Modern history

The Eisenhower Era

Despite the existence of civil rights protesters, rock ’n’ roll upstarts, intellectual dissenters, and sexual revolutionaries, the 1950s seemed to many a tranquil, even dull period— one commentator referred to it as “the bland leading the bland.” This impression owes a great deal to the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Serving two terms from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower, or “Ike” as he was affectionately called, convinced the majority of Americans that their country was in good hands regardless of political turbulence at home and heated international conflicts abroad.

Modern Republicanism

President Eisenhower, a World War II hero, radiated strength and trust, qualities the American people found very attractive as they rebuilt their lives and established families in the 1950s. Nominated by the Republican Party in 1952, the sixty-two-year-old Eisenhower shrewdly balanced his ticket by choosing as his running mate California senator Richard M. Nixon, a man twenty-three years his junior who had risen in politics by attacking Democrats as soft on communism. On election day, Eisenhower coasted to victory, winning 55 percent of the popular vote and 83 percent of the electoral vote. Despite Eisenhower’s personal popularity, the Republicans managed to win only slim majorities in the Senate and the House. Within two years, they had lost even this slight edge in both houses, and the Democrats regained control of Congress.

With a limited electoral mandate, the president adopted what one of his speechwrit- ers called Modern Republicanism, which tried to fit the traditional Republican Party ideals of individualism and fiscal restraint within the broad framework of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. With Democrats in control of Congress after 1954, Republicans agreed to raise Social Security benefits and to include coverage for some ten million additional workers. Congress and the president retained another New Deal mainstay, the minimum wage, and increased it from 75 cents to $1 an hour. Departing from traditional Republican criticism of big government, the Eisenhower administration added the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the cabinet in 1953. The president justified expanding the federal government in domestic matters as part of fighting the Cold War. In 1958 Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, which provided aid for instruction in science, math, and foreign languages and graduate fellowships and loans for college students. He portrayed the new law as a way to catch up with the Soviets, who the previous year had successfully launched the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, into outer space.

Eisenhower and the Cold War

In foreign affairs, Eisenhower perpetuated Truman’s containment doctrine while at the same time espousing the contradictory principle of “rolling back” communism in Eastern Europe. However, when Hungarians rose up against their Soviet-backed regime in 1956, the U.S. government did little more than offering encouragement and allowing approximately eighty thousand Hungarian refugees to enter the country. Rather than pushing back communism, the Eisenhower administration expanded the doctrine of containment around the world by entering into treaties to establish regional defense pacts. In 1954 the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization was formed to protect Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand from Communist assault. In 1959 the Central Treaty Organization brought Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and once again Pakistan within the U.S. defense perimeter.

Eisenhower’s commitment to fiscal discipline had a profound effect on his foreign policy. The president worried that the alliance among government, defense contractors, and research universities—which he dubbed “the military-industrial complex”—would bankrupt the economy and undermine individual freedom. With this in mind, he implemented the New Look strategy, which placed a higher priority on building a nuclear arsenal and delivery system than on the more expensive task of maintaining and deploying armed forces on the ground throughout the world. Nuclear missiles launched from the air by U.S. air force bombers or fired from submarines would give the United States, as Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson asserted, “a bigger bang for the buck.” With the nation now armed with nuclear weapons, the Eisenhower administration threatened “massive retaliation” in the event of Communist aggression.

The New Look may have saved money and slowed the rate of defense spending, but it had serious flaws. First, it placed a premium on “brinksmanship,” taking Communist enemies to the precipice of nuclear destruction, risking the death of millions, and hoping the other side would back down. Second, massive retaliation did not work for small-scale conflicts. For instance, in the event of a confrontation in Berlin, would the United States launch nuclear missiles toward Germany and expose its European allies in West Germany and France to nuclear contamination? Third, the buildup of nuclear warheads provoked an arms race by encouraging the Soviet Union to do the same. Peace depended on the superpowers terrifying each other with the threat of nuclear annihilation—that is, if one country attacked the other, retaliation was guaranteed to result in shared obliteration. This strategy was known as mutually assured destruction, and its acronym—MAD—summed up its nightmarish qualities. As each nuclear power increased its capacity to destroy the other many times over, the potential for mistakes and errors in judgment increased, threatening a nuclear holocaust that would leave little to rebuild. Fortunately, Eisenhower used the threat of massive retaliation judiciously, mainly against the Chinese rather than the Soviets. In 1953, after the United States threatened to deploy nuclear weapons against China, China agreed to an armistice that ended the fighting in Korea; two years later, similar American threats kept the Chinese from attacking Taiwan, where Jiang Jieshi’s Nationalist government ruled in exile.

National security concerns occupied a good deal of the president’s time. Fearing that a Soviet nuclear attack could wipe out nearly a third of the population before the United States could retaliate, the Eisenhower administration stepped up civil defense efforts. Schoolchildren took part in “duck and cover” drills, in which teachers shouted “Take cover” and students hid under their desks. In the meantime, both the United States and the Soviet Union began producing intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. They also stepped up aboveground tests of nuclear weapons, which contaminated the atmosphere with dangerous radioactive particles.

Despite doomsday rhetoric of massive retaliation, Eisenhower generally relied more on diplomacy than on military action. Stalin’s death in 1953 and his eventual replacement by Nikita Khrushchev in 1955 permitted détente, or a relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers. In July 1955, Eisenhower and Khrushchev, together with British and French leaders, gathered in Geneva to discuss arms control. It was the first meeting of an American president and a Soviet head of state since the end of World War II. Nothing concrete came out of this summit, but Eisenhower and Khrushchev did ease tensions between the two nations. In a speech to Communist officials two years later, Khrushchev denounced the excesses of Stalin’s totalitarian rule and reinforced hopes for a new era of peaceful coexistence between the Cold War antagonists. Khrushchev also visited the United States in 1959, yet peaceful coexistence remained precarious. Just as President Eisenhower was about to begin his own tour of the Soviet Union in 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane flying over their country. Eisenhower canceled his trip, and tensions resumed.

Cold War Interventions

While relations between the Soviet Union and the United States thawed and then cooled during the Eisenhower era, the Cold War advanced into new regions. In a manner first suggested in NSC-68 (see chapter 24), the Eisenhower administration deployed the CIA to help topple governments considered pro-Communist as well as to promote U.S. economic interests. For example, after Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized foreign oil corporations in 1953, the CIA engineered a successful coup that ousted his government and installed the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in his place. Mossadegh was not a Communist, but by overthrowing him American oil companies obtained 40 percent of Iran’s oil revenue.

The Kitchen Debate Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, second on the left, talks with Vice President Richard Nixon, second on the right, at a U.S. exhibit in Moscow on July 24, 1959. The two leaders argued about the relative merits of capitalism and communism, while looking at an American kitchen that displayed the latest washing machine. Khrushchev, pointing his finger at Nixon, appears unimpressed. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 1954 fruit and sugar replaced oil as the catalyst for U.S. intervention. The elected socialist regime of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala had seized 225,000 acres of land held by the United Fruit Company, a powerful American company in which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, held stock. According to the Dulles brothers, the land’s seizure by the Guatemalan government posed a threat to the nearby Panama Canal. Eisenhower was unwilling to send in troops, but he allowed the CIA to hatch a plot that resulted in a coup d’état,or government overthrow, that installed a right-wing military regime in Guatemala, which safeguarded both the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company.

The success of the CIA’s covert efforts in Guatemala prompted the Eisenhower administration to plan a similar action in Cuba, ninety miles off the coast of Florida. In 1959 the Cold War inched closer to the United States as Fidel Castro led an uprising and came to power in Cuba after overthrowing the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. A Cuban nationalist in the tradition of José Marti, Castro sought to regain full control over his country’s economic resources, including those owned by U.S. corporations. He appropriated $1 billion worth of American property and signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. To consolidate his political rule, Castro jailed opponents and installed a Communist regime, forcing a large number of his adversaries to immigrate to Miami. In 1960 President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to design a clandestine operation to overthrow the Castro government, but he left office before the invasion could occur.

The efforts of Iranian, Guatemalan, and Cuban leaders to seize control of their countries’ resources were but a few examples of the surge of nationalism that swept through former European colonies in the 1950s. Following World War II, revolutionary nationalists in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia toppled colonial governments and wielded the power of their newly liberated regimes to take charge of their own development. The United States and the Soviet Union each tried to gain influence over these emerging nations. Many newly independent countries tried to practice neutrality in foreign affairs, accepting aid from both of the Cold War protagonists. Nonetheless, they were often drawn into East-West conflicts.

Such was the case in Egypt, which achieved independence from Great Britain in 1952. Two years later under General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country sought to modernize its economy by building the hydroelectric Aswan Dam on the Nile River. Nasser welcomed financial backing from the United States and the Soviet Union, but the Eisenhower administration refused to contribute so long as the Egyptians accepted Soviet assistance. In 1956 Nasser, falling short of funds, sent troops to take over the Suez Canal, the waterway run by Great Britain and through which the bulk of Western Europe’s oil was shipped. He intended to pay for the dam by collecting tolls from canal users. In retaliation, Britain and France, the two European powers most affected by the seizure, invaded Egypt on October 29, 1956. Locked in a struggle with Egypt and other Arab nations since its creation in 1948, Israel joined in the attack. The invading forces—all U.S. allies—had not warned the Eisenhower administration of their plans. Coming at the same time as the Soviet crackdown against the Hungarian revolution, the British- French-Israeli assault placed the United States in the difficult position of condemning the Soviets for intervening in Hungary while its anti-Communist partners waged war in Suez. Instead, Eisenhower cooperated with the United Nations to negotiate a ceasefire and engineer a pullout of the invading forces in Egypt. Ultimately, the Soviets proved the winners in this Cold War skirmish. The Suez invasion revived memories of European imperialism and fueled anti-Western sentiments and pan-Arab nationalism (a sense of unity among Arabs across national boundaries), which worked to the Soviets’ advantage. Nasser obtained financial assistance from the Soviets and built the Aswan Dam.

The Eisenhower administration soon moved to counter growing Soviet power in the region. In 1957, fearing increasing Communist influence in the oil-rich Middle East, Congress approved the Eisenhower Doctrine, which gave the president a free hand to use U.S. military forces in the Middle East “against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism,” as he remarked to Congress. In effect, the Eisenhower administration was more concerned with protecting access to oil fields from hostile Arab nationalist leaders than with any Communist incursion. In 1958, when an anti-American, non-Communist regime came to power in Iraq, the president sent fourteen thousand marines to neighboring Lebanon to prevent a similar outcome there. A military realist, Eisenhower made his choice for intervention carefully—the invasion required limited force and allowed a speedy exit without any fatalities.

Just before Eisenhower left office in January 1961, his administration intervened in a civil war in the newly independent Congo. This former colony of Belgium held valuable mineral resources, which Belgium and the United States still coveted. After the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, stated his intentions to remain neutral in the Cold War, President Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles declared him unreliable in the conflict with the Soviet Union. With the support of Belgian military troops and encouragement from the United States, the resource-rich province of Katanga seceded from the Congo in 1960. After the Congolese military, under the leadership of Joseph Mobuto, overthrew Lumumba’s government, the CIA launched an operation that culminated in the execution of Lumumba on January 17, 1961. Several years later, Mobuto became president of the country, changed its name to Zaire, and allied with the West. The Eisenhower administration had extended the Cold War to central Africa in a covert, but nonetheless bloody, manner.

Early U.S. Intervention in Vietnam

Eisenhower’s intervention in Vietnam would have profound, long-term consequences for the United States. By the 1950s, Vietnamese revolutionaries (the Vietminh) had been fighting for independence from the French for decades. They were led by Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary who had studied Communist doctrine in the Soviet Union but was not controlled by the Soviets. In fact, he modeled his 1945 Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on that of the United States. Ho’s overriding objective was the liberation of Vietnam along socialist principles. In 1954 the Vietminh defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. With the backing of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, both sides agreed to divide Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel and hold free elections to unite the country in 1956.

President Eisenhower believed that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, the rest of Southeast Asia and Japan would “go over very quickly” like “a row of dominoes,” threatening American strategic power in the Far East as well as free access to Asian markets. Convinced that Ho Chi Minh and his followers would win free elections, the Eisenhower administration installed the anti-French, anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem to lead South Vietnam and then supported his regime’s refusal to hold national elections in 1956. The anti-Communist interests of the United States had trumped its democratic promises. With the country now permanently divided, Eisenhower funneled economic aid to Diem to undertake needed land reforms that would strengthen his government and weaken the appeal of Ho Chi Minh. The president also dispatched CIA agents and military advisers to help the South Vietnamese government set up security forces, train military units, and extend educational opportunities. However, Diem used most of the money to consolidate his power rather than implement reforms, which only widened opposition to his regime from Communists and non-Communists alike. This prompted Ho Chi Minh in 1959 to support the creation in the South of the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, to wage a military insurgency against Diem. By the end of the decade, the Eisenhower administration had created a major diplomatic problem with no clear plan for its resolution.

The Election of 1960

Even after experiencing eight years of dramatic challenges in both foreign and domestic affairs, Eisenhower remained popular. In 1956 voters had returned Eisenhower to the White House with greater support than in 1952. Once again, Eisenhower’s personal popularity did not carry over to the Republican Party, as Democrats increased their control over Congress. Eisenhower, however, could not run for a third term, barred by the Twenty-second Amendment (1951), and Vice President Richard M. Nixon ran as the Republican candidate for president in 1960. Unlike Eisenhower, Nixon was not universally liked or respected. His manipulation of the anti-Communist issue and his reputation for unsavory political combat drew the scorn of Democrats, especially liberals. Moreover, Nixon had to fend off charges that Republicans, as embodied in the seventy-year-old Eisenhower, were out-of-date and out of new ideas.

Running as the Democratic candidate for president in 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts promised to instill renewed “vigor” in the White House and get the country moving again. Yet Kennedy did not differ much from his Republican rival on domestic and foreign policy issues. Kennedy’s willingness to employ a rhetoric of high- minded change did not seem to be dampened by the fact that he had not compiled a distinguished or courageous record in the Senate, that his family’s fortune had paved the way for his political career, and that he had earned a well-justified reputation in Washington as a playboy and womanizer.

The outcome of the 1960 election turned on several factors. The country was experiencing a slight economic recession, reviving memories in older voters of the Great Depression, which had begun with the Republican Hoover in power. In addition, presidential candidates faced off on television for the first time, participating in four televised debates. As the leading medium for information, TV emphasized visual style and presentation. With Nixon having just recovered from a stay in the hospital and looking haggard, Kennedy in the first debate convinced a majority of television viewers that he possessed the presidential bearing for the job. Nixon performed better in the next three debates, but the damage had been done. Still, Kennedy had to overcome considerable religious prejudice to win the election. No Catholic had ever won the presidency, and the prejudices of Protestants, especially in the South, threatened to divert critical votes from Kennedy’s Democratic base. While many southern Democrats did support Nixon, Kennedy balanced out these defections by gaining votes from the nation’s Catholics, especially in northern states rich in electoral votes (Map 25.2).

MAP 25.2

The Election of 1960 The 1960 presidential candidates differed little on major policy issues. John F. Kennedy gained the White House by winning back black voters who had supported Eisenhower, gaining crucial support from Catholic voters across the country, and appearing more presidential in the first televised debate in history. Still, his margin of victory was razor thin.

Race also exerted a critical influence. Nixon and Kennedy had similar records on civil rights, and if anything, Nixon’s was slightly stronger. However, on October 19, I960, when Atlanta police arrested Martin Luther King Jr. for participating in a restaurant sit-in, Kennedy sprang to his defense, whereas Nixon kept his distance. Kennedy telephoned the civil rights leader’s wife to offer his sympathy and used his influence to get King released from jail. As a result, King’s father, a Protestant minister who had intended to vote against the Catholic Kennedy, switched his position and endorsed the Democrat. In addition to the elder King, Kennedy won back for Democrats 7 percent of black voters who had supported Eisenhower in 1956. Kennedy won by a margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote, underscoring the importance of the African American electorate.


• Why did Eisenhower adopt a moderate domestic agenda? What were his most notable accomplishments?

• How did Eisenhower use the CIA and covert actions to protect and expand American influence around the world?

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