William I. Hitchcock, The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (2018)[held at the Brighton Branch Memorial Library]; Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, (1960) [held at the Central Branch of the Rochester Public Library]; Martin Blumenson, Eisenhower, Ballantine’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century, war leader, book No9, (1972) [David Kramer’s collection]
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park is a unique historical repository with plaques chronicling ancient epochs — the first is 300 B.C. — through 1973.
In Cambodia and Highland Park., the plaques provide a visual platform for Dr. Bruce Kay’s insights, sent from Cambodia, into how its people see their history.
You’re fired!, the story of General Douglas MacArthur, piqued my interest in General Dwight Eisenhower.
Even sports are represented: Sports and the 60’s in Highland Park.
From a historiographical perspective, the plaques present a vision of history: not a linear trajectory but a series of curving movements. As the winding path ends close to where it begins, the course of history may be circular .
I sometimes wonder how the path (history) would be altered if single events were different. For example, a 1968 plaque tells that Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McClain won 30 games, the first to do so since Dizzy Dean in 1934. Had McClain won 29 games I doubt history would be much changed.
For my purposes, two plaques are pivotal.
Although disputed as mentioned in the Nagasaki plaque, the bombings probably shortened the war and saved lives. At the same time, had Little Boy and Big Boy not been dropped, the surrender of encircled Japan was inevitable. Nonetheless the appearance of nuclear weapons — used or not — irrevocably changed human history.
And, of course, no other plaques tell of nuclear bombings. Had one tactical weapon been used — perhaps in the 1958 stand off over Formosa between the United States and the People’s Republic of China — history would be drastically altered but still recognizable. Had the use of one tactical weapon led to the unleashing of strategic arsenals, the path in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would not exist.
My interest in the Eisenhower plaques took me to the Brighton and Rochester public libraries. I read and listened to William I. Hitchock’s carefully researched 2018 The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s. I reviewed Herman Kahn’s chilling On Thermonuclear War (1960). Kahn argued that nuclear wars are survivable if not winnable, and the United State should set nuclear policy on that assumption. I also dusted off Stephen Ambrose’s Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938 (1985, fourth revised version) from my undergraduate days. Described by Hitchcock as a “prominent (and usually obsequious)” Eisenhower biographer, Ambrose has the ability to distill a mass of information into clear summary declarations.Delving into the material with the plaques in mind, I went back in time to the generation before mine. The degree to which the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China defined the era — and with it the palpable threats of World War III and possibly nuclear armageddon — is striking.
As Hitchcock says in his chapter, “Scorpions in a Bottle,” Eisenhower’s entire presidency unfolded under the shadow of an intensifying arms race. Just three days before Eisenhower’s November 1952 election, the Atomic Energy Commission oversaw the test of the first hydrogen bomb, one 500 times more powerful than Little Boy at Hiroshima. In August 1953, the Soviet detonated its own 400-kiloton hydrogen bomb in the remote steppe of Kazakhstan.
Hitchcock grimly sums up the situation: “The world’s peoples faced the no longer fantastical prospect that the superpowers could, between them, end human life on Earth . . . By 1955, the superpowers had attained the ability to detonate hydrogen bombs of extraordinary power. Nuclear war would certainly mark the end of civilization.”
Looking at the plaques through the prism of nuclear armageddon is effecting. To be sure, much else happened during the Eisenhower presidency: race and Indochina. On race, we see Eisenhower’s tangible achievements on Civil Rights, such as in 1957 when he ordered federal troops to enforce desegregation in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, and his wariness, his hesitations, his blind spots. And, in the poignantly inscribed plaques, we see the seeds of Vietnam taking root. Yet, over all is the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
In assessing Eisenhower’s legacy through this perspective, Ambrose’s concise conclusion bears weight: “Eisenhower outstanding achievement was to avoid war.”
In 1954 when French-colonial Vietnam was falling to Ho Chi Minh, the US Air Force Chief of Staff wanted to drop three tactical nuclear weapons on the Viet Mihn around Dien Bien Phu. But Eisenhower said he would not use atomic bombs for the second time in a decade against Asians. In 1956 when Soviet tanks were sent into Budapest to suppress the Hungarian Uprising and topple the government of Imre Nagy, under no circumstances would Eisenhower risk World War III for East Europe.
In 1953, as negotiations to end the Korean War stalled, MacArthur urged Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese. In Hitchcock’s words, “Ike got lucky;” the Chinese and and North Koreans pushed forward for peace. Whether it was luck or wisdom, the armistice was signed.
Perhaps but for Ike, the Walk of Honor in the Vietnam Veteran Memorial of Greater Rochester would not exist.
Coming of age in the mid-70s to mid-80s, I reflected on my own experiences in a world that could include the end human life on Earth.
As a boy in the 70s, I had persistent nightmares about nuclear bomb attacks. When I awoke to police and fire lights and sirens, I thought it was an air raid. I read On the Beach, about the last days of civilization in Australia, and the Cold War thriller Fail Safe. In school we learned about nuclear winter and how humans would not survive an atomic apocalypse.
In college, worries about the arms race spiraling into nuclear apocalypse continued. For example, in October 1983, more than one million people filled the streets of West Germany to protest President Reagan’s deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles accelerating the Cold War nuclear arms race. In late October, six Brown anti-nuclear activists were charged with disorderly conduct in a case ultimately dismissed.
Also in October 1984, this intensifying fear of atomic war came into sharp focus when some Brown students brought about a referendum calling for the campus health center to stockpile ”suicide pills” for use in case of nuclear apocalypse. The referendum failed and the measure itself was largely symbolic; the sugar pills were not to contain real cyanide. Many called the referendum a juvenile political stunt. But the protesters were earnest in their motivation to heighten awareness that nuclear weapons always leave humankind perched on the edge of collective suicide.
And then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and in 1991 the Iron Curtain came down. The existential threat suddenly receded.
While my impressions of nuclear war were terrifying, I don’t think my generation felt them as viscerally as the preceding one. That generation had just lived through the destruction of the Second World War and could readily imagine a third one being even bloodier. That generation lived through duck-and-cover school drills and had to learn about nuclear fallout and the plague of radioactivity. Their families built bomb shelters.
Reading Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960) brought those impressions home. Widely read on both sides of the Iron Curtain—the book sold 30,000 copies in hardcover — Kahn’s controversial treatise pursued the thesis of the lack of credibility of a purely thermonuclear deterrent and how a country could “win” a nuclear war. Of the book, Hubert H. Humphrey said: “New thoughts, particularly those which contradict current assumptions, are always painful for the human mind to contemplate. On Thermonuclear War is filled with such thoughts.”
In the painful-to-contemplate polemic, I encountered disturbing charts, graphs and tables cataloging how much radiation would remain in the environment three months and 100 years after an attack, and what would be the genetic consequences, ranging from Decreased Fertility to Major Defects.
I read that deaths could reach 160 million. Table 3 asks the not-so-rhetorical question: Will the survivors envy the dead?
Recently, I re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 dark satire Dr. Strangelove. The film runs roughshod over abstract concepts like “the missile gap.” If Kahn implies that survivors may, in fact, not envy the dead, Strangelove says, emphatically, they will.
The plaques on the path display the accelerating arms race of the Cold War. In January 1954 when the United States launched the first nuclear powered submarine, an all out atomic exchange would have annihilated the Soviet Union, but the United States may have survived. By February 1960, when the nuclear powered U.S.S Triton voyaged around the globe, an all out exchange would have destroyed both nations several times over.
In between, 1954 and 1960 was Sputnik, the first first artificial Earth satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. Today, we might think of Sputnik as inaugurating the space race, culminating in Apollo landing on the moon. Then, the fear was that Sputnik was ushering in a new era where the arms race reached outer space. And, just this year, the United States Space Force formally declared its initial operational capability.
IKE AT WAR
ELECTION OF 1952
The election of 1952 was more contentious than I realized. Saying the campaign was not Eisenhower’s finest hour, Hitchcock shows how Eisenhower adroitly fed red meat to his right wing base while appealing enough to moderates as a war hero above politics:In the waning days of his 1956 re-election campaign, Eisenhower encountered two simultaneous crises in Hungary and in Suez. Perhaps approving Eisenhower’s cautious statesmanship, the voter resoundingly gave Eisenhower a second term.
COMMUNISM AND MCCARTHY
Today — in a mostly post communist world — we might think of the rejection of communism in terms of its totalitarian tendencies or its hostility to capitalism.In the age of Eisenhower, the conflict was often seen in religious terms. Fundamentally, communism preached atheism, and communist states were godless. In a radio address kicking off the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, Eisenhower emphasized that to believe in God was itself and act of resistance and defiance of communism. In 1954, at Eisenhower’s urging, Congress legislated that “under God” be added to the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1956, Eisenhower signed P.L. 84-140, officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s motto.
To others, Marxism’s danger was that it offered a “new world religion,” aiming to unseat Christianity. The sickle and the cross are irreconcilable; if Christianity was to triumph communism must be vanquished.While Eisenhower agreed with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that the United States was engaged in a “battle between communistic atheism and Christianity,” he rejected McCarthy’s demagogic tactics. Nonetheless, while Eisenhower certain opposed McCarthy and played an important role in the demise of McCarthyism, Hitchcock does not think Eisenhower can be said to have exhibited much moral courage. Always on the defensive, from mid-1953 on, Eisenhower spoke out against the excesses of McCarthyism without mentioning McCarthy himself; Eisenhower’s speeches were often “elliptical, hortatory statements . . . largely ineffectual, too bland to rally others to his cause and too opaque to hurt McCarthy.” (145)
RACE AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Historians have long debated Eisenhower’s role in the protection and expansion of Civil Rights. Hitchcock provides context for understanding Eisenhower’s racial views. Although his valet who dressed him every day for 27 years, Sgt. John Moaney, was African-American, Eisenhower had little personal experience with or knowledge of black people.
Growing up in small-town Kansas and living on army bases most of his life, Eisenhower knew nothing of of the crisis of black life in modern America. He had seen Jim Crow in operation and given it little thought. He had grown up in a world dominated by whites in which black people had no power or prominence. He knew vary little about the the aspirations of black Americans. He had no black friends, no black teachers, no black role models, and no black colleagues. Fundamentally, as Hitchcock says, Eisenhower “simply had no inkling that the struggle for African-American civil rights was going to become perhaps the defining social problem of his era and of the next half-century.” (215)
Nonetheless, Hitchcock generally defends Eisenhower, “And yet — here is the real story — Eisenhower overcame his limitations.” Despite Eisenhower’s deep-seated aversion to social movements and to the increasingly urgent demands for action on civil rights, he lent support to pass his Attorney General’s efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — the first such federal legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875 — and ordered federal troops to enforce court-ordered school desegregation, overcoming the resistance of its racially demagogic governor — important developments that shaped the history of race in America.
No doubt black leaders wished Eisenhower’s embrace of racial justice was more personal and public (a non-embrace that can arguably be called a moral blind spot, although Hitchcock’s stance is not unpersuasive). Nonetheless, when Eisenhower decisively dispatched those troops to Arkansas, Jackie Robinson sent a note of thanks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wired his appreciation for Eisenhower’s support of “Christian traditions of fair play and brotherhood.”
Less well known is that in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, General Eisenhower — severely short of replacement troops for existing military unit all of which were totally white in composition — allowed African-American soldiers to join white military units to fight in combat for the first times. Eisenhower’s action was the first step towards a desegregated United States military, later made law by President Truman in 1948, a decree Eisenhower (according to Ambrose) fully implemented during his administrations.
DOMINO THEORY AND THE THIRD WORLD
Eisenhower was the first to express the “domino theory” in an April 7th, 1954 press conference. According to History.com, “the [now-discredited] domino theory was a Cold War policy that suggested a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist takeovers in neighboring states, each falling like a perfectly aligned row of dominos.”
Hitchcock believes Eisenhower and his administration oversold the domino theory. Hitchcock argues that Eisenhower too often viewed the aspirations of Third World anti-colonial nationalistic movements through the lens of anti-communism.
Invoking fears of communist expansion and a version of the domino theory — The real danger of war would come if one small nation after another were engulfed by expansionist and aggressive forces supported by the Soviet Union — in July 1958 Eisenhower sent more than 5,000 Marines into Lebanon.
While the American footprint in Beirut was ultimately relatively light, Hitchcock thinks the intervention alienated the peoples of the Middle East
The question whether Eisenhower’s policies were responsible for the deep and prolonged American involvement in Vietnam is a knotty one. While Eisenhower supported the South Vietnamese government, he feared making Indochina a Cold War battleground. As Ambrose says, Eisenhower refused to engage American ground troops in armed conflict — and in Vietnam he did not.
By contrast, the creators of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Walk of Honor suggest Eisenhower’s policies led directly to the later escalations of Kennedy and Johnson. Two plaques referencing Eisenhower’s 1954 letter to Ngo Dien and a 1959 speech at Gettsyburg College point to Eisenhower’s role in that escalation.
After Eisenhower, Vietnam did become Kennedy’s war. And then:
If Eisenhower had any misgivings about Johnson’s war, he did not express them in a September 30th, 1966 press conference where he favored using as much force as we need to win the war in Vietnam. Whether that included nuclear force is unstated.
KHRUSHCHEV AND THE U-2 SPY PLANE
Eisenhower tried to make peace with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. Hitchcock say Eisenhower believed — probably rightfully so — that Khruschchev did not want war and feared the awful specter of a full-out hydrogen bomb missile exchange. Both accepted the fundamental idea that neither side could win a nuclear war and that both would lose in an arms race. Ambrose says that both leaders discovered that because the Cold War had gone on for so long, reversing course was not easy; both Eisenhower and Khruschev faced difficult to control hard-liners in their own countries.
Eisenhower hoped a scheduled meeting with Khrushchev at the 1960 Paris summit would yield results. However, three days before the summit, a U-2 fly plane flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory, and Powers was captured.
The revelation and the downplaying of the spy plane by the Eisenhower administration torpedoed the peace talks. Hitchcock says, in retrospect, Eisenhower’s decision to approve the U-2 overflights was the biggest mistake he ever made, shattering Eisenhower’s hope to bring about a thaw in the cold war in his last months in office.
ELECTION OF 1960
Eisenhower always had ambivalent feelings towards his Vice President Richard Nixon. Embarrassing Nixon, at an August 24th presidential press conference in the midst of the 1960 campaign, Eisenhower told Time reporter Charles Mohr that he would need a week to compile a list of the ways that Nixon has served his administration, a remark for which Eisenhower would later apologize.
Nonetheless, in the last weeks of the campaign, Eisenhower vigorously traveled the country in support of Nixon against Kennedy. Hitchcock quotes James Reston, invoking a baseball metaphor, on Eisenhower’s efforts:”Pinch-hitting for Mr. Nixon [Eisenhower] is now the central figure in one of America’s favorite scenes: the old pro off the bench and swinging for the fences for the last time.” (493). But, on election day, as Hitchcock says, the hero struck out. Kennedy won by a razor thin margin.
SEE 56 years ago when JFK spoke at the War Memorial. Two days after his debate with Nixon. Nine days after RFK was here. and Nixon at the War Memorial one week before he lost a razor thin election to JFK
LAST ACT AND CUBA
In one of the last acts, the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic ties with Fidel Castro’s Cuban government. When taking office, Kennedy learned that early in 1960 Eisenhower had authorized the CIA to recruit Cuban exiles living in Miami, training them to overthrow Castro.
As Kennedy looked on, the “invasion” ended in fiasco. The Bay of Pigs was part of a series of events that led to America’s next close encounter with nuclear brinkmanship: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
In his summary of the age of Eisenhower, Hitchcock points to the assassination of Kennedy as the moment when that age slipped into the past.
ELECTION OF 1964
As seen in “The Agony of the GOP”: The Cow Palace, July 1964, Eisenhower was very lukewarm to the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. For a time, Eisenhower — still the patriarchal head of the Republican Party — championed his brother Milton. But Milton was unmoved– yet would poll in the single digits and gain write-in votes throughout — never wanting to be President and certainly not endure the gamut of a campaign.
At the June 7th Governor’s Conference in Cleveland, Republican leaders, including Eisenhower and Nixon, meditated on the seeming inevitability of Goldwaters:
Couldn’t Lodge and Rockefeller join forces? Pennsylvania Governor Scranton was still unannounced but in one poll of overall Republicans he beat Goldwater 60 – 34%. It was too late for Milton, but maybe George Romney was a dark horse possibility. Nixon was again seriously considered. But Nixon, ever shrewd, only wanted to play peacemaker, privately convinced that the heir to JFK, dead not much more than 6 months, could never lose.
After Goldwater’s nomination, Eisenhower gave a tepid congratulation. He was largely absent during the general election campaign.
FROM HITCHCOCK’S CONCLUDING CHAPTER
An ample through the plaques — some fading or moss covered — indeed reminds us of the Second Red Scare, the ugly legacy of American apartheid and thermonuclear weapons whose civilization ending capacity remains. But as living memory of the age of Eisenhower itself drifts out of focus, it is an amble worth taking. And, perhaps but for Ike, the Walk of Honor in the Vietnam Veteran Memorial of Greater Rochester would not exist.
IKE’S SECRET VISIT TO ROCHESTER AND POST PRESIDENTIAL VISITS TO EISENHOWER COLLEGE (SENECA FALLS) AND THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
In October 23rd and 24th, 1952 when Ike and Adlai were in town back to back., Alex White — who commented on MacArthur and Eisenhower in You’re fired! — offers extensive historical readings of the Eisenhower plaques and their contexts. For example:
Comparing the fierce Cold Warrior rhetoric before and after Eisenhower (Truman and Kennedy), Alex sees the Eisenhower Administrations as “a hiatus of the cold war.” Alex says Ike presided over a period of European colonial collapse. Ike had — but resisted — multiple opportunities to deeply involve the United States overseas.
I would not disagree. Ambrose might be implicitly concurring with White’s “hiatus” hypothesis when he writes: “Eisenhower was not immune to intervention, not to provocative rhetoric, not to nuclear testing, nor to the arms race (within strict limits), but he did set his face against war.” (Rise to Globalism, 159)
Hitchcock would agree that Eisenhower frequently spoke the language of peace in public, but “behind closed doors he [Eisenhower] remained a determined and ruthless cold warrior.” (Age of Eisenhower, 435)