Chapter 3:  Candor And Korea


Having put his views on record and received widespread praise abroad, Eisenhower saw no immediate need for another major foreign policy statement.  Now it was time to turn back from the foreign to the domestic audience—and to change the rhetorical tone.  In the months that followed, the president made a few more public references to his desire for peace.  But his rhetoric was again dominated by the theme of threat that he had announced in the inaugural address.  Just two weeks after the great peace speech, he warned Congress of the need to contain communism for an “indefinite future.”[1]

The shift in tone reflected a fear that talk of peace and hope might make Americans unwilling to bear the cold war burden (including a permanently high level of military spending).[2]  To prevent this, the administration undertook a major public relations campaign—a kind of psychological warfare on the home front, meant to support its psychological warfare abroad. The comprehensive strategy Eisenhower hoped to implement would require both.

Operation Candor

The domestic campaign was first stimulated by “Armaments and American Policy,” a paper written by a high-level committee appointed by Harry Truman and chaired by Robert Oppenheimer.  The Oppenheimer Panel was stunned to learn that "there is likely to be a point in our time when the Soviet Union will have ‘enough’ bombs”—enough to destroy U.S. civilization—"no matter how many more we ourselves may have."  In this radically new situation, the government would have to be constantly framing new policies to respond to changing events.  Therefore, "flexibility—freedom of action—seems to us, indeed, to be the first basic requirement for American policy."[3] 

The government would have to be free to justify its changing policies, panel cautioned, and to disseminate whatever information it deemed necessary to garner public support as well as to foster public acceptance of higher taxes.  Flexibility thus required government “candor” on nuclear issues:  "The American government and people are at present very far from showing a responsible awareness of this danger, and accordingly we believe that it is a matter of urgency that such awareness should become much more widespread.…The present danger is not of hysteria but of complacency."[4]

The Oppenheimer Panel completed its work just as Truman was turning the White House over to Eisenhower.  When the new NSC discussed the report, national security advisor Robert Cutler explained that “the members of the panel were very greatly disturbed at the public apathy and lethargy about the atomic problem."  Vannevar Bush, a member of the Panel, seconded that view.  The NSC appointed a committee to evaluate the Oppenheimer Panel’s report. The committee’s report recommended “an affirmative policy of candor toward the American people,” which would “secure support of the American people for necessary governmental actions."  Too much or too little fear might lead to too much or too little military spending, as well as undermine public enthusiasm for cold war without end.   The U.S. needed a middle path to “safeguard against extreme public reactions.”[5] 

The committee urged government information programs to stress that “no physical phenomenon is inherently good or bad in itself.…The atomic weapon differs only in degree from other weapons.…The question of morality will relate only to the way in which this or any other weapon is used."  Public acceptance of this view would "give us greater freedom of action with respect to all elements of our military strength."[6]  Eisenhower definitely shared this view.  At a late March NSC meeting, "the President and Secretary Dulles were in complete agreement that somehow or other the taboos which surround the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed.  While Secretary Dulles admitted that in the present state of world opinion we could not use an A-bomb, we should make every effort now to dissipate this feeling."[7]

Eisenhower was obviously treating the bomb as a very usable weapon.  When the candor idea was discussed, he focused on preparing the public for a nuclear war:  “The first requisite was to assure firm discipline,” he told the NSC.  “The emphasis should be on vigilance and sobriety, not on panic"; the public should “realize their own individual responsibility.”  He wanted Americans voluntary to control their own emotions—including their dislike of increased taxes:  "If we are to obtain more money in taxes, there must be a vigorous campaign to educate the people."  Yet after the “Chance” speech, Eisenhower realized, he had to be even more cautious about excessive public fear as well as apathy. The “middle way,” which he praised so often, was more urgent but more difficult than ever.[8] 

To find this middle way, the NSC delegated C.D. Jackson to initiate Operation Candor.  Jackson wanted the campaign to “create a public attitude or climate of opinion better adjusted to the fact of an enduring condition of national emergency…the immutable (or at least not immediately mutable) circumstances of our present world.”  His aide, Abbott Washburn, warned:  “We are actually in far greater danger today than on December 7, 1941.”  James Lambie, who headed the project, wanted Operation Candor to be a stimulus “for awakening the higher ranges of man’s spiritual energy.”  He hoped to teach the public to accept “the new and to all intents permanent normalcy” of “an age of peril…the fight for freedom or the struggle for existence (call it what you will).”  “Candidness is a mere tool,” Lambie told Eisenhower's chief of staff Sherman Adams, “not going to the essence of the operation, which I believe to be largely inspirational.”  Adams agreed; he called the project “fiber-toughening for the long pull.”[9]

The concrete aim of Operation Candor was to create a speech or a series of speeches for the president to deliver.  Eventually, the product would be the “Atoms for Peace” speech.  But the administration’s pursuit of candor had nothing to do with making any disarmament or arms control proposals.  In fact, the administration had decided not to make any serious initiatives on disarmament.[10] 

The president could not publicly explain Operation Candor and its goals, because that would risk arousing excessive fear.  As he set about evoking images of long-term peril, he also had to provide some kind of reassurance.  The solution to this dilemma was to focus again on threat and offer as an antidote, not the word peace, but the word security.  The treasured goal of national security took on greater importance and urgency precisely because it had been so radically called into question.  It afforded an effective way to raise and mitigate fear simultaneously. 

This was the dominant note of Eisenhower’s next major address after the “Chance” speech, a nationally broadcast talk on “The National Security and Its Costs.”  This talk breathed not a word about peace.  Its highest goal was "permanent security," which meant not the end of threat, but only a permanent ability to fend off a continuing threat.  Hoping to build support for military spending, which would mean postponing promised tax cuts, the president argued his case in vividly alarmist language.  The U.S. would have to “hope and work for the best, but arm and be ready for the worst…for an indefinite period of time.…Our danger cannot be fixed or confined to one specific instant.  We live in an age of peril.”  "This phrase of not an instant but an age of peril—I like that fine," he told its author, Emmet Hughes.[11] 

Throughout the summer, Eisenhower continued to use the language of alarmism.  The U.S. faced “a continuing, not an intermittent, time of crisis.”  “I don’t know—whether it’s 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, or what,” he confessed.  “The free world could become disunited at a moment of great peril.”  This was, in fact, the nation’s “age of greatest peril.”  “We can destroy our cause—even with decent intent—in a number of ways.  There are many roads to disaster.”[12]

The road to disaster that Eisenhower warned of most, besides excessive or insufficient military spending,[13] was isolationism.  He promoted foreign trade and aid to help allies pay their own way militarily and protect the “free world” capitalist system against internal decay.  More commonly, though, he promoted foreign aid as the unavoidable cost of insuring that the communists stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.  All of the president’s speeches implied that the internal and external threats were intermeshed facets of a single peril.  As the press reported his rhetoric, it reflected this premise by creating a generalized notion of threat, often with no reference to particular sources of threat, and by promoting a correspondingly generalized notion of “security.”  The New York Times, for example, ran headlines like “Eisenhower WARNS OF ‘GRAVE DANGER’ IN FOREIGN AID CUT.”  “PRESIDENT, 4 AIDES, IN TV PANEL STRESS SECURITY OF NATION;  Brownell Cites 4-Point Plan to Protect U.S.[14]

“Free world security” was the goal as well as the means to the goal.  It became another expression of Eisenhower’s eschatological vision of peace, the perfect restraint toward which his discourse and policy aspired.  Like all eschatology, it led to speaking in absolutes.  “How, where, can there be retreat from this [“free world”] unity?” he asked the Junior Chamber of Commerce.  “Surrender Asia?…Surrender Europe?”  Speaking to the nation’s governors, Eisenhower offered an early version of the domino theory:  “If Indochina goes, several things happen right away.…All India would be outflanked…Iran on its left is in a weakened condition.…How would the free world hold the rich empire of Indonesia?…It must be blocked now.”[15]  This mode of speaking assumed that huge stretches of territory, even whole continents, were at imminent risk.  It assumed, too, that the U.S. already “possessed” these territories.  To surrender even the smallest part of them would mean surrendering the whole world.  This was the only logical conclusion, if peace and security meant the absolute invulnerability of the “free world.” 

Such eschatological language suggested that security had become a religious value.  This was, of course, just what Eisenhower wanted the public to believe, as he said repeatedly in his speeches of mid-1953:  “We are Christian nations, deeply conscious that the foundation of all liberty is religious faith.”[16]  His faith implied a notion of salvation:  “to give the nation ‘permanent security’ and a ‘sound dollar’ in an ‘age of peril’.”  But, as he confessed to the nation's governors, his policies would lead "not to immediate salvation and the rainbow’s end—but to progress."[17]  Yet he consistently framed the threats to national security in the apocalyptic terms of sudden and total catastrophe.  So he could offer only two alternatives:  instantaneous destruction, or a “long haul” of apocalypse management to stave off destruction.  The Wilsonian vision of total world harmony had now receded so far beyond the horizon that it virtually disappeared.  Even in speaking only of the “free world,” Eisenhower was using the language of liberal internationalism, originally a positive ideal of peace through economic interdependence, primarily to promote his defensive vision of permanent security against a perpetual threat.

Peace In Korea

From late April to late July, the president seemed to have forgotten the message of “The Chance for Peace” that peaceful negotiations could be the surest route to security.  During a July 17 Cabinet meeting, UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., pointed out that the public saw "no real followup to the great April 16 speech," and thus no awareness that the administration was making any new foreign policy initiatives.[18]  The armistice that ended the fighting in Korea, signed on July 26, demanded that Eisenhower remember. 

Eisenhower had been swept into office after implicitly promising to end the increasingly unpopular war.  In fact, he believed that (in Rosemary Foot’s words) “additional military and political pressure rather than greater diplomatic pliability were essential to bringing the war to a close” without making any major concessions.  What changed his mind was not the domestic clamor for peace, but the real danger of an open split among the major NATO powers, which might doom the great prize, the EDC.  By mid-May, Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith reported that “Western allies were being unusually blunt and outspoken in their criticisms of U.S. actions”; relations with the allies were “deteriorating daily.”[19]  So the administration agreed to one last round of conciliatory proposals, while secretly considering the possibility of crossing the nuclear threshold if negotiations failed.[20]

In the event, the PRC and North Korea decided to accept the U.S. proposals and the process was set in motion leading to the armistice signed on July 26.  The armistice allowed Eisenhower to claim the mantle of peacemaker, and in later years he counted it as the proudest of his achievements.  But Eisenhower’s goal remained peace in the specific sense of the “Chance” speech.  He took the conciliatory path principally because his larger strategy for waging cold war with a unified alliance forced him to that decision.[21]

Once the armistice was signed, the president had to celebrate the peace and legitimate his claim to be a peacemaker.  At the same time, he had to give meaning to the war and legitimate its death and suffering.  And he had to face the fact that, for the first time, a U.S. president had accepted a negotiated stalemate rather than a clear-cut victory.  There was a real possibility that the public might see the peace as an embarrassing end to an ultimately futile military effort. The administration's plans to defer tax cuts and build up the military might well be jeopardized.  Eisenhower may also have foreseen the possibility of future limited wars, which might end in a similar stalemate, and wanted to legitimate them in advance.  The problem was to interpret the stalemate in terms that would bolster public confidence and renew enthusiasm for the cold war.

The president's solution was to define the stalemate as both peace and victory.  UN forces had “won” an armistice, he proclaimed, because they had met “the challenge of aggression” and kept “freedom alive.”  Yet he cautioned that “we have won an armistice on a single battleground—not peace in the world.  We may not now relax our guard nor cease our quest.”  Thus he argued that the value of U.S. military strength had not been called into question by the frustrations of Korea.  On the contrary, Korea had revalidated both the means and the ends of the war as essential U.S. values.  As Kenneth Zagacki points out, he wanted to turn the armistice into yet another occasion for regeneration and renewal, calling upon the public to rededicate themselves to the goals for which U.S. soldiers had given their lives and limbs.[22]

In order to make his appeal persuasive, the president relied on the “Chance” speech’s image of peace through negotiations:  “The political conference which looks toward the unification of Korea” was still required as the ultimate evidence of Soviet good faith and the only way to peace.  As a first step toward peace, the enemy would have to return prisoners of war swiftly as “evidence of good faith.”  Because aggression had been deterred, he declared, the line dividing good from evil had been demarcated more firmly, promoting peace and security.  Thus he used his understanding of peace to legitimate the war and armistice, just as he used the armistice to legitimate his understanding of peace.  By describing this “victory” as only a step in the march toward peace, he clearly implied that the cause of peace required a continuing, albeit cold, war.  Only by continuing the cold war could the suffering of the very “hot” war in Korea and the peace that had just been attained be made meaningful.  Now, though, he had to admit that the precise placement of the cold war demarcation line could change. So the reality of the world would remain change rather than stasis.  A continuing process of apocalypse management would be required for both peace and victory.

Press coverage of Eisenhower's speech reflected its ambiguous message.  The New York Times headline was typical:  “EISENHOWER BIDS FREE WORLD STAY VIGILANT; PRESIDENT IS HAPPY; But Warns in Broadcast That Global Peace is Yet to Be Achieved.”  Time magazine used the headline, “I Cannot Exult,” and subheads like “A Disquieting Fear” and “Frozen Confusion.”  Newsweek concluded its article by noting the same ambiguity in Congress:  “Everywhere on Capitol Hill, joy was tinctured with grimness.”  Journalists were reluctant to endorse the president’s claim of victory; they rarely used the word.  But his fusion of peace and a continuing cold war threat was everywhere in evidence.[23] 

In early August, Eisenhower gave a national radio broadcast, a sort of mid-year state of the union talk.  He claimed “two precious victories" in Korea:  "We have shown, in the winning of this truce, that the collective resolve of the free world can and will meet aggression in Asia—or anywhere in the world.  And we have won the opportunity to show that free people can build in peace as boldly as they fight in war.”  Aid to Korea was necessary, he said, because there would be “lasting peace” only when the needy and hungry “come to have faith in their own future in freedom.”  In other words, if the poor of Korea and the world did not trust liberal capitalism to raise their standard of living, they would turn to communism, and then peace, by Eisenhower's definition, would be impossible.[24] 

In the president's discourse, the process of moving the world toward peace and the process of barring communist influence were treated as identical.  He had to stress a continuing threat in order to rally the nation for a global battle with no foreseeable end.  Yet if he admitted that “deterring aggression” was the sum and substance of security, victory, and peace, the public might lose its appetite for waging cold war.  Thus, by the late summer of 1953, Eisenhower found himself bound to follow two rhetorical paths that seemed to lead in quite opposite directions, one to a hope for perfect security, the other to endless insecurity.  By the end of the year, he would try to reconcile those two paths in one great speech, “Atoms for Peace.”  First, though, he would try to reconcile them in his administration's private, secret policy formulation.  


[1] Special Message to Congress, 4/30/53, PPP, 1953, 227. 

[2] The following discussion of Operation Candor is a summary of material in Chernus, Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace, 15-52.

[3] Report by the Panels of Consultants of the Department of State to the Secretary of State, 1/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1067, 1068, 1071, 1076.

[4] Ibid., 1079, 1080.  For Eisenhower's frequent use of the word hysteria, see GE, 94, 109-110, 233, 271,401; for the origins of his fear of complacency, see GE, 29-32.

[5] NSC, 2/25/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1111; Committee on Armaments and American Policy Meeting with NSC, 4/16/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1136; NSC 151, 5/8/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1152. 

[6] NSC 151, 5/8/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1152-1154.

[7] NSC, 3/31/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 15.1: 827.  This came in the context of an NSC discussion about using atomic bombs in Korea.  See also Eisenhower's diary, 9/28/53, cited in Lyon, Eisenhower, 613.  See GE, 167, for Eisenhower's earlier statements that the bomb was morally neutral. 

[8] NSC, 5/27/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1172, 1173; Memorandum by the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, 7/16/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 397; NSC, 2/25/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1111.

[9] Jackson to Repplier, 6/4/53, White House Central Files, Confidential File, Subject Series, Box 12, “Candor and United Nations Speech (1)”; Washburn to Hauge, 5/20,53, C.D. Jackson Records, Box 7, “Wasburn, Abbott”; Lambie to Cutler, 7/29/53, White House Central File, Confidential File, Subject Series, Box 12, “Candor and United Nations Speech (1)”; Lambie to Gallup, et al., James Lambie Papers, Box 3, “Chron. File:  May-June 1953 (1)”; Lambie to Adams, 8/5/53, White House Central File, Confidential File, Subject Series, Box 13, “Candor and United Nations Speech (13).”

[10] Policy Guidance Governing United States Activities in the United Nations Disarmament Commission for the Period May through September 1953, 5/26/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1163-69; Dulles to Lodge, 6/4/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.2: 1175.  See Pruden, Conditional Partners, 145, 146.

[11] Radio Address to the American People, 5/19/53, PPP, 1953, 307-14; Hughes Diary, 5/13/53.  Press reports on this speech were generally favorable and echoed the call to pay higher taxes for the military buildup; see, e.g., NYT, 5/20/53, 1; Christian Science Monitor, 5/20/53, 1.  Eisenhower told legislative leaders that he wanted a “realism” that would “not scream with shrill crisis and emergency,” but would prepare sensibly to keep the nation secure in “an age of danger”:  Arthur Minnich, Notes on Legislative Leaders Meeting, 5/19/53, cited in Ambrose, Eisenhower, 89.  Meena Bose finds that “military sufficiency and fiscal moderation” were the key themes of Eisenhower's public discourse throughout early 1953: Shaping and Signaling Presidential Policy, 81-82.

[12]Address to Young Republicans, 6/11/53, PPP, 1953, 402; Press Conference, 4/23/53, PPP, 1953, 53-54; Special Message to Congress on the Mutual Security Program, 5/5/53, PPP, 1953, 257, 259; Radio Report to the American People, 8/6/53, PPP, 1953, 555; Address to New England “Forward to ‘54” Dinner, 9/25/53, PPP, 1953, 598, 599.

[13] On the theme of sufficient but not excessive military spending, see, e.g., Press Conference, 5/14/53, PPP 1953, 93; Television Report to the American People, 6/3/53, PPP, 1953, 364, 376; Address to National Junior Chamber of Commerce, 6/10/53, PPP 1953, 389.

[14] NYT, 7/24/53, 1; NYT, 6/4/53, 1.

[15] Address to National Junior Chamber of Commerce, 6/10/53, PPP, 1953, 389-390; Remarks at National Governors’ Conference, 8/4/53, PPP, 1953, 541.  In one speech, Eisenhower called on educators to build an “impregnable wall” around American minds, so that “no thought of communism can enter”:  Address at the Inauguration of the 22nd President of the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, 5/15/53, PPP, 1953, 301.

[16] Address to Pan-American Union, 4/12/53, PPP, 1953, 175.  See also, e.g., Message to National Conference of Christians and Jews, 7/9/53, PPP, 1953, 490; Remarks at the House of Burgesses, 5/15/53, PPP, 1953, 297; Press Conference, 6/17/53, PPP, 1953, 440; Address at Dartmouth College, 6/14/53, PPP, 1953, 415.

[17] SLPD, 5/20/53, 1; Address to National Governors’ Conference, 8/4/53, PPP, 1953, 543.

[18] Hughes Diary, 7/17/53.

[19] Foot, A Substitute for Victory, 159, 165, 172, 173; Stueck, The Korean War, 320, 324.  See also Keefer, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the End of the Korean War.”  On Eisenhower's campaign rhetoric concerning Korea, see GE, 282-284.  

[20] NSC, 5/20/53, FRUS 1952-1954, 15.1: 1064-68; Stueck, The Korean War, 321; Foot, A Substitute for Victory, 164-65; Keefer, “End of the Korean War,” 273-79.  Richard Immerman writes that “Eisenhower decided to inform Peking” of the threat to use nuclear weapons; “Whether the idea was Eisenhower's or Dulles’ may never be known.  Logic would suggest that it originated with the president”:  John Foster Dulles, 71.  Eisenhower may have had this policy in mind before he took office.  At the outbreak of the Korean War, he indicated in his diary a willingness to use atomic weapons, if necessary:  GE, 215.  When he returned from his pre-inaugural trip to Korea, he told reporters that the enemy there would be impressed “only by deeds—executed under circumstances of our own choosing”:  Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 97.  This phrase was borrowed from Dulles’ influential article, “A Policy of Boldness”:  Life, 5/19/52, 151.  It  would soon become a central formulation in the administration’s New Look policy and its code words for greater reliance on nuclear weapons; see Keefer, “End of the Korean War,” 270; Foot, The Wrong War, 214.

[21] Ambrose, Eisenhower, 107; Foot, The Wrong War, 241.  Foot notes that in Eisenhower's Korea policy the effort to maintain a delicate geopolitical balance of allies and enemies was paralleled by an equally delicate political balancing act at home, between his own focus on Europe and the demands of the “Asia-first” lobby.   

[22] Radio and Television Address to the American People Announcing the Signing of the Korean Armistice, PPP, 1953, 520-522; Zagacki, “Eisenhower and the Rhetoric of Postwar Korea,” 233.

[23] NYT, 7/27/53, 1; Time, 8/3/53, 9; Newsweek, 8/3/53, 16.

[24] Radio Report to the American People, 8/6/53, PPP, 1953, 548-550, 552, 556.