Ambrose on Eisenhower: The Impact of a Single Faulty Quotation


Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity (Stanford, 2008).

Everyone who follows the news in the historians’ world now knows that Stephen Ambrose spent far less time interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower than he claimed.  Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, has discovered that “Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours.” So says journalist Richard Rayner in the New Yorker.

In his two-volume biography of Ike, still widely used as a standard study, Ambrose cites “Interview with DDE” as his source for Ike’s views on a wide range of subjects, including the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and others.

“The discussion of so many diverse subjects in less than three hours strains credulity,” Rives told Rayner.  Or even in five hours, he might have added.

But so what?  What harm is done by some fabricated quotes and claims?  Eisenhower historians may be answering that question for a long time.  Here’s just one example.

When the communists laid siege to the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Eisenhower faced a deep dilemma.  Indochina was the place where the Soviet Union “lean[ed] against [the] dike" of the “free world” most dangerously, promoting “unrest and anarchy,” the president had warned the NSC just a few months earlier.  It was a “leaky dike,” he said, and he hoped to “put a finger in” rather than “let the whole structure be washed away.”

French troops were the substance of the “dike.”  If they could not do the job, Eisenhower would have to find some other powerful “finger.”  He had long feared sending U.S. ground troops back into Asia, lest they be bogged down in another inconclusive war like Korea.  The only alternative was to save the French by using American aerial bombardment.  But that would be decisive only if it went as far as using atomic bombs.

At least that was the assumption built into NSC 162/2, the national security document so painstakingly developed and promulgated by the Eisenhower administration in the preceding year.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles later suggested that Indochina was just the kind of situation for which NSC 162/2 prescribed the “availability” of tactical nuclear weapons.

Would Eisenhower ever have considered such a drastic step?  He noted in his diary that he (like Dulles) believed that nuclear weapons should be “treated just as another weapon in the arsenal.”  In January 1954, he officially affirmed that in “limited hostilities” he would consider using nuclear weapons, on a case-by-case basis.  He allowed no blanket rejection of their use in Asia.  In fact, French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault later said that he had rejected a U.S. offer of nuclear weapons for Indochina.

Yet the history books generally pass over Bidault’s claim (for which there is no evidence) and happily agree that Eisenhower never even considered using atomic bombs in Indochina.  They generally agree that he found the very thought morally abhorrent and thus impossible.  And they generally cite one source above all for this conclusion, Eisenhower's comment to his national security advisor Robert Cutler, who had apparently broached the idea:  “You boys must be crazy.  We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years.  My God!"

The only problem is that there is just one source for this famous quotation, which is often used to sum up Eisenhower’s view not only of the Indochina crisis but of nuclear weapons in general.  You guessed it:  Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower, The President, page 184.  Having read every relevant source document I could find in the published literature and at the Eisenhower Library, I found no other evidence to corroborate it.  Nor did I find any other statement Ike ever made that expressed a similar view.  Tom Wicker, in his brief Eisenhower biography, noted skeptically that such a statement was hardly typical of the president. 

In fact, it flies in the face of Eisenhower’s frequently stated readiness to use nuclear weapons whenever and wherever he deemed it necessary -- “exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else,” as he put it in a 1955 press conference.

As John Lewis Gaddis has concluded, the administration’s decision not to use nuclear weapons was “a function of circumstance, not any principled opposition to the use of nuclear weapons in limited war.”  The principle circumstance was the reluctance of the European allies, especially the British, to join in any anti-communist effort in Indochina that involved the use of atomic bombs.  By the summer of 1954, Dulles admitted to the NSC that the U.S. “tough” policies were increasingly unpopular and “the British ‘soft policy’ was gaining prestige and acceptance both in Europe and in Asia. …We must recognize the fact that we can no longer run the free world.”  Eisenhower ruefully agreed; the U.S. had wanted a tougher policy in Indochina, but it had “lost the argument” and was not in fact advocating a “tough” policy -- certainly not a nuclear policy.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the documentary record, Eisenhower is still widely seen as longing and working for disarmament because of his supposed moral rejection of nuclear weapons.  Many historians have accepted that mistaken premise and therefore, understandably, misunderstood the failure of the protracted disarmament negotiations that went on from the 1955 Geneva Summit to the end of his presidency.

That’s just one example of the wide-ranging effect a single quotation can have -- a quotation whose veracity was unlikely to begin with and now appears rather more dubious.  Of course, it’s possible that Eisenhower really did express moral outrage to Cutler.  Anything is possible.  But we no longer have any good reason to believe that he ever said it.

HNN Special: Stephen Ambrose and President Eisenhower

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/19/2010

I believe you are quite correct regarding Eisenhower's attitude toward using nuclear weapons.

He used the threat of atomic bombs against North Korea to get the armistice at Panmunjam, as he himself tells us in "Mandate for Change."

I think when Kennedy got us stuck in Vietnam, Eisenhower and Omar Bradley jointly appeared on national TV to urge either 1) Hit them with everything we have; or 2)get out immediately. They knew the alternative of keeping one hand behind our back would prolong the war, costing more casualties and money in the long run.

Lori Clune - 5/17/2010

Excellent discussion of one significant, and now questionable, quote.