When then-President John F. Kennedy called for a “flexible response” regarding policy toward the Soviet Union, he was reacting to the policies of the Eisenhower years. Historians have labeled the latter administration’s strategy as “massive retaliation,” which meant that the United States was prepared to empty the silos at communist aggression.
Sixty-three years ago this week, John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s pick for secretary of state, told Congress during his confirmation hearings, that he not only favored “containing” Soviet Union, but also liberating captive populations behind the Iron Curtain.
But the administration had backed itself into a suicidal corner by assuring a rollback strategy that ran the risk of a nuclear exchange.
The test case was the communist satellite Hungary. Hungarians, rebelling against Soviet control in a 1956 uprising, made American backing the lynch pin of their strategy. They were soon disabused of Dulles’ promises. When Soviet tanks crushed the rebellion Eisenhower did nothing. By way of contrast, Senator Barry Goldwater had urged the insertion of American troops armed with tactical nuclear weapons.
Unable to match their rhetoric, the administration relied more on covert means, predating Kennedy’s penchant for secret operations. Indeed, Eisenhower’s covert actions would prove much more successful than Kennedy’s failed efforts to topple Castro.
These operations went into effect when a pro-communist political named Mohamed Mossadegh came to power in Iran. The Eisenhower administration’s alarm bells went off because of the new Prime Minister’s closeness to Iran’s local communist party. Convinced another domino was about to fall, the Eisenhower administration a green-lit a CIA-run coup against Mossadegh in 1953.
The CIA was tasked with removing Mossadegh, and did, amazingly, with nothing but money and political theater. The agent Kermit Roosevelt (the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt) merely paid anti-and pro-monarchy forces to clash in the street which resulted in 300 dead and the impression that a rebellion was overwhelming the capitol. Roosevelt then unleashed the pro-monarchy forces which had a clear way
without using American ground troops, relying solely on Iranians disgruntled with the regime. CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, paid anti-and pro-monarchy forces to clash in the street, resulting in 300 dead, then unleashed the pro-monarchy forces to storm the capitol. Mossadegh was captured and a pro-American government installed.
A year later, Eisenhower authorized another successful coup, this time against a military officer named Jacobo Arbenz who was elected as president of Guatemala. Arbenz had close ties to local communist parties, and his government eulogized Josef Stalin, who died in 1953, as a “great statesman and leader.” Arbenz grew increasingly pro-communist and was secretly receiving weapons from Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite.
The CIA used a military leader named Carlos Castillo Armas to lead the coup, who in turn, recruited mercenaries for the task. Along with the invasion force, the Agency used a radio station which transmitted fake news of rebel troops within shooting distance of the capitol. This in effect demoralized the populace and Armas took the capitol, forcing Arbenz to resign.
Ike supported such means because he had a horror of sending in American troops to countries that might have joined the Soviet side in the Cold War. Eisenhower’s refusal would be proven correct by history, especially regarding Vietnam. As war raged between Vietnam’s colonizers the French and the Vietcong (culminating in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu which effectively lost them their colony), Eisenhower refused French pleas for American ground troops, although he did send funds to help them, and then, after the French defeat, to anti-communist leader Ngo Dinh Diem, the new ruler of South Vietnam.
Ike’s final authorized coup, against the newly-emerged Castro dictatorship, was a partial departure from previous models. As usual, he used foreign troops, this time around Cuban exiles. But, uncharacteristically American air and naval support were assigned to aid the troops.
It was not known whether it would have been successful or not, for Eisenhower had finished out his second term, and a new president, John F. Kennedy was in charge of the plan.
After the disastrous Bay of Pigs in 1961, in which the rebels were defeated within three days, Eisenhower was furious with Kennedy. In a private conversation, Ike chastised the new president, especially over Kennedy’s cancellation of the second air strike. He dismissed Kennedy’s explanation that he did so out of fears the Soviets would move on Berlin, saying “No. That’s the opposite of what the Soviets will do. If you show weakness they will act.”
And act they did, placing offensive nuclear weapons on the island.
Whatever one thinks of the Eisenhower coups, and there is evidence that there was a strong business community element behind them (in all three cases, the US-based United Fruit was taken over by the new rulers), they worked.