President Eisenhower, who was relatively unknown to Americans and not coming from a military family, established a foreign policy after World War II that emphasized liberty, democracy, and freedom. Prior to the start of the war, Eisenhower joined General MacArthur in helping to establish a defense for the Philippines and helping Filipinos form an army. Having served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe after the U.S. entered the war, Eisenhower understood the evils of the fascism he led Americans against in the war.
He most notably led American troops at the Kasserine Pass and at D-Day, where he wrote a statement to soldiers on June 6, 1944 regarding those who love liberty and oppose tyranny, saying that Americans were fighting for “the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” In a letter to his wife, Mamie, Eisenhower discusses how illusory it is to think that the world can return to the prewar era, mentioning how after the defeat of fascism and militarism, the challenge remains to resist these ideologies in the future, saying “as men and women of character and of faith in the soundness of democratic methods, we must work like dogs to justify that faith. I envy the young — the ones just starting in on this most important epoch. I hope they can be successful in making it the “Golden Age of Democracy.”
Eisenhower felt a strong sense of responsibility for the losses of men both at Normandy on D-Day and at the Kasserine Pass during the North African campaign. In an interview with The New York Times, 20 years after the landings at Normandy, Eisenhower recalled his role in that historic offensive, saying that “every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day 20 years ago now, I say once more we must find some way to work to peace, and really to gain an eternal peace for this world.” Eisenhower said that there was no plan to withdraw troops from the beach and that he got emotional thinking about the cost of human life, saying that “I’m going to do something that will be to my country’s advantage for the least cost. You can’t say without cost. You know you’re going to lose them.” Eisenhower maintained this concept of preserving as much life as possible following the Normandy landings as the war shifted toward Berlin itself, opposing the use of tear gas and retaliatory bombings against German civilians, saying “let’s, for God’s sake, keep our eyes on the ball and use some sense.”
Eisenhower’s concern for the preservation of life, whether that be his own soldiers or civilians continued into his foreign policy as president. A preservation of life and peace was Eisenhower’s most profound lesson learned from the war. While viewing the graves of 9,000 fallen American soldiers, Eisenhower reflected, saying “I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope and pray that humanity will learn more than we had learned up to that time. But these people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.”
Following his military service, Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and was re-elected in 1956. His first term’s foreign policy focus was on ending the war in Korea that eroded the popularity of President Truman before him. His second term however, saw two major foreign policy episodes with the Hungarian Revolution and Suez Crisis, both happening 1956, the year of his re-election. The Hungarian Revolution forced Eisenhower to confront how he would tend to U.S.-Soviet relations, and the Suez Crisis forced him to confront the Israelis as well as allies from World War II – the Soviets, the British, and the French. The Hungarian Revolution originated from discontent with the “repressive Stalinist regime” and it aimed to achieve the “withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, multi-party elections, the release of political prisoners and the appointment of [Imre] Nagy as prime minister.”
In November 1956, Soviet forces entered Budapest, quelled the rebellion, and executed Nagy two years later. Following these developments in Hungary, Eisenhower laid out his plan on how to deal with the Soviets in Hungary in a radio/television report to Americans in which he appealed to the venerated ideals for which Americans fought for a decade earlier such as sovereignty, self-government, freedom, national independence, personal liberty, and justice. He praised the Hungarians for their bravery, calling their revolution the “greatest forward stride toward justice,” and saying that the Hungarian people “have offered their very lives for independence from foreign masters.”
Eisenhower faced a second international crisis during the same time as the Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Crisis forced Eisenhower to engage with former World War II Allies. Rather than fighting alongside France, Britain, and the Soviet Union, Eisenhower needed to mediate the Western coalition and Egypt, following Gamel Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal. Following Israel’s invasion of Egyptian territory in the Sinai Desert and British bombings of Egyptian airfields, Eisenhower advocated against Western force being used against Egypt, concerned that such force would be viewed as “old-style colonial gunboat diplomacy.” Eisenhower understood how quickly such a conflict could escalate to war, which was something he certainly wanted to avoid, leading to his use of diplomacy and international organizations, primarily the United Nations. In a phone call with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Eisenhower mentioned how “the boys at the UN” are putting pressure on both Egypt and Israel, demonstrating an attempt at multilateralism versus the unilateral actions of Israel, Egypt, and the other nations. He demonstrated his pride and accomplishment of peace to Americans when he said that “our wish prevailed through a long succession of conferences and negotiations for weeks – even months with participation by the United Nations.”
With his primary goal being to preserve life and peace, which was his most profound lesson from the war, Eisenhower did his best to incorporate that lesson into his foreign policy. This was demonstrated in his ending of the Korean War, supporting the Hungarian rebels without sending in U.S. troops, and warning former allies against an invasion of Egypt. Eisenhower summarized this belief when he told Americans that “we do not accept the use of force as a wise or proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes.” In an address at Columbia University, Eisenhower recalled how he “was in the thick of war and reconstruction of war,” and “despite all its terrors, its destruction, its cost…these years and these experiences have served to ripen and enlarge [his] devotion to peace” and his “efforts to close forever the doors of the Temple of Janus.” In his first inaugural address, Eisenhower mentions how his foreign policy will be one that “promote the conditions of peace” and “save humanity from preying upon itself,” while also refusing the “futility of appeasement” and vowing not to “placate an aggressor by the false and wicked bargain of trading honor for security.”
However, his language is not to be confused with an aloof form of leadership not willing to stand up and fight for freedom if required. He reaffirms American commitment to liberty by saying that all free men must “remember that in the final choice, a soldier’s pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner’s chains,” suggesting that a fight for freedom and liberation is a just and noble cause. Eisenhower also discusses how difficult keeping the peace can be through diplomacy and negotiations, saying that “the United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened — by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.”
While Eisenhower believed that peace is “a bold and solemn purpose” and the “climate of freedom,” he admitted that “we [Americans] must pay the costs of our own needed military strength and to help to build the security of others.” For the most part, Americans agreed with Eisenhower and his advocacy for peace, diplomacy, and World War II ideals. However, some Americans believed that Eisenhower’s commitment to peace made him timid in confronting adversaries and in fighting for the ideals for which he advocated. In a New York Times letter to the editor printed in December 1956, the author criticizes Eisenhower, saying “it is not enough to shake a reproachful finger at those who rob mankind of equality before the law, of fair trial, of freedom of speech, of self government” against what they call “the return of an inhuman savagery as evil as that of Hitler or Ivan the Terrible or Attila, King of the Huns.” Such an invocation of Hitler is especially piercing when discussing Eisenhower and his commitment to World War II ideals, as Eisenhower was actually tasked with leading Americans against the Nazis during the war.
Another letter to the editor of The New York Times makes a similar argument, asking why the United States and United Nations are so weak and ineffective in dealing with the crisis in Hungary. The author praises the heroism of the Hungarians saying “the hard truth is that the heroism of the Hungarian people and the cause for freedom has not been matched by courage or determination of effectiveness on the part of the nations of the free world or on the part of the United Nations.” Although he was one of World War Two’s greatest American heroes and a strong believer in peace, justice, liberty, and self-government, some Americans criticized Eisenhower’s foreign policy as being ineffective and incongruent with the ideals of which he spoke so eloquently and passionately.
Image Courtesy of History.com
Bess, Demaree. “The Army’s Favorite General,” The Saturday Evening Post, 3 October 1942.
Boyle, Peter G. “The Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis.” History 90, (October 2005): 550–565.
Cronkite, Walter. Interview with Dwight Eisenhower. The New York Times, 1964.
Dwight Eisenhower to Anthony Eden, November 7, 1956. U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, (Washington, D.C., 1956), XVI, 540.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. “Address at Columbia University,” 23 March 1950.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. “D-day statement to soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6/44,” June 6, 1944. Collection DDE-EPRE: Papers, Pre-Presidential, 1916-1952; Dwight D. Eisenhower Library; National Archives and Records Administration.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. “First Inaugural Address,” 20 January 1953.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. Letter from Dwight Eisenhower to Mamie Eisenhower, 15 September 1942.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Developments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” 31 October 1956.
Eisenhower, Dwight, D. “Second Inaugural Address,” 21 January 1957.
“Human Rights Today,” The New York Times, Letter to the Editor, 10 December 1956.
Lyon, Peter. Eisenhower: Portrait of a Hero. Boston, MA and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1974.
“Resistance in Hungary,” The New York Times, Letter to the Editor, 30 November 1956.