Ike's Bluff

The High Stakes Poker Player

Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World; Evan Thomas

Book Review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World book cover

Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida in the 1960s and early 1970s meant that I had an appreciation of the realities of the Cold War. My house was only ten minutes from the front entrance to Jacksonville Naval Air Station, and we lived about a 30 minute drive from two other major Naval installations—Mayport Naval Base, on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the St Johns River, and Cecil Field Naval Air Station, inland and due west of the city. North of us, near the industrial port areas, were U.S. Navy fueling stations and sprawling fuel depots. And aside from the purely military aspects, there was more. In the heart of the downtown area loomed (just as it does now) a massive high rise building containing the operations and logistics heart of the one of the nation’s biggest railroad conglomerates, now CSX, but back then known as Atlantic Coastline/Seaboard System Railroad. Inside that building were immense control panels and electronic displays indicating where every boxcar, every diesel engine and every tanker car on the east coast could be found at any exact instant, along with vast mainframe computers designed to help manage that data.

We just knew our town was a target for Soviet missiles, large or small.

To the south, about an eight to nine hour drive away, sat Key West, and from there—only ninety miles away—was Cuba.

Indeed it had been Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. and the sudden inclusion of Russian missiles on the island which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. During that white-knuckle crisis, President John F. Kennedy and those close to him worked around the clock to avoid an escalation of tensions, and for many Americans, Kennedy became the epitome of sure-footed, clear-thinking and resolute strength.

But in the post war, post-Truman period of the 1950s—an era most often characterized by its grey tranquility and idyllic calm—the world experienced a dangerous ramping-up of the military capabilities and destructive powers of the world’s leading political players, especially the two superpowers bent on the preservation of the competing ideologies of communism and democratic capitalism. The years of President Dwight Eisenhower (1953 to 1961) saw frequent international tension, with each crisis increasing the chances of miscalculation or overreaction, and bringing with it, the potential for total destruction.

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, by historian and journalist Evan Thomas (author of The War Lovers and The Very Best Men), takes a closer look at that dangerous decade, and examines Ike’s largely underrated role as the wise, patient strategic thinker able to tamp down the brush fires and stress factors—any one of which might have lead humanity to nuclear war.

Ike, the war hero who had successfully managed the great coalition of Allied forces in World War II, saw clearly the inherent danger that small conflicts posed—that of rapid escalation followed by the inescapable mandate to use nuclear weapons. Too often, these scenarios inevitably spun back toward the publicly-stated strategic canon of massive retaliation, the high stakes poker hand—in part bluff, in part cold reality—that the United States intended to strike back against certain forms of Soviet aggression with maximum force, thus discouraging unilateral military moves by the bosses in the Kremlin. But Ike was uncomfortable with such a dark balance, and dreaded the notion of a world destroyed as a result of such tension and escalation.  Unlike his predecessors in The White House, Eisenhower had the power to destroy humanity--in minutes.

Eisenhower, therefore, sought to calmly and icily navigate the dangerous waters of that decade by shrewdly managing his partners and his enemies alike, despite the fact the 1950s presented multiple challenges: war and continued tensions on the Korean peninsula, high stakes rhetoric between mainland China and Taiwan and the dangerous showdowns over Matsu and Quemoy, and the simultaneous stresses of the Hungarian uprising and the Suez Crisis, both of which developed on the eve of the 1956 presidential elections, and both of which brought about intervention—large or small—by the Soviet Union.  Thomas also illustrates Ike's delicate caution in the wake of the shooting down of a U2 plane by the Soviet Union.

Thomas illuminates each of these incidents and takes us into Eisenhower’s thought processes as he navigates the troubles. Deftly managing his partners among the British and the French, Ike diffused the Suez crisis and avoided directed U.S. intervention in what was to become one of many violent encounters among the Middle Eastern states. And despite pleas for help from the Hungarian resistance (and goading from the CIA), Ike realized that there was little that the U.S. could do to effectively halt the Soviet aggression inside an eastern bloc nation. Thomas’s book shows us an Eisenhower, despite the misgivings of some liberals and the ire of some conservatives, who picked his battles with great care.

Ike understood that he was often underestimated by his foes—both domestic and foreign. Deemed at the start of his first term as a genial, likeable lightweight (think of how Ronald Reagan was viewed by many in the press in 1980), Eisenhower nevertheless showed patient skill—especially when it came to avoiding the sort of international confrontations which might have triggered a heavy military response from U.S. partners, or, more ominously, from the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower quickly learned how to engage in—and win at—the world’s most dangerous round of poker, engaging in a policy which included a stated willingness to use nuclear weapons while simultaneously maneuvering in quiet to assure that those very weapons might never be deployed.  The President also overcame a series of serious health setbacks, including a stroke and stomach surgery, at the very height of some of the world's most volatile moments of tension.

Thomas’s book is approachable and reads quickly, and he sheds light on historical vignettes which bear an eerie resemblance to the contemporary stress points that recent Presidents have contended with each morning during foreign policy briefings—a belligerent and nuclear armed North Korea, an equally provocative and heavily armed Iran, military escalations in Mali and other African nations, ever-present tensions along the “line of control” separating the heavy weapons and troops of Pakistan and India, and radical Islamic jihadist movements in dozens of countries where on-the-ground violence could easily escalate into international tension—not to mention the ever-present antipathies between Israel, the Palestinians, and their immediate neighbors.

Ike’s Bluff is a must-read for anyone with a love of contemporary history, and anyone—for that matter—who appreciates the relevance of Eisenhower’s skill as a consummate poker player at a profoundly dangerous international card table.  (for more information go to evanthomasbooks.com)