THE EISENHOWER PRESIDENCY
After the Democrats had a five-term run in the White House, a Republican took over. Actually, the Democrats were thinking of nominating Eisenhower themselves, but after some reflection, Eisenhower decided he was a Republican. To give Ike a tough anti-Communist edge, the Republicans ran Richard Nixon as vice president.
When a corruption controversy about Nixon surfaced, Ike almost dumped him. Nixon made the first dramatic use of national television as a political tool by going on the air to speak about how his wife had only a respectable Republican cloth coat (no minks for her) and how Communist sympathizers next would attack the fact that his kids had been given a dog named Checkers. The Checkers speech saved his nomination, and Eisenhower won the election by an overwhelming majority.
Eisenhower had been a mediator of often-contentious military units as the overall head of the Allied forces in Europe in World War II. He used these talents to lead by consensus during the 1950s. Although he was seldom in the forefront on important issues, he usually came through with reasonable compromise solutions.
Politics under Ike
Eisenhower's legislative record was mild like his personality. He often worked with a Congress controlled by Democrats, and he had to put up with some boneheads in his own administration. When scientists invented a drug to prevent the horrible childhood disease of polio, Eisenhower's secretary of health condemned the free distribution of the vaccine as "socialized medicine."
Old soldier that he was, Eisenhower knew the waste that goes with military spending. He reduced Truman's military buildup, although costs remained high during the tense Cold War years.
The administration participated in a major roundup of illegal aliens called Operation Wetback and tried to set back the cause of American Indian identity by temporarily revoking the tribal rights of the Indian New Deal. Otherwise, Eisenhower kept the programs from the New Deal without trying to dismantle or change them. By continuing these programs in a Republican administration, he helped make them a permanent part of American society.
Ike made his biggest change to the American landscape by starting the huge freeway-building program that linked the whole country together under the Interstate Highway Act (1956). With climate change and oil politics, those smooth roads that make people slaves to their cars now look dangerous, but when Ike started to build them, they opened up a world of easy travel.
Tensions with the U.S.S.R.
Eisenhower tried to start peace talks, but the timing just wasn't right. In 1955, the Soviet Union rejected Ike's proposal at a summit conference for open skies over both countries as an obvious espionage trick. The open skies idea got embarrassing when the Soviets shot down a U.S. spy plane over the U.S.S.R. in 1960, just in time to also shoot down another summit conference. The U.S. also had to stand by and watch as the Soviet Union brutally crushed a 1956 uprising in Hungary.
Worst of all, Vietnam was on the horizon. The U.S. tried funding the French fight against Vietnamese Communist rebels, but the French lost. Vietnam was divided, and the U.S. supported South Vietnam because, although it was a dictatorship, it wasn't Communist. America made a similar mistake in Iran, using the CIA to put the Shah in power in 1953. Both cynical moves would later come back to haunt the U.S. (see Chapter 19).
Question: Why did the U.S. increase its involvement in Vietnam?
Answer: When the French left Vietnam, the U.S. tried to shore up the anti-Communist South Vietnamese regime.
On the friendly side, Ike proclaimed the Eisenhower Doctrine (1957), which offered aid to Middle Eastern nations. Under Eisenhower, the U.S. put a stop to the joint Israeli, British, and French takeover of the Suez Canal, winning some thanks from the Egyptians. Ike landed troops to help the government of Lebanon and got out without a single U.S. death. With the GDP and economy up, sunny Ike carried almost the whole country in his 1956 reelection.