He was once considered to be one of America’s blandest presidents -- even the butt of jokes in the ‘hipper’ times that came after the 1950s. But revisionist histories of Dwight D. Eisenhower are casting our 34th president in a new role as a wise warrior for peace who may well have saved our skins from nuclear annihilation.
That message is underlined with passion and power in George A. Colburn, Ph.D’s new two-part documentary, “Eisenhower’s Secret War,” which airs this week on WCMU Public Television.
“‘The Secret War’ is about Eisenhower’s strategy,” says Colburn, a resident of the Little Traverse area. “He had a point of view at a time when everyone in the world was building tactical nuclear weapons, even while the war in Korea was going on. And that view was that we cannot have a nuclear war.
“So Eisenhower’s secret war, which he mentions in volume two of his memoirs, was called ‘waging peace,’” Colburn adds. “One friend called him the original peacenik who was determined to keep the peace at almost any cost.”
Colburn, 75, lives with his wife Karen McGauhey Colburn in Melrose Township, midway between Walloon Lake and Boyne Mountain in Charlevoix County. The couple moved here from Washington, D.C., in 1998 and thanks to the internet, were able to carry on their work as documentary producers without having to live in their former haunts of D.C., L.A. and New York City.
“Instead of weeks in a studio in DC or NY, I was able to do almost everything here in a small office-studio in downtown Petoskey,” Colburn notes, adding that it’s been a team effort with the help of his wife, musician Pete Kehoe, senior editor Colin Brougham, translator Bob Elliott and other local talent.
A WORLD OF CHAOS
In the aftermath of World War II in which an estimated 60 million people died, the world was a hornet’s nest of chaos and uprisings -- particularly against the colonial powers which had been weakened by the war. Colburn’s documentary presents archival film footage of the time, bringing that turmoil to life:
• French Algeria exploded in civil war. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Viet Minh challenged French rule of IndoChina.
• The nations of East Europe fell one-by-one to Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. In Hungary, a revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1956.
• Britain faced rebellion in Iraq and the Middle East as it tried to hang onto the region’s oil fields.
Against this backdrop sat the specter of World War III. America had a monopoly on the atomic bomb for four years after its development in 1945, but the Soviet Union quickly bridged the gap. Both nations soon developed much larger hydrogen bombs and the air power to deliver them. Also developed were “tactical” nuclear weapons -- small-megaton bombs which could be fired from cannons on the battlefield.
A five-star general who had served as Supreme Allied Commander in the European theater of WWII and thereafter as head of the NATO alliance, Eisenhower had an intimate understanding of war and its horrific power.
“Eisenhower faced the problem of how could we manage to sidestep nuclear war at at a time when it had only been a few years when we had used the bombs ourselves (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and tactical nuclear weapons were also being developed,” Colburn says. “He soon came to realize that with their size and impact, a nuclear war would mean the end of the world as we knew it.”
In one famous quote, an advisor asked President Eisenhower how the United States would rebuild its currency if and when World War III was fought. “We’re not going to be worrying about the exchange rate,” Eisenhower responded. “We’re going to be grubbing for worms.”
Colburn’s documentary notes that Eisenhower considered a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union at a time when the U.S. still had massive nuclear superiority, but decided against it on moral grounds.
Yet, with the world in turmoil, Eisenhower had constant pressure from the Pentagon, hawkish politicians and the military-industrial complex to use nuclear weapons, Colburn says. The French even asked for U.S. nukes to use against rebels in Vietnam, which Eisenhower dismissed as ridiculous. President Harry Truman had similar pressures to use the atom bomb against the Chinese communists during the Korean War, but also resisted.
Instead, Eisenhower chose a path to peace which some might consider counter-intuitive. He stockpiled vast numbers of nuclear bombs and warheads in the belief that their sheer numbers and firepower would make America too dangerous to attack. Meanwhile, he downsized the military, while modernizing it with technologically-superior weapons.
“He was a man of great patience who wasn’t one to rush into action, because he knew that if you’re wrong about an ultimatum there’s no retreat,” Colburn says. “He was also an amazingly perceptive diplomat and strategist who was dismissed as a man of the 19th century when I was young. Now, we know better.”
In fact, much of what Eisenhower accomplished during the Cold War was the result of patience and bluffing. He was said to be so good at bluffing that he had to stop playing poker in the Army because he tended to win all the hands.
This ability is supported by journalist Evan Thomas, the author of “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World,” who narrates the documentary. It’s one of four major books on Eisenhower coming out this year.
Eisenhower, whose political views were a complete mystery, was recruited by both the Democrats and the Republicans to run for President. One clip shows then-Democrat Ronald Reagan telling how the Dems wanted Ike on their team. He ended up scoring landslide victories in the elections of 1952 and ’56 and managed to work well with the Democratic House and Senate.
Colburn, who’s had a lifetime of experience as a documentary producer, researcher, print journalist, and even as a member of the Lansing city council, says he had zero interest in Eisenhower as a young man. He was asked to help out on a documentary on Ike in the early ‘90s, however, by a fellow journalist to whom he owed a favor.
“Since then, I’ve spent 25 years on Eisenhower, and these are my ninth and tenth hours of film on him,” he says. That includes three programs he produced with John Chancellor for The Discovery Channel and a four-part series with General Colin Power for Disney. He began piecing together “Eisenhower’s Secret War” as far back as 2003 -- a project which included 160 interviews with Eisenhower scholars, friends and family.
With its mix of historical film footage and interviews mulling over one of the most terrifying times in human history, “Eisenhower’s Secret War” is a walk down memory lane for the older generations and a political thriller for the young and uninformed.
Showtimes on WCMU Public Television:
The Lure of the Presidency (Hour One)
Thu, 05/09 -- 10 pm
Fri, 05/10 -- 4:30 am
Sat, 05/11 -- 8 pm
Sun, 05/12 -- 2 am
Building Weapons, Talking Peace (Hour Two)
Thu, 05/16/ -- 10 pm
Fri, 05/17 -- 4:30 am
Sat, 05/18 -- 8 pm
Sun, 05/19 -- 2 am