In addition to his desire to halt the advance of “creeping socialism” in U.S. domestic policy, Eisenhower also wanted to “roll back” the advances of Communism abroad. After taking office in 1953, he devised a new foreign policy tactic to contain the Soviet Union and even win back territory that had already been lost. Devised primarily by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, this so-called New Look at foreign policy proposed the use of nuclear weapons and new technology rather than ground troops and conventional bombs, all in an effort to threaten “massive retaliation” against the USSR for Communist advances abroad.
In addition to intimidating the Soviet Union, this emphasis on new and cheaper weapons would also drastically reduce military spending, which had escalated rapidly during the Truman years. As a result, Eisenhower managed to stabilize defense spending, keeping it at roughly half the congressional budget during most of his eight years in office.
The doctrine of massive retaliation proved to be dangerously flawed, however, because it effectively left Eisenhower without any options other than nuclear war to combat Soviet aggression. This dilemma surfaced in 1956, for instance, when the Soviet Union brutally crushed a popular democratic uprising in Hungary. Despite Hungary’s request for American recognition and military assistance, Eisenhower’s hands were tied because he knew that the USSR would stop at nothing to maintain control of Eastern Europe. He could not risk turning the Cold War into a nuclear war over the interests of a small nation such as Hungary.
As an alternative, Eisenhower employed the CIA to tackle the specter of Communism in developing countries outside the Soviet Union’s immediate sphere of influence. Newly appointed CIA director Allen Dulles (the secretary of state’s brother) took enormous liberties in conducting a variety of covert operations. Thousands of CIA operatives were assigned to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and attempted to launch coups, assassinate heads of state, arm anti-Communist revolutionaries, spread propaganda, and support despotic pro-American regimes. Eisenhower began to favor using the CIA instead of the military because covert operations didn’t attract as much attention and cost much less money.
A CIA-sponsored coup in Iran in 1953, however, did attract attention and heavy criticism from liberals both at home and in the international community. Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers authorized the coup in Iran when the Iranian government seized control of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Afraid that the popular, nationalist, Soviet-friendly prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, would then cut off oil exports to the United States, CIA operatives convinced military leaders to overthrow Mossadegh and restore Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi as head of state in 1953. Pahlavi returned control of Anglo-Iranian Oil to the British and then signed agreements to supply the United States with almost half of all the oil drilled in Iran.
The following year, a similar coup in Guatemala over agricultural land rights also drew international criticism and severely damaged U.S.–Latin American relations.
In an odd twist, Eisenhower actually supported the Communist-leaning Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1956 Suez crisis. Hoping to construct a new dam on the Nile River to provide electricity and additional land for farming, the Nationalist Nasser approached British and American officials with requests for economic assistance. When the negotiations collapsed, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for help and then seized the British-controlled Suez Canal, which linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Great Britain and France asked Eisenhower for military assistance to retake the canal, but Eisenhower refused, forcing the two powers to join with Israel in 1956 to retake the canal themselves. Eisenhower condemned the attack on Egypt and exerted heavy diplomatic and economic pressure on the aggressors. Unable to sustain the action in the face of U.S. disapproval and financial pressures, Great Britain and France withdrew.
In 1957, in order to protect American oil interests in the Middle East, Eisenhower announced the Eisenhower Doctrine, which stated that the United States would provide military and economic assistance to Middle Eastern countries in resisting Communist insurgents. Although not terribly significant, this doctrine, as well as the restoration of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, demonstrated the growing importance of oil in American foreign policy decision making.
A growing crisis in French Indochina proved to be no less challenging for Eisenhower than the Suez crisis. Ever since World War I, Vietnamese nationalists under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh had sought independence from France, the colonial power in the region. Although originally more nationalist and anticolonial than Communist, Ho turned to the Soviet Union in the 1950s after U.S. officials had rebuffed his earlier requests for help in securing independence. The USSR supplied money and arms to the Vietminh forces, putting Eisenhower in the difficult position of supporting a French colonial possession in order to contain the USSR.
When the key French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell to Ho Chi Minh’s troops in 1954, Eisenhower promised to assist the French economically. Many U.S. foreign policy thinkers feared that if one Southeast Asian country fell to Communism, all the others would fall as well, just like a row of dominoes. This so-called domino theory prompted Secretary of State Dulles and Vice President Nixon to advocate the use of nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese. Remembering the fruitless war in Korea, however, Eisenhower merely responded, “I can conceive of no greater tragedy than for the United States to become engaged in all-out war in Indochina.” Nevertheless, Eisenhower’s financial commitment to contain Communism in Vietnam after the fall of Dien Bien Phu laid the groundwork for what eventually devolved into the Vietnam War.
An international convention in Geneva, Switzerland, tried to avert further conflict in Vietnam by temporarily splitting the country into two countries, with the dividing line at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh erected his own government in Hanoi in North Vietnam, while American-supported Ngo Dinh Diem founded a South Vietnamese government in Saigon. This Geneva Conference agreement stipulated that the division would be only temporary, a stopgap to maintain peace until national elections could be held to reunite the country democratically.
Although the USSR consented to the agreement, Eisenhower rejected it. Instead, he pledged continued economic support to Ngo Dinh Diem and convinced Great Britain, France, Australia, and other regional nations to join the mostly symbolic Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), modeled after the highly successful NATO.
In October 1957, Soviet scientists shocked the world when they announced they had successfully launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I , into orbit. They followed up on this landmark achievement several months later with the launch of Sputnik II . Although the satellites themselves posed no danger to the United States, Americans feared that the Soviet Union now had the ability to attack New York or Washington with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, from anywhere on the planet. In reality, the Soviet ICBM development program lagged far behind its American counterpart.
Nonetheless, the fear that the USSR would win the “space race” before the United States even launched its first satellite spurred Eisenhower and Congress into action. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 to spearhead the American space program. Congress, meanwhile, increased defense spending and passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to fund more science and foreign language classes in public schools.
For a brief period during Eisenhower’s final years in office, it seemed that the United States and the USSR might resolve their differences peacefully and perhaps even end the Cold War. Upon Premier Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Stalin’s former enemy, Nikita Khrushchev, took control of the Communist Party and eventually became premier in 1956. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s brutal treatment of the Russian people and halted nuclear testing in order to divert more money to the struggling Soviet economy.
U.S.-Soviet relations also improved dramatically after Khrushchev spent two weeks touring the United States in 1959. He and Eisenhower even had a cordial meeting at the woodsy presidential retreat at Camp David, in Maryland. Many Americans hoped that the so-called spirit of Camp David would ease tensions between the two superpowers.
After returning home to Moscow, Khrushchev invited Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union and hold a multilateral summit in Paris the following year. The plans fell apart, however, after the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane in 1960. Eisenhower and the U.S. government initially denied the existence of U-2 missions over the Soviet Union, but then the USSR produced the American pilot, whom they had captured alive. Embarrassed, Eisenhower refused to apologize or promise to suspend future spy missions against the USSR. The U-2 incident instantly repolarized the Cold War, reversing the thaw that Khrushchev’s visit had brought and forcing the abandonment of the Paris summit.
Facing a two-term limit, Eisenhower delivered his farewell address in January 1961. Ironically, he used his last speech as president to address a problem that he himself had had a hand in creating—the increasing dependence on nuclear weapons as a tool of foreign policy. By 1960, a growing number of Americans had begun to protest the United States’s apparent willingness to wage nuclear warfare. Eisenhower had also begun to see nuclear weapons as more of a threat to global security than as a stabilizer. Afraid that the U.S. government and even Americans’ civil liberties might succumb to the power of what he called the “military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower cautioned that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Although little was made of Eisenhower’s words at the time, his words came back to haunt Americans during the Vietnam War.