Thought for Today

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Articles by Jonathan Rauch: Ike, a Realist for Our Times

DWIGHT EISENHOWER, for all his rambling amiability, was capable of vehemence. He showed it memorably at a news conference on August 11, 1954. Ray L. Scherer of NBC asked him about “increasing suggestions that we should embark on a preventive war with the Communist world, some of these suggestions by people in high places.” Scherer was talking about Red China, which was rattling its sabers at Taiwan (then called Formosa) and would soon begin shelling Taiwanese forces in what would rapidly become a full-fledged crisis.

In those days, Communist China was the closest thing to today’s Iran: a rising regional power, radical, ideological, antagonistic, and increasingly bold. Ike’s secretary of State called the Chinese “an acute and imminent threat,” and compared their “aggressive fanaticism” to Hitler’s. Hawks clamored for action, saying that if the U.S. failed to defend Formosa, it would have to defend San Francisco later.

That was the climate in which Ike said:

All of us have heard this term “preventive war” since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it…. I would say a preventive war, if words mean anything, is to wage some sort of quick police action in order that you might avoid a terrific cataclysm of destruction later. A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today…. I don’t believe there is such a thing, and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.

Eisenhower’s attitude put him at odds with the hawks of both his time and ours; anyone speaking as categorically against preventive war today as he did in 1954 would be derided by mainstream Republicans as a “defeatocrat,” waiting for America’s enemies to gather strength and strike first. But the victor of World War II was assuredly no dove. He made clear his theoretical willingness to use nuclear weapons, he sent U.S. marines to Lebanon, and he said, “We do not escape war by surrendering on the installment plan.” The best way to see Eisenhower is as neither hawk nor dove but, so to speak, as a reptile: a cold-blooded realist.

In today’s America, hawks think that peace comes from American strength, deployed vigorously to deter adversaries and pre-empt threats. Doves think that peace comes from international cooperation, in which the United States must play a leading role. Reptiles are all for strength and diplomacy, but they believe that peace ultimately comes from something else: equilibrium.

If you find that intriguing, read the rest of this very good article.