Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity

Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity

Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity

Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity


For eight years President Dwight Eisenhower claimed to pursue peace and national security. Yet his policies entrenched the United States in a seemingly permanent cold war, a spiraling nuclear arms race, and a deepening state of national insecurity. Ira Chernus uncovers the key to this paradox in Eisenhower's unwavering commitment to a consistent way of talking, in private as well as in public, about the cold war rivalry. Contrary to what most historians have concluded, Eisenhower never aimed at any genuine rapprochement with the Soviet Union. He discourse always assumed that the United States would forever face an enemy bent on destroying it, making national insecurity a permanent way of life. The "peace" he sought was only an endless process of managing apocalyptic threats, a permanent state of "apocalypse management," intended to give the United States unchallenged advantage in every arena of the cold war. The goal and the discourse that supported it were inherently self-defeating. Yet the discourse is Eisenhower's most enduring legacy, for it has shaped U. S. foreign policy ever since, leaving us still a national insecurity state.


Every era creates the history that it needs. This is not to say that historians should distort the past to suit the present. The noble though elusive goal of objectivity is still worth striving for. Evidence must be gathered and sifted with logical precision. Conclusions must not go beyond what the evidence can logically support. Still, the whole process begins by asking questions that matter in the historian's present. And it rests on assumptions that often go unquestioned in the historian's present. The result is history that makes sense for, and matters to, the present.

Consider the case of President Dwight David Eisenhower. During the 1950s, most Americans wanted to see their own era as a time of consensus, confidence, and conserving postwar gains. To make this view believable, they were willing to see their president as a genial bumbler presiding over “happy days.” That image remained, through the 1970s, the dominant view among professional historians.

By the early 1980s, revisionist historians offered a new image: a prudent “hidden-hand” crisis manager who avoided global war. As John Robert Greene says, they “began to examine—and ultimately praise—Eisenhower for the decisions that he made that avoided disaster.” This stood in marked contrast to his successors who took us into Vietnam, and especially to the president of the revisionists' own day, Ronald Reagan, who spoke of fighting and winning a nuclear war. The revisionists had little quarrel with the basic premises of the cold war. They simply wanted every president, and especially Reagan, to be as skillful as Eisenhower in restraining the forces of “hot war.”

In the late 1980s, a new school of postrevisionist historians began to ask . . .

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