Ike to Trump: There’s a Better Way

By Daniel L. Davis

Former President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II and he intimately knew the brutal, devastating nature of all-out war. Ike was a believer in maintaining overpowering military strength – including a stated willingness to use nuclear weapons – but more importantly he was a strong advocate for peace and diplomacy. Before it is too late, let us hope President Trump can learn from the policies of Eisenhower.

Since taking office Trump and his senior advisors have advocated for the significant expansion of military power across the globe: more troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Poland, Norway, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, and elsewhere. The Administration has increased support to Saudi troops in Yemen, including U.S. drone and airstrikes. At various times during its first 100 days, the Administration has made threatening statements towards nuclear powers China and Russia. Now, the President and his senior advisors are dramatically expanding the war talk on North Korea, building up military power in the region and categorizing the threat in North Korea as “urgent.” There has been precious little evidence, however, of a commensurate emphasis on diplomacy and a desire for genuine peace. 

Eisenhower signaled a get-tough stance towards both North Korea and China. He reportedly suggested that “he would ‘unleash’ the Nationalist Chinese forces on Taiwan against communist China,” and “use any force necessary (including the use of nuclear weapons) to bring the war to an end unless peace negotiations began to move forward.”  But at a meeting of his National Security Council in April 1952, the President told his closest advisors that “We cannot tolerate the continuation of the Korean conflict,” and that he would seek a negotiated settlement. Senior Administration and Republican officials strongly protested.

Both his Secretary of Defense and State stood in opposition to the President. Yet he would not budge.. After his visit to Korea, he was convinced that the war was unwinnable at an affordable price and that diplomacy offered the best chance to end the war on terms favorable to the United States. Then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee was livid when he found out Ike was not going to seek to defeat the communists and sought to derail the negotiations Ike had ordered with North Korea and China.  Eisenhower remained firm in his position and according to a 2009 New York Times study, made a remarkable threat to President Rhee.

“If the South Korean government did not accept the armistice,” the article claimed President Eisenhower said, “he would withdraw all American forces from the peninsula, discontinue military aid to the South Korean Army, and terminate all financial assistance. Rhee backed down.”  The negotiations continued and on July 27, 1953 an Armistice was signed that ended the war in Korea, put a stop to major U.S. military casualties, and greatly reduced tensions with China. The President’s party and advocates of the military instrument, however, were not satisfied with this positive outcome.

President Eisenhower, however, was unmoved by the criticism and merely remarked “the war is over” and moved on to other matters of greater importance to the American people. Relieved of the burden of war, the President focused on domestic affairs, such as reducing the size of government, lowering the national debt and building a powerful economy.

The United States cannot continue fighting conflicts on nearly every continent on a permanent basis. It drains badly needed resources from uses that could more directly benefit American business and the country’s economic prosperity. Most importantly, not only does aggressive militarism not improve U.S. national security, it places it at greater risk: a major war would cause enormous damage to the US, even if we eventually win.  It is time for the President to adopt the successful positions of his Republican predecessor, stand up to today’s advocates of permanent military action, and elevate diplomacy to primacy. Global security and the domestic economy will both be enhanced as a result. 

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on May 7, 2017. Read more HERE.