This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Journalist and historian Evan Thomas, author of “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World,” spoke to Yahoo News about Eisenhower’s defining moment of presidential leadership: the courageous decision to defy public pressure and push back on the military-industrial complex at the height of the Cold War.
The military-industrial complex is a real thing. It is the combination of defense contractors, the Pentagon and Congress. They all work together to get the country to spend money on building weapons.
In World War II, the United States had to go from having basically nothing for a military to having the greatest military the world has ever seen. They built an immense defense infrastructure, churning out planes and tanks and ships — and that never really stopped.
Eisenhower was wary of the relationship between industry and government and he saw that the military industrial complex could get carried away. He personally was able to keep a lid on spending, but he was afraid that when he left office, his successors would not be able to do that and spending would get out of control.
When Ike came to office, the Cold War had already been going on for several years. It was at a funny juncture because Stalin, the fearsome leader of the Soviet Union, died almost as soon as Eisenhower became president. When Stalin died, Eisenhower asked his advisers, “What are we going to do?” And he quickly discovered there was no plan. Russia was a closed country.
There was a moment when Eisenhower tried to seize the initiative, and he gave his famous “chance for peace” speech. He asked the Soviet Union if we could step back and cool things off.
It didn’t really work. The Soviet Union wasn’t really listening, and there were just so many forces building up to continue the Cold War. We were building rockets, and the Soviets were building rockets — and it turned out they were building a bigger rocket than our rocket.
In 1957, the Soviets launched a satellite, Sputnik, and it scared the living hell out of us. Americans freaked out because they knew what Sputnik meant: If the Soviets could put a satellite across us, they could put atom bombs into us.
It was less frightening, however, to President Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was unusually calm in the Sputnik crisis. He was the only man who could be calm — he had conquered Europe and the Soviets were rightly afraid of him.
Eisenhower knew the capacity of the military to take advantage of panic by spending a lot of money — by building new weapons — that weren’t going to work but that might have felt good to politicians. Ike resisted it.
He knew that his popularity would suffer, and it did. But Eisenhower played a very long game. If you spent too much on the military, it would hurt your economy. And you had to have a strong economy
Just a few days before JFK was inaugurated, Eisenhower went on national TV to warn very directly against the military-industrial complex. He laid it out: that if we don’t watch how much we spend on this, we are going to undermine our own country, our own liberties, and our own economy. That we have a kind of internal threat from our own perceived need to spend money on weaponry.
For a long time, Eisenhower was seen as sort of a weak leader. But he put up with it because he knew in the long run that history would show that he was tough.
Eisenhower had the kind of quiet confidence as a leader. He understood that some of the greatest strength was restraint. It’s by not doing, by not showing off. It’s by not waving your arms. It’s by not blustering.
The best thing you can do as president is to not panic — to be quietly strong.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Dwight D. Eisenhower makes his farewell address to the nation in 1961. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Central Press/Getty Images)