Late in his first term as President, Dwight D. Eisenhower had a heart attack. It was September 24, 1955 and it happened in Denver. The following quotes come from Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas, an excellent history of Ike’s Presidency focusing on his foreign policy.
President Eisenhower did not like to have his golf game interrupted. On September 23, he played a morning round at the Cherry Hills County Club outside Denver. Ann Whitman [his private secretary] recorded in her diary that she had never seen him “look or act better,” possibly because he had just spent four days fishing in the mountains or because his popularity polls stood at an astronomical 80 percent in the afterglow of the “Spirit of Geneva.”
Ike was a frequent golfer. The Presidency is such a stressful job maybe we should stop getting mad at Presidents who play “too much” golf. Ike often played the Cherry Hills course when he was in Denver.
By lunch he was in a foul mood. Three times he had been summoned from the course to take a call from Secretary of States Dulles — only there was a mix-up, and Dulles (who often spoke as often as eight times a day by phone with the president) had not been on the line. The president’s game collapsed after the 14th hole. At lunch, Ike wolfed down a hamburger slathered with Bermuda onions and headed back for nine more holes. Again he was interrupted to take a call from the secretary of state. “These onions are backing up on me,” he told his golf partner, the club pro. At dinner, he felt some indigestion and skipped his usual cocktail. Ike was staying in Denver at the home of his in-laws, the comfortable eight-room house on a tree-shaded street where Mamie Doud had grown up.
The Doud house is located in the middle of the 700 block of Lafayette Street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver. It is of special interest to me because I grew up next door. We bought our house in 1966 and lived there for over 40 years. The Colorado State Historical society has a photo of Ike sitting in a convertible in our neighbor’s driveway with our house in the background.
Ike & Mamie visited her parents often and when they did, Ike would sit on the front porch with his Secret Service detail and chat with neighborhood kids. One of those kids, John Archibold, lived in a beautiful house on the corner of 7th & Lafayette. John gave an interview to the Eisenhower Presidential Center about chatting with Ike and talked about how Ike once gave him a free ride to the East Coast on the Presidential plane. John was heading back to college but this use of taxpayer dollars became a minor nationwide scandal. After college, John came back to Denver, bought the house from his mother, and his son Steve was a childhood buddy of mine.
Back to Ike and his indigestion next door. Ike loved reading western novels, unless a woman appeared and there was romance, at which point he moved on to the next western.
He retired early to read a western. At about 2 a.m., Mamie, sleeping in the next room, got up to go to the bathroom, and she heard her husband stirring in bed. Looking in, she thought he seemed troubled and asked if he was having a nightmare. “No dear, but thank you,” he said. He complained of pain in his upper abdomen. Accustomed to Ike’s stomach troubles, she gave him some milk of magnesia and called the president’s doctor, Howard Snyder.
At age seventy-four, Snyder was old to be the president’s person physician, and Ike’s millionaire friends fretted that he might not know the latest diagnoses and treatments. But the handsome, six feet three Snyder, whom Ann Whitman affectionately called “Old Duck,” knew his patient, including his anxious stomach and mild hypochondria, and was attentively if sternly sympathetic. Arriving at the house shortly after 2:00 a.m., Snyder checked his patient’s vital signs and decided, he later said, that the president was having a heart attack.
According to some notes that Snyder later made, the doctor engaged in a lonely bedside drama. He immediately injected Ike with morphine for the pain and drugs to stop his blood from clotting. He tried to put an oxygen mask on him, but the patient resisted. Ike began to sweat profusely. By four o’clock, his blood pressure was dropping and he seemed to be going into shock. Snyder tried to warm him with rubbing alcohol and then told Mamie to climb into bed and wrap herself around her husband to keep him from shaking. Ike finally fell asleep at about five.
At eight, Snyder told the deputy press secretary to put out the word to reporters that the president was suffering from “digestive upset.” He would later claim that he wanted to let the president rest, that he didn’t want to unduly alarm Mamie (with whom he had not shared his apprehensions of a heart attack), or the staff, and that he wanted to wait to confirm his diagnosis.
All this was almost surely a lie. As historian Clarence Lasby has convincingly shown from the documentary evidence (which Snyder did his best to cover up), Snyder misdiagnosed Eisenhower in the early morning hours. “Indigestion” was not a cover story; it’s what Snyder mistakenly believed was causing Ike’s suffering. He did not administer the anti-coagulants or try to fit the president with an oxygen mask. He probably did help him to the bathroom. Snyder did not realize the president had suffered a coronary thrombosis until Ike was given an EKG after he woke up at 1:00 p.m. Then the president was finally driven to the hospital.
When the news got out, the stock market crashed, heart specialists were flown in and Ike spent seven weeks recuperating at Denver’s Fitzsimmons Army Hospital. He had 66 visitors during this time period including Vice President Richard Nixon and while there was an attempt to keep up appearances, visits were limited to 15 minutes and Ike was not allowed to read the newspaper. He recovered and went on to win re-election and serve a second term.
In Ike’s Bluff, Evan Thomas argues that Ike’s determined leadership saved us from several potential nuclear confrontations. Ike thought nuclear weapons meant the end of war because any war could lead to total war and total war meant mutual annihilation. He began to think the enemy was war itself, not the Russians or the Chinese. His “bluff” was that he never told anyone — not a single person ever – whether or not he would use nuclear weapons. So other international actors always had to fear any escalation could lead to nuclear war, which nobody wanted. Even Khrushchev thought nuclear war was insanity. Because of Ike’s military background, international actors also knew (or suspected) he was capable of retaliation if provoked.
What if Ike had died in Denver that night due to Dr. Snyder’s improper diagnosis? Richard Nixon would have been at the helm starting in 1955 instead of 1969. Evan Thomas talks about how Vice President Nixon favored military intervention in Vietnam in 1954 to help the French as Dien Bien Phu was falling. Ike said no. How would a President Nixon would have handled the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 or the Formosa Strait Crisis of 1958? How would that earlier President Nixon have handled the Soviet Union?