Study Guide

Dwight D. Eisenhower in Checkers Speech

By Richard Nixon

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Reluctant Politician

Born and raised in the American Midwest, Eisenhower's family was poor in a way that Nixon could only dream of. Because the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was tuition-free, Ike enrolled in 1911, a fateful decision which would take him to two World Wars: the first spent training troops in Pennsylvania, and the second spent liberating Europe as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Needless to say, he was pretty good at his job: the Allies won the war.

After World War II, Eisenhower left active service to become President of Columbia University and then returned to the service to head up the newly formed NATO. Eisenhower was a hot commodity. Democrats and Republicans were courting him left and right to run in the 1948 presidential election because he was the most popular public figure in the country. President Truman even offered to be his running mate and Vice President if he'd accept the Democratic Presidential nomination. But Eisenhower had shown no previous inclination for political service or favoritism for either party.

When he was finally persuaded to run as a Republican four years later, Truman took it very personally.

Eisenhower's Campaign: I Beat The Nazis, So Surely I Can Beat The Commies

Eisenhower ran a political campaign not unlike his military ones: a three-pronged attack focused on corruption, Korea, and communism. Eisenhower accepted Nixon as his running mate as a nod to the older and more powerful Republicans who effectively ran the party.

You'd think that a mutual interest in destroying political rivals might have given Ike and Nixon a lot of common ground.

You'd be wrong.

After allegations of Nixon's secret fund became front-page news, their relationship went from distant to downright frosty. Eisenhower's aides made it known to Nixon that he was to change the end of his televised speech to include his resignation from the ticket. He refused, challenging the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force to watch for himself and see what Nixon had to say.

Bold move, Dick.

The popular response to the Checkers Speech made Ike keep Nixon on the ticket, but he didn't decide right away. Nixon was furious. The two men had a relationship of political expediency, but that was about it. The pair defeated Stevenson and Sparkman, and Eisenhower went on to serve two terms as President with Nixon as his VP in both.

Highways and High Schools

Historians give Eisenhower mixed reviews. He accomplished a lot in certain sectors and literally nothing in others. He was responsible for the single greatest expansion in public infrastructure in the U.S.—thank Ike next time you're on an Interstate highway—and initiated the first serious funding of space exploration in America by establishing NASA. He negotiated an armistice in Korea and made overtures to the Soviets to ease Cold War tensions. In his second term, peace was this career soldier's most important cause.

It was during Eisenhower's first term that the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1954 decision that ruled segregation in public schools was illegal. Here's what he had to say about it:

The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey. (Source)

Uh…no.

Eisenhower was born a good six years before the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that allowed segregated schools as long as they were "separate but equal" (yeah, right), and he'd served in two world wars in a segregated military. That was his world. As president, he officially opposed racial discrimination, but, according to some critics, he was more concerned about whites in the South who'd have to cope with a post-Jim Crow era than about African Americans who suffered under it. He was reluctant to use the federal government to force the states to comply with civil rights laws. When Martin Luther King, Jr asked to meet with him, he refused. (Source)

Again…no.

Still, Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the less famous cousin of the 1964 Act signed by Lyndon Johnson. It provided voting protections for African Americans and established the Civil Rights Commission and a Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department. The bill Eisenhower signed was a watered-down version of the one his Attorney General had proposed. Southern legislators managed to get rid of provisions that allowed the federal government to sue states for violations of school desegregation and voting rights requirements.

In one of those you-can't-make-this-up ironies of history, it was Lyndon Johnson himself who led the Senate opposition to those two provisions. He didn't want to alienate his white Southern constituencies, and he threatened to kill the bill entirely if Eisenhower didn't drop the desegregation provision. Ike agreed, but he persuaded his party, notoriously pro-segregation, to help vote the measure through. That couldn't have been easy for him.

In 1957, after waffling for a time while Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus was busy calling out the Arkansas National Guard and arresting (for their own protection, of course) the nine Black students trying to integrate Central High School, Eisenhower sent the Army's 101st Airborne Division marching up the streets of Little Rock to forcibly desegregate the school. (Source)

Ike thought he never got proper credit for his civil rights initiatives. Maybe people remembered his lukewarm support for the Brown decision and his attempts to curry favor with white southerners by soft-pedaling his civil rights initiatives.

To Nixon's eternal chagrin, Eisenhower was pretty tepid in support of his candidacy for President in 1960. In fact, when a reporter asked Ike to name an idea of Nixon's that had helped him make an important decision, he replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember" (source). By the time of the 1968 election, Eisenhower had come around and was much more enthusiastic in his support of his former VP.

Eisenhower's remembered as being what could be called a moderate, progressive Republican. (In those days, not actively opposing civil rights initiatives was pretty progressive.) Rather than cater to the far right wing of his party, Eisenhower tried to walk a middle path; he exercised caution whenever possible. In the last years of his Presidency, peace and nuclear arms control were his passions. It was a blow to his legacy when, just two weeks before a scheduled summit with the American, Soviet, French, and British heads of state, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Gary Powers. (Stephen Spielberg made the film Bridge of Spies about the incident.)

The U.S., not realizing that Powers had been caught alive (the Soviets were mum about it), concocted a cover story about a lost weather plane. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed that, guess what, they had captured Powers, an embarrassed Eisenhower was forced to admit that the U.S. had been flying espionage missions over the U.S.S.R. for years. There went any chance of real progress in U.S.-Soviet relations at the summit. Instead, Cold War tensions increased.

For an old soldier, Ike surprised everyone in his farewell address by warning of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex." He saw a weapons expansion that was unlike anything before in American history. He believed that the way-too-close relationship between the military and the war industries could wield too much power for comfort, and open up opportunities for corruption and undue influence. He warned that,

The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (Source)

Eisenhower died in 1969.

Arms sales are still big business.