Monday, May 06, 2013

Precedent Eisenhower

When justifying his major foreign policy decisions, Obama cites Eisenhower more than any other predecessor -- e.g., in his December 2009 speech announcing his time-limited Afghan surge:
As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."
As calls mount for U.S. intervention in Syria, with exhortations to Obama to uphold U.S. "credibility," I find this summation by Stephen Ambrose in Rise to Globalism*  of Eisenhower's second term instructive:
THE OVERWHELMING FIRST IMPRESSION OF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY from 1956 to 1961 was one of unrelieved failure. America’s inability to do anything at all to aid Hungary’s rebels made a mockery of the Republican calls for liberation. Eisenhower and Dulles were unable to contain the Russians, who succeeded in their centuries-old dream of establishing themselves in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Spectacular Soviet successes in rocketry, beginning with Sputnik, sent the United States into a deep emotional depression. Russia seemed to have won the arms race, and in 1959 it was Khrushchev who played at brinksmanship from a position of strength. After the Suez crisis, the French, British, and Americans could never fully trust each other. In Southeast Asia, Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam and Laos threatened to upset the delicate balance there in favor of the Communists. In Latin America, the Eisenhower administration was helpless in the face of a revolution in Cuba, which soon allowed the Russians to extend their influence to within ninety miles of the United States. 

Surface appearances, however, reveal only surface truths. Eisenhower’s outstanding achievement was to avoid war. However irresponsible Republican emotional appeals to the anti-Communist vote may have been, and despite the Russian shift to the offensive in the Cold War, Eisenhower refused to engage American troops in armed conflict. He was not immune to intervention, nor to provocative rhetoric, nor to nuclear testing, nor to the arms race (within strict limits), but he did set his face against war. It became the Democrats’ turn to complain that the United States was not “going forward,” that it was not “doing enough,” that America was “losing the Cold War.”


But despite the Democrats’ complaints, the United States emerged from the Eisenhower years in a strong position. The American gross national product went up—without inflation. The Western European economy continued to boom. NATO was intact. Anglo-American oil interests in the Middle East were secure. The Latin American economy remained under American domination. American military bases in the Pacific were safe. Chiang remained in control of Formosa. And the United States, although Eisenhower was spending only about two thirds the amount that the Democrats wanted him to on defense, was militarily superior to the Soviet Union. 

Eisenhower had been unable to contain the Communists, much less liberate East Europe, and he remained wedded to the clich├ęs of the Cold War, but he was a man of moderation and caution with a clear view of what it would cost the United States to resist Communist advances everywhere. He thought the American economy could not pay the price, which was the fundamental distinction between Eisenhower and his Democratic successors (pp 151-152).
Throughout his presidency, Ambrose emphasizes, Eisenhower's unique stature empowered him to resist calls for war -- e.g., nuclear war -- and military buildup.  Other key points in Ambrose's portrayal:

1) in his first campaign and first term, Eisenhower compensated for the frustration engendered by containment with a lot of empty talk about rollback and liberation, while also compensating for the lack of a standing army to match the USSR's with threats of "massive retaliation."

2) In the early years of his presidency, Eisenhower did appear prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to check any major expansion of the Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence.  With the death of Stalin and the rise of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, however, he came to recognize that no actual crisis that arose or was likely to arise was worth the cost of a nuclear strike -- both because the specter of rapid Soviet advance beyond Eastern Europe had receded and because the destructive power of nuclear arsenals on both sides had metastasized .

3) Like Obama with respect to drones, Eisenhower favored CIA covert action to overthrow governments perceived as too friendly to communists because such shadow action seemed low-cost and low-touch. The long-term costs of that penchant for assassination and coup would of course manifest themselves in later decades.

4) When the French were cornered at Dien Bien Phu, the Eisenhower administration was stymied and humiliated in that it wanted to intervene to save the French but could not muster a coalition of the willing. Eisenhower, however, refused to go it alone, notwithstanding threats to perceived U.S. credibility and advocacy by Dulles and at least one general for a nuclear strike on the Viet Minh.

*First published in 1971.

Postscript:  I am rereading Rise to Globalism, which I first read in high school in about 1976, after being prompted by a purportedly myth-busting account of the Cuban missile crisis published in the Atlantic a couple of months ago, in the form of a review by Benjamin Schwarz of a book by Kennedy Library vet Sheldon M. Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory.  The account is based largely on Kennedy tapes released in 1997. "Everything you think you know about those 13 days is wrong," says the subhead, followed by an italicized narrative summarizing what we allegedly think we know. This gave me a bit of vertigo, because the startling facts relayed by Schwarz -- that Kennedy knew the missiles in Cuba posed no substantive threat, and that the crisis was defused when Kennedy secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey -- were, I seemed to recall, recounted in Rise to Globalism. I bought the book, and yes, there were those facts, plain as day, sourced to speeches and writings by Bobby Kennedy and McNamara dated from the late sixties. It struck me then that Ambrose's account of the Cold War was highly effective, insofar as I can't think of any other book I read so long ago, excepting books I reread periodically, that I've retained so well.  It is brief, substantive, and its conclusions seem to me mostly level-headed and well-sourced -- though admittedly, that may be because I imprinted them early. Recommended!

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