Through the summer and early fall of 1953, the White House pursued its quest for a new, comprehensive, proactive national security strategy, a so-called “New Look” in the U.S. approach to the world. The New Look was shaped by new economic, political, geopolitical, and military realities. It was also a response to new patterns of discourse. And it was itself a new mode of discourse, which became, in turn, a catalyst for further changes in discourse as well as policy. But the New Look was not meant to solve the immediate crises that demanded action in 1953. It was meant to chart a clear course for prevailing in the global cold war struggle over the “long haul.” So the enduring patterns of the president's discourse strongly marked the new approach to national security and its vision of the threat it aimed to avert.
Searching for a clear policy direction, Eisenhower initiated
the Solarium Project, a detailed exploration of three possible options for an
overall grand strategy. None of
Solarium’s three task forces considered any real compromise with the Soviets. They each suggested different ways of reducing
By October, the clarification process led to NSC
162/2, the first full statement of the administration's basic national security
policy. NSC 162/2 began with a statement
of the two basic problems facing the nation: to “meet the Soviet threat” and “to avoid
seriously weakening the
Most historians have explained the New Look as a balancing act, with anticommunist military spending competing against domestic budgetary concerns. Although Eisenhower certainly did worry about conflicts between geopolitical and economic concerns, at a deeper level he perceived both as interwoven and synergistic parts of a single peril. Of course there was also a third, equally dangerous, threat to be avoided: nuclear war. So the New Look is best understood as a three-fold defensive effort: to prevent the enemy from overwhelming the "free world," to prevent World War III, and to prevent the economic chaos of an open-ended military mobilization.
goals laid out in NSC 162/2 described the various arenas in which continuing
dangers might be encountered. The
sub-headings in the document constituted a virtual catalogue of the kinds of
threats that the president had been addressing since the end of World War
II. “The Soviet Threat to the
The basic image of the
John L. Gaddis asserts that Eisenhower, unlike Truman,
did not frame his cold war strategy simply in terms of repulsing transitory
threats. Instead, he argues, Eisenhower
met strategic threats primarily in order to advance a comprehensive positive
concept of national interests. But what
was this comprehensive concept? Gaddis
sums up his analysis using Eisenhower's words:
"The whole idea was that 'we must not destroy what we are
attempting to defend.' And what the
However, Eisenhower's Augustinian "realism" put this ideal beyond the borders of reality, for the foreseeable future. Perfect freedom and stability remained only eschatological ideals, necessary for the logic of the discourse but quite irrelevant in practice. For "Alarmist Ike" and his advisers, the only issues worth discussing were the immediate dangers, which seemed so near and drawing ever nearer. The words of NSC 162/2 spoke at best of a relative stability and security, maintained sufficiently to stave off disaster.
The administration had committed itself to waging a
defensive struggle that was treated, for all practical purposes, as
permanent. The New Look was a strategy
for protecting the
In the campaign of 1952, the Republicans had defined the nation’s problems in apocalyptic terms. So they had to promise more vigorously proactive anti-Soviet policies to roll back the domain of communist control. Calls for rollback were fueled by, and logically implied, a vision of a single, harmonious, capitalist system triumphant throughout the world.
Yet in NSC 162/2, the idea of a world without a communist threat became a wholly eschatological vision (what the president had once called a "pole star")— deferred to the distant horizon of history, irrelevant in policy discussions, and rarely if ever mentioned in any private discourse. Thus the policy statement signaled a formal retreat from the calls for a dynamic policy of rollback.
NSC 162/2 did call for measures “to prevent Soviet
aggression and continuing domination of other nations” and for “reducing Soviet
capabilities for extending control and influence in the free world,” which
would entail “selective, positive actions to eliminate Soviet-Communist control
over any areas of the free world.” But these measures, which might entail some
degree of rollback, were mentioned only briefly and vaguely, with no indication
of what they meant or how they should or could be accomplished. In the overall context of the document, they
became primarily means to compel negotiated settlements on
It may not have been easy for the president to give up the dream of “rollback.” In the Solarium Project, one task force had been charged with presenting arguments in favor of rollback, even at “a substantial risk of general war.” Gen. Andrew Goodpaster claimed years later that Eisenhower had rejected this option from the outset and made sure it did not prevail. If so, he still gave it a full hearing. And as he listened, he penciled the note: “Global war as a defense of freedom. Almost contradiction in terms.” The “almost” indicated some reluctance to accept the new logic of the nuclear age.
Responding to a preliminary draft of 162/2, the State
Department wanted a flat prohibition on “aggressive actions involving force
against Soviet bloc territory.” But “the
President said that he personally would prefer to see this paragraph
removed.” Siding with the Pentagon, he
explicitly retained the option of initiating force. The State Department proposed wording to the
Nevertheless, the president ultimately agreed to
abandon rollback. The final section of
NSC 162/2, “Reduction of the Soviet Threat,” made no reference to any eventual
elimination of that threat. On the
contrary, it stated explicitly that the
Why did Eisenhower agree to abandon rollback? There is no reason to doubt the historians’ consensus that he rejected the idea of a preventive war. The destructive power of the “new weapons,” which reinforced apocalyptic definitions of the problem and thereby raised hopes for an apocalyptic solution, helped to insure that those hopes could never be realized.
But the existence of nuclear weapons and the dangers
of war did not, in themselves, compel Eisenhower to reject rollback. More peaceable methods of rollback were also
considered. For all practical purposes, however, the president found even the
peaceable means of rollback unrealistic.
When Margaret Patterson (widow of the former Secretary of War) urged him
to achieve total victory in
The New Look was supposed to give the
The nuclearization of military policy was the most conspicuous feature of the New Look. The obvious motive, and the major focus of most historians who have written on the New Look, was "more bang for the buck"—a permanent mobilization of immense military force at much less cost than conventional weaponry. Some historians suggest that the administration wanted a force so immense that its mere existence and verbal threats to use it would intimidate the Soviet leadership. Others note that the threats were not empty; the administration was making serious plans to use its nuclear weapons if worse came to worse.
There is no need to choose only one of these interpretations, for they are all complementary. The New Look was a serious “realist” effort to use the symbolic discourse and imagery of nuclear weaponry to stave off communism, nuclear war, and economic collapse. "Massive retaliation" was the parade example (though the phrase itself was not used by the administration; it was invented by others to describe the policy). A credible threat to use a massive nuclear arsenal “at times and places of our choosing” expressed a fantasy of perfect centralized control. The chief weapon would be the bomb's inescapable imagery of omnipotence, which would be used to forestall its own, and every other, threat of apocalyptic change.
The New Look relied on its linguistic promise of
“massive retaliation” to achieve its strategic goals. If it worked, enemies
would accept the status quo when faced with the terrifying alternatives. Allies would do the same, and they would
allow gradual withdrawal of
“Massive retaliation” was primarily a discursive
solution to a discursive problem. It
could promise to avert the use of nuclear weapons only as long as the
History books often reduce the New Look to an increased reliance on nuclear weapons. But it included other equally important elements: covert operations, strengthening the “free world” economy, building military alliances, and offering to negotiate cold war disputes peacefully.
Covert operations indicated that the notion of a “free
world” and of freedom itself was taking on a new meaning. The president felt constrained to declare
repeatedly that the
We do so may things we can’t explain…There is a very great aggressiveness on our side that you have not known about, and I guess this is on the theory of why put burdens on people that they don’t need to worry about and therefore make them fearful that they might give away something? I know so many things that I am almost afraid to speak to my wife.…Here’s the thing to remember: suppose one day, we get into a war. If too many people knew we had done something provocative—I just want to say that we might have to answer to charges of being too provocative rather than being too sweet.
Critics of Eisenhower's covert operations have pointed to the apparent contradiction between his public support of democratic self-determination and his secret abrogation of that right. In the president's discourse, however, there was no contradiction. When he wrote to a friend that “some of our traditional ideas of international sportsmanship are scarcely applicable” in the cold war, he explained part of his reasoning: the U.S. was fighting for truth, justice, and liberty, but “we must not confuse these values with mere procedures, even though these last may have at one time held almost the status of moral concepts.”
The logic of his discourse readily allowed him to distinguish between basic values and “mere procedures.” Freedom and all the other basic values did not necessarily entail the ability to change and grow in independent, self-determined ways. The self-determination of others was not an end in itself. The only goal to be pursued as an end in itself was protecting the freedom to control oneself (rather than having restraints imposed by external force), as enshrined in “the American way of life.” By extension, words like freedom, liberty, and justice connoted the entirety of this “American way of life.” The president and his advisors used these words mainly as vague signifiers representing all that was threatened by the “red menace.” Everything else was merely “procedure” for protecting freedom in this narrowly-defined sense.
Eisenhower's aims and procedures added up to what
Blanche Wiesen Cook calls “the globalization of
Freedom was merely a by-product of, or perhaps more
accurately a code word for, the goal of a global stability encompassing “enough
of all the world’s people.” But there
was no way to say how many was enough. If the cold war was, for all practical
purposes, endless, the
The Eisenhower administration sometimes articulated its goal of stability in the language of liberal internationalism, with its vision of peace through expansion and economic progress. The president wrote to George Whitney that his economic advisers were striving for "general world prosperity…which means also general peace and security…based upon equitable and mutually profitable trade." In his diary he put the point more succinctly: “Mutually profitable trade must be the basis of mutual cooperation in the world.” This was a venerable liberal internationalist axiom: a single global economy would create peace, for nations that profited from each other as trading partners would be reluctant to fight each other.
In Eisenhower's cold war discourse and policy, however,
the foundation of the argument was changed.
Under the New Look, prosperity and peace would reinforce each other, not
by binding all nations together, but by strengthening the bulwark against
communism. “The great humanitarian
problems,” he wrote to Margaret Patterson, “must be tackled in order to
eliminate conditions that promote Communism.”
(One principal reason for avoiding wars in
NSC 162/2 aimed to contain communism by bringing
"stability" to "the uncommitted areas of the world." The “unrest” and “volatility” in those areas
“complicate[d] the task of building firm ties with them [and] counteracting
neutralism.” Firm ties were necessary
because “their absorption within the Soviet system would greatly, perhaps
decisively, alter the world balance of power to our detriment.” To achieve a stable geopolitical balance with
One brief paragraph of NSC 162/2 urged “constructive
In later years, other
official policy documents would describe economic development in the “free
world” as a valued end in itself, but this was typically mentioned as a
distinctly secondary motive. As Burton Kaufman has convincingly
demonstrated, Eisenhower “justified the entire program of economic assistance
Eisenhower wanted firm allies all along the border of
the communist world to keep the
In the conclusion of NSC 162/2, "Reduction of the
Soviet Threat," six of its nine paragraphs proclaimed negotiated
settlements as the ultimate goal of U.S. policy: "The broad aim of U.S. security policies
must be to create, prior to the achievement of nuclear plenty, conditions under
which the United States and the free world coalition are prepared to meet the
Soviet-Communist threat with resolution and to negotiate for its alleviation
under proper safeguards."
Settlements had to be concluded while the
Dulles wanted the document to say that
At one point the text even raised the possibility of
"a general settlement of major issues"—a code wording for perfect
stability guaranteed by a preponderance of
Any Soviet gestures of conciliation would be suspected as tactical maneuvers. A National Intelligence Estimate, submitted just days before NSC 162/2 was finalized, evaluated the “ostensibly conciliatory tactics” of Soviet leaders as “a new challenge to the Free World.” As Raymond Garthoff describes it, “Soviet flexibility and moves toward more cooperative and less threatening policies were regarded not only with suspicion, but as an obstacle to American interests.…Soviet efforts to reduce tensions were seen more as a problem to be met by keeping up the West’s guard than as an opportunity for improving relations.”
There was no explicit concept of mutual reconciliation anywhere in NSC 162/2, nor in the private policymaking discourse of Eisenhower and his aides, except on the distant eschatological horizon. The negotiating table would be merely an extension of the Iron Curtain, another place to wield words of peace as weapons of cold war. The New Look made verbal gestures of cooperation and verbal threats of “massive retaliation” the twin tools of apocalypse management. So it was quite fitting that, while the New Look was being developed, the Eisenhower administration was also preparing its most famous image of cooperation: “Atoms for Peace.”
“Atoms for Peace” was born from the unforeseen
conjunction of the New Look and Operation Candor. By early September, 1953, C.D. Jackson and
his aides were still hard at wok on Candor, planning to develop a series of
speeches to be delivered by the president and other top officials. At the same time, John Foster Dulles was
pondering the dilemmas that the New Look had created. It demanded an accelerated
Dulles decided that the only solution was "a
spectacular effort to relax world tensions," including a plan to
We should patiently point out [he told Dulles] that any group of people, such as the men in the Kremlin, who are aware of the great destructiveness of these weapons--and who still decline to make any honest effort toward international control by collective action--must be fairly assumed to be contemplating their aggressive use.…We would have to be constantly ready, on an instantaneous basis, to inflict greater loss upon the enemy than he could reasonably hope to inflict upon us. This would be a deterrent--but if the contest to maintain this relative position should have to continue indefinitely, the cost would either drive us to war--or into some form of dictatorial government. In such circumstances we would be forced to consider whether or not our duty to future generations did not require us to initiate war at the most propitious moment that we could designate.
Dulles summarized the president's point for Robert
Bowie the next day: “He felt that if we
made a fair offer and it was rejected then we had no alternative but to look
The virtue of making the proposals lies not so much in the likelihood of their acceptability by the other side, but in the opportunity provided to the U.S.—once the proposals have been made and not accepted—to put into effect a new and better (for the long run) basic policy than that we now have.…Pursuit of our existing basic policy over a long period is likely to break down the free world’s economy, dislocate its individual liberties and free institutions, and provoke it through frustration into armed conflict. The new proposals offer the opportunity for a new road more safely to travel over many years to come.
As Cutler understood, Eisenhower was saying that “our
own plans” would have to include permanent mobilization for war. Under the Truman policies, which depended
heavily on land armies, constant mobilization meant huge expenditures to
maintain huge armies. This expense could
eventually drive the nation to consider preventive war against the
Just three days after his conversation with Dulles,
Eisenhower came up with an idea that became the “spectacular effort” Dulles was
seeking. He suggested that the
There was a direct rhetorical line connecting this
speech with "The Chance for Peace."
Both spoke of peace as permanent freedom from every threat of chaos and
disaster. Both relied on a discourse of dualism. In both, universal values and a universal
desire for peace were equated with
However, changed circumstances between April and
December had required major changes in rhetoric. The pragmatic aims of the Candor project now
demanded a frightening confession of an unprecedented threat to the
In order to appeal to the allies, light had to
represent the hopes of all people to escape the ravages of
Eisenhower and his advisors had created the “Chance” speech primarily to avert any fundamentally new policy directions. They were still trying to forge a geopolitical balance so stable that it was immutable. Yet their efforts to attain perfect stability had actually rendered their situation less stable. Now they were forced to change tack in order to avoid losing even more control of global events. In effect, the “Atoms” speech was a confession that the dualism of the “Chance” speech had failed and could no longer be presented as a viable route to disarmament. Staunch anticommunism backed by military strength could not, in itself, be depicted as the way to peace. These would continue, but they would have to be somehow coupled with images of a new spirit of partnership and mutual confidence. Apocalypse management now meant balancing all these factors, integrating gestures of genuine cooperation into the mix and making them, too, serve as weapons of cold war.
Some Americans may have studied the full text of
“Atoms for Peace.” Most heard the
president's message as it was mediated through domestic news reports. The press was nearly unanimous that
Eisenhower had done the right thing. He
had demonstrated that the nation was still committed to high ideals and, above
all, to world peace. Virtually every
source identified peace with disarmament and presented the speech as part of a
But disarmament now took on a much greater, even
religious, meaning. The technology that
created apocalyptic fears could not help but stimulate utopian hopes for peace
as well. Even the smallest gesture of
cooperation between the superpowers could be viewed as a symbolic
eschatological fulfillment. The Kansas City Star, for example,
editorialized that Eisenhower had marked out a “new route of salvation and
survival.” Life called the speech “a glimpse of salvation by
statesmanship.” The news coverage gave
relatively little attention to Eisenhower's warnings about growing
But the principal hope expressed by the media was hope
for cold war victory. The speech was a
powerful thrust against the enemy,
So the news media framed the speech’s rhetorical structure—moving from fear of war to hope for peace—within a larger passage from fear of communism to hope for cold war victory. Fear now became the opposite of both peace and victory. The securing of peace meant the ending of fear, but both became merely the means to the same double-sided victory. The press depicted Eisenhower's promise of cooperation as the path to that victory. But the reporting assumed that the U.S—unlike the communists—held peace through cooperation and mutual understanding among its highest of values. There was no way to talk about the hope for world peace without invoking the superiority of American values. And that meant invoking the specter of a continuing communist threat and the hope of defeating that threat.
As mediated to the public, “Atoms for Peace” became yet another call to the final battle against evil. Though the speech seemed to offer a new era of cooperation between the superpowers, its discursive scaffolding was as dualistic as ever. The meaning of the battle was defined by a chain of verbal equivalents, built on the rhetorical equations of Eisenhower's inaugural address, but now made larger, more complex, and more paradoxical:
peace = superpower cooperation = ending the nuclear
threat = eternal stability = national security = military strength =
conflict = superpower rivalry = continuing threat of nuclear war = instability = insecurity = military weakness = Soviet encroachments on the “free world” = weakening or ceasing cold war efforts = losing the cold war = disorder = selfishness = lack of discipline and self-sacrifice = slavery = fear = darkness = atheism = damnation = the demise of “our whole faith” = uncontrolled apocalyptic peril
Within this discursive complex, words like security, stability, peace, freedom, and victory implied the need for, and inevitability of, waging a continuing cold war.
The media never spelled out the contours of this new discursive paradigm. They never offered any analysis of its deeper implications. They never warned the nation explicitly of this dramatic new turn in its public life. They treated the speech as a major event in the foreign, not domestic, affairs of the nation. So its profound impact on American political discourse went largely unnoticed.
There is no evidence that the president noticed this impact, either. In preparing “Atoms for Peace,” he had subordinated the goals of Operation Candor to the demands of foreign policy. He hoped that the speech would allow him to resist pressures for a new, more conciliatory direction. This was the key to the global balancing act he intended to perform in his quest for stability. The most delicate balance in apocalypse management was the discursive balance it required. It was a tottering construction that threatened to bring down the edifice of meaning it was meant to uphold. And if the discursive foundation cracked, the policy based upon it could hardly stand.
There was already mounting evidence that the ideal of stability would be elusive at best. NSC 162/2 and “Atoms for Peace” had both abandoned the ideal. The secret policy document had substituted apocalypse management for perfect stability as the meaning of peace. The public rhetorical proposal had substituted genuine cooperation for invulnerability and control of change as the meaning of peace. One factor explains both of these changes: the rapid recognition that the New Look’s route to relative stability was itself destabilizing.
Eisenhower’s cherished “middle way” was an inherently unstable compromise, compounded of peace and war, hope and fear, cooperation and enmity, separation and engagement, apocalyptic victory and negotiated settlement, static balance and endlessly dynamic cold war. When he spoke of cold war victory, the president most often employed a vocabulary drawn more from Wilsonian liberal internationalism and his accustomed Augustinian tendencies than from apocalyptic holy war. Maintaining the Augustinian, liberal internationalist, and apocalyptic elements in his discourse, he could not reconcile the three nor make any one of them the clear basis of national security policy.
Beneath the surface appearance of a harmonious and
effective discourse, these contradictions lay like unseen fault lines. They were reflected in the conflicting goals
of the “Atoms for Peace” speech. Because
the speech had arisen out of Operation Candor, it had to aim at evoking greater
cold war fear at home while keeping that fear at a controlled level. Because it had been transformed into a
message to the world, it had to subordinate its frightening words to its
hopeful message of peace. The message to
the world was aimed, above all, at persuading the European allies to accept the
 The Solarium is studied in ; Brands, “Age of Vulnerability,” 966-968; , 406-410.
. An advisory committee on psychological warfare, headed by William Jackson (no relation to C. D. Jackson), had already described the United States as “the principal obstacle in the path of the Soviet drive”: Jackson Committee press release, 7/8/53, quoted in Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower, 176.
 Gaddis, Strategies of Containment,
 , 595.
See Challener, “The National Security Policy from Truman to Eisenhower,” 67. For Eisenhower's earlier complaints about the public’s unwillingness to sacrifice in order to protect the nation, see, e.g., GE, 32-33, 149, 202, 211, 254
On the economic benefits, see Hogan, Cross of Iron, 399; Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Question, 47. On the tactical use of threats, see Wells, "The Origins of Massive Retaliation," 51, 52; Dallek, American Style of Foreign Policy, 210; Immerman, “Confessions of an Eisenhower Revisionist,” 340; Garthoff, Assessing the Adversary, 13. On plans to use the weapons, see Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 138-147; Wenger, Living With Peril, 50-54. Before becoming president, Eisenhower had dealt with nuclear weapons primarily on the level of symbolic meaning rather than military tactics; see GE, 123-134.
This was a major concern of Eisenhower, and even more so of Dulles
; see FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 457-459, 574.
Lyon, Eisenhower, 587.
Mayday, 84. In 1954 Eisenhower authorized a policy of
continuing covert operations “in the interests of world peace and
 Eisenhower to Lewis Douglas, 3/29/55, PDDE 16:1643-1644. A draft of this letter suggested that it would be foolish to eschew covert methods merely because “they would have been considered, in Victorian times, completely outside the pale”: PDDE 16: 1645, n.7.
 Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower, 176 (see also ibid., viii, xvi, 153); . For Eisenhower's earliest development of the meaning of freedom, see GE, 85-93.
Kaufman, Trade and Aid, 9; see, e.g.,
NSC 5810/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 100, 105.
On the subordination of economic development issues to cold war goals,
see also Packenham, Liberal America and
the Third World, 50-52. No doubt
Eisenhower and his top aides would have endorsed the basic axioms of
liberalism, as Packenham describes them ( see, e.g., 124, 128, 149, 163). But they rarely raised those axioms
explicitly as they discussed policy decisions.
When Eisenhower talked about the benefits of trade, he was more likely
to focus on the need to prevent the
 NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-4, 2.1: 594-595.
 NSC 162/2, 10/30/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 581, 584, 594.
 NIE-99, 10/23/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 552; Garthoff, Assessing the Adversary, 9.
 The following discussion of “Atoms for Peace” is a summary of the findings in Chernus, Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace, 53-131.
 Dulles to Eisenhower, 9/6/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 456-58.
 Eisenhower to Dulles, 9/8/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 458-61.
 Memorandum for Mr. Bowie, 9/8/53, John Foster Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 1, “White House Correspondence 1953 (2).”
 Cutler to Eisenhower, 10/19/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1233. When he wrote this memo, Cutler was shepherding the final drafts of NSC 162/2 toward completion. Dulles had first discussed his “dramatic idea” with Cutler, who in turn discussed it with Eisenhower before the latter met with Dulles. Therefore Cutler was in the best position to understanding the two leaders’ intentions.
 2: .
 The text of “Atoms for Peace” is in PPP, 1953, 813-22.