10/03/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

To Bomb Iran, or Not: What Would Ike Do?

If Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, should they be stopped before or after they may or may not have one? This is the scary, geo-political issue of the day involving the Middle East and therefore the world. For our country, it boils down to one basic question: should we engage in preventative or preemptive war by striking Iran first -- before they have nuclear weapon capability?

If you're Israel's determined Prime Minister Netanyahu, you're saying YES. You draw a red line and warn Iran, 'Cross at your own peril or KABOOM, bubbie!' Not ambiguous.

If you're President Obama you say "The U.S. will not permit Iran to posses a bomb," which is diplo-speak for 'We'll do what's in our best interests so everything's possible, Jack.'

And if you're Iran's ever-smiling President Ahmadinejad, you read off the standard denial script, "No, no bomb. Peaceful purposes only." Then you threaten Israel with, 'you will be eliminated.' Mixed messages.

What's the truth here? Who knows. Don't you assume the CIA and the Mossad think they know what's happening in Iran? These intelligence services seem to be pretty plugged in to their nuclear program. Case in point: this past June you may remember one of Iran's nuclear scientists was killed in a blast when a motorcyclist placed a magnetic bomb under his Peugeot 405. Who could have done that?

Striking Iran first means initiating a preemptive war, attacking them BEFORE they attack Israel. This is a seminal and moral dilemma that America has faced before. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full gallop. Widespread fear of nuclear annihilation was very present. School children practiced duck-and-cover exercises under their desks. For $1,990 dollars you could buy an underground concrete bomb shelter for a family of five, equipped with its own Geiger counter that tells you when -- not if -- the radioactive fallout arrives.

In June of that year the Soviets tested their very own H-bomb and the blast reverberated in a nervous Washington. The Russians were catching up with the U.S. and though President Eisenhower knew the U.S. was far ahead of the Communists nuclear capability, he still had to deal with the very real threat.

According to Evan Thomas' highly absorbing Hachette audiobook and Little, Brown hardback, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, Eisenhower seriously considered waging preemptive war against the Soviet Union. In one meeting, the president asked his national security team "If it would be morally wrong to NOT attack the Soviets before it's too late" -- before they could muster an effective force of their own.

Normally, when Eisenhower wanted to obscure or avoid itchy topics, he would put forward a public demeanor that Thomas, Princeton journalism professor and author of eight books, describes as genial but vague. Not this time. The possibility was real. The pressure was on. The clock was ticking. The former 5-star general and WWII hero ultimately said NO to preventative war and the Cold War remained cold.

Eisenhower's preferred choice for dealing with difficult foreign leaders was often through stealth and his CIA's clandestine operations. This is how he affected regime change in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. It was also his administration who planned America's ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

As for a Pearl Harbor-type first strike by the U.S., President Eisenhower would, years later, formally outlaw preventative war. But in June of 1953, he never ruled out a preventative strike IF the Soviets seemed on the verge of attack. "We must indeed determine our own course of action," said the 34th president -- which sounds a lot like the 44th.