tv Presidential Leadership During the Cold War CSPAN December 29, 2020 11:23am-12:19pm EST
they returned home. watch tonight at 8 eastern and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span 3. historian william hitchcock on presidential leadership during the cold war era and the cold war's lasting impact on presidential politics. he's the author of "the age of eisenhower," america and the world in the 1950s, the georgia historical society and the uva club of savannah cohosted the event, which is one in a series of conversations on the cold war 75 years after it began. >> i'm stan deeton with the georgia historical society and it's our pleasure to partner with the uva club of savannah. this conversation is the first of three with esteemed university of virginia faculty, part of the georgia historical society's georgia history festival, which this year is focused on the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the cold war. with me today is dr. william
hitchcock, the william w. professor of history at the university of virginia. dr. hitchcock is the author of several books on the cold war, most recently "the age of eisenhower, america and the world in the 1950s" published in 2018 by symon and shchuster. >> good to be with you. looking forward to a conversation. >> let's get right to it. in surveying the 35 years of the cold war and its impact, would could argue that it fundamentally changed the constitutional framework of the american government, that it was this period that saw the greater concentration of power in the president at the expense of the congress, that more than ever in our history, because of the challenges of the cold war, our national course is now set by the personality of the president. would you agree with that? >> well, yes, i would agree with
that, and i think it's been characteristic of the presidency over the last half century or more that it has significantly grown in scope and in power, and the cold war had a great deal to do with that. you know, it's funny, you think back to the second world war. that must have been the moment when the american government became enormous. in some ways, the military did. you think about the roosevelt white house, was tiny. the executive office was actually very small, so there's roosevelt with literally half a dozen advisers, a couple of leading military officials, george marshall and others, planning a global war with a tiny array of personnel and bureaucracy. when truman became president upon roosevelt's death, he is suddenly facing a global strategic challenge of dealing with the cold war, winding down the second world war, all of these problems that are besetting the united states, and
he has no levers to pull, you know, it's the proverbial thing, like who's really in charge, and truman said i'm in charge but i'm not sure what levers and what buttons to bush. it's he and his advisers that grapple with the problem of building an infrastructure so they can organize the intelligence, so they can organize the relationship between the individual services which competed terribly with each other, which had terrible relations. he's trying to figure out what the the appropriate infrastructure for civil military relations, what's the role, even so, truman will wage the cold war in the first couple of years, and indeed, korean war and he still has a relatively small bureaucracy, of course the delta keeps on going, and the cold war, eisenhower's white house was still pretty small but he organized it around the national security council. he used that instrument of power
very effectively. and it would grow and grow. the vietnam war had a huge impact on expanding it, but you mentioned congress, and the one hitch in your assessment, stan, is that in the wake of the vietnam war and in the wake of the nixon period, congress does try to reassert control over the executive. and the war powers act and the church committee hearings that investigate all kinds of abuses of the cia, which come on in the 1970s, mid 70s, is an effort to try to claw back a little bit of that power that had been really surrendered by congress because of the cold war consensus the congress now is thinking, wait, cold war consensus got us into na vietnam, we need a little bit of that power. it doesn't hang on to power, we see this through the 1980s and the post cold war period and the 9/11 period. the american public and the congress typically, and i think,
you know, it's very frequent that they defer to the role of the president in setting foreign policy, setting national security policy, and i think, you know, i think we would all in theory like to have a little more balance, a little more give and take in which congress plays its supervisory role a bit more aggressively, but often you'll have the same party in the congress and in the white house, and in which case, they don't want to run afoul with each other. stan, your question is absolutely right, the course has been to strengthen the role of the presidency to the detriment of the supervisory role of the congress. >> and you mentioned some of the agencies that grew up after world war ii. i think the second big thing you could say about the cold war is that because of the conflict, the intelligence establishment, right, the cia, the national security council, the pentagon, have far more money and power, far less oversight than any
other bureaucratic agencies, perhaps, and they have played an outsized role since 1945 in directing american foreign policy, much of it, perhaps, without the public's knowledge. so i would ask if you think that's true, but also what role did president eisenhower play in that. he's the first two-term president of the cold war, cast a long shadow, as you know, your great book, which our audience can see behind you over your right shoulder, you ask people to think differently about the eisenhower presidency, so talk about that a little bit. >> sure. well, on the question of the cia, eisenhower, i think, it's one of the things he carries over from the second world war era is the belief that you've got to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to wage war against the bad guys. in the second world war, he took advantage of intelligence, he took advantage of covert operations, he took advantage of
ret resistance movements, in the cold war, it's easy for him to connect the two, we're waging a global cold war, they're the bad guys. i want to know what they're doing. i want their secrets. i want intelligence on them, and i'm happy to use covert operations if it will help our global struggle in the cold war, so i think, you know, we know -- we know in retrospect that that's going to lead to unfortunately an abuse of the role of the cia, i believe, over time. but in the 50s, ike's view was the cia is a very valuable tool that i can use to constrain soviet power, and also to wage war on the cheap, and maybe even secretly so that i can avoid an overt, you know, conflict with boots on the ground, so eisenhower is quite enamored of secret power of the growth of the cia. now, unfortunately his choice of, or the man who is going to lead the cia throughout his tenure was allen dulles, and i
think quite honestly, i think he did a great deal of damage, and i think he did it to the country, and i think he did it to eisenhower's presidency. i think he was a poor choice. i understand why he was chosen. he had certain gifts. he had a legacy in the warriors himself of building intelligence networks in europe, but he was so secretive. he was so -- he amassed a great deal of power. talk about supervision, he was a clever bureaucratic infighter, he didn't allow any of the blue ribbon panels that were supposed to supervise the cia to get anywhere near him, and persuaded eisenhower to take a number of risks that in retrospect were ill judged. that's one of the faults i talk a lot about in my book about ike. i do want to say, though, that on balance, the eisenhower foreign relations and national security is a record of significant success, and even though the cia dimension of it
is a series of real black marks, what eisenhower managed to do was to come into office in 1953 at a moment of extraordinary fluidity and difficulty, and explosiveness in the cold war, korean war is going on, the indochina war, the french vietnam war is going on. there's a nasty conflict brewing between china and the u.s. over taiwan. china had just gone communist in 1949, the nationalists were set up in taiwan, which the americans backed. that could explode at any point. there was the berlin problem, the city of berlin, how are we going to deal with that. americans, soviets, british and french were all in berlin claiming to have access to it, but that was a flash point. eisenhower has to deal with all of these things in addition to the growing soviet threat because they're developing new missiles and new technology all the time. so people have an idea that ike had it easy, the '50s, was a relatively peacetime. don't believe a word of it. it was a very dangerous era.
and i believe that we don't give ike enough credit for doing the things that presidents have to do every day, which is to manage crises. you know, it's all well and good to say, well, i waged and won a war. well, all right, eisenhower certainly did that, but managing the crises so they don't become worse is actually a huge part of the cold war presidency. and i think eisenhower managed to do that very well, staying out of indochina, he did use nuclear threats in taiwan, with china, but nonetheless, managed to avoid serious expansion of conflicts, which the american public were very grateful for because they hated the korean war. they were delighted that he got out of the korean war in 1953. they had been at war since 1941. the country did not want the conflict that eisenhower gave them. >> before i go any further, i
should tell our audience that as you're listening to this, if you have questions, if there's something that sparks your interest that you want to know more about, please submit to those. when we get to the end of the program, will and i will take questions. i want to quote from your book because you mentioned presidential crises, a moment of truth with presidents and you have written and i quote presidents always confront crises they do not foresee, and often do not understand. it is then that history is best able to take the measure of the man. unquote. and we can think of many such moments for the cold war presidents, for truman perhaps, the soviet blockade of berlin, for jfk, of course the cuban missile crisis, for carter, the iranian hostage crisis. what moment would you point to for eisenhower, we'll stay with him for a moment, perhaps that tested him in this way perhaps as nothing else did. >> well, stan as you well know
because you have the book in front of you, i wrote that about a domestic crisis that was going on in the united states during the cold war, which is relevant to the cold war, which is the civil rights movement, and the civil rights challenge, and eisenhower was not prepared to deal with the emergence of a nationwide civil rights movement, and he was not comfortable dealing with those policy issues. he had very little experience and black experience in the united states in the '50s, but he had to deal with chaengs in the country that he didn't understand. he relied on subordinates, attorney general, who guided eisenhower through the thickets of the civil rights problems of the 50s. guided him in a very progressive way. we get all sorts of kanchanges,e appointment of earl warren, the little rock incident of 1957 in which eisenhower decides to use federal troops to allow black
students attend little rock high school. that's a cold war crisis, related to the cold war in part because it was such an embarrassment on the international stage. the jim crow were a terrible embarrassment. embassies would write into the president and say you ought to know that in europe, france or germany, they think that mccarthyism and jim crow are terrible embarrassments for the united states and it undercuts your moral authority to lead the west in the cold war. you should do something about it. so that's an interesting way in which the domestic policy and the cold war policy became knitted together. that's an example of a domestic crisis that has an international dimension that eisenhower had to face. i think another example, you know, ike was very good on national security policy. he had seen every conceivable crisis during the second world war. the sputnik crisis was a big one
for him. he anticipated there was going to be breakthroughs on the soviet side. there was a public relations nightmare for the united states that the soefviets got a satelle into space first in 1957. and really eisenhower initially handled it rather poorly. he wasn't sure what to do. the soviets had beat the united states. everyone could see that. how do you spin that? and the way that he spun it was don't worry everything is going to be fine, and that's not at all what -- that didn't work. he came back about a month later, and he said, look, i'll grant you that they beat us, but it doesn't matter in terms of the balance. we're way ahead of them on technology. we're going to get a satellite up into space, which they did a couple of months later, and after that, the embarrassment eased. it was a sign that technological breakthroughs can be one of those moments that everyone is counting the relative prestige of the two superpowers where they can be a sudden
embarrassment. you mentioned many other crises that we can dig into if you'd like. >> let's go back for a moment, you mentioned at the beginning, harry truman, where would you place him in the pantheon of cold war presidents. he was not highly regarded at the time. he went out of office with low approval ratings, the man who lost china to communism, who let the soviets develop the bomb on his watch who got us into supposedly the korean conflict, couldn't get us out, but he has risen in stature since. why do you think that is so? >> well, harry truman got lucky in that david mccullough wrote a great biography about him. anyone who wants to be president should be going to david mccullough saying you should write my biography. he wrote a great book that took truman, and gave us a rounded picture of the man. he showed a true essence, he was a man of the people.
he was a mids westerne westerne. he had tailbone ingone into pol. he has an earthiness, an attractive quality about him. once he was able to draw the characters more colorfully someone was able to sympathize with the difficulties truman faced in the white house. the first thing to recall is you talk about shocks, what is it like when you're the vice president and the president dies? and you get that call. and when the president is frankly roosevelt and the second world war is still going on, what do you suppose was going through his mind and mccullough does a good job of pulling out that moment of shock, and you know, truman himself would later say i felt that the moon and stars had all fallen on me. he felt the world had just pivoted and he was now in charge. but it was his great achievement
to find the balance quickly. it's the next man up, 1 foot in front of the other. he had a praguetimatism about h that he was able to fill the role quite quickly. you asked about how do cold war historians feel about him, and i think the answer is it's an ambiguous judgment. on the one hand, he engineered at his advisers, marshal atchison, and others, he created the infrastructure that would essentially allow the united states to win the cold war, if you like. the marshal plan, the nato alliance. the institutions of the western alliance that brought the u.s. into european affairs on a permanent basis, which it's still there. we're still in europe, and that's a good thing. it gave -- it created a community of interest, a community of security, so that the cold war would remain cold, unlike the first world war, which had drifted into the second world war. just in terms of their achievements, to identify the
common interests of the west and building a community of interests through the marshal plan and nato, i think you have to say that truman was one of the most consequential leaders of the cold war era all together. on the other hand, there's a great deal to suggest that truman oversimplified and overreacted and that he perhaps brought about the cold war to begin with. now, i'm not saying that's my view, but there's a great deal of literature, a great deal, very thoughtful scholarship that suggests truman did as much as stalin did, maybe more, to bring about the worsening of u.s. soviet relations that roosevelt had tried to hard to keep together, and that he was not a particularly sophisticated in his reading of soviet insecurity, soviet waeeaknesses. everything he saw was soviet threats, soviet dangers, and i think there's some merit to that, and i think that, you know, part of it is that the
domestic politics of being anticommunist were very powerful, you know, it forced his hand to some extent. the long run is that it's a mixed legacy, but an enormously consequential one. i also believe that truman was as honest and transparent a figure as we've had in the white house so that alone is comfortable. whether you disagree or agree with his decisions. i'll move on to one more thing, because it bears on the cold war, truman is the only president to have dropped two atomic bombs, and that's another factor that has attracted a great deal of attention in scholars. was it the right thing to do. there is a debate and that debate has gone on. it will continue to go on. maybe the first bomb was the right thing to do. maybe the second was the wrong
thing to do. maybe both were right. maybe both were wrong. how did it change america's standing in the world, what did it mean for the presidency? but now the president of the united states, a single person, had that kind of power at his finger tips, and now today of course infinitely greater power. it changed world politics, and so, you know, truman said he never lost a night's sleep over it. i find that hard to believe, but at the same time it gives you a sense for what kind of man he was that he was able to make such a consequential decision without losing too many night's sleep over it. >> and the nuclear threat is of course what really defines the cold war, a threat that continues to hang over the united states although we don't feel it in the same way now because we're not in the midst of a cold war. let's take that one step farther to eisenhower, you wrote and i quote here again from your book, between 1945 and 1961 no persons dominated american public life
more than eisenhower. eisenhower expanded the power and scope of the 20th century warfare state and put into place a long-term strategy designed to wage and win the cold war, unquote. so describe, if you will, what you mean by expanding, and what was the strategy. if truman laid the foundation for the agencies that would carry out the cold war, you give eisenhower, i think, the credit for ultimately setting in place the strategy that ultimately won it. describe for our audience what that was. >> put simply, it's peace through strength. eisenhower did build out the infrastructure to wage the cold war. by that, i mean it was in the eisenhower period, '53 to 1961 that the tools were actually designed and built to contain soviet power and to deter the soviets. i'm talking about the nuclear infrastructure. you know, in the eisenhower
period, they designed and tested and deployed thousands of new missiles with initially short range, then longer range, and finally intercontinental range so that nuclear weapons could be delivered to any point in the world. that occurred deliberately during the eisenhower period. eisenhower also supervised the production of the triad, the marine missiles that would go live under sea and the aircraft, intercontinental bombers that would circle the globe, carrying nuclear warheads in addition to which eisenhower took the first steps to militarize space but putting the first spy satellite in orbit, it would take photographs and drop them through the atmosphere to be collected by an aircraft. eisenhower created this infrastructure not because he wanted or expected that he would use it, but because he figured
this was the best way to deter soviet threats, challenges, and to deliver a clear message that america was prepared to use its nuclear power if necessary. hoped it would never be necessary. i have come to the conclusion by studying eisenhower very carefully for a long period of time, he would have used nuclear weapons, particularly some -- i think he would have said, it has to be done, especially in the case of u.s. china relations because in the eisenhower period, china didn't have the ability to respond with a nuclear weapon. i do think that's a factor. but, you know, the other piece of that, so that's the strength piece of it. the other piece is that eisenhower avoided conflict. he extended the hand of peace to the soviets. in 1955 he meets nikita, comes
to the united states, i enjoyed writing about that visit, which is full of comedy, coming to washington, all across the country, out to california, hollywood, sees shirley mcclain making the movie can can. he eats hot dogs goes to a corn field, and what's happening here is the americans are domesticating khrushchev, making him less scary, making him appear to be normal and human. eisenhower embraced that. he wanted to diffuse the cold war. you get the results that we avoid a major conflict. we avoid troops overseas. yes, there's the covert operations but also final point, eisenhower does this without destroying the economic balance of the country. during the eisenhower period he is able to balance three budgets. he comes close on the others.
he does spend significant sums on the military but not at the intense of blowing up the federal budget, which, for example, ronald reagan would do. if i told you you could get a president that gave you eight years apiece, had 70% approval ratings, would pass progressive legislation on issues like civil rights, and housing and health and education, infrastructure, build super highways, and would somehow manage to get us out of an unpopular war, all while balancing the budget, you know, i think i have just described a political unicorn. that is the legacy of eisenhower. >> and you go from there, of course, you mentioned balanced budgets. john f. kennedy ran against eisenhower, not against eisenhower but against richard nixon claiming that there was a missile gap, and boy, got into
of course what is arguably the greatest failure of the presidential leadership during the cold war and that is of course vietnam. he and his vice president and president lyndon johnson, it's easy to look back at these two, and either romanticize what jfk might have done if he lived to prosecutor or not that war, and also of course to demonize lbj for not being able to see into the future, and know what we know, that the domino theory didn't hold. all those lives and treasure and, in fact americans couldn't have guns and butter. if you will, talk a little bit about vietnam, as a failure of leadership, would you characterize it as that, and is it fair to sort of blame lbj because we can look backwards, and could he have made a different decision realistically. >> the answer is yes. so there's two individuals here that you mentioned, kennedy and johnson, and they're very different, and of course one,
his presidency was tragically shortened and abbreviated. the kennedy plot line in my view is learning on the job. and he only had three years, we could only project he might have accomplished in eight years. but you get the young john kennedy who you said ran against eisenhower and then you corrected yourself, of course, he ran against nixon, but you're right, he did run against eisenhower in a sense. he ran against ike because ike was old. ike was the previous generation. ike was moderate, he was boring, but kennedy was dynamic, he was handsome. he ran against the eisenhower record as a hawk. he said, you've done too little. the missile gap, the communists have taken over in cuba, you've done nothing. you tried to criticize us. can you imagine trying to run against richard nixon and saying you're soft on communism? he was good. he was good. so, anyhow, he comes into office full of beans and he says, i don't need to listen to the
experts, i'm going to run my own national security thing, i'm smarter than these old fogies. the first thing he did was the bay of pigs, executed in 1961, and it blows up in his face. he didn't really think through this plan, he didn't see its flaws. but the reality, i think, he learns from that, and in the cuban missile crisis which will come in october the following year, what we see is a very different john kennedy, somebody who is now starting to feel a sense of confidence and of managing the crisis. and, you know, imagine the difficulties. suddenly you wake up and they bring you the youtube foez photd slides, and they say kruschev has put in the missiles, what
are you going to do about it? he plans to put pressure on the soviets to withdraw those missiles, but it's a face-saving negotiation, it's a face-saving deal in which the soviets will withdraw those missiles and secretly kennedy will give them a similar deal, which is the withdrawal of some american missiles in turkey, but the public doesn't know that. so it looks as though he's gone eyeball to eyeball and he made the soviets blink. but, in fact, he negotiated a way out. that's a clue to where he might have gone. now, we all know that he increased soviet advisers in vietnam. does that mean kennedy would have waged the vietnam war the way lyndon johnson waged it? i do not think that's the case. we don't know exactly how he would have handled the challenge in vietnam, but i don't think he would have sent half a million soldiers there. it just doesn't seem right to me. johnson is the character that is the great tragic figure here, the gifted legislator, the southerner who finally made it into the white house, but how did he come to the white house?
he came to the white house in kennedy's assassination. so he spent the first year feeling the shadow of the kennedys, knowing the country did not elect him. he's filling a dead man's shoes. there was a lot of insecurity in that first year, and it's in that first year that he makes one of the most important decisions with respect to vietnam, because there is the tompkin gulf crisis in which some ships say they were showered on by pt boats. they claim they were struck. maybe they were, maybe they weren't, but johnson goes to the congress and says, i need a blank check, i need you to support me on this. you have to give me a blank check with whatever force i deem desirable to deal with the communist threat. that was in 1964. his ratings go through the roof, congress is behind him, he finally gets a landslide victory in 1964, and you think, boy,
he's got it all. and he squanders this great gift of national unity, national consensus. he pushes through all of this transformational legislation that he's wanted to do to the great society voting rights act, civil rights act, and then he decides that the united states has to go to war in vietnam to protect american credibility. oh, boy accide, that's what i c my students the c word. credibility. it's the great myth, it's the great mistake, it's the great trap of the cold war. johnson falls right into it. i'll just finish on this, i know i'm going on too long, but i don't want to miss this point. the scholars who have written carefully about johnson's decisions to go to war have told us, have reminded us that nobody was pressuring johnson to go to war in 1965 in vietnam at such a scale. yes, it was -- vietnam was a problem. but could it have been managed differently? of course, it could have. the american allies were not
pressing america to begin a huge conventional war in vietnam. the soviets weren't doubting american credibility in 1965. the american public, the american congress was not begging johnson to get into a major conventional war in southeast asia. johnson made the decision himself. and it was a tragic decision because once so many hundreds of thousands of americans were committed there, then it would be next to impossible to extract them. it destroyed his presidency. the war destroyed the cold war consensus. it ripped the country apart as a younger generation of college students went out into the streets, and for the first time in the cold war, turned their back on their government. they said, we think you're lying. we think you're wrong. you have lost the moral authority. so america's credibility was worse after four years of vietnam than it had been at the beginning, and that's why johnson finally recognized he had failed and he did not run for re-election.
i could go on, but you get the point. it's a tragic story that i think our contemporary students, my students at university of virginia did a need to study much more carefully. the vietnam war is still a rich subject for lessons about leadership and failures of leadership and reading the signals incorrectly. maybe hubris ego is also a topic we could study in looking at johnson's decisions in vietnam. >> so you don't think he was correct in his fear that domestically the republicans would hang on him what they had hung on truman, that he was there, that it was on his watch that china fell to the communists, the idea that all of southeast asia was going to the communists, that lbj wouldn't say, not on my watch. he could have pushed that aside? >> that's what i'm saying, of course it was a consideration.
he worried very much about the china problem that so hampered truman, and it could have been a politically difficult problem to handle. i'm not suggesting that there weren't going to be consequences of walking away from southeast asia. but johnson was a damn good politician, and he could have persuaded the american public, and he could have built a coalition in his party to say, we're not going to wage world war iii in southeast asia because we're already doing pretty well there. we've got south korea going, we got japan going, we got the philippines going, we're containing china and taiwan, we're doing fine in asia. we don't need this fight. and i think he could have made that case to the american public. >> it really is a tragic story. let's move ahead a little bit. we're going to, for a moment, jump over the ultimate cold war era and president nixon and the soviet union, because i do want
to get to ronald reagan. especially for the latter generation he is the president, i think, most associated, at least, with the end of the cold war, even though it didn't happen right on his watch. he's the president, of course, who told gorbachev to tear down this wall in berlin. he is often credited with winning the cold war. do you think that's true, and do you think that he is -- and maybe i know the answer to this and i should phrase it different. do you think that he is maybe the most important cold war president? >> well, i'm going to break the hearts of at least half the audience here, because the answer to that question is no. ronald reagan does not get credit for ending the cold war, i'm sorry. you heard it here first, and i'm sure people are clicking off their zoom right now, but hear me out. hear me out. that's not to take credit away from him. he played a crucial role in the winding down of the cold war, and i want to stress this. it used to be said that reagan came into office a super-duper hawk and that he turned into a
dove. he changed his mind and became -- he wanted a litany of peace and so on. that's not entirely crew. scholars have shown us that's not quite right. reagan came into office as a hawk and he left office as a hawk, but he also came into office as an idealist. he was a truly idealistic person who wanted to end the cold war. he thought the cold war was immoral, and in that sense he actually had quite a bit in common with the hippies in america who were also calling an end to the war. reagan brings together some things we don't often find. yes, he was a cold warrior and he built up the defense establishment considerably, but he was genuinely interested in seeking a breakthrough in u.s. soviet relations and he felt that he somehow, you know, he believed deeply that the soviets somehow would surely want to embrace the notion that you could transcend the cold war.
now, the reason that i say he doesn't get the credit for ending the cold war is without mikhail gorbachev in power from 1985 onward, reagan would not have had a partner to work with. he could have had a lot of ideas in the world that he wanted but it would not have gone anywhere, and gorbachev came in. he was the radical, he was the innovator, he was the risk taker. he took all the risks in the world leading to the complete collapse of his country and his own destruction, politically speaking, but it was he who reached out to reagan because he needed something, which was an easing of the cold war so that he could reform socialism in the soviet union. so gorbachev and reagan made the proverbial odd couple, but what's interesting is they read each other in a moment of history where soviet weaknesses were really the key thing that both sides understood. the soviet economy was falling apart, soviets had intervened in afghanistan in 1979.
that was a fiasco. you got the chernobyl incident early in the gorbachev years. the soviet union is swirling the drain, and both sides are able to see that they have a vested interest in doing something together to reduce at least nuclear weapons. here reagan's idealism comes back. maybe we could get rid of them all, and gorbachev and reagan are sitting at the table and reagan said, hey, why don't we get rid of them all? and the advisers are thinking, good god, no, that's a terrible idea. besides that, reagan won't give up the one thing that is his great idea, which is the famous strategic defense initiative, or star wars, as it was mocking. this was a technological idea, the theory he could shoot down missiles and create a bubble around the united states, and gorbachev said you have to get rid of that or we can't negotiate, so the negotiates came to naught. in 1987 you have the first big
breakthrough, which is the united forces agreement. this was a huge deal. the idea that you could have a human personal connection with a soviet secretary in mikhail gorbachev, came to the u.s. and met people, seemed like a young and intelligent european, that you could go and rip open the heart of the cold war and say, let's get rid of a whole class of nuclear weapons. what a great thing that would be. so reagan leaves office having accomplished an enormous amount in terms of bringing the two sides -- if you like putting both the u.s. and the soviet union on the same railroad tracks in the direction of history, which was that the cold war was changing, it was softening, it was kind of falling apart. i do think he gets credit for that. it's often said reagan spent so much money on the cold war that he forced the soviets to give in. i think that's a caricature of a much more humane process in which reagan's idealism and his
good fortune, his luck, actually served to unwind the cold war, or at least begin to unwind it. >> it sounds like your next biography needs to be about ronald reagan. >> the first person i voted for was in 1984, and i voted for fritz mondale. you know what happened to fritz mondale, he lost in 48 states, i think. that's my recommendation to how popular reagan was in the 1980s. >> before we start taking some questions from our audience, i want to ask another big picture question here. as you mentioned, you talked about the cuban missile crisis. perhaps the scariest moment in the cold war was in october 1962 during the cuban missile crisis, and jfk is often given very high marks where his temporate, cool leadership, supposedly, during that crisis. i talked to former u.s. senator
sam nunn two weeks ago, and he gives all the presidents from truman to george h.w. bush credit for their restraint in not launching a nuclear war, not -- whether on purpose or, as he thought even more likely, by accident, over the 45-year period while dealing with the soviet union and other threats to the u.s. across 45 years. you wrote, talking about ike, quote, there would be many sincere words of peace during his presidency, but ike was always preparing for war, unquote. that to me sums up what being president during the cold war era was really all about. would you agree with that, or do you think ike stands alone in that regard? >> well, i think that's the job of the president. but i'm not sure that every single one of them has done it as well or has taken that role as seriously as they should. but i don't think any of us -- i mean, sam nunn is probably as close as possible to who might
be able to tell us, but i don't know that any of us who haven't been inside the white house or haven't served as president could imagine what that's like. the notion that, you know, you've got the ability, the nuclear codes are always right with you, you have the ability to launch a nuclear strike, that it's your judgment, your judgment alone that's going to decide when these weapons could be used. but also that there is, in waiting, a gigantic network, a gigantic world circling infrastructure of destruction that you can activate with a push of a button. what human wouldn't be overwhelmed or overawed by that pressure? when i say ike was always preparing for war, that was the role of the president to anticipate, ey anticipate. eisenhower, having been a war person, always thought about the hypothetical. in general, it was probably not good to have military folks in
the civilian world, but in this one area of thinking ahead, imagine what's around the corner, doing exercises to simulate. what would happen if x should occur? how would we react? that's the training many advisers need to have before they can go in and help the president think through problems. i think ike brought that with him. john kennedy didn't have that kind of experience when he first entered office but acquired it very quickly just because i think he was an enormously intelligent man who was good at that kind of imagining, you know. if x, then y, how do i respond? so as he's working through the cuban missile crisis, he's constantly interrogating his advisers. the advisers said, you know what you should do, mr. president? you should invade cuba right now. he says, okay, walk me through what happens next. by the time they get to world war iii, he says, okay, we're
not doing that. he was constantly pushing his advisers to say, you can't tell me the first move, you have to give me the next five moves. it's in that process that he eliminates the most dangerous options, bombing ground invasion or just bombing some of the missile sites themselves. what they didn't know at the time was the soviets had a wide array of nuclear weapons in cuba. those weapons would have been fired at the american troops coming in to land. we would have had a nuclear exchange in the first few minutes of an american invasion. so kennedy just instinctively knew that was a dangerous move and avoided it. the more we look at the cuban missile crisis, the more you end up thinking, it was this close to a general nuclear exchange, but what a gift it was to have a president at that moment who just had kind of an instinct that there was a way out. there was a negotiated settlement here and he kept
going until he got it. and he deserves the credit, i think, that he gets for managing the country's way out of that. >> taking a question from our audience, we have a viewer who asked what your assessment is of eisenhower's military industrial comments speech before he left office. >> thank you, that's a wonderful question. it's a puzzle, isn't it? here's the great military leader and the guy who builds the cold military structure. he says, by the way, watch out for the military industrial complex. it might take over your government. it's a bit of a, you know, your head is swiveling a little bit. but what he was really saying, if you read the speech from start to finish, he was saying the cold war is a tragedy, and we're very sorry that it has
happened, but it has happened. and in order to protect american interests and american allies, and as he would put it, freedom, we have had to build this huge military infrastructure. it is the role, he then went on to say, it's the role of the president to control that military infrastructure. so what he's doing is he is saying to the american public, you, american public, have got to hold your leaders accountable so that they don't get overcome, intimidated by the brass, intimidated by the pentagon. so they don't fall aprey to the lure of war or of prestige or foolish overseas interventions. this is my reading of it, that this is a bit of a warning to john kennedy. and iltst's a bit of a chastisi to the american public who elected john kennedy who eisenhower believed at the time didn't have experience to be president.
sees saying, good luck, you just elected this 43-year-old, good luck with that. you have to hold your leaders accountable to keep the cold war cold. don't let them fall under the spell of the military. i think that comes from a lifetime of the generals knowing they'll always try to get out of you more weapons systems if they can. >> with the election coming up in just a couple weeks, i want to ask you about the effect of the cold war on presidential politics and really what's happened since the cold war ended. for more than 40 years, americans running for president promised dai-- the furst thing y had to do was promise to stand up against soviets. calling your opponents soft on communism was an election year ritual every four years. at the end of the cold war, we lost that external threat along with globalism, whatever the
case may be. how has the end of the cold war affected american presidential politics and have we perhaps forgotten? we tend to romanticize partisanship during the presidency. how has the end of the cold war affected politics since 1982 and into the present? >> i think one of the ways in which the cold war changed, you might say even warped, american politics is that it created a framework in which we understood america's place in the world as fighting bad guys. not just as being a normal state with friends, but basically kind of worrying about self, mostly, but it created the notion that america's role in the world was a global one, and that we would have an opinion about every
single conflict all over the world, and that we would find allies and identify the enemy. so the cold war gave us this, i think, somewhat warped vision of our place in the world, as the only bastion of freedom in a dangerous world. once that was gone in 1989-1990, there was a brief moment -- you'll recall this. there was a brief order in which we talked about a new world order in which we would cease this, you know, kind of constant rivalry and nuclear arms race, and that we would beat our swords into plowshares. it would be a peace dividend. maybe americans didn't have long enough or have the creativity to stick with that plan, and so once the threat of global terrorism emerged, and it was already lurking there in the '80s, but it really becomes a problem in the 1990s. the first attack on the world trade center in 1993, but also the rise of rogue states in the
middle east that may be dangerous in some way, they started to serve the same function of being a monster that we had to corral and contain. some would say that was the appropriate thing to do, because they presented a threat to us. but others would say that was the old, you know, replacing one global enemy for another, because that was the way americans were used to seeing themselves in the world. my own view is since 9/11, we have really fallen into a very regrettable posture around the world, which is we expanded american -- the security apparatus on such an enormous scale fighting in afghanistan and iraq, i would just ask the audience to ask themselves, are we safer and more secure around the world after almost 20 years of conflict in afghanistan and, of course, a little less in iraq, but nonetheless, and in addition to which we have been waging a war on terror around
the world nonstop? has it worked? are we as secure as we could be? yes, it's true, we have not had a 9/11 event, and thank god for that. maybe the answer is, absolutely, we are more secure. i know many people who believed that and who participated in that policy. but the costs are real. i mean, we know the costs are real. we don't have the kind of civil liberties that we would like. we have a surveillance apparatus that has, you know, been created. the government knows more about us than it has ever known and it can control much of our personal data and so forth. so, you know, the reality is that you might look back at the cold war and say, we had the balance better then than we do now in terms of the size and scale of the national security state, and that's something you would not have predicted when the cold war ended in 1989. >> for sure. this may be our last question.
we have a few minutes left. this is from the georgia historical society. where do you put jimmy carter in the cold war? what role did he play, good or bad, and how do you rate him? >> that's a tough one. i admire jimmy carter enormously, and i think his post-presidency has been a model in some ways for what public figures who are out of office can do. he's been a leading humanitarian, he's a man of integrity, man of extraordinary longevity. but it's no shame to say, it's no -- there is no harshness in the judgment, but i think he was overmatched by the events of the late '70s. and i think many presidents would have been. he was overwhelmed by a changing world. the '70s was a decade of enormous upheaval in terms of global economics, in terms of the rise of all kinds of new threats in the middle east, handling the soviet questions in
afghanistan and the leaving of detante and the return of the cold war after the soviet invasion on afghanistan. that was something he did not expect and was, in a sense -- he wanted to be the peacemaker, he wanted to be the human rights president. he wound up taking us back into the freeze of the cold war. and, of course, he was overwhelmed by the iran hostage crisis and the revolutionary government in tehran seized american hostages. i will say on a personal note, my father was in the foreign service, and in 1977 he asked to be assigned to tehran. he did not get his first choice. his second choice was tel aviv. i went to tel aviv with my dad and lived there for four years in the '70s, and it was a wonderful time. the man who got the job was a hostage the entire time. it was just one of those moments, a little flip of the dial, and my life would have been very different. but that was an outrageous, outrageous breach of
international law and decorum that to this day should enrage every american. and carter was overwhelmed by it. and we can find fault in maybe how he handled it, but it did partially destroy his presidency. >> we have run out of time. we could talk for several more hours about presidential leadership in the cold war. my thanks to our partner, the georgia historical club. the book he has right behind him which i encourage everyone to read. it's called "the age of eisenhower, t eisenhower and the world in the 1907s." thank you so much for coming on. >> thank you, and i really enjoyed your excellent questions. you're watching american history tv. every weekend on c-span3, explore our nations past. american history tv on c-span3
prepared by television companies. today we're joined by these television companies who provide american history tv to public viewers. weeknights this month we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight we look at world war ii. boston red sox historian gordon leeds leads a panel on world war ii. they give insight into the athlete's training, combat experience and reception when they return home. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 eastern and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3. next, an interview with former georgia senator sam nunn on the cold war 75 years after it began. he talked about his experience during the cuban missile crisis, the leadership