A Reference Resource
Dwight David Eisenhower
Born in Texas and raised in Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of America's greatest military commanders and the thirty-fourth President of the United States. Inspired by the example of a friend who was going to the U.S. Naval Academy, Eisenhower won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Although his mother had religious convictions that made her a pacifist, she did not try to stop Eisenhower from becoming a military officer.
Popular War Hero
After graduating from West Point, Eisenhower experienced several years of professional frustration and disappointment. World War I ended a week before he was scheduled to go to Europe. After peace came, his career went nowhere. He did enjoy the personal fulfillment that came from marrying Mamie Doud in 1916 and having a son, John, in 1922. And he soon got assignments that allowed him to prove his abilities. He served as a military aide to General John J. Pershing and then to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower earned his first star with a promotion to brigadier general.
After the United States entered the war, Eisenhower went to Washington, D.C., to work as a planning officer. He so impressed the Army's chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, that he quickly got important command assignments. In 1944, he was supreme commander of Operation Overlord, the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe. In only five years, Eisenhower had risen from a lowly lieutenant colonel in the Philippines to commander of the greatest invasion force in history. When he returned home in 1945 to serve as chief of staff of the Army, Eisenhower was a hero, loved and admired by the American public.
Acknowledging Eisenhower's immense popularity, President Harry Truman privately proposed to Eisenhower that they run together on the Democratic ticket in 1948—with Truman as the vice-presidential candidate. Eisenhower refused and instead became president of Columbia University and then, after the outbreak of the Korean War, the first Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe. In 1952, he declared that he was a Republican and returned home to win his party's presidential nomination, with Richard M. Nixon as his running mate. "Ike" endeared himself to the American people with his plain talk, charming smile, and sense of confidence. He easily beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and again in 1956.
Eisenhower was a popular President throughout his two terms in office. His moderate Republican policies helped him secure many victories in Congress, where Democrats held the majority during six of the eight years that Eisenhower was in the White House. Eisenhower helped strengthen established programs, such as Social Security, and launch important new ones, such as the Interstate Highway System in 1956, which became the single largest public works program in U.S. history.
Yet there were problems and failures as well as achievements. Although he signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, Eisenhower disliked having to deal with racial issues. He never endorsed the Supreme Court's ruling in 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, and he failed to use his moral authority as President to urge speedy compliance with the Court's decision. In 1957, he did send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, when mobs tried to block the desegregation of Central High School, but he did so because he had a constitutional obligation to uphold the law, not because he supported integration. Eisenhower also refrained from publicly criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used his powers to abuse the civil liberties of dozens of citizens who he accused of anti-American activities. Eisenhower privately despised McCarthy, and he worked behind the scenes with congressional leaders to erode McCarthy's influence. Eisenhower's indirect tactics eventually worked, but they also prolonged the senator's power since many people concluded that even the President was unwilling to confront McCarthy.
Waging Cold War
Six months after he became President, Eisenhower agreed to an armistice that ended three years of fighting in Korea. Only on one other occasion—in Lebanon in 1958—did Eisenhower send combat troops into action. Yet defense spending remained high, as Eisenhower made vigorous efforts to wage the Cold War. He placed new emphasis on nuclear strength, which was popularly known as massive retaliation, to prevent the outbreak of war. He also frequently authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to undertake covert actions—secret interventions to overthrow unfriendly governments or protect reliable anti-Communist leaders whose power was threatened. The CIA helped topple the governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, but it suffered an embarrassing failure in 1958 when it intervened in Indonesia. Eisenhower avoided war in Indochina in 1954 when he failed to authorize an air strike to rescue French troops at the crucial battle of Dienbienphu. Yet after the French granted independence to the nations of Indochina—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—Eisenhower used U.S. power and prestige to help create a non-Communist government in South Vietnam, an action that had disastrous long-term consequences. During his last years in office, Eisenhower also "waged peace," hoping to improve U.S.-Soviet relations and negotiate a treaty banning nuclear testing in the air and seas. But the Soviet downing of a U.S. reconnaissance plane—the U-2 incident of May 1, 1960—ended any hope for a treaty before Eisenhower left office.
After leaving office, Eisenhower had a mediocre reputation with most historians. Some even wondered whether a President who often made garbled public statements really understood most issues or whether staff assistants made the important decisions for this general in the White House. Yet as time passed and more records from the Eisenhower administration became available for research, it became clear that Eisenhower was a strong leader who was very much in charge of his own administration. Historians still point to the limitations in Eisenhower's record in areas such as civil rights, and they debate the long-term consequences of his covert interventions in Third World nations. Yet his ranking is much higher, with many historians concluding that Eisenhower was a "near great" or even "great" President.
Born on October 14, 1890, in a house by the railroad tracks in Denison, Texas, Dwight David Eisenhower spent his youth in the small farm town of Abilene, Kansas. His father, David, worked as a mechanic in a local creamery. His mother, Ida, a Mennonite, was a religious pacifist who opposed war. Eisenhower did family chores, delighted in hunting and fishing and football, and eagerly read military history. In 1911, he won an appointment to West Point, where his pranks, fondness for cards and smoking, and average grades earned him little respect from his teachers. They thought that he would be a good officer, but not a great one.
Rising in the Ranks
After graduating in the middle of his class—61st out of 164—Eisenhower spent the next few years at one disappointing station after another, beginning with a stint as a second lieutenant at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It was there that he met and married Mamie Doud. At Camp Meade, Maryland, Eisenhower became friends with George S. Patton Jr. Both Eisenhower and Patton published articles in 1920 advocating that the Army make better use of tanks to prevent a repetition of the static and destructive trench warfare of World War I. But Army authorities considered Eisenhower insubordinate rather than visionary and threatened him with a court-martial if he again challenged official views on infantry warfare. Yet Eisenhower was doubly fortunate when he was transferred to a new assignment in the Panama Canal Zone and got to work as executive officer for General Fox Conner, who appreciated Eisenhower's critical thinking about infantry warfare. Conner became Eisenhower's patron and arranged for a prized appointment that helped propel Eisenhower's career, as a student at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Eisenhower graduated first in his class of 245 officers, and he was quickly given important assignments. He served as an aide first to General John J. Pershing, commander of U.S. forces in World War I, and then to General Douglas MacArthur, the Army's chief of staff.
Eisenhower remained with MacArthur for seven stormy years. The two men were exact opposites. They often disagreed, although Eisenhower, as the junior officer, still had to carry out the general's orders. Eisenhower loyally served MacArthur even when it meant dispersing the "Bonus Marchers," a group of unemployed veterans of World War I who protested in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression. Despite their different styles, Eisenhower stayed with MacArthur when he moved to the Philippines in 1935 to organize and train the army of the Philippine Commonwealth.
World War II Hero
After World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Eisenhower returned to the United States and eventually played an important role in the Third Army's field maneuvers in Louisiana. These training exercises, in which more than 400,000 troops participated, revealed Eisenhower's talent for strategic planning and earned him a promotion to brigadier general. Only days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower went to Washington, D.C., to work on U.S. war plans. Eisenhower impressed Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, a keen but stern judge of military ability who rarely spoke words of praise. Promotions and critical assignments followed quickly. In November 1942, Eisenhower commanded Allied troops that invaded North Africa in Operation Torch. The next year, he directed the invasions of Sicily and Italy. In 1944, he was the supreme commander in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied western Europe. In only a few years, Eisenhower had risen from an obscure lieutenant colonel to a four-star general in charge of one of the greatest military forces in history.
By dealing sympathetically with Allied leaders, Eisenhower achieved the cooperative effort that enabled him to launch the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. His terse decision, "Okay, let's go," to go ahead despite the chance of poor weather won admiration from the Allied leaders and the troops that risked—and gave—their lives on the beaches of Normandy.
After Germany's surrender in May 1945, Eisenhower received a hero's welcome at victory ceremonies in several Allied capitals, including Washington, D.C., London, Moscow, and Paris. Yet peace also brought controversy for Eisenhower in his role as the commander of U.S. occupation forces in Germany. He endured criticism for allowing the Red Army to liberate Berlin in the final days of fighting. Eisenhower, however, thought he made the right decision, as he adhered to previous agreements about how far troops should advance and avoided unnecessary casualties to the forces he commanded. Eisenhower also had to take an unpopular step when he relieved his old friend George Patton as military governor of Bavaria because of the general's violation of orders against using former Nazis in government positions. Eisenhower also adhered strictly to a provision of the Yalta agreements that he return all Soviet citizens in the U.S. occupation zone—even political dissidents who had no desire to go back.
Eisenhower had clear views on what became one of the most controversial decisions that a President has ever made, authorizing the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He expressed his ideas in July 1945 at the Potsdam Conference, a meeting between President Harry S. Truman, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was replaced by Prime Minister Clement Atlee because of the results of the British elections. After news of the test in the New Mexico desert of the first atomic bomb reached U.S. officials at the beginning of the conference, Eisenhower told Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that the bomb was unnecessary, as Japan was on the verge of surrender. Eisenhower also feared that the first use of atomic weapons in combat would tarnish the image of the United States at the very moment that its prestige was at an all-time high. But Truman accepted the counsel of other advisers, who, unlike Eisenhower, had been at the center of discussion about the war in the Pacific, and authorized the Army Air Forces to drop whatever bombs were available—then two—as soon as possible.
At the end of 1945, Eisenhower returned to Washington, D.C., to become the chief of staff of the Army. He served in that capacity for two years and made important decisions to transform the wartime Army into a force prepared for the Cold War. After retiring from the position of chief of staff, he wrote a popular memoir of his wartime experiences, Crusade in Europe. He served as the president of Columbia University, beginning in 1948, although he returned occasionally to Washington to serve as informal chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as they discussed how to apportion service roles and missions in the nuclear age and how to allocate defense funds that fell short of their requirements. Soon after war broke out in Korea, Eisenhower returned to uniform as the first supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, the most important "job in the world today."
The Campaign and Election of 1952
During an extraordinary military career, Dwight D. Eisenhower had done some things that few, if any, Americans had ever experienced. But he had not done something that was extremely common—he had never voted. Eisenhower had stayed so far away from politics that he had not even entered a polling place. Yet in 1948, many Americans hoped that the general would cast his first ballot—for himself as President. Even Harry S. Truman tried to interest Eisenhower in a run for the presidency. As the election year of 1948 approached, Truman, who became President when Franklin D. Roosevelt died, seemed to have little chance of winning a full term of his own. In a private meeting, Truman proposed that he and Eisenhower run together on the Democratic ticket, with Eisenhower as the presidential candidate and Truman in second position. Eisenhower rejected this astonishing offer and probably thought that he would never again have to consider the possibility of a run for the White House.
Truman won an upset victory in 1948, but during the Korean War, he became extremely unpopular. Truman's decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur as commander of United Nations forces was an important cause for public disapproval of the President. So too was the deadlock in the fighting in Korea. Republicans expected victory in 1952, and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio became the leading candidate for the GOP nomination. But some prominent Republicans considered Taft an isolationist since he had opposed the formation of NATO and talked instead about building up defenses in the Western Hemisphere. They tried to interest Eisenhower in the Republican nomination, confident that his popularity would carry him to victory and certain that his internationalist policies were essential to success in the Cold War.
Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. began an Eisenhower for President drive in the Republican Party. In public, Eisenhower said he had no interest in politics because he had to devote full attention to his duty as commander of NATO forces in Europe. But behind the scenes, Eisenhower began to offer encouragement to Lodge during the senator's visits to NATO headquarters near Paris. Finally, in January 1952, Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican and that he would be willing to accept the call of the American people to serve as President.
Soon there was clear evidence that voters preferred Eisenhower. In the New Hampshire primary, Eisenhower won a lopsided victory over Taft. Yet in 1952, there was only a handful of presidential primaries. State conventions and party leaders chose most of the delegates to the nominating convention, and Taft had taken the lead before Eisenhower returned to the United States in June to campaign for the nomination. Some delegates—enough to make a difference in who got the nomination—were in dispute. At the Republican convention in Chicago, Eisenhower's political managers won a critical battle over the disputed delegates and managed to seat their delegates rather than Taft's in a few key states. As a result, Eisenhower won the nomination on the first ballot. For vice president, Eisenhower chose Senator Richard M. Nixon of California, who had helped his campaign managers secure votes in the dispute over delegates. Although he was just thirty-nine years old, Nixon had won national attention for his role in a congressional investigation of Alger Hiss, a former state department official accused of spying for the Soviets—Hiss went to prison after his conviction on a charge of perjury for denying that he had passed secrets to the Kremlin.
The Democrats picked Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, a witty and urbane politician whose thoughtful speeches appealed to liberals and moderate Democrats. His credentials were impressive: he was a Princeton-educated lawyer who had served as special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy during World War II, an influential member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations after the war, and a successful governor with an enviable record of reform. But as a campaigner, he was no match for Eisenhower.
Eisenhower inspired confidence with his plain talk, reassuring smiles, and heroic image. He kept a demanding schedule, traveling to forty-five states and speaking to large crowds from the caboose of his campaign train. The slogan "I like Ike" quickly became part of the political language of America.
Yet it was not just Ike's personal charm that mattered, his campaign used a clever strategy of ignoring Stevenson—Eisenhower never mentioned his opponent by name—and attacking Truman. And Eisenhower had a formula for victory—K1C2. The stalemated war in Korea, corruption in the Truman administration, and Communist subversion were the issues that Republicans emphasized throughout the campaign. Eisenhower held a clear lead over Stevenson in the polls, as voters looked to Eisenhower to clean up what even Stevenson had called "the mess in Washington."
Eisenhower, though, had his own problems to resolve, as unexpected difficulties disrupted his campaign. The most serious was a scandal over whether Nixon had used money from a campaign slush fund for personal expenses. This charge was particularly embarrassing because of Eisenhower's promise that his administration would be "clean as a hound's tooth." Nixon answered the allegations in a nationally televised speech on September 23. In a masterly performance, Nixon denied that he had done anything wrong, but vowed that he would not give up his daughters' little dog, Checkers, also a gift to the family, no matter what the consequences. The public responded to the "Checkers Speech" with an outpouring of emotional support, and Eisenhower kept Nixon on the ticket.
Eisenhower provoked criticism for his own actions when he campaigned in Wisconsin and appeared on the same platform with Senator Joseph McCarthy. The junior senator from Wisconsin had been front-page news for more than two years with his sensational allegations that Communist spies had infiltrated nearly every branch of government. McCarthy never provided evidence that led to a single conviction for espionage or treason, but he was a major power in the Republican Party. Eisenhower disliked McCarthy, and campaign aides told journalists that McCarthy would get his comeuppance when Eisenhower stood next to the senator at a campaign stop and praised General George C. Marshall, who McCarthy had denounced as part of a Communist conspiracy. But Eisenhower deleted his defense of Marshall, his former mentor and boss during World War II, when he gave the speech. Eisenhower endured a torrent of criticism, even from some Republicans, that he had compromised his principles for political advantage.
"I had never thought the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low," President Truman declared about Eisenhower's failure to defend Marshall. Truman at first had stayed out of the campaign, but eventually he plunged in. He resented the Republican attacks on his record, and he thought that Stevenson's erudite speeches were going over the heads of the American people. Truman traveled the country in a whistle-stop campaign as he had in 1948 and made angry and extreme charges. "There was a time when I thought he would make a good President," Truman told a crowd in Ohio, as he discussed Eisenhower's qualifications. "That was my mistake." Eisenhower, Truman insisted, was a "stooge for Wall Street." On another occasion, he said that the general was the puppet of "Republican reactionaries" who were telling Eisenhower what to say. Republican "truth squads" followed the President and replied to what they said were his "fabrications."
But the best Republican response came from Eisenhower as the campaign neared an end. "If elected, I shall go to Korea," Eisenhower declared, a pledge that stirred hopes that the general would find a way to end the fighting. Truman considered this promise a cheap campaign trick. The Truman-Eisenhower relationship, once good, died in the bitterness of the campaign. But voters weary of war and scandals in Washington gave Eisenhower a mandate for change.
Eisenhower won a big victory with 55 percent of the popular vote and a landslide in the electoral college, with 442 votes to Stevenson's 89. He even scored well in the Democratic Solid South, taking a larger percentage of the popular vote than any previous Republican candidate and capturing Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. His personal popularity attracted voters in several groups, such as Catholics and eastern Europeans, that had traditionally voted Democrat. Stevenson did well with union members, African Americans, and Jews.
Eisenhower's coattails, however, did not carry many Republicans into Congress. The GOP won control of Congress, but only by narrow majorities—three seats in the House of Representatives, one seat in the Senate. In Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge lost his Senate seat to John F. Kennedy. Indeed, while the election of 1952 was a personal mandate for Eisenhower, it was not a mandate for the Republican Party.
The Campaign and Election of 1956
Eisenhower was such a popular President during his first term that there seemed little doubt that he would win reelection no matter who the Democrats nominated to run against him. Eisenhower had agreed to an armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953. The return of peace brought strong economic growth that some people called the "Eisenhower prosperity." During 1955, the President's approval rating in the Gallup poll ranged between 68 and 79 percent.
But it was by no means certain that Eisenhower would run again. He told friends that he would be happy to serve only a single term. Then, in September 1955, the President had a major heart attack. For several months, as Eisenhower convalesced, the question was whether the President could run again. But by the beginning of 1956, Eisenhower had resumed a full schedule, and his cardiologist announced that the President was capable of serving a second term. On February 29, 1956, Eisenhower announced that he would seek reelection.
The President's illness made the choice of a vice-presidential running mate especially important in the eyes of many voters. Nixon had done a capable job of presiding over meetings of the cabinet and National Security Council during the President's recovery, but the vice president still had a reputation as a strident partisan rather than seasoned leader. And even Eisenhower had doubts about Nixon's "maturity." During early 1956, Eisenhower tried to encourage Nixon to take himself out of consideration for a second term by dropping hints that an important cabinet job—maybe secretary of defense—would be a good way to prepare for a run for the presidency in 1960. But Nixon refused to take the hints, Eisenhower decided not to confront Nixon directly, Nixon remained popular with party regulars, and in August 1956, the Republicans once more nominated Eisenhower and Nixon.
Adlai Stevenson faced a much tougher fight for the Democratic nomination than he had four years earlier. He even had to overcome Truman's opposition, as the former President made a last-minute endorsement of New York Governor W. Averell Harriman. But the Democratic convention stuck with Stevenson and for vice president, chose Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.
Stevenson had trouble finding effective issues. He scored a few points when he warned that a vote for Eisenhower would really put Nixon in the White House, especially after the President had another serious health problem that required abdominal surgery in June. Yet one of his major issues backfired when Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin endorsed Stevenson's proposal for a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower denounced Stevenson for making sensitive issues of national security matters of partisan debate, and Nixon and other Republicans insisted that Stevenson would appease the Soviets rather than stand up to them.
The President Prevails
Eisenhower held a commanding lead in the polls, and his margin widened as he dealt with two foreign policy crises in the days before the election. The first occurred at the end of October, when Israel, Great Britain, and France attacked Egypt in retaliation for the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Although Britain and France were members of NATO, they planned the attack in secret, without ever informing the President. Eisenhower was livid over what he thought was the betrayal and stupidity of America's allies. He thought that the attack would only rally support for Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, who had nationalized the canal. Eisenhower condemned the Anglo-French-Israeli action and put muscle behind his words by imposing economic sanctions that forced the invaders to withdraw.
While Eisenhower confronted the dangers of the Suez crisis, Soviet troops invaded Hungary. The Kremlin was determined to crush the Hungarian government, which had withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-dominated military alliance. Although officials in the Eisenhower administration had previously encouraged the liberation of Eastern bloc countries, Eisenhower decided not to aid the Hungarian government for fear that such intervention might lead to a major war with the Soviets. The President condemned the invasion and assisted Hungarian refugees.
These two crises widened Eisenhower's margin of victory over Stevenson. Many citizens rallied behind the President at a time of international danger. Many voters found confirmation of their belief in Eisenhower's strong and effective leadership. On election day, Eisenhower won an even more impressive victory than he had four years earlier. He carried forty-one states and received nearly 58 percent of the popular vote. He ran better in the South than he had four years earlier, even taking Louisiana—this was the first time that state had voted Republican since the end of Reconstruction. Eisenhower also cut into Stevenson's margins in many Democratic constituencies, including African Americans, who voted in larger proportion for the President than for any Republican candidate since Herbert Hoover.
The only bright spot for the Democrats was that they retained control of Congress, which they had secured in the midterm elections of 1954. Eisenhower was the first candidate since Zachary Taylor to win the presidency without having his party gain a majority of seats in either the House or the Senate. The election of 1956 was a resounding personal victory for Eisenhower but not a triumph for the Republican Party.
Although there were dangerous moments in the Cold War during the 1950s, people often remember the Eisenhower years as "happy days," a time when Americans did not have to worry about depression or war, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s, or difficult and divisive issues, as they did in the 1960s. Instead, Americans spent their time enjoying the benefits of a booming economy. Millions of families got their first television and their second car and enjoyed new pastimes like hula hoops or transistor radios. Young people went to drive-in movies or malt shops, often wearing the latest fashions—pegged pants for men, poodle skirts for women.
Yet the Eisenhower years were not so simple or carefree, and the President faced important and, at times, controversial issues in domestic affairs. Managing the economy involved important choices about how to maintain prosperity or how much to spend on what we today call "infrastructure." Protecting freedom and the rule of law necessitated difficult decisions as civil rights became an urgent national issue. Dealing with the effects of the Cold War at home required complicated action because of the sensational charges of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy about Communist infiltration of government agencies. In the eyes of a majority of the public, Eisenhower usually made the right choices, as he often enjoyed approval ratings of over 70 percent in the polls. Yet Eisenhower also had critics, who believed that he had not used his powers as President vigorously or effectively to protect individual freedom and insure justice.
During the campaign of 1952, Eisenhower criticized the statist or big government programs of Truman's Fair Deal, yet he did not share the extreme views of some Republican conservatives. These "Old Guard" Republicans talked about eliminating not just Fair Deal but also New Deal programs and rolling back government regulation of the economy. Eisenhower favored a more moderate course, one that he called Modern Republicanism, which preserved individual freedom and the market economy yet insured that government would provide necessary assistance to workers who had lost their jobs or to senior citizens. He intended to lead the country "down the middle of the road between the unfettered power of concentrated wealth . . . and the unbridled power of statism or partisan interests."
As President, Eisenhower thought that government should provide some additional benefits to the American people. He signed legislation that expanded Social Security, increased the minimum wage, and created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He also supported government construction of low-income housing but favored more limited spending than had Truman.
Eisenhower secured congressional approval of some important new programs that improved the nation's infrastructure. In partnership with Canada, the United States built the St. Lawrence Seaway. His most ambitious domestic project, the Interstate Highway program, created a 41,000-mile road system. This highway project, which, as the President said, involved enough concrete to build "six sidewalks to the moon," stimulated the economy and made driving long distances faster and safer. Yet the new super highways also had adverse effects, as they encouraged the deterioration of central cities, with residents and businesses moving to outlying locations.
Eisenhower often got his way with Congress, especially during his first term. But in his last years as President, with Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, Congress spent more for domestic programs than Eisenhower would have preferred. Although the President used his veto to block expensive programs, domestic spending still rose substantially, increasing from 31 percent of the budget in 1953 to 49 percent in 1961.
Prosperity and Poverty
Although mild recessions slowed growth in 1953-1954, 1957-1958, and again in 1960, the economy expanded robustly during most of the 1950s. Unemployment was generally low, and inflation usually was 2 percent or less. Although Old Guard conservatives pressed Eisenhower to cut taxes, the President gave a higher priority to balancing the budget. Eisenhower had moderate success—three of his eight budgets were in the black. Wage earners enjoyed a prosperous decade: During the Eisenhower presidency, personal income increased by 45 percent. Many families used their purchasing power to buy new houses, frequently in suburban developments. Consumers also used their income to acquire many new household items, including television sets and high-fidelity equipment. A few families even made their purchases by using the first charge cards from Diners Club and American Express.
Yet many Americans did not share in the prosperity of the 1950s. About one in every five Americans lived in poverty by the end of the decade. The poverty rate declined during Eisenhower's presidency, but still forty million Americans were poor when Eisenhower left office. The South had almost half of the country's poor families. Yet during the 1950s, poverty increased in northern cities, especially because of the migration of African Americans who left the South for cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland because new farm machines had taken away job opportunities. Children and the elderly were much more likely to experience poverty than adults from ages eighteen through sixty-five. Yet even though poverty was widespread, poor people got little attention during the 1950s. It was easier to celebrate the abundance of a booming consumer economy. People who had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s emphasized the economic security of the 1950s. It was not until the 1960s that affluent Americans rediscovered the poverty amid the prosperity.
Eisenhower and McCarthy
One of Eisenhower's most difficult political problems involved Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who had been in headlines since 1950 because of his charges that Communist spies or sympathizers held high positions in the federal government. Republicans had gained from McCarthy's charges that the Truman administration was "soft on communism." But after the Eisenhower administration took power, McCarthy continued his attacks, even suggesting that the President's nominees for important ambassador positions were disloyal or subversive. Republican leaders could not persuade McCarthy, a member of their own party, to halt his attacks on a Republican administration. The news media gave McCarthy significant attention, but his charges never led to a single indictment or conviction.
Eisenhower also worried about Communist spies or agents, but he disliked McCarthy's outrageous methods, including a tendency to consider someone guilty until proven innocent. Yet Eisenhower did not want to criticize McCarthy publicly, as he was fearful that such a direct confrontation would demean his office or work to the senator's advantage: "I just won't get into a pissing contest with that skunk," the President declared.
In 1954, Americans got a good look at McCarthy in action when he held televised hearings on Communist influence in the U.S. Army. Eisenhower was outraged that McCarthy had made the Army—the institution in which the President had served for most of his adult life—a target. Yet he decided to work quietly, behind the scenes, to frustrate McCarthy's investigations. What did far more to diminish the senator's power was television's ability to bring McCarthy's surliness into American living rooms. By 1954, 56 percent of American homes had television. TV could have a powerful political effect. Eisenhower used it to his advantage; he was the first President to hold a televised news conference and the first to have an advertising agency produce a television campaign commercial for his reelection. But television could also diminish political power, and that is what it did to McCarthy. After watching McCarthy on television, millions of viewers agreed with the question that Joseph Welch, a lawyer working for the Army, put to the senator: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"
At the end of 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. Never again was the senator a major force in national politics. But during the four years that he had the spotlight, McCarthy ruined many reputations by making reckless and unsubstantiated charges. Eisenhower played a modest role in finally curbing McCarthy's power.
Eisenhower's greatest failure as President was his handling of civil rights. Eisenhower did not like dealing with racial issues, but he could not avoid such matters after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Eisenhower disliked the Court's ruling, and he refused to endorse it. Although the President usually avoided comment on court decisions, his silence encouraged resistance to school desegregation. In many parts of the South, white citizens' councils organized to prevent compliance with the Court's ruling. While some of these groups relied on political action, others used intimidation and violence.
Although Eisenhower did not agree with the Supreme Court, he had a constitutional responsibility to uphold its rulings. He did so in 1957, when mobs prevented the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orval Faubus saw political advantages in using the National Guard to block the entry of the first African American students to Central High. After meeting with Eisenhower, Faubus promised to allow the students to enroll, but then he withdrew the National Guard, which allowed a violent mob to surround the school. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops and explained that he had a solemn obligation to enforce the law. Troops stayed for the entire school year, and in the spring of 1958, Central High had its first African American graduate.
But in September 1958, Faubus closed public schools to prevent their integration. Eisenhower took no action, despite what he had done a year earlier. There was no violence this time—Eisenhower believed that he had an obligation to preserve public order, not to speed desegregation. When Eisenhower left the White House, only 6 percent of African American students attended integrated schools.
Eisenhower's record included some achievements in civil rights. In 1957, he signed the first civil rights legislation since the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The law provided new federal protection for voting rights. In most southern states, the great majority of African Americans simply could not vote, despite their constitutional right to do so, because of literacy tests, poll taxes, or other obstacles. Yet the law required a jury trial to determine whether a citizen had been denied his or her right to vote. In southern states, where African Americans could not serve on juries, such trials were not likely to insure black access to the vote. In 1960, Eisenhower signed a second civil rights law, but it provided only small advances over the earlier law. The President also used his constitutional powers, where he believed that they were clear and specific, to advance desegregation, for example, in federal facilities in the nation's capital.
Despite these actions, Eisenhower was at best a tepid supporter of civil rights. He urged advocates of desegregation to go slowly. He said that integration required a change in people's hearts and minds. Eisenhower was sympathetic to white southerners who complained about alterations in what they said was their way of life. He considered as extremists both those who tried to obstruct decisions of federal courts and those who demanded that they immediately enjoy the rights that the Constitution and the courts provided them. Eisenhower refused to use his moral authority as President to advance the cause of civil rights. This issue, which divided the country in the 1950s, became even more difficult in the 1960s.
Dwight D. Eisenhower brought a "New Look" to U.S. national security policy in 1953. The main elements of the New Look were (1) maintaining the vitality of the U.S. economy while still building sufficient strength to prosecute the Cold War; (2) relying on nuclear weapons to deter Communist aggression or, if necessary, to fight a war; (3) using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry out secret or covert actions against governments or leaders "directly or indirectly responsive to Soviet control"; and (4) strengthening allies and winning the friendship of nonaligned governments. Eisenhower's defense policies, which aimed at providing "more bang for the buck," cut spending on conventional forces while increasing the budget for the Air Force and for nuclear weapons. Even though national security spending remained high—it never fell below 50 percent of the budget during Eisenhower's presidency—Eisenhower did balance three of the eight federal budgets while he was in the White House.
Nuclear weapons played a controversial role in some of Eisenhower's diplomatic initiatives, including the President's effort to end the Korean War. As promised, Eisenhower went to Korea after he was elected but before he was inaugurated. The trip provided him with no clear solution for ending the war. But during the spring of 1953, U.S. officials sent indirect hints to the Chinese government that Eisenhower might expand the war into China or even use nuclear weapons. Some historians think that these veiled threats may have encouraged the Chinese to reach a settlement, yet there is also reliable evidence that the Soviet leaders who came to power after Stalin's death in March 1953 worried about U.S. escalation and pressed for an end to the war. Both sides made concessions on the question of the repatriation of prisoners of war, and the armistice went into effect in July 1953. Korea remained divided along the 38th parallel, roughly the same boundary as when the war began in 1950.
One of the legacies of the Korean War was that U.S.-Chinese relations remained hostile and tense. Like Truman, Eisenhower refused to recognize the People's Republic of China (PRC). Instead, he continued to support Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan. When PRC guns began shelling the Nationalist Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu in September 1954, Congress granted Eisenhower the authority to use U.S. military power in the Taiwan Strait. The President knew that these specks of territory had no real strategic value but that they had symbolic importance, as both the PRC and the Nationalists claimed to be the only legitimate ruler of all of China. The crisis escalated when Eisenhower declared at a news conference that in the event of war in East Asia, he would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets "exactly as you would use a bullet." Eisenhower privately deplored Chiang's stubbornness, but his own actions contributed to a crisis that no one seemed able to control. The bombardment finally stopped in April 1954, although it is by no means certain that Eisenhower's nuclear warnings accounted for the PRC decision to end the crisis. Mao Zedong often questioned the credibility of U.S. threats and insisted that the Chinese could withstand any losses that came from a nuclear attack. U.S. and PRC negotiators met in intermittent negotiations, but a second Taiwan Strait crisis occurred in 1958.
Just weeks after Eisenhower became President, Stalin's death brought what appeared to be significant changes in Soviet international policy. Stalin's successors began calling for negotiations to settle East-West differences and to rein in the arms race. Nikita Khrushchev, who established himself as the main leader in the Kremlin in 1955, called his policy "peaceful coexistence," yet Eisenhower remained skeptical of Soviet rhetoric. He used a sexist metaphor to explain his thinking to Prime Minister Winston Churchill: "Russia was . . . a woman of the streets and whether her dress was new, or just the old one patched, there was the same whore underneath." The President insisted on deeds that matched words, and in 1955, the Soviets changed their position and ended a prolonged deadlock in negotiations over a peace treaty with Austria. Eisenhower then agreed to a summit of Soviet and Western leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1955, the first such meeting since the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
The "Spirit of Geneva" eased tensions between the Soviets and the United States, even though the conference failed to produce agreements on arms control or other major international issues. Khrushchev rejected Eisenhower's proposal for an "Open Skies" program that would have allowed both sides to use aerial air surveillance to gather information about each other's military capabilities. A year later, the President authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin top-secret intelligence flights over the Soviet Union by using the brand-new high altitude U-2 reconnaissance planes.
"Peaceful coexistence" did not extend to eastern Europe. In November 1956, Soviet tanks ruthlessly suppressed Hungary's efforts to follow an independent course free from Soviet domination. Administration officials had advocated the liberation of Soviet satellites, and propaganda agencies such as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America had encouraged Eastern Europeans to resist. Yet Eisenhower decided not to take action to aid the Hungarian freedom-fighters since any intervention carried the risk of a U.S.-Soviet war that could lead to a nuclear exchange. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the administration toned down its rhetoric about liberation, much of which had aimed at building domestic political support. Instead, it emphasized hopes for gradual—and peaceful—progress toward freedom.
During his last years in office, Eisenhower hoped to achieve a détente with the Soviet Union that could produce a treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and oceans. Hopes rose after Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959 and met with Eisenhower at the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains. This summit produced no arms control agreement, but it did lead to good will and optimism known as "the spirit of Camp David." Eisenhower and Khrushchev agreed to meet again, along with the leaders of France and Great Britain, in Paris in May 1960.
The summit collapsed, however, in acrimony and bitterness in a dispute over the U-2 incident. As the meeting with Khrushchev approached, Eisenhower authorized another U-2 flight over Soviet territory. It crashed on May 1, 1960, during the Soviet celebration of May Day. Not knowing that the Soviets had captured the pilot, the State Department and the White House issued a series of cover stories that the Kremlin exposed as lies. Despite his embarrassment, Eisenhower took responsibility for the failed U-2 mission and asserted that the flights were necessary to protect national security. Khrushchev tried to exploit the U-2 incident for maximum propaganda value and demanded an apology from the President when they met in Paris. Eisenhower refused, Khrushchev stormed out of the meeting, and the emerging détente became instead an intensified Cold War. Eisenhower was so distraught that he even talked about resigning.
Eisenhower prosecuted the Cold War vigorously even as he hoped to improve Soviet-American relations. He relied frequently on covert action to avoid having to take public responsibility for controversial interventions. He believed that the CIA, created in 1947, was an effective instrument to counter Communist expansion and to assist friendly governments. CIA tactics were sometimes unsavory, as they included bribes, subversion, and even assassination. But Eisenhower authorized those actions, even as he maintained plausible deniability, that is, carefully concealing all evidence of U.S. involvement so that he could deny any responsibility for what had happened.
During his first year in office, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to deal with a problem in Iran that had begun during Truman's presidency. In 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British corporation that controlled the nation's petroleum industry. The British retaliated with economic pressure that created havoc with Iran's finances, but Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh refused to yield. Eisenhower worried about Mossadegh's willingness to cooperate with Iranian Communists; he also feared that Mossadegh would eventually undermine the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a staunch anti-Communist partner. In August 1953, the CIA helped overthrow Mossadegh's government and restore the shah's power. In the aftermath of this covert action, new arrangements gave U.S. corporations an equal share with the British in the Iranian oil industry.
A year later, the CIA helped overthrow the elected government of Guatemala. Eisenhower and his top advisers worried that President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was too willing to cooperate with local Communists, even though they seemed to have a limited role in his government. Arbenz's program of land reform exacerbated fears, as it involved confiscating large tracts from the United Fruit Company and redistributing them to landless peasants, who made up a majority of the Guatemalan population. U.S. fears reached new heights when Arbenz bought weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia after the administration cut off Guatemala's access to U.S. military supplies. Although the evidence about Arbenz's Communist inclinations was slim and even dubious, Eisenhower was not prepared to take a risk in an area where the United States had long been the dominant power. The CIA helped counterrevolutionaries drive Arbenz from power in June 1954. Guatemala appealed in vain to the United Nations, and administration officials denied that the United States had anything to do with the change in government in Guatemala. The new president, Carlos Castillo Armas, reversed land reform and clamped down on the Communists, but he also restricted voting rights and curtailed civil liberties before an assassin murdered him in 1957.
Guatemala was the base for another covert action that the Eisenhower administration planned but did not carry out before leaving office. Eisenhower decided that Fidel Castro, who came to power in Cuba in 1959, was a "madman" who had to be deposed. In 1960, the CIA began the training in Guatemala of anti-Castro exiles who would invade Cuba. The CIA hoped for a success similar to the Guatemalan intervention of 1954. What they got instead, soon after John F. Kennedy became President, was the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
Middle East Rivalry
The intense rivalries in the Middle East brought Eisenhower into a confrontation with his most important allies, Great Britain and France. The origins of the Suez crisis of 1956 lay in the difficulties of the western powers in dealing with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist president of Egypt who followed an independent and provocative course in his dealings with major powers. Nasser bought weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia, and he sought economic aid from the United States to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile. The Eisenhower administration was prepared to provide the assistance, but during the negotiations, Nasser extended diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China. Already tired of the Egyptian leader's playing off of "East against West by blackmailing both," the Eisenhower administration halted the negotiations over aid. Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal.
The British, French, and Israelis decided to take military action. The British, especially, considered the canal a vital waterway, a lifeline to their colonies in Asia. Both the British and French disliked Nasser's inflammatory, anticolonial rhetoric. The Israelis, who faced constant border skirmishing because of Egypt's refusal to recognize the right of their nation to exist, had powerful reasons to join the conspiracy. The three nations did not consult—or even inform—Eisenhower before the Israelis launched the first attacks into the Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956.
Eisenhower was outraged. He thought the attacks would only strengthen Nasser, allowing him to become the champion of the Arab world as he opposed the aggressors. Eisenhower quickly condemned the attacks and used U.S. diplomatic and economic power to force all three nations to withdraw their troops. United States prestige in the Middle East rose. But Eisenhower hardly made good use of this advantage, as he announced a new program, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, to provide economic and military aid to Middle Eastern nations facing Communist aggression. Yet it was nationalism, not communism, that was by far the dominant force in the region.
Difficulties with Nasser also influenced Eisenhower's decision two years later to send Marines to Lebanon. For months, an internal political struggle had made Lebanon unstable. Then in July 1958, what appeared to be pro-Nasser forces seized power in Iraq. To protect Lebanon from a similar threat—one more imagined than real—Eisenhower sent in the Marines. The troops stayed only three months and suffered only one fatality. U.S. diplomats probably made a more important contribution by participating in negotiations that allowed the Lebanese factions to solve their political conflicts.
Intervention in Indochina
In Southeast Asia, Eisenhower sent U.S. weapons and dollars instead of troops. Like Truman, Eisenhower provided military aid to the French, who had begun fighting a war in 1946 to regain control over their colonial possession of Indochina, which included the current nations of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. By 1954, the Eisenhower administration was paying more than 75 percent of the French costs of the war. Yet the French were unable to defeat the Vietminh, a nationalist force under the leadership of the Communist Ho Chi Minh.
A crisis occurred in early 1954, when Vietminh forces surrounded a French garrison at the remote location of Dienbienphu. The French asked for more than weapons: they talked about a U.S. air strike, even with tactical nuclear weapons, to save their troops. Eisenhower considered the possibility of military action, but he could not persuade the British nor another ally to take part in the intervention. The President decided against an air strike, and the French garrison surrendered after weeks of brutal siege. At an international conference in Geneva, the French government granted independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Eisenhower hoped to salvage a partial victory by preventing Ho Chi Minh from establishing a Communist government over all of Vietnam. In 1954-1955, U.S. aid and support helped Ngo Dinh Diem establish a non-Communist government in South Vietnam. Eisenhower considered the creation of South Vietnam a significant Cold War success, yet his decision to commit U.S. prestige and power in South Vietnam created long-term dangers that his successors would have to confront.
A Memorable Farewell
In his Farewell Address, Eisenhower concentrated not on the threats he had confronted abroad but on the dangers of the Cold War at home. He told his fellow citizens to be wary of the "military-industrial complex," which he described as the powerful combination of "an immense military establishment and a large arms industry." Defense was a means to an end, and the American people had to be careful that they did not allow special interests to absorb an ever-increasing share of national wealth or to "endanger our liberties or democratic processes."
Eisenhower at times had difficulty balancing means and ends in protecting national security. He authorized covert interventions into the internal affairs of other nations and provided aid to dictators in the interest of protecting "the free world." He spent half or more of the federal budget on the armed services, even as he proclaimed that "every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired" was "a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." Yet Eisenhower knew that real security meant preserving fundamental values. His Farewell Address summarized principles that had guided a lifetime of service to his country.
Dwight D. Eisenhower retired to a farm on the edge of the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He raised Angus cattle, painted, and spent more time than ever before with Mamie. They entertained members of "the gang" (See Family Life section) and traveled both for pleasure and to revisit the sites of past triumphs, as when they went to Normandy to film a documentary for the twentieth anniversary of D-Day. Although he was out of office, Eisenhower could hardly stay out of national affairs. He occasionally provided advice to President John F. Kennedy, and he consulted frequently with President Lyndon B. Johnson after LBJ committed combat troops to Vietnam. Eisenhower wrote two volumes of memoirs about his White House years as well as a chatty best-seller, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends.
Eisenhower suffered another heart attack in 1965, and his health deteriorated in 1968. He spent nine months in Walter Reed Army Hospital until his death on March 28, 1969. He went out like a general, commanding his troops and in complete control. He ordered the doctors and nurses attending him to lower the shades and pull him up to a sitting position in bed. Then holding Mamie's hand, Eisenhower looked at his son, John, and grandson, David, and softly issued his final order, "I want to go; God take me." With these words, he died.
Eisenhower was buried in Abilene, near the remains of his firstborn son, "Icky." He had lived long enough to see Richard Nixon elected President and his grandson's marriage to Julie Nixon. Americans—and people around the world—mourned his death at age seventy-eight since they still liked, indeed loved, Ike.
Before he became President, Dwight D. Eisenhower had to balance family life against the obligations of military life. Duty took him to many different locations within the United States and around the world. At various times during the 1920s and 1930s, he and Mamie lived in Paris and the Panama Canal Zone, Washington, D.C., and Washington State. During their first thirty-five years of married life, the Eisenhowers moved more than thirty times.
They began raising a family in 1917 with the birth of a son, Doud Dwight, fondly known as "Icky." As they celebrated Christmas in Camp Meade, Maryland, in 1920, "Icky" became ill with scarlet fever, then a disease that physicians could do nothing to cure. In early January, "Icky" died. Eisenhower later wrote, "This was the greatest disappointment and disaster of my life." They had a second son, John, in 1922. Like his father, he graduated from West Point and then spent two decades in the Army, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served his father, the President, as a military aide and eventually became an accomplished military historian.
During World War II, military life imposed real hardships, as the Eisenhowers were separated almost continuously for more than three years. After eighteen months apart, they had two weeks together in January 1944, when Eisenhower returned to Washington from London to discuss preparations for the D-Day operation. More than a year later, after Germany surrendered, Eisenhower asked General George C. Marshall, the wartime chief of staff, if Mamie could join him in Europe. Marshall said no, as it would not be fair to all the other Army couples that duty had separated. The Eisenhowers had to settle for a few days together in Washington in June 1945. Not until the end of the year, when Eisenhower returned to the United States to succeed Marshall as Army chief of staff, were they finally reunited.
Those years were lonely and difficult, especially because of rumors that Eisenhower developed a romantic relationship with Kay Summersby. The British assigned Summersby as Eisenhower's driver in 1942, and she remained on his staff throughout the war. She was attractive and engaging, and she sometimes appeared in photographs with Eisenhower that Mamie would see in the newspapers. Eisenhower enjoyed her company, but he wrote frequently to Mamie that he wanted nothing more than to be together with her again.
Soon after the war, Summersby wrote a book in which she said that she had a strong but platonic relationship with her wartime boss. A quarter-century later, as she was dying of cancer, she wrote a second book, Past Forgetting, in which she claimed that she and Eisenhower had had a love affair. No other member of Eisenhower's wartime staff ever provided confirmation of Summersby's assertions.
Like millions of other Americans, the Eisenhowers overcame the strains of war by being together again. They still moved frequently—Washington, New York, and Paris—but finally enjoyed the luxury of eight years in one home—the White House. Duty once again competed with family time, but at least grandchildren were nearby after John became an aide to his father in 1958. Family life even altered official life in a small but enduring way. After the remodeling of the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains that Franklin D. Roosevelt had called Shangri-La, Eisenhower renamed it after his grandson—Camp David.
Eisenhower also enjoyed the company of a group of friends that he called "the gang." Most of the eight or nine members of "the gang" were wealthy business leaders who liked spending time with the President and making it easy for him to relax. They joined him on fishing trips to Colorado or golfing vacations to Georgia, and they came to the White House for evenings of conversation and bridge. They provided him with gifts, even building a house for him at the Augusta National Golf Club. Sometimes Mamie joined the President on social occasions with "the gang" and their wives, but since she disliked exercise, Eisenhower often found enjoyment in what he called "stag" events, recreation that involved just him and his male companions.
Retirement provided the Eisenhowers with more time than ever before to spend together. They enjoyed those years on their Gettysburg farm as well as the travels that took them to many places in the United States and overseas. Eisenhower remained active in public life until ill health restricted his activities in the final year before his death in March 1969. But during their last eight years together, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower at last had all the time they desired for family life.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was older than any previous President, leaving office at the age of seventy. Yet the Eisenhower years are remembered not because there was a grandfather in the White House but because there were so many children in millions of American homes. Eisenhower was President during the baby boom, a time of rapid population growth that lasted from 1946 through 1964. The baby boom reached its peak in the mid-1950s, with more than 4 million births each year.
Family Life During the Baby Boom
What accounted for the rapid growth in population was that men and women who came of age during and after the Second World War married in record numbers. They also married very early in adulthood. The median age at which women married for the first time during the 1950s was just over twenty years old. For men, the age was between twenty-two and twenty-three. Some of these couples had large families, with four or five children or more, but most had two or three children. They usually had them soon after marrying, and there was often only a short interval between the time that the first baby was born and the second baby arrived. A record rate of marriage for young adults, who then had children quickly, made for the baby boom.
Young people chose to marry early and have children. They expected that home and family would provide happiness, fulfillment, and security. The pleasures of domestic life were especially appealing in the 1950s since depression and war had prevented people from forming families in the 1930s and 1940s.
Yet women also faced pressures to marry and to give first priority to domestic responsibilities. Although women attended college in record numbers in the 1950s, opportunities for careers after graduation were limited. Some employers said that they did not want to hire women because they expected them to quit their jobs once they married and had children. Contemporary commentators sometimes said that women went to college to earn an "Mrs." Degree—to meet the right man and marry. But those who hoped that college would prepare them for something else could get contrary advice. Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic nominee for President, told the female graduates at Smith College that they could best serve society "in that humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation than that."
For middle-class women, marriage and motherhood often brought a home in the suburbs, which were frequently enclaves of young white families. By 1960, almost as many Americans lived in suburbs as in central cities; during the next decade, more people would reside in suburbs than cities.
Some of those suburban wives held jobs outside the home. By 1960, 38 percent of all women over age sixteen worked outside the home. Fifty-five percent of those female workers were married. Some were middle-class mothers who worked to raise the family income; others were heads of household, who provided the only source of income. In 1960, women were the heads of household in 10 percent of families. Many of these women worked in low-paying, segregated jobs as clerks, secretaries, and telephone operators. Nursing and teaching were among the few professions in which women could hope to find jobs.
Change and Continuity
In the 1950s, the American people were on the move. Often they went west, especially to California. The population of the United States increased by more than 18 percent during the 1950s. But there were 48 percent more Californians in 1960 than there had been a decade earlier, and neighboring Nevada and Arizona enjoyed gains of 78 and 73 percent, respectively. New York, then the largest state, gained only 13 percent. Some people, especially African Americans, moved north for midwestern or eastern cities, leaving the rural South, where new farm technology had limited opportunities for employment.
For some Americans, migration meant a chance to start anew, an opportunity to prosper. For African Americans and American Indians, moving to cities frequently meant a different kind of poverty, new forms of discrimination. Yet African Americans who moved north did gain a chance to vote, a basic right denied them in the South. During the 1950s, most southern states used a variety of methods, including literacy tests and poll taxes, to keep most African Americans out of voting booths. But in northern cities, such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit, African American voters became a powerful political force.
For a Republican, Eisenhower did well among African American voters, who had supported Democratic presidential candidates since the 1930s. He also showed some strength in what had been the Democratic Solid South. In both 1952 and 1956, Stevenson won the six adjacent states from Arkansas to North Carolina. But in 1956, Eisenhower carried Louisiana; he was the first Republican to do so since the end of Reconstruction. Eisenhower's victory in that state was an early indication of a change that was just beginning, as the South became solidly Republican during the next two decades.
Dwight D. Eisenhower's reputation among historians has changed dramatically in the last four decades. A poll of prominent historians in 1962 placed Eisenhower twenty-second among Presidents, a barely average chief executive who was as successful as Chester A. Arthur and a notch better than Andrew Johnson. Two decades later, his ranking had moved up to eleventh, and by 1994, he placed eighth. In the last major poll, done in 2000, Eisenhower was in tenth place. Among Presidents who held office in the last seventy-five years, he ranked behind only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Eisenhower's reputation has changed as more records and papers have become available to study his presidency. Contemporaries remembered Eisenhower's frequent golfing and fishing trips and wondered whether he was leaving most of the business of government to White House assistants. They also listened to his meandering, garbled answers to questions at press conferences and wondered whether he grasped issues and had clear ideas about how to deal with them. But previously closed records that started to become available at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, in the 1970s revealed that the President had thoughtful views about most major issues and frequently took an active role in discussing them with the cabinet or at meetings of the National Security Council. Historians now appreciate that Eisenhower recognized the political advantages of working behind the scenes to deal with controversial issues, using his "hidden hand" to guide policy while allowing subordinates to take any credit—as well as the political heat.
While critics in the 1950s scorned Eisenhower as a "do-nothing" President, historians in the twenty-first century sometimes praise him for not taking action. Eisenhower did not lead the country into war, although he might have chosen to do so in Indochina in 1954. He negotiated an armistice in the Korean War only six months after taking office. For the rest of his presidency, peace prevailed, even if at times Cold War tensions were high. Eisenhower also did not adopt policies that jeopardized the strong economic growth during the 1950s, and he sometimes made decisions that stimulated the economy, such as supporting the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Although national security spending was high during the Eisenhower years, the President did not give in to temptations to spend even more. After the Soviets launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, Eisenhower resisted panicked public demands for huge increases in military spending since he knew that the nation's defenses remained strong. He insisted that he would not spend one penny less than was necessary to maintain national security—nor one penny more.
Although Eisenhower now gets credit he deserves for preserving peace and prosperity, historians have not overlooked the limitations of his achievements. His "hidden hand" eventually helped push Senator Joseph R. McCarthy out of the national spotlight, but Eisenhower's unwillingness to confront McCarthy directly allowed the senator to continue to abuse his power and sully the reputations of those he wrongfully accused. Yet Eisenhower's greatest failing was in civil rights. He was unwilling to use his moral authority as President to advance the most important movement for social justice of the twentieth century. Instead, he lumped together as extremists those who resisted the courts and the Congress and those who called for the full and immediate enforcement of their constitutional and legal rights. As Eisenhower's foremost biographer, Stephen Ambrose, has written, "In civil rights, as in civil liberties, Eisenhower was not a reluctant leader—he was no leader at all."
Although he avoided war, Eisenhower did not achieve the peace he desired. He hoped for détente with the Soviet Union but instead left to his successor an intensified Cold War. He was unable to secure a test-ban treaty, which he hoped would be an important part of his legacy. The covert interventions he authorized in Iran and Guatemala yielded short-term success but contributed to long-term instability.
Eisenhower, in short, achieved a mixed record as he confronted momentous issues at home and abroad. He left office a popular President, and his stature has grown with the passage of time.