Evan Thomas: Looking To Ike As Obama's Second Term Begins
Evan Thomas is the author of the just-published Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World.
I have been talking to historians about another two-term president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
We think of Ike as a great military man, but as president he used his understanding of the military to rein it in. Obama is said to be looking for a low-key way of managing America's global role while minding Ike's credo that true national security begins at home with a sound economy, shored up by a careful balance of resources and commitment.
How did Eisenhower do it? Once Ike extricated the United States from the Korean War in 1953, he managed to cut the defense budget over his two terms by about a quarter, from about 70% of the federal budget to 60%. (Today, defense is about 20% of federal spending.)
Aware from reading Clausewitz and his own experience that small wars have a way of becoming big wars, Eisenhower was determined to keep the United States out of any war. He resisted the temptation to send ground troops into Vietnam after the French military collapsed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The jungle, he told his National Security Council, would "absorb our troops by divisions."
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower was under tremendous pressure, especially from Senate Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, to increase defense spending. The president, however, quietly scoffed at the hysteria over a "missile gap," which he suspected — after he saw secret intelligence from a U-2 spy plane — to be phony. In the winter of 1958, the poet Robert Frost gave Ike a book of his poems with an inscription, "The strong are saying nothing until they see." Ike wrote a friend, "I like his maxim best of all."
Can Obama emulate Ike, as he pulls America out of Afghanistan and tries to draw down military spending? The answer may lie less in policy than in a certain habit of command...
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