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Key Events During Dwight D. Eisenhower's Administration

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America in the 1950s

America in the 1950s

1950's America

After World War II, America entered into a period of remarkable prosperity. Between 1945 and 1960 the gross national product nearly doubled. During the decade of the 1960s, the expansion continued, even with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. By the start of the 1970s the gap between the living standard of the United States and the rest of the world had grown to be a chasm; with just six percent of the world’s population, America produced and consumed well over half of its goods.

The massive government spending needed for the war had catapulted the economy from the depths of the Great Depression, leading President Eisenhower to promise the public, “Never again shall we allow a depression in the United States.”

However, all was not wine and roses in America. Ominous forces lurked in the far reaches of the globe threatening the peace and safety of the country. As World War II came to a close, the communist powers of Soviet Russia and China began to flex their economic and political muscles—forcing confrontations at various hotspots throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. To counter the growth of communism were the nations of Western Europe and the United States.

On the domestic front, Americans were coming to grips with the harsh reality of the second-class treatment that African Americans were receiving in this land of plenty. Protests broke out around the country as people of color demanded equal treatment under the law, ushering in the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. During much of this period of great change, the nation was led by a hero of World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This article looks at the following important events that occurred during Eisenhower’s two terms in office from 1953 to 1961:

  1. The Presidential Election of 1952
  2. End of the Korean War
  3. Senator McCarthy's Hunt for Communists
  4. Birth of the Civil Rights Movement
  5. The Presidential Election of 1956
  6. The U-2 Spy Plane Incident
  7. The Launch of Sputnik Satellite Stuns the World
  8. Explorer 1 and America's Entry in the Space Race
  9. Start of the Vietnam War
  10. Alaska Becomes the 49th State
  11. Hawaii Becomes the 50th State

1. The Presidential Election of 1952

After being courted by both the Democrats and the Republicans, in January 1952, the former five-star general Dwight Eisenhower declared himself a Republican. He entered the contest for the Republican nomination for the Office of the President of the United States.

He proclaimed his convictions opposing an expansion of centralized government, higher taxes, and promised the containment of communism. At the Republican National Convention, he was chosen the party’s candidate with the senator from California, Richard Nixon, as his running mate.

The pair played off the American public’s fear of the spread of communism. The Democratic nominee was Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. During the campaign, the Republicans stressed the theme “Korea, Communism, and Corruption,” adopting the popular slogan, “I Like Ike.”

Vice presidential candidate Nixon was almost dropped from the ticket when it became known that he had benefited from an $18,000 “slush fund” provided by supporters. To defend himself, Nixon went on television to deliver to the nation a carefully crafted speech.

During what became known as the “Checkers” speech, Nixon declared his innocence, portraying himself as a man of extremely modest financial means. He decried his critics, stating they were so heartless that they wanted him to return the gift of the family dog, Checkers. The speech restored Nixon to good graces with Eisenhower and the electorate.

In the November 1952 election, Eisenhower easily defeated Adlai Stevenson, 442 electoral votes to 89. On January 20, 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as America’s 34th president.

Campaign buttons from the 1952 and 1956 elections.

Campaign buttons from the 1952 and 1956 elections.

2. End of the Korean War

During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower made a campaign promise to go to Korea to see what he could do to end what President Truman had labeled a “police action” on the Korean peninsula. He told the public, “That job requires a personal trip to Korea. I shall make that trip. Only in that way could I learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace. I shall go to Korea.”

Eisenhower’s promise was not hollow; in late November he traveled to Korea to assess the fighting and the stalled peace negotiations. The trip to Korea convinced the president-elect that an armistice would be needed to end the fighting. He committed his thoughts to his memoirs, writing, “Small attacks on small hills would not win this war.” Events came together in the spring of 1953 that brought an end to war: the death of the Premier of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, the United States bombing of dikes in North Korea in May, the threat of termination of the armistice talks, and the possibility of further military escalation.

These events and a threat issued by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for the use of atomic weapons paved the way for the communists to offer key concessions. The South Korean president Rhee attempted to sabotage the talks since the unification of Korea was not being discussed. An armistice was signed by the UN command, the North Koreans, and the Chinese on July 27, 1953. Just six months into his role as president, Eisenhower had scored an impressive victory.

The armistice created a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel that separated the communist-controlled North Korea from the pro-western South. The armistice is still in effect today, with President Donald Trump being the most recent American president to visit the demilitarized zone in 2019.

Map of the Korean peninsula after the Korean War.

Map of the Korean peninsula after the Korean War.

3. Senator McCarthy’s Hunt for Communists

Early in the Eisenhower Administration a senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, began a highly publicized investigation into communist activity in America. Though Eisenhower privately did not approve of McCarthy’s harsh tactics, he remained publicly silent, assuming that the rogue senator would self-destruct.

McCarthy orchestrated a series of Senate hearings attempting to root out communists in high positions in government and the military. The hearings did not uncover any communists, but they did ruin numerous careers, undermine government morale, and tarnish the image of America on the world stage.

McCarthy’s downfall began with his investigation of “subversive activities” within the Army. During the 36-day televised public Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954, the senator insulted witnesses, attacked his critics and fellow senators, and made outlandish claims. Fed up with his antics, the Senate censured McCarthy in November for bringing that body “into dishonor and disrepute.” The senator quickly fell into disarray, ending his reign of terror.

McCarthy’s political career collapsed, he began drinking heavily, and three years later at age 47, he was dead from alcoholism. To the end of McCarthy’s hunt for Communists, Eisenhower refused to “get down in the gutter with that guy” and sully the dignity of the office of the president. Though the president took a hands-off approach to McCarthy, he did realize the real danger Communist espionage posed to the country.

After Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of transmitting atomic secrets to the Russians, on the grounds that they “may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people,” Eisenhower refused to commute their sentences and the couple was executed in 1953 for their crimes.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) chats with his attorney Roy Cohn during the Senate McCarthy-Army Subcommittee hearings.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) chats with his attorney Roy Cohn during the Senate McCarthy-Army Subcommittee hearings.

4. Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

Eisenhower’s first term saw the civil rights movement come into bloom in America. Since the time of the Civil War, many laws across the country overtly or tacitly promoted an inferior status for African Americans. One striking example was state laws that mandated racial segregation in public schools.

The doctrine of “separate but equal,” which fostered segregation, was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Linda Brown, a Black elementary school student in Topeka, Kansas, could not attend the all-white elementary school near her home due to segregation laws. Brown and other plaintiffs, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed suit in Federal Court seeking to overturn the law based on its unconstitutionality.

In 1954 the case had risen to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” The opinion was prepared by Chief Justice Earl Warren, an Eisenhower appointee, which reiterated the argument about the psychological harm inherent in segregation.

The reaction to Brown v. Board of Education was mixed across the nation. Though the court’s decision only covered one school district, the implications to the entire country were clear. Reaction in the deep South was negative, with more than 100 congressmen and senators signing the “Southern Manifesto” endorsing segregation.

The issue came to a head in 1957 when the state of Arkansas refused to honor a federal court order to integrate the public school system. President Eisenhower demanded that Arkansas governor Orval Faubus obey the order of the court. When Faubus didn’t comply, the president placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to escort and protect nine Black students’ entry into the all-white Little Rock Central High School.

This historic event was the first time since the Reconstruction Era that federal troops had been used in the South to enforce the U.S. Constitution. Though many were dismayed at Eisenhower’s use of force, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been a critic of the president, wrote, “The overwhelming majority of southerners, Negro and white, stand firmly behind your resolute action to restore law and order in Little Rock.”

 Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort African-American students to Central High School in Little Rock in September 1957.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort African-American students to Central High School in Little Rock in September 1957.

5. The Presidential Election of 1956

President Eisenhower entered the presidential election of 1956 on strong terms. As in four years prior, his opponent was Adlai Stevenson. The Democrats’ strongest issue, which they addressed indirectly, was the precarious state of Eisenhower’s health; he had had a heart attack the year before. To calm the fears over his health, Eisenhower undertook an active campaign covering 14,000 miles and 13 states.

The Democrats called for an end to the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army, which Eisenhower opposed on the grounds that it would weaken national security. Stevenson also called for an end to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which once again the incumbent president opposed on grounds of national security.

To bring Black voters who had been lost to the Democrats during the New Deal era back into the Republican fold, Republicans campaigned aggressively in Black neighborhoods. The Republicans pointed to Eisenhower’s bold move in Little Rock to end school segregation, implying he was serious about bringing a level playing field to all Americans.

Their tactics worked. In the November election, Republicans garnered 40 percent of the African American vote, more than any other Republican nominee since. Once again, Eisenhower defeated Stevenson by a significant number of electoral votes, 457 to 73, respectively.

Vice President Richard Nixon rides in the back seat of an automobile with Dwight Eisenhower and Pat Nixon upon the Nixons' return from their 1958 goodwill tour of South America.

Vice President Richard Nixon rides in the back seat of an automobile with Dwight Eisenhower and Pat Nixon upon the Nixons' return from their 1958 goodwill tour of South America.

6. The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

One of the questions that haunted the president and military leaders was the strength of the Soviet military—did they have more missiles, bombers, and nuclear weapons than the United States? To gather intelligence on the Soviets, the Air Force in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contracted with the Lockheed Corporation to build a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft capable of spying on adversaries from altitudes where fighter jets could not intercept.

Flight began over the USSR in July 1956 and revealed that the Soviets had far fewer long-range bombers and missiles than initially feared. The information about the Soviet military had to be kept from the public or the spying would have been obvious to the Soviets.

The Soviets realized that they were being spied upon with the high-altitude aircraft and began to develop surface-to-air (SAM) missiles capable of shooting down a U-2 aircraft. President Eisenhower approved of a U-2 mission on May 1, 1960, just two weeks before a meeting with the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Paris summit conference.

The mission on May 1 went terribly wrong; the Soviets shot down the U-2 aircraft piloted by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers. Eisenhower initially claimed the U-2 was a weather plane that had gone off course and crashed deep inside the USSR by mistake. The Americans assumed the plane had crashed and the pilot was dead, thus destroying much of the evidence of the covert activity.

Eisenhower was caught off guard when Khrushchev released photos of the very much alive pilot as well as reconnaissance photos taken by the U-2’s advanced cameras of Soviet military bases. The incident proved to be an embarrassment for the United States on the eve of the Paris summit conference. Khrushchev pulled out of the conference in protest, gaining a propaganda victory.

President Eisenhower promised Khrushchev there would be no additional U-2 flights over Soviet territory. The incident set back the relationship between the USSR and the United States considerably. The Soviets released Powers as part of a spy exchange in 1962.

The Lockheed U-2 aircraft.

The Lockheed U-2 aircraft.

7. The Launch of Sputnik Satellite Stuns the World

In the early 1950s, scientists from around the world came up with the idea of hosting an International Geophysical Year (IGY)—actually an 18-month period from the beginning of July 1957 until the end of 1958. The objective of the IGY was the exploration and measurement of all large-scale aspects of the earth: its land and sea areas, its crust and core, ocean currents and tides, weather and climate, and the upper atmosphere into space.

President Eisenhower announced that the United States’ contribution would be to launch an artificial satellite that would orbit the earth and gather scientific information. The Soviets had also made a similar proposal of sending an artificial satellite into orbit.

The United States began working on a three-stage Vanguard rocket to carry the research satellite into space. The first stage was developed from the successful Viking sounding rocket, which in May 1954 had carried an 825-pound payload to a height of 158 miles.

The second stage was a new liquid-fueled rocket, with a solid fuel motor third stage riding on top. The satellite was to be a 20-inch diameter sphere weighing 21.5 pounds, which contained a radio transmitter, chemical batteries, and scientific instruments.

The Soviets beat the Americans in space when on October 4, 1957, they launched the first artificial earth satellite, named Sputnik, into low earth orbit. The satellite, just a little bigger than a basketball, performed only one function: it emitted radio frequency “beeps” every few seconds. The Soviets purposefully set the frequency of the radio emission so that any armature radio operator on the planet could pick up the repetitive radio pulses, thus making it very apparent to the world that the Soviets had put an artificial satellite in orbit.

Though Eisenhower was aware of the Soviet advancements in rocketry, his administration was caught off guard with the launch. Americans had grown complacent with their perceived technical superiority and were stunned as they listened to their radio sets as the satellite passed overhead. The realization was that if the Soviets were so advanced in their rocketry, perhaps they could send warheads raining down on cities in America.

A Democratic senator demanded that Eisenhower call a special session of Congress to address the crisis. Not wanting to heighten the anxiety of the public, the president refused the request. The president was more aware of the details of the Russian technology than he could publicly acknowledge without giving away the intelligence gathered from high-altitude spy aircraft.

The Americans responded to the Sputnik crisis with an increase in defense spending, offers to NATO allies of intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be placed on their soil, and the set up of a new agency to coordinate space efforts. During 1958, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to coordinate and develop the new frontier of space. To strengthen technical education in America, Eisenhower launched the National Defense Education Act, which tightened standards and gave scholarships to students wanting to study mathematics and the sciences.

Replica of the Sputnik I satellite.

Replica of the Sputnik I satellite.

8. Explorer 1 and America’s Entry in the Space Race

The launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Russians threw America into a panic; suddenly, they were being outpaced by what they perceived as a technologically inferior country. Pushed to catch up with the Soviets, “America’s answer to Sputnik” was set to launch in early December of that same year.

With the press and the nation watching, on December 6, 1957, the U.S. Navy launched the Vanguard TV-3 rocket carrying a small 3.3-pound satellite from Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) in Florida. America’s press gathered for the launch and witnessed a dismal failure. The rocket lifted off a little over three feet, then slowly toppled over, bursting into a sea of flames. The tiny satellite, called the “grapefruit satellite” by Soviet Premier Khrushchev, lay at the edge of the inferno “beeping” despite the mayhem.

To resurrect America’s failed space launch, Wernher van Braun’s team at Huntsville, Alabama, was tasked with getting a rocket into space. The Jupiter C rocket, renamed the Juno, which had been used for testing nose-cone re-entry vehicles, was brought into service as a launch vehicle.

The van Braun team had originally proposed their launch vehicle be used but were turned down due to the connection with their rocket to the military. Just 80 days after the failed Vanguard launch, Explorer I was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral. The 181-pound scientific package, riding atop the rocket’s solid-fuel fourth stage, contained micrometeoroid detectors, temperature gauges, and cosmic ray detectors.

The data that came back from the cosmic ray detectors led Dr. James Van Allen—the chief scientist—to conclude that the earth is girded by a belt of radiation trapped by its magnetic fields. With the successful launch of Explorer I, the race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun.

Cutaway illustration of the Explorer I satellite launched aboard the Jupiter C launch vehicle on January 31, 1958.

Cutaway illustration of the Explorer I satellite launched aboard the Jupiter C launch vehicle on January 31, 1958.

9. Start of the Vietnam War

After World War II the Vietnamese people sought their freedom from French colonial rule under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The conflict between the French and the freedom fighters, called the Viet Minh, was known as the First Indochina War. Until 1950, the United States stayed out of the war but provided significant financial support to the French.

France was defeated in 1954 at the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu and agreed to peace negotiations at Geneva, Switzerland. An armistice was signed between the French and the Viet Minh in May 1954, marking the end of the war, the realization of Vietnamese independence, and the split of the country into two halves. Out of the meetings came the Geneva Accords, which called for the temporary division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel pending national elections.

The Geneva Accords required that free elections be held throughout Vietnam in 1956 with the aim of reunifying of North and South Vietnam under a single popularly elected government. Expecting defeat in the planned elections, the prime minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to hold the scheduled elections. The United States backed Diem’s decision, fearing the spread of communism.

The North Vietnamese sought the reunification of the country through military action rather than by political means, thus the Second Indochina War or the Vietnam War began. Diem sought support for his embattled country from the United States, which responded with more military advisers and financial support. By 1960, the United States had sent about 2,000 troops as military advisers to South Vietnam, with the number steadily increasing after 1961.

In 1965, the United States stepped up its activity in the Vietnamese war in response to a marked increase in communist activities in the South. America spent billions of dollars to support the fledgling government of South Vietnam under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. By the mid-1960s America had made a major commitment to the war, sending hundreds of thousands of young men to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam. The Vietnam War, unpopular in America, raged on until the mid-1970s, costing many thousands of lives on both sides of the fighting.

President Eisenhower (far left) and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles greet President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in Washington in May 1957.

President Eisenhower (far left) and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles greet President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in Washington in May 1957.

10. Alaska Becomes the 49th State

In 1867, the American government negotiated the purchase of the Alaska Territory from Russia for $7.2 million. The purchase encompassed over half a million square miles, roughly one-fifth of the present contiguous United States. The land was initially populated by native peoples, but when gold was discovered in the late 19th century in the region, thousands hungry for riches moved into the region. In 1943, a movement began to admit Alaska as the 49th state. It would not be until January 3, 1959, when President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation, that Alaska would become the 49th state.

11. Hawaii Becomes the 50th State

The beautiful Hawaiian Islands, situated on the trade route from Asia to America, became a territory of the United States in 1898. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, thrusting the United States into World War II, Hawaii became an important base of operation. President Eisenhower signed into law “An Act to provide for the Admission of the State of Hawaii into the Union,” dissolving the Territory of Hawaii and establishing the state of Hawaii effective on August 21, 1959.

1959 Alaska and Hawaii U.S. postage stamps.

1959 Alaska and Hawaii U.S. postage stamps.

References

  • Boyer, Paul S. (Editor in Chief) The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009.
  • Reeves, Thomas C. Twentieth-Century America, A Brief History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Jean E. Eisenhower: In War and Peace. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.
  • Taylor, John W.R. and Kenneth Mason. History of Aviation. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1977.
  • Tindall, George B. and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. Seventh Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
  • West, Doug. Dwight D. Eisenhower: A Short Biography: 34th President of the United States. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.

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