LOTS OF good history has appeared in recent years about both careers of Dwight David Eisenhower, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated a week from today. It has seemed to me, though, that historians too often have been dependent on a dry record that lacks the feel of the times, and perhaps this is an occasion for some personal recollections.
Above all, it has seemed to me that Ike, as everybody called him, deserves much more credit than he received in his lifetime (he died in 1969) for breaking the mold of the Cold War. Recent histories have bolstered his standing among presidents but not enough on this vital point.
Given today's startlingly different relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, you must remember the Cold War at its frozen worst. When Eisenhower came to the White House in 1953, America was fighting a hot war in Korea. Most Americans, including those running the government, were convinced that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had ordered his North Korean puppets to initiate the conflict and then had China send in troops when the United States and its United Nations allies were about to win. Some even suspected this was only a diversion to precede a Soviet attack on Western Europe.
In addition, the last years of the outgoing Truman administration were a miasma of supposed traitors among us at home and menacing threats from Moscow. Communism was on the march; democracy on the defensive.
In short, America was suffering from national paranoia. McCarthyism, named after the Republican senator from Wisconsin, amounted to a national witchhunt. The GOP campaigned against the Democrats on the issues of Korea, communism and corruption; Ike was swept into office with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The crucial event of the new presidency was the death of Stalin, only 45 days after Ike's inauguration. Eisenhower would spend the rest of his eight years in office trying to figure out and deal with Stalin's successors, above all Nikita Khrushchev, the wily peasant who clawed his way to the top of the Kremlin power ladder.
Eisenhower the general, like his wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had hoped that the tenuous Soviet-American alliance during World War II could lead to peacetime cooperation rather than back to pre-war confrontation. It was not to be. Visiting Moscow at war's end Ike found ideological discussions akin, he said, to arguing with someone who had to be convinced that "the sun is hot and the earth is round." It would be no surprise, then, that soon after he became president Eisenhower was saying such things as "the issue -- freedom versus communism -- is a life and death matter. To my mind it is the struggle of the ages."
That was the official rhetoric of his administration, not much different at the beginning from Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" talk. Ike's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, declared that the "ability to get to the verge without getting into 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."
In truth, Eisenhower, prodded by Dulles and some hotheads in the Pentagon, did get to the brink of nuclear war -- and more than once -- with Communist China, that presumed Kremlin puppet. But Ike's visceral reaction in the end was to turn down every suggestion for war and the use of nukes. Still, by threatening their use he helped convince Stalin's successors to liquidate the Korean conflict. These events involving China and nuclear weapons have yet to have the scholarly research they deserve.
Of course, it takes two to tango in Soviet-American relations. If sea changes had begun to occur in the Kremlin after Stalin's death, many of them were well hidden by the communist compulsion for secrecy. It was this secrecy, obscuring Soviet weaponry, actions and motivations, that led Americans to overrate both the military and economic strengths of the U.S.S.R. To pierce that secrecy, the U.S. invented the U-2 to photograph Soviet military installations.
For his own purposes, Khrushchev junked a lot of Communist dogma, such as the inevitability of war with the capitalist world (meaning the United States). He tried to trim his military establishment; he tried to improve his economy. Most startlingly, in a "secret speech" at the 20th Party Congress, he denounced Stalin's crimes and his "cult of personality."
That 1956 speech, which soon leaked out to the West, came as a mighty shock to the bulk of Soviet citizens, indeed much more so than we then realized. Many of the current crop of Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have said that Khrushchev's speech shattered their youthful ideological conformity, leading many years later to what Gorbachev would call the "new thinking." In fact, the speech in many ways was the precursor to the death of communist ideology itself.
Presidents, though, have to live with the facts of international life; and the changes in the Kremlin, then only dimly perceived, were highly controversial in Washington. Many important people, Dulles among them, were more or less convinced it was all some sort of "commie trick" to lull America, perhaps while the Soviets were preparing to hit us with what we most feared, a "nuclear Pearl Harbor." At moments of high tension, lots of Americans weren't even sure they'd survive the night.
In the wake of Stalin's death, it had been Winston Churchill who first called for a meeting at "the summit" with the new Kremlin leaders. Dulles discouraged Churchill as well as Ike. It took a couple of years for the Kremlin power struggle to be settled, with Khrushchev destined the eventual winner. And because Khrushchev wanted his nation to be recognized as an equal to America, and because of his intense curiosity about this country and its leaders, he agreed to pay Eisenhower's publicly stated price: to sign the treaty ending the division of Austria and to withdraw Soviet forces, which controlled about a third of that nation. A summit became inevitable.
That initial East-West summit took place in Geneva in July 1955. Just prior to the meeting, I spent a couple of weeks in the Soviet Union, my first of four visits at 10-year intervals. I found the public fear of war immense and the impulse for Soviet-American peace overwhelming. In Washington, meanwhile, Ike was ready, even anxious, to meet the two-man Kremlin leadership: Nikolai Bulganin, the front man, and Khrushchev, the party boss and by now the real power. Eisenhower told the press that his "sixth sense" told him that world tensions were abating. He also said "there is a change going on" and "there is something different in the world."
All this centered around nuclear weaponry. The year before the summit I had heard him say off-the-cuff: "Since the advent of nuclear weapons, it seems clear that there is no longer any alternative to peace, if there is to be a happy and well world." But Ike also acknowledged, at another time, that while it was his role to talk of America's "aspirations," it was Dulles's task to deal with the "realities." Not a bad description, incidentally, for the division of labor between a president and his secretary of state.
Herblock caught the differing Ike-Dulles views on the 1955 summit with a cartoon. A sunny, shortsleeved Ike was telling the Kremlin on the phone that "Yes, we'll be there, rain and shine" while a sour-faced Dulles is standing by, outfitted in layers of Cold War clothing and clutching a hot water bag.
So widespread was U.S. distrust of the Soviet Union that Ike himself had to promise publicly that he wouldn't give away the store. Fortunately for Eisenhower, the Democrats had taken control of Congress in the 1954 mid-term election. The new Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Walter George of Georgia, a true Senate baron, strongly urged Ike to talk with the enemy. GOP right-wingers, especially in the Senate, remained extremely negative.
The Geneva summit proved to be drama of the highest order. Although British and French leaders also were present, it was the Soviet-American encounter on which everybody focused. It was at this meeting that Ike threw a diplomatic thunderbolt by proposing mutual aerial inspection -- the "open skies" plan. The idea was to prevent surprise attack by either side; for Americans, it was meant to prevent that "nuclear Pearl Harbor."
Eisenhower's startling proposal, which had not leaked out, initially came from Gen. James Doolittle, hero of World War II's "30 seconds over Tokyo" air raid, according to Harold Stassen. Stassen then was Ike's disarmament aide -- "secretary for peace" to his many detractors -- and a critical counter to Dulles in those years. (Stassen, who subsequently became a national joke by his repeated pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination, is now 83. He is the author of a new and useful book on Eisenhower; his mind remains sharp, his ego undiminished.)
"Open skies" was quickly rejected by Khrushchev as a form of espionage. But it was a proposal so fraught with hope for a war-weary world that it propelled both sides forward in the search for arms control agreements. Historically, I consider it the ancestor of today's many arms control and reduction measures.
Thus it seems to me that Ike at Geneva broke the mold of the Cold War. At the time, I wrote some such hopeful words, suggesting that there had been a tacit Soviet-American agreement that nuclear war had now become unthinkable. But when I later asked Dulles if that were so, he replied rather acidly, "If there was any such understanding, it was extremely tacit." Ike, however, said after Geneva that "the prospects of a lasting peace" were "brighter" and "the dangers of the overwhelming tragedy of modern war are less." I think he was right although, alas, nothing concrete came out of Geneva or from subsequent East-West meetings during Ike's presidency. It would take years to peel back all those mutual suspicions.
The Eisenhower administration was supposed to end with his visit to the Soviet Union, but that was rudely cancelled, and so was the 1960 four-power Paris summit, after the Russians finally shot down a U-2 flying high over their territory. Ike had given in, against his better judgment, to a "just one more" flight plea. Still, it was at Paris that Khrushchev told Ike and the others at their only meeting that he was objecting to airplanes, not satellites, overhead taking photographs. A new age then began.
It would be nearly three decades more until the collapse of communism and the Cold War's end. Today the world is full of many other crises, in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. But looking back to those so-often grim years I think Americans owe much to the soldier-president and his determination to avoid nuclear war and find paths to meaningful peace. Indeed, his 100th birthday will be a day worthy of "Remembering Ike." And fondly.
Chalmers Roberts was a Washington Post reporter in 1933-4 and again from 1949-1971.