Lately there seems to have been a rash of books and articles praising President Eisenhower for this “sage” advice he gave to the country shortly before leaving office in 1961: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." (Review at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/04/AR2011020402995.html )
But remember, Ike’s Defense Strategy of the mid 1950s for a lower-cost, more efficient military that produced a $5-billion cut in the 1955 defense budget was the threat of "massive retaliation" to discourage communist military ventures that threatened American interests.
Ike slashed the Defense budget some 26% and took huge cuts of half-a-million troops in conventional forces while investing heavily in our nuclear arsenal. The question none of these historians pose is: Did putting all our eggs in the “nuclear basket” make us safer or was it a high stakes gamble?
David Eisenhower wrote a wonderful biography on this grandfather’s war years and when he was visiting my class at the National War College I asked him the following question: “I am the son of a career military officer who grew up on bases 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.
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. Hence, with this newly reinvigorated capability, when the Kennedy Administration realized the need for a change in South Vietnamese leadership they were able to support the assassination of President Diem. This resulted in Kennedy’s escalation of American involvement in that country which was just carried on by President Johnson…. and the rest is history! Although getting off subject for a moment, as a student (and participant) of the Vietnam War I strongly believe Kennedy holding the line there which carried on until the mid 1970s (ground troops left in 1972 and Congress withdrew support allowing the South Vietnamese Government to fall in 1975) stemmed the tide of Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. The fact that President Kennedy established MACV and introduced combat troops into South Vietnam in sizable numbers thus providing the “breathing room” that kept most of Southeast Asia free should be a proud part of the Kennedy legacy.
The real question these historians fail to address is: Was Ike 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 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. That still leaves historians to ponder the question: Was Ike’s “Massive Retaliation” a viable defense strategy or a reckless gamble?”