ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

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.  General MacArthur actively sought the nomination (in fact, he had sought it since 1936), but his difficult personality and advanced age worked against him.  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.  He chose to be a Republican after years of being apolitical, reportedly because he felt that after 20 years with one party, the country needed a change.

 

*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 made use of illegal slush funds (funds raised for undefined purposes, often through shady means) 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 (it probably ran in his family; his grandfather was bald, too). 

 

*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:  Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee.  The Solid South would never be solid again, or at least not solidly Democratic.

 

*Ike would defeat him 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.

 

*In any event, Eisenhower helped 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 much 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.

 

*Officially, Ike’s domestic policy was one of ‘dynamic conservatism,’ promising ‘in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human... [but with] people’s money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.’  This suited a worn-out American public just fine:  it was the bland leading the bland.

 

*Ike tried to give off-shore oil drilling rights to the states, wanted to sell off TVA and did encourage other companies to compete with it.


*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 (although not to hurt legal immigrants--in fact, he wanted to help them), 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 Interstates helped out 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.  Air pollution rose, people abandoned city downtowns for suburbs and malls on the edge of town, and railroads, especially passenger trains, lost business.

 

*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 (he privately hated him).  Coasting on the rising tide of popularity, McCarthy attacked bigger and bigger targets, including George Marshall in 1951 (who, despite being his superior officer for many years, 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, but also a policy of boldness. 

 

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

 

*Although they were not communists, Eisenhower also intervened against Britain and France 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 to sell off all US reserves of the Pound sterling, thus destroying the value of the British currency, 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 was a communist-backed, US-trained guerrilla who had fought against Vichy France and Imperial Japan, and who had sought Wilson’s help in making Viet-Nam independent at Versailles.  He thought of George Washington as his hero, the Declaration Independence as his favourite text, and he would kill anyone who got in his way, and their family, too.

 

*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 roughly in half at the 17th parallel, north latitude.  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 both halves.  The national elections were never held, because it was feared the communists would win.  The US would be stuck backing Ngo and his corrupt, nepotism-ridden 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 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. 

 

*The year before, 1953, the CIA had worked with the British to overthrow the prime minister of Iran, 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 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 1958, the US invaded Lebanon to protect it from the Egyptians and communists, restoring order without losing a man.

 

*In 1959, Khrushchev came to New York to speak at the UN.  Another meeting was planned for 1960 in Paris.  The meeting 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 say that was impossible 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, Fulgenico 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 an economic and travel embargo 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. 




This page last updated 26 November, 2018.
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