Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953-1968

By Jackson, Michael Gordon | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953-1968


Jackson, Michael Gordon, Presidential Studies Quarterly


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.

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