Ike was no doubt a superb president. Yet while he could be sober and judicious in deploying American forces abroad, he was hardly the non-interventionist of our present fantasies, who is so frequently used and abused to score partisan political points.
There is a strange disconnect about Eisenhower’s supposed policy of restraint, especially in reference to the Middle East, and his liberal use of the CIA in covert operations. While romanticizing Ike, we often deplore the 1953 coup in Iran and the role of the CIA, but seem to forget that it was Ike who ordered the CIA intervention that helped to lead to the ouster of Mossadegh and to bring the Shah to absolute power. Ike thought that he saw threats to Western oil supplies, believed that Mossadegh was both unstable and a closet Communist, sensed the covert hand of the Soviet Union at work, was won over by the arguments of British oil politics, and therefore simply decided Mossadegh should go — and he did.
Ike likewise ordered the CIA-orchestrated removal of the leaders of Guatemala and the Congo. He bequeathed to JFK the plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had been born on the former’s watch. His bare-faced lie that a U-2 spy plane had not been shot down in Russia did terrible damage to U.S. credibility at the time.
The Eisenhower administration formulated the domino theory, and Ike was quite logically the first U.S. president to insert American advisers into Southeast Asia, a move followed by a formal SEATO defense treaty to protect most of Southeast Asia from Communist aggression — one of the most interventionist commitments of the entire Cold War, which ended with over 58,000 Americans dead in Vietnam and helicopters fleeing from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Eisenhower’s “New Look” foreign policy of placing greater reliance on threats to use nuclear weapons, unleashing the CIA, and crafting new entangling alliances may have fulfilled its short-term aims of curbing the politically unpopular and costly use of conventional American troops overseas. Its long-term ramifications, however, became all too clear in the 1960s and 1970s. Mostly, Ike turned to reliance on nuke-rattling because of campaign promises to curb spending and balance the budget by cutting conventional defense forces — which earned him the furor of Generals Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur, and Matthew Ridgway.