Probably no American president was more thoroughly versed in matters of national security and foreign policy before entering office than Dwight David Eisenhower. As a young military officer, Eisenhower served stateside in World War I and then in Panama and the Philippines in the interwar years. On assignments in Washington and Manila, he worked on war plans, gaining an understanding that national security entailed economic and psychological factors in addition to manpower and materiel. In World War II, he commanded Allied forces in the European Theatre of Operations and honed his skills in coalition building and diplomacy. After the war, he oversaw the German occupation and then became Army Chief of Staff as the nation hastily demobilized. At the onset of the Cold War, Eisenhower embraced President Harry S. Truman’s containment doctrine and participated in the discussions leading to the 1947 National Security Act establishing the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Department of Defense. After briefly retiring from the military, Eisenhower twice returned to public service at the behest of President Truman to assume the temporary chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then, following the outbreak of the Korean War, to become the first Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, charged with transforming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into a viable military force.
These experiences colored Eisenhower’s foreign policy views, which in turn led him to seek the presidency. He viewed the Cold War as a long-term proposition and worried that Truman’s military buildup would overtax finite American resources. He sought a coherent strategic concept that would be sustainable over the long haul without adversely affecting the free enterprise system and American democratic institutions. He also worried that Republican Party leaders were dangerously insular. As president, his New Look policy pursued a cost-effective strategy of containment by means of increased reliance on nuclear forces over more expensive conventional ones, sustained existing regional alliances and developed new ones, sought an orderly process of decolonization under Western guidance, resorted to covert operations to safeguard vital interests, and employed psychological warfare in the battle with communism for world opinion, particularly in the so-called Third World. His foreign policy laid the basis for what would become the overall American strategy for the duration of the Cold War. The legacy of that policy, however, was decidedly mixed. Eisenhower avoided the disaster of global war, but technological innovations did not produce the fiscal savings that he had envisioned. The NATO alliance expanded and mostly stood firm, but other alliances were more problematic. Decolonization rarely proceeded as smoothly as envisioned and caused conflict with European allies. Covert operations had long-term negative consequences. In Southeast Asia and Cuba, the Eisenhower administration’s policies bequeathed a poisoned chalice for succeeding administrations.