RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama's latest big challenge resembles the challenges of a past president. Obama is struggling to build support for his strategy against ISIS. He contends he's doing enough against a long-term threat without going too far. That's a hard sell in a democracy, as one of his predecessors learned. During this final week of the year, my colleague Steve Inskeep has been drawing lessons from history.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: OK, it's not the same experience but it's close enough to ponder. Evan Thomas wrote of it in a book called "Ike's Bluff." Reading it, you see familiar phrases about a president trying to sell his strategy and being accused of a failure of leadership. The president is Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious
Allied general from World War II who later moved into the White House.
EVAN THOMAS: The situation he takes over in 1953 is the beginning of the nuclear age. And Soviet communism, or communism writ large, is on the march. And Eisenhower has to figure out what to do with it. He's got to stand up to communism without overreacting.
INSKEEP: So what did Eisenhower conclude about the nature of this threat?
THOMAS: He concluded that you had to be careful not to get sucked into wars, little wars that could turn into big wars. This is the most important thing he did. Because communism was on the move all over in Asia, Communist China, in Vietnam, it was easy to get sucked into some little war. And Eisenhower feared that if we did it would escalate and it would turn into a nuclear war.
INSKEEP: You describe a guy who's trying to not go down that road that would end in nuclear annihilation. And its impressive reading your book how many people in the United states, or in the power structure of the United States, seem to actually be ready to just go and do that.
THOMAS: Yeah. There were a lot of people in politics who were wanting to roll back communism. Some of them wanted to use nuclear weapons to do it, to do a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had to actually consider it. You know, are we at a moment - this is early in his presidency when he had to think before they get too powerful should we take them out? And there was actually some conversation about that.
INSKEEP: What an interesting challenge in a democracy because President Eisenhower, you say, understood it was a grave threat but didn't want to overreact and make things worse. And so he had a complicated case to sell to a fearful public. How did he do that?
THOMAS: Well, as well as he could. He projected a kind of quiet confidence. Just looking at Dwight Eisenhower, there's the hero of D-Day but it didn't always work. When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, it scared the heck out of everybody. Why? 'Cause it's a giant rocket. They can put a satellite in the air. If they can put a satellite into orbit, what's going to stop them from putting atom bombs on American cities, raining down from space so to speak? So the country really did freak out, and Eisenhower wanted to calm everybody down. He said it's not that big a threat because it's actually a lot easier to put a satellite in space than it is to put a nuclear warhead on an American city. But he was generally trying to calm people down and say don't overreact to this.
INSKEEP: OK, so what happened when the president of the United States went out and gave not one speech but a series of speeches, which I think you refer to as the chin up speeches? Keep your chin up.
THOMAS: It didn't really work. It was a little bit reassuring, but it wasn't reassuring enough. The country was still pretty panicked about it, and Eisenhower had to scramble for about three years actually to keep a lid on military spending. Congress wanted to go crazy and build every possible weapon you can imagine. Eisenhower really scrambled to stop Congress from doing that.
INSKEEP: What happened to his approval rating?
THOMAS: His approval rating dropped - by modern standards, not very far. It dropped from the high 60s into the low 50s. Boy, most politicians today would be quite happy with that, the low 50s.
INSKEEP: Anything over 50 percent, please, yeah.
THOMAS: Right. But in those days it was deemed to be a fall. You know, if you read the popular press, uh oh, Eisenhower's in trouble. His approval rating is dropping.
INSKEEP: Was he right?
THOMAS: He was right. Oh, absolutely, if we could have overreacted in that period - there was a crisis in Berlin. Berlin was a half-communist, half-free. And Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, said, hey, we're taking over. It's going to be all communist in a year or so. He gave a six-month ultimatum. The West has got to get out. Now, a lot of people in the press and in Congress and in the military said, well, we got to send conventional troops. We got to stand up to them. Eisenhower cut the number of conventional troops going there, saying we're not going to overreact. If we go, we're going nuclear. We're going all the way. But we're not going to get into a conventional war against those guys.
INSKEEP: Now, that is - that is a chilling thing. He says, I'm going to cut the number of conventional troops just so you Russians know that the only thing we have left is to destroy the planet, and we're ready to do that.
INSKEEP: That is a chilling thing for a president to do.
THOMAS: It sure is. And I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether Eisenhower actually would've pressed the button. Eisenhower never told anybody, not his wife, not his national security adviser. He never told anybody because he knew that once he told somebody it would leak. You know, this is Washington and all - he just couldn't tip his hand. Think of the loneliness of command. Think of how lonely that was for Eisenhower to never say whether he would've pressed the button or not.
INSKEEP: So what are the parallels that are useful between that time and the conflict that a current president, our current president, is facing now?
THOMAS: Well, it's - it is a mistake to read too much into the past, and history never repeats itself. You know, it rhymes, I think someone said. But I think Obama is right about this. I do. Now, maybe his tone is wrong. Maybe he's - needs to sound more forceful. But I think he's on the right path of not overreacting to this threat, being careful about the use of ground troops, trying to find other ways to achieve your end. That's the way to go.
INSKEEP: I wonder if a Republican critic of the president were sitting here, I wonder if he might look at another part of your story of Dwight Eisenhower, that there was a guy in the White House who was being very careful but he was credibly tough. And nobody could be sure whether he would go all the way. The president's critics have argued that he's made it clear that he's not going to go all the way.
THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, Obama's not Eisenhower. That's true. Obama was a state legislator, you know? He didn't conquer Europe. Eisenhower was lucky that he had enormous personal credibility. The uniform he wore, the five stars - that gave him a kind of street cred, if you will, in the world that Obama sorely lacks. Obama, I think, has added to his problems with this stupid business about drawing a red line and then not really meaning it.
INSKEEP: Let's remind people, he said it was a red line if Syria's government used chemical weapons. They did. The U.S. prepared for a strike, but in the end, didn't do it.
THOMAS: Right. I think his rhetoric could've been better and he has stumbled a couple of times for sure. But his basic instinct to be cautious and not get sucked into something and not overreact I think is a good instinct.
INSKEEP: Evan Thomas, thanks very much.
THOMAS: Thanks, Steve.
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