In May 1960, the USSR shot down a US spy plane trespassing in their airspace, & the Soviets captured its American pilot, Francis Gary Powers. This international incident increased tensions between the superpowers, & it spoiled peace negotiations between President Dwight Eisenhower & Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. However, the Americans did eventually succeed in negotiations to get the Soviets to release the imprisoned Powers, by agreeing to return a Russian spy in US custody. By the early 60s, both superpowers began scaling back nuclear testing within their borders due to growing concerns about the impact of atomic fallout. Unfortunately, this development came too late for tens of thousands of "downwinders" in the American West, who had already been exposed to radiation that endangered their long-term health. By the end of Ike's administration, the USA was increasing its financial & military support for a troubled regime in South Vietnam. Eisenhower ended his presidency with a speech that expressed concern over the growing "military-industrial complex," which was a monster that his own policies had helped to create.
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From Boomers to Millennials is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations, from the end of World War II up to the present day. Welcome to the first of two episodes about the year 1960, a/k/a Episode 15, “Military-Industrial Complexities & the Last Days of the Eisenhower Era.” When we started our podcast, we favored the concept of covering the key events of each year in a single 45-minute-long episode. Other than in our many supplemental episodes that have done a deeper dive into more marginal topics, we have stuck to that basic formula so far. However, the turbulent Sixties were so packed with history that we will have to divide a few select years (including 1960) into two separate full-length episodes in order to cover them in a way that does them justice. This first episode about the year 1960 focuses on foreign policy & civil defense matters, & also wraps up the story of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term in office. The second 1960 episode will cover domestic issues, including a new wave of civil rights activism in the South & the year’s presidential election race between Democrat John F. Kennedy & Republican Richard M. Nixon.
At the beginning of 1960, President Eisenhower had considerable cause for confidence & pride in his two-term presidency. He had achieved many of his domestic policy goals & he remained personally popular with the American public. After engaging in productive face-to-face negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during 1959 (see episode 14 for details), he hoped to conclude his term by putting the United States on track for better relations with the USSR, enabling him to claim a presidential legacy that promoted international peace, economic prosperity, & financial stability. Eisenhower hoped to move the US federal government toward greater fiscal conservatism, including a fully balanced budget, but the heavy cost of Cold War military expenditures remained a major obstacle. Only through a diplomatic agreement with the Soviets that guaranteed mutual disarmament could a substantial reduction in federal government spending be made possible. However, Ike’s dream died on the first day of May 1960, just weeks before a scheduled peace summit meeting between the superpowers in Paris.
In his book From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, the historian George C. Herring recounts that on that fateful May day, (quote) “Soviet surface-to-air missiles shot down a U-2 spy plane over . . . the Ural Mountains,” deep inside Russian territory. The US military intelligence flight had left from Pakistan in South Asia, headed northwest into Soviet airspace, & was scheduled to finally touch down in Norway, which was one of America’s key NATO allies in Northern Europe. According to author Jean Edward Smith, (quote) “The flight would require 9 hours & would cover 3800 miles, passing over suspected Russian missile sites en route. Ironically, it was to have been the last flight of the U-2” program (close quote). Of course, Soviet missiles made certain that this flight failed to complete its mission. After shooting down the trespassing foreign aircraft, the Soviets located the wreckage & discovered they had bagged an American spy plane.
The U-2 plane had been piloted by an Air Force officer named Francis Gary Powers. Like many American men of his generation, Powers had used military service to open up opportunities for career advancement & adventure not available in his hometown (he had grown up in a hardscrabble Kentucky coal mining community). He spent years as a military pilot & had flown dozens of successful missions prior to setting off on the ill-fated U-2 flight. After being shot down, he survived the crash by ejecting & making use of his parachute. Unfortunately for Powers, soon after ditching & landing on Soviet soil, he was located, captured, & imprisoned by the USSR. Powers’s survival was the source of some controversy; historian James T. Patterson writes in his book Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 that (quote) “The CIA, which had charge of the flights, had equipped Powers with a needle dipped in . . . deadly poison so that he could kill himself before being captured” (close quote). Powers later claimed that he had been told that the suicide needle was an option provided to soldiers who hoped to avoid potential torture by captors, but that its use was not mandatory. There is still some debate on this point, but one fact is certain; the U-2 crash & Powers’s capture eventually became international front-page news that sparked a new stage of Cold War tensions.
In his presidential biography entitled Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith argues that although the lack of major diplomatic crises had been in part a credit to Eisenhower’s policies, it also involved a certain amount of luck. With the U-2 incident in May 1960, that luck had finally run out, in large part because Ike had allowed his administration to begin pushing its luck. We first mentioned the U-2 spy plane program back in Episode 12, when we identified it as the source of intelligence that allowed the president to be confident that, despite technological advances like Sputnik, the Soviets were still lagging behind the US in the nuclear arms race. However, Smith notes that (quote) “By 1960 it had become clear that the U-2 was fast becoming obsolete. Soviet missiles were improving in range & accuracy, & it was only a matter of time before a plane would be shot down” (close quote). The US Air Force had been developing another secret satellite program called Corona (believe it or not) to replace the U-2 program that had lost its edge, but the Corona spy plane program wasn’t yet operational. In early 1960, the CIA (under the leadership of the hawkish Allen Dulles) sought presidential authorization for more of the increasingly risky U-2 flights. The agency had already obtained an accurate basic assessment of Soviet missile capacity, but it expressed concern that US intelligence officials might still have some gaps in their knowledge. According to George Herring, (quote) “Eisenhower had long been uneasy about the U-2 flights, recognizing that they [potentially] constituted an act of war” (close quote). Nevertheless, the president reluctantly approved another U-2 reconnaissance flight in April. Smith reports that (quote) “The flight took place without incident, & the photos revealed no new missile sites” (close quote). But the CIA asked for one more flight in May, & Ike once again agreed. That final flight was the one piloted by Powers that was shot down over the USSR.
The president was quickly informed once the military discovered that the U-2 plane was missing, but according to Smith the US government did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation (quote) “since it was assumed that the plane would be destroyed on impact & the pilot would be dead” (close quote). Smith argues that (quote) “Eisenhower thought it best to ignore the incident, hoping that Khrushchev might do the same in the interest of harmony at the summit. Those hopes were dashed on May 5th when Khrushchev, in a lengthy [public] speech to the Supreme Soviet [Council], announced they had shot down an American spy deep inside the Soviet Union. Khrushchev blamed ‘Pentagon militarists’ for the act,” intentionally avoiding placing direct blame upon Pres. Eisenhower (close quote).
In response to Khrushchev’s accusation of illegal American spying in Soviet airspace, Eisenhower at first denied that the downed plane was engaged in espionage at all, claiming it had just been conducting meteorological research & had veered off course. Historian James T. Patterson contends that Khrushchev played his cards carefully, keeping secret the fact that his government had captured the American pilot because he (quote) “hoped that the US would spin a tissue of lies, in which case the Soviet Union could humiliate Eisenhower & claim a big propaganda victory. The ruse worked. [After] American officials confirmed only that a weather reconnaissance plane was missing . . . Khrushchev then [sprang] his trap on May 7, proclaiming that Powers had been captured and had confessed & that Russian officials had the plane, complete with photographic equipment that proved Powers had been spying” (close quote). Smith adds that Khrushchev specifically accused the CIA & mocked the US government’s lie about the plane being meant for meteorological research by quipping, (quote) “The whole world knows that Allen Dulles is no weatherman” (close quote).
Khrushchev was genuinely angered by the U-2 flights, but Patterson argues that he also made a big fuss about them at the summit in order to embarrass the USA & to thereby demonstrate his toughness to wavering Soviet allies, especially the Communist Chinese. According to Professor Herring, Khrushchev wanted to gain the propaganda victory without necessarily destroying the summit negotiations, but he put himself in a position where he needed some kind of American concession in order to continue negotiating without appearing weak. He floated the idea that the hard-liners in Ike’s administration may have been responsible for the spy flight, not the president himself. Of course, Eisenhower knew this idea was wrong, & probably found it insulting. Khrushchev then asked Eisenhower for a formal apology & a promise of no more violations of Soviet airspace. Ike stated that he would suspend any further U-2 flights, but, showing his own brand of toughness, he refused to apologize to the Soviet premier for the incident. According to Smith, the president justified his refusal to apologize by (quote) “pointing out that the U-2 flights involved no aggressive intent, [and] were only gathering information to guard against surprise attacks” (close quote). One has to wonder how accepting an American leader would be if the Soviets had used this defense to justify invading our airspace. Ike’s argument did not persuade Khrushchev; instead, the outraged Soviets stormed out in protest, & the summit meeting came to a dead end. Khrushchev also withdrew his invitation (mentioned in Episode 14) for Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union.
The president then faced the problem of explaining both the facts behind the U-2 incident & the subsequent failure of the Paris summit to the American public. Patterson notes that (quote) “Eisenhower might then have kept quiet. But he was embarrassed by rumors that the [U-2] mission had taken place without his authorization, & he resolved to set those rumors straight. He announced at a press conference on May 11th that he knew everything of importance that happened in his administration. The flight had been necessary, he added, because ‘no one wants another Pearl Harbor’” (close quote). The president defended espionage as a (quote-unquote) “distasteful but vital necessity.” Smith argues that (quote) “Eisenhower’s decision to accept personal responsibility for the U-2 flights may have been the finest hour of his presidency” (close quote), because he refused to listen to those who were encouraging him to blame subordinates for the decision. However, I take a different view; I don’t think a president should get too much credit simply for coming clean with the American public, although there certainly have been other commanders-in-chief who probably would have doubled down on a cover-up rather than ever admit to making a mistake or promoting a deception.
Regardless of the public effectiveness of Eisenhower’s rationalizations for American espionage, the consequences of rising tensions between the superpowers after the failed Paris summit were serious & potentially dangerous. Herring opines that the U-2 incident (quote) “destroyed the summit, cost the president & the United States heavily in prestige, ended any chance of substantive negotiations [between the Americans & Soviets] before the November [1960 US] elections, and left [the] Berlin [situation] more dangerous than ever” (close quote). James T. Patterson concurs, suggesting that (quote) “The legacy of the U-2 Affair was negative for all involved, save perhaps Khrushchev who scored the propaganda victory that he seemed to crave. American critics . . . were chagrined to see [Ike] caught in a lie, not only to Khrushchev but also to the American people” (close quote). Just a few months later, notes Herring, during autumn 1960 the Soviet leadership’s aggressive tone alarmed the US public when Premier Nikita Khrushchev attended a speech at the United Nations & responded to criticisms in the speech of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe by removing his shoe & pounding it furiously on his desk. This display may have been (quote) “amusing, had it not seemed so ominous” & it “kept the Cold War threat very much alive . . . [in the minds of] Americans” (close quote). Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy spent the fall attacking the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for allegedly causing the USA to fall behind the Soviet Union in terms of military technologies & capabilities. Both major US political parties were competing by the early 60s to appear as the faction that would be tougher on the Soviets & their Communist allies throughout the world. Patterson concludes that (quote) “The U-2 Incident . . . set in motion a hardening of Soviet-American relations that intensified during the next 2 years” (close quote).
Sometimes lost in narratives about the U-2 crash’s impact on international relations is the fate of the aircraft’s unfortunate pilot Francis Gary Powers. Portions of this underexamined historical story were explored in an interesting Tom Hanks movie from 2015 entitled Bridge of Spies. The film is based upon the true story of a Brooklyn-based lawyer named James Donovan (played by Hanks) who became entangled in the aftermath of the U-2 incident. Donovan was born into an Irish-American family in the New York City borough of The Bronx, and he went on to graduate from prestigious Harvard Law School. He then served in the Navy during World War II, & he subsequently worked as an Assistant Trial Counsel at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, which brings us all the way back to Episode 1A. After spending several years in private law practice, in 1957 Donovan was appointed to provide a legal defense for a man known as Rudolf Abel, who had been arrested in New York City & charged with being a Soviet spy. According to the British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, the true identity of the man who identified himself as Rudolf Abel was a British-born Communist named William Fisher; (quote) “he had been born to a Russian mother in Newcastle [in Northern England] before emigrating to the Soviet Union” (close quote). However, the Americans did not know the truth about his background or (more importantly) his mission, and the man known as Abel wasn’t talking. Donovan’s client Mr. Abel was convicted of espionage, but the gifted lawyer successfully persuaded the judge not to give Abel a death sentence, such as the one the Rosenbergs had received for espionage earlier in the decade (see Episode 4). Donovan also appealed Abel’s conviction to the US Supreme Court, claiming that the government had conducted an illegal search in its pursuit of his client, but the court ruled against this argument by a 5 to 4 margin. Publicly offering a vigorous defense of a Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War unsurprisingly made life difficult for Donovan & his family; they were shunned for a time by many in the local community (although for dramatic purposes the film exaggerates the extent of the threats & persecution that they faced).
Yet Donovan’s representation of a controversial Soviet agent opened up an unexpected opportunity for him in 1962, when the US government informed the attorney that the Soviets were interested in doing a prisoner swap. They sought to recover their asset Rudolf Abel in exchange for the downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who by this point had been convicted in a show trial & sentenced to 3 years in a Soviet prison. American officials sent Donovan to Berlin in order to negotiate the exchange. In my opinion, the most compelling scenes in Bridge of Spies depict Donovan’s journeys in East Germany; they reflect the bleakness, poverty, & chaos of life in East Berlin at that time, & they show the Berlin Wall being constructed to block East Germans from escape into Non-Communist West Berlin. Von Tunzelmann notes that this scene takes some dramatic license with the actual chronology of events; the East Germans had completed construction of the wall several months before Donovan’s arrival in Berlin. A successful negotiation between Donovan’s American team & the Communist forces led Powers to be freed in exchange for the US returning Abel to Soviet custody, and the American pilot returned at last to the United States. Although some in the public criticized Powers for allowing himself to be captured alive, the US government reviewed the case & determined that he had behaved honorably. During the mid-1960s, the CIA issued Powers a medal known as the Intelligence Star for Valor. After leaving military service, Powers spent several years as a news helicopter pilot in Los Angeles before unfortunately dying in a 1977 crash at the age of 47.
Among the most noteworthy casualties of the U-2 incident, Patterson writes, was that it (quote) “destroyed whatever hopes had existed . . . for a [nuclear] test ban agreement” between the USA & the USSR (close quote). Even in the absence of an agreement, it was increasingly becoming clear to the superpowers that their reckless detonations of powerful atomic weapons had to be curtailed for the health of the planet & its population. According to history professors Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil, throughout the 1950s, (quote) “Bomb shelters & civil defense drills provided a daily reminder of the threat of nuclear war, and atomic research & testing had a devastating impact on human health” and the environment (close quote). During the early years of the Cold War, the US government had portrayed nuclear technology as something that could be safely harnessed for the good of mankind. Back in 1954, President Eisenhower praised the creation of America’s first commercial nuclear power plant in Western Pennsylvania. By that time, the Soviets already had nuclear power plants in operation; both superpowers emphasized the upsides & downplayed the dangers of nuclear energy. During the Early Cold War, even highly destructive nuclear weapons were often portrayed by US officials as a kind of necessary evil that would preserve international peace. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had boasted that the Soviets would not dare provoke a Third World War in Europe because aggression there would be met with massive nuclear retaliation by the United States. However, by the end of the Eisenhower Era, the hazards of the nuclear age were become undeniable. According to historians Murrin, Gerstle, Johnson, Rosenberg, McPherson, & Rosenberg, who are not a law firm but rather the co-authors of the textbook Liberty Equality Power, by the late 50s (quote) “Responding to worries about the health hazards of atomic fallout, both [superpowers] slowed above-ground testing” (close quote).
However, the damage had already been done for those Americans who had previously been exposed to the radioactive fallout. Patterson writes that (quote) “The United States exploded at least 203 nuclear weapons in the Pacific & in Nevada between 1946 & 1961 . . . exposing an estimated 200,000 civilian & military personnel to some degree of radiation . . . Americans near the Nevada test sites were rocked & startled by blasts and flashes of light from the explosions. Thousands of people employed in clean-up operations, as well as ‘downwinders’ . . . in western states, claimed to suffer from the effects of radioactivity as a result of these tests” (close quote). To the federal government’s lasting discredit, US officials downplayed the potential danger of these tests as the time. Patterson argues that (quote) “It is now clear . . . that experts underestimated the dangers from [nuclear] experiments. It is also clear that officials in charge of atomic testing knowingly exposed human beings to nuclear fallout” (close quote). Murrin & his co-authors report that (quote) “Government documents finally declassified in the 1980s confirmed that people who lived ‘downwind’ from nuclear test sites during the 1940s & 50s suffered a number of atomic-related illnesses. Subsequent new revelations showed that the government had covertly experimented with radioactive materials on unsuspecting American citizens” (close quote). The so-called “downwinders” greatly outnumbered the unlucky few who were intentionally exposed to radiation by federal defense agencies, but this larger group also had substantial cause to feel wronged by the US government. According to Erik Neumann of KUER, a Salt Lake City based National Public Radio affiliate, (quote) “Thousands of people living in Nevada, Utah, & Arizona at the time of the Nevada Test Site nuclear explosions were unknowingly blanketed with radioactive fallout. The result is a legacy of [high rates of] illness & diagnoses of 19 different cancers” (close quote).
In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which was subsequently signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The bill provided financial compensation for downwinders harmed by nuclear fallout, and also gave benefits to uranium miners throughout the American West, who had also been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in the workplace. Neumann reports that (quote) “To date, the federal government has paid out $2.3 billion [dollars] to around 50,000 people” (close quote). As terrible as the US government’s Early Cold War recklessness toward the health of ordinary citizens strikes us today, the bipartisan passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act during the Late Cold War era reminds of a strange time when Congress actually was able to habitually pass legislation to address major social problems. Weird, right?
Other legacies of 1950s US nation defense efforts would also have negative effects upon the long-term health & safety of millions of Americans. Patterson notes that (quote) “The legacy of Eisenhower foreign policy in Vietnam after 1956 was also grim & lasting” (close quote). We first discussed Vietnam in Episode 2, describing how in 1945 President Truman ignored an appeal for US assistance from a Vietnamese independence movement leader named Ho Chi Minh, whom the American government distrusted because of his Communist leanings. Instead, the Truman Administration opposed Vietnamese independence & supported the restoration of Vietnam as a colony of the French Empire, which was an important US ally. The Americans helped to fund the French in their war against Communist Vietnamese insurgents well into the mid-1950s. It may seem strange that Vietnam, a small, obscure country halfway around the world, was so important to the Americans, but after the fall of China to Communism & the Korean War, the USA was highly sensitive to any further expansions of the Communist Bloc in East Asia.
After France’s ultimate defeat by Communist Viet Minh guerilla forces at Dien Bien Phu (discussed back in Episode 9), the French abandoned the colony, signing onto the Geneva Accords in 1954, which divided their former territory of Indochina into 3 new countries: Laos, Cambodia, & Vietnam. The agreement also temporarily split Vietnam into 2 governments, a communist regime in the north & a capitalist government in the south, until an election could be held to unify the country. However, Patterson reports that the Americans, who were concerned about prospects for a Communist victory (quote) “encouraged [South Vietnamese] leader Ngo Dinh Diem to ignore the Geneva Accords’ call for national elections in ’56.” The Eisenhower “administration [then] proceeded to step up support for [Diem’s] increasingly corrupt & dictatorial regime. The aid totaled some $1 billion dollars between 1955 & 1961, making South Vietnam the 5th largest recipient in the world of American assistance during that time” (close quote). By the late 50s, the US employed over 1500 government agents in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. American aid to Diem’s regime (quote) “helped to control inflation & to rebuild the southern economy in [urban] places like Saigon. But it did little to help [rural] villages, where more than 90% of the people of South Vietnam lived” (close quote). Those villagers’ hearts & minds remained quite open to persuasion by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist faction, whose agents were increasingly infiltrating South Vietnam from the north. Meanwhile, Murrin & his co-authors report that Eisenhower ordered US intelligence agencies to engage in covert operations in both north & south Vietnams in order to (quote) “prevent Ho Chi Minh from becoming head of a unified Vietnam” (close quote). However, this may have been fighting an uphill battle; Ho Chi Minh was regarded as a national hero throughout all of Vietnam, not due to his Communist beliefs, but instead because he had led the resistance movement that had successfully fought the Japanese who occupied Vietnam during World War II & he had driven out the French during the mid-1950s.
Patterson indicates that most US aid to the South Vietnamese was going to their military in order to prepare for a potential North Vietnamese invasion rather than going to help improve the daily lives of the impoverished population. President Diem proved to be an autocratic ruler who (quote) “filled village & provincial offices with friends, many of whom arrested local notables on trumped-up charges & forced them to pay bribes in order to get released. Diem . . . shut down unfriendly newspapers & incarcerated many thousands of opponents” (close quote). Murrin & company observe that the policies of Diem, who was a member of the country’s Roman Catholic religious minority, were alienating to many leaders of the nation’s Buddhist religious majority. Officials in the Eisenhower administration were concerned about Diem’s unpopularity with the South Vietnamese public & urged him to enact reforms. According to Patterson, (quote) “The dictator refused, whereupon the Americans – having no viable political alternatives in the South – relented” & allowed Diem to ignore their demands (close quote). On the other hand, Patterson contends that, despite his attempts to portray himself as a champion of the rights of the world’s workers, Ho Chi Minh arguably had an even worse human rights record. (Quote) “Estimates place the number of dissidents executed [in the North] at between 3,000 & 15,000 from 1954 to 1960” (close quote). After using such purges to centralize his authority in North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh finally gave his Communist forces the green light in 1959 to launch a guerilla warfare campaign in South Vietnam.
This emerging Vietnamese Civil War soon became more intense & bloodier. The Americans had already invested considerable resources in making certain that South Vietnam did not fall to the Communists. Patterson notes that many State Department officials in the late 50s also worried about instability in the nation of Laos, which bordered North Vietnam, & feared that Communists could soon take over that country as well. This seemed to justify the Eisenhower Administration’s “domino theory” that Communism could spread like a disease throughout the nations of a particular region. However, according to Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil, although (quote) “American policymakers . . . asserted that a non-Communist South Vietnam was vital to US security interests . . . In reality, Vietnam was too small a country to upset the international balance of power, & its Communist movement was [largely] regional & nationalistic rather than [being] directed by Moscow” (close quote). Nevertheless, the conditions that would tempt future US presidents to escalate American military involvement in Southeast Asia were already in place by the end of the Fifties. Indeed, Eisenhower already started this process during the last year of his presidency; Patterson observes that over 1,000 US military quote-unquote “advisers” had been sent to Saigon even before John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in January 1961.
We shall conclude this episode, part 1 of our exploration of the year 1960, by considering the overall legacy of the Eisenhower administration. Herring observes that Eisenhower’s reputation among historians has improved in recent decades. (Quote) “No longer dismissed as an intellectual lightweight . . . he is generally recognized as a self-assured & prudent leader who understood politics &, having seen war firsthand, appreciated the limits of military power. Despite frequent crises . . . he managed to keep the peace during his time in office” (close quote). In a recent survey in 2021 by presidential historians, both of the US presidents we have covered so far, Harry S Truman & Dwight D. Eisenhower, were ranked as among the Top 10 Presidents in the entire history of the USA. Seeing this result gave me some pause, because for both men, my re-examination of their legacies through this podcast has led me to have decidedly mixed conclusions about their greatness. On the positive side of the ledger, although the fiery Truman & the cool, calculating Eisenhower were very different men in terms of personality & public image, both led presidencies that involved a relatively sensible & moderate approach to domestic policy, some progressive steps on race relations, & an approach to foreign policy that allowed the US to avoid a global war against the Communist superpowers of Russia & China without retreating into weakness or isolationism. One might also add that both men appear to have been in most regards fairly decent & honorable people, at least when compared to the standards of many other US presidents & politicians. Then again, both Harry & Ike sometimes displayed poor judgment, especially by exaggerating the immediate domestic threat of Communism to American society & by overestimating the power of the USA to direct & control global events. This led these postwar presidents to favor a rapid buildup of nuclear arms at home & to initiate interventions into foreign governments abroad.
Perhaps concerned about his geopolitical legacy, President Eisenhower engaged in one final critically-acclaimed act of statesmanship right before leaving office. He gave a provocative speech from the Oval Office during January 1961 that remains one of his most enduring historical legacies. This speech warned about the rise of a (quote-unquote) “military-industrial complex,” which was the close nexus of private defense contractors & US military government agencies. According to biographer Jean Edward Smith, the idea for the speech came from White House advisers who thought the president should pattern it after George Washington’s famous farewell address warning against “entangling alliances.” Eisenhower noted in his speech that (quote) “We annually spend more on military security than the net income of all US corporations . . . This immense military establishment & . . . large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists & will persist” (close quote).
The speech is now regarded as a moment of responsible statesmanship when a president used his “bully pulpit” to warn the American public of a potential danger to democratic government. The New Left of the 1960s & many other antiwar movements that followed in its footsteps during recent decades have been particularly fond of the speech & have marshaled the term “military-industrial complex” for their criticisms of those who profit off international conflict & bloodshed. These activists also raised the possibility that private munitions industry lobbyists might pressure American politicians to enter into unnecessary wars, in order to justify further weapons expenditures & even greater profits for these powerful defense contractors. To Eisenhower’s more conservative advisors, however, the danger was also in the opposite direction, of the federal government intervening in the marketplace by giving sweetheart deals to certain defense companies & not others, & also of ever-growing centralized government spending becoming the main source of income for private industry, which was an affront to the ideal of competitive private-sector capitalism.
George Herring credits Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech with perceiving & expressing serious concerns about the way the Cold War was reshaping the nation’s economy & its politics. But he also notes that the problem Ike identified of powerful military agencies being entangled with defense companies was in part a result of the president’s own policies during the Fifties. One of Eisenhower’s legacies was a troubled Cold War foreign policy status quo that the presidents of the 1960s would inherit. His government continued to spend tremendous amounts of money on weapons built by private defense contractors. His Cold War strategy relied on stockpiling nuclear weapons as a way of avoiding conventional war; as a result, the military’s nuclear arsenal grew to massive proportions during Ike’s presidency. Herring reports that (quote) “From ’58 to ’60 alone, the number of nuclear weapons increased from 6,000 to 18,000, overkill by any standard” (close quote). Eisenhower had approved the nuclear weapons testing that negatively affected downwinders within US borders. He had approved the construction of U-2 spy planes & then signed off on them being sent on missions into foreign airspace around the world. He had funded the American covert intelligence agencies & allowed them to aggressively interfere in the internal politics of foreign governments.
Herring suggests that both Truman & Eisenhower failed notably in dealing with decolonization & 3rd world nationalism. (Quote) “They never fully appreciated . . . new nations’ . . . understandable hypersensitivity to outside influences, especially Western [influences], & their neutralist tendencies [to avoid having to pick a side in the Cold War]” (close quote). Instead, the Americans often seemed to perceive that any hostility to US influence could only be motivated by Communist ideas, rather than being based in an understandable desire of a sovereign nation to chart its own course free from any foreign patron. As a result, Ike’s administration engaged in aggressive meddling into Third World governments that tried to distance themselves from the capitalist West. In allowing this course of action, Eisenhower probably gave too free a hand to the Dulles brothers (who we first introduced in Episode 9) when he signed off on many of their ill-considered schemes. Ike’s militantly hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles died of cancer in 1959, but his brother Allen remained head of the CIA into the Kennedy Administration. In 1961, Allen Dulles was a main advocate of a US-backed coup attempt in Cuba that ended in disaster, & Kennedy then forced him to resign as CIA chief. But that’s a story for another day. US attempts at foreign interference under Eisenhower involved not only global espionage & uninvited electoral meddling, but also constituted giving large amounts of US aid to unpopular anti-Communist dictators, including Diem in South Vietnam.
Herring argues that these actions often exacerbated tensions & aroused regional anti-American sentiment. The Eisenhower Administration (quote) “tightened US ties with right-wing dictatorships in South Korea & Taiwan, thus inhibiting [US] foreign policy flexibility” in terms of relations with Mao’s regime in China. “It avoided military intervention in Vietnam in 1954, but its subsequent political commitments to South Vietnam left difficult decisions about war [there] for future [US] leaders. Its rampant interventionism, including assassination plots against . . . 3rd world leaders & the overthrow of properly elected governments [may have] seemed necessary . . . at the time, but [these actions] violated long-standing US principles & had baleful long-term consequences” (close quote). It appears that, like Truman during the Korean War, Eisenhower saw during his final years in office that his foreign policy approach was becoming less effective & arguably was falling apart at the seams. Even the president himself later admitted that he had failed to achieve his international goals; Ike lamented that (quote) “I had longed to give the United States & the world a lasting peace. I was able only to contribute to a stalemate” (close quote). In a damning but fair assessment that goes further, historian George C. Herring argues that (quote) “With Cuba & Berlin unresolved & Americans increasingly anxious, the [Eisenhower] administration bequeathed its successor problems that would lead to the most dangerous period of the Cold War” (close quote). Next time, we will provide a detailed introduction of the unfortunate successor who would have to bear the burden of all those problems, in part II of the year 1960.
The “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Our show is trying to build a bigger following, so we always welcome more podcast reviewers, Patreon donors, & social media followers. If you have comments or suggestions about our podcast, we would love to hear from you. Please e-mail us at [email protected]. Here at the From Boomers to Millennials podcast, we promise our listeners that we will never spy on your private property by using a 1950s U-2 aircraft or even a modern-day drone. After reviewing the story of Francis Gary Powers, we know better than to risk provoking an international podcasting incident & ending up as a pawn in a prisoner exchange between history podcasts & true crime podcasts. The very thought of being held captive by those true crime podcasters is truly chilling. In conclusion, thank you for not listening to a true crime podcast today & instead listening to our humble history podcast. Muchas gracias a todos; many thanks to you all.