The New Yorker / View Original
4 Sep 2013
EISENHOWER 1954, OBAMA 2013
In April, 1954, President Eisenhower was being pressured to take military action in Vietnam, where the French were losing a symbolically important battle at Dien Bien Phu and were about to be driven out of what was then their colony. At a press conference that month, Eisenhower acknowledged the “falling domino” principle—the idea that if one land were to fall to Communism others would follow. John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, declared that a Communist political system imposed on Southeast Asia by means of the Marxist and nationalist guerrilla forces fighting the French “would be a grave threat to the whole free community,” and Vice-President Richard Nixon, in a talk to newspaper editors that April, dropped hints about dispatching American troops. Eisenhower never used a phrase like “red line,” as President Obama did when he warned the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons would be punished, but he did say that the defense of the Southeast Asia region was of “transcendent importance.” He sounded determined to act.
Yet Eisenhower, much like Obama, sometimes appeared to be acting in ways that ran counter to his words. Historic parallels are risky, but the conflict in Korea had ended the previous summer, with an armistice that gave victory to no one. That divisive war, fought at a cost of nearly thirty thousand American lives and more than eighty thousand wounded, left Ike and most Americans with no appetite for a return engagement. The divisive Iraq war and its murderous aftermath still shadow every mention of involvement in the Middle East. When Eisenhower in 1954 said that his Administration would need to consult legislators, he was pretty sure that the 83rd Congress had no wish to endorse intervention, and it is not unreasonable to think that Obama, despite his strong words and his mini-summit with Senator John McCain, suspects that the 113th Congress may be no more inclined. Eisenhower stressed the importance of working with American allies, particularly Great Britain, and he sent a cable to Prime Minister Winston Churchill saying that a “new, ad hoc grouping or coalition of nations” was needed to help the French: “We face the hard situation of contemplating a disaster brought on by French weakness and the necessity of dealing with it before it develops.”
Eisenhower supposed—and was soon informed by Admiral Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—that Churchill had no desire to help the French, possibly because of a fear, as Ike’s press secretary, James Hagerty, noted in his diary, “that if they move in Indochina the Chinese Reds will move against Hong Kong and could take it easily.” Eisenhower, in any case, did not have much respect for the French: “They are very volatile. They think they are a great power one day and they feel sorry for themselves the next day.”
Like those in the current White House, Ike and his advisers discussed at length what form intervention might take, and to what degree it should be carried out. The hardest line came from Admiral Radford, about whom the Times’s C. L. Sulzberger wrote, “He scares the hell out of me,” and who favored using three tactical atomic weapons to effectively end the fighting at Dien Bien Phu. (This plan was called Operation Vulture.) Dulles and Nixon favored non-nuclear air strikes, sort of a “shot across the bow,” to borrow Obama’s language, to, at the very least, let the Communists know that Vietnam wasn’t going to be easy pickings. Nixon was troubled by Eisenhower’s ambivalence and, sounding not unlike the recent McCain, wrote in his diary that “it was quite apparent that the President had backed down considerably from the strong position he had taken”:
He seemed resigned to doing nothing at all unless we could get the allies and the country to go along with whatever was suggested and he did not seem inclined to put much pressure on to get them to come along.
All of this succeeded in keeping the United States out of the French colonial war, though Eisenhower eventually favored giving financial support and military advice to South Vietnam, a relatively small commitment that, under three successors—Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—turned into a seemingly unending national tragedy.
Eisenhower’s calculated indecisiveness—what looked like spinelessness to those who wanted unequivocal action—in fact offers an excellent precedent for Obama. Like any President, Obama must know that a military strike against another country, whether a major attack or a shot across the bow—whether undertaken by one nation or by a coalition—is an act of war, just as if another country had fired on Washington. Ike’s hesitations went to the very heart of any military engagement. As Hagerty recorded in his diary, “The President said that if we were to put one combat soldier into Indochina, then our entire prestige would be at stake, not only in that area but throughout the world.”
Eisenhower understood, as Obama surely does, how America’s role can change indelibly in a moment: that sending a single air strike, or soldier or, as happened with later Administrations, thousands of soldiers, binds us to the outcome. The Eisenhower-era military did not have the capacity to launch a cruise missile from a Navy ship, but Eisenhower, a retired five-star general who could brush off political bullying, understood the consequences and purposes of war, the fragility of national prestige, and that, in the midst of emotions that can lead to ill-considered actions, indecisiveness may sometimes be the best first response.