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BLAMING POWELL—AND EISENHOWER—FOR NOT HAVING PUSHED THROUGH BY KEVIN BAKER
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
Still, the idea that the United States had handed Berlin to the Russians continued to flourish, given new life by the 1948 Soviet blockade of the city. It became an adjunct myth to the enduring shibboleth that Stalin had been handed all of Eastern Europe at Yalta, a lingering and poisonous contention that America had somehow been betrayed from within.
Initially, these charges centered on Roosevelt—conveniently no longer around to defend himself—and other veterans of his and Truman’s administrations. Eisenhower’s emergence as a presidential candidate in 1952, however, soon drew the fire to him. As the historian Jeff Broadwater notes, in Eisenhower & the Anti-Communist Crusade , pamphlets distributed by far-right fringe groups at the time labeled the victor of Normandy “a crypto-Socialist who had turned ‘the best part of Germany over to the Russians.’” The campaign of his leading rival for the Republican nomination, Robert Taft, eagerly spread these charges around the country.
At first Ike responded with appropriate contempt. None of his critics, he pointed out, had been around in 1945 “to go out and pick the ten thousand American mothers” whose sons would have died to take “a worthless objective.” Yet the 1952 campaign was conducted during the nadir of McCarthyism, and Eisenhower was soon reduced to his own version of revisionism. He had supposedly entered the presidential race largely to preserve the bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy he had had such a hand in establishing after the war. Yet out on the hustings he blasted almost every aspect of it, including the “loss” of China to the communists, the Yalta accords, and even the decision not to race the Soviets to Berlin, which he himself had made. The Korean War, then still raging, might never have happened “if we had been less soft and weak.” The war itself was practically a conspiracy: “The Democrats could purchase full employment only at the price of dead and mangled bodies of young Americans.”
IKE RESPONDED WITH APPROPRIATE CONTEMPT. OUR GULF WAR REVISIONISTS MIGHT TAKE NOTE.
All this was too much for President Harry Truman, who, as a brand-new Chief Executive, had left decisions on whether to beat the Soviets to Berlin and Prague strictly to Eisenhower and who had consulted with Ike on virtually every aspect of his policy of containing the Soviets since then. Ike’s 1952 campaign caused a rift between the two men that lasted for years.
Eisenhower himself, perhaps driven by guilt, would continue trying to re- write the past in his retirement. His 1967 memoir, At Ease, recalled two different wartime warnings against the Soviet threat, but as Ambrose points out, Eisenhower “may well have uttered such warnings, but he did not mention them in Crusade in Europe , written almost two decades before At Ease , nor did he ever write anything during the war to indicate that he was fearful of Russian intentions.… The truth was that he may have wished by 1952 that he had taken a hard line with the Russians in 1945, but he had not.”
In the end, things didn’t work out so badly. East Germany, which the Soviets would have created in any case, proved a useful display window for the many charms of communist life, and while it was a shame that any people had to endure them, perhaps dividing Germany for a generation was the only thing that could have enabled it to be reincorporated into a peaceful, democratic Europe.
Eisenhower was right the first time, and our Gulf War revisionists might take note. Nice as it would be to have already consigned Saddam to the trash bin of history, things were not so simple back in 1991. The UN coalition that liberated Kuwait had no mandate to push on to Baghdad, nor is it at all clear what would have happened if it had done so. The first Bush administration had legitimate concerns that a leaderless Iraq would fall prey to the radical Shiite regime next door in Iran. Ten thousand American boys might have been sacrificed merely to empower the heirs of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Whatever happens in the future, it’s impossible to say that that would have been a better alternative.
Of course, General Powell had an advantage over Eisenhower. Unlike Ike, he was not under the command of a brandnew President, barely getting a grip on the immensity of the task before him. Regardless of what advice Colin Powell did or did not give President George H. W. Bush, had the President so ordered, Powell would have pushed on to Baghdad or anywhere else. Observers should not be surprised that he now offers his advice to George W. Bush and then, even when it’s rejected, follows the President’s orders and works as hard as he can for his country. It’s what a good soldier—and a good American—does.