening, Chairman Mao was listening.

  • 11:43:22

    PAGETim, thank you very much for your call. Great question. Let's go to Pittsburgh and talk to Tom. Tom, you're on the air.

  • 11:43:29

    TOMYes. I have read that President Eisenhower -- of course he was then General -- was opposed to the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II, that he was opposed prior to us dropping the two bombs on Japan and also afterwards. Is that true?

  • 11:43:49

    THOMASHe has said that. Eisenhower said that he was against it. The record is a little fuzzy on that. I'm not sure that is actually true. I think it's true that Eisenhower didn't like to drop the atom bomb on Japan, but whether he actually protested, I think the record is, at best, unclear. Eisenhower then becomes very much involved in the development of nuclear weapons because he's Army Chief of Staff, he's Supreme Allied Commander of the first NATO forces. He's deeply involved in creating tactical nuclear weapons and these larger weapons, the H bomb.

  • 11:44:24

    PAGEHere's an email from Pat. Pat writes, "I heard the actual press conference where Ike was going to have to answer a question that they couldn't afford to answer for reasons of state craft. I can't remember what the question was. His advisors warned him that the press conference was going to mess things up. Eisenhower reportedly said, don't worry, I'll confuse them. When he was asked the question I felt embarrassed for him because he started the question and wound around and around and finally ended as though he had entirely lost the point of whatever it might have been that he had started out to say. It was a masterpiece of deviousness."

  • 11:44:57

    THOMASMarch 1955 we were having a crisis with red China over these now forgotten islands, Kimoy and Matsu, but it looked like it might even lead to world war. And Ike's advisors said, oh, you've got to be really careful. And Ike said, oh, don't worry, I'll just confuse them. And he did. They joked at the White House that the Soviet translators were going to have trouble even figuring out what Ike had said.

  • 11:45:20

    PAGEAnd this crisis was one in which he was urged by some advisors to use nuclear weapons.

  • 11:45:25

    THOMASHe was, but again he bluffed. This is where he talked about bombs, that nuclear bombs are just like bullets. Uh, you know, you have to bluff, I mean, if you're playing this game. And he had the 7th Fleet out there, nuclear armed and ready to go.

  • 11:45:40

    PAGEOf course he was the first president to deal with the nuclear age. The nuclear bomb had been dropped on Japan at the point he took office, but he shaped nuclear policy, perhaps really for the first time, for the nation. And does it endure his attitude and approach to nuclear weapons? Is that something we still see in place, fundamentally, today?

  • 11:46:02

    THOMASYes. I mean, mutual assured destruction came out of his era. They didn't call it that then. You know, Ike had--it was amazing. When the Soviets first got the H bomb also -- the H bomb is 500 times more powerful than the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That's the scale he's dealing with. And Eisenhower, incredibly, with his advisors, in the summer of 1953, contemplates a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. They say they have a moral obligation to think about whether they should take out the Russians before they can get us.

  • 11:46:34

    THOMASNow, obviously, they didn't do it. It was too Draconian, but it shows you what their thinking process is. They created a massive arsenal to basically keep the Soviets at bay. They engaged in what became known as overkill. They built too many nuclear weapons. This is something you can fault Ike on, I think and I do. There were about 1000 bombs when he came in and close to 20,000 when he left. It was too many.

  • 11:46:59

    PAGEBut he was urged to consider a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. It sounds ridiculous today, but urged to do that at the time. Did he seriously consider it, do you think?

  • 11:47:11

    THOMASI can't tell. I mean, there was a debate about it and he was bothered clearly. There are diary entries that show that's he really obsessing about this and thinking about it. It's hard for me to imagine they would have done it, but it just shows you how scary these issues were, that they thought about it at all.

  • 11:47:28

    PAGEYou've written eight books. Talk to us about the process of writing this book and what you did to get access to information that perhaps has not been available to previous authors writing about Eisenhower.

  • 11:47:39

    THOMASWell, the most helpful thing to me was talking to his son, John Eisenhower, who spent a lot of time with me and more than he has with anybody else. And it was very revealing. I mean we were talking about the balance between the genial, sunny Ike and the cold-blooded Ike. And John Eisenhower thought about it for a second. He said, make that 75 percent cold-blooded. That's his son talking about his father. And, you know, he said to me, I'm still trying to figure out my father.

  • 11:48:05

    THOMASJohn Eisenhower's now 90 years old. He has all his marbles, great shape, is a fantastic guy, but he's still trying to figure out his father. Imagine being the son of Dwight Eisenhower. So that was enormously helpful. In Abilene I made a lot of use out of Ike's doctors' diaries. They're sitting there. Anybody can use them, but for reasons I don't quite understand, other biographers have not really used those diaries. And they're very revealing about Ike's mood.

  • 11:48:30

    PAGEWhen you're at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene and you are finding these doctors' diaries that are so interesting and provide so much insight, do you feel like--is it like a eureka moment?

  • 11:48:45

    THOMASOh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I had to be hushed in a library for shouting out, not eureka, but blurting something. I remember this once happened in the LBJ library. And the librarian came over and told me to shut up because I just found a document that was in -- because it's a wonderful hunt. That's what's so exciting about archival research. You're going through a lot of stuff, digging, digging. And then you hit something and it's really exciting to see it in real time, often in their own hand. You definitely get a chill when you run into a document that's meaningful and revealing.

  • 11:49:18

    PAGEAnd you also had, as a resource, writings, I guess, by his secretary or about his secretary.

  • 11:49:25

    THOMASYes. Well, she kept a diary, episodic, periodic, Ann Whitman. And there were great moments in there. After the U2 gets shot down, Ike comes into the Oval Office and says I want to resign and tells that to Ann Whitman. He comes in on his first, I think, his first week and it's raining outside. And he says that he's so sad that he can't play golf that he wants to cry. You know, it gives you a kind of intimacy and a level of detail that you just can't get anywhere else.

  • 11:49:52

    PAGESo we know he loved golf and he loved playing cards.

  • 11:49:55

    THOMASHe did.

  • 11:49:56

    PAGEAnd you actually write about how his approach to playing cards was not unlike his approach to nuclear weapons.

  • 11:50:05

    THOMASWell, he was a great poker player. And in fact he was so good he had to quit because he was taking too much money from his fellow officers, but he continued to play bridge. And that's significant because you have to kind of read your partner through signals in bridge, but bluffing, which he learned to do as a very successful West Point cadet, making a lot of money off his fellow officers, was something that he did on a grander scale.

  • 11:50:26

    THOMASAnd he explicitly used these analogies. In the Berlin crisis, when people are after him to use troops to fight conventionally he says, no, no, no. We're not going to start out with our white chips conventional forces moving up to our blue chips nuclear forces. Our whole stack is in play. It's all or nothing. That's all the strategy I have. So he was explicit about the poker analogy.

  • 11:50:49

    PAGEHere's an email we've gotten. This person writes, "My dad was an Army officer stationed at Fort Belvoir during Eisenhower's presidency. I was about four and my ballet class was having a recital. When my dad arrived in uniform, he and my mom were steered toward a particular area and he was seated next to President Eisenhower, who apparently had a grandchild in the same recital. The lack security seems quaint and almost unbelievable today.

  • 11:51:14

    THOMASYeah, boy, a different age. You know, when Ike left office he got in his car with Mamie and they drove out to Gettysburg and the Secret Service followed in a car. And when they got to Gettysburg, to the farm, the Secret Service agent honked the horn and waved and went away. It was just a different age.

  • 11:51:32

    PAGEThat's remarkable. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tell us about his relationship with his vice president, Richard Nixon.

  • 11:51:40

    THOMASComplicated. I mean, Nixon was a good vice president. Ike certainly carried out his orders, but and revered Ike as he might. But Ike was chilly and distant with Nixon. And actually left him hanging out to dry a few times, famously with the Checkers speech right at the very beginning where Ike is not supportive when Eisenhower's caught up in this phony scandal about a slush fund and has to go on national TV and beg for forgiveness with the Checkers speech. Ike treated, I think, Nixon shabbily on that.

  • 11:52:09

    THOMASAnd then, at the very end when Nixon's running for president in 1960 and at a press conference Ike is asked, well, can you tell us something that Vice President Nixon has done to further national security? And Ike says, if you give me a week I'll think of something. Well, how cruel is that? And uncharacteristic of Ike, as well. I think that there's always a back story. And in this case Ike was feeling the press was questioning his authority, questioning whether he, himself, Ike, was kind of slipping and playing too much golf. And so he became petulant and kind of lashed out in a way that hurt Nixon.

  • 11:52:42

    PAGEAnd what about President Eisenhower's relationship with his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles?

  • 11:52:48

    THOMASWell, at the time the press, which was possibly even lazier than it is today, thought that Dulles was running foreign policy because Ike used Dulles to be the kind of bad cop, to be threatening and talk about massive retaliation, but we know now, from going into Dulles' papers, that Eisenhower actually wrote the key paragraph in the massive retaliation speech. Those were Ike's words, not Dulles'. But at the time it looked like Ike was just sort of out there playing golf and not paying attention and Dulles was really running the show. Not true. Eisenhower was running the show, but doing it behind the scenes.

  • 11:53:22

    PAGEAnd Dulles kind of the bad cop to Eisenhower's good cop.

  • 11:53:24

    THOMASYeah, the Manichean, you know, forces of darkness and light against Communism. That was useful for Eisenhower to have somebody like that out there.

  • 11:53:34

    PAGELet's talk to Bill. He's calling us from Ft. Worth, Texas. Bill, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:39

    BILLHello. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:53:40

    PAGEYou bet.

  • 11:53:41

    BILLI'm 75 years old and have lived through most of everything you've discussed so far. However, there was something that happened before I was born, but I heard about it as a child, regarding Eisenhower. And it occurred in 1932, 1933. I think he was a Captain in the Army. And General Douglas MacArthur--I don't know what his rank was at the time--went into the commons area in Washington, D.C. when World War I veterans were…

  • 11:54:14


  • 11:54:15

    BILL…demonstrating for their benefits. They had a little tent city, been out there several months. And they went in, in uniform, with the mounted cavalry with their sabers out, 50 caliber machine guns and went in and attacked against--Eisenhower's advice was don't do this.

  • 11:54:36


  • 11:54:37

    BILLAnd Douglas McArthur said, yeah, let's do it.

  • 11:54:40


  • 11:54:40

    BILLSo they went in and killed I don't know how many of these men, dispersed the camp, called them communists. And then afterwards McArthur was sent out of the country not to return for 16 years and went to the Philippines. And I wanted to know how you treated that story in your book. And I'll take an answer off the air.

  • 11:55:04

    THOMASI don't get deeply into it because this is a book about his presidency, but I know what you're talking about. Actually, McArthur at the time was the Army Chief of Staff. And it was a terrible moment when they did use troops to clear out these protesting veterans. And Ike, as you say, was against it. Ike learned--Ike was the Chief of Staff to General McArthur and he learned what not to do by watching McArthur.

  • 11:55:25

    THOMASMcArthur was vain glorious, arrogant, hot headed and Ike learned by watching McArthur to be the opposite. Now, obviously McArthur was a great military mind in many ways and Ike appreciated that. But his style of leadership was the exact opposite of what Ike believed would work. And Ike was bitterly disappointed by the incident that you describe.

  • 11:55:47

    PAGEBill, thanks so much for you call. Big debate in Washington these days over the Eisenhower Memorial. Family is not happy. Some members of his family not happy with the design which shows him as a barefoot boy, more Kansan than a General. What would Eisenhower, do you think, have wanted as a memorial?

  • 11:56:09

    THOMASYou know, I don't know. I can guess. Eisenhower was not a fan of the modern, so he might not have loved that aspect of it. Eisenhower's only thing he said about it, when asked how he wanted to be memorialized, he said, just don't let them put me on a horse. So, you know, I think he was a modest man, wanted to be remembered modestly, but, you know, he had a big ego, too. So I'm sure he wanted to be remembered in some memorable way. And I think and I hope they'll work out a compromise in this case. In fact, I think they are compromising right now and they'll have statues of Ike in addition to the more modern elements.

  • 11:56:43

    PAGEEvan Thomas, author of "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World." Thanks for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:56:50

    THOMASThanks, Susan.

  • 11:56:51

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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