President Eisenhower believed developing new technology to deliver nuclear weapons would help prevent war. He also directed the CIA to use covert operations in the struggle to contain communism.

Massive Retaliation

How were the policies of massive retaliation and brinkmanship different from previous military policies?

By the end of 1952, many Americans were ready for a change in leadership. The Cold War had much to do with that attitude. Many people believed that Truman’s foreign policy was not working. The Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe. China had fallen to communism, and American troops were fighting in Korea.

Tired of the criticism and uncertain he could win, Truman decided not to run again. The Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois. The Republicans chose Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who had organized the D-Day invasion. Stevenson had little chance against a national hero who had helped win World War II. Americans wanted someone they could trust to lead the nation in the Cold War. Eisenhower won in a landslide.

“More Bang for the Buck”

The Cold War shaped Eisenhower’s thinking from the moment he took office. He was convinced that the key to victory was not simply military might but also a strong economy. The United States had to show the world that the free enterprise system could produce a better society than communism. At the same time, economic prosperity would prevent Communists from gaining support in the United States and protect society from subversion.

As a professional soldier, Eisenhower knew the costs associated with large-scale conventional war. Preparing for that kind of warfare, he believed, was too expensive. “We cannot defend the nation in a way which will exhaust our economy,” the president declared. Instead of maintaining a large and expensive army, the nation “must be prepared to use atomic weapons in all forms.” Nuclear weapons, he said, gave “more bang for the buck.”

The Korean War had convinced Eisenhower that the United States could not contain communism by fighting a series of small wars. Such wars were unpopular and too expensive. Instead, wars had to be prevented in the first place. The best way to do that seemed to be to threaten to use nuclear weapons. This policy came to be called massive retaliation.

Eisenhower’s emphasis on nuclear weapons required new technology to deliver them. The president wanted to make sure that the United States could wage nuclear war even if the Soviets destroyed American bases in Europe or Asia. This required technology that would allow the U.S. to strike the USSR without needing bases overseas. At the same time, American forces had to be very difficult to destroy in one attack. If massive retaliation was to be an effective strategy, American nuclear weapons had to be deployed in a way that an enemy could not eliminate them all at once in a surprise attack. For this reason, the United States began to build what would later be referred to as the nuclear triad, a three part system made up of long-range bombers, land-based missiles, and missile-carrying submarines.

In 1955 the U.S. Air Force unveiled the first part of the triad, the huge B-52 bomber which could fly across continents to drop nuclear bombs. The B-52 is still in use today. But because bombers could be shot down, Eisenhower also approved the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach anywhere in the world in less than 30 minutes. The Atlas missile was the first American ICBM. It was also used to launch the first seven U.S. astronauts in the early 1960s. A modified version of the Atlas is still used today to launch satellites.

For the third part of the triad, Eisenhower also began a program to build submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles from underwater. The Polaris submarine was the first submarine ever built to launch long-range missiles. The first Polaris submarine was deployed in 1960 and carried 16 nuclear missiles.

The new policy enabled Eisenhower to cut military spending from around $50 billion to about $34 billion by reducing the size of the army, which was expensive to maintain. He then increased the U.S. nuclear arsenal from about 1,000 bombs in 1953 to about 18,000 bombs in 1961. One result of the decision to focus on massive retaliation was the emergence of a new arms race. The United States and the Soviet Union began to compete in the development of missiles and bombers, and steadily expanded the size and power of their nuclear arsenal.


President Eisenhower’s willingness to threaten nuclear war to maintain peace worried some people. Critics called this brinkmanship—the willingness to go to the brink of war to force the other side to back down— and argued that it was too dangerous. During several crises, however, President Eisenhower felt compelled to threaten nuclear war.

The Taiwan Crisis Shortly after the Korean War ended, a new crisis erupted in Asia. Although Communists had taken power in mainland China, Chinese Nationalists still controlled Taiwan and several small islands along China’s coast. In the fall of 1954, China threatened to seize two of the islands. Eisenhower saw Taiwan as part of the “anti-Communist barrier” in Asia that needed to be protected at all costs.

When China began shelling the islands and announced that Taiwan would be liberated, Eisenhower asked Congress to authorize the use of force to defend Taiwan. He then warned that an attack on Taiwan would be resisted by U.S. naval forces and hinted that they would use nuclear weapons to stop an invasion. Soon afterward, China backed down.

The Suez Crisis The following year, a serious crisis erupted in the Middle East. Eisenhower wanted to prevent Arab nations from aligning with the Soviet Union. To build support among Arabs, Secretary of State Dulles offered to help Egypt finance the construction of a dam on the Nile River.

The deal ran into trouble in Congress, however, because Egypt had bought weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia. Dulles was forced to withdraw the offer. A week later, Egyptian troops seized control of the Suez Canal from the Anglo-French company that had controlled it. The Egyptians intended to use the canal’s profits to pay for the dam.

In October 1956, British and French troops invaded Egypt. Eisenhower was furious with Britain and France. The situation became even more dangerous when the Soviet Union threatened rocket attacks on Britain and France and offered to send troops to help Egypt. Eisenhower immediately put U.S. nuclear forces on alert, noting, “if those fellows start something, we may have to hit ’em—and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket.”

Pressured by the United States, the British and French called off the invasion. The Soviet Union had won a major diplomatic victory by supporting Egypt. Soon other Arab nations began accepting Soviet aid.

Covert Operations

 Why did President Eisenhower want to use covert operations to combat the spread of communism?

President Eisenhower relied on brinkmanship on several occasions, but he knew it could not work in all situations. It could prevent war, but it could not prevent Communists from staging revolutions within countries. To do this, Eisenhower decided to use covert, or hidden, operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Many of the CIA’s operations took place in developing nations—nations with primarily agricultural economies. Many of these countries blamed European imperialism and American capitalism for their problems. Their leaders looked to the Soviet Union as a model of how to industrialize their countries. They often threatened to nationalize, or put under government control, foreign businesses operating in their countries.

One way to stop developing nations from moving into the Communist camp was to provide them with financial aid, as Eisenhower had tried to do in Egypt. In some cases, however, in which the threat of communism seemed stronger, the CIA ran covert operations to overthrow anti-American leaders and replace them with pro-American leaders.

Iran and Guatemala

Two examples of covert operations that achieved American objectives took place in Iran and Guatemala. By 1953 Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He seemed ready to make an oil deal with the Soviet Union. The pro-American shah of Iran tried to force Mossadegh out of office but failed and fled into exile. The CIA quickly sent agents to organize street riots and arrange a coup that ousted Mossadegh and returned the shah to power.

The following year, the CIA intervened in Guatemala. In 1950, with Communist support, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected president of Guatemala. After Arbenz Guzmán assumed office in 1951, his land-reform program took over large estates and plantations, including those of the American-owned United Fruit Company. In May 1954, Communist Czechoslovakia delivered arms to Guatemala. The CIA responded by arming the Guatemalan opposition and training them at secret camps in Nicaragua and Honduras. Shortly after these CIA-trained forces invaded Guatemala, Arbenz Guzmán left office.

Trouble in Eastern Europe

Covert operations did not always work as Eisenhower hoped. Stalin died in 1953, and a power struggle began in the Soviet Union. By 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had emerged as the Soviet leader. That year Khrushchev delivered a secret speech to Soviet officials. He attacked Stalin’s policies and insisted that there were many ways to build a communist society. Although the speech was secret, the CIA obtained a copy of it and distributed copies of it throughout Eastern Europe and the world.

Many Eastern Europeans had long been frustrated with Communist rule. Hearing Khrushchev’s speech further discredited communism. In June 1956, riots erupted in Eastern Europe. By late October, a full-scale uprising had begun in Hungary. Although Khrushchev was willing to tolerate greater freedom in Eastern Europe, he had never meant to imply that the Soviets would tolerate an end to communism in the region. Soon after the uprising began, Soviet tanks rolled into the capital of Hungary and crushed the rebellion.

The Eisenhower Doctrine

The United States was not the only nation using covert means to support its foreign policy. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had emerged from the Suez crisis as a hero to the Arab people, and by 1957 he had begun working with Jordan and Syria to spread pan-Arabism—the idea that all Arab people should be united into one nation.

Eisenhower and Dulles worried about Nasser’s links to the Soviets and feared he was laying the groundwork to take control of the Middle East. In late 1957, Eisenhower asked Congress to authorize the use of military force whenever the president thought it necessary to assist Middle East nations resisting Communist aggression. The policy came to be called the Eisenhower Doctrine. It essentially extended the Truman Doctrine and the policy of containment to the Middle East.

In July 1958, Eisenhower’s concerns appeared to be confirmed when left-wing rebels, believed to be backed by Nasser and the Soviets, seized power in Iraq. Fearing his government was next, the president of Lebanon sought help. Eisenhower ordered 5,000 marines to Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Once the situation stabilized, the U.S. forces withdrew.

Sputnik Launches the Space Race

As the United States began to develop ICBMs in the late 1950s, Americans were stunned to discover that the Soviet Union already had them. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets demonstrated this technology by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Less than four months later, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer 1. Determined not to be beaten by the Soviets, Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in late 1958 to begin developing a civilian space program for the United States. 

Sputnik marked a turning point in history and the beginning of a new era—the use of satellites in space. Both nations in the Cold War began launching satellites to assist in communications and to spy on other nations. Today, satellites are a vital part of modern communications and travel. They transmit television, radio, and cell phone signals, and the satellites of the Global Positioning System (GPS) help drivers and pilots navigate.

A Spy Plane Is Shot Down

After the Hungarian uprising, Khrushchev reasserted Soviet power and the superiority of communism. Although he had supported “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism, he began accusing the “capitalist countries” of starting a “feverish arms race.” In 1957, after the launch of Sputnik, Khrushchev boasted, “We will bury capitalism. . . . Your grandchildren will live under communism.”

Late the following year, Khrushchev demanded the withdrawal of Allied troops from West Berlin. Secretary of State Dulles rejected Khrushchev’s demands. If the Soviets threatened Berlin, Dulles announced, NATO would respond, “if need be by military force.” Brinkmanship worked again, and Khrushchev backed down. Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to visit the United States in late 1959. The visit’s success led the two leaders to agree to hold a summit in Paris.

Shortly before the summit was to begin in 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane. At first Eisenhower claimed that the aircraft was a weather plane that had strayed off course. Then Khrushchev dramatically produced the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower refused to apologize, saying the flights had protected American security. In response, Khrushchev broke up the summit.

In this climate of heightened tension, Eisenhower prepared to leave office. In January 1961, he delivered a farewell address to the nation in which he pointed out that a new relationship had developed between the military establishment and the defense industry. He warned Americans to be on guard against the influence of this military-industrial complex in a democracy.

Although he had avoided war and contained communism, Eisenhower was frustrated. He had sent military advisers to South Vietnam to train a South Vietnamese army and also saw Fidel Castro establish a communist regime in Cuba. Eisenhower stated, “I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war . . . I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

Write new vocabulary words from this lesson on cards. Include the words imply, response, retaliation, brinksmanship, and covert as well as others that are new to you. Review your cards often until you can read the words quickly on sight.
Secretary of State Dulles on Brinkmanship
“You have to take chances for peace, just as you must take chances in war. Some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. . . . If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. We’ve had to look it square in the face. . . . We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face. We took strong action.”

—John Foster Dulles, quoted in Rise to Globalism

Reviewing Vocabulary



Using Your Notes



Answering the Guiding Questions




Writing Activity

TEKS: 8D, 27B