Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
After twenty years (1933-53) of Democratic Party rule, some Americans hoped and others feared that the Eisenhower administration would sharply change US foreign policy and reshape post-New Deal society. It did neither. Instead, the Eisenhower administration went through three stages (1) the announcement of sweeping changes, (2) then going back to a slightly modified version of earlier policies because the public did not want major changes, and (3) frustration and renewed crisis because some people liked neither the old nor the new policies and were vocal critics. Actually there were few alternatives.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general, had been trained for war but he had seen enough war to prefer peace. He governed by consultation and consensus. A moderate conservative, he was thwarted more by right-wing Republicans than by moderate and left-wing Republicans and the Democratic Party.
In 1953, fear of domestic subversion by Communists reached panic proportions. The federal security program was drastically tightened while congressional committees, especially the House Committee on Un-American Activities, searched for disloyalty. It seemed that Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) was most the powerful man in Washington because he used demagogic techniques to wildly accuse all kinds of people of being Communists. Some conservative Republicans had accused the Truman administration of being "soft on Communism," but their hysteria did not cease with the election of a Republican administration. McCarthy grew wilder.
In 1954, he was censured by the Senate after the long and complicated televised hearings over the supposed Communist infiltration of the Army . McCarthy revealed to public what he was, a shameless demagogue. The Red Scare issue had lost its power by the 1954 elections potency and the Supreme Court later restricted the power of congressional committees to conduct witch hunts. In the meantime, McCarthy hurt the US.
Perhaps because of the phony Red Scare, the Eisenhower administration's economic and social policies shifted from the right to the center. At first, many cabinet members were wealthy businessmen; the conservative Robert Taft (Republican-Ohio) was the most powerful person in the Senate; and Ike's statements were highly conservative. But Taft died in July, 1953 and the US economy went into recession in the winter 1953-54. The Treasury department to modify its conservative, anti-inflation policies. Recovery came quickly , attesting to the wisdom of economic liberalism. By the mid-1950s, the nation was prosperous once again.
In the 1956 elections, the Democrats recovered control of Congress, thus creating the necessity for compromise. In the mid-1950's, the political pattern seemed to be (1) administration friendliness to business, (2) administration efforts, seldom strikingly successful, to promote economy and decentralization, and (3) compromises between Eisenhower and Congress in support of moderate, familiar reform programs. The Eisenhower administration sought business support through tax breaks, increased government-private enterprise partnerships in development of public power and atomic energy, support of state rather than federal control of oil reserves in the tidal regions of states. Eisenhower's first, Republican congress, created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, extended social security, and gave moderate support to public housing. Under the conservative Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture, the US government decreased price supports for farmers as an effort to wean them from government subsidies and force them to compete. Farm income declined. Eisenhower had a vigorous program of anti-trust prosecutions. He tried to aid small business but could not reverse the trend towards giant enterprise. His administration failed to move the economy toward s more laissez-faire. In fact, government spending, cut back only moderately after Korean War, remained higher than 1950's $45 billion and up to $82 billion in 1957,
The most important advance of the period, that made by Blacks, was not the result of executive action. In 1952, Blacks were still generally subject to enforced segregation in South and de facto segregation in the rest of the country. As a group, they lagged behind whites in jobs, income, housing, education, and health. In 1954, the Supreme Court reversed its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed segregation of the races as long as things were equal, saying, instead, that segregation was inherently unequal. This Brown v. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education infuriated the South, which refused to obey the law. It was only in the border states that school desegregation began in the 1950s. Eisenhower, Texas-born and supported the decision only because he supported the law and its constitutional requirements. When Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas called out the National Guard in 1957 to block enforcement of the law in Little Rock schools, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard. The incident increased support of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson got passed. It created the Civil Rights Commission to protect Negro voting in South. Most of the gains were made by Southern Blacks who were determined to achieve equality for themselves. When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a public city bus to a white person and was arrested in 1955, blacks in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the bus company. This put pressure on whites, for many could not get to work. A young black Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became the leader of the movement. They achieved desegregation of the buses. This tactic spread and met violent resistance.
Contrary to the mythology that has grown about the 1950s, not everyone was prosperous or happy. People hid their troubles from outsiders. Poverty was widespread, for 20% were poor.
When Eisenhower was running for President in 1952, many Republicans had denounced the Korean War, government spending, and "appeasement." Some had promised, in contrast, peace, economy, and a rollback of world communism.
The period was dominated by the Cold War, the contest between the US and the USSR. Joseph Stalin, the ferocious and tyrannical dictator, died in March, 1953 and his successor, Nikita Krushchev, relaxed the police state. Krushchev argued that Communism would win through peaceful competition with capitalism. Since the developed nations were committed to one side or the other, this competition took place in underdeveloped countries, or the Third World, as they came to be called. John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, distrusted the Soviet Union and thought that the US- could defeat the USSR in a nuclear war. Since he believed that the Soviets knew this to be true, he practiced a policy of brinkmanship (taking the two countries to the brink of war) and threatened massive retaliation with nuclear weapons if the USSR launched a first strike. The Eisenhower administration reduced the number of ground troops and relied on nuclear weapons. This scared many Americans and foreigners. Eisenhower calmed people in 1954 when he declared that war was unthinkable in the modern world.
Asia proved to be a test of the Dulles doctrine. War in Korea was ended by a truce. In Indochina, however, the French had bean trying to keep their colonies since and were losing to the Viet Minh independence movement, now under Communist leadership. Since the Korean War, the US had been supporting the French more and more with money and material. In March, 1954, it suddenly became clear that northern Indochina could no longer be held without US committing at least its air power. Both Dulles and Ike proclaimed that the loss of Indochina would lead to Communist domination of all South Asia. Dulles unsuccessfully tried to get British help. Some military leaders suggested using small nuclear weapons, a prospect which unnerved the vast majority.
US intervention in Indochina was a dubious prospect at best. Sending troops to fight in the jungle so soon after the unpopular Korean war would contradict administration pronouncements. Air power would be difficult to use, for the new military doctrine meant that US would have to attach Peking and Moscow. Ike decided not to aid the French, Dulles and Vice President Richard M. Nixon wanted to involve the US in Vietnam but kept quiet once the decision was made.
When Dienbienphu fell in May, 1954, the Geneva Conference was held to decide what to do. The Soviet Union, China, Britain, France and Indo China attended but not the US. The US accepted the results. The Geneva Conference recognized the independence of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam but Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. The conferees agreed that in 1956, there would be internationally-supervised elections throughout Vietnam. Meanwhile forces were to be regrouped and populations exchanged. Military bases of any country, introduction of new military forces, and adherence to military alliances were forbidden on both sides. A commission of India, Poland, and Canada was to supervise the truce. However, the truce line became permanent. Saigon government, backed by the US, refused to carry out the election. The US created , in 1954, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) with Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Pakistan, and Thailand as a counterweight to Communist expansionism in southeast Asia,
Republicans had promised to "unleash" Chiang Kai-Shek to allow him to reconquer the Chinese mainland. They had argued that the Democrats had been appeasing the Communist Chinese. So early in the Eisenhower regime, the Seventh Fleet was told not to interfere with an attack on China. He did not invade. Instead, the Chinese, in 1954. began proclaiming their intention of taking Formosa back and began shelling the little coastal islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The US negotiated a treaty with Formosa, saying that the US would defend Formosa and islands but Chiang Kai-Shek had to agree that he would not invade the Chinese mainland without US permission. In fact, Chiang Kai-Shek , the dictator of Formosa [Taiwan] was smart enough to get conservatives to back him and his regime financially and not stupid enough to get beaten by the mainland Chinese.
US policy in the Middle East was to protect the oil supply, keep these countries out of Soviet hands, and to carry out a special commitment to Israel. The US backed leaders, regardless of what they did domestically, as long as they cooperated with the US and its allies. The Us fostered the Baghdad Pact of 1954, but we did not sign it. The US agreed to assist Gamil Nasser of Egypt to build the Answan Dam, but, when Nasser seemed to be bargaining for Soviet support as well, the US refused to help. Obviously, the US thought that Egypt could bot proceed without US help. Nasser refused to buckle and built the dam with Soviet aid. In the fall of 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, trying to gain control of this prime national asset from the British and French. In October, Egypt was attacked by Israel, Britain, and France. The US and the Soviets opposed this attack, forcing a withdrawal. In January, 1957, the Eisenhower administration announced the Eisenhower Doctrine which gave military assistance to the Middle East when these countries were threatened by an outside power. The crises occurring in Jordan, Syria, and Iraq were internal not external. In July, 1958, the US sent troops to Lebanon which it thought threatened by Syria.
In Europe, NATO became having problems because of the reduced threat from the USSR. In 1955, West Germany was raised to nation status and allowed to rearm. Austria was given its independence. The USSR normalized its relations with Yugoslavia, headed by the maverick Communist Marshal Tito.
By 1955, the massive retaliation policy was dead. There was the softening of Stalinism. In Eastern Europe, the satellite nations hoped that this would mean more freedom. Dulles made statements indicating the possibility of US support for liberation movements. In 1953, East Germans rioted but the US did not intervene. In 1956, Poland created a liberal Communist government and the Hungarians revolted against Soviet domination. The USSR crushed it and the US did nothing except accept refugees.
The End of Moderate Conservatism
The end of the Eisenhower presidency and its moderate conservatism was marked by uncertainty. The economy went into recession in 1957. Unemployment hovered around 5%. The economic growth rate was slower than that of the USSR or West Europe. The US suffered from an imbalance of payments. A close look to show that Eisenhower prosperity had never spread to everyone, that the poor were about 25% of society and falling farther behind, In his official family, there were corruption scandals, the most famous being that of Sherman Adams .In October, 1957, the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik, embarrassing the US, which thought it was technologically superior. Thus, it launched the space race In the congressional 1958 elections, Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, won their biggest gains since 1936.
Events got worse. Eisenhower became very sick in 1957. Although he recovered, it scared the nation. Dulles died in 1958. That same year, the US and USSR greed to suspend nuclear temporary, in November the USSR demanded settlement of Berlin's status, which the US refused to do. Khrushchev visited the US in 1959 and was publicly offended by its licentiousness, a commentary on the prudishness of the Communists. . Nevertheless, Eisenhower and Khrushchev agreed to a Geneva summit in 1960 but a U-2 spy plane was shot down and the conference ended. At the end of Ike's second term, Quemoy and Matsu were being bombed, China invaded and subdued Tibet; Japanese student riots kept Ike from going there; Laos and Cambodia sew an increase in guerrilla strength; Algerian independence movement against France was Successful; violence erupted in the Congo; and fidel Castro took over Cuba. It seemed to many that everything was going wrong.
The situation was dramatized in the 1960 presidential election campaign, for Nixon campaigned on the Eisenhower record, even though Eisenhower did not like him. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, promised change and vigorous forward movement. Kennedy won decisively by 303 to 219 in the Electoral College, the only election that counts legally, but people believe that he won by skin of teeth, for he only had 34,227,096 to Nixon's 34,107,646 in the popular vote. Conservatives gained in Congress. Kennedy was in no position to implement bold new programs. The US electorate did not know what it wanted so it hedged its bets.Donald J. Mabry