Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961): The 34th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Eisenhower was one American who appealed to everyone. He was a god-like figure all over the world, but he had no interest in politics. For this reason, he was pursued by both parties as the “reluctant politician.” Eisenhower was dissatisfied with both the Democrats’ handling of the Korean War and the reported corruption of the Truman White House, so he joined the Republicans and ran for the presidency in 1952.
The legendary mastermind of D-Day seemed like a semi-retired president who’d rather golf than govern; however, he was a much better politician than he let on. One can’t become a five star general in the army without understanding politics.
Eisenhower was charismatic. “I Like Ike” wasn’t just a campaign slogan, but the way people really felt about him. He had a marvelous aura about him. He seemed like a confident, decent man who only wanted to do what was right. Still, while Americans liked and trusted Ike, they also thought he was disengaged.
Hidden Hand Presidency
In spite of popular belief, Eisenhower was actually a sophisticated politician who had honed his grasp of politics while in the army. During World War II he had to smooth over disputes among Allied officers of several nations, and he eventually worked closely with three world statesmen: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, French Resistance leader Charles de Gaulle and British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Eisenhower played politics the way he played poker: with a “hidden hand” that was much better than his opponents realized. There were five facets to Eisenhower’s approach to politics:
First, he was a skillful politician who chose not to let others realize that fact. He camouflaged his participation in politics by relying on others to take a partisan role while he himself played the role of “President of all the people.” While his adversaries would continue to underestimate him as a politician, the American people would support him for being “above politics.” However, Eisenhower was extensively involved in Republican party politics.
Second, Eisenhower often used language that was deliberately ambiguous or spoke in an evasive, noncommittal, or even confused way. This tactic enabled him to avoid taking unpopular positions on controversial issues, but it also led his adversaries to again underestimate him.
Third, Eisenhower avoided dealing in personalities. He never attacked anyone else’s motives or made statements that would convert his political adversaries into bitter enemies. He often masked his own negative feelings about those with whom he had to work, including leading members of Congress of his own party, in order to stay on friendly terms with them. Maintaining his image as a genial leader also contributed to Eisenhower’s popularity.
Fourth, Eisenhower had the ability to step into other people’s shoes in order to understand how they viewed the world. He always tried to know what his adversaries were thinking before he engaged them in a controversy, and he tried to think of ways to bring them over to his side.
Finally, Eisenhower gave his subordinates important assignments but never lost control of policy. He would share credit for success with subordinates but would let them take most of the blame for the failures, disassociating himself from them when necessary to preserve his own position as a statesman in the eyes of the American people.
States Admitted Into The Union
- Alaska became the 49th state January 3, 1959 from the Territory of Alaska
- Hawaii became the 50th state August 21, 1959 from the Territory of Hawaii
Korean War Armistice
Decades later, this truce Eisenhower helped negotiate is still all that technically prevents North Korea, the US and South Korea from resuming the war as no peace treaty has ever been signed. Both sides regularly accuse the other of violating the agreement, but the accusations have become more frequent as tensions rise over North Korea‘s nuclear program.
When the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, talks had already dragged on for two years, ensnared in testy issues such as the exchange of prisoners of war and the location of a demarcation line. The armistice was only ever intended as a temporary measure.
The document, signed by US Lt Gen William K Harrison and his counterpart from the North’s army, General Nam Il, said it was aimed at a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” South Korea was not a signatory. However, that settlement never came, and a conference in Geneva in 1954 designed to thrash out a formal peace accord ended without agreement.
The armistice is still the only safeguard for peace on the Korean peninsula. The agreement provided for a suspension of open hostilities, a fixed demarcation line with a 4km (2.4 miles) buffer zone or the so-called demilitarization zone, a mechanism for the transfer of prisoners of war, a pledge not to “execute any hostile act within, from, or against the demilitarized zone,” or enter areas under control of the other, and the establishment of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and other agencies to ensure the truce held.
The MAC, which comprises members from both sides, still meets regularly in the truce village of Panmunjom.
Despite the relative peace since the war ended, tensions remain high between the two Koreas, and their border remains the most heavily militarized frontier in the world.
While Eisenhower’s entire career had been about war, he used the presidency to pursue peace. He downsized the military as he thought America could spend more on infrastructure and quality of life. In fact, he pushed the world’s largest public works act through Congress changing the entire face of America.
Federal Highway Act
Popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established an interstate highway system in the United States. The movement behind the construction of a transcontinental superhighway started in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed interest in the construction of a network of toll superhighways that would provide more jobs for people in need of work during the Great Depression.
The resulting legislation was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, which directed the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a six-route toll network. But with America on the verge of joining the war in Europe, the time for a massive highway program had not arrived. At the end of the war, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 funded highway improvements and established major new ground by authorizing and designating, in Section 7, the construction of 40,000 miles of a “National System of Interstate Highways.”
When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the states had only completed 6,500 miles of the system improvements. Eisenhower had first realized the value of good highways in 1919, when he participated in the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, DC, to San Francisco.
Again, during World War II, Eisenhower saw the German advantage that resulted from their autobahn highway network, and he also noted the enhanced mobility of the Allies, on those same highways, when they fought their way into Germany. These experiences significantly shaped Eisenhower’s views on highways and their role in national defense.
During his State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954, Eisenhower made it clear that he was ready to turn his attention to the nation’s highway problems. He considered it important to “protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.”
Between 1954 and 1956, there were several failed attempts to pass a national highway bill through the Congress. The main controversy over the highway construction was the apportionment of the funding between the federal government and the states. Undaunted, the President renewed his call for a “modern, interstate highway system” in his 1956 State of the Union Address.
Within a few months, after considerable debate and amendment in the Congress, The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 emerged from the House-Senate conference committee. In the act, the interstate system was expanded to 41,000 miles, and to construct the network $25 billion was authorized for fiscal years 1957 through 1969. During his recovery from a minor illness, Eisenhower signed the bill into law at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on the 29th of June. Because of the 1956 law, and the subsequent Highway Act of 1958, the pattern of community development in America was fundamentally altered and was henceforth based on the automobile.
While this change was greeted by the majority of Americans, most were not receptive to other changes in their culture. Black people continue to live in a segregated society.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Does the segregation of public education based solely on race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment? This case was the consolidation of four cases arising in separate states related to the segregation of public schools on the basis of race.
In each of the cases, African American minors had been denied admittance to certain public schools based on laws allowing public education to be segregated by race. They argued that such segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The plaintiffs were denied relief based on the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine that stated separate facilities for the races was constitutional as long as the facilities were “substantially equal.” In the case arising from Delaware, the Supreme Court of Delaware ruled that the African American students had to be admitted to the white public schools because of their higher-quality facilities.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the unanimous court. The Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” facilities were inherently unequal and violated the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court also held that the segregation of public education based on race instilled a sense of inferiority that had a hugely detrimental effect on the education and personal growth of African American children.
While Eisenhower appointed Warren, the motivating force behind the ruling, he publicly distanced himself from the decision citing it as disruptive, an inappropriate for the federal government, and saying the country was not ready for it. Eisenhower was more focused on foreign affairs. In 1954, the French were defeated in Vietnam and the country split in two. Eisenhower supported the pro-western south over the communist north and engaged in a series of steps (including sending huge sums of money in aid and support) that were essential in getting us involved in Vietnam. One of which was the support of the Bank of Vietnam.
Bank of Vietnam
Before the August Revolution in 1945, Vietnam was a feudal-colonial country under French colonialists’ rule. The banking and credit system was founded and protected by the French colonialists through the Indo China bank. Its functioned as both the central bank of the whole Indochinese region (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) and a commercial bank with commercial bank operations and investment.
After the August Revolution, one of the key tasks of the August Revolution team was to build an independent and autonomous monetary and banking system to serve for the national cause of revolution and construction. The task was fulfilled by 1950, when the anti-French resistance war grew stronger, obtaining many triumphs on the battlefield, and expanding the liberalized region. In this context, the development required economic and financial activities to be improved and promoted to meet new demands. On the basis of the new economic and financial policy set out in the 2nd Congress of the Vietnam Workers’ Party (February 1951), President Ho Chi Minh signed Decision 15/SL on the establishment of the Vietnam National Bank – Bank of the first people’s democratic state in Southeast Asia in order to carry out five urgent missions: issuing banknotes, managing treasury, carrying out credit policy in order to facilitate production, coordinating with the trade authorities for monetary management, and struggling against the enemy. The foundation of the Vietnam National Bank was the result of the struggle to develop an independent, and autonomous, monetary and credit system, marking a new development step, i.e, changing the quality of the national monetary and credit sector.
The performance of the Vietnam National Bank focused on currency management and circulation under the socialist economic management principles; formulated and promoted bank credit scheme for state-owned and collective enterprises; improved non-cash payment; established payment centers as commercial banks; expanded international credit and payment relationships; implemented the state exclusive scheme for foreign exchange management. This is why Eisenhower sent massive amounts of aid to the south in order to combat these policies of the bank after initially supporting it.
There was great peace and prosperity during Eisenhower’s first term. The economy was soaring and he was reelected rather easily in 1956. Like with most two term presidents, his second term was much tougher than his first. There were health concerns as he had a heart attack in 1955. Furthermore, his aloof reaction to growing civil rights unrest made him seem weak.
History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm, or 22.8 inches, in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg (or 183.9 pounds), and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.
The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) because the scientists knew that the cycles of solar activity would be at a high point then. In October 1954, the council adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface.
In July 1955, the White House announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard proposal was chosen to represent the U.S. during the IGY.
The Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard. Its size was more impressive than Vanguard’s intended 3.5-pound payload. In addition, the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.
Immediately after the Sputnik I launch in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furor by approving funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a simultaneous alternative to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project.
On January 31, 1958, the tide changed, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, named after principal investigator James Van Allen. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically-useful spacecraft.
The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the “Space Act”), which created NASA as of October 1, 1958, from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.
The U.S. government had supported Batista, a former soldier and Cuban dictator from 1933 to 1944, who seized power for a second time in a 1952 coup. After Castro and a group of followers, including the South American revolutionary Che Guevara (1928-1967), landed in Cuba to unseat the dictator in December 1956, the U.S. continued to back Batista. Suspicious of what they believed to be Castro’s leftist ideology and worried that his ultimate goals might include attacks on the U.S.’s significant investments and property in Cuba, American officials were nearly unanimous in opposing his revolutionary movement.
Cuban support for Castro’s revolution, however, grew in the late 1950s, partially due to his charisma and nationalistic rhetoric, but also because of increasingly rampant corruption, greed, brutality and inefficiency within the Batista government. This reality forced the U.S. to slowly withdraw its support from Batista and begin a search in Cuba for an alternative to both the dictator and Castro; these efforts failed.
On January 1, 1959, Batista and a number of his supporters fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of Cubans (and thousands of Cuban Americans in the U.S.) celebrated the end of the dictator’s regime. Castro’s supporters moved quickly to establish their power. Judge Manuel Urrutia was named as provisional president. Castro and his band of guerrilla fighters triumphantly entered Havana on January 7.
The U.S. attitude toward the new revolutionary government soon changed from cautiously suspicious to downright hostile. After Castro nationalized American-owned property, allied himself with the Communist Party and grew friendlier with the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War enemy, the U.S severed diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba and enacted a trade and travel embargo that remains in effect today.
After Sputnik and the Cuban Revolution, there was a general feeling amongst Americans that we were losing to the Soviets. In fact, one could call it a malaise in the U.S. that communism was overwhelming us. All of a sudden, Eisenhower’s grandfatherly image was a liability.
In his final address to the nation, Eisenhower stated: “…with candor we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by military-industrial complex” For a hero of World War II that wanted to leave behind a legacy of peace, this was a stunning pronouncement. However, as the leader of the allies who saw war up close, Eisenhower realized war had to be a last resort.
If you believe that a “strong” military is a large, robust one, then you are not an Eisenhower fan who made it a point to reduce the size of the military. If you are not in favor of big government, you would not have approved of Ike wanting the government in charge of building and maintaining our nation’s highway system as well as the establishment of a national space program. Finally, Eisenhower’s actions in the burgeoning civil rights movement (he went from aloof to sending in the National Guard in Arkansas) could be interpreted as a President who was “further” dividing us.
John F. Kennedy would follow him.
Harry Truman preceded him.
It all started with George Washington.