Ira Chernus  



Ira Chernus


Words can cause violence. Violence can be done to words. Words often cause violence precisely because their true meaning has been violated. Perhaps the most vulnerable and the most potentially lethal word of all is peace. If the meaning of peace is sufficiently marred or distorted, peace can be used to justify all sorts of violence, even to wage war.

This has been going on for a long time and in lots of places. Back in the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine wrote that people commonly say they are going to war in order to gain peace. But the United States is a special case, for two reasons. First, as the world's great superpower, its linguistic usages are uniquely important, and uniquely dangerous. Everyone in the world is touched by them. Second, the people of the U.S. have been particularly careful to talk of peace whenever they went to war.

In 1917, for example, U.S. troops sailed across the ocean to fight a "war to end war." In 1945, U.S. atomic bombs destroyed two Japanese cities "to hasten the coming of peace." In the 1980s, the U.S. built missiles that could destroy ten cities each, and called them "Peacekeepers. " None of these actions was hypocritical. In every case, the men who made the decisions could say quite sincerely that they were acting on behalf of peace—because they had their own understandings of peace. And those understandings twisted the word so far that it could allow, or even demand, the most violent acts of war.

When it came to talking peace and making war, no U.S. leader was more masterful than Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president from 1953 to 1960. To be sure, the war he fought was a cold one. He sincerely wanted to avoid World War III (though he also made plans to fight it, if necessary). But he developed to a high art the technique of using the word peace as a weapon of cold war. He was so good at it, that he persuaded most Americans of his day to believe that peace was the nation's highest goal, even though they were waging cold war every day.

Eisenhower was also good enough to convince most historians, to the present day, of his genuine desire to ease cold war tensions and move the world toward peace. At the same time, of course, they duly note that he presided over the most rapid nuclear buildup in history. Generally, they side-step this embarrassing paradox by concluding that he really wanted peace but was stymied by his own irrational anticommunism.

But Eisenhower was too smart to contradict himself in such a simplistic way. He could convince the nation to see no contradiction between the pursuing peace and waging war, because in his mind there was no contradiction. And logically speaking, he was right; the special meaning he gave to the word peace made it perfectly compatible with cold war. Though the cold war is long over, Eisenhower's linguistic legacy still shapes the way Americans speak about peace. Thanks largely to Eisenhower, the U.S. government can count on its public to support nearly all its military moves, as long as they are legitimated in the name of peace. The violence he did to the word peace plays a crucial role in justifying acts of violence today.

Eisenhower was, first and foremost, a general. His discourse was shaped by nearly four decades of active military service. He viewed war as the product of an eternal struggle between the two most basic forces of human nature: the universal impulse to selfishness and the countervailing virtue of self-discipline. His idea of "the American way of life" was based on voluntary self-discipline. He believed that it would always be endangered by the selfish lusts of dictators, who aimed to deny people the freedom to control themselves. There could be no compromise between these two inimical forces; their struggle, as he saw it, was a religious, apocalyptic struggle. Yet he was also (though he did not know it) a follower of Augustine, who taught that selfishness ("original sin," in theological jargon) could never be permanently eradicated. At best it could be contained. So the apocalyptic struggle would go on forever.

After World War II, General Eisenhower often told the public of his hope for universal peace, the only alternative to world catastrophe. The promise of world peace helped to mobilize public support for the cold war. He could speak about peace in such utopian terms because he did not believe his own words. In his diary and private correspondence, he hardly ever mentioned the possibility of genuine peace. Nor did he ever base military policies upon it. It was virtually impossible in his worldview. When the cold war cast Soviet communism as the new embodiment of totalitarian evil, the best the general could hope for was to contain that evil forever.

When he entered the White House, Eisenhower still believed that he had to protect "the American way" by restraining the forces of selfishness. Those forces posed three kinds of dangers, in his view: communist governments might come to power in new places, the U.S. might spend so much on its military that it would permanently disrupt the world capitalist system, or there might be another catastrophic world war. If not contained, any of these could lead to a totalitarian state, he repeatedly said; the age-old apocalyptic battle would end with the triumph of evil. And all those forms of danger were so intertwined that they all had to be restrained together.

Eisenhower assumed that the nation would face all these problems for the indefinite future, what he called the long haul. In historian Robert Divine’s words, the cold war became "a problem to be managed, not an all-consuming crusade against the forces of evil." But the problem to be managed was a multifaceted threat, of which communism was only one part. Eisenhower consistently described that threat in apocalyptic terms; in his discourse, every "unstable" situation portended total catastrophe. Apocalypse was the problem that now had to be managed in perpetuity. So "apocalypse management" became Eisenhower's actual working idea of peace: if the "free world" could contain communism permanently without getting into war or spending too much in the process, there would be peace.

The only way to achieve that kind of peace, Eisenhower concluded, was a so-called "New Look" in military strategy, putting more and more money into nuclear weapons. They gave "more bang for the buck" and allowed the U.S. to scare the hell out of the Russians, thereby (he hoped) avoiding war without building up enormously expensive conventional forces. As long as our nukes deterred and contained the communists, we would manage the apocalypse and be at peace.

Of course we would still be at war, but it would be cold war. By this logic, the nation could be at peace while waging cold war indefinitely, which meant that it could pursue world peace while building up an immense nuclear arsenal. Indeed his strategy and discourse made hopes for peace depend on continuing cold war and a continuing buildup of nuclear weapons. He expected to manage all apocalyptic threats by threatening to use weapons of apocalypse. Eisenhower’s language obliterated the difference between war and peace. War became the way to peace.

But the word peace also became a weapon of cold war.

To make his strategy work, Eisenhower had to calm quite reasonable fears among U.S. allies that more nuclear weapons meant more chance of war. He was convinced that the United States had to have staunch allies to wage cold war successfully. Behind this conviction lay perhaps his greatest fear: that the rest of the world would fall under communist domination, leaving the U.S. "an island of freedom" in "a hostile sea of communism." In that case, he told his National Security Council (NSC), the U.S. would have no choice but to launch an all-out war against the Soviet Union. To avoid such a catastrophe, Eisenhower wanted desperately to hold the allegiance of his strongest allies.

But, as John Foster Dulles advised the NSC, "talk of atomic attack tended to create ‘peace-at-any-price people’ and might lead to an increase of appeasement sentiment in various countries. The Rusians are smarter on this question because they never talk about using atomic weapons." Eisenhower agreed: "Everybody seems to think that we’re skunks, saber-rattlers and warmongers. We ought not to miss any chance to make clear our peaceful objectives."

In his first year in office, the president made two famous speeches about peace. "The Chance for Peace" and "Atoms for Peace" both seemed to call for daring new approaches to disarmament. These speeches were crafted to create a powerful impression of U.S. flexibility and conciliation. They were crucial steps in building his reputation as a champion of peace. But neither one was motivated by any real interest in compromising differences with the Soviet Union. Both aimed to placate the frightened allies, to present a more peaceful face to the world, and to secure acceptance of the "New Look" nuclear-based strategy. So Eisenhower used images of peace as reconciliation and compromise in order to promote his true goal of peace as apocalypse management.

"The Chance for Peace" originated when Joseph Stalin died in March, 1953. Eisenhower's chief propagandist, C.D. Jackson, said: "Shouldn’t we do everything possible to overload the enemy at the precise moment when he is least capable of bearing his normal load?…Our task is to perpetuate the confusion as long as possible." Eisenhower never questioned this basic motivation of the speech. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged continuing pressure aimed at "inducing the disintegration of Soviet power," Eisenhower "emphatically endorsed Secretary Dulles’ warning against any relaxation of pressure on the USSR."

Above all, the president wanted his speech to demand concrete Soviet deeds, not just words, before the U.S. would negotiate on disarmament or anything else. The examples of concrete deeds that he offered all represented Soviet capitulations on the major points of conflict between the superpowers. As historian Robert Dallek puts it, Eisenhower handed the Soviet Union an ultimatum: be like us and then negotiate peace on our terms, or else bear full responsibility for condemning the world to a "life of perpetual fear and tension." There would be no negotiation unless a U.S. victory was assured in advance. And Soviet concessions would fix the boundary line between the communist bloc and the "free world" in favor of the U.S.

The "Chance for Peace" speech did not demonstrate any real presidential desire to ease cold war tensions. Rather it reenacted and reinforced the apocalyptic dualism of cold war discourse. It made conciliation and conflict two different routes to the same end: a world fixed in two perfectly balanced power blocs, a world so stable that it would be, in effect, static, with the U.S. retaining a preponderance of power. Negotiations would symbolically reenact cold war dualism and keep the two sides apart, not bring them together. The negotiating table would replace the Iron Curtain as the stable line keeping the evil empire at bay. In this speech, peace meant perfect apocalypse management and invulnerable security; negotiation meant waging cold war and managing apocalyptic threats with the language of peace.

The "Atoms for Peace" speech was also a way to use the language of negotiated peace to promote cold war and apocalypse management. It began as an effort to frighten the public out of its apathy about nuclear weapons and the cold war. "If we are to obtain more money in taxes, there must be a vigorous campaign to educate the people," Eisenhower told his advisors. He wanted to accustom the public to living in "an age of peril." But the project took a sudden turn in September, 1953. Eisenhower and Dulles still had to get their major allies to accept U.S. troop reductions and the U.S. nuclear buildup. Dulles suggested a PR ploy: a "spectacular [U.S.] effort to relax world tensions," which would again ask the Soviets to make concessions so drastic that they were bound to refuse the peace plan.

Eisenhower liked the idea, and he linked it directly to candor: "If we are to attempt real revision in policies--some of which may temporarily, or even for a very extended time, involve us in vastly increased expenditures--we must begin now to educate our people in the fundamentals of these problems," he told Dulles. "All of these people would have to understand that increased military preparation had been forced upon us because every honest peaceful gesture or offer of our own had been summarily rejected by the Communists." The president himself thought up the "spectacular" gesture to dramatize the U.S. desire for peace: an international pool of fissionable material, to be used for peaceful purposes. Of course this plan would also give the U.S. a further military advantage (as he admitted in his memoirs).

Eisenhower's goal was still a "free world" successfully managing every threat of instability. This was still his understanding of peace. He hoped that the "Atoms for Peace" speech, by securing acceptance of the New Look, would help to attain and defend this kind of peace. There is no compelling evidence that he hoped his speech would, or should, initiate a new era of U.S. - Soviet cooperation.

But the "Atoms for Peace" speech led to unintended consequences. The pragmatic aims of the Candor project required a frightening confession that nuclear weapons posed an unprecedented threat to the U.S. To balance this off, the speech had to offer an equally frightening assertion of U.S. ability and will to wage nuclear war. Thus it had to present nuclear weapons in wholly apocalyptic terms, as a threat to both superpowers and the common enemy of all people. This made the bomb seem more of a threat than the communists. So nuclear disarmament had to be presented as a goal of U.S. cold war policy, sharing equal billing with containment of the communist threat. The speech could score a cold war victory only if the U.S. and the Soviet Union were depicted as partners facing a common danger; for the first time, Eisenhower proposed actual cooperation between the superpowers.

Eisenhower and his advisors cared little about the domestic impact of these two speeches on peace. They were drafted almost purely for international consumption. Still, they captured front page headlines across the country. Millions of Americans read that their revered leader wanted to make peace with the "red menace," that he saw a greater menace in the weapons built to contain the "red menace." These speeches made it legitimate for Americans to fear nuclear weapons, to want to ease cold war tensions, to see the "free world" and the communists as partners in a quest for a peaceful solution to the problem created by the Bomb. They legitimated the quest for disarmament negotiations as the principal route to, and perhaps the essential meaning of, peace. U.S. public discourse readily took up this understanding.

But since the speeches were meant to gain cold war advantage and legitimate the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, they also reinforced the dominant cold war worldview, making that the only legitimate context for any moves toward peace. They entwined the rhetoric of peace and the rhetoric of cold war so tightly that there was no longer any way to separate them. The discursive framework for this concept of peace required a continuing enemy threat of apocalyptic dimensions over what Eisenhower called "the long haul." Without such an enemy, Eisenhower’s image of peace as apocalypse management made no sense.

So the nation could pursue this peace only in a discursive as well as political context that guaranteed that there could be no compromise, no reconciliation, no genuine peace. There was no way to pursue peace without waging cold war, and vice versa. Indeed, if achieving peace meant achieving immutable stability, it was no different from winning the war. Peace and victory both meant keeping the superpower rivalry "cold" rather than decisively ending it. Conciliation and conflict were two routes to this peace, so it made perfect sense to wage war with the language of peace. Eisenhower could achieve permanent apocalypse management, it seemed, only by making the word peace a weapon of war.

By 1954, Eisenhower realized that the Soviets as well as the U.S. would soon have intercontinental missiles carrying hydrogen bombs. For the first time, he admitted in private, he was really scared. More importantly, to him, his principal allies were growing more scared every day. Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that the news H-bomb’s power filled his mind "out of all comparison with anything else.". Privately he told Eisenhower, "I feel that we have reached a serious crisis in which the whole policy of peace through strength may be involved." This was the fatal flaw in Eisenhower's strategy for apocalypse management: its two principal pillars, nuclear weapons and staunch allies, were mutually exclusive.

The place where this flaw became evident was, fatefully, Vietnam. After failing in his strenuous efforts to enlist allied military action there, Dulles admitted to the NSC that the U.S. "tough" policies were increasingly unpopular and "the British ‘soft policy’ was gaining prestige and aceptance.…We must recognize the fact that we can no longer run the free world." Eisenhower ruefully agreed. Vietnam was, in his words, the "leaky dike" where he hoped to "put a finger in" rather than "let the whole structure [of the ‘free world’] be washed away." But the failure of his Vietnam policy showed that his vision of peace as a global dike holding back all apocalyptic threats was in vain. Every time the U.S. put its finger in to plug up one hole, it would run the risk of opening up another. It seemed that the best to hope for was to live forever "on the brink," plugging up just enough leaks to prevent the dikes from crumbling completely and inundating the "free world." So Eisenhower, and the nation, continued to speak of peace while waging cold war.

Today most Americans think of Eisenhower as a naïve reassuring voice, bolstering the nation’s confidence with his bland optimism and praise of peace. It is a story many of us still want to hear and tell. It persuades us that we endured all those years of scary cold war for a noble purpose. It assures us that the U.S. can still be devoted to world peace, even if we do have the largest military establishment and the largest weapons industry in the world, even if we are occasionally tempted to put one country or another in its place, with bombs if necessary.

In fact, though, Eisenhower was telling us that Augustine was right: the threats we fear are all permanent. But unlike Augustine, he was saying that the threats are all of apocalyptic magnitude, all spelling doom for our world should the barriers of containment fail. He asked the nation to trust that he and his secretary of state could arrange such a perfect rational balance of threatening forces that they could all be managed over the long haul. As Dulles once put it, the trick was to learn to live constantly on the brink of global disaster without going over it. Peace, like war, meant living permanently on that brink; it meant a permanent state of apocalypse management.

The end of the cold war brought not an end, but a new beginning, to this cold war ideal. Our leaders told us that the world was not less but more dangerous than before. There is as yet no consensus on the precise nature of the bad things that threaten, which is why no new comprehensive vision for foreign policy has emerged in the post-cold war period. But our public discourse is still framed largely in terms of apocalyptic threats and efforts to contain them. The discourse now is essentially a series of debates about the precise nature of the new forms those threats have taken and will take. The new policy so widely sought by policymakers and pundits must await a consensus on that question. When that consensus emerges, it will almost certainly be framed within the discourse of apocalypse management. Peace through perfect stability will still be the goal. Violence will still be sanctioned as a means to that kind of peace. And the word peace will still be used to sanction violence. This violence to the word peace is inevitable, as long as apocalypse management is our highest goal.

The fear of change that prevented Eisenhower from responding to new realities with genuinely new policies works a similar effect on U.S. leaders today. Those leaders, like Eisenhower, have a major role in shaping public perceptions and public discourse. But now they have a public, tutored by Eisenhower and his successors, that is eager to hear about apocalyptic dangers and plans for containing them, but hardly able even to imagine fundamental change as the path to peace. And efforts at containment, no matter violent, can still be presented and accepted as signs of a unique American dedication to peace. This is the most important legacy left to us by Dwight D. Eisenhower.