In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower crushed Adlai “Egghead” Stevenson to win the presidency. Four years later, Stevenson was eager to try again! Would Eisenhower live up to the hype? Or would Americans turn on him after one term?
The Last Four Years
In keeping with his campaign promise, Eisenhower traveled to Korea before his inauguration to seek a resolution to the war. Unfortunately, there was no easy way out. Once his term began, US officials hinted to China that Eisenhower was considering expanding the war to their mainland and was not afraid to use nuclear weapons. It’s unclear if this was the deciding factor for the Communists, or if it was due to conventional military pressure, but North and South Korea agreed to an armistice in July 1953. The peninsula remained permanently divided along the 38th parallel, just as it was at the beginning of the decade.
The end of the war brought intense economic prosperity to the US. Unemployment and inflation were low. Middle class workers were able to buy new TVs, cars, suburban houses, and more! Although Eisenhower did not support the expansions to the New Deal proposed by his predecessor, Harry Truman, he also did want to completely dismantle it like his Republican colleagues. He referred to his centrist stance as “Modern Republicanism,” the idea that the government would preserve individual freedom and a market economy, but also provide aid to those who could not take care of themselves. In another break with his party, Eisenhower did not use the booming economy to cut taxes, but instead to balance the budget and invest in ambitious infrastructure projects like the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System. He also expanded Social Security, increased the minimum wage, and created the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare. Despite these liberal positions, Eisenhower often used his veto power to block expensive bills from Congress. His was the last presidency in which federal spending as a percentage of GDP declined.
Although Truman was out of office and Eisenhower was off to a successful start, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy still alleged that the federal government was full of Communist spies. He went so far as to accuse several of Eisenhower’s ambassador nominees of disloyalty. The President was worried about Communist spies, too, but disapproved of the “guilty until proven innocent” method to McCarthyism. He worried that publicly denouncing the Senator it would give him an advantage, adding, “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk.” In 1954, televised hearings on Communist influence in the US Army gave the public an up-close look at McCarthy’s aggressive style. During the vicious hearings, Army lawyer Joseph Welch famously replied to McCarthy’s accusations, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” That same year, Wyoming Senator Lester C. Hunt committed suicide due to McCarthy’s repeated attacks regarding his son’s homosexuality. As the public learned McCarthy’s true nature, his power rapidly diminished. He was censured by the Senate at the end of 1954. He died a few years later, likely as a result of alcoholism.
Eisenhower’s foreign policy strategy was referred to as the “New Look.” It had four main elements: 1) Maintain the vitality of the economy while building the strength to fight the Cold War, 2) Rely on nuclear weapons to deter Communist aggression, 3) Use the CIA to carry out covert missions against governments under Soviet influence, and 4) Strengthen relations with allies and nonaligned governments. The President wanted more “bang for the buck” with military spending. He cut funding for conventional forces, but increased spending for the Air Force and nuclear weapons. Like Truman, Eisenhower refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Communist Chinese government. Instead, he supported the Western-friendly nationalist government sheltering in Taiwan. When the Communists began bombing islands near Taiwan, Eisenhower employed a familiar strategy by declaring that he would use nuclear weapons in the event of war. Bombing ended in 1954. Much like the Korean War, it is unclear if the Communist leaders actually believed Eisenhower’s threats. Back in the USSR, foreign policy was in flux after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, just a few weeks after Eisenhower’s inauguration. Their new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, called for “peaceful coexistence.” Eisenhower remained skeptical, but the Soviets proved their intent in 1955 when they finally resolved a deadlocked peace treaty with Austria. Eastern and Western leaders held a summit in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955. It was the first meeting of its kind in ten years. Although tensions had eased, there were no major agreements on international conflicts or arms reduction.
Eisenhower relied heavily on the CIA to take covert action against Communists while avoiding public responsibility. Their methods were sometimes unsavory, often including bribes, subversion, and assassinations. After the Iranian government nationalized a major British oil company, the CIA helped overthrow their government and establish one that gave American and British companies equal share in the country’s oil production. Similarly, they removed the Guatemalan leader when he became too close to local Communists. The US was also funding 75% of a war against Communist nationalists in French-controlled Vietnam. In 1954, French forces were surrounded and asked the US to provide support via air strikes. Eisenhower considered their request, but could not get approval from Congress. France eventually surrendered, granting independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. To prevent the Communist government from overtaking the entirety of the Vietnam, Eisenhower provided aid to the anti-Communists in the South. His efforts were a success and South Vietnam formed its own government. Unfortunately, this entangled the US in future conflicts the country might face.
President Eisenhower was extremely popular. His approval rating was often above 70%! But the Republican Party as a whole took the blame for some mild recessions during his term. In the 1954 midterm elections, they lost control of Congress. In regards to the Commander-in-Chief, voters were mainly concerned with one’s toughness against Communism. So far, Eisenhower was fulfilling that desire!
As was evident from the midterm elections, the Republican Party need Eisenhower. He initially planned to only serve one term, but it was clear his mind had changed. His supporters’ only concern, however, was his health. In September, 1955, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack and had to take time off from his presidential duties. Vice President Nixon successfully ran cabinet meetings and oversaw the National Security Council. Luckily, the president recovered quickly. In March, he officially announced that he would seek another term. His press secretary reported that Eisenhower made the decision during his recovery, claiming, “It was then that he faced the sheer, god-awful boredom of not being president.” With Eisenhower’s health in question, more importance was placed on the VP pick. Sadly for Nixon, he was still viewed as an partisan unfit to lead. Eisenhower hinted to Nixon that he could instead be appointed to a high-level cabinet position, such as Secretary of Defense, but Nixon did not accept. Eisenhower never confronted him directly about leaving the ticket. At the party convention, the President and Vice President were re-nominated on the first ballot.
Although Adlai Stevenson had been a reluctant nominee four years earlier, he was determined to win a second chance. He worked hard to rebuild the Democratic party after his disastrous national defeat and announced his candidacy in November 1955. His main rival was populist Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, the original front runner for the 1952 nomination. Kefauver got off to an early lead by winning the Minnesota primary. Before the Florida election, the two candidates participated in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Stevenson narrowly won the state and followed it with a big win in California. Kefauver subsequently withdrew his candidacy. At the convention, Stevenson faced another challenge by the aggressive New York Governor Averell Harriman, who was backed by former President Truman. Stevenson’s delegate lead proved too large and he secured the nomination again on the first ballot. He surprised the delegation by announcing that he would give them full control of his vice-presidential pick. One of the most popular names in consideration was the young Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. The eventual winner, on the second ballot, was Estes Kefauver.
President Eisenhower campaigned less in this rematch, partly due to his health, and partly due to his high confidence. As a result, his campaign put more emphasis on television ads. The President ran on his successful record – the end of the Korean War, infrastructure projects, improved economy, and New Look foreign policy. He urged Vice President Nixon to campaign “at a higher level than in the past.” Nixon countered, “You don’t win campaigns with a diet of dishwater and milk toast.” In the end, Nixon complied. He made less personal attacks and refrained from red-baiting.
Despite his unfavorable odds, Stevenson ran an energetic campaign in order to contrast his own vigor against the ailing president. He warned that Eisenhower’s poor health meant that a vote for a second term was a vote for the extremist Nixon. Economically, Eisenhower was a difficult target since he was a moderate who promised to protect the New Deal. Stevenson introduced a “New America” policy, explained in a series of papers focused on senior citizens, health, education, natural resources, and economic policy. His proposals would later inspire future Democratic administrations. Stevenson’s main two policy goals were to replace the military draft with a highly-trained volunteer force, and to seek an agreement with the USSR to end testing of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower attacked both as unrealistic. Stevenson’s odds were hurt when the Soviet Premier endorsed his plan, playing into fears that he was the candidate preferred by Communists. Eisenhower denounced Stevenson for making national security matters part of partisan debate and Nixon warned that he would appease the Soviets rather than stand up to them.
Two international conflicts late in the campaign reminded voters of Eisenhower’s foreign policy prowess. In Hungary, Soviet tanks brutally suppressed a revolt in Budapest. Eisenhower chose not to follow the Republicans’ goal of “liberation,” but did provide aid to Hungarian refugees. Tensions also rose in Egypt, when their president nationalized the Suez Canal, prompting an invasion from Britain, France, and Israel. America’s allies planned the attack without Eisenhower’s knowledge, knowing that he would not approve. The UN called for an immediate cease-fire, backed by the US and USSR. The invaders complied and the UN sent a police force to maintain order. Stevenson remained extremely critical of US foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He said the Republican strategy of liberation was reckless and encouraged uprisings, which the US couldn’t openly support without risking nuclear war with the USSR. Of the Middle East, he said that Eisenhower had alienated America’s three closest allies. The American public mostly sided with Eisenhower, trusting his vast military experience. Many felt that it was important to not change leaders during a time of crisis.
It was another blowout for Eisenhower! He did well in Northern cities, as well as with unions and African Americans. Like last time, he was even able to win a few Southern states. Stevenson won Missouri, but lost other border states he previously carried. Eisenhower’s win in Louisiana was the first Republican win in the Deep South since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. One faithless elector in Alabama voted for segregationist Judge Walter B. Jones, citing Stevenson’s liberal stance on civil rights.
President Eisenhower won re-election by an even bigger margin than he had in 1952! He won 457 electors to Stevenson’s 73. He also won 57% of the popular vote. This was the last election to feature a rematch of an earlier election.
What Did It Say About America?
Eisenhower credited his win to the transformation of the Republican Party under his rule. According to him, “Modern Republicanism looks to the future and this means it will gain constantly new recruits.” But once again, this election was mostly decided by his personal popularity. He was the first president since Zachary Taylor, another general, to win the presidency while his party did not gain a majority in either the House or the Senate. Stevenson’s frustration could be summed up with one of his favorite stories. He met a farmer during the campaign who was critical of Eisenhower’s farm policy and asked him, “But why aren’t people mad at Eisenhower?” The farmer replied, “Oh, no one connects him with the administration!”
Was It The Right Decision?
I get it. Eisenhower was a confident leader. He was a true bipartisan on domestic issues, possibly making him the last moderate Republican president. Unfortunately, his integrity did not always translate to his foreign policy. He followed in Truman’s footsteps by entangling the US in a never-ending series of ill-advised international conflicts. Often times, the governments America funded were not even Democratic, they were just not Communist. The 1950s are often remembered as a simple, happy time in between decades of crisis. It’s the era that modern conservatives want to return to! In reality, they were far from perfect.