Harry Truman won re-election in a shocking upset, but as relations with the USSR deteriorated, Republicans were the least of his worries. How would his handling of the Cold War influence voters in the next election?
The Last Four Years
President Truman used the momentum of his win to advance his ambitious “Fair Deal” domestic agenda. He hoped to set more economic controls, expand Social Security, reform housing, pass new civil rights legislation, and even create a national health insurance. Unfortunately, Truman misjudged the significance of his re-election. Americans wanted to protect the New Deal, but they didn’t necessarily want to expand it. Conservatives of both parties were able to block most of his proposals, although he was able to expand Social Security and increase the minimum wage. The economy slowed yet again in 1949. Truman responded with higher taxes and limited spending, but had little success. The following year, he adjusted his strategy to allow for tax breaks for businesses. Truman gave up on controlling the deficit in favor of improving the economy in the moment, setting a precedent for the future.
Foreign affairs in 1949 weren’t any easier on Truman. The Berlin Crisis ended with the official split of East and West Germany as separate nations. Similarly, the European continent at large was divided as Western countries joined with the US and Canada to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That same year, the USSR successfully tested their first atomic bomb, much earlier than Americans anticipated. Consequently, Truman authorized the development of the even-more-powerful Hydrogen bomb, thus accelerating the Cold War arms race. This began a trend in which the US government sought military advancement despite all costs. Lastly, in Asia, Communists led by Mao Zedong finally won the Chinese civil war.
Tensions finally reached a boiling point in 1950 when North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung (grandfather of Kim Jong-un), invaded its Southern counterpart. Like Germany, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel into the Soviet-backed Communists in the North, and the pro-Western allies in the South. The United Nations condemned this aggression and issued a military response, mostly composed of American troops. Notably, Truman proceeded without Congressional approval. He wanted to act swiftly and decisively, so as to avoid the mistakes made by Western governments in appeasing Adolf Hitler. General Douglas MacArthur, fresh from overseeing the Democratization of Japan, led the offensive. The North Koreans took a quick lead in the conflict by pushing American forces into a defensive position at the tip of the peninsula. MacArthur made a risky counter-attack, including an amphibious landing behind enemy lines. The move was a success and he was able to push the Communists back past the 38th parallel. Truman gave the approval to capture the entire peninsula and unify the country, but he miscalculated the Chinese response. As Americans approached the Northern border, Chinese troops led a massive counter-counter-attack. The battle lines were moved, yet again, to the 38th parallel, resulting in a stalemate right where the conflict began. MacArthur publicly criticized Truman’s leadership and was subsequently fired, but he returned to the US with the public’s sympathy.
As Communism spread around the world, American politicians spiraled into Red Scare paranoia. In his first term, Truman created a loyalty program to uncover Communists in the federal government. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), originally founded to counter Nazi propaganda, started investigating Hollywood screenwriters and directors. The movement’s most extreme proponent was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. He alleged that the entire State Department was overrun with Soviet spies. The Truman Administration denied his claims, finding no evidence of treason in their internal investigations. But as the Korean War dragged on, McCarthy was able to use it as evidence of a larger conspiracy. In a high-profile testimony with HUAC, State Department official Alger Hiss faced accusations of espionage. He was eventually convicted of perjury. In the UK, Klaus Fuchs, who previously worked on the Manhattan Project, was convicted of helping the USSR develop nuclear weapons. Fuchs supposedly received help from American citizens David Greenglass and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A few years later, the Rosenbergs were executed.
To make matters worse, the Truman administration also became infamous for financial corruption. The president was tied to nefarious deals through his long-time aide Harry Vaughan, who provided government favors for friends. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a New Deal agency, was caught handing out questionable loans in exchange for kickbacks. Even high-level officials in the IRS and Tax Division of the Justice Department were accepting bribes. When Truman’s Attorney General failed to take corrective action, he was fired. Corruption in Washington was nothing new, but the failures were adding up for Truman.
Republicans summed up their grievances with Truman using the abbreviation K1C2: Korea, Communism and Corruption. They directly blamed Truman for the stalemate in Korea, Communism’s unchecked expansion, and the slow response to corruption. A favorite GOP slogan was “Plunder at home, blunder abroad.”
Just as they had in 1948, Republicans appeared to be in a strong position, but they were careful not to repeat the same mistakes. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the party’s previous nominee, Thomas Dewey, worked to recruit Dwight D. Eisenhower for the ticket. Four years earlier, both parties had courted the General, but at the time, he believed it was inappropriate share his political views. Now, he had a change of heart. At the beginning of the year, he announced that he was a Republican and would seek the party’s nomination. Eisenhower had a wholesome upbringing in Kansas. He quickly rose through the ranks of the military and was most famous for commanding the D-Day invasion of Normandy. After the war, he served as Chief of Staff of the Army, President of Columbia University, and Commander of NATO forces in Europe. Like most generals-turned-politicians, Eisenhower’s policy views were a mystery at first. He turned out to be a moderate – critical of the welfare state, but sympathetic to the New Deal, and a supporter of America’s expanded role in world affairs under Roosevelt and Truman. Although he was considered by his supporters to be an unbeatable candidate, his positions alienated conservatives within the party. They preferred frequent nomination-seeker Robert Taft, an ohio senator and the son of the 27th president. The main difference between the two candidates was on foreign policy. Taft was an isolationist who opposed NATO and wanted to focus on defending the Western Hemisphere. The state primaries remained close. The convention result was anyone’s guess, but the Eisenhower campaign won a bitter debate over disputed delegates in key states. The General went on to win the nomination on the first ballot. Delegates chose California Senator Richard Nixon as his running mate. As a former member of HUAC, Nixon was best known for his active role in the Alger Hiss investigation. The Republican platform endorsed K1C2 and added that the Democratic strategy of Communist “containment” should be replaced with “liberation” of affected nations.
On the Democratic side, the race was wide open. Although President Truman was exempt from the term limits set by the recently-ratified 22nd Amendment, he chose not to seek re-nomination following a disappointing start to the primaries. The frontrunner in the primaries was Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, a populist known for his aggressive opposition to organized crime. At the convention in Chicago, however, party elites were impressed by the opening speech of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. As a Princeton alumnus, Stevenson was smart and witty. He was a popular governor with a record of reform. His grandfather, and namesake, was Grover Cleveland’s vice president. Initially, Stevenson rejected the idea of his candidacy, but party bosses wore him down. His delegates chipped away at Kefauver’s lead and secured the nomination on the third ballot. He is one of the only truly “drafted” candidates of the modern era. Democrats used their vice-presidential pick to appease Southern Dixiecrats, who ran a third-party candidate in the last election. They picked segregationist Senator John Sparkman of Alabama for the position.
Eisenhower’s campaign managers wanted to be more aggressive than the party’s last few nominees had been. They used advertising experts to emphasize their candidate’s “frankness, honestly, and integrity.” Eisenhower’s impression of the strategists was that “All they talked about was how they could win on my popularity. Nobody said I had a brain in my head.” He went along with the strategy, but not without his reservations. “To think,” he said, “that an old soldier should come to this.” Reflecting the changing times, both campaigns relied heavily on television appearances and ads. The most popular slogan, “I like Ike,” was a play on the nickname used by all of Eisenhower family members. His early appearances were considered lackluster, as he was too soft on Democratic policies like the New Deal. He was also known for generalities and platitudes, prompting some reporters to refer to him as “the extremely General Eisenhower.”
Eisenhower treaded lightly in order to unite the factions of his party. Along with conservative Robert Taft, they released a statement of shared goals, including an agreement that the main issue of the campaign was “liberty against creeping Socialism.” As a consolation to the convention-loser, Taft was considered to have “lost the nomination, but won the nominee.” Eisenhower remained a moderate, but stayed closer to the K1C2 formula for the rest of the campaign. He also butted heads with the anti-Communist extremists within the Republican Party. He committed to endorsing all Republican candidates, but said he wouldn’t support “anything that looks… like unjust damaging of reputation.” Indiana Senator William Jenner, a McCarthy supporter, once called Eisenhower’s friend, General George Marshall, a traitor. Eisenhower agreed to appear at a campaign event with Jenner anyways, but said he “felt dirty from the touch of the man.” He intended to defend Marshall at an upcoming speech, but settled for keeping his objections in the press release. Eisenhower continued to be tougher on the Democratic platform, but left the low-road to the McCarthyites, including Nixon. His running mate wasn’t as crude as the extremists, but was equally anti-Communist. He claimed that the Truman administration “covered up this Communist conspiracy and attempted to halt its exposure.”
During the campaign, the New York Post, accused Nixon of accepting illegal campaign gifts. Immediately, there were calls for him to drop from the ticket. Eisenhower expressed his support for Nixon, but added that the Republican Party had to be clean in order to carry on the crusade against corruption. He told Nixon he had to decide for himself how to respond. When Nixon said that he wanted to tell his side of the story, Eisenhower encouraged him to address the issue in a nationwide television conference, to which he complied. Just before the speech, Thomas Dewey called Nixon and implied that Eisenhower wanted him to resign from the ticket after the speech. Nixon was shocked, but told Dewey to tell the nominee to watch the broadcast. Nixon used his time to defend himself, remind viewers of his humble beginnings, and discuss his family. It was the largest television audience at the time. He went on to say that the only political gift he would keep was his family’s adored Cocker Spaniel, Checkers.
The “Checkers Speech” was a hit and Nixon quickly rebounded with the public. Eisenhower was less impressed. When Nixon committed to abiding by the results of a write-in campaign for his future on the candidacy, Eisenhower jabbed his pencil into his notepad and broke the lead. Nixon’s strategy was to circumvent his superior’s wishes and leave the decision to the public. Officially, Eisenhower was still undecided on keeping Nixon. He invited him to his next campaign stop in West Virginia to discuss the matter. Nixon, filled with confidence from the speech, declined the offer. Eisenhower was forced to endorse Nixon anyways. Nixon did eventually fly to him. Eisenhower greeted him, “Dick you’re my boy!” with a hint of condescension. Many believed that he never fully trusted his vice president again.
For his campaign, Stevenson relied on his wit. He joked often on the campaign trail. After the stage at an Eisenhower event collapsed, Stevenson quipped, “I’m glad the General wasn’t hurt. But I wasn’t surprised that it happened – I’ve been telling him for two months that nobody could stand on that platform.” Eisenhower once scolded Stevenson for making jokes about serious subjects. Stevenson responded by asserting that the GOP stood for “Grouchy Old Pessimists” and, as an allusion to McCarthy, said, “My opponent has been worrying about my funny bone; I’m worrying about his backbone.” But Stevenson could be serious when he needed to be. He warned that the Republican plan for liberation of Communist countries was reckless and that a conflict with China could lead to World War III. He also criticized McCarthyism as a threat to Americans’ rights. To his detriment, many considered Stevenson to be too intellectual and out-of-touch with the average American. The New York Herald Tribune played on this by coining the term “Eggheads” for Stevenson and his aides, a reference to Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, as well as the candidate’s baldness.
Eisenhower had a slight lead in the final days of the campaign, but he widened the gap when he announced that, as president, he would make ending the Korean War a top priority. He even committed to going to Korea himself, if necessary. Polls indicated that Eisenhower’s victory was almost certain.
This time, the polls were right! Eisenhower won every region except the Deep South, and still managed to win Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. Stevenson didn’t win a single state outside of the South.
In a landslide, Dwight Eisenhower became America’s 34th president! The electoral results were 442-89. Eisenhower also easily won the popular vote, earning about 6.7 million more votes than Stevenson! He was the first Republican presidential winner in twenty years.
What Did It Say About America?
The 1952 results were more a vote of confidence in Eisenhower himself than for the Republican Party as a whole. The GOP only won a small majority in the House and a tie in the Senate. Eisenhower was viewed as an honest military man above partisan politics. For the Democrats, dealignment was still a reality. Stevenson struggled in the Northern urban areas where Roosevelt and Truman shined, but no longer had the Solid South to fall back on. As America entered the second half of the century, the government’s role continued to shift. Now, it was partly the president’s responsibility to keep Americans safe from nuclear destruction. Americans needed a strong voice on the world stage.
Was It The Right Decision?
I don’t think I’m going to agree with all of Eisenhower’s positions, but he is certainly in the running for most-honest president. His background almost perfectly encapsulated ideal American values. His supporters were correct to believe he was unbeatable, but hey, maybe Stevenson will give it another shot some day.