Dark Shadows of Power: The Hidden Atrocities of 'Uncle Ike'
Updated: Oct 11
Eisenhower: The Man Behind the Heroic Facade
As we delve into the annals of history, we are often confronted with nuanced realities that defy the black and white narratives we have been taught. One such figure who embodies this complexity is Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. The Eisenhower we remember, the valiant planner of the D-Day invasion, paints a starkly different picture from the man who later orchestrated some of the most controversial and covert operations in American history.
The Duality of Power: A Tale of Two Leaders
To understand the paradox that is Eisenhower, we must first turn our gaze to two other pivotal figures of the same era: Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It's indisputable that Adolf Hitler, infamous for orchestrating the Holocaust and sparking World War II, represents one of the most horrific figures in human history. His actions have caused unspeakable suffering, and he is often pointed to as the embodiment of pure evil. However, without in any way condoning or ignoring these atrocities, it's important to recognize the complexity of human nature and history. Paradoxically, the same Hitler, universally reviled, was also responsible for one of the most notable economic recoveries in the 20th century. As Chancellor, he managed to lift Germany from the depths of a severe depression, a crisis that mirrored the Great Depression in the United States. This observation is not intended to redeem or justify Hitler's monstrous acts. Instead, it serves as a reminder that even the most abhorrent individuals can possess traits or achieve outcomes that, in isolation, might be deemed 'positive'. It's a sobering reminder of the complex and sometimes disturbing nature of humanity.
Across the Atlantic, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a celebrated and well-educated East Coast elite, struggled to achieve the same economic results with the vast resources of the United States at his disposal. As President, Roosevelt faced significant challenges in combating the Great Depression, leaving a mixed legacy that is often glossed over by his famed New Deal reforms and leadership during World War II.
This contrast serves as a stark reminder that historical reputations are often a simplification of complex realities. Leadership, whether it be hailed as successful or branded as infamous, is seldom black and white but exists in a grey area of contradictions and paradoxes.
Eisenhower's Dark Legacy
Eisenhower's valorous efforts during WWII have often cast a long, heroic shadow, obscuring some of the more disturbing aspects of his presidency. Despite his image as America's warm, avuncular figure, Eisenhower's administration was marked by a series of disturbing clandestine operations that have largely been hidden from public view.
With the appointment of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and his brother Allen Dulles as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Eisenhower pivoted American foreign policy towards a more aggressive stance against communism and exhibited a willingness to intervene in the affairs of other nations, with often disastrous consequences.
Under Eisenhower's watch, the CIA overthrew democratically-elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala, setting a precedent for future covert actions during the Cold War and tarnishing America's reputation abroad. Moreover, and perhaps most disturbingly, his administration saw the launch of Project MKUltra, a CIA program of human experimentation that echoes the heinous medical experiments of the Nazis.
These dark shadows of Eisenhower's presidency serve as a chilling reminder of the potential for power to corrupt even the most celebrated of leaders, and the capacity for state apparatuses to commit atrocities under the guise of national security.
Undermining Foreign Governments
During Eisenhower's presidency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervened and manipulated the political landscapes of several countries, often with long-lasting and devastating effects. Notable examples include:
Iran (1953): In Operation Ajax, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, reinstating the monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This intervention sowed the seeds of anti-American sentiment, leading to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Guatemala (1954): In Operation PBSuccess, the CIA led a coup against the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz. His agrarian land reforms had threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company, an American corporation. This led to the installation of a series of military dictatorships and sparked a brutal civil war that lasted for decades.
Congo (1961): The CIA was involved in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Congo, leading to years of political instability.
Cuba (1961): The CIA initiated Operation Mongoose, a covert operation against Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba. This led to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, which was intended to remove Castro from power but ultimately strengthened his position.
Indonesia (1965): The CIA supported an anti-communist purge in Indonesia that led to the overthrow of President Sukarno and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists.
Setting Up the Bay of Pigs
The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 was a failed landing operation on the southwestern coast of Cuba by Cuban exiles opposed to Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution. Covertly financed and directed by the U.S. government, the operation took place at the height of the Cold War and its failure led to a major shift in international relations between Cuba, the U.S., and the Soviet Union.
Although the invasion occurred during the Kennedy administration, it was primarily planned and set up during Eisenhower's presidency. The failure of the invasion was a significant embarrassment for the United States and led to a deterioration of the relationship between President Kennedy and the CIA. This incident, along with Kennedy's perceived lack of support for the CIA's anti-Castro operations, has led some to speculate about a CIA conspiracy in Kennedy's assassination. However, it is important to note that these allegations remain speculative and have not been definitively proven.
During Eisenhower's presidency, the U.S. role in Vietnam primarily involved providing military and economic aid to South Vietnam, which was facing a growing insurgency from the communist-led Viet Cong and pressure from North Vietnam. The administration's policy was guided by the Domino Theory, the belief that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow.
In 1954, following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords temporarily divided Vietnam into a communist North and an anti-communist South. Eisenhower supported the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which provided a veneer of international legitimacy to South Vietnam's government and effectively circumvented the Geneva Accords' provision for nationwide elections that could have led to the reunification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule.
Eisenhower's administration helped establish and support the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Despite Diem's autocratic rule and the regime's failure to gain broad popular support, the U.S. continued to prop up his government. This set the stage for the quagmire that would become the Vietnam War, which escalated significantly under subsequent U.S. presidents.
Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader, was one of several Cold War era leaders who initially admired the U.S. and its democratic principles. When declaring Vietnam's independence from France in 1945, Ho famously echoed the U.S. Declaration of Independence, asserting that "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." However, his optimistic view of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom was shattered by the reality of Cold War geopolitics. Despite Ho's hope that the United States would support Vietnam's quest for independence, the U.S. chose to side with France, Vietnam's colonial oppressor, in an effort to contain the spread of communism. This narrative of disillusionment was not unique to Vietnam. Leaders like Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran and President Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala, both of whom sought to establish democratic systems in their countries, were similarly undermined by U.S. foreign policy. Their progressive policies were perceived as threats, leading to CIA-sponsored coups that deposed them from power. Through these actions, the U.S. tragically alienated leaders who once admired its democratic ideals, and in doing so, often installed or supported autocratic regimes that would go on to commit serious human rights abuses (Logevall, 2012; Kinzer, 2006; Kinzer, 2003; Schlesinger & Kinzer, 2005; Bradley, 2000).
Other Countries Undermined by the CIA
In addition to the aforementioned countries, other nations had their political landscapes manipulated by the CIA during the Eisenhower era:
Laos (1957-1975): The CIA conducted a secret war in Laos to counter communist forces. The operation included recruiting and supporting Hmong guerilla fighters, conducting aerial bombardments, and carrying out covert operations.
Syria (1957): Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Eisenhower administration planned a coup in Syria due to fears of the country's growing alliance with the Soviet Union.
British Guiana (1953-1964): The CIA conducted a series of covert operations to prevent the socialist-leaning People's Progressive Party (PPP) from coming to power in British Guiana (now Guyana), culminating in the 1964 elections that brought a pro-Western government into power.
Unmasking the Paradox
Recognizing the darker aspects of Eisenhower's presidency does not diminish his contributions during World War II, but it does throw into stark relief the complications of his legacy. It is an uncomfortable truth that the qualities that can lead to remarkable achievements can also, under different circumstances, lead to profound harm.
As we grapple with our history, we are reminded that valor in one chapter of a leader's life does not absolve them of later actions that cause harm, violate human rights, or undermine democratic principles. Eisenhower, much like Hitler and Roosevelt, serves as a reminder of the deep complexities and contradictions inherent in leadership and power.
It is incumbent upon us, as students of history, to continue to examine and understand our past, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. For it is only through a comprehensive understanding of our history that we can hope to learn from it and strive to create a better future.
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