Evan Thomas, best-selling author and host of Eisenhower's Secret War, believes that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s card-playing skills are much more than a footnote to the history of the 1950s. This belief is the focus of his latest book, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World (Little, Brown & Co.).
Eisenhower's Secret War is a two-part series of 60-minute documentaries now appearing on public television stations nationwide; check local listings. The series reveals how Ike "waged peace" during the dangerous early Cold War years to keep the world from the horrors of nuclear war. Evans believes that Ike's bluffing skills helped keep the Cold War from going 'hot' during the perilous years of his presidency when missile systems were being developed that could deliver nuclear payloads to targets thousands of miles away.
In his book Thomas reveals how President Eisenhower often called on card playing skills he had honed in his early Army days to bluff his way through a number of major crises during the Cold War in a real-life version of Russian roulette.
“As a West Point cadet and young army officer, Ike developed into a great poker player. In fact, he was so good at poker as a young man, he had to give it up. He took so much money from his fellow officers that it was bad for his career. But Ike never forgot how to bluff, and he used this skill brilliantly throughout his presidency,” Thomas said, noting that Ike became a great Bridge player later in life.
Near the end of the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower gave a clue to his “hidden hand” national security policy that was to come, according to Thomas, by playing one of his first bluffs to gain a clear political advantage over his Democratic opponent.
“When Ike said ‘I shall go to Korea,’ no one, including Ike, was quite sure what he was going to do when he got there. But Eisenhower was already thinking of an overall strategy…a way to get out of Korea, and also a way to contain the Cold War and the Soviet Union,” Thomas said.
Produced by Michigan-based Starbright Media Corporation (SMC), Eisenhower's Secret War is scheduled to be distributed nationally in the spring by American Public Television (APT). Both shows were written and produced by Dr. George A. Colburn, a historian who developed, then produced and wrote, seven documentaries in the 1990s about Eisenhower's military and political careers.
In Program One of the series, “The Lure of the Presidency,” Colburn tracks Ike’s return to public life in late 1950 as the first Supreme Commander of NATO and, a year later, as a Republican presidential candidate advocating an “internationalist” foreign policy rather than a “neo-isolationist” one advocated by many Republican leaders. Program Two – “Building Weapons, Talking Peace” – focuses on Eisenhower’s national security policies and his management of military technology during the world-wide Cold War struggle versus aggressive communism.
In dealing with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Thomas said President Eisenhower used both his poker-bluffing talent and bridge-playing skills in delicate personal discussions with Mr. Khrushchev, especially when they met in person in Geneva in 1955 and in Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg in 1959. “During their interactions, Ike would signal Khrushchev much in the manner a bridge player signals his partner,” Thomas said. This unspoken communication helped build a rapport between the two most powerful men in the world, and set in motion steps that led to a major thaw in The Cold War in late 1959, he added.
In his 2010 book The War Lovers (also published by Little, Brown), Thomas wrote about how President Theodore Roosevelt was attracted to war, despite possessing no significant military record. “I was fascinated how General Eisenhower, this professional soldier and hero of World War II, was so totally committed to waging peace and not waging war,” Thomas said.
Thomas and Colburn first met at a 2011 conference on the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. The two talked later about their views of Eisenhower’s handling of national security affairs in the era of “mutually assured destruction” and quickly realized that they were of like minds on the subject. One thing led to another and soon Thomas signed on to host the series.
Thomas becomes the third host for Starbright Media Corporation’s ongoing series entitled “ The Eisenhower Legacy.” The late John Chancellor, the distinguished NBC newsman, hosted the first three prime-time specials for Discovery in the early 1990s. Retired Army General Colin L. Powell was host of a four-part series for Disney that first aired in 1996. He also hosted a 20-part classroom series on “The Eisenhower Era, 1941 – 1961” that was released a year later.
A former editor at both Time and Newsweek, Thomas teaches journalism at Princeton University, and is a regular panelist on the national public television program Inside Washington. One of America’s most respected journalists, Thomas has won a number of major awards in the field, including a National Magazine Award in 1998 and another in 2005, both for Newsweek.
Thomas is also author of several other notable books of history including Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign (2006); Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000); The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA (1995), and The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (co-author with Walter Isaacson, 1986).
A native of Huntington, New York, Thomas is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia Law School. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, an attorney. The couple has two daughters.