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John Lewis Gaddis on: Eisenhower's Economics and the Bomb
John Gaddis Q: One other attractive aspect to Eisenhower of this "New Look" policy is an economic one. He thinks that the Democrat - the Truman - defense policy is way too expensive, and he sees the "New Look" as a way to bring the defense spending down to a more manageable, sustainable level. Tell me about Eisenhower's ideas with regard to the health of the economy and national security.

JLG: Well, I think if you were to get at the heart of Eisenhower's strategy, it is the strategy of how you make containment work for the long haul. And his criticism of the Truman Administration's strategy, particularly NSC-68, was that it was going to bankrupt the country. And Eisenhower wasn't sure which was worse: the bankruptcy of the country or a victory for Communism. And in a way, the bankruptcy of the country would be a victory indirectly for Communism, in Eisenhower's thinking. So what he's looking for is a way to get off this crash-spending basis, to find a way to sustain containment over the long haul at bearable cost, so that you don't wreck the American economy in the process. And really, this is what's at the heart of the "New Look", and nuclear weapons are only one component of it.

Q: So you have Eisenhower coming into office and pretty much saying, "Well, the next war, if there is another worldwide conflict, it's inevitably going to go nuclear." He makes statements along the line that, "Well, nuclear ammunition is essential like any other ordnance." But a couple of years into his presidency, these H-bombs really seem to have an impact on his thinking.

JLG: Well, Eisenhower is an extraordinarily complex individual, and historians have not yet completely fathomed his depths, it seems to me. Eisenhower was perfectly capable of saying on one day in the National Security Council that if war came with the Soviet Union, we should immediately simply bomb the Kremlin, go to the head of the snake, cut it off. On the very next day, in the National Security Council, he'd talk about the possibility and in fact the need to abolish nuclear weapons altogether. So Eisenhower's operating at several different levels here, and he puzzled his own aides; he puzzled the adversary, no doubt; he puzzled his own advisers, and he certainly has puzzled historians as well.

My own guess on this, my own estimate is that Eisenhower never wanted to use nuclear weapons and never thought that a war could be fought and won with nuclear weapons. But at the same time, he was painfully aware of the danger of building up conventional weapons, in terms of the economic burden that would cause, but also the danger that when you do build up conventional weapons, you're tempted to find places to use them, as the Kennedy Administration later did in Vietnam. I think Eisenhower is grasping for a way to deter all war, and I think that the way he's trying to do it is to make the point that any war would become total war. That's his declaratory policy. And the idea is to make that prospect so frightening that there will be no war at all. I think this is really what was going on in his mind. I have no way to prove this, but after years of thinking about this, this is what I think the evidence points toward.

Q: And he succeeded.

JLG: He succeeded, up to a point. He succeeded in the sense that there were no wars that broke out on his watch, of any significance. But at the same time, it's an exceedingly high risk strategy. And particularly it's high risk when you consider what I think is the greatest failure of the Eisenhower Administration with respect to nuclear weapons, which is the "sorcerer's apprentice" syndrome, you might say, with regard to the production of nuclear weapons. He did not stop the process of building H-bombs. By the time the Eisenhower Administration left office, we had thousands of these things. And the war plans, the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP), provided for using all of them at once. Now, this could not be more at odds with Eisenhower's own thinking about the ecological consequences of nuclear weapons. And how Eisenhower could sit there and think in those very progressive terms, think in terms that sound very good even today, as we contemplate these kinds of ecological sensitivities, how he could sit there and do that while at the same time allowing SAC [Strategic Air Command] and General LeMay to be piling up thousands up weapons and devising war plans that would involve the use of these weapons simultaneously, is very difficult to fathom. And I think it's the single greatest failing of the Eisenhower Administration. And I think it raises real questions about how risky this strategy was. Eisenhower was very lucky that we didn't have something break out on his watch, because he might not have been able to control what then happened, if we had had to deploy forces.

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