Modern history


Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Irreconcilable Conflict

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us.


“WE CAN NEVER REST,” GENERAL EISENHOWER DECLARED DURING HIS 1952 campaign for the presidency, “until the enslaved nations of the world have in the fullness of freedom the right to choose their own path, for then, and then only, can we say that there is a possible way of living peacefully and permanently with Communism in the world.” Like most campaign statements, Eisenhower’s bowed to both sides of the political spectrum. For the bold he indicated a policy of liberation, while the cautious could take comfort in his willingness to someday live peacefully with the Communists.

The emphasis was on liberation. John Foster Dulles, the Republican expert on foreign policy, author of the Japanese peace treaty, and soon to be Secretary of State, was more explicit than Eisenhower. Containment, he charged, was a treadmill policy “which, at best might perhaps keep us in the same place until we drop exhausted. ” It cost far too much in taxes and was “not designed to win victory conclusively.” One plank in the Republican platform damned containment as “negative, futile and immoral,” for it abandoned “countless human beings to a despotism and Godless terrorism.” It hinted that the Republicans, once in power, would roll back the atheistic tide. Rollback would come not only in East Europe but also in Asia. The platform denounced the “Asia-last” policy of the Democrats and said, “We have no intention to sacrifice the East to gain time for the West.”

The Eisenhower landslide in the 1952 election was a compound of many factors, the chief being the general’s enormous personal popularity. Corruption in the Truman administration and the McCarthy charges of Communist infiltration into the government also helped (“There are no Communists in the Republican Party,” one platform plank piously declared). So did Eisenhower’s promise to go to Korea and end the war there. But one of the major appeals of the Eisenhower-Dulles team was its rejection of containment. The Republican pledge to do something about Communist enslavement—it was never clear exactly what—brought millions of former Democratic voters into the Republican fold, especially those of East European descent. Eisenhower reaped where McCarthy sowed. Far from rejecting internationalism and retreating to isolationism, the Republicans were proposing to go beyond containment. They would be more internationalist than Truman.

Republican promises to liberate the enslaved, like nineteenth-century abolitionist programs to free the Negro slaves, logically led to only one policy. Since the slaveholders would not voluntarily let the oppressed go, and since the slaves were too tightly controlled to stage their own revolution, those who wished to see the slaves freed would have to fight to free them. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, war was a much different proposition than it had been a hundred years earlier. Freeing the slaves would lead to the destruction of much of the world; most of the slaves themselves would die in the process.

There was another major constraint on action. The Republicans were wedded to conservative fiscal views that stressed the importance of balancing the budget and cutting taxes. All of Eisenhower’s leading Cabinet figures, save Dulles, were businessmen who believed that an unbalanced federal budget was immoral. Government expenditures could be reduced significantly, however, only by cutting the Defense Department budget, which the Republicans proceeded to do. The cuts made liberation even more difficult.

In Korea, in July 1953, Eisenhower accepted an armistice that restored the status quo ante bellum. General MacArthur, President Rhee, and many Republicans were furious. They wanted to fight on until North Korea was liberated, a policy they thought Eisenhower had endorsed in his “We shall never rest” statement. But Eisenhower, after considering and rejecting the use of atomic weapons, decided that the price of victory was too high, and instead made peace.

In practice, therefore, Eisenhower and Dulles continued the policy of containment. There was no basic difference between their foreign policy and that of Truman and Acheson. Their campaign statements frequently haunted them, but they avoided embarrassment over their lack of action through their rhetoric. “We can never rest,” Eisenhower had said, but rest they did, except in their speeches, which expressed perfectly the assumptions and desires of millions of Americans.

Better than anyone else, Dulles described the American view of Communism. A devout Christian and highly successful corporate lawyer, Dulles’s unshakeable beliefs were based on American ideas. They differed hardly at all from those of Truman, Acheson, Main Street in Iowa City, or Madison Avenue in New York City. All the world wanted to be like America; the common people everywhere looked to America for leadership; Communism was unmitigated evil imposed by a conspiracy on helpless people, whether it came from the outside as in East Europe or from within as in Asia; there could be no permanent reconciliation with Communism because “this is an irreconcilable conflict.”

Dullest speeches helped hide the fact that the Republicans did nothing about their promise to liberate the enslaved, but perhaps more important to their popularity was their unwillingness to risk American lives, for here too they were expressing the deepest sentiments of their countrymen. On occasion the Republicans rattled the saber and always they filled the air with denunciations of the Communists, but they also shut down the Korean War, cut corporate taxes, and reduced the size of the armed forces. Despite intense pressure and great temptation, they entered no wars. They were willing to supply material, on a limited scale, to others so that they could fight the enemy, but they would not commit American boys to the struggle. Like Truman they did their best to contain Communism; unlike him they did not use American troops to do so. They were unwilling to make peace but they would not go to war. Their speeches provided emotional satisfaction but their actions failed to liberate a single slave.

When General Marshall was Secretary of State, he had complained that he had no muscle to back up his foreign policy. Truman agreed and did all he could to increase the armed forces. Dulles did not make such complaints. He worked with what was available—which was, to be sure, far more than Marshall had at hand in 1948—for he shared the Republican commitment to fiscal soundness.

The extent of the commitment was best seen in the New Look, a term Eisenhower coined to describe his military policy. It combined domestic, military, and foreign considerations. The New Look rejected the premise of NSC 68 that the United States could spend up to 20 percent of its GNP on arms; it rejected deficit financing; it supported a policy of containment. It came into effect at a time of lessening tension. The Korean War had ended and Stalin had died in March 1953. The world seemed less dangerous. The New Look was based in large part on the success of the NSC 68 program, for the first two years of the New Look were the high-water mark of relative American military strength in the Cold War. As Samuel Huntington has noted, “The basic military fact of the New Look was the overwhelming American superiority in nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.” Between 1953 and 1955, the United States could have effectively destroyed the Soviet Union with little likelihood of serious reprisal. The fact that America did not do so indicated the basic restraint of the Eisenhower administration, as opposed to its verbiage.

The New Look became fixed policy during a period of lessened tensions and American military superiority, but it did not depend on either for its continuation. In its eight years of power, the Eisenhower administration went through a series of war scares and it witnessed the development of Soviet long-range bombers, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons. Throughout, however, Ike held to the New Look. His Defense Department expenditures remained in the $35-to-$40-billion range.

The key to the New Look was the American ability to build and deliver nuclear weapons. Put more bluntly, Eisenhower’s military policy rested on America’s capacity to destroy the Soviet Union. Soviet strides in military technology gave them the ability to retaliate but not to defend Russia, which was the major reason Eisenhower could accept sufficiency. The United States did not have to be superior to the Soviet Union to demolish it.

To give up superiority was not easy, however, and it rankled many Americans, especially in the military. Eisenhower had his greatest difficulties with the Army, for it suffered most from his refusal to increase the Defense Department budget. Three Army Chiefs of Staff resigned in protest, and one of them, Maxwell Taylor, later became the chief adviser on military affairs to Ike’s successor. The Army wanted enough flexibility to be able to meet the Communist threat at any level. The trouble with Eisenhower’s New Look, the Army chiefs argued, was that it locked the United States into an all-or-nothing response. Wherever and whenever conflict broke out, the chiefs wanted to be capable of moving in. To do so, they needed a large standing army, with specialized divisions, elite groups, a wide variety of weapons, and an enormous transportation capacity.

Eisenhower insisted that the cost of being able to intervene anywhere, immediately, was unbearable. “Let us not forget,” the President wrote a friend in August 1956, “that the Armed Services are to defend a ‘way of life,’ not merely land, property or lives.” He wanted to make the chiefs accept the need for a “balance between minimum requirements in the costly implements of war and the health of our economy....” As he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

The New Look meant that Eisenhower had abandoned his former advocacy of universal military training, with its assumption that the next war would resemble World War II. More fundamentally, he had abandoned the idea of America fighting any more Korean wars. Eisenhower’s policy emphasized both the importance of tactical nuclear weapons and the role of strategic air-power as a deterrent to aggression. He used technology to mediate between conflicting political goals. Big bombers carrying nuclear weapons were the means through which he reconciled lower military expenditures with a foreign policy of containment.

Under Eisenhower, the United States developed smaller atomic weapons that could be used tactically on the battlefield. Dulles then attempted to convince the world that the United States would not hesitate to use them. The fact that the NATO forces were so small made the threat persuasive, for there was no other way to stop the Red Army in Europe. Both Dulles and Eisenhower made this explicit. If the United States were engaged in a major military confrontation, Dulles said, “Those weapons would come into use because, as I say, they are becoming more and more conventional and replacing what used to be called conventional weapons.” Eisenhower declared, “Where these things are used on strictly military targets ... I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Dulles called the policy massive retaliation. In a speech in January 1954, he quoted Lenin and Stalin to show that the Soviets planned to overextend the Free World and then destroy it with one blow. Dulles held that the United States should counter that strategy by maintaining a great strategic reserve in the United States. The Eisenhower administration had made a decision to “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.”

Dulles used massive retaliation as the chief instrument of containment. He called his overall method brinksmanship, which he explained in an article in Life magazine. “You have to take chances for peace, just as you must take chances in war. Some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.... If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. We’ve had to look it square in the face.... We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face. We took strong action.”

Dulles implicitly recognized the limitations on brinksmanship. He never tried to use it for liberation and he used it much more sparingly after the Soviets were able to threaten the United States itself with destruction. It was a tactic to support containment at an acceptable cost, within a limited time span under a specific set of military circumstances, not a strategy for protracted conflict.

In the Life article, Dulles cited three instances of going to the brink. All were in Asia. The first came in Korea. When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the truce talks were stalled on the question of prisoner-of-war repatriation. The Chinese wanted all their men held by the UN command returned, while the Americans insisted on voluntary repatriation, which meant that thousands of Chinese and North Koreans would remain in South Korea, for they did not want to return to Communism. Truman and Acheson had first raised the issue. They could have had peace early in 1952 had they accepted the usual practice—firmly established in international law—of returning all prisoners, but they decided to offer a haven to those prisoners who wished to defect. The talks—and the war—continued.

Determined to cut losses and get out, Eisenhower warned that unless the war ended quickly the United States might retaliate “under circumstances of our own choosing.” On February 2, in his first State of the Union message, the President said there was no longer “any sense or logic” in restraining Chiang, so the U.S. Seventh Fleet would “no longer be employed to shield Communist China.” Chiang then began bombing raids against the China coast. Eisenhower’s threats to widen the war accomplished his goal—the Chinese agreed to a resumption of armistice talks.

Dulles then hinted to the Chinese that if peace did not come, the United States would bring in atomic weapons. Eleven days later the Chinese agreed to place the question of prisoner repatriation in the hands of international, neutral authorities.

In its first test massive retaliation had won a victory. Ominous portents for the future, however, soon appeared. Dulles’s policy was based on a bipolar view of the world. He believed that the United States could make the major decisions for the Free World while Russia would make them for the Communists. He refused to accept, or perhaps even recognize, the diversity of the world, for he thought all important issues were related to the Cold War and was impatient with those who argued that the East-West struggle was irrelevant to many world problems. His negative expression of this belief in bipolarity was his denunciation of neutrality, which he characterized as immoral.

The second application of brinksmanship came in Vietnam. In December 1952 the lame-duck Truman administration approved $60 million for support of the French effort against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. Truman—and later Eisenhower—labeled Ho a Communist agent of Peking and Moscow, characterizing the war in Vietnam as another example of Communist aggression.

Eisenhower continually urged the French to state unequivocally that they would give complete independence to Vietnam upon the conclusion of hostilities. Eisenhower said he made “every kind of presentation” to the French to “put the war on an international footing,” that is, to make it clear that this was a struggle between Communism and freedom, not a revolt against colonialism. If France promised independence, and Ho continued to fight, Eisenhower reasoned that the Viet Minh could no longer pretend to be national liberators but would stand revealed as Communist stooges of Moscow. At that point Britain and the United States could enter the conflict to halt “outside” aggression.

For their part, the French were willing enough to talk about the Communist menace in order to receive American aid, but they had no intention of giving up Vietnam. They knew perfectly well that their enemies were in the interior of Vietnam, not in Peking or Moscow, and they were determined to retain the reality of power. If the Americans wanted to fight Communists, that was fine with the French; their concern was with continuing to control Vietnam.

But the war did not go well for the French. By early 1954, the Viet Minh controlled over half the countryside. The French put their best troops into an isolated garrison north of Hanoi, called Dien Bien Phu, and dared the Viet Minh to come after them. They assumed that in open battle the Asians would crumble. The results, however, went the other way, and by April it was the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu that was in trouble. War weariness in France was by then so great, and the French had attached so much prestige to Dien Bien Phu, that it was clear that the fall of the garrison would mean the end of French rule in Vietnam. Eisenhower and Dulles saw such an outcome as a victory for Communist aggression and a failure of containment.

On April 3, 1954, Dulles and Admiral Radford met with eight congressional leaders. The administration wanted support for a congressional resolution authorizing American entry into the war. The Congressmen, including Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, the Senate majority leader, were aghast. They remembered all too well the difficulties of the Korean War and they were disturbed because Dulles had found no allies to support intervention. Congressional opposition hardened when they discovered that one of the other three Joint Chiefs disagreed with Radford’s idea of saving Dien Bien Phu through air strikes.

Eisenhower was as adamant as the congressional leaders about allies. He was anxious to support the French, but only if they promised complete independence and only if Britain joined the United States in intervening. Unless these conditions were met he would not move, but he was worried about what would happen if the French lost. On April 7, he introduced a new political use for an old word when he explained at a press conference that all Southeast Asia was like a row of dominoes. If you knocked over the first one, what would happen to the last one was “the certainty that it would go over very quickly.”

To make sure the dominoes stood, Eisenhower sought allies. He wanted “the U.S., France, United Kingdom, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand, et al., to begin conferring at once on means of successfully stopping the Communist advances in Southeast Asia.” He proposed to use the French Army already there, while “additional ground forces should come from Asiatic and European troops.” America would supply the material, but not the lives. The policy had little appeal to Britain, Australia, New Zealand, et al., but it was consistent with the approach of both of Eisenhower’s predecessors. The trouble was it had no chance of success. The proposed allies figured that if Americans would not fight in Korea, they would not fight in Vietnam. Even when Eisenhower wrote Churchill and compared the threat in Vietnam to the dangers of “Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler,” the British would not budge.

The Vice-President, Richard M. Nixon, then tried another tack. On April 16, he said that “if to avoid further Communist expansion in Asia and Indochina, we must take the risk now by putting our boys in, I think the Executive has to take the politically unpopular decision and do it.” The storm that followed this speech was so fierce that the possibility of using “our boys” in Vietnam immediately disappeared. Eisenhower would never have supported it anyway, and his Army Chief of Staff, Matthew Ridgway, was firmly opposed to rushing into another ground war in Asia.

What to do? The question was crucial because a conference on Vietnam was scheduled to begin in Geneva on April 26. Like Truman in Korea, the Eisenhower administration was flatly opposed to a negotiated peace at Geneva that would give Ho Chi Minh any part of Vietnam. The United States was paying 75 percent of the cost of the war, an investment too great simply to abandon. But the French position at Dien Bien Phu was deteriorating rapidly. Air Force Chief of Staff Nathan Twining had a solution. He wanted to drop three small atomic bombs on the Viet Minh around Dien Bien Phu “and clean those Commies out of there and the band could play ‘The Marseillaise’ and the French would come marching out ... in fine shape.” Eisenhower said he would not use atomic bombs for the second time in a decade against Asians, but he did consider a conventional air strike. Dulles flew to London a week before the Geneva conference to get Churchill’s approval. Churchill would not approve, and Eisenhower did not act. Brinksmanship had failed.

On May 7, 1954, Dien Bien Phu fell. Still there was no immediate progress in Geneva and the Americans walked out of the conference. At the insistence of the NATO allies, Eisenhower eventually sent his close friend Walter B. Smith as an observer. Dulles himself refused to return to Geneva, and the negotiations dragged on. The break came when the French government fell, and in mid-June the Radical-Socialist Pierre Mendes-France assumed the position of foreign minister as well as Premier. On the strength of his pledge to end the war or resign by July 20, he had a vote of confidence of 419 to 47. Mendès-France immediately met Chinese Premier Chou En-lai privately at Bern, which infuriated the Americans, and progress toward peace began. Eisenhower, Dulles, and Smith were bystanders. On July 20-21, 1954, two pacts were signed: the Geneva Accords and the Geneva Armistice Agreement.

The parties agreed to a truce and to a temporary partition of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, with the French withdrawing south of that line. Neither the French in the south of Vietnam nor Ho Chi Minh in the north could join a military alliance or allow foreign military bases on their territory. There would be elections, supervised by a joint commission of India, Canada, and Poland, within two years to unify the country. France would stay in the south to carry out the elections. The United States did not sign either of the pacts, nor did any South Vietnamese government. The Americans did promise that they would support “free elections supervised by the United Nations” and would not use force to upset the agreements. Ho Chi Minh had been on the verge of taking all of Vietnam, but he accepted only the northern half because he needed time to repair the war damage and he was confident that when the elections came he would win a smashing victory. After all, he was sure of 100 percent of the vote from the north.

After Geneva the Secretary of State moved in two ways to restore some flexibility to American foreign policy. One of the major problems had been the lack of allies for an intervention. Dulles tried to correct this before the next crisis came by signing up the allies in advance. In September 1954, he persuaded Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines to join the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), in which the parties agreed to consult if any signatory felt threatened. They would act together to meet an aggressor if they could unanimously agree on designating him and if the threatened state agreed to action on its territory. Protection for Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam was covered in a separate protocol. Thus did the United States bring South Vietnam into an alliance system. The absence of India, Burma, and Indonesia in SEATO was embarrassing, as was the presence of so many white men. Clearly this was no NATO for Southeast Asia but rather a Western—especially American—effort to regulate the affairs of Asia from the outside. The United States, as Dulles put it, had “declared that an intrusion [in Southeast Asia] would be dangerous to our peace and security,” and America would fight to prevent it.

Not, however, with infantry. Dulles assured a suspicious Senate that the New Look policies would continue, that the American response to aggression would be with bombs, not men. This solved one problem but left another. What if the aggression took the form of internal Communist subversion directed and supported from without? In such an event it would be difficult to get the SEATO signatories to agree to act. Dulles was aware of the danger and assured the Cabinet that in such an event the United States was ready to act alone. He took a different tack in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he stated that “if there is a revolutionary movement in Vietnam or in Thailand, we would consult together as to what to do about it ... but we have no undertaking to put it down, all we have is an undertaking to consult,” Reassured, the Senate passed the treaty by a vote of eighty-two to one.

Dulles’s other major post-Geneva move was to unilaterally shore up the government of South Vietnam. In so doing, he revealed much about American attitudes toward revolution in the Third World. Dulles grew almost frantic when he thought about the “colored” peoples of the world, for he realized that the struggle for their loyalty was the next battleground of the Cold War, and he knew that American military might was often irrelevant in the struggle. Russia had a tremendous initial advantage, since the Third World did not regard the Russians as white exploiters and colonists. Furthermore, the Russian example of how a nation could build its economy through controlled production and consumption, rather than by waiting for the slow accumulation of capital through the profits of free enterprise, appealed to the emerging nations. Finally, the oppressed peoples of the world were not overthrowing their white masters in order to substitute local rules with the same policies. The revolutionaries were just what they said they were: men determined to change the entire social, political, and economic order.

Given the American habit of defining social change as Communist aggression, given the needs of American business to maintain an extractive economy in the Third World, and given the military desire to retain bases around Russia and China, the United States had to set its face against revolution. “American policy was designed to create maximum change behind the Iron Curtain and to prevent it elsewhere,” Norman Graebner has written. “On both counts, this nation placed itself in opposition to the fundamental political and military realities of the age.” In 1960 V.K. Krishna Menon of India invited the American delegation to the United Nations to read the Declaration of Independence. “Legitimism cannot be defended,” he declared, “and if you object to revolutionary governments, then you simply argue against the whole of progress.” But America did object to revolution.

In September 1954, Dulles announced that henceforth American aid would go directly to the South Vietnamese and not through the French. In November, American military advisers began training a South Vietnamese Army. The Americans approved the seizure of power by Ngo Dinh Diem, who drew his support from the landlords and had good relations with the French plantation owners, and Eisenhower pledged American economic aid to Diem. The President tried to require social and economic reforms from Diem, but it was understood that Diem could do almost as he wished as long as he remained firmly anti-Communist.

American aid began to pour into Diem’s hands as the United States tried to promote South Vietnam as a model for Third World development. Brinksmanship had failed to prevent the loss of North Vietnam and was of little or no help in dealing with the problems of the underdeveloped nations, so Dulles offered the Diem example as a method of handling what he regarded as the most important problem of the era. Whether it would be a convincing example or not remained to be seen.

If brinksmanship failed to halt or even shape the revolution of rising expectations, it could still be used to protect what was already clearly America’s. Dulles faced his third major challenge, and used brinksmanship for the third time, in the Formosa Straits, where he did succeed in achieving his objective.

In January 1953, Eisenhower had “unleashed” Chiang.10 The Nationalist Chinese then began a series of bombing raids, in American-built planes, against mainland shipping and ports. The pinprick war was just enough to keep the Chinese enraged without injuring them seriously. In January 1955, the Chinese were ready to strike back. They began by bombing the Tachen Islands, 230 miles north of Formosa and held by a division of Chiang’s troops. The Chinese also began to build up strength and mount cannon opposite Quemoy and Matsu, small islands sitting at the mouths of two Chinese harbors and garrisoned by Nationalist divisions. Eisenhower—although not some of his advisers—was willing to write off the Tachens, which were soon evacuated, but he was determined to hold Quemoy and Matsu as he believed they were integral to the defense of Formosa itself. His reasoning, as he explained during a 1958 crisis over the same issue, was that if Quemoy and Matsu fell, Formosa would follow, which would “seriously jeopardize the anti-Communist barrier consisting of the insular and peninsular position in the Western Pacific, e.g., Japan, Republic of Korea, Republic of China, Republic of the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.” Indonesia, Malaya, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma “would probably come fully under Communist influence.”

To avoid the “catastrophic consequences” of the loss of Quemoy and Matsu, on January 24, 1955, Eisenhower went before Congress to ask for authority to “employ the armed forces of the United States as [the President] deems necessary for the specific purpose of protecting Formosa and the Pescadores against armed attack,” the authority to include protection for “related positions,” which meant Quemoy and Matsu. Eisenhower feared that if the Chinese moved and he had to go to Congress for authority to act, it would be too late, so he asked for a blank check on which he could draw at will. As the legal adviser of the Department of State who helped draft the resolution remarked, it was a “monumental” step, for “never before in our history had anything been done like that.” Nevertheless, there was hardly a debate. The House passed the resolution by 409 to 3, while it went through the Senate by 85 to 3.

A major war scare then ensued. As the Chinese began to bombard Quemoy and Matsu, the Eisenhower administration seriously considered dropping nuclear weapons on the mainland. At no other time in the Cold War did the United States come so close to launching a preventive war. Had the Chinese actually launched invasions of the islands, it is probable that the United States would have done so. In a speech on March 20, Dulles referred to the Chinese in terms usually reserved for use against nations at war. The Secretary said the Chinese were “an acute and imminent threat, ... dizzy with success.” He compared their “aggressive fanaticism” with Hitler’s and said they were “more dangerous and provocative of war” than Hitler. To stop them, he threatened to use “new and powerful weapons of precision, which can utterly destroy military targets without endangering unrelated civilian centers,” which meant tactical nuclear bombs. Eisenhower backed him up.

On March 25, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral R. B. Carney, briefed correspondents at a private dinner. He said the President was considering acting militarily on an all-out basis “to destroy Red China’s military potential and thus end its expansionist tendencies.” Dulles told the President that before the problem was solved, “I believe there is at least an even chance that the United States will have to go to war.” Dulles thought that small atomic air bursts, with minimal civilian casualties, would do the job quickly, and “the revulsion might not be long-lived.”

Eisenhower, however, began to doubt that the operation could be limited in time or scope, and he rejected preventive war. He pointed out to reporters that even if successful, such a war would leave China utterly devastated, full of human misery on an unprecedented scale. What, he demanded to know, “would the civilized world do about that?” At a press conference on April 28, he said he had a “sixth-sense” feeling that the outlook for peace had brightened, and he revealed that he had been in correspondence with his old wartime friend, Marshal G. K. Zhukov, one of the current Soviet rulers. Chinese pressure on Quemoy and Matsu lessened and the crisis receded. Brinksmanship had held the line.

In the process, however, it had frightened people around the globe, even members of the Eisenhower administration itself, with good reason. The nuclear weapons of 1955 were a thousand times more destructive than the atomic bombs of the forties—one American bomber carried more destructive power than all the explosives set off in all the world’s history put together—and everyone was alarmed. The small tactical atomic bombs Dulles was talking about were much larger than those dropped on Japan. Ever since the first American tests of the new fission bomb, Winston Churchill had been urging the United States and the Soviets to meet at a summit to try to resolve their differences. The Americans had consistently rejected his calls for a summit meeting, but by mid-1955, as the Russians began to improve both the size of their bombs and their delivery capabilities, and as the Formosa crisis made the United States face squarely the possibility of a nuclear exchange, Eisenhower and Dulles became more amenable.

Eisenhower’s willingness to go to the summit meant the end of any American dreams of winning the Cold War by military means. The Russians had come so far in nuclear development that Eisenhower himself warned the nation that nuclear war would destroy the world. There could be no “possibility of victory or defeat,” only different degrees of destruction. As James Reston reported in the New York Times, “Perhaps the most important single fact in world politics today is that Mr. Eisenhower has thrown the immense authority of the American Presidency against risking a military solution of the cold war.” Since Eisenhower would not lead the nation into a nuclear war, and since he did not have the troops to fight a limited war, nor could he get them from his allies, and since the Republicans were more determined to balance the budget and enjoy the fruits of capitalism than they were to support a war machine, the only alternative left was peace of some kind with the Russians.

Events broke rapidly in the late spring of 1955, helping to drive Eisenhower and the Russians to the summit. On May 9, West Germany became a formal member of NATO. On May 14, the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations signed the Warsaw Pact, the Communist military counter to NATO. The next day Russia and America finally solved one of the long-standing problems of World War II by signing the Austrian State Treaty, which gave Austria independence, forbade its union with Germany, and made it a permanent neutral. Both sides had been responsible for various delays. The Russians signed because they wanted to ease tensions and advance to the summit, whereas the Americans accepted it as a reasonable solution for the Austrian problem. Dulles was unhappy. As Eisenhower later recalled, “Well, suddenly the thing was signed one day and [Dulles] came in and he grinned rather ruefully and he said, ‘Well, I think we’ve had it.’”

What Dulles feared was misinterpretation. The fear was justified, for columnists and pundits began to advocate a similar solution for Germany. Actually, far from being a step toward German unity and neutrality, the Austrian treaty was a step toward making German division permanent. Russia and America in effect agreed that neither of the Germanys would get Austria.

This in turn illustrated one of the most important results of World War II, the division of Hitler’s Reich into three parts. A united Germany, whether Nazi, Communist, or capitalist, is always a threat to peace—or so the Russians and Americans decided. Both retained a formal commitment to the reunification of Germany, but neither wanted it.

On May 19, 1955, in an air show, the Soviets displayed impressive quantities of their latest long-range bombers. A week later the new top Russian leaders, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, flew to Yugoslavia, where they apologized for Stalin’s treatment of Tito and begged Tito’s forgiveness. The Soviets were also initiating an economic assistance program for selected Third World countries. Clearly, Russia had emerged from the confusion that followed Stalin’s death and was on the offensive.

Some ground rules for the Cold War, of spirit if not of substance, were needed. America’s NATO allies were adamant about this need, insistently so after NATO war games in June of 1955 showed that if conflict started in Europe (and if the war game scenario was accurate), 171 atomic bombs would be dropped on West Europe. For the United States to continue to take a stance of unrestrained hostility toward Russia was intolerable. This deeply felt sentiment in Europe plus Eisenhower’s personal dedication to peace were the main factors in making the 1955 summit meeting at Geneva possible.

The Geneva meeting, the first summit since Potsdam ten years earlier, was not the result of any political settlement. Neither side was willing to back down from previous positions. Dulles made this clear when he drew up the American demands on Germany. His first goal was unification “under conditions which will neither ‘neutralize’ nor ‘demilitarize’ united Germany, nor subtract it from NATO.” There was not the slightest chance that the Russians would accept such a proposal. Neither would they ever agree to the only new American offer, Eisenhower’s call for an “open skies” agreement, for to them that was only another heavy-handed American attempt to spy on Russia.11 Bulganin, who fronted for Khrushchev at Geneva, was no more ready to deal than were the Americans. His position on Germany was to let things stand as they were.

On July 18, 1955, the summit meeting began. It had been called in response to the arms race, and it was no surprise that there was no progress toward political settlements. What Dulles had feared most, however, did happen—there emerged a “spirit of Geneva.” Before the meeting, Dulles had warned Eisenhower to maintain “an austere countenance” when being photographed with Bulganin. He pointed out that any pictures taken of the two leaders smiling “would be distributed throughout the Soviet satellite countries,” signifying “that all hope of liberation was lost and that resistance to Communist rule was henceforth hopeless.” But the pictures were taken and Eisenhower could not restrain his famous grin, and the photographs were distributed.

Dulles had been unable to prevent this symbolic recognition of the failure of Republican promises for liberation of Communist satellites. Geneva did not mean the end of the Cold War but it did put it on a different basis. The West had admitted that a thermonuclear stalemate had developed, and that the status quo in Europe and China (where tensions quickly eased) had to be substantially accepted.

Dulles was bitter but helpless. He was especially infuriated because the battleground now shifted to the areas of economic and political influence in the Third World, a battleground on which Russia had great advantages. Dulles warned the NATO foreign ministers in December 1955 that the Soviets would thereafter employ “indirect” threats “primarily developed in relation to the Near and Middle East and South Asia.” To fight back, Dulles needed two things—money and an American willingness to accept radicalism in the emerging nations. He had neither. Republicans who resented giving money to West Europe through the Marshall Plan were hardly likely to approve significant sums for nonwhite revolutionaries.

Beyond diplomatic pressure and threats of all-out war or nuclear holocaust, the United States during the Eisenhower administration developed another method of achieving its foreign policy objectives, especially in the Third World. As noted earlier, the CIA got its start under Truman, but it really began to operate on a grand scale after 1953, when Allen Dulles, younger brother of the Secretary of State, became the director of Central Intelligence. Allen Dulles, an OSS agent during the war, worked behind the scenes on covert operations to accomplish the same objectives his brother worked on in public—primarily the containment of Communism. An idealist himself, Allen Dulles attracted other idealists into the CIA. According to the Church Committee of the Senate, which in 1976 undertook a thorough investigation of the CIA, “during the 1950s the CIA attracted some of the most able lawyers, academicians, and young, committed activists in the country.” The CIA was, indeed, thought to be a “liberal institution ... that fostered free and independent thinking.” To those who joined the CIA it was the “good way” to fight Communism, as opposed to Senator McCarthy’s “bad way.”

The fifties were the glory years for the CIA. Few questions were asked of it. Congressional watchdog committees specifically told Allen Dulles they did not want to know about clandestine operations. The President and the public took it for granted that the only way to fight the Russians and their KGB (secret police) was to use dirty tricks about which the less that was known, the better. No questions were asked about cost, either, for who could put a value on advance information that, for example, the Russians were massing in East Germany for a strike across the Elbe River? That generation of American leaders had been through Pearl Harbor and was determined never again to be surprised. Consequently, West Berlin was crawling with CIA agents, who had spies located throughout East Europe, reporting on the movements and activities of the Red Army. The agents, however, could not pull off major covert operations behind the iron curtain, such as toppling the government of Poland or East Germany, because the secret police of the satellite governments were too well organized and too active.

In the Third World, however, the application of a little force or a little money could have dramatic results. Allen Dulles’s first triumph came in 1953 in Iran. Premier Mohammed Mossadegh had, in the view of the Dulles brothers, drawn too close to the Tudeh, Iran’s Communist party, and would have to be overthrown before he made a deal with the Russians. Mossadegh had already nationalized Iran’s oil fields, to the consternation of the British, who previously had enjoyed a monopoly on Iranian oil production. Mossadegh was also thought to be a threat to Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi’s retention of his throne.

Allen Dulles decided to save Iran by sending his best agent, Kim Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson), to Teheran, along with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the U.S. Army during the Gulf War of 1991), who had organized the Shah’s secret police after World War II. (Organizing and equipping the police force and army of small nations was another method of control often used by the United States in the Cold War.) Roosevelt and Schwarzkopf, spending money as if they did not have to account for it—as they did not—organized demonstrations in the streets of Teheran that overthrew Mossadegh, who went to jail, and brought the young Shah back from exile. The new Premier then divided up Iranian oil production to suit the West: The British kept 40 percent; American oil companies got 40 percent; the French got 6 percent; and the Dutch 14 percent. It would be years before the Iranians tried again to take control of their own resources, and then it would be the Shah that the CIA saved who would do the taking. Meanwhile, however, the Communist tide had been stopped.

In the New World, too, the CIA scored a victory. In 1951, Jacob Arbenz Guzman had become President of Guatemala. He worked closely with the Communist Party. Arbenz carried out some land reforms and expropriated 225,000 acres of the United Fruit Company’s holdings. That was bad enough; worse was the threat that Communism would spread. Allen Dulles proposed to drive Arbenz from office. After listening to the pros and cons, Eisenhower gave him permission to go ahead. CIA agents in Guatemala selected Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to lead a coup. He set up his base and received his equipment in Honduras. Eisenhower would not commit the United States to any direct military support of the operation, but he did tell the Dulles brothers, “I’m prepared to take any steps [short of sending in troops] that are necessary to see that it succeeds.”

When the invasion bogged down, Eisenhower allowed Allen Dulles to send Castillo Armas a few old World War II bombers. These planes then carried out a bombing mission over Guatemala City. Arbenz lost his nerve, resigned, fled, and Guatemala was “saved.” To the CIA’s critics, it had been saved for United Fruit; to its defenders, the CIA had acted decisively to prevent Communism from getting a foothold in the New World.

Driving Latin American Communists from power was much easier than driving the Russians out of East Europe. Secretary of State Dulles had promised liberation and had failed. Neither brinksmanship nor moral persuasion had freed a single slave or prevented North Vietnam from going Communist.

On Christmas Day 1955 the White House sent its usual message to the peoples of Eastern Europe “to recognize the trials under which you are suffering” and to “share your faith that right in the end will bring you again among the free nations of the world.” When Khrushchev complained that this “crude interference” was not in accord with the spirit of Geneva, the White House pointed out that the goal of liberation was permanent. The statement said, “The peaceful liberation of the captive peoples is, and, until success is achieved, will continue to be a major goal of United States foreign policy.”

A presidential election year had just begun. As in 1952, captive nations’ pronouncements made good campaign material. Unfortunately, some of the captive people did not know how to distinguish between campaign bombast and actual policy. They were about to demand payment on American liberation promises.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!