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The Real Eisenhower: Planning to Win Nuclear War

Ira Chernus

Peace activists love to quote Dwight Eisenhower. The iconic Republican war hero spoke so eloquently about the dangers of war and the need for disarmament. He makes a terrific poster-boy for peace. But after years of research and writing three books on Ike, I think it's time to see the real Eisenhower stand up. The president who planned to fight and win a nuclear war, saying "he would rather be atomized than communized," reminds us how dangerous the cold war era really was, how much our leaders will put us all at risk in the name of "national security," and how easily they can mask their intentions behind benign images.From first to last, Eisenhower was a confirmed cold warrior. Years before he became president, while he was publicly promoting cooperation with the Soviet Union, he wrote in his diary: "Russia is definitely out to communize the world....Now we face a battle to extinction." On the home front, he warned that liberal Democrats were leading the U.S. "toward total socialism."

Everyone knows that, in his Farewell Address, he warned about the military-industrial complex (MIC). But few recall the words that immediately followed: "We recognize the imperative need for this development [of the MIC]. ... Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action," because the danger of the communist foe, "a community of dreadful fear and hate[,] ... promises to be of indefinite duration."

This was not merely rhetoric for public consumption. Eisenhower never saw any hope of rapprochement with the Soviets. He always saw them as irredeemably treacherous, "implacably hostile and seeking our destruction," as he wrote to Winston Churchill. "Where in the hell can you let the Communists chip away any more? We just can't stand it," he complained to a meeting of Congressional leaders in 1954, as he considered intervening in Vietnam. (He held back only because Britain and France refused to support him.)

Ike wanted to avoid nuclear war, but not at all costs. He told his National Security Council (NSC): "If the Soviets attempt to overrun Europe, we should have no recourse but to go to war." The U.S. must be "willing to 'push its whole stack of chips into the pot' when such becomes necessary," he told Congressional leaders, adding, "We are going to live with this type of crisis for years." If World War III erupted during his term in office, he boasted, "he might be the last person alive, but there wouldn't be any surrender."

In private conversations with foreign leaders he said: "To accept the Communist doctrine and try to live with it" would be "too big a price to be alive. He said he would not want to live, nor would he want his children or grandchildren to live, in a world where we were slaves of a Moscow Power." "The President said that speaking for himself he would rather be atomized than communized."

Eisenhower signed NSC 5810/1, which made it official U.S. policy to treat nuclear weapons "as conventional weapons; and to use them whenever required to achieve national objectives." "The only sensible thing for us to do was to put all our resources into our hydrogen bombs," he told the NSC. He found it "frustrating not to have plans to use nuclear weapons generally accepted." He and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, were "in complete agreement that somehow or other the taboos which surround the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed."

(Historians long ago debunked the popular image of Dulles as the hard-line cold warrior who was really in charge and undermined a peace-seeking president. Dulles acknowledged that Eisenhower called the shots. The president himself wrote the famous words in a Dulles speech pledging the U.S. to "massive retaliation.")

For Eisenhower, the point of amassing a huge nuclear arsenal was not to deter war but to win it. This was enshrined as official policy in NSC 5810/1: "The United States must make clear its determination to prevail if general war occurs." The only meaningful war aim, he told the NSC, was "to achieve a victory." He described his war plan as "Hit the guy fast with all you've got if he jumps on you"; "hit 'em ... with everything in the bucket."

By 1957, the president announced publicly that he would use nuclear forces in some "future small war." NSC 5810/1 made it official policy to use nuclear weapons to "deter limited aggression" as well as a full-scale Soviet attack. At various times, Eisenhower considered plans for using nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam, China, Germany, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.

At the end of his presidency, when he was most aware of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, he still insisted "that the only practical move would be to start using them from the beginning without any distinction whatever between them and conventional weapons." And if he used nuclear weapons anywhere, he expected it to trigger a global war against the Soviet Union: "He would 'want to go to the head of the snake.' If we get our prestige involved anywhere then we can't get out."

The crux of Eisenhower's strategy for victory was to strike first. "Shoot your enemy before he shoots you," he insisted. That became official, albeit implicit, policy in NSC 5904/1, "U.S. Policy in the Event of War," which assumed the possibility of a preemptive response to an impending Soviet attack. In a "real" emergency, the president expected to launch an "all-out" nuclear war without consulting Congress.

In 1954, Eisenhower told the NSC that "the United States might have to contemplate a 12-year mobilization program to achieve final victory." By 1958 planning for prolonged war seemed unrealistic. So he intended to "economically paralyze the Russian nation ... to destroy the will of the Soviet Union to fight." His entire policy, therefore, was simply to "hit the Russians as hard as possible," "hitting the big industrial and control complexes" in and around Soviet cities.

Eisenhower's plans always assumed that the U.S. would somehow survive the war. In 1959, when he was well aware that a nuclear war would kill 100 million or more Americans, he still approved NSC 5904/1, the official U.S. policy for global war, which made the nation's first objective "to prevail, and survive as a nation capable of controlling its own destiny" by planning for a "quick recovery." "We are simply going to have to be prepared to operate with people who are 'nuts,'" he told his Cabinet, to "preserve some common sense in a situation in which everybody is going crazy."

Exploring plans for widespread bomb shelters, Ike told his Cabinet that he wanted to "get private industry active on many of the little 'practical' problems as perhaps designing a small air purifier for use by individuals." When he realized that the "little 'practical' problems" of shelters could not be solved, the president turned to the evacuation of cities as the key to survival. He wanted simulated evacuations to continue "until they became a regular part of our lives."

Eisenhower assumed that a post-holocaust America would be a totalitarian state, ruled by martial law. But he worried about (among other things) what would happen to the credit structure of the country and how to print and sell war bonds to finance the next war if Washington were destroyed. At one NSC meeting he complained that if the President and the Vice President were "knocked off," the "damnable" law of succession would result in the Democrats (he called them "the other team") taking the White House. "To assure against that happening, the President thought the Vice President should be put in cotton batting."

Ike spent a lot of time discussing plans for government relocation during a general war, but only in the case of "possibly 25 or 30 cities being shellacked." As damage estimates rose, he ordered that postwar planners ignore these terrifying realities and keep "assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning." "While we don't get off scot free in case of an attack, we should make assumptions which describe a realm in which humans can operate."

This was hardly the only way that he substituted fantasy for reality when it came to nuclear weapons. He told press conferences: "The H-bomb in proportion to its size is probably one of the cleanest [weapons]"; he hoped that the U.S. would soon have totally "clean" weapons with no fallout. Privately, he ordered the Joint Chiefs that "targeting should avoid unnecessarily high population losses." He wanted to "avoid non-military destruction and casualties" in the Soviet satellites during World War III, so that the surviving population would rise up and form governments friendly to U.S.

How could this be the same man who spoke so often and so quotably about the need to pursue nuclear disarmament and lead the world away from war? His private expressions of anxiety about the nuclear danger, though they were relatively rare, may have been quite genuine. But he went on approving most of the new weapons programs that anyone in the Pentagon could invent. His personal secretary summed up his approach to the issue in her diary during the 1958 Berlin crisis: "More serious talk of possible war. The president at one point said 'You might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself'-- which indicates a remarkably depressed view for him to take. But this mood does not last, and routine matters go on pretty much as usual. The President first greeted representatives of the Investment Bankers Association of America."

In public, of course, it was a different matter. Eisenhower carefully crafted his image as a "man of peace" for public effect. He urged the NSC to pursue disarmament because of "the enormous importance of the psychological and public relations aspect." "Everybody seems to think that we're skunks, saber-rattlers and warmongers. We ought not to miss any chance to make clear our peaceful objectives." For Eisenhower "everybody" meant, above all, the NATO nations of western Europe, where nuclear fear was eroding support for waging cold war. Only rarely did he show concern for public opinion in the U.S.

Ike admitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that U.S. disarmament offers were usually designed to make it "very unlikely that the Soviets would accept our proposal, and if they were to accept, it is very unlikely that we would suffer disadvantage." This was true of his two most famous proposals, "Atoms for Peace" and "Open Skies." He put forth both plans mainly to score points in the public relations battle; he knew the plans were stacked in U.S. favor, making Soviet acceptance unlikely.

Toward the end of his second term, as pressure for a ban on nuclear testing built, Eisenhower agreed to pursue a test ban but noted that "he could not see why we could not conduct experiments underground." "If we could keep the secret from the press, he would authorize small clandestine shots." Even if the U.S. were forced to a total test ban, he assured Edward Teller, nuclear researchers should continue "with their current vigor and devotion. ... It will be necessary that we maintain our weapons development progress during the period and with no less urgency than in the past."

"Our public relations problem almost defies solution," Eisenhower complained more than once. The problem was indeed insoluble. He spent eight years trying to persuade the world that he wanted to reduce nuclear weapons, while every day he built more of them, planned how to use them, and resisted efforts for disarmament.

If you are looking for a Republican president to admire, you may want to scratch Eisenhower off your list. It is a shame to give up the "man of peace" that peace activists have come to admire. But the historical record on Eisenhower's nuclear policy is so consistent and so extensive (I've offered only a small sampling here) that it is hard to ignore.

And we ignore it at our peril, because it was a policy that put anticommunist ideology above human life, made by a man who would "push [his] whole stack of chips into the pot" and "hit 'em ... with everything in the bucket"; who would "shoot your enemy before he shoots you"; who believed that the U.S. could "pick itself up from the floor" and win a nuclear war, even though "everybody is going crazy," as long as "only" 25 or 30 American cities got "shellacked" and nobody got too "hysterical."

That's how one president talked about nuclear war, a president who is now widely admired across the political spectrum. It should make us wonder how less admired presidents talked, and thought. And it should remind us how easily presidents can create images that mask a very different, much more dangerous, reality.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity. A much longer version of this article appears on History News Network.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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