For eight years, Dwight D. Eisenhower pursued the
Edenic vision that had crystallized in his first months in office: a “free world” permanently stable, secure,
and at peace—free to live a life of voluntary self-restraint—because its
policies were permanently restraining every apocalyptic peril. By reducing global triumph to global stasis,
Judged against his own goal, Eisenhower's national
security policies were doomed to fail.
The real world is not
By 1957, the president told Senator Styles Bridges that the best he hoped for was to have “a real fighting chance of bringing this world around to the point where the Communist menace, if not eliminated, will be so minimized it cannot work.” And even that limited goal seemed to recede ever further into the eschatological horizon. Long before 1957, the administration's actual goal had become merely preventing catastrophic losses. As H. W. Brands points out, Eisenhower and his advisors “were forced to the conclusion that national security no longer existed. The best they could hope for was a policy that would minimize national insecurity. Unfortunately, and portentously, they did not achieve even this.” Their endless quest for national security produced only what Brands aptly describes as a national insecurity state.
The president and his advisors could not solve, or even understand, the problems they faced because they reduced problems of war and peace, and indeed all global political problems, to problems of crisis behavior and crisis management. Since every problem had to be solved within the context of apocalypse management, every problem had to be defined as a crisis to be managed. The elements of every crisis had to be reduced to pieces in their imagined world-puzzle, a puzzle that could never be put together. So the picture was bound to be confusing and frightening. The enduring framework of Eisenhower's policies, the New Look, created more confusion and uncertainty because they depended on amassing—and making credible threats to use—weapons for a war that the president said could never be won, although he insisted on having plans to win it. To maintain stability, the exact nature of and scope of “massive retaliation” had to be left intentionally unclear, which made the administration's own policies ill-defined and inherently unstable.
Insecurity mounted in domestic public discourse, too. There was little conscious awareness that
national security discourse had undergone a crucial transformation. The word peace
was widely taken to mean what it had previously meant in ordinary
conversation: not just the absence of war,
but a state of harmony, which implied mutual interaction, understanding,
concern, and cooperation. This was the
Wilsonian vision of liberal internationalism.
Since Eisenhower used many of the same words
The New Look intensified images of the dangers it was meant to forestall. Every image of war or peace reinforced the desire for absolute control. Each apparent failure of control was portrayed as a harbinger of greater chaos, requiring redoubled efforts at more efficient control. Chaos seemed to be perpetually growing; this was the price of keeping it perpetually contained. So growing hope for peace would have to mean more fear as well.
It could hardly have been otherwise, given the conflicting apocalyptic and “realist” element in Eisenhower's ideology. Apocalypse management posited perfect containment as an eschatological ideal of total victory over evil. But containment could fulfill the apocalyptic hope only because, and so long as, the perils and crises contained were themselves apocalyptic. Since peace and security were now defined in terms of stability and control, apocalyptic language could easily generate an eschatological fantasy of total containment and perfect control. If peace consisted primarily of words, then it could exist in the mouths and minds of humans, with no necessary reference to non-verbal or non-mental reality. Peace and security could be a utopian fantasy of total control, yet still be credited as fully real.
Yet the appearance was deceptive. Once set in motion, apocalypticism is perhaps the hardest discursive mode to control. When stasis must be perfect and permanent to be satisfying, reality is bound to be disappointing. Eisenhower aimed to create global stability by building an impermeable dike around the communist bloc. But every time he plugged up one leak, he increased the pressure on cracks elsewhere. His dogged pursuit of control sometimes engendered, and always exacerbated, his inability to control events. Every option seemed to defeat the dream of perfect control. Greater demands for control produced greater frustration. That inevitable frustration had to be blamed on the enemy; dualism and fear of the enemy were intensified. Since the thwarted hope was absolute, the enemy’s threat was interpreted as absolute, and the sense of national insecurity grew.
The president's assumption that no apocalyptic solution was available compounded the frustration. He called on the nation to maintain an impossibly delicate balance between an apocalyptic definition of the problem and a “realist” vision of the solution. He had adopted the New Look policies to wage cold war indefinitely, against an enemy whose threat was assumed to be permanent. His Augustinian “realism” required that assumption. It also required the administration to pursue static balance as its highest goal. But now the “realist” goal of perfect balance, originally developed for a world of several competing states, had to be mapped onto a permanently bipolar reality. Thus Eisenhower's fusion of “realism” and apocalypticism suggested two opposite routes to global order. The enemy represented impending infinite chaos, which had to be controlled by the forces of good at all costs. But the enemy was assumed to be in control of its own geopolitical sphere, beyond the reach of American power and influence.
Moreover, the spatial danger had to be translated into
temporal terms; the other side of the world had to become a future in which the
enemy threat had vanished yet somehow still existed as a permanent fact of life. The new discursive construction logically
required both a continuing threat and a global static balance to contain that
threat over an indefinite "long haul." The nation and the world would somehow always
be dispelling the shadow of impending disaster yet still living under it, This
bestowed on the
The effective goal of Eisenhower's discourse and policies was a permanent restraint of communism commensurate to the permanent threat. Judged against this ideal, any methods or tools of restraint would seem insufficient—even nuclear weapons. Could there ever be enough weapons? How would one know when “enoughness” was achieved? Perhaps it might never be achieved. So the language of apocalypse management spurred and legitimated a nuclear buildup without limit. But more bombs would not necessarily heighten public anxiety, as the Truman era had shown. The true source of insecurity lay in the way the president talked about the bomb. His continuing calls for controlled fear, rather than “hysteria,” ensured that public fear would grow to keep pace with the nuclear arsenal. Thus efforts to control fear actually made fear harder to control.
Just as the language of apocalypse management legitimated the New Look and its nuclear buildup, those policies also served to legitimate the prevailing mode of language and to make its nuclear threat believable. The New Look’s explicit message spoke of using force to make the world safe for negotiations. But the implicit message was that any war might well become total nuclear war, the climactic battle with evil. Warnings of massive retaliation made images of impending doom more prominent and necessary in the administration's discourse. The world seemed bound for either perfect order or total chaos.
The New Look also served to legitimate the continuing
belief in American innocence. Eisenhower
assumed that the
To make the images of absolute threat and American
innocence believable, the perilous imagery of the bomb had to be projected ever
more fixedly on the
Eisenhower valued mental clarity and order. He admitted that he was uncomfortable when there was no pre-existing, well-defined, shared goal to pursue. Therefore, he assumed that a common goal already existed; the cooperation that he praised meant simply joining the team to achieve that goal. He rarely showed any interest in how it was initially determined. He did not encourage debate on fundamental values, for he insisted that these were beyond debate. So he rarely urged the public to foster the skills of sharing ideas, making compromises, and setting goals together. Nor did he say much about these skills in private. Perhaps this attitude was natural for a military man.
Eisenhower's understanding of spirituality fit
hand-in-glove with his military training.
Cooperation as self-restraint meant doing one’s duty without questioning
the validity of the goal. The
fundamental goals and purposes of life were passed down from on high and were
by definition universal. In terms of
Most Americans agreed with their president that only the communists would initiate a nuclear war. It was easy enough to project the bomb's apocalyptic danger onto fear of Soviet aggression and uncertainty about Soviet intentions. So it seemed logical to pursue peace by demanding equally strict controls on both the communist and nuclear peril simultaneously. Since fear of the bomb was also fear of the communists, growing fear insured public support for the administration's resistance to genuine negotiation. Thus meaningful efforts toward disarmament and eased tensions were frustrated too.
Nevertheless, those efforts had to be pursued incessantly. The president could hope to implement his New Look policies only if he could persuade his own and allied nations that he was both willing and able to enhance stability without risking war. Negotiations would create an essential stage on which the administration could convincingly deploy its persuasive words. This would give the government the freedom it needed to enact policies to manage the spectrum of apocalyptic threats. And there was always the possibility that skillful negotiators might actually win some concrete advantages for the “free world.”
The Soviets would have to participate in negotiations
so that the
The Soviets would also have to participate so that the
In order to play their necessary role, the Soviets had
only to sit down at the table. It
mattered little what they said or did there.
They simply had to represent the radical opposite of the
Images of hope for perfect stability and control were
so appealing because they were cast in the larger framework of an apocalyptic
dualism that denied any need for, or possibility of, genuine compromise. So every statement the administration made
about disarmament and arms control included, as its logical starting point, an
evocation of American innocence and the enemy’s frightening evil. When Eisenhower presented peace and
cooperation as the highest
Rhetorical offers to negotiate played the very same symbolic function as would the negotiations they called for. "The Chance for Peace," “Atoms for Peace,” and "Open Skies" offered the president's ideal vision of a "lasting peace"—a "free world" which deserved that name because it was free of insecurity. But the speeches denied their own promise, for they evoked and reinforced what their discursive framework assumed: the insecurity of a continuing danger to be managed over the "long haul." The speeches enacted the process of apocalypse management that they announced.
In all these ways, negotiation and talk about
negotiation intensified dualism, heightened anxiety, and fostered caution about
letting hopes for peace get too high.
Growing caution fanned fear, which in turned fanned a desire for words
of peace that the president was obliged and ready to fulfill—and the cycle
would repeat itself. The president did
not express much concern about the
With no end to cold war in sight, it seemed that one’s
enemy would simultaneously have to be one’s partner—and vice
versa—forever. This made “the Soviets” a
useful linguistic token in
The pursuit of static balance required an endless dynamic balancing act. World War III would continue indefinitely precisely so that, and because, one would never have to fight it. The nation would continue to be at peace precisely because—and only so long as—it was still successfully at war. The future could no longer be imagined as Americans had usually imagined it: an enduring peace briefly punctuated by wars. Rather, the future became a single process that could be described equally well as war or peace.
The process was in many ways a verbal process. Words of peace were becoming the primary weapons of war. At the same time, threats of total war were employed as essential tools for keeping the peace. Images of the existing state of war became vehicles for promises of negotiated peace, while images of negotiated peace also became a reaffirmation of the continuing state of war, which seemed somehow not really war but rather a new kind of peace. The administration intended to combine judicious threats and uses of force with judicious negotiations as the twin routes to effective apocalypse management. Both routes could be pursued simultaneously, for both were understood as ways of waging war, as paths to victory, and as paths to peace.
Just as speaking is a process, so security came to be seen as a process—the process of imposing a static balance of geopolitical and military forces and a static discursive framework upon the constant flux of reality. Security, peace, and victory now seemed to depend on creating not only a balance of forces, but believable images of a static rational balance. The process of maintaining that balance would consist largely of choosing the right words, disseminating them, and having them broadly accepted as legitimate and true. In this sense security, peace, and victory would be not merely achieved or maintained, but actually constituted, primarily by words.
Security, peace, and victory now meant a verbal
process that would be constantly shaping reality to its own patterns and thus
preventing any significant change.
Ideally, all nations would share in the process, creating a single,
static, global system, which would be at once geopolitical, economic, and
discursive. Because the stasis would be
guaranteed by the rational expertise of
By the late summer of 1955, the nation’s leaders and leading media had discovered a convincing way to use cold war imagery, as well as weaponry, to ease the disturbing features of both imagery and weaponry. They portrayed the brink of war as the only possible kind of peace. “The brink” symbolized the meeting place of apocalypse and stasis, the place where stability as process would unfold. The whole edifice of discourse seemed to condemn the nation to remain forever on the brink of chaos. Living on that brink became the prime symbol of an apocalypse totally managed yet always close at hand.
The geopolitical representation of the brink was the Iron Curtain, the place where the two superpowers' spheres of influence met and, occasionally, collided. Peace, victory, and security now meant keeping that Curtain firmly fixed by controlling every event along its entire length. Control required continuing verbal interactions with, and verbal victories over, an enemy safely ensconced behind the Iron Curtain. The crucial fact was the opposition between the “free world” and its enemy, not the precise content or boundary of each bloc. Each existed only relative to the other. And as long as the two were differentiated by some dividing line, the very existence of that boundary could be offered as proof that stasis had been achieved. The dynamic process of restraint became the symbol of ideal stasis.
The boundary had such powerful meaning only if what lay beyond it was absolute evil and therefore absolute threat. The more evil and threatening it was, the more meaningful and reassuring was the constant process of restraining it. So there was something paradoxically satisfying in ascribing apocalyptic intentions to the “red menace.” Stasis had become the ideal goal because the enemy threat was seen as apocalyptic in magnitude.
But the opposite was also true: the enemy was seen as apocalyptic in order to
legitimate and reinforce the ideal of stasis.
Apocalypse and stasis now formed the twin pivots of
The New Look also depended on a brinkmanship of imagery—trying to push the public to the brink of absolute anxiety without going over it. The president purveyed his images of endless life on the brink (and endorsed Dulles' brinkmanship) in the name of national security. He said publicly that he was seeking a peace that would banish fear. Fear became the opposite of peace. Yet he still needed to inculcate a controlled degree of fear throughout the “free world” to foster support for the New Look. That was the purpose of the Candor project and its successors: to create and hold the “middle way” between fear and hope. Apocalypse management depended on carefully calibrating not just the emotions, but also the knowledge, opinions, and behavior of both the Soviet leaders and the “free world” public. Control, and the geopolitical stability it was supposed to produce, depended on a stable, unified framework of discourse as its primary instrument.
But the discourse itself undermined that goal. Beneath
its harmonizing façade, the various traditional understandings of peace and
security and the various key words of the discourse still conflicted with each
other. This perpetuated and exacerbated
the confusions and tensions among the competing meanings of national
security. In order to embrace one
meaning, it would be necessary simultaneously to embrace and to reject—or at
least doubt—the others. The resulting
conflicts were intensified because all of the contradictory elements had to be
treated as absolutes. Expressions of
hope for absolute security in the distant future made sense only if, for all
practical and policymaking purposes, the
The problem lay in private as well as public language and in the interaction between the two. Although Eisenhower did have relatively firm control over policy decisions, the decision-making process reflected the confusion in his discourse. Goals and policies to achieve them were confused and sometimes mutually contradictory. So his public explanations of those goals and policies were inevitably confused and contradictory, too. Though he seems to have assumed that he was explaining his strategy clearly, the disparity between president and public as his second term progressed showed that he had not. He did not understand that his discursive construction was too complicated for most Americans, and most of their representatives in Congress, to understand in all its complexity. It named too many apocalyptic threats and wove them together in too many ways for most people to grasp. What he hoped would be a logical system ended up looking like sheer confusion.
The president intertwined his private and public language because he thought it the only way to achieve his goal of control. He spoke a public language that promised absolute security only because that promise seemed necessary to make his private policies work. But the private policies aimed only at limited, relative security. Since those policies both assumed and intensified the national insecurity state, the public language needed to implement them naturally brought the insecurity of the private discourse into the public realm.
Aiming at perfect control, Eisenhower’s words set in
motion processes that were beyond his control.
His words of peace created expectations that he would act upon them; he
felt just as obliged to fulfill those expectations as he was unwilling to
fulfill them. The contradiction left him
feeling helpless. Every effort to stop
up a leak in the dike of containment seemed to cause another new leak. Eisenhower tried to turn this plight to his
advantage. He depicted the ever-growing
Soviet nuclear arsenal and the conflicts in Indochina, the
However, he found himself trapped in his own creation. When he tried to persuade the nation that Sputnik posed no great threat, his efforts were in vain. He had encouraged the nation to view any significant change as instability and apocalyptic crisis; that fear now turned back upon him and his administration. As Donald White concludes, “Americans were more insecure than before.” So they demanded yet another apocalyptic crisis and more aggressive (and expensive) measures to contain the enemy. The president himself became lost in the complexities of apocalypse management. When he convened a panel to study the nation’s goals, he admitted “that if he had had a set of goals to evaluate against, he probably would have made fewer mistakes.” He could never recognize that his own discourse lay at the root of his confusion. He assumed that his own policies played little part, or (more often) no part at all, in generating the dangerous or problematic situations he had to deal with.
Therefore, he had to deny that the solution to his
problems might lie in fundamental changes that he and his administration could
initiate. This meant that he had no way
to prevent threats from arising or to improve the
Despite the growing insecurity it bred, apocalypse management became the common denominator of American foreign policy discourse. By the end of the Eisenhower presidency, the administration's national security policy was being criticized from both the right and the left. But the fundamentals of the apocalypse management paradigm were firmly installed as the playing field on which these political battles were fought. It was not analyzed or even recognized as a distinctive paradigm because it was so universally taken for granted. Thus its ironies and paradoxes received little discussion.
With the formative traditions and the key words of national security discourse—war, victory, security, and peace—so deftly harmonized, all possible policy goals seemed equally well harmonized. Any perceived successes in foreign affairs would validate administration policies as means of control. Any apparent failures would be seen as harbingers of apocalyptic crisis, eliciting redoubled hopes for and efforts at more precise control. The Soviet resistance that Eisenhower's policies generated became the strongest evidence to validate them, reinforcing the apparent need for firm containment. Thus the policies were bound to legitimate themselves and their underlying frame of discourse. Much as in a religious doctrine, apocalypse management became a self-confirming discursive circle whose premises were beyond question. Much as in a religious community, the Eisenhower administration's practice legitimated its discursive ideal, and vice versa.
Although the demise of communism was postponed to an eschatological horizon, waging cold war still appeared to be a virtuous act of faith, a spiritual crusade for millennial fulfillment. The risks entailed in the cold war could be understood as the cross the nation had to bear in the present in order to earn, at some distant time, its spiritual crown. Because the process aimed at a spiritual goal, the process itself could easily take on spiritual meaning. The president encouraged this religious perception with his constant talk of faith. Faith was the word that bound together the other key words.
The faith of apocalypse management was perfectly
suited to the temper of the times.
Robert Wuthnow suggests that the predominant mode of
The quest for a sense of inviolable dwelling place
ultimately failed, as Wuthnow observes, because “Americans feared that their
fortress could be invaded at any time.
They spent increasing amounts on national defense, built bomb shelters,
and searched for subversives in their midst.”
There were domestic “intruders” to worry about, too. In the first half of the decade, millions of
Americans feared that communist sympathizers in their local schools and
libraries, as well as in the State Department and
All these sources of anxiety, foreign and domestic, only made stability more appealing as an ideal. One response was a growing cult of domesticity, demanding rigidly defined gender roles. Another complementary response was to turn even more fervently to religion: “To buttress their strength, Americans repeatedly declared their trust in God: in 1954, the phrase ‘one nation under God’ was added to the pledge of allegiance, and ‘in God we trust’ was printed on the currency.” Perhaps it was natural to look to religion to remedy the problem that religiously-laden language had helped to create. But this tied religion to the language of national security ever more tightly, bringing Eisenhower's images of inescapable danger right into the sanctuary. Such a faith could only heighten the insecurity it was meant to allay.
The appeal of apocalypse management grew not merely in spite of, but actually because of, the insecurity it created. Warren Susman has described a prevailing public ambivalence in cold war culture, a "dual collective representation" of extreme confidence and intense anxiety. Apocalypse management drew upon and reflected both sides of that dual representation. Its images of eternal stasis allayed the anxiety raised by its images of imminent cataclysmic change. But images of anxiety had to be brandished constantly, since they were needed to legitimate and gave meaning to the images and promise of stasis.
As anxiety grew, Americans would feel increasingly powerless to achieve true security. Yet that very sense of powerlessness could be the most convincing proof that they were victims of evil forces beyond their control. They could reassure themselves that they bore no responsibility for the evils or troubles that created anxiety, that they remained as morally pure as ever. Thus, anxiety took on positive meaning as the necessary complement to the goal of perfect goodness protected by perfect stability. Anxiety was a price many would pay to purchase the resulting clarity, simplicity, and innocence. Eisenhower’s public words created the frightening prospect that the enemy’s evil would threaten forever. Yet perhaps it became, in a strange sense, more frightening to imagine a world without a threatening enemy. An end to the cold war could create a crisis of meaning that might cause more anxiety than the war itself. The cold war path, despite its instability, could easily seem the necessary and most desirable path to follow.
Like every faith, apocalypse management had its rituals, too. Stephen Ambrose speaks of “the almost ritual-like maneuvers in the disarmament dance.” The same metaphor can aptly be applied to all of the Eisenhower administration's cold war policies. The administration responded to a wide variety of disparate and changing occurrences with a very limited set of maneuvers, repeated over and over again. At home, there was not enough opposition to give the administration political reasons to consider fundamental change. Indeed, the continuing power of Eisenhower’s domestic consensus indicates that the public generally wanted to avoid new policy directions. The president and his domestic public were locked in a ritualized cold war dance because the president offered what the public seemed to want: the same reassuring sense of safe, static structure that it found (according to Wuthnow) in going to church.
This is what ritual often provides. Ritual is usually generated in response to a threat from forces beyond the realm of human agency. As long as the humans are certain of their moral goodness, they feel absolved of responsibility for causing the problem. When they believe they are not involved in the origin of the problem, they take no empirical or practical steps to solve it. Even the community’s most powerful leaders seem powerless to help. Yet the threat must be coped with, somehow. Ritual frames the threat in a familiar symbolic form and acts out a symbolic mode of control. Thus human action brings the threatening situation within the bounds of a familiar, culturally-created order. Ritual gives reassurance because it repeats an accustomed process. It frames change and anxiety within a seemingly unchangeable structure, generating a conviction that humans have achieved genuine control.
Although ritual creates an increased sense of security, from an empirical perspective the control is illusory. The threat is bound to continue or recur; indeed, the perceived need for ritual confirms that the humans are empirically powerless to prevent the threat from recurring. So the ritual will have to be repeated. And every time it is performed, it reminds the participants of the anxieties it is meant to allay. Since the ritual must represent the threat in symbolic form, it actually heightens awareness of those anxieties. Ritual leaves no choice but to expect future threat and to assume that the only possible response in the future is to repeat the same procedures again indefinitely. So the perception of peril and powerlessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The president's national security policies were, in that sense, a self-perpetuating ritual cycle. Each apparent failure of control was interpreted as a harbinger of greater chaos, requiring redoubled efforts at more efficient control. He and his administration were locked more firmly into the mounting spiral of insecurity.
The spirituality of dwelling and its rituals depended
on spatial metaphors: the perceived
threat had to come from somewhere outside.
As always, though,
After he left office, Eisenhower said that his
greatest disappointment was the “lack of definite proof that we had made real
progress toward achieving peace with justice.”
“I had longed to give the
Stephen Ambrose comes closer to an accurate assessment of Eisenhower’s greatest success. Ambrose says simply: "He made peace and he kept the peace." Yet on the same page he asserts that "what Eisenhower had done best was managing crises." Both statements are equally appropriate. Eisenhower was seen as a peacemaker and his foreign policy accounted successful by most of his contemporaries—and many recent historians—simply because his policies seemed to prevent crises from turning into disasters. Emmet Hughes observed perceptively:
He was the man of strong will—who reserved his greatest force for keeping unwanted things from being done.…A foreign policy beset by such inner contradictions inevitably could attain results only of one kind: the negative or the passive.…A national policy so nearly schizophrenic was powerless to create a positive political design. In the deepest sense, it could neither conceive nor execute a truly historic act. This was not because it lacked the courage to act. This was because it could not decide upon a definition of history.
Perhaps Eisenhower could not decide upon a definition of history because his goal was to create serenity by stopping history. His cold war discourse consistently (albeit implicitly) denied the desire for positive historical change at the heart of both liberal internationalism and apocalypticism. Indeed it denied the possibility of any kind of beneficial change. It taught the nation to see all significant change in apocalyptic terms, as a portent of chaos that should be fended off at all costs. In a world hemmed in by so much threat and confusion, the logical response would be to try to stop all change.
This attitude reflected the Augustinian roots of the
president's ideology. The spiritual
ideal was to keep a perfect and permanent control over the human impulses and
desires that are the source of historical change. Ideally, a perfectly
controlled reality would transcend all time and change. Since change is inevitable, however, reality
seemed permanently perilous; the world looked like an endless reservoir of
potential enemies. But changing
The only remaining path to security was to try to
prevent change by imposing control over others.
The control did not have to be through military action or violence. It could even be achieved through
negotiations, as long as they were aimed at enhancing control. Often, though, the targets of these efforts
viewed them as a form of violence.
Naturally, they resisted.
Convinced that their own policies bore no responsibility for the acts of
When those efforts inevitably fell short, it became further proof for the public that the nation was indeed imperiled and insecure. It plunged the nation deeper into the state of national insecurity. Yet far from undermining the popular appeal of apocalypse management, this dynamic only enhanced it. Every new source of anxiety could easily seem like further evidence that apocalypse management was the only sensible course to pursue.
The president’s appeal to faith pushed the nation in the same direction. Ironically, as William Lee Miller saw, his rhetoric of strenuous effort to control the enemy and the self actually implied an effortless religion. Eisenhower's discourse implied a promise to fulfill the age-old religious desire for a life outside time and history, a life of endless ease with no demands, no conflict, and no need to make any choices. In the mid-1950s, pollster Samuel Lubell wrote: "Rarely in American history has the craving for tranquility and moderation commanded more general support." Eisenhower's frequent exhortation to faith as voluntary self-restraint surely contributed to this development. His rhetoric portrayed his policy of ever-wider foreign entanglements as the only safe route to the “isolationist” ideal of a domestic tranquility that would transcend time.
Some intellectuals watched this development with alarm. The influential pundit Walter Lippman complained, "The critical weakness of our society is that for the time being our people do not have great purposes which they are united in wanting to achieve. The public mood of the country is defensive, to hold on to and to conserve, not to push forward and to create." Literary critic R.W. B. Lewis lamented “our current rigidity. … Ours is an age of containment; we huddle together and shore up defenses; both our literature and our public conduct suggest that exposure to experience is certain to be fatal. … We call that state of hopelessness the human condition. … It remains curiously frozen in outline.” In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy would popularize this critique quite successfully. But for most of Eisenhower's presidency, most of the public seemed to find an escape from time and change more of a blessing than a curse. If they imagined themselves beyond time, Americans could continue to imagine themselves pure and innocent, beyond the moral tensions that every historical situation creates.
The yearning for timeless stasis, once translated into
national security policy, fostered a distinctive vision of the meaning of
Although the traditional language of
The final triumph of apocalypse management was to
satisfy both sides of this ambivalent new situation. As it wove together all the familiar
The 1960s seemed to offer hope for something
different. When John F. Kennedy ran for
president in 1960, he and his strategists sensed that the nation was growing
restless, yearning for something more than the comforts of stasis. Kennedy campaigned and won as the dynamic
young man who would free the
Under Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, public discourse did entertain the notion of political life as an organized effort for progressive change in the domestic arena. But in foreign policy the two Democratic presidents maintained their predecessors’ commitment to endless containment. After Nixon replaced Johnson, the Republicans’ nearly uninterrupted grip on the White House from 1969 to 1992 ensured that the executive branch would speak the language and follow the policies of apocalypse management. Republican pressure forced Jimmy Carter, in his brief tenure, toward the same direction. The conservative trend of that era reflected the public’s embrace of (and perhaps insistence on) a politics of protection against threat.
The end of the cold war brought not an end, but a new
beginning, to this cold war ideal.
If there was any hope that the apocalypse management
paradigm might give way to some other pattern of discourse, that hope fell
along with the
Bush, like Eisenhower, insisted that he was waging war to preserve global stability by containing a never-ending threat. Terrorism anywhere would “threaten the stability of legitimate governments,” he warned. “And you know what? We're not going to allow it.” He began his second term with an inaugural address full of Wilsonian promises to export freedom to every corner of the world. Yet White House advisors rushed to tell journalists not to take this commitment too literally, because “a policy promoting democracy also has to be a realistic policy” to preserve stability. In 2004, asked by an interviewer about winning the war on terrorism, Bush replied: “I don’t think you can win it.” He could only hope to make it “less likely that your kids are going to live under the threat of al-Qaida for a long period of time. I can’t tell you. I don’t have any … definite end.” When another interviewer suggested that terrorism is “always going to happen because it always has,” Bush replied: “Right.”
Apocalypse management was enshrined as official policy
in the Bush administration's document, “The National Security Strategy of the
In the first decade of the 21st century, although
the cold war was long over, the national insecurity state endured. The foundation of that state, and the essence
of the cold war legacy, was its image of peace as apocalypse management. The goal of
In part, it may have been a political and military
necessity. Few nations were weak enough
to be attacked with impunity. Foes like
Perhaps apocalypse management survived its cold war
matrix in part because nuclear weaponry showed no signs of disappearing
soon. Indeed, George W. Bush broadened
both the influence and anxiety of the nuclear age legacy by linking the
predominant threat in public discourse—terrorism—with weapons of mass
destruction (WMD). The renewed and
widespread anxiety about WMD insured that the paradoxes of the nuclear age
However, the most profound effects of WMD upon human life may lie not in their destructive power, but in their paradoxical imagery, symbolism, and psychological impact. “Nothing is so effective as imagery,” nuclear historian Spencer Weart claims. He demonstrates that nuclear imagery always speaks of the extremes of good and evil; often it speaks of transforming evil into good: “The theme at the center of the paradoxical duality [is] the myth of transmutational power from beyond the mortal sphere.” Ever since the earliest experiments with radiation, the language of the atom and its power has revolved around images of death, transformation, and rebirth. Thus the very destructiveness of the bomb becomes a vehicle for visions of a greater future.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton agrees with Weart about the power of symbolic images. But his influential studies of the cultural impact of nuclear weapons seem to reach an opposite conclusion. He finds the enduring legacy of nuclear weapons in the phenomenon he calls “psychic numbing.” The bomb is the most powerful symbol of the mass technological death that emerged in the 20th century, he contends. What Kurt Vonnegut called "plain old death" is no longer available to us. Now death seems to come only in apocalyptic tidal waves that blot out every possible future. So the mere existence of nuclear weapons intensifies all sorts of apocalyptic fears, even when those fears have obviously non-nuclear sources.
The result, according to Lifton, is not a hope for transformation, but just the opposite: a cessation of all symbolizing processes. When the world becomes overwhelmingly frightening, the mind defends by shutting out the world. It enters a pervasive psychic numbing, a “death in life,” that freezes all constructive psychic processes. If Lifton is right, then as long as the bomb exists, even if it is never used, psychic numbing will persist. It will intensify the propensity to see all frightening images as harbingers of apocalypse. And those apocalyptic images, rather than fostering any hope for change, will only deepen the psychosocial stasis of numbing.
The study of Eisenhower's discourse situates both of these theories in a concrete historical context. His apocalypticism certainly did keep images of death and rebirth alive in the culture of his day. Weart demonstrates this, focusing especially on the language of the “Atoms for Peace” program. And he suggests a strong, if paradoxical, link between that language and the rise of the antinuclear movement in the late 1950s. The ubiquitous imagery of nuclear weapons (and particularly fallout from tests) energized that movement to demand change, according to Weart. Yet the analysis of apocalypse management makes Lifton’s argument appear all the more persuasive. In Eisenhower's language, a world beyond change was the highest ideal and the prevention of change the wisest policy. The capacity even to imagine fundamental change became the source of both danger and evil. Whether Eisenhower's discourse was a cause, a product, or a sign of psychic numbing—or perhaps some of all three—it was surely the political and discursive complement to the psychological effect that Lifton has described.
Ultimately, though, apocalypse management sublates the competing impulses to transformation and stasis. It encompasses both in an overarching unity that harmonizes them by moving the whole issue to another discursive plane. It offers an endless dynamic process that is, by its very nature, an unchanging stable process, guaranteeing endless stability. So it makes WMDs a symbol of the union of stasis and change. The more prominent the transformative imagery of the WMD, the more insistent grows the demand for the security of stasis. Once again, the public seems to be afforded the best of all worlds, with no need to make any choices. The synergy of weapons and discourse perpetuates the national insecurity state.
The U.S. remains a national insecurity state because public discourse clings to the basic premises of that state: national security means protecting the nation against some form of global chaos permanently threatening to engulf us; our own policies played no role at all in generating that threat; therefore, the only way to protect the nation is to act as an external force imposing control over the threat. Perfect stability, achieved through control over every potential danger, remains the dominant understanding of peace. Violence is still sanctioned as a means to that kind of peace. And the words peace and security are still used to sanction violence.
This is the enduring legacy of Eisenhower's
language. Today most Americans think of
“Ike” as a naïve reassuring voice, bolstering the nation’s confidence with his
bland optimism and praise of peace.
Historians reject the naivete but generally credit his words of peace as
genuine. It is a story many Americans
still want to hear and tell. It seems to
say that we endured those frightening years of cold war for a noble
purpose. It assures us that the
A more accurate story would conclude that the fear of
change underlying Eisenhower’s discourse prevented him from responding to new
realities with genuinely new policies. Instead,
his fear locked him into a perilous nuclear arms race. A similar fear works a similar effect on
But the public has a hard time imagining options for meaningful change in positive directions, mutual interchange with those who disagree with us, or cooperating with them to create a safer environment for all. With those goals of positive peace and change so difficult to talk about or even imagine, there is little chance of meaningful mass efforts to pursue them. There is every chance that the public will organize only to try to protect itself against an ever-changing array of perceived threats—and end up feeling ever more insecure.
Public language is the matrix of public action. To understand the prevailing mode of public action—or inaction—in the face of massive global problems, we would do well to understand the rich, complex, all-enveloping discourse of apocalypse management. To escape from the insecurity it breeds, we would do well to examine the discursive constructions underlying national security policies. Even the most dramatic changes in the international situation will not yield a fundamentally new direction for foreign policy until there is a corresponding change in our nation's public discourse.
Once we recognize the discursive foundations of policy, we recognize that policy is not an objectively necessary response to an objectively given situation. The situation, no less than the response, is a product of human interpretations. Those interpretations, like language itself, are the fruits of human choices. They could always have been done differently. They can always be done differently. Although we can not go back and change the choices of the past, understanding the past as discursive construction opens up the freedom to make very different choices today. A new understanding of security in the past present is one path—perhaps the only path—to a new kind of security in the future.
Notes to Conclusion
Conversation between the President and
 Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, 140, points out that the great danger in this system was not communist rule, but neutralism and the diversity it could spawn. He credits this positive view of Soviet rule to Dulles. But it was clearly implicit in Eisenhower's discourse and policy decisions too, although neither one would ever admit it.
For an analysis of
On the “indefinite and relatively constant military burden,” see Huntington, The Common Defense, 67. William presciently described this state of “neither war nor peace” as early as 1910in his essay . As a candidate in 1952, Eisenhower said publicly: "This world dwells in a twilight zone between peace and war”: New York Times 10/9/52, 2. He wrote the same privately to a confidante: "We find ourselves in circumstances that are neither war nor peace”: Eisenhower to Bernard Baruch, 6/30/52, PDDE 13:1263. Eight years later, that had not changed.
 Lyon, Eisenhower, 826.
 White, The American Century, 308; Memorandum of Conference, 10/19/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 45, “Staff Notes October 1959 (1).”
 Wuthnow, After Heaven, 38. Wuthnow’s study of institutionalized religion in the ‘50s, The Restructuring of American Religion, also reveals striking parallels between the prevailing religious discourse and Eisenhower's discourse; see especially 43-53, 63-69. He notes, for example, the central ambivalence of hope and fear, the urgent call to “vigilant activity” that avoids both despair and optimism, the appeal to a spiritual realm transcending and judging the material (and rejection of communism based on this premise), the link between personal spiritual renewal and national power, the call for religious education to inculcate inner moral restraints, and the fear that lack of religious education would lead to social chaos.
 For an insightful synthesis of domestic and national security anxieties in the 1950s, see Engelhardt, End of Victory Culture.
 Wuthnow, After Heaven, 29, 39.
 Ambrose, Eisenhower, 401.
 “Eisenhower's deep commitment to anti-communist containment and his consequent embrace of the Truman administration's grandiose definitions of American interest guaranteed the future that he abhorred”: Melanson, “The Foundations of Eisenhower's Foreign Policy,” 60.
White, The American Century, 308. On the historical tendency to translate
spatial terms into temporal terms see Stephanson, Manifest
 Eisenhower interview with Walter Cronkite, 10/12/61, quoted in Hughes, Ordeal of Power, 339; Beschloss, MAYDAY, 389; Eisenhower, Waging Peace, 624.
 Ambrose, Eisenhower, 626; Hughes, Ordeal of Power, 360, 344. Craig Allen sums up Eisenhower's achievements as a communicator in similar terms: “There were no major potholes or disasters. … He ‘made no fool of himself’”: Eisenhower and the Mass Media, 204, 214.
Miller, Piety on the
 Lippman quoted in Goldman, The Crucial Decade—and After, 342; R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam. See also White, The American Century, 275 ff.
 Slater, The Ike I Knew, 230; Brendon, Ike, 398. By all accounts, Eisenhower was gracious and helpful to Kennedy throughout the transition period.
 NYT, 1/21/93, 10. Columnist Joe Klein typified much foreign policy analysis of the 1990s when he wrote: "Chaos—not the organized coercive power that 'realists' spend their days worrying about—is the real threat to international stability now": Newsweek, 6/6/94, 36. The theme of the 1994 annual conference of the U.S. Peace Institute was "Managing Chaos."
 On Bush administration policy and discourse as apocalypse management, see Chernus, Monsters To Destroy, especially chapters 8 - 11.
 George W. Bush, Address to Congress and the Nation, 9/20/01; Doyle McManus, “Bush Pulls 'Neocons' Out of the Shadows,” Los Angeles Times, January 22, 2005; Matt Lauer interview with George W. Bush, Today Show, August 30, 2004, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5866571; Rush Limbaugh interview with George W. Bush, August 31, 2004, http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_083104/content/eib_interview.guest.html.
 Weart, Nuclear Fear, 425, 424.
 Lifton’s theory is developed most fully in Death in Life and The Broken Connection. For an analysis, see Chernus, Nuclear Madness, Chapter 5.