David M. Watry. Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill, and Eden in the Cold War. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 2014. 240 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-5718-3.
Reviewed by Jeff Crean (Texas A&M University)
Published on H-War (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Not Liking Ike: Time for Truth about the Special Relationship
“I devoutly hope that history’s inflexible yardstick will show that we have done everything in our power, and everything that is right, to prevent the awful catastrophe of another major war,” US president Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to the British prime minister Winston Churchill at the height of the First Straits Crisis, when he was threatening the Chinese Communists with nuclear war in order to ensure Formosan control over two clusters of tiny islands a few miles off the mainland. Historians have tended to give Eisenhower the benefit of the doubt on these and other similar actions not only because they proved successful, but also because some suspected that Eisenhower, as an avowed man of peace, would not have followed through. In Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill, and Eden in the Cold War, David M. Watry forcefully takes issue with this consensus. In this thought-provoking and vital, if uneven, monograph, he argues that in the realm of foreign policy, during his first term, Eisenhower was more reckless extremist than prudent moderate, and shows how this approach “would ultimately undermine and destroy the ‘special relationship’” (p. 3). Watry implicitly defines “special relationship” not merely as a close alliance but as a partnership in which, while Great Britain was clearly the junior member, its leaders still possessed the ability to influence US behavior and work in concert with US policymakers in a capacity greater than mere vassalage.
In what can be termed a backlash to the backlash, this book draws on primary sources from both the United States and the United Kingdom to resurrect the negative strategic assessments characteristic of the first generation of Eisenhower scholarship while incorporating the positive leadership evaluations of the second and the international focus of the third. Watry argues that the first postwar Republican president was simultaneously a stubbornly ideological hard-liner, an active hands-on executive, and a geopolitical strategist sensitive to the concerns and aspirations of emerging postcolonial nonwhite nations. The first and third characteristics caused severe tensions with the British, who preferred Cold War de-escalation and imperial preservation. Watry repeatedly uses the terms “far right,” “radical,” and “unilateral” to define Eisenhower’s foreign policy. This deeply ideological approach, typified by a Manichaean worldview, a profound distrust of Communist leaders’ intentions, and obliviousness to the preferences of allies, led to the tactic of “brinksmanship,” a word that appears in the titles of all six chapters. Watry defines “brinksmanship” as a high-stakes combination of threats of nuclear attack and interference in a foreign nation’s internal affairs in order to achieve foreign policy goals.
Shortly after assuming the presidency, Eisenhower secured a Korean armistice after threatening nuclear strikes on North Korean territory and the overthrow of recalcitrant South Korean ally Syngman Rhee. Presumably emboldened by this early success, he took considerable risks to prevent Communist infiltration by covertly overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, he unsuccessfully proposed the use of tactical nuclear weapons to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, and he successfully threatened nuclear strikes to ensure continued Formosan control of Quemoy and Matsu. While Churchill wholeheartedly supported Operation Ajax in Iran, his government clashed with Eisenhower’s over Guatemala, effectively vetoed military intervention in Indochina, and fretted over defending Quemoy and Matsu. Recognizing Britain’s limits, Churchill sought to persuade Eisenhower yet knew when to back down. His foreign minister, Anthony Eden, lacked this tact and realism. He enraged Eisenhower by unsuccessfully challenging at the United Nations the US blockade of weapons shipments to Guatemala and successfully forging the 1954 Geneva Accords, ending the French Indochina War and producing his signal diplomatic triumph. An angry Eisenhower eagerly repaid Eden during his brief stint as prime minister, forcing him to humiliatingly abandon military action to retake the Suez Canal, then conspiring to remove Eden from office and ensure his replacement by the pliable Harold Macmillan. Eisenhower was willing to apply covert regime change to even the closest of allies.
Watry’s greatest contribution is to show to an American audience that, in the Eisenhower years, the fissures in Anglo-American unity long preceded and extended well beyond Suez, which was a symptom, and not the cause, of acrimony. His second contribution is to show the connection between Eisenhower’s nuclear brinksmanship and support for covert operations. In particular, he demonstrates that Eisenhower’s willingness to follow through in the face of long odds and setbacks in the latter implied he was by no means bluffing when it came to the former.
Watry’s approach does omit obvious evidence contradicting his repeated descriptions of Eisenhower as a unilateralist who ignored or defied allies. It is erroneous to extrapolate a larger trend from the cold shoulder he gave the British. Eisenhower came into office believing Western Europe to be economically strong and strategically secure, and identified East Asia as the most likely region for Communist expansion, a conclusion the previous four years and the next two would prove quite unassailable. Eisenhower valued allies who were vulnerable, and took their complaints very seriously. The archival record makes abundantly clear that he wanted Chiang Kai-shek to withdraw most or all of his forces from Quemoy and Matsu, and only pledged to defend them when he came to fervently believe the psychological impact of their loss on the Mainland exiles in Formosa would cause Chiang’s rule to collapse, jeopardizing the entire US strategic positon in the Western Pacific. Eisenhower risked Armageddon because he was not unilateral enough, and fully recognized he was being dragged into a most unfavorable situation by a troublesome but vital ally. Similarly, in Central America, the United States worked closely with the concerned leaders of Guatemala’s neighbors, from whose territory the covert military activity was launched.
Finally, the author never explains why, if Eisenhower was so far right in his behavior, the actual far right in the United States so detested him. This was, after all, a president that the respectable National Review hoped would not run for reelection, and the less respectable John Birch Society leader Joseph Welch accused of furthering an international Communist conspiracy. Watry argues that “Eisenhower’s extreme radicalism,” particularly when dealing with conservative bete noir Red China, “went well beyond anything” conservative hero Douglas MacArthur “ever advocated or promoted” (p. 8). Why could they not recognize a good thing when they had it?
. Eisenhower to Churchill, February 10, 1955, p. 4, Folder John Foster Dulles, February 1955 (2), Box 4, Dulles-Herter Series, Ann Whitman File, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas (hereafter Eisenhower Library).
. For a recent popular history making this case, see Evan Thomas, Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World (New York: Little, Brown, 2012).
. The first generation was defined by Townsend Hoopes, The Devil and John Foster Dulles (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973). The second was spearheaded by Robert A. Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981). The third included Kathryn C. Statler and Andrew L. Johns, eds., The Eisenhower Administration, the Third World, and the Globalization of the Cold War (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), with the works of Richard H. Immerman serving as perhaps the most valuable of many bridges between the second and third generations, particularly his The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982) and John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
. Eisenhower did not use this term; it was applied to his foreign policy by Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson. Dulles used the phrase “to the brink” to describe the administration’s approach to the First Straits Crisis. See James Sheply, “How Dulles Averted War,” Life, January 16, 1956.
. See Eisenhower to Churchill, March 29, 1955, March 1955 (1), Box 10, DDE Diary Series, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Library; Eisenhower to L. W. Douglas, March 9, 1955, March 1955, Box 10, DDE Diary Series, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Library; and 237th Meeting of the National Security Council, February 17, 1955, 10-11, Box 6, NSC Series, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Library, among other sources.
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Jeff Crean. Review of Watry, David M., Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill, and Eden in the Cold War.
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