3 Things About: “Ike’s Bluff”

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas. Little, Brown (496 pp.)
  • In 1957, when Ike was in the White House and I had just become a pimply-faced thirteen-year-old, I saw little to admire in President Dwight Eisenhower.  I found him boring.  Many people did.  My good pal Howie Fraser had given me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s just-published novel On the Road, and golf, bridge games, and hero worship held little appeal.  Now comes Evan Thomas, a fine writer who teaches at Princeton, to tell us that Ike—whom Richard Rovere, himself no slouch as a writer, pronounced “a bland ‘standard American’ incapable of nuance or subtlety”—was actually quite a guy.  For all his qualities as an uninteresting man, the President was saving all of us from nuclear destruction by deftly dealing with America’s foes and keeping the lid on.
  •  Ike wasn’t a “simple country boy,” as he described himself. In fact, he was a “well-read humanist” who became entranced by Greek and Roman history as a boy, says Thomas. The “perceptive” Murray Kempton got it right when he wrote an article on “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” In fact, most of the media were so enthralled by the young challenger John F. Kennedy that they did “one of the most effective and lasting” hatchet jobs in political history on Ike.” As presidential archives opened over time, scholars would discover Ike’s hidden hand,” writes Thomas.  “Still, the impression of Ike as a genial dope has been remarkably enduring.”
  • By hidden hand, Thomas refers to the crux of his book: that Ike, a master of deception, kept up a genial exterior while weighing his options and determining a course of action.  An expert at bluffing, he used his skills to keep the peace in a dangerous age. Thomas offers plenty of examples to buttress this revisionist view of Eisenhower as the quietly effective man in charge of the world situation.  Unfortunately, he also finds it necessary to defend Ike on other counts, such as his failure to take the lead on civil rights. “But he did not believe in segregation, and he actively opposed it,” writes the author. In the end, one feels put off by the major effort at rehabilitation under way in these pages. Thomas, a convincing writer, comes close to pulling it off.  Without doubt, Ike held his cards close; maybe he saved the world more than we know.  He’s still a bore.

–Joseph Barbato

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