General Dwight D. Eisenhower had gone to Moscow to meet with Stalin in August 1945, two days after Truman unleashed the bomb and forced Japan into unconditional surrender. On the thousand-mile flight from Berlin, accompanied by his Red Army counterpart, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, he had looked down from the window of his low-flying four-engine turboprop, and he could not see a building still standing on Russian soil. The bones of millions of civilians and soldiers lay in that blood-soaked land. At a great feast in the Kremlin, Ike and Uncle Joe drank champagne toasts to each other. Eisenhower found Stalin, flush with victory, a strangely fatherly figure. Stalin, in turn, judged the American commander a humane and kindhearted man. Eisenhower later told reporters at a news conference in Moscow: “I see nothing in the future that would prevent Russia and the United States from being the closest possible friends.” That vision proved to be an illusion.
By the time President Truman recalled Eisenhower to duty at the end of 1950 to serve as the first military chief of NATO, it looked as if World War III might be at hand; one bolt from the blue might start the final conflagration. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had been founded in April 1949 to prevent that disaster, but it existed almost entirely on paper at the time Ike took command. NATO united America and eleven European nations in a military alliance of mutual defense. The United States gave explicit nuclear and conventional military guarantees to every member through the NATO treaty, and in return American military power was cemented on European soil. The linchpin was an agreement that an attack on one NATO nation was an attack on all.
Eisenhower dismissed as propaganda the Russians’ threats against America arming NATO. Though the fear of an attack on Western Europe was immense, and American forces spent the next four decades arming and training and war-gaming for it, Ike doubted that the Russians would launch it at the time or thereafter. “I personally think those guys in the Kremlin like their jobs. They can’t see their way through to winning a war now and I don’t think they’ll start one,” he told the president and his cabinet at a White House meeting on January 31, 1951, after whirlwind meetings with the military and political leaders of the NATO nations. “They know they’ll lose their jobs, and their necks, if they start something they can’t win.” The most pressing political problem in Europe, he said, was not communism. It was poverty. It was fear. The only solution he saw was a united front put forth by America, its wartime allies, and West Germany. And why so great a fear of Russia? Ike asked. Why be afraid of “190 million backward people?” The answer was simple: “There is unity on behalf of the Russians and disunity on behalf of the West. Russian unity is forced unity, it is unity at the point of a bayonet, but it is still unity.” His mission, he said, was to bring a sense of common purpose to the West. In the course of a year, through force of will, he transformed NATO from a concept into a force, with half a million men in uniform—thirty-five divisions, six of which were American—and a fleet of almost three thousand aircraft. But NATO needed more than warplanes, tanks, and troops, Ike told the president. “The most pressing thing,” he wrote to Truman, “is the will to fight—confidence.” And he was confident. As the supreme commander of all Allied and American forces in Europe, Eisenhower provided that essential element. “In a very real sense,” his most capable biographer wrote, “Ike was NATO and NATO was Ike.”
Truman offered Eisenhower the presidency on the Democratic ticket at Christmas 1951, and not for the first time, but for the fourth. “If I do what I want to do, I’ll go back to Missouri,” Truman confided in a handwritten letter to Eisenhower. “If you decide to finish the European job (and I don’t know who else can) I must keep the isolationists out of the White House. I wish you would let me know what you intend to do. It will be between us and no one else.” He had assumed, without knowing, that the general would accept the Democratic nomination. No one knew for sure what party Ike liked. The only political factions that might undermine him were within the conservative wing of the Republican Party—the isolationists, the America Firsters, the McCarthyites. The Republicans were set to nominate Ohio senator Robert Taft, a president’s son who had spent two decades fighting progress. He had fought the New Deal. He was foursquare against America’s entering World War II. He condemned the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. He bitterly opposed the creation of NATO. And he seemed to have three-quarters of the party’s convention delegates locked up.
Ike played a hidden hand. In February 1952, skirting the military code against active-duty officers seeking political office, Eisenhower secretly sent word that he was available through a close friend, the retired general Lucius Clay, who had succeeded him as the high commissioner of occupied Germany and broken the Soviet blockade of Berlin. Eisenhower allowed his name to appear on the New Hampshire Republican primary ballot. He won it, and after a bitter fight with Taft, he won the nomination, and in November he won the presidency in a landslide against the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, a senator too liberal for a majority of Americans deep in the grip of the cold war’s fears. The decisive moment came two weeks before Election Day, when Eisenhower pledged to end the Korean War, which had become a bloody stalemate in which more than twenty-five thousand Americans had died.
Inaugurated on January 20, 1953, he spent the next eight years trying to wage peace. After he settled Korea, not a single American soldier died in combat on his watch. He believed that the only way to win a third world war was to avoid it.
But the ambitions of Ike’s cold warriors were infinite, and the ideas they brought to the table for the president’s approval were breathtaking. Overthrow governments around the world in the name of anti-communism. Inspire the Red Army to revolt against the Politburo. Liberate Eastern Europe, whether by force of arms or sabotage and subversion. Drop the bomb on North Vietnam, which was fighting half a million French soldiers. And before it was too late, launch a nuclear sneak attack on Moscow. Eisenhower needed an architecture to impose some discipline and order on these soaring aspirations. An elemental framework came from Charles Bohlen, whom Eisenhower appointed to succeed George Kennan as the American ambassador to Moscow; the Soviets had expelled Kennan for openly attacking the Kremlin’s repression after keeping him under suffocating surveillance for a year.
On March 7, 1953, two days after the death of Stalin, Bohlen posed the problem in black and white: “Hanging over all our plans and actions,” he wrote, “is the question of whether this nation has now or will find itself shortly committed to the overthrow of the Kremlin.” Or would it instead seek some kind of peaceful coexistence in public, while still striving in secret to undermine the Soviets? The question hung fire for nearly three years. And in those thousand days, Eisenhower’s Christian soldiers marched onward to an unknown destination.
From the outset, Eisenhower reshaped the presidency in the service of the struggle against the Soviets. He used the National Security Council to orchestrate the instruments of his power. The council met weekly at the great round mahogany table in the Cabinet Room at the White House, and he presided, doodling caricatures and coffee cups on a legal pad as he weighed the fate of the world. The NSC was the crucible in which the strategies to attack the power of the Kremlin were shaped. After the president, it was dominated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, the director of Central Intelligence. Foster Dulles had campaigned for Eisenhower by hammering the theme of liberating the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Allen had been the CIA’s deputy director since August 1951; he had served under Walter Bedell Smith, now the undersecretary of state, and a powerful presence at the NSC. They were joined by, among others, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the top military commanders. The secretary of the treasury was there as well, in part to enforce Eisenhower’s emphatic desire that the military would not bankrupt the nation as it built an arsenal for war. Allen Dulles usually began the meetings with a twenty-minute tour of the world, with special attention to places ripe for the CIA’s covert operations. With his militant brother by his side, unlimited funds at his command, and most importantly, the president’s ear, he made the CIA as important a weapon in Ike’s quiver as the rapidly expanding American nuclear arsenal.
Ike would rely on nuclear weapons and covert action as a double-barreled force to project American power. Though costly, they were far cheaper than the immense buildup of conventional military forces that his generals, admirals, and war planners deeply desired. He spent up to $110 billion a year in today’s dollars building more than twenty-two thousand nuclear warheads, along with the intercontinental ballistic missiles and the strategic bombers to deliver them. (The United States would spend more than a trillion dollars on nuclear weaponry between the start of the Korean War in 1950 and the introduction of combat troops in Vietnam in 1965.) He did this while fighting back ceaseless pleas from the military brass for massive increases in the conventional army; military spending fell dramatically as a percentage of the booming American economy under Eisenhower. That was his plan all along: a lean military and a muscular body politic.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he said in his first major foreign policy address on April 16—a speech titled “The Chance for Peace,” aimed not only at Americans but at the Russians, whose new troika of leaders printed it in full in Pravda while rejecting his proposals to limit armies and arsenals. In the next breath, Eisenhower presented what he deemed, in public, to be a universal principle. “Any nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable,” he said. “Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.”
This noble ideal meant little or nothing when it came to American efforts to control, manipulate, undermine, overthrow, or on occasion assassinate foreign leaders.
The CIA’s covert operations were the pointed end of the spear of American foreign policy, and they were conducted with the broadest authority from the president. The first coup successfully engineered by the CIA overthrew the freely elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, who had audaciously wrested control of Iran’s oil back from the fading British Empire. (Detailed CIA and State Department records describing the origins, outcome, and aftermath of the coup finally were declassified in 2018.) Allen Dulles, Bedell Smith, Frank Wisner, and Kim Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson and the CIA’s chief of operations in the Near East and Africa, had been working on plans to oust Mossadegh in conjunction with British intelligence since the fall of 1952.
Days after Eisenhower’s election, Truman’s NSC had declared in a top secret statement: “It is of critical importance to the United States that Iran remain an independent and sovereign nation, not dominated by the USSR. Because of its key strategic position, its petroleum resources, its vulnerability to intervention or armed attack by the USSR, and its vulnerability to political subversion, Iran must be regarded as a continuing objective of Soviet expansion.” Truman had authorized “special political operations in Iran and adjacent Middle Eastern areas, including the procurement of such equipment as may be required.” By the time Ike was drafting “The Chance for Peace,” the CIA had stockpiled guns and ammunition in Iran, sufficient to supply a ten-thousand-man guerrilla force for six months, along with plenty of money to build “a network with numerous press, political, and clerical contacts” in Iran, and a potential coup leader, General Fazlullah Zahedi, whom CIA files described in detail: “Associated with the Nazi efforts in Iran during World War II, he has long been firmly anti-Soviet.” Together they had the aim of restoring the pliantly pro-American Shah Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne, where he would ensure the flow of Iranian oil to the West.
Dulles had painted an apocalyptic picture for Eisenhower and the NSC as Stalin lay dying. “The Communists might easily take over” in Iran, and this would transform the world: “Not only would the free world be deprived of the enormous assets represented by Iranian oil production and reserves, but the Russians would secure these assets,” Dulles warned. “If Iran succumbed to the Communists there was little doubt that in short order the other areas of the Middle East, with some 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves, would fall into Communist control.” This shocked Eisenhower, who fully understood the stakes at hand, but it did not lead him to contemplate overthrowing Mossadegh. On the contrary, he thought the United States should support him at almost any cost. The NSC’s note taker recorded: “The President said that if a real Soviet move against Iran actually comes, we shall have to face at this council table the question of going to full mobilization”—a shooting war against the Russians—for “if we did not move at that time and in that eventuality, he feared that the United States would descend to the status of a second-rate power. ‘If,’ said the President, ‘I had $500,000,000 of money to spend in secret, I would get $100,000,000 of it to Iran right now’” to shore up the government against the Soviets. That was not at all what Dulles had in mind. One month later the director approved a more modest budget: $1,000,000 in untraceable CIA funds to overthrow Mossadegh, a down payment on an operation that eventually would cost
$5,330,000. It took some arm-twisting, but the Dulles brothers and the new American ambassador in Tehran, Loy Henderson, finally convinced the president that the oil question could not be resolved in America’s favor so long as Mossadegh remained in power.
Eisenhower gave the green light for a coup on July 11. “It was cleared directly with the President,” Dulles told his brother. The operation collapsed into chaos five weeks later. “Mossadegh, learning of the plan through a leak in our military covert apparatus, took immediate counteraction to neutralize the plan,” the CIA subsequently reported. The shah fled the country, and the coup plotters went into hiding.
And then—miraculously, in Roosevelt’s eyes—a spontaneous combustion flared up in the streets of Tehran three days later. In a euphoric cable to CIA headquarters, he called it a “genuine peoples [sic] uprising led by nobody until leaders were provided.” The street protest was inflamed by the glowing embers of the CIA’s political propaganda, in particular a fabricated interview with Zahedi dictated by Roosevelt that flooded the newspapers and airwaves in Tehran, part of a fake news campaign that had gone on for months. “This demonstration began in small way in bazaar area but initial small flame found amazingly large amount combustible material and was soon roaring blaze which during course of day swept through entire city,” Ambassador Henderson reported. “Prime Minister’s house overrun and gutted. . . . Almost simultaneously General Zahedi occupied desk in Prime Minister’s office.” Roosevelt had fished Zahedi out of a CIA safe house where he was cowering, clad in a dirty undershirt and khakis, pulled him up, stiffened his spine, and frog-marched him into power. “The time has come now,” he told the disheveled general. “You are going to have to get out on the streets and take command of the situation, and we have Radio Tehran.”
When Roosevelt recounted the tale for Eisenhower, leaving out the more unsavory parts, the president said it sounded like a dimestore novel. Ike wrote in his diary a few weeks later that the CIA had brought about “the restoration of the Shah to power in Iran and the elimination of Mossadegh. The things we did were ‘covert.’ If knowledge of them became public, we would not only be embarrassed in that region, but our chances to do anything of like nature in the future would almost totally disappear.”
The CIA and Iran fell into a passionate embrace once the shah was in power. “The Shah and the Prime Minister, cognizant of the need for assistance in their effort to capitalize on the present situation, have become willing collaborators with CIA,” the agency’s political warfare planners reported, and with that, Dulles and Wisner set out to buy the allegiances of Iran’s military, political, religious, and intellectual leaders, along with its press corps, in a major effort “to support a political action/psychological warfare program in Iran.” The CIA underscored the continuing need for that program in a detailed report at the end of 1954, which noted that the American hand had not gone unseen in Iran. “The principal new features of the present power situation,” agency analysts reported, were “the extensive use of authoritarian means—martial law, censorship, and prosecution or repression of opponents—to curtail opposition to the regime and to the government,” and “the emergence of the U.S., which many Iranians hold responsible for effecting Mossadegh’s downfall and which has since been the chief financial backer of the government, as an acknowledged major influence in the situation.” These concerns were brushed aside by a spirit of celebration that did not fade in the passing years. “The Shah is now our boy,” Roosevelt told his superiors after he returned to CIA headquarters. And so the shah remained for a quarter of a century, buying billions of dollars of American weaponry and providing a bulwark of anti-communist power in the Middle East. America’s overthrow of a freely chosen foreign leader stayed an official secret for a generation, though not to the generation of Iranians who were oppressed by the shah and took their revenge twenty-five years later. The world still lives with the consequences of their countercoup, an Islamic revolution that shook the world.
The CIA had proved to Ike’s satisfaction that covert action was a powerful instrument of political warfare. Eisenhower enthusiastically gave it a free hand to overthrow governments from Guatemala to Indonesia, to create governments, shore up juntas, swing elections, and sway popular opinions with cash and propaganda all over the world. And propaganda was perhaps the most promisingly potent weapon of all, the NSC advised Eisenhower. (The word propaganda comes from the work of Catholic missionaries and their propagation of the faith among the unbelievers.) American cold warriors worked tirelessly to fine-tune messages for foreigners that could convert them from communism, spark anti-Stalinist heresies among them, and convince them that their self-interests were at one with the United States.
Stratagems for propaganda in the service of political warfare to undermine the Kremlin were already under way on the fourth day of Eisenhower’s presidency. He ordered a close confidant, William H. Jackson—a key intelligence aide for the deceptions that secured the D-Day invasion, Dulles’s predecessor as deputy director of central intelligence, and a senior civilian consultant to the CIA—to develop a battle plan. Political warfare that sought to capture hearts and minds had been scattershot under Truman, and the president told Jackson he wanted a “unified and dynamic effort” in the field, deeming it “essential to the security of the United States and of the other peoples in the community of free nations.” Ike had an expansive concept of political warfare: he said it could encompass “anything from the singing of a beautiful hymn up to the most extraordinary kind of physical sabotage.”
Jackson worked in tandem with Robert Cutler, the president’s national security adviser. Their key staff members included two CIA cold warriors, Frank Lindsay, who had been Wisner’s chief covert operations aide, and Henry Loomis, later a director of the Voice of America under Eisenhower. Jackson and Cutler harnessed the best minds they could find inside and outside the government, interviewing more than 250 people—including two young Harvard academics, the future national security advisers McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger—and they had reported to the president on June 30, 1953, outlining a “Program for World Order” in which political warfare and information operations were paramount. Know your enemy, they counseled, get inside his head, and rearrange his way of seeing the world.
“The best way of affecting Soviet behavior is to confront the Kremlin with difficult choices on matters of great importance,” the report asserted. “Political warfare should be designed to bring pressure on the regime to choose a course favorable to United States interests.” The key principles underlying American propaganda—“demonstrating to others their self-interest in decisions which the United States wishes them to make”—were essential elements of political warfare. If American leaders could keep that in mind and make clear-eyed plans and actions free from starry-eyed hopes, “we believe that political warfare holds great promise of success in forcing a reduction and retraction of Soviet power and a change in the nature of the Soviet system.
“The objectives of CIA covert propaganda in the free world are to combat communist subversion, counter neutralism, and generally promote United States and Western concepts and interests,” the report to the president said. “The dissemination of truth is not enough.”
The “Program for World Order” called the work of the National Committee for a Free Europe—conceived by Kennan, founded by Allen Dulles, and financed by the CIA—the most powerful force the United States had harnessed to achieve that goal. It had joined the battle on the airwaves, pouring vast sums into Radio Free Europe, which reached millions behind the Iron Curtain, primarily in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia; and its sister network, Radio Liberation (later Radio Liberty), aimed exclusively at the Soviet Union and Soviet troops in Eastern Europe. The Voice of America played one tune, straight news and pointed political commentary on behalf of the American government, and the CIA’s radios played another, propaganda purporting to be the voice of liberation forces from within the countries they targeted. The agency also floated an armada of balloons carrying propaganda pamphlets behind the Iron Curtain, more than three hundred million leaflets in the mid-1950s. All were keys in what Wisner called “the mighty Wurlitzer”—the instrument of propaganda that provided a soundtrack for the daily drama of the cold war. The CIA would write the lyrics, compose the score, and conduct the orchestra for political warfare.
But the report ended with a cautionary note of common sense. “The cold war cannot be won by words alone,” it concluded. “What we do will continue to be vastly more important than what we say.” As the report went to the printer, the people of East Germany were trying to strike off their chains. The rebellion was the first of its kind in the cold war—and the first to let American national security officers imagine that their dreams of liberation could come true. What began in Berlin on June 17 as a labor protest against production quotas imposed by Stalinist bureaucrats spread over the following days to more than four hundred cities, towns, and villages throughout East Germany. The uprising was violent and volatile, and it shocked and frightened the political commissars. “Death to Communism!” demonstrators chanted. “Long live Eisenhower!” The Kremlin, still without a chosen leader to replace Stalin, revved up its tanks and readied shoot-to-kill orders for its soldiers.
On June 25, President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Dulles brothers met at the National Security Council, and Ike approved a secret presidential directive, NSC 158. (It wasn’t fully declassified until 2017.) It said that the United States should “covertly stimulate acts and attitudes of resistance short of mass rebellion” in East Germany. It ordered the CIA to “encourage elimination of key puppet officials” through foreign agents, and “train and equip underground organizations capable of launching large-scale raids or sustained warfare when directed” throughout the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. The goal was to “nourish resistance to communist oppression” and to “convince the free world, particularly Western Europe, that love of liberty and hatred of alien oppression are stronger behind the Iron Curtain than it has been dared to believe and that resistance to totalitarianism is less hopeless than has been imagined.”
Strong words, but they were only words. The American response to the struggle in East Germany and a smaller but similar protest in Poland that summer was far weaker than the rhetoric. The CIA’s Richard Helms, a future director of central intelligence, wrote to Wisner, his immediate superior in the clandestine service, that there was a great deal of “fuzzy thinking” in high circles of the government about what could be done in Eastern Europe. The wishful bluster about freeing the captive nations, emanating from leaders like Richard Nixon and Foster Dulles, sprang from their desire “to make good on certain campaign pledges,” and it came at “the expense of hard-headed appraisals of . . . the basic facts of life. There seemed an inclination to raise hob in the satellites . . . since this would be popular on the domestic political scene, but there is no compensating intention to devote the necessary overt forces and support to insure a favorable outcome to such aggressive cold war approaches.” The CIA’s chief for Eastern Europe, John Bross, told Allen Dulles that the prospect of a victorious revolution in East Germany was approximately zero. The Red Army had twenty-two divisions stationed there, about 350,000 soldiers in arms. Unless the United States smuggled vast quantities of weapons into the country, and “undoubtedly unless U.S. military forces were overtly committed to support an East German revolt, we believe that the resistance elements would be liquidated in a very short time.” He estimated that the chances for a successful uprising in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia were “nil.”
Eisenhower wasn’t ready to run the risk of war with the Soviets. He feared that a thermonuclear war could be triggered by the next harebrained paramilitary mission behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviets had tested a hydrogen bomb on August 12, 1953, and both nations would conduct intermittent and increasingly powerful aboveground H-bomb blasts for ten years. Moscow eventually detonated a weapon with a yield of at least fifty megatons, roughly equal to four thousand Hiroshimas; the fireball rose five miles high, and the shock wave was felt nearly six hundred miles away. That bomb, if dropped on New York City, would kill more than ten million people in an instant. The threat of annihilation under a mushroom cloud occluded a clear vision of a way forward for Eisenhower.
The Red Scare was in full flower in the fall of 1953, with the charlatan Senator Joe McCarthy at the height of his powers, and the FBI at war against both Soviet spies and the American left. Tension and fear ran deep and wide in Washington. At the NSC meeting on September 26, the note taker recorded Ike thinking out loud: “It looked to him . . . as though the hour of decision were at hand, and that we would presently have to really face the question of whether or not we would have to throw everything at once against the enemy The United States was confronted with a very terrible threat, and the truth of the matter was that we have devised no way of meeting this threat without imposing ever-greater controls on our economy and on the freedom of our people.”
We were engaged, continued the President . . . in the defense of a way of life, and the great danger was that in defending this way of life we would find ourselves resorting to methods that endangered this way of life. The real problem, as the President saw it, was to devise methods of meeting the Soviet threat and of adopting controls, if necessary, that would not result in our transformation into a garrison state. The whole thing, said the President, was a paradox . . . of trying to meet the threat to our values and institutions by methods which themselves endangered these institutions.
Here was an existential dilemma of the cold war: using undemocratic methods to defend American democracy. But Eisenhower believed that the ends would justify the means when the issue was national survival.
Early in 1954, he set a team of high-powered investigators on the CIA, headed by General Jimmy Doolittle, who had led the fire-bombing of Tokyo in World War II. They issued a scorching report on September 30. They noted the failure of dozens of paramilitary missions into Russia, China, North Korea, Poland, Albania, and beyond. They found that the information obtained from these operations was useless or nonexistent and that the cost in dollars and lives was appalling. And in the same breath they urged the president onward. The United States had to “subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us,” they told Ike. “We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered.”After a debate that had raged from the start of his presidency, Eisenhower resolved that militant covert action could not overthrow the Kremlin.
Mounting political warfare against a closed and totalitarian nation was far harder than attacking an open democracy. The CIA had not placed a spy of any note inside the Soviet Union, nor would it for years to come; it gathered next to no firsthand intelligence from nations such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. By contrast, communist spies had penetrated the ramparts of American national security, sped the Soviets’ development of nuclear weapons, paralyzed American code-breakers, sabotaged crucial covert operations, and subtly subverted the CIA’s political front groups and propaganda organizations. To date, it had been an almost complete rout. For five years, the goal of American cold warriors had been pushing the Russians out of Eastern Europe and rolling them back to the point where the Soviets would no longer threaten the United States or its NATO allies. That ideal had proved impossible to achieve.
After a debate that had raged from the start of his presidency, Eisenhower resolved that militant covert action could not overthrow the Kremlin. Ike was going to talk to the Russians, to see what could be accomplished in the name of peaceful coexistence, in the hope of avoiding a nuclear holocaust.
In July 1955, Eisenhower went to a peace conference in Geneva, and a measure of goodwill flowed. He addressed his new adversary, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and his old ally, Marshal Zhukov, now the Soviet defense minister, who together had just created the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance among the Red Army and the seven Soviet satellites, as a counterweight to NATO. In the soaring chambers of the Palais des Nations, Ike offered the Russians a surprising and stunningly innovative proposal. He called it “Open Skies,” and it was a beautiful vision. Washington and Moscow could fly over the other side’s military bases, looking down with reconnaissance planes, to reduce the dangers of surprise attack, and thus to increase the chance for peace. As he concluded his speech, a great clap of thunder erupted, a blinding flash of lightning split the sky, and all the lights went out. The American delegation presumed divine providence was applauding Eisenhower.
The idea went nowhere with the Soviets, who feared the Americans would see their weakness in full. But Ike had the U-2 spy plane up his sleeve. The first test flight took place the following week.
A new NSC directive on political warfare went forth at the end of 1955. Abandoning the goal of rolling back the Soviets, it nonetheless resolved to oppose the Russians and the Red Chinese at every turn in Eastern Europe and in Asia. “Create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communism,” the president commanded. More ambitiously: “Reduce International Communist control . . . and increase the capacity and will of such peoples and nations” to resist it. The new orders were to be carried out by the old methods: propaganda, sabotage, subversion, deception, and support for liberation armies around the world.
The CIA met the first of these requirements—and scored an epic victory—by slipping a story to the New York Times that scooped the world: the text of a “secret speech” by Khrushchev. Stalin had been dead for almost three years when the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party convened; after it had come to a formal end, Khrushchev summoned the Russian delegates back to the Great Hall of the Kremlin at midnight on February 25, 1956—pointedly barring the press and party members from outside the Soviet Union from his four-hour address. A Reuters correspondent in Moscow, John Rettie, was packing his bags when his phone rang. A Russian friend wanted to meet him immediately. And his message was urgent. “Khrushchev, it was said, had made a shattering report,” Rettie wrote fifty years later, “openly denouncing Stalin by name as a murderer and torturer of party members. This was so traumatic that it is now said some delegates had heart attacks during the speech, and others committed suicide afterwards.” Rettie left for Stockholm and, after careful consideration, filed a cautious dispatch.
In Washington, Allen Dulles read the news with joy. He told Eisenhower that while there was always “the possibility that Khrushchev had been drunk,” the speech, if authenticated, gave the United States “a great opportunity, both covertly and overtly, to exploit the situation to its advantage. Stalin had been the chief theoretician of the Soviet Union. He had been its great war hero in addition to his more familiar role as dictator of the Soviet Union for twenty-five years. What would the Soviets now do?” How could communism thrive without a doctrine? The CIA director instructed his top aides to do anything in their power to put their hands on the speech. My kingdom for a copy! Weeks went by without a word. Then, on Friday, April 13, a courier pouch from the Israeli embassy in Warsaw arrived at the office of Amos Manor, the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. There it was: seventy pages, in Polish. Manor took the speech to Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, a Pole by birth. He read it and exclaimed: “If it’s authentic, it’s an historic document, and 30 years from now there will be a liberal regime in Moscow.”
Manor had it translated and flew an English-language text to the Israeli embassy in Washington, with instructions to hand it over to James Angleton, the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence and its liaison to Israel’s spies. With the speech in hand, Allen Dulles sought to validate its authenticity. He sent a copy to a man whose identity was known only to him, and to all others in the government as “the expert.” This was George Kennan, banished from the State Department by Foster Dulles in a fit of high dudgeon for a perceived lack of political loyalty. (A foolish move: Foster’s political platform of liberating Eastern Europe had been built in large part with Kennan’s planks.) In exile from the government, in his sinecure at Princeton University, Kennan remained a highly valued CIA consultant in good graces with the director. He thought the transcript of the speech was the genuine article. Allen Dulles was delighted, and thus assured by his spy chief, the president authorized its disclosure. Dulles chose to give it to Harrison Salisbury, who had been the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, and who had shared his expertise with the CIA’s director over private luncheons when on home leave.
“KHRUSHCHEV TALK ON STALIN BARES DETAILS OF RULE BASED ON TERROR; CHARGES PLOT FOR KREMLIN PURGES; U.S. ISSUES A TEXT; Dead Dictator Painted as Savage, Half-Mad and Power-Crazed,” read the headline atop page 1 on June 5. “Stalin, as he is pictured by Mr. Khrushchev, turned the world about him into a miasma of treachery, treason, and nightmarish plots,” Salisbury wrote. “The picture was one that beggared the wildest surmise of political opponents of communism.” The paper printed the full text—twenty-six thousand words—and the political axis of the world shifted. The truth, in this case, was enough.
The reverberations in the United States were immense, if largely invisible. The American Communist Party was shattered by the publication of the secret speech. Its membership plummeted from about fifty thousand to about five thousand in a matter of months. The networks of Soviet espionage in the United States, once supported by an American communist underground, withered along with it.
The CIA beamed highlights of the speech eastward over the Iron Curtain on Radio Free Europe, which also broadcast heartfelt pledges from President Eisenhower that the emancipation of Eastern Europe was still a centerpiece of American foreign policy. These bulletins ignited a great hope against the grinding fear. In October, student demonstrators in the Hungarian capital of Budapest rose up against Big Brother; they were joined by tens of thousands of workers as they fought against the Kremlin’s control. Soviet troops entered the city two days later, and the battle was joined. Radio Free Europe crackled with messages of liberation, and the people took it to heart. Surely America would come to the rescue! “Virtually every Hungarian of scores spoken to in past 24 hours have demanded ‘Give us arms,’ ‘Give us diplomatic assistance,’ ‘What is America going to do for us in this hour?’” the American embassy reported on October 24. No answer came.
Allen Dulles told Eisenhower two days later that “the revolt in Hungary constituted the most serious threat yet to be posed to continued Soviet control of the satellites.” The president responded: “If they could have some kind of existence, choose their own government and what they want, then we are satisfied and this would really solve one of the greatest problems in the world that is standing in the way of world peace.” Foster Dulles gave a stirring speech in Dallas, with Ike’s approval: “The heroic people of Hungary challenge the murderous fire of Red Army tanks. These patriots value liberty more than life itself. And all who peacefully enjoy liberty have a solemn duty to seek, by all truly helpful means, that those who now die for freedom will not have died in vain.”
But as they started dying, and no help came, the American ambassador across the border in Vienna sent a warning to Washington on October 28. Hundreds of Radio Free Europe broadcasts and thousands of propaganda leaflets airlifted in balloons had “incited the Hungarians to action,” and fingers were being pointed at “our failure to do anything effective for them now that they have risen against their Communist oppressors.” That same day, the CIA’s covert-ops chief Frank Wisner told Radio Free Europe’s senior policy adviser to amplify the call to arms. This led to an urgent message from RFE’s director in New York to his Hungarian staff in Munich: “All restraints have gone off. No holds barred. Repeat: No holds barred.” That evening, Radio Free Europe urged the people of Hungary to sabotage the railroads, hurl Molotov cocktails into the ventilators of Soviet tanks, and fight to the finish: “Freedom or death!”
For a moment, it looked like they had won. On October 30, Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced the abolition of one-party rule. Hungarian soldiers joined with the protesters. Pravda, the daily paper of the Soviet Communist Party, published a statement from the Politburo regretting the bloodshed. In Moscow, Marshal Zhukov told Ambassador Bohlen that Soviet troops were pulling out of Hungary. The next day, the American embassy in Budapest cabled: “In dramatic overnight change, it became virtually certain in Budapest this morning that this Hungarian revolution now fact of history.” The president, on the verge of an overwhelming reelection victory, went on television to address the American people that evening: “A new Hungary is rising from this struggle, a Hungary which we hope from our hearts will know full and free nationhood,” Ike said. “If the Soviet Union indeed faithfully acts upon its announced intention, the world will witness the greatest forward stride toward justice, trust, and understanding among nations in our generation.” At the National Security Council meeting the following morning, Allen Dulles spoke to Eisenhower in a state of ecstasy at the fact of history in Hungary. “What had occurred there was a miracle,” he said. “Events had belied all our past views that a popular revolt in the face of modern weapons was an utter impossibility. Nevertheless, the impossible had happened, and because of the power of public opinion, armed force could not effectively be used Soviet troops themselves had had no stomach for shooting down Hungarians, except in Budapest.” Foster Dulles told Nixon that it was the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet empire.
But the CIA had no one to gather intelligence in Hungary, and the State Department had no way to see that two hundred thousand Red Army troops were ready to conquer the country. Nor was the KGB chief, Ivan Serov, possessed of wisdom or foresight. Serov had gone to Budapest after the start of the uprising; once there, he had reported to the Politburo on October 28 that the United Nations, backed by the United States, was weighing a massive military intervention to back the Hungarian revolutionaries. That report was utterly false, and fatally so, for it sent the tanks and armored personnel carriers rolling toward Budapest.
On November 1, Imre Nagy and his cabinet urgently summoned Moscow’s ambassador in Budapest, Yuri Andropov, the future chairman of the KGB and Soviet general secretary. They asked Andropov about the reports of troop movements. His explanation was evidently unconvincing. The Hungarian government immediately renounced the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungary’s neutrality. The Soviets began to encircle the city the next day. When the leaders of Hungary attempted to negotiate their way out of the crisis on the evening of November 3, KGB officers burst into the meeting and arrested them. The Soviet attack on Budapest began at four o’clock the next morning. The fiercest fighting in Europe since World War II erupted, and as the Hungarians threw themselves against Soviet tanks, twenty thousand of them died; hundreds of thousands fled across the border to Austria. Imre Nagy was arrested and executed. Wisner flew to Vienna, drove to the Hungarian border, watched the river of desperate refugees fleeing the horror in the dark of night, and suffered a devastating nervous breakdown, the first of three that in time would drive him to suicide, a living emblem of the short-circuiting network of covert action and clandestine plans against the Kremlin.
Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers were devastated that they could do nothing to support the uprising. It was the end of a decade’s dreams of glory, erasing all the bold statements about subverting the Soviets and supporting democracy in Eastern Europe. Newly reelected, Ike convened the National Security Council on November 8. “The President said that this was indeed a bitter pill for us to swallow,” the minutes read. “What can we do that is really constructive? Should we break off diplomatic relations with the USSR? What would be gained by this action? The Soviets don’t care. The whole business was shocking to the point of being unbelievable.” The most essential part of political warfare was the image of the United States as a force for freedom in the eyes of the world, and now that ideal was damaged in Eastern Europe and beyond. The American vision of dissolving the Kremlin’s power, freeing the captive nations, and drawing them into the embrace of the West vanished for a generation. Twenty-five years would pass before the United States found a way to challenge the Soviets’ control over half of Europe.
But even before he was sworn in for a second term in January 1957, Eisenhower began preparing to confront the Soviets in the Third World—the newly coined name for the developing nations of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, many unaligned with America or Russia. He had long ago laid out the most famous cold war doctrine of all: if you took a row of dominoes and knocked over the first one, the last one would fall quickly. And Eisenhower now saw dominoes wobbling around the world. He gave particular attention to shoring up pro-American governments in nations from Lebanon to Japan. And he tried to overthrow leaders suspected of communist sympathies from Indonesia to Iraq to the islands of the Caribbean.
He immediately set forth an “Eisenhower Doctrine” regarding the Arabs and their oil. “Russia’s rulers have long sought to dominate the Middle East. That was true of the Czars and it is true of the Bolsheviks,” he said in a message to Congress. “We have just seen the subjugation of Hungary by naked armed force. In the aftermath . . . international communism needs and seeks a recognizable success.” He sought and was granted $200 million to protect and defend nations of the Middle East in good graces with America. He vowed that American troops would guard them against aggression, and he sent the army and the marines into Lebanon the following year. But in private, the president despaired that anything resembling democracy would take root in the Middle East. “If you go and live with these Arabs, you will find that they simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom or human dignity,” he later told the National Security Council. “They have lived so long under dictatorships of one form or another, how can we expect them to run successfully a free government?”
He unleashed his fury at President Sukarno of Indonesia, a Muslim who ruled eighty million people and sat on perhaps twenty billion barrels of untapped oil. Sukarno had sinned, in Ike’s eyes, by convening twenty-nine Asian, Arab, and African heads of state and proposing that they create an alliance of the unaligned—a third path for the Third World, apart from both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This was too much for the White House: either you were for the United States or you were against it. The CIA considered assassinating Sukarno, dropped that idea when its agent couldn’t get a clean shot, and instead began financing his political opponents. In July 1957, Ike received a report from a trusted NSC aide he’d dispatched to confer with the CIA’s Near East chief in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. The gist of it was grim: almost all of America’s allies in the region then called Indochina—South Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Laos—were led by unpopular and corrupt dictators. But Sukarno posed a different problem: he was highly popular and was taking Indonesia leftward through elections—subversion by the ballot box. Allen Dulles was not about to let that happen. He played his ominous theme music for the NSC: Sukarno was going communist, he was at the point of no return, and if Indonesia fell, all Indochina was in peril. On September 25, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to mount a coup.
Three days later, the Bombay Blitz, an English-language weekly whose editors were highly susceptible to suggestions from the KGB, ran a banner headline: AMERICAN PLOT TO OVERTHROW SUKARNO. What followed was the most incoherent operation in the CIA’s cold war history, culminating in the bombing and strafing of the innocent citizens of a neutral nation and its staunchly anti-communist armed forces, whose elite commanders had been trained in the United States and called themselves “Sons of Eisenhower.” The CIA’s air force, crewed by Polish recruits who had been working for the agency since the late 1940s, mistakenly dropped five tons of arms and ammunition along with bundles of cash into the hands of Sukarno’s troops. The CIA’s pilots intentionally killed hundreds of civilians and sank a British freighter. The chaotic covert action was no secret to the Indonesians, though it was all but unknown to the American people, and it went on for six months until it collapsed in June 1958. Dulles tried to conceal the depths of the disaster from the president, and succeeded in part, but the operation was Frank Wisner’s last hurrah. He returned from a tour of the Far East and went mad. The diagnosis was psychotic mania, and the treatment was six months of electroshocks. He emerged a broken man, and though Dulles gave him a sinecure as chief of station in London, his decade as the field marshal for American political warfare was done.
His replacement was Richard Bissell, the Marshall Plan administrator who had siphoned its funds into the coffers of the CIA in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He had brought the U-2 spy plane from the drawing board to the runway in two years’ time in 1956; a crucial mission for the U-2 in its flights over Soviet terrain was to prove that the “missile gap”—the incendiary assertion that Russia was outpacing America in nuclear weaponry—was a falsehood. Bissell, the bespectacled scion of an immensely wealthy insurance company magnate, and an exemplar of the American establishment, was a brilliant manager of money and machines, but he had a murderous tinge to his blue blood. He took over as the commander of political warfare on January 1, 1959, the same day that Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. The CIA looked on in fascination, then fear, then fury, as it slowly realized that the comandante was a communist. Before the year was out, Dick Bissell proposed to kill him.
Khrushchev and the KGB took close note of Eisenhower’s pivot to the Third World. They saw America’s increasingly muscular overt and covert operations gathering strength in Indochina, where American special forces and the CIA fought shadow wars in Vietnam and Laos. In the Middle East, American diplomats and spies worked to counter the communist threat among the Arabs. In Africa, centuries of European conquest and control were coming to an agonizing end, and the colonial powers would leave the continent up for grabs. That struggle could become “the decisive factor in the conflict between the forces of freedom and international Communism,” Vice President Nixon had told Eisenhower upon his return from a three-week tour in 1957, and he strongly recommended that the American policy of containing communism in Europe should apply forcefully in Africa. All told, three dozen newly independent nations had emerged in Asia and Africa in the decade since the late 1940s. The Kremlin and the White House were preparing to contest for power in almost every one of them. Both sides paid special heed to national liberation movements trying to throw off the yoke of empires. In a perfect world, Eisenhower could have tried to harness any one of them to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; even Mao Tse-tung knew something about of the spirit of the American Revolution. But Mao was implacably militant, pushing Khrushchev back toward the relentlessness and ruthlessness of Stalin. It was Mao who had helped convince him to change course and crush Hungary, Mao who pushed him to support Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Mao who urged him to arm Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans in the name of anti-imperialism. In time, Mao proved too much of a tyrant for even the Kremlin; their two nations would come close to war at the close of the 1960s.
The KGB adjusted its strategies against America after Ike’s reelection, as its leaders determined that Americans were amateurs at political warfare and particularly unpracticed at the art of deception. The Soviet spy known as Colonel Rudolf Abel, arrested in New York in June 1957 after working under deep cover for nine years, had told his FBI interrogators that American intelligence walked in “baby shoes.” That opinion was shared by two successive KGB chiefs: Ivan Serov, who ran the spy service from 1954 to 1958, and Alexander Shelepin, who took over when Serov moved to command the Soviet military intelligence agency, the GRU. They worked together to transform the intelligence powers of the Kremlin. Soviet espionage in America was at a low ebb in the late 1950s, as its support system within the shrunken Communist Party of the United States evaporated and its underground networks faced intense pressure from J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence gumshoes. The KGB took the great game to its next level by creating a new directorate to undermine America: Department D.
D as in dezinformatsiya, a Russian word defined in the 1952 Great Soviet Encyclopedia as the “dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion.” The Department of Disinformation was the world’s first industrial factory of fake news. It set to work creating a myriad of forgeries of official-looking U.S. government documents and planting them in overseas print and broadcast outlets. The CIA eventually caught wind of thirty-two of these fictions, a fraction of what the department created between 1957 and 1961. “Some of these were sniper shots,” as a CIA analyst noted, and others were prolonged assaults, but all depicted the United States as an imperialist aggressor and a threat to world peace. Like the best propaganda, a few of the stories were wound around a core of hard facts—like the charge that the United States sought to overthrow Indonesia. The goal was to defame the United States and corrode the ties among America and its allies. In a 1965 study, the CIA saw Department D’s aims as threefold. First, destroy the confidence of Congress and the American people in their government’s cold war agencies—in particular the CIA and the FBI. Second, damage American prestige in Europe, “thereby contributing directly to the breakup of the NATO alliance.” And third, sow distrust against the United States in the Third World. Department D’s dedicated work over the next thirty years provided a strong and lasting template for the global network of political warfare launched by Vladimir Putin in the twenty-first century.
The doctrine of deception wasn’t yet perfected in Moscow. The future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov would try to see to that task when he rose to the top of the KGB hierarchy a decade later. But the Kremlin’s spies, like the CIA’s, already controlled news outlets all over the world. The Bombay Blitz was a favorite; its KGB-conceived articles were often picked up and disseminated by international wire services, especially the ones run by the Soviets and their allies. The Blitz produced any number of bogus scoops in 1958 and 1959. One described a secret pact between Foster Dulles and the Japanese premier Nobusuke Kishi—who was, in reality, a CIA agent of influence—to permit the use of Japanese troops anywhere in Asia. Another falsely purported to reveal American plans to build nuclear weapons bases on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The biggest scoop produced by the fake news fabricators was a phony letter to President Eisenhower from Nelson Rockefeller, who had served as a White House special assistant for psychological warfare under Eisenhower and went on to become the vice president of the United States. In this widely disseminated diatribe, the mega-millionaire Rockefeller, the personification of capitalism, pushed a plan for world domination using economic assistance as a Trojan horse to secure American military and political control overseas. There would be many more such skillful forgeries in the years to come. The KGB could take a grain of truth and upon it build a crooked tower of lies.
The CIA’s own news and propaganda operations grew mightily in the 1950s, gilding the image of the United States at home and abroad. Its domestic branches were a social network relying more on the manipulation of information than the manufacture of disinformation; its goal was subtly shaping public opinion rather than bludgeoning minds through the power of mass media. Many corporate media chiefs and more than a few reporters collaborated. Allen Dulles had influential and readily influenced friends who ran CBS News, Time and Life magazines, and the New York Times, whose publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, signed an agreement shielding their professional relationship and readily did personal favors for Dulles, like pulling a Times reporter out of Guatemala to protect the secrecy of the CIA’s 1954 coup against that nation’s duly elected president. Those powerful news organizations, along with ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek magazine, the Associated Press, and a dozen others each had on their rosters at least one journalist working or moonlighting for the CIA, and their editors often were unaware that their reporters served two masters. Scores if not hundreds of credentialed stringers and freelancers working overseas were CIA officers under cover or recruited foreign agents.
Journalism was the perfect cover for espionage; spies could serve as reporters and reporters as spies. Joseph Alsop, the most widely read foreign affairs columnist of the era, whose work appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post, undertook assignments in the Philippines and Laos at the behest of the CIA in the 1950s, reporting to the agency as well as to his readers, and his work consistently reflected the agency’s thinking; in 1957 the agency helped to protect Alsop, a closeted homosexual, when he was entrapped by a handsome KGB officer in a Moscow hotel room and photographed in flagrante delicto. Twenty years later, he said he was proud to have served the founding fathers of the CIA; they were bosom buddies, drinking from the same pitcher of Georgetown martinis. “Dick Bissell was my oldest friend from childhood,” he told the reporter Carl Bernstein. “It was a social thing, my dear fellow. I never received a dollar. I never signed a secrecy agreement. I didn’t have to. I’ve done things for them when I thought they were the right thing to do. I call it doing my duty as a citizen.”
The CIA’s international propaganda arm owned or underwrote roughly fifty newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and news services around the world, publishing its version of events in almost every international capital of consequence. Forum World Features, a London-based news syndicate created at the agency’s behest by the multimillionaire John Hay Whitney, Eisenhower’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, packaged reliably hawkish articles for both American and international audiences. Prominent American publishing houses printed about two dozen English-language books financed or produced by the CIA in the 1950s and early 1960s. The leading example was Doubleday & Company’s The Penkovsky Papers, the purported diary of a Soviet spy working in secret for the CIA. The best-selling book was fabricated from CIA records by a worldly-wise reporter, Frank Gibney, who counted Allen Dulles as a confidant, and Peter Deriabin, a KGB defector working for the agency. The protagonist of the story was real—the Soviets had captured and executed him—though the idea that a spy would keep a diary was preposterous if you thought about it. Few did at the time. The top editors and publishers at the most powerful media corporations, and a handful of their journalists, believed that working with the CIA was no crime. Sig Mickelson, president of CBS News and the CIA’s point of contact there from 1954 to 1961, later the director of Radio Free Europe, thought it was “a normal relationship at the time. This was at the height of the Cold War and I assumed the communications media were cooperating.” In Eisenhower’s America, my country right or wrong was the prevailing point of view in newsrooms and boardrooms, and that consensus stayed strong until the war in Vietnam shattered it.
As his presidency neared its end, Eisenhower continued to do what he could to promote the ideal of peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. He invited Khrushchev to the United States in September 1959; the two men talked for three days at Camp David and watched Westerns in the evening. In public, they exchanged pleasantries; in private, they butted heads and groped for common ground. The president said plaintively that he was “afraid of nuclear war and that to his mind everyone should be. During the last war, he said, he may have had moments of exhilaration in commanding huge armies, but now war has become nothing more than a struggle for survival.” Those days of shining glory had devolved into a dark era defined by human folly.
Khrushchev tried to end on a high note. While he couldn’t say “where the barometer pointed—to clear, changing, or stormy” in his relationship with the United States, he said, he wanted to invite Eisenhower to return to Russia in May, “when the weather was good and everything was in full bloom. The beautiful scenery and the wonderful scent of blooming trees might help the President and himself in their talks.” Eisenhower accepted with pleasure.
But all hope for a thaw in the cold war vanished on May Day 1960, when the Soviets shot down a U-2 over Russian soil and captured its pilot alive. Eisenhower had wanted to end the flights—he had feared for years that they could trigger World War III—but Dick Bissell was the air traffic controller and he had insisted on one last mission. Allen Dulles had convinced the president for years that such a disaster was impossible. The U-2’s final mission aimed to put an end to the false issue of the missile gap, which the Democratic Party candidate for president, Senator John F. Kennedy, had been using to hammer the Eisenhower administration and his Republican opponent, Vice President Nixon. NASA put out a cover story that the plane was gathering meteorological data. That fell apart when Khrushchev produced the pilot, the wreckage of the plane, and the film it had shot of Soviet air bases and fighter planes—proving, as he said, that Allen Dulles was no weatherman. The State Department put out another falsehood, saying the president had not authorized the flight. This was ultimately too much for Eisenhower. He walked into the Oval Office on May 9 and told his secretary that he wanted to resign. In retirement, Ike would reflect: “I didn’t realize how high a price we were going to have to pay for that lie.”
The shootdown embarrassed America in the eyes of the world, shattered the idea that a bodyguard of lies could plausibly protect American political warfare, and for the first time proved to the public that presidents deceived the American people. Khrushchev called Eisenhower a liar and wrecked their plans to talk of peace. Ike’s chief scientific adviser listened as the president said, with great sorrow, that “the stupid U-2 mess had ruined all his efforts” to end the cold war, and “he had nothing worthwhile left for him to do now until the end of his presidency.” His sadness soon turned into a smoldering rage.
He was bitter and exhausted, taking a double dose of sleeping pills before bed but suffering nightmares instead of finding respite, and by midsummer he was in a murderous mood. He set out to clean up some of the messes that the next president might otherwise inherit. In August he set the CIA to work on plans for a paramilitary invasion of Cuba and approved a $13 million budget for the operation. He gave at least tacit approval to the elimination of Castro and, as a political counterweight in the Caribbean, to the disposal of the right-wing dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Elimination and disposal were the euphemisms Dwight Eisenhower and Allen Dulles used when they were talking about political assassinations. The president was more straightforward at the National Security Council meeting on August 18 when he issued an order to do away with Patrice Lumumba, the new prime minister of the Congo.
American political warfare soon would come to a crescendo. But at the last, Eisenhower said in despair that he was leaving a world of trouble to his successor.
Excerpted from The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945–2020 by Tim Weiner. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Tim Weiner. All rights reserved.