Yet behind Ike’s bland smile and apparent simplemindedness was a brilliant, intellectual tactician.
As Evan Thomas reveals in his provocative examination of Eisenhower’s White House years, Ike was a master of calculated duplicity.
As with the bridge and poker games he was eventually forced to stop playing after leaving too many fellow army officers insolvent, Ike could be patient and ruthless in the con, and generous and expedient in his partnerships.
Facing the Soviet Union, China, and his own generals—some of whom believed a first strike was the only means of survival—Eisenhower would make his boldest and riskiest bet yet, one of such enormity that there could be but two outcomes: the survival of the world, or its end.
Ike’s Bluff is the story of how he won.
Check out this excerpt that details Eisenhower’s nearly imperceptible determination to defeat threats to America through strategic gamesmanship:
Sworn to defend the islands and protect the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa, the Eisenhower Administration uneasily pondered its options. The Joint Chiefs of Staff informed President Eisenhower, as they had in 1955, that it would be necessary to destroy Chinese airfields on the mainland with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower was more publicly circumspect than he had been in the winter of 1955. There was no more loose talk equating atom bombs with bullets. Now that the Soviets were developing ICBMs, he had to be more careful in his public utterances. Eisenhower knew that neither the American people nor America’s allies could stand the risk of starting a global war over some small islands off the Chinese coast.
As he so often did, Eisenhower chose studied ambiguity. The president told the military to prepare to fight with conventional weapons, but also to be ready to use atom bombs in a worst-case scenario. At a press conference on August 27, Ike made clear that he alone would decide if and when to use those weapons. On Formosa, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek fumed that Ike seemed to be hedging. In early September, Foster Dulles went to Ike’s summer White House in Newport to press the president on whether he would be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons on Chinese airfields. Ike stalled and wandered off into a marginally relevant reminiscence about D-Day. When it came to nuclear bluffing, Eisenhower followed his own lonely counsel. Tell no one.
Fortunately, Ike’s bluff worked. Mao was perhaps not as cavalier about nuclear war as he pretended to be. On September 5, the Communist party chairman told the Supreme State Conference in Beijing, “I simply did not calculate the world would become so disturbed and turbulent.” With both sides looking for a way to pull back from the brink, the crisis quickly wound down. By the end of September, secret diplomacy was working towards a deal. The Americans were quietly persuading Chiang to reduce his large army (100,000 men) on the off-shore islands. In a near parody of saving face, the Red Chinese announced they would fire on the nationalist convoys only on odd days of the month—allowing the convoys to sail on the even-numbered days. In his memoirs, Eisenhower, who had seen almost everything, wrote, “I wondered if we were in a Gilbert and Sullivan war.”
Yet amidst this absurdity was a victory of sorts: Eisenhower and Dulles had been hoping to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and the second Quemoy-Matsu Crisis aided this cause. Khrushchev had promised to provide Mao with a prototype atom bomb. After listening to Mao’s tirades and watching him goad Uncle Sam, he began to think better of the idea. In 1959, Moscow told Beijing that no bomb would be forthcoming.
Here’s Thomas breaking down some of his observations found in Ike’s Bluff: