Dwight D. Eisenhower sought the presidency because he disliked the assaults on what he perceived, in his words, as "the President's constitutional rights, in peacetime, to deploy and dispose American forces according to his best judgment and without the specific approval of Congress." He regarded those rights as "unassailable" and wanted to thwart politicians in his own party, the Republicans, eager to diminish executive authority. He also had a Whig like conception of the office based on his conviction that Franklin Roosevelt and Truman had upset the proper balance between the branches of government at the expense of Congress. So, despite his determination to protect executive authority, contemporaries viewed him as opposed to aggrandizing the presidency.
In practice, Eisenhower, like Jefferson, did not allow abstract considerations to stand in the way of actions he perceived appropriate. To end the Korean War, for example, he informed the North Koreans through several channels that he would employ atomic weapons against them if they refused an armistice. He acted with similar determination when conservatives in his own party, led by Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio, tried, with a proposed constitutional amendment, to eliminate the president's power to make executive agreements. Eisenhower contended the measure would cripple executive authority in world affairs. "The President," he insisted, "must not be deprived of his historic position as spokesman for the nation in its relations with other countries." His opposition proved critical in the amendment's narrow defeat.
When the French, involved in an anticolonial war in Southeast Asia, begged the president to intervene to save troops beleaguered in a fortress in northern Vietnam, despite his deep anticommunist convictions, Eisenhower refused. "Part of my fundamental concept of the Presidency," he explained, "is that we have a constitutional government and only when there is a sudden, unforeseen emergency should the President put us into war without congressional sanction." Despite this perspective and contrary to what many assumed, Eisenhower was not a dove. He was willing to use armed force in Vietnam but only on his own terms.
At the same time, Eisenhower expanded use of the CIA as a weapon in covert Cold War armed ventures. With secret anticommunist operations he put aside the constitutional restraints on the presidency he professed to value. He ordered the CIA to topple Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's nationalist prime minister, which with local help it did. Eisenhower also employed covert violence to overthrow the legally elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, a populist he viewed as a communist. These episodes reveal that despite what contemporary pundits perceived as passive qualities in Eisenhower's leadership, when determined to attain his own foreign policy objectives, he would use a heavy hand.
Eisenhower exercised his power as commander in chief more openly when the People's Republic of China threatened to attack Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government on Taiwan (Formosa). When the mainland communists bombed Quemoy and Matsu, two offshore islands held by the Nationalists, his military advisers urged retaliatory strikes. Ike said no, indicating that against a major foe he would not use the war power lightly. Although Eisenhower assumed that in this situation as commander in chief he had authority to act on his own, he asked Congress for consent to deal with any emergency that might subsequently arise in the Taiwan Strait. He wanted to avoid the divisive debate that had followed Truman's intervention in Korea. Congress responded with a joint resolution authorizing him to use the armed forces "as he deemed necessary" to protect Taiwan and other islands in friendly hands. In voting this blank check, Congress diminished its own war power, enhanced that of the president, and opened a door for later presidents to seek similar authority.
Meanwhile, with a secret CIA operation the president had launched a program to foment rebellion in Eastern European countries that would liberate them from Soviet domination. Then, in October 1956, as he campaigned for reelection, students in Budapest, Hungary, revolted. When Soviet troops crushed the uprising, Eisenhower admitted he could do nothing tangible to aid them without risking a major war, thus recognizing the limitations on executive power. His decision also reflected what he had stated many times, that he would "never be guilty of any kind of action that can be interpreted as war until Congress, which has the constitutional authority, says so."
The foreign relations power also became an issue in a concurrent crisis. It began when Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal from its European owners. On 29 October 1956, Israeli troops, followed by British and French forces, invaded Egypt without informing their American ally. An angry Eisenhower condemned the attack, but when the Soviets threatened intervention, he ordered a partial mobilization of the armed forces. In addition, with economic and diplomatic pressure, he compelled the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw from Egypt. In this situation, he exercised his foreign policy power unilaterally, swiftly, and decisively.
Next, fearing that the Russians might still resort to force in the Middle East, Eisenhower moved to deter them. As during the Taiwan Strait crisis, he asked Congress to authorize him to employ the armed forces to defend the "independence and integrity" of Middle Eastern countries menaced by "communist armed aggression." After two months of debate, the legislators voted him another blank check, this one termed the Eisenhower Doctrine, that endorsed his role as a global, anti-Marxist policeman. A year later, the president applied the doctrine indirectly to a civil war in Lebanon. In his only overt intervention, in July 1958, on his authority as commander in chief, he ordered troops to invade Lebanon. Insisting he had not committed an act of war, Eisenhower argued he had acted within his constitutional authority and in keeping with executive precedents. Critics, though, maintained he had initiated a presidential war. At the same time, he used the CIA in a secret intervention in Indonesia designed to crumble the regime of Achmad Sukarno, considered too cozy with communists. Popular sentiment could speak less clearly on Eisenhower's overt and covert policy toward a left-wing revolutionary government in Cuba headed by Fidel Castro. At his discretion, the CIA clandestinely launched commando strikes against Castro, hatched schemes to assassinate him, and planned, with Cuban exiles in Florida, an invasion of the island. Before Eisenhower could unleash this operation, his presidency ended.
Analysts differ in their assessments of Eisenhower as president and his use of power in foreign affairs. Some say he delegated too much of his authority while others portray him as a strong executive who exercised his power with a hidden hand. He claimed to have had the final word in every major foreign policy issue and hence had served as an activist president. He also believed that he had curbed executive aggrandizement. Yet, through his aggressive anticommunist ventures, his covert operations, and the global reach of American power, under him the power of the president in foreign affairs as commander in chief continued to rise.
During the presidential election campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy announced he would "be the Chief Executive in every sense of the word" and that the president should "exercise the fullest powers of his office—all that are specified and some that are not." He also carried into office a preference for dealing with foreign over domestic affairs. For instance, he devoted most of his inaugural address to the Cold War. "Domestic policy," he later repeated, "can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us."
Into his official family Kennedy brought intellectual young zealots "full of belligerence," as one of them later remarked, who admired the concept of the tough, activist executive. With them he quickly immersed himself in the details of foreign policy, deciding at the outset to continue Eisenhower's covert plan to crush Cuba's Castro. Most of Kennedy's intimate advisers backed the venture. Among the few who knew of it, Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, objected. He pointed out that "the Castro regime is a thorn in the flesh, but it is not a dagger in the heart." Dismissing this advice, Kennedy continued the practice of using the CIA to harass Cubans and prepare for an invasion, which, without the consent of Congress, he launched on 17 April 1961, on Cuba's south shore at the Bay of Pigs. It turned into a fiasco, for which the president publicly accepted blame. Despite the bloody blunder, polls showed that his popularity shot up. In a private discussion of the disaster, he asked, "It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn't it?…Who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like this?" As confidants noted, Castro then became a personal affront, an obsession that Kennedy transmuted into a threat to American security. He persevered, therefore, in covert efforts to overthrow the dictator.
At the same time, Kennedy had to deal with the Berlin question. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev renewed demands that Allied occupiers depart the city and set a deadline with an implied threat of war if not met. With a determination to show toughness, Kennedy prepared for possible hostilities. He expanded the armed forces, ordered reservists to active duty, and asked Congress for an additional $3 billion in military spending, which it granted. When this crisis passed, he again focused on Castro.
State Department officials and others reported the presence of Soviet troops and missiles in Cuba. Kennedy warned that if the communist buildup menaced American security, he would take forceful action. He said that "as President and Commander in Chief" he had full authority to act on his own. But he did request Congress to endorse the use of arms. It agreed overwhelmingly with a joint resolution. On 14 October 1962, when a U-2 surveillance plane reported Soviet launching pads in Cuba with medium-range missiles targeted on American cities, the crisis deepened. Initially, as his closest advisers urged, the president wanted to respond with air strikes on Cuba and even possibly on the Soviet Union. After six days of discussion, he chose to ring Cuba with a naval blockade he called a quarantine. If the Soviets challenged it, the world would face its first nuclear war. Except for a few friendly members whom the president had informed of his decisions, Congress had no role in this war scare. Fortunately, Khrushchev backed down and the crisis passed. With toughness, the president appeared to have won a great diplomatic victory.
Kennedy's admirers praised his behavior as brilliant, as an example of "genuine statesmanship" that in thirteen critical days "dazzled the world," and as the greatest achievement of his presidency. They cited his conduct as validation for supreme presidential control over foreign policy and war-making in the nuclear age. Skeptics, and even several close advisers, thought differently. They perceived his rattling of nuclear arms as irresponsible and reckless. One critic commented that he risked "blowing the world to hell in order to sweep a few Democrats into office" in forthcoming congressional elections. Others questioned the wisdom of placing so much power in the hands of one man. As for the public, that power did not bother it much. Polls showed that after the crisis, Kennedy's approval rating climbed from 61 to 84 percent. Later, when Soviet sources revealed the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba, Kennedy's conduct proved more prudent than either the public or detractors had realized.
Elsewhere, Kennedy continued his armed interventionism, as in the Dominican Republic to get rid of an aging dictator and to aid Joaquín Belaguer, a leader he thought would edge the republic toward democracy. When elections brought to power a left-wing intellectual, Kennedy refused to help him because he saw him as tainted with communism. As in other instances, the personal perception of a president, as much as policy considerations, governed use of the foreign policy power.
This happened also in Southeast Asia, where Kennedy accepted Eisenhower's domino theory that if communism prevailed in one country, as in Laos or Vietnam, it would spread over the entire region. Kennedy believed that if he tolerated communism there, he could not win reelection. So, he poured economic and military assistance into the anticommunist Republic of Vietnam. In addition, he sent in military advisers, who ferried troops into battle against local communists called Vietcong and against northern communists. Ultimately, he committed more than 16,000 troops to the anticommunist side in the civil wars in Laos and Vietnam.
Kennedy left a mixed legacy. Strong-presidency believers praise him as a vigorous, charismatic leader who understood the true art of statecraft. Other appraisers charge him with crisis mongering, escalating the arms race, and being enamored with military power. His unilateral use of power abroad, his conviction that he must make his mark primarily in foreign affairs, and his belief in an exceptional authority in those affairs, reflected the prevailing public approval of an expansive presidential power.