The role of nuclear weapons during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 to 1961, and questions about their potential use during his administration, have generated a veritable cottage industry of scholarship. (1) Whole shelves of books have been written about his national security policies during the Cold War, and the paramount role he placed on the military and political utility of nuclear weapons. (2) The "New Look" of the Eisenhower administration, committed to "security and solvency," stressed making deep cuts in conventional armed forces, increasing strategic air power, and brandishing the threat of nuclear retaliation. If general war broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Eisenhower, it would have inevitably become a nuclear conflict, with catastrophic consequences for the world. It would, indeed, have been "suicidal" for both the superpowers to engage in such a conflict (Immerman and Bowie 1998, 247).
Yet, paradoxically, in spite of the emphasis Eisenhower placed on these awesomely destructive weapons, his administration is not usually identified by most as one committed to robust nuclear war fighting. Instead of examining Eisenhower's views about the possible use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, many scholars have preferred to analyze their role in strengthening deterrence and war prevention, in serving as instruments of coercive diplomacy, or in serving as a tool of "brinkmanship" during the 1950s. Eisenhower has a reputation in history as a commander-in-chief who was revolted by the thought of actually using nuclear weapons in war. There is abundant evidence in the record that Eisenhower was fully aware of the ghastliness of nuclear war and publicly supported the process of arms control. Though nuclear weapons were at the core of his New Look national security program, it has been said that his horror about such a war made him, in essence, a supremely cautious and prudent decision maker during crises. In other words, because he was a "rational" and moral leader, nuclear war fighting would have had to have been forced upon him by the most extreme political and military events.
In almost hagiographic terms, historian Douglas Brinkley recently describes him as "Eisenhower the Dove," praising him as an honest and compassionate president. He was, according to Brinkley, determined to control defense spending and the "military industrial complex" and was dedicated to peace and keeping the United States out of war (Brinkley 2001, 63). According to John Lukacs, this perception is still widely held. "The general and accepted impression is that of a benevolent, often smiling, moderate man of judgment behind whose outwardly simple demeanor lay the considerable hidden wisdom of a great soldier and statesman" (Lukacs 2002, 68). Or, as Saki Dockrill concludes, "Behind the 'magnetism of his sunny personality,' President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an astute operator and a cautious statesman" (Dockrill 2000, 345).
Yet, at least in regard to questions about nuclear weapons and their use by Eisenhower, the literature seems schizophrenic. While it is widely acknowledged that his national security policy was based on the threat to use nuclear weapons if deterrence had failed, whether he would have used them has usually been presented in a decidedly more nuanced fashion. Eisenhower is often given the benefit of the doubt, the assumption being that he would have stepped back from the precipice and never have had to make the decision. To be sure, the literature concedes that Eisenhower was "serious" about placing the weapons at the center of the New Look. Nevertheless, in spite of key sources in the record that indicate that Eisenhower strongly advocated their use, many have tried to rationalize and mitigate his frequent comments about their employment. His words are described as loose talk on his part, as deliberately ambivalent, or as indicative of a master statesman bluffing his opponents and manipulating the risk of war. According to Norman Friedman, "Eisenhower could not play his version of nuclear poker too publicly. He had to be able to bob and weave, to make threats and then very quickly withdraw them" (Friedman 2000, 201).
As the above suggests, there is a tendency in the literature to portray Eisenhower as a reluctant nuclear warrior. Analysts exhibit a real wariness about squaring the circle of the nuclear war fighting logic of the New Look and acknowledging the many strong and positive comments made by the president about their use. They avoid arriving at uncomfortable conclusions about Dwight Eisenhower's willingness to use nuclear force, preferring to perpetuate the image of the "Man from Abilene," who first sought peace, not war.
This predisposition to interpret Eisenhower's views about nuclear weapons benignly can be found in several important works about the Korean conflict. (3) Roger Dingman, in an often-cited study, flatly declares that "coercive atomic diplomacy" was not part of the Eisenhower administration's war termination strategy for Korea. To Dingman, "NSC deliberations proved more discursive than decisive" and were nothing more than "rambling conversations" about the war (Dingman 1988/1989, 79, 81-82, 84). Edward Keefer notes that the president realized that his "quick-fix atomic strategy" would not work on the battlefield and hoped that his bluffs would result in not having to make a decision to expand the war with nuclear weapons (Keefer 1986, 268,288-89). Michael Schaller makes the case that much of Eisenhower's nuclear operational plans were "either loose talk or contingency planning" (Schaller 198611987, 162-66).
Others have also given Eisenhower a strong benefit of the doubt. Barton J. Bernstein concludes that Eisenhower's vigorously positive language about the use of nuclear weapons should be interpreted not as an intention to use them, but more as an example of "frustration" and "mulling aloud" on his part (Bernstein 1998). Ernest R. May notes, "Even when Eisenhower urged his inner circle to consider using nuclear weapons in Korea, he can be viewed as intending only to force consideration of the possibility. Inwardly, he may have been resolved not to use nuclear weapons because he viewed them as different in kind from other weapons" (May 1999, 7). In a recent popular biography of the president, journalist Tom Wicker declares that Eisenhower "kept his options open ... He never issued a public or probably did not make a private threat" to use nuclear weapons in Korea (Wicker 2002, 27). More fundamentally, according to John Lewis Gaddis, the political, military, and moral/ethical constraints against the use of nuclear weapons would have precluded any serious consideration of their use by Eisenhower. "What is clear is that the President was more eager to talk about the possibility of using nuclear weapons there [Korea] than he was actually to do so" (Gaddis 1987, 128-29).
Campbell Craig's original and provocative treatment of Eisenhower's thinking about nuclear weapons is an extreme version of this desire to soften and exonerate the president of the charge of atomic bellicosity. To Campbell, President Eisenhower, ever the pupil of Clausewitz, deliberately and cleverly created a national security policy that would be all or nothing if implemented, acknowledging that there was no way to limit war with the Soviet Union. By convincing officials of his administration who were dedicated to the logic of the New Look that the only options were humiliation or suicide, "His strategy to evade nuclear war was to make American military policy so dangerous that his advisers would find it impossible to push Eisenhower toward war and away from compromise" (Craig 1998, 69).
To Craig, the frequent examples of Eisenhower's forceful talk about the use of nuclear weapons should be interpreted not as evidence that he supported their use, but as part of his Machiavellian strategy to avoid nuclear war. Though Craig's analysis is fresh and interesting, the fact is that it is brief, circumstantial, and ultimately not persuasive. He does not really examine the question of Eisenhower and Korea, or the president's commitment to saving money by relying on nuclear weapons. It also does not do the ex-president justice by arguing that most of his comments about nuclear war and strategy were attempts to dissemble or manipulate those around him. This would have been an unlikely course of action. As will be shown later, Eisenhower strongly supported institutions such as the National Security Council (NSC) as arenas where decision makers, including himself, could frankly and clearly make their views known.
Granted, a few scholars have not hedged their bets regarding Eisenhower and the use of nuclear weapons. (4) However, as suggested above, the overall trend is exculpatory. As a result, a corrective regarding Eisenhower and his reputation is needed. The fact of the matter is that President Eisenhower was much more committed to the necessity, if not the desirability, of nuclear war fighting than most have been willing to accept. This article will illustrate the point by exploring the strong continuity and consistency in Eisenhower's thinking about nuclear war fighting on the Korean peninsula between 1953 and 1960, and in 1968 during the Pueblo Crisis.
Much has been written about the administration's debate in the winter and spring of 1953 about whether to expand the Korean War with nuclear weapons and compel the North Koreans and Chinese to accept an armistice. Most agree that by the time of a critical meeting of the NSC on May 20, 1953, it seemed that serious discussions had already led to some planning, in principle, to expand the war with nuclear weapons in the future if the conflict did not end. (5) In addition, signals of this intention may have been conveyed to Communist leaders by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and others. Because the North Koreans and Chinese agreed to an armistice that June, it cannot be known for sure whether the administration had really agreed to conduct a future campaign of nuclear compellence. An archival "smoking gun" has not been found that would conclusively settle the issue.
To buttress the case that Eisenhower was a seriously committed nuclear war fighter at least on the Korean peninsula, this article will examine the argument from several perspectives. First, the debates within the administration about how to respond to a renewal of the Korean War by the Chinese and North Koreans will be looked at. Then, the discussion about Eisenhower's approval of the introduction of dual-capable nuclear weapons systems into Korea in 1957 will be examined. Finally, President Eisenhower's forceful and affirmative comments about the first use of nuclear weapons in Korea, made after 1953 and throughout his post-presidential years, will be surveyed. Viewed in its entirety, over a period of years, the continuity in Eisenhower's beliefs about the subject becomes clear and striking. The record suggests that Eisenhower assertively promoted the utility of nuclear weapons. Indeed, as will be shown, even during the Pueblo Crisis of 1968, he strongly urged the Johnson administration to consider the use of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear War Fighting and the Breaking of the Korean Armistice
In the months after the Korean armistice was signed, a pattern of tough talk by Eisenhower regarding the use of nuclear weapons emerged. Even more so than during the earlier debates within the NSC about expanding the war with nuclear weapons, the president continued to press the case for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the North Koreans and Chinese if they launched a major attack against South Korea. In fact, Eisenhower at times appeared to be much more forceful about the issue than Secretary of State Dulles, who is often portrayed as being the primary architect of the administration's "massive retaliation" strategy. (6)
These discussions usually took place during NSC meetings. How important were they to President Eisenhower? Were they only, as some assert, forums for debate and not an authentic and real arena for decision making about national security? Even if Eisenhower did talk aggressively about the use of nuclear weapons during such meetings, did this mean that he was committing himself to a course of action? In point of fact, it is not surprising that the president often brought up these issues in the NSC.
The NSC was not just a debating forum used by Eisenhower to openly vent his frustrations. Philip G. Henderson correctly points out that the NSC under Eisenhower "became the principal forum for the formulation of implementation of national security policy." With the creation of the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, as well as expansion of the NSC staff and the Planning Board and Operations Coordinating Board, the …