“Ike” and the “Red Menace”: Some Myths Won’t Die
Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Eisenhower in 1956.
You probably know the mythic Dwight Eisenhower, the “great peacekeeper in a dangerous era,” who bravely withstood the communist threat while skillfully avoiding all-out war. The quote comes from Evan Thomas, the latest writer to make a mint by retelling the tale. It would hardly be worth noticing, except that pundits keep trotting out the mythic Ike by as a model for the current president to follow.
Latest example: the Washington Post’s influential foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, a dependable megaphone for the centrist foreign policy establishment. He’s praising Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff, for supposedly showing us how a great president deals with “continuing global threats … that require some way to project power.”
Thomas’ book bears the grandiose subtitle “President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.” Save it from what? Why, the “red menace,” of course. And now, says Ignatius, Obama must deal with al-Qaeda and Iran -- who are also, presumably, threatening to destroy the world. Eisenhower had to stop the communist “advance in Europe and around the world,” Ignatius writes. “Obama has a similar challenge with Iran.” Then he tacks on al-Qaeda as the other looming threat to our national security. It’s the myth of homeland insecurity, as clear as you’ll ever see it.
When I call this a myth, I don’t mean it’s an outright lie. Like most of the myths in American political life, it blends some number of facts with a sizeable dose of fiction to create a narrative that expresses basic assumptions about the world and shapes government policies.
For example: In the very fluid situation created by the devastation of World War II, the U.S. government saw a chance to install its capitalist system solidly everywhere except the Soviet Union. Stalin, seeing his nation potentially encircled by an enemy, naturally did what he could to promote Soviet influence throughout Eurasia.
Eisenhower made this the stuff of myth: “Russia is definitely out to communize the world,” he wrote in his private diary. “Now we face a battle to extinction.” In 1953 Ike carried this fear-stoked exaggeration into the White House. He wrote in private letters that the Soviets were “seeking our destruction,” and his goal was to prevent “the Kremlin’s control of the entire earth.”
To achieve that goal, he was absolutely ready (though certainly not eager) to use nuclear weapons. Sorry Evan Thomas, but Eisenhower was never bluffing. He told his National Security Council that “if the Soviets attempt to overrun Europe, we should have no recourse but to go to war.” He was equally ready to use nukes to end wars in Korea and Vietnam, he told the NSC, if he thought it necessary. In 1958 he said much the same about the standoff over Berlin.
Eisenhower understood the risks. But he summed up his view quite succinctly to the British ambassador: “He would rather be atomized than communized.” In his mythic worldview, those were both very real possibilities. However the risk of being atomized arose only because he was approving the most rapid buildup of weapons of mass destruction in U.S. history and making sure that disarmament negotiations could never succeed.
Ike did all this because he took for granted the mythic threat that he, and so many other Americans, had created out of their own fears: the “red menace.” Driven by this image of imminent danger, he sowed all the seeds of a nuclear confrontation that could “atomize” the world. It was largely just luck that allowed him to escape the ultimate showdown.
His successor wasn’t so lucky. JFK had to taste the bitter fruit that grew from the seeds Ike planted.
Despite all this history, which is plain enough to anyone who reads the once-secret documents of the era, the mythic version of Eisenhower continues to be held up as a model that current presidents should follow.
So pundits like David Ignatius encourage Barack Obama to threaten Iran with “economic, military and political destruction if it refuses to make a deal” -- on U.S. terms, of course, which is bound to stiffen Iranian resistance. And he encourages Obama to continue using lethal drones to kill people, without knowing who they are or what their attitudes toward America might be -- which is sure to turn attitudes in the victims’ communities against America.
But all this is done in the name of “national security,” to contain supposed threats that are imagined to be as ominous as the “red menace” that once dominated America’s public imagination. What do we gain by letting our imaginations run away with us again?
Evan Thomas is right on one point: “Public terror was a price” -- the price, I would say -- that the nation paid for Eisenhower’s policies. Why do so many “foreign policy experts” want to take us back to that era of terror, or create a new incarnation of it?
The answer involves more than cynical manipulation. Those “experts” may very well be sincere when they tell us about the terrifying “global threats … that require some way to project power.” The more they discuss the “sources of insecurity” with each other at their high-level conferences and expense-account luncheons, the more they convince each other that their myth is literal fact.
The same goes for the politicians tutored by the experts. Sure, the politicians will lie to get specific policies implemented. But when they tell the tale that shapes their policies -- the story of “impending threat to our national security” -- there is no reason to assume that they are bluffing us.
That’s what I learned from reading thousands of pages of Eisenhower’s letters, diaries, and private conversations. No one can ever know what was in his mind. But in the documents there was never a hint that he was consciously purveying an invented “red menace” narrative. On the contrary, everything he said seemed to take for granted the truth of that myth.
So who knows? The pundits who equate “the Iranian threat” with “the red menace” may really believe it. Barack Obama may believe it too. Looking back to the cold war years teaches us how dangerous it is when the “experts” and national leaders take their own myths seriously.
Of course we should debunk the falsehoods they purvey. But debunking alone doesn’t weaken the power of a myth. It takes a new narrative. That’s something to think about as we approach a unique convergence – Inauguration Day and Martin Luther King Day on the very same day. The president, beginning his second term, is hardly likely to give us a radically new narrative. Dr. King already gave us one, many decades ago.
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