I Like Ike

*Harry Truman may have been a great president, but not many people thought so at the time.  His stand for civil rights had angered conservatives in his own party while his opposition to the Soviet Union and his willingness to break the Railway Strike of 1946 had turned many liberals against him.  His firing of Douglas MacArthur had alienated much of the American public.  As his second term drew to a close, Korea was still at war with itself.  Although he would be vindicated by history, at the moment he was seen as a failure.  It was obvious he would not run for re-election, even though the XXII Amendment did not block him from doing so.

*The Republicans had not won the presidency since Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928.  However, they felt their time was ripe.  The Party establishment seemed likely to pick Robert Taft.  However, some Party leaders suggested that, instead, they approach the greatest living military hero besides MacArthur, General Dwight Eisenhower.

*As a good general, Eisenhower had never even admitted to having a party preference.  He had, however, personally dealt very well with foreign generals and leaders, including Churchill and Stalin, so he had experience and had been trusted by FDR and was popular with Americans.  He claimed he did not want to run for the presidency, but was eventually convinced to allow his name to be written in as a Republican.

*Eisenhower got a tremendous write-in ballot in the Republican primaries, beating Robert Taft and getting the nomination.  Ike cultivated an image as a non-politician, never even mentioning his opponent by name if he could help it.  He stayed aloof, genial, and unsullied by the partisan fighting of politics.

*That is what the Vice-President was for.

*The GOP nominated as Ike’s Vice-President Richard Nixon, now a 39-year-old Senator from California.  Nixon would do all the dirty work of the campaign, relentlessly attacking the Democratic Party as being soft on communism, incompetent in Korea, and generally corrupt.  In truth, Nixon himself knew a great deal about corruption, having probably raised money illegally while a Senator.  He apologised on national television, claiming the only thing he had accepted illegally was a little dog named Checkers.  The sentimentality of the speech endeared Nixon to many Americans, and the age of manipulating people through television had begun in earnest.

*Even Eisenhower appeared in television ads.  His ads used clever editing to make questions submitted by average people apparently link up with answers given by Eisenhower, although, in truth, he recorded most of his answers in advance, and then questions were found to fit them.  Ike thought it was beneath his dignity, and so did some commentators, but it was too late to stop the trend.

*The Democratic candidate was Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois and grandson of Adlai Stevenson, Vice-President for Grover Cleveland (during his second term).  Supposedly he was a great speaker, but he was, or at least came off as, very intellectual, which also turned off some potential voters--Nixon attacked him as an ‘egghead,’ referring both to his supposed intellectualism and to his baldness.

*Despite being widely respected, Stevenson was no war hero, and perhaps people were tired of a Democrat in the White House.  He lost by over 6 million votes—33,936,234 to 27,314,992, or 442 electoral votes to 89.  All Stevenson’s votes came from the South (not even his native Illinois gave him its electoral votes), but Eisenhower got a lot of the South, too--the Solid South would never be solid again, or at least not solidly Democratic.

*Ike would defeat Stevenson again, by an even larger margin, in 1956 despite a recent heart attack.

*One of Eisenhower’s campaign promises was to go to Korea and personally end the war, or at least that is what he implied.  Upon his election, even before his inauguration, the President-elect flew to Korea for a three-day tour.  Nothing much changed, however.  The armistice would be signed and the DMZ created only after Ike threatened to use atomic bombs and Stalin died.

*The bad news:  54,246 Americans dead, and millions more Chinese and Koreans were killed.  The good news:  Communism was contained and the war did not spread beyond Korea--it did not become WWIII.  Perhaps a limited war was possible.

*Eisenhower did help create the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.  SEATO was an alliance organized on September 8, 1954 by representatives of Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States.  It was meant to be like NATO, although it would be less significant and ultimately fail.

*Under Eisenhower, America’s nuclear arsenal would grow larger every year as we became dependent on the power of our atomic weapons.  However, military spending on the whole would decrease (although only to 10% of the GNP, still a huge amount), as less money was spent on troops and other equipment.  Navy and army spending went down, nuclear and air force budgets went up.    As long as all you want is a lot of destruction, atomic bombs provide more bang for the buck.  Anyway, the idea was one of Mutual Assured Destruction:  no-one would go to war because both sides were guaranteed to be annihilated.

*In most domestic matters, Eisenhower attempted to stay above the fray.  He spent a lot of time golfing, and tried to let things take care of themselves.  He knew he was popular, and he did not want to mess with that by actually doing anything publicly.  On the other hand, he was so involved in forming policy behind the scenes that his administrative style has been called the 'hidden hand' presidency.

*When Jonas Salk invented a successful polio vaccine, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare supervised its early supplies so that it could be distributed among the states based on their population of youngsters under 15 and expectant mothers, and even helped cover some of the costs of vaccinations, despite some fears (even in Eisenhower's administration) that this was too socialist.  To-day, of course, polio has been almost completely wiped out.

*To reduce competition from low-paid illegal immigrants, Ike authorised Operation Wetback, which rounded up over a million illegal Mexican immigrants in 1954 and deported them to Mexico.

*Eisenhower sought to assimilate American Indians into the rest of America, hoping to re-create the Dawes Act and replace the Indian New Deal.  A few tribes did agree to be ‘terminated’ for a fee--that is, they ceased to exist as separate nations.  Most, however, stood their ground until Kennedy reversed the government policy again in 1961.

*For all his mistrust of the New Deal, Ike accepted many of its programmes, and even outdid it in a few areas.  Impressed by the German Autobahn and remembering a time as a young soldier in 1919 when he once took 62 days to drive a military convoy across the United States, Ike supported the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which began the construction of the Interstate Highway system (which could also double as emergency airstrips in times of war).  Construction of the Interstate helped the construction business and any town through which an Interstate passed.  On the other hand, those left out suffered as had towns bypassed by rail or canals in the last century. 

*In 1959, Eisenhower oversaw the admission of two new states to the Union, Alaska and Hawaii, for a total of 50.

*Eisenhower spent a lot of money, but his critics said it was not enough, and blamed him for several small (and, in 1957-58, large) economic downturns.  Concerns about the economy put a Democratic Congress in power in 1954 and led the AF of L and CIO to merge in 1955. 

*The AFL-CIO was plagued by corruption, especially among the Teamsters.  Their leader, Dave Beck, invoked the V Amendment 209 times before a Senate investigation in 1957.  He was replaced by Jimmy Hoffa.  The Teamsters were so corrupt and their leaders stole so much money that the AFL-CIO kicked them out.

*In 1959, the Landrum-Griffin Act would make union leaders liable to certain types of fraud and bullying tactics, such as boycotts and secondary picketing of places that do business with a business being picketed (such as a factory's suppliers).

*The major blemish on domestic politics during the 1950s was the work of Joe McCarthy.  He began his attacks on communists in government in 1950, during Truman’s administration, and was a useful tool during the 1952 election, although Ike always tried to avoid dealing with him, or even admitting he existed.  Coasting on the rising tide of popularity, McCarthy attacked bigger and bigger targets, including George Marshall in 1951 (who Ike did not try to defend).

*Many writers and commentators hated (and hate) McCarthy because he and other red-baiters attacked so many prominent members of the left and prominent actors and writers.  If you were, or had ever been, a member of the communist party, it was unlikely you could work again thanks to industry-wide blacklists.  Unfortunately, many people had once had some kind of tie to communist groups at some point in the past, due to their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s.  Since so many journalists and other media types were harassed, they created a particularly unflattering portrait of McCarthy, most famously through the allegory of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  That said, McCarthyism unquestionably went out of control and was evidence of a serious insecurity in American life, an insecurity that was abused for political purposes.

*During Eisenhower’s administration, Tail-gunner Joe finally bit off more than he could chew.  Having accused the state department, the Senate, Hollywood, and even the president of the Red Cross of communism, McCarthy went after the Army.  In televised hearings in 1954, McCarthy presented a poor figure to the watching world, and he lost a great deal of his credibility.  He died of alcohol poisoning in 1957, but suspicion of communism and attacks on supposed communists would continue in more muted form for years to come.

*Like Truman, Eisenhower’s overarching foreign policy, as expressed through Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, would be one of containment. 

*Eisenhower threatened to drop A-Bombs on Red China in 1955 when they shelled some minor ROC islands off the coast of Taiwan.

*Eisenhower also intervened during the Suez Crisis of 1956.  In that year the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal, and British, French, and Israeli troops invaded to take it back.  Ike cut off all help, including vital petroleum, to the attackers, and threatened other sanctions, thus undermining and ultimately ruining their effort despite the fact that they had been very successful militarily.  America's former Allies felt betrayed.  In many ways, this was the symbolic end of the British Empire, proof that they could no longer go it alone, unless they had the US’s tacit approval.

*The French Empire was also on the decline, but in at least some places, the United States was picking up the slack.  In Indo-China, the French had been waging a long, slow war against Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh.  Ho had fought against Vichy France and Imperial Japan, and who had sought Wilson’s help in making Viet-Nam independent at Versailles.  Although the OSS had helped Ho fight the Japanese during WWII, Truman had not recognised him (or anyone else) as leader of an independent Vietnam, so he had looked for help elsewhere.

*Because Ho was backed by the Soviets, the US helped the French to fight him.  Eisenhower said that all we would do was send money--about $1 billion a year, or 80% of the entire French war costs, by 1954--but ultimately that was not good enough.

*In 1954, the French were finally trapped at their last major fortress, Dien Bien Phu.  This forced them to the negotiating table, and in the Geneva Accords of 1954, Viet-Nam was divided at the 17th parallel.  Ho would control the North, a pro-western government under Ngo Dinh Diem would control the South, and the two would be re-united after a popular election could be held two years later to see who should rule a united country.  The national elections were never held, because it was feared the communists would win.  The US would be stuck backing Ngo and his corrupt government until his assassination in 1963, and would remain involved in Viet-Nam for a decade after that.

*When Stalin died in 1953, he was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev, who claimed to want peaceful coexistence with the west.  Initially, this seemed to be the case, but it did not last long.

*In 1953, the CIA had worked with the British to overthrow the prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had begun to nationalise the oil industry (which had been dominated by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company).  The British convinced Eisenhower’s CIA that nationalising foreign oil companies was just one step towards communism, but overthrowing the prime minister undermined many Iranians' faith in their constitutional monarchy.

*In 1954, the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who had already legalised the Communist Party in Guatemala (although he was not a member) and begun buying weapons from the Soviet satellite Czechoslovakia, threatened to seize any unused land (including some owned by the United Fruit Company) to redistribute to the poor, particularly to Indian peasants.  United Fruit convinced the US government that this was incipient communism, so the CIA helped local rebels overthrow the Guatemalan government. 

*In 1955, Eisenhower proposed ‘open skies,’ allowing planes to fly through any airspace, allowing them to see that countries really were as peaceful as they said they were.  Khrushchev, who never really meant to be peaceful, opposed the idea, claiming it was just a cover story for American spies.

*In 1955, West Germany was allowed to re-arm and invited into NATO and the Soviets agreed to end their occupation of Austria.

*In 1956, the people of Hungary attempted to revolt against their Soviet oppressors.  The Red Army marched on Budapest and butchered the insurgents.  The freedom fighters had counted on US aid, and when it did not appear, they called the US liars, backing out when the going got tough.  In truth, though, Ike had little choice:  the US nuclear arsenal was too big to use against the Red Army if Hungary was to remain intact, but the army and air forces were too small to use as they stood at the time.  Mutual Assured Destruction did not look so good close up.

*When the West protested, Khrushchev dismissed them:  ‘whether you like it or not, history is on our side.  We will bury you.’

*In 1957 Dulles issued the Eisenhower Doctrine, pledging armed support to any Middle-Eastern nation that was threatened by Communism.  The US were already worried about the growing power of President Gamal Nasser of Egypt, who seemed more than happy to work with the Soviets in exchange for Soviet money.

*In 1960, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela formed OPEC--the US no longer was the dominant oil producer in the world.

*Only 8 years after the shocks of 1949, America was terrified again by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, a small artificial moon.  Although it weighed only 184 pounds, it was the first time anyone had launched something into space, and it beeped.  Sputnik II, carrying a dog, Laika, went into space next.  Not only was this a blow to national pride, but it meant that an ICBM could get a nuclear warhead almost anywhere.

*Republicans blamed Truman.  Others said that while America had some technological advances in many areas (we had colour television sets!), the Russians had put all their efforts into rocketry.  Regardless, the US needed to overcome the ‘missile gap.’

*America's responses early were not very impressive.  Vanguard blew up a few feet off the ground on national television.  In 1958, the US put Explorer 1 into orbit.  It was barely over 30 pounds, but did transmit a small amount of scientific data back to Earth.

*NASA was officially formed in 1958 to take charge of most aspects of America's space program.

*In 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, giving $887 million in grants to colleges in order to expand and improve science and language programmes.

*Eisenhower also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later renamed DARPA, to fund scientific research.  Among its many creations would be ARPANet, which connected four university computers so they could exchange data and share their computing power, in the earliest version of the Internet.

*In 1958, the Soviets did all the nuclear tests they wanted to do, then stopped, pressuring the US to stop, too.  Both nations agreed to stop atmospheric and underwater testing, but it was difficult to properly inspect this.

*In 1959, Khrushchev came to New York to speak at the UN.  Another meeting was planned for 1960 in Paris.  The meeting in Paris broke up after a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR.  The pilot, Gary Powers, survived, and spent almost two years in Russian prison camps before being returned to the US.  This diplomatic disaster was followed by another in New York.  Here, Khrushchev demanded the US leave Berlin and America refused.  He suggested total disarmament, but only so the US would refuse and end up looking bad.  Khrushchev emphasized his closing remarks by pulling off a shoe and banging it on the table.

*By 1959, the Cuban people had had enough of their corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by the US government, the US mafia, and US sugar interests.  Led by Fidel Castro, they overthrew Batista and eventually set Cuba up as a Communist country in the Soviet sphere.  American and other foreign properties were seized (as was the property of many wealthy Cubans) and nationalized.  The Cubans also hoped to export this revolution to all of Central America and the Caribbean, and to try to stop this, Ike finally announced $500 million in aid for Latin America, which many saw as too little, too late.  The US never recognised the government of Castro and still maintains sanctions against the country.  Worried about such revolutions, the US would continue to prop up friendly dictators around the world.

*In 1960, Eisenhower would neither wish to nor be allowed to run again.  Vice-President Nixon would run against the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

*In many ways, the 1950s were much like the Roaring Twenties.  Families had more money to spend and more ways to spend it.  The Average family income rose from $3,319 in 1950 to $5,417 in 1959. 

*Thanks in large part to government mortgage insurance plans, home loans were easier to get, so more people could buy a house, and many companies lent money again, too.  Instalment plans were popular once more, and in 1950, Diner’s Club created the world’s first charge card (American Express issued one in 1958).  Bank of America created the credit card (BankAmericard, later known as Visa) in 1958.

*With so much money to spend and so many things to spend it on, new kinds of stores were created.  Supermarkets (selling many different products) and shopping centres (with many different stores in one place) opened up in the suburbs, so people would not have to drive into the city to shop.

*As many families could afford for wives to stay at home, women became the main shoppers for their families, and they tended to buy products for the house:  refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washers and dryers, and especially televisions.  While only 6,000 television sets were produced in the year 1946, by 1960, 90% of Americans (over 161 million) owned televisions.

*Television soon became the centre of many Americans’ lives.  Businesses used it for advertising, and fads and fashions could sweep the entire country in no time.  The Ballad of Davy Crockett from Disney's television series was a nation-wide hit, and every boy had to have a coon-skip cap and toy rifle. 

*Political campaigns were televised for the first time in 1952, and by 1960 even the presidential debates were being televised (and both Eisenhower and Kennedy were elected in large part because they were better than Adlai Stevenson or Richard Nixon at presenting themselves on television).  Ever since then, presidents have had to be more than leaders, they have had to be celebrities.

*Because entertainment, politics, and commercials were seen across the entire country, regional differences began to diminish.  A mass culture, which had been growing since the days of radio (if not before), continued to become more homogenous.

*Television even told people how to live their lives.  Most shows revolved around the nuclear family—a family centred in one home, with two parents, 2-3 children, and no nearby extended family.  In many ways this mirrored the lives of young families in the suburbs, but it also encouraged people to try to live up and idealised image of family life, which was not always possible.  Not everyone could have as perfect a life as the folks in The New Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, or Father Knows Best.

*Nuclear families were encouraged to make things easy for the children of the Baby Boom.  Not only did many teenagers get to work for spending money rather than to support the family, a new phenomenon in the 1950s, but even as infants and young children, they were often allowed to have their way and be given the things they wanted. 

*This was partly due to the influence of Dr Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.  It became popular among young mothers who were raising children in suburbs away from their extended families.  Dr Spock said that because a child could never have too much love and comfort, it was all right to let children have their way and even to spoil them by buying them all the things they wanted (or that television told them that they wanted).  Many people said this was too permissive, led to expectations of instant gratification, and got in the way of developing work ethics or a sense of responsibility, but Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care stayed in print for decades.

*Show ‘Youth Culture’ segment from The 20th Century ‘1950s’ episode.

*Another way in which Americans tried to create an idea life was through religion.  Whereas the decade after World War I had belonged to a cynical Lost Generation, the 'Greatest Generation' who had survived the Great Depression and the Second World War and their offspring, the Baby Boomers (for all their fear of Communism) were in some ways very optimistic about the future, and religious revivals spread across the country.  Billy Graham began his career as an evangelist in the 1940s, using public revivals, radio, and television to spread the Word of God until leading his last crusade in 2006.  The government encouraged religiosity--even officially amending the Pledge of Allegiance to include 'under God' in 1954--as a contrast to Communism, which was officially atheist.

*Some things did rock the seemingly quiet 1950s.  Although television was required to be very clean, some music was seen as shocking.  Rhythm and Blues music, previously seen as ‘race’ music became more wide-spread when record companies and radio stations began calling it Rock and Roll, and white singers like Elvis Presley (who began recording with Sun Records in Memphis in 1953) made it popular across the country.  Because Elvis's lyrics and his dancing were seen as very suggestive (at the time), many parents, religious leaders, and politicians condemned Rock and Roll as destructive to morality and society.

*Other people were dissatisfied with the culture of the 1950s.  Some people felt that as young families abandoned the cities for the suburbs that cities would die, or just be left as impoverished inner cities where no-one would bother paying to keep the area safe, clean, or in good repair.  This fear simply encouraged more middle-class people to move to the suburbs.

*Suburbs and the conformity expected by society also struck some people as empty or shallow.  For some people, the artificial world presented by television was the worst example of this.

*In 1961, Newton Minnow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech that described his fears:

 "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

*Others objected in other ways.  Sloan Wilson wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit about a WWII veteran who got an office job after the war and felt crushed by the need to fit in—the gray flannel suit was just a new uniform, but instead of fighting Nazis and making the world safe for Democracy, he was just pushing papers and doing nothing that felt fulfilling. 

*In 1957, Betty Friedan, a liberal journalist, began doing research on the lives of modern American women, and concluded that a 'problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries... she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?''  This led to the publication, in 1963, of The Feminine Mystique, which claimed that women found the roles that had been assigned to them, particularly in the artificial world of the suburbs, unfulfilling.

*In 1951, J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in which a teenager named Holden Caulfield mocked adult society as phony.

*Other people did not just write about the shallowness of society, they tried to reject it altogether.  People calling themselves ‘beats’ or ‘beatniks’ rejected society, dressed in strange clothes, spoke in their own slang, and criticized middle-class materialism.

*On the other hand, while inner cities were dying as people moved to the suburbs, rural areas were declining as well.  As fewer and fewer Americans worked on farms (down from 25% in 1935 to under 10% in 1960 and about 2% today), many farms merged into or were bought by large companies.  These agribusinesses could take advantage of government subsidies and of the ease of transporting goods long distances more efficiently than smaller farms, and many rural people moved to cities or into towns.  Even though America produced more food than ever, fewer and fewer Americans were actually farmers, and a traditional way of life was vanishing.

This page last updated 13 May, 2021.
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