American Foreign Policy

Although during his 1952 campaign Eisenhower attacked the Truman administration's containment policy as not forceful enough, Eisenhower made no attempt to “roll back” communism during his eight years in office. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles frequently spoke of helping to liberate the “captive peoples” of Eastern Europe, but when opportunities to do so arose during East Germany's labor unrest in 1953 and Hungary's revolt against the Soviet Union in 1956, the United States offered no assistance. Eisenhower favored a less confrontational approach to the USSR and sought a variety of means to check Russian influence around the world.

Brinkmanship, massive retaliation, and the domino theory. Possession of nuclear weapons gave the United States leverage in foreign relations, allowing it to use the strategy of brinkmanship and the threat of massive retaliation to deter communist expansion. Brinkmanship indicated a willingness to go to the very brink of war, including the determination to use nuclear weapons, to force a belligerent country to back down. Massive retaliation referred to American readiness to use its large nuclear arsenal to stop aggression. Both concepts were tied to the economics of the Cold War: brinkmanship and massive retaliation relied on the nuclear deterrent to intimidate the Soviet Union and China, and it was considered much cheaper than building up conventional armed forces to do the same job. The nuclear option provided the United States with “more bang for the buck.” In 1953, Eisenhower's threat of a nuclear strike broke the deadlock in the Korean truce talks. The United States was also prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu claimed by Taiwan (Nationalist China) in 1955 against aggression from Communist China.

Foreign policy was also shaped by the domino theory, which claimed that if one country in a region fell to communism, the other countries in that area would quickly follow. Eisenhower first outlined the theory in response to events in Indochina. France's long struggle to hold on to its colony in Asia ended in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva Accords. Under the terms of the Accords, Laos and Cambodia became neutral states, while Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel, with the Vietminh under nationalist Communist leader Ho Chi Minh in control of the North and France and the State of Vietnam (which became the Republic of Vietnam in 1955) governing the South. Elections were to be held in 1956 to unify the country. Worried that the Communists would gain control of the entire country in the elections, neither the United States nor the South Vietnamese supported the Accords. American policy at the juncture was twofold: The United States offered support, including military aid, to Ngo Dinh Diem's South Vietnam government (even as communist guerrilla activity increased in the late 1950s), and it created a new alliance partnership — the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) — to prevent the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Despite its name, SEATO was not a defensive pact and did not have an “attack against one is an attack against all” provision, as NATO did. SEATO's members — the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, and the United States — agreed to do little more than consult.

The Middle East and the Western Hemisphere. Eisenhower's policy in the Middle East was to restrict Russian influence and to keep the oil supply open to the United States and other Western countries. Both of these ends were served in 1953 when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a coup in Iran that returned the pro‐Western shah to power. In the mid‐'50s, tensions arose in Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Egyptian nationalist who came to power in 1952, decided to build a dam on the Nile at Aswan and to use the hydroelectric power to modernize his country. The United States and Great Britain had planned to provide financial assistance for the project, but they backed out of the loan in 1956 when Egypt established stronger ties with the USSR and Eastern Europe. Nasser responded to the withdrawal of funds by announcing plans to nationalize the Suez Canal and use the revenues from the tolls for the Aswan High Dam project. This announcement prompted Israel to invade the Sinai Peninsula in late October, followed by a joint British‐French attack on Egypt in early November. Opposing the military action, the United States and the Soviet Union worked through the United Nations to bring about the withdrawal of the foreign troops. Even though American support was critical in ending the Suez Crisis, the position of the Soviet Union in the Middle East was stronger in its wake. The president's reaction to the heightened Soviet influence was to state that the United States would use military force if necessary to resist communist aggression in the region. Under this policy, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, more than 14,000 American soldiers were sent to Lebanon in 1958 at the request of the pro‐Western government.

Although the era of direct American intervention in the affairs of countries in the Western Hemisphere ended with Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, the United States continued to influence Latin American politics, using covert operations to bring about political change. In 1954, for example, the CIA supported the overthrow of the government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala, as it had done in Iran the year before. Coming to power through a democratic election, Arbenz supported agrarian land reform, and his order expropriating unused land from the American‐based United Fruit Company triggered the coup. The United States' involvement in the revolt was well known and spurred anti‐American demonstrations during Vice President Richard Nixon's goodwill tour of Latin America in 1958. Meanwhile, on New Year's Day 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution was approved of by the United States until Castro began to fill key posts in his government with communists. When the United States placed an embargo on Cuban sugar exports, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military aid.

Relations with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower believed that the best way to improve Soviet‐American relations was through face‐to‐face meetings, or summit conferences. The first summit conference with the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France was held in Geneva in 1955. Although nothing substantive came out of the summit, there was a noticeable lessening of tensions between the countries that was attributed to the “spirit of Geneva.” That spirit quickly dissipated, however, when Russian tanks put down the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and after the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, demonstrating that the Soviet Union could launch long‐range nuclear missiles against the United States. Sputnik also triggered the “space race,” generated talk of a “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR, and led to the passage of the National Defense Education Act (1958), which provided funding for programs in science, math, and foreign language studies, as well as student loans and fellowships.

Summit diplomacy resumed in 1959, when Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev met at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat, and the Soviet leader toured the country. However, a summit conference in Paris in May 1960 ended almost as soon as it began when Khrushchev revealed that an American U‐2 spy plane had been shot down over the USSR. Eisenhower tried to claim that the plane had strayed off course while collecting weather data, but Khrushchev was able to show the world the captured pilot (Francis Gary Powers), the spy cameras, and the photographs of missile sites. Faced with such evidence, Eisenhower was forced to admit that U‐2 spy missions had been operating over Russia for four years. Although his personal diplomatic efforts with the Soviet Union ultimately failed, the president did leave an important legacy in foreign policy. In a speech he gave shortly before leaving office, Eisenhower warned of the close relationship that had developed between the armed services and American industry. Since the end of World War II, military contracts had become a major source of income for many sectors of the economy. Eisenhower cautioned that the military‐industrial complex had become powerful enough to exert an “unwarranted influence” on how the United States acted in the world arena.