As the dust settled after the second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as competing superpowers. The former wartime allies found themselves locked in a struggle that came to be known as the Cold War. Eisenhower saw the Cold War in stark moral terms -- "This is a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, Godliness against atheism." But the President refused to undertake an effort to "roll back" Soviet gains in the years after WWII. Early in his administration he embraced a policy of containment as the cornerstone of his administration's Soviet policy.
Eisenhower rejected the notion of a "fortress America" isolated from the rest of the world, safe behind its nuclear shield. He believed that active U.S. engagement in world affairs was the best means of presenting the promise of democracy to nations susceptible to the encroachment of Soviet-sponsored communism. Additionally, Eisenhower maintained that dialogue between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was crucial to the security of the entire globe, even if, in the process, each side was adding to its pile of nuclear weapons.
The death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, two months into the Eisenhower presidency, gave rise to hopes of a more flexible, accommodating Soviet leadership. In 1953, Ike delivered a speech underscoring the potential human cost of the Cold War to both sides. Hoping to strike a more conciliatory tone with Georgi Malenkov, Stalin's successor, Eisenhower suggested the Soviets cease their brazen expansion of territory and influence in exchange for American cooperation and goodwill. The Soviets responded coolly to the speech, especially to the U.S.'s insistence on free elections for German unification, self-determination for Eastern Europe, and a Korean armistice. The two sides would not meet face-to-face until the Geneva summit of 1955.
At the summit, Eisenhower asserted, "I came to Geneva because I believe mankind longs for freedom from war and the rumors of war. I came here because my lasting faith in the decent instincts and good sense of the people who populate this world of ours." In this spirit of good will, Eisenhower presented the Soviets with his Open Skies proposal. In it he proposed that each side provide full descriptions of all their military facilities and allow for aerial inspections to insure the information was correct. The Soviets rejected the proposal. Eisenhower was disappointed, but not surprised. In truth, the Open Skies proposal would have benefited the U.S. much more so than the Soviets -- the Russians already knew the location of most American strategic defense facilities, it was the Americans who stood to gain new information.
On the heels of the unproductive Geneva summit, came a 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary that strained U.S.-Soviet relations even further. In the face of such Soviet aggression, Democrats in Congress were insisting that the Eisenhower administration had allowed a "missile gap" to develop. Their accusations became more piercing in October 1957 when the Soviets launched a space satellite called Sputnik. Panicked Americans feared that a rocket that could deliver a satellite into space could as easily deliver a nuclear bomb.
Eisenhower took a measured approach to the launching of Sputnik. He refused to be swept up in the rush to increase weapons production and defense spending. His goal, he made clear, was to end what he considered a wasteful arms race, not accelerate it. To that end, Eisenhower instructed U.S. negotiators to continue working with their Soviet counterparts on an agreement to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. In 1959 Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to a September meeting in the United States to further discussions regarding a test ban and arms reductions.
Eisenhower held out great hopes for Khrushchev's U.S. visit. As he began to look toward his final year in the White House he knew time was running out on his opportunity to end the Cold War. Khrushchev's visit yielded promising results as the two sides agreed to meet again in May 1960 in Paris, a city that held fond memories for Eisenhower. But the promise of Paris would be buried in the wreckage of a downed spy plane called the U2.
Since 1956, Eisenhower had authorized the U2, an ultra-light, high-flying spy plane, to conduct secret reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Ironically, Ike approved of the flights in order to obtain information that would squelch rumors of Soviet military superiority. The data gathered by the U2 might also help silence Eisenhower's critics, who were claiming that his administration had compromised U.S. security. Because the Soviets lacked the interceptor aircraft and missiles to shoot down the U2, the U.S. could always deny its existence even when it was spotted on Soviet radar. Eisenhower was never comfortable with the provocative nature of the U2 missions. In fact he admitted that he would consider a similar violation of U.S. airspace by the Soviets an act of war.
As the Paris summit approached, the cautious Eisenhower allowed one last flight -- the longest and most daring to date. On May 1, 1960, pilot Frances Gary Powers left Pakistan and started his overflight across the Soviet Union.
Hours later, Eisenhower was informed that the plane was missing. His worst fears were coming true.
A belligerent Khrushchev announced to the world that the Soviets had shot down a "bandit" U.S. spy plane. He then went on to charge the U.S. with willfully sabotaging the upcoming Paris summit. Since no proof of pilot or plane was presented by Khrushchev, Eisenhower denied the charges, saying only that a U.S. weather plane may have accidentally strayed into Soviet air space. Days later Eisenhower was stunned to learn that the Soviets not only had the downed U2, but that they had captured the pilot. Eisenhower's denials had been revealed to be duplicitous.
Khrushchev used the downing of the U2 to present the Soviet Union as the wronged party in a game of superpower espionage. He attended the Paris summit only long enough to storm out when Ike would not apologize for the incident. No treaty was signed. Eisenhower left Paris sadly convinced that U.S.-Soviet relations had been dealt a serious setback.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?