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For those of us living in the relatively comfy present-day America (emphasis on relatively), it's impossible to really grasp the horrors of the 20th century in Europe and on battlefields around the world. So we won't try, except to say that there were 17 million military and civilian deaths in WWI, and 60 million in the sequel (3% of the world's population).
At the end of the war, Eisenhower was probably the most beloved public figure in America. He was the Europe-liberating, Third Reich-destroying hero of WWII, and the Supreme Commander of NATO. Both parties wanted him to run for president in 1948, thinking he'd be a lock. He demurred. He didn't belong to any political party and he believed that military officers shouldn't get involved in the dirty business of politics.
In 1950, the Cold War heated up as North Korea, backed by the Soviets, invaded non-communist South Korea. Japan had been forced to give up its control of Korea as part of the Allied nations' plans for the new post-WWII world order. The country was divided at the 38th parallel between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The United Nations unsuccessfully tried to unify the country in 1947 by supervised elections in the North and South, which the communists boycotted. Both North and South declared themselves independent nations (the North under the thumb of the brutal dictator Kim Il Sung), and both wanted to unify the country under their own banner.
North and South began slaughtering each other in a bloody civil war even before the Soviets and American intervened. But in June, 1950, President Truman made the decision to enter the conflict as North Korean troops poured across the border. The U.S. came to the support of the South, and managed to push back the North Koreans until the Chinese intervened and pushed the Americans right back. It was the first "proxy" war fought by the U.S. and Soviets, and was the first war that the U.S. fought knowing that the enemy possessed nuclear weapons. A win-at-all-cost strategy just wasn't possible anymore.
The Truman administration decided not to pursue the grandiose goal of unifying Korea, and backed off, not wanting to risk an escalation into another world war. There were political voices in the U.S. calling for non-intervention in Korea and elsewhere, and one of them, the isolationist senator Robert Taft, wanted the Republican nomination for President.
This was more than Ike could tolerate. After all, this was a guy who believed in America's role in maintaining stability in the world. By 1952, he had declared himself a Republican and threw his hat into the ring.
Eisenhower's campaign slogan was "I Like Ike," but the nation didn't have to persuaded. In times like that, Eisenhower's casual, folksy, Midwestern demeanor, along with his intuitive understanding of human psychology, turned out to be a good match for a nation in the thick of an existential war against communism. Americans had enormous faith in him, and he won in a landslide against Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson, who had even less hair than Ike and was described as an "egghead" by Ike's running mate Richard Nixon.
The ongoing Cold War with the Soviets was the defining theme of Eisenhower's presidency. Ike had fought as an ally with Stalin's armies in WWII and had hoped that the alliance would continue after the war. But it soon became clear that Stalin was looking to expand the Soviet influence throughout Europe by subjugating smaller nations under the Soviet flag.
Even though Josef Stalin died in 1953, the first years of Ike's term were some of the most anxious of the Cold War. The two superpowers' spheres of influence were still highly unstable, and Communist (or supposedly Communist) revolutions were percolating all over the world (Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cuba).
Ike had campaigned on a pledge to end the war in Korea, and as president-elect he traveled there to see for himself what was happening. Here's what he said in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors a week after returning from that Korean reconnaissance mission:
Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. […] A world that begins to witness the rebirth of trust among nations can find its way to a peace that is neither partial nor punitive. (Source)
Six months after Eisenhower took office, an armistice was signed officially ending the Korean War but not the tension. As Shmoop likes to say, "along the 38th parallel, it's always 1950" (source).
Anticommunist hysteria was fanned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In both the Senate and House committees, there were attempts to ferret out communist infiltrators in the government and private industries. Government employees and private citizens were at risk for having their careers and personal lives investigated. Even the allegation of being a Communist was enough to destroy lives. McCarthy even went so far as to accuse the distinguished General and Ike mentor George C. Marshall of running a massive communist conspiracy because he dared to try to mediate a peace agreement in China during its civil war.
Eisenhower despised McCarthy and his smear tactics. In a phone call to the RNC chairman, he said that "It is a sad commentary on our government when such a manifestly useless and spurious thing can divert our attention from all the constructive work in which we could and should be engaged" (source).
McCarthy gave Ike a way to put an end to all this when he decided to investigate members of the Armed Forces, accusing them of communist conspiracies. The president decided to allow hearings about an alleged attempt by McCarthy to give one of his buddies special treatment for avoiding an overseas military deployment. The hearings, which included a typical McCarthy smear of a young associate of one of the Army lawyers, ended the demagogue's career. When the Army lawyer, Joseph Welch, finally said to him, "At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?", eighty million American watched the senator go down.
WWII jump-started the economy as many industries retooled to meet wartime demands. Auto factories built jeeps and planes instead of cars; lingerie manufacturers produced camouflage netting instead of stockings. Wartime contracts created millions of new higher paying jobs, and competition for those lucrative contracts spurred innovation and productivity. Women entered the workforce en masse for the first time. New technologies developed for war carried over to the peacetime economy—aviation, agriculture, and electronics being major beneficiaries of wartime tech advances.
With help from the GI Bill's low-rate mortgage benefits, returning servicemen and women bought houses and filled them with televisions, whose commercials urged them to buy cars, washing machines, and other markers of the growing middle class. They got busy starting families, and the resulting baby boom created over 75 million new consumers between 1945 and 1964. During Ike's two terms as president, the economy was humming along at nearly full employment and people were spending as fast as they were earning.
Ike worried that this was getting out of hand, that producers and consumers of all this stuff weren't giving enough thought to the future. Didn't we want to leave something for our kids to work with? What happens when there's no more oil in the ground? What would happen to the baby boomers when they grew up?
(Spoiler alert: they kept buying stuff.)
The Cold War wasn't just fought on military ground. There was fierce competition for not only military technology but for all kinds of scientific advancement.
In 1955, the Soviet Union successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the more powerful version of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. With a possible nuclear Armageddon looming in the future, it was no wonder that the former five-star General Eisenhower was easily re-elected to a second term in 1956. Then in October 1957, the Soviets stunned the world by successfully launching the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik, beating the U.S. to the punch. In November, they did it again, adding a dog to the payload. (She didn't make it.)
These events launched a frenzy of panic and soul-searching, resulting in an infusion of funds into space (NASA) and military (DARPA) research under Ike's watch.
The competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. continued throughout Eisenhower's second term. In some ways, WWII never ended; it just morphed into the Cold War. Wartime production lines in America were largely redirected towards the creation and export of consumer goods, but armament and war-technology production continued to grow in scale and sophistication. Nuclear tests were lighting up the Nevada desert, the Soviet steppes, and small Pacific islands at an alarming rate. Schoolchildren were watching videos like "Duck and Cover," and people tried not to share too much personal info with friends and neighbors so they wouldn't be suspected of being "godless Communists."
As early as 1953, Eisenhower began to promote peaceful initiatives to reassure an anxious U.S. and its Western allies that the government was not interested in provoking a nuclear war with the Soviets. That year, he brought the issue of nuclear proliferation to the forefront in a speech to the to the U.N. known as the "Atoms for Peace" speech, where he advocated the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. He hoped that "the miraculous inventiveness of man would not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."
The speech laid the groundwork for the establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It resulted in enriched uranium and research funds being sent to countries all over the world to be used for peaceful purposes only, like building nuclear power plants. How'd that work out? Hint: The IAEA never really had the oversight powers it needed to control nuclear proliferation, and India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Africa got the bomb.
Towards the end of his second term, Ike became a warrior for peace. Never a huge fan of nukes even while increasing the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal twentyfold, and not wanting the U.S to bankrupt itself on military spending, he advocated diplomacy and cooperation in avoiding a nuclear Armageddon. Having seen the human toll of war firsthand, he promoted diplomacy and international cooperation as the ultimate solutions for the problems facing the world in a postwar era. He understood the need for a strong nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to the Soviets; for the time being, mutually-assured-destruction was the key to peace.
In 1960, Eisenhower appointed Bono as an ambassador for world peace. Oh, wait—it wasn't that U2?
Sorry. Let's start over.
In 1960, Eisenhower planned a peace summit in Paris with the leaders of the Four Powers (U.S., Britain, Soviets, and France). However, on May 1, just two weeks before the meeting, the Soviets shot down a CIA spy plane, part of a program sending U-2 planes to spy on Soviet missile sites and other strategic locations. (Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is about the incident.)
The U-2 program had been going on since 1956, and yielded some reassuring information for the U.S. The dreaded "missile gap" with the Soviets wasn't a gap at all. Ike learned that they had way fewer nuclear missiles than claimed; the U.S was way ahead of them. The Soviets knew about the U-2s—they could see them on radar—but they flew too high to shoot down until 1960, when the Soviets developed a missile with a range long enough to reach a U-2.
On May 5, Khrushchev announced that they'd shot down a spy plane, making no mention of the pilot's fate. The U.S. assumed the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been killed in the crash and that the plane was too damaged to give the Soviets any info. Plus, Powers had poison that he was supposed to self-administer in the event of capture. Either way, he was dead. On May 5, Eisenhower ordered an elaborate press release stating the downed plane was just a NASA weather flight. They even repainted a U-2 to look like a NASA plane.
On May 7, Soviet Premier Khrushchev dropped a bomb. (No, not that one.) He revealed that Powers had been captured alive, and had admitted who he was and what he was doing. It was a huge embarrassment for the U.S. Ike felt like resigning. He took full responsibility for the incident, hoping to salvage the upcoming peace conference.
It didn't work.
The summit lasted two days. Khrushchev stormed out, and by June, the Soviets had pulled out of disarmament talks. The Cold War got even colder. It was a crushing disappointment for Eisenhower, who'd hoped to make disarmament and peace his lasting legacy. The good news is that nobody's used a nuclear weapon since 1945.
As for Powers? Well, you'll have to watch Bridge of Spies. We don't want to spoil it for you.
Fast-forward eight months after the failed summit. Ike's "Farewell Address" is both a product of and a reaction to this paranoid and anxious period. It's stridently anti-Communist and affirms every beloved American ideal in the book. But it also stands in sharp contrast with the more inflammatory rhetoric of the time (we're looking at you McCarthy), while counseling balance and moderation in policies foreign and domestic. In a calm and measured tone, it gives stark warnings about the dangers facing the country. And it more than makes up for its criticisms of the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite with patriotic rhetoric that would make even Uncle Sam blush.
In retrospect, his observations were timeless. The speech could have been written yesterday. Multibillion dollar arms businesses trying to influence federal policy? Check. Big Science? Check. Defense spending taking funds from domestic needs? You betcha. Give peace a chance? Can't argue with that. U.S. exceptionalism? We're still the greatest.
Of all the American Presidents whose public approval has been rated by public polls, Eisenhower's approval ratings have only been bested by JFK.
Maybe it was the hair.