From his days at West Point, President Dwight Eisenhower was a skillful card player, first at poker and later at bridge. He could read his opponents' minds and bluff his way to success, which served him well in situations in which the stakes were the highest imaginable.
Evan Thomas' account of how Ike drew on his mastery at the card table to guide the nation through a perilous time in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed weapons that could destroy civilization many times over offers a revealing portrait of a president often dismissed as an amiable dunce who preferred to be on the golf course.
Even as he moved to end the Korean War, Eisenhower embraced a strategy of massive retaliation intended to give pause to Soviet and Chinese aggression. Whether he was prepared to follow through on his threats or simply use them as a bluff was a poker hand hidden from everyone except himself.
"His ability to save the world from nuclear Armageddon entirely depended on his ability to convince America's enemies - and his own followers - that he was willing to use nuclear weapons," Thomas writes. "This was a bluff of epic proportions."
Unlike Jean Edward Smith's magisterial biography of Eisenhower that was acclaimed by critics when published earlier this year, Thomas focuses on foreign policy decisions during his subject's eight years in office that began in 1953. It was a period of material prosperity whose dark side was reflected in Cold War fears that gave rise to anticommunist witch hunts and paranoia.
The author portrays Ike as a beloved military leader who hated war and pressed for mutual disarmament at a time when many in politics, the Pentagon and industry were pushing for expensive and redundant new weapons.
He guided the nation through a series of crises in faraway places - the Formosa Straits, Suez, Lebanon, Berlin - and was despondent when the 1960 downing of a U-2 flight over Russia dashed his hopes for a peace summit with Nikita Khrushchev. Thomas details Ike's relationships with the Soviet leader, as well as with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, his CIA director brother Allen Dulles, hawkish Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The U-2 surveillance flights, which began in 1956, showed the Soviet nuclear arsenal to be far smaller than generally assumed, which debunked hyped-up fears of a "missile gap" in the enemy's favor. But the president could not reveal those findings without disclosing the existence of the supersecret spy planes.
This well-researched and highly readable book draws upon interviews with Ike's son John and granddaughter Susan. It provides a window into the president's personality, health issues, temperament and reluctance to fire underlings who should have been let go. Thomas' account is sure to appeal to older readers who can recall the mandatory duck-and-cover drills in the classroom and to others with an interest in a fascinating and pivotal period when the nation was in better hands than many at the time probably realized.