In the 16 Jan 2011 Washington Post OpEd piece, 50 years after the 'military-industrial complex,' what Eisenhower really meant, (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/14/AR2011011406229.html), Susan Eisenhower commented on her Grandfather’s concerns “about a rising ‘military-industrial complex,’ which he described as ‘a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions’ with the potential to acquire - whether sought or unsought – ‘unwarranted influence’ in the halls of government.” She went on to say “…. the logic of nuclear deterrence made the conventional wars Ike had commanded in the 1940s obsolete. Now, there could be no margin for error; the Cold War brought with it different calculations, which were very costly by nature. These new realities meant that the United States would not only need to project power and resolve, but also had to ensure national solvency …. as the Soviet Union appeared to reach military parity with the United States, political forces in Washington cried out for greater defense spending and a more aggressive approach to Moscow. In response, the administration publicly asserted that there was no such thing as absolute security… he followed through, balancing the budget three times during his tenure, a record unmatched during the Cold War.”
All this is true but how did he do it? Ike slashed the Defense budget some 26% and took huge cuts in conventional forces while investing heavily in our nuclear arsenal. Did putting all our eggs in the “nuclear basket” make us safer or was it a high stakes gamble?
Her brother, David Eisenhower, wrote a wonderful biography on his grandfather’s war years and when he was visiting my class at the National War College I asked him the following question: “as the son of a career military officer growing up when your grandfather was president, I remember those were tough times as he all but emasculated the conventional military with massive cuts; why did he hate the military so much?”
He answered that his grandfather didn’t hate the Military but needed to convince Soviet leaders that he was serious about using nuclear weapons so that “massive retaliation” and “mutually assured destruction” were not just slogans but a credible US defense strategy. The only way to do that was to cut conventional military forces to where nuclear weapons were our only option to retaliate against a Soviet threat.
The question Susan should have addressed in her OpEd was, was her Grandfather really prepared to use those Nucs to respond to Soviet aggression or was he bluffing? With his dismantling of Conventional Forces there was no third option. Did Ike’s National Security Strategy make us more or less safe? As a school kid I do remember several Air Raid drills every year and learning how to respond in the event of a nuclear attack. Also, I remember neighbors constructing and provisioning underground nuclear survival shelters in their backyards. After becoming a Soldier myself and attending Nuclear Training I discovered how useless those shelters and everything we did in school would have been in any real nuclear attack.
Of course upon taking office and after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy immediately began rebuilding our conventional forces so he had that option to incrementally react to Communist aggression in places like Southeast Asia. It was President Kennedy’s rebuilding of our Conventional ground forces that enable him to react to Communist Aggression in Vietnam by sending in Army and Marine Corps troops rather than having to solely rely on Air Power with nuclear bombs. Hence, with this newly reinvigorated capability, the Kennedy Administration was embolden to support the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem which led to the Kennedy escalation of American involvement in that country and it was just carried on by President Johnson…. and the rest is history!
In closing I would observe that if he had lived, I truly believe that President Kennedy would have pursued the Vietnam War every bit as vigorously as Johnson did. Not withstanding the “revisionist history” of Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter and Camelot’s “keeper of the flame” biographer, who maintained Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam in a second term, all unbiased studies of the Kennedy papers indicate differently. I suspect Sorensen (God rest his sole), who had registered as a conscientious objector with his draft board, was projecting his own anti-war sentiments and not those of the dead President.
But I’m getting off topic and this will be a good topic for a future Blog so stay tuned and check back for it.