Paul Greenberg

A highly successful (and at the time much under-rated) American president named Eisenhower knew all about strategic ambiguity. He relied on it back in 1955 to defuse a crisis between the two Chinas, a crisis that threatened to drag the United States into war. Back then the flash point was a couple of offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu, that were being bombarded from the mainland, and returning fire.

Presidential press conferences those days were full of questions about the mounting crisis: How far was Washington prepared to go to back its ally? Would the United States enter the fray? Why fight for those two little islands? Hadn't the president just said he was prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of war in Asia? (A similar message from Ike years before might have had something to do with Red China's finally agreeing to an armistice in Korea.)

The experts at the State Department urged the president not to say anything about the mounting crisis lest he inflame it, a request his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, dutifully relayed just before a press conference was due to begin. "Don't worry, Jim," Ike assured his aide, "if that question comes up, I'll just confuse 'em."

It did, and he did. The old general addressed the issue at such length and with so much circumlocution that by the end of his statement no one was sure just what he'd said. ("The only thing I know about war are two things: the most unpredictable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature. And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, in the way it was carried out. So that for a man to predict Š what he is going to use and how he is going to use it would, I think, exhibit his ignorance of war; that is what I believe. So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a president.") In short, his response was a masterpiece of strategic ambiguity.

The usual Washington sophisticates called his unclear answer to a very clear question incoherent, which it may have been. The pundits didn't realize that incoherence was just what the situation called for. Only a rare observer like the sage Murray Kempton of the New York Post realized that Dwight David Eisenhower was inarticulate like a fox.

Great thing, ambiguity. As the voters of Taiwan have just had the uncommon common sense to recognize. Thank you, people of Taiwan, or is it Republic of China? Never mind. There's no need to be specific.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.