Eisenhower and Kennedy
Americans often view Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy as symbols of two radically different
eras: the tranquil, prosperous '50s and the tumultuous '60s. Nonetheless, Kennedy, himself, was a
product of the Eisenhower years and, when we scrutinize his politics, we can begin to understand
that he was not always as progressive as the "Kennedy Myth" would have us believe. This
lecture examines the domestic policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy as well as
America's move away from the politics of tranquility.
Some questions to keep in mind:
1. Why did so many Americans "like Ike?"
2. Compare and contrast the public image of Adlai Stevenson and Harry S Truman.
3. What was "dynamic" about Eisenhower's "conservatism?"
4. Who was a more "dynamic" president: Ike or JFK?
Campaign of 1952
Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969), also known as "Ike," was President of the United States
from 1953 to 1961. During World War II, he had been supreme commander of the Allied forces,
directed the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and overseen the final defeat of the Nazis.
He later organized the military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
At war's end, Americans were weary of strife, war, economic depression, and politics. Ike
seemed untainted and his popularity was so high that both the Democrats and the Republicans
wanted him to run for president in 1948. At the time, he refused both offers, saying that he did
not find it appropriate for a general to involve himself in the political arena. However, he
changed his mind in 1952 and accepted the Republican nomination.
Eisenhower made opposition to United States military involvement in Korea the center of his
campaign, although he had supported President Truman's decision to enter the conflict.
Eisenhower also attacked the Truman administration for its soft stance on Communism and its
alleged corruption. He developed a formula to describe his plan of action: K1C2. By this, Ike
indicated that he intended to take care of Korea first, Communism and Corruption second.
Eisenhower promised "I shall go to Korea" and, although he never said what he would do once
he got there, it sounded like a sound plan to the American public. If General Eisenhower
promised to go to Korea, many Americans believed, then the war would soon be over.
The Democratic party drafted Adlai E. Stevenson, governor of Illinois, to run against Eisenhower
in 1952 and again in 1956. Stevenson, a reluctant candidate, appealed to upper crust intellectuals,
but he could not compete with Ike's immense popularity. Eisenhower's broad appeal was echoed
in the simple slogan of his campaign buttons and posters: "I Like Ike!"
Eisenhower's running mate was Senator Richard Nixon of California. A scandal regarding
Nixon's campaign fund briefly threatened his place on the Republican ticket. Critics charged that
supporters were diverting a millionaire's slush fund to Nixon's personal bank account. Nixon
salvaged his candidacy when he made an impassioned televised speech. He denied accepting any
money under the table, but admitted that his family had accepted two unsolicited gifts. His wife,
Pat, had received a "plain Republican cloth coat" and his daughter had accepted a black and
white cocker spaniel puppy she had named Checkers. Full of emotion, Nixon said to the
"I'm not going to break that little girl's heart by taking away that dog."
Eisenhower received over 55% of the popular vote and defeated Stevenson easily in 1952. It
soon became clear that Ike's view of the presidency was quite different from that of his
immediate predecessors. Ike didn't believe that the President should be an agent of social reform,
as had been the case with the New Deal and the Fair Deal. When asked why he wasn't sending
more bills to Congress, Eisenhower replied,
"I don't feel like I should nag them."
Instead, Eisenhower advertised his program as "Dynamic Conservatism," also known as "modern
Republicanism." By Dynamic Conservatism, Eisenhower meant:
1. Budget cutting
2. Government support for big business
3. The return of federal functions back to state and local governments
In his words:
"I will be a conservative when it comes to money matters and a liberal when it comes to human
Eisenhower's choice of cabinet members demonstrated his support for big business. Eight of the
nine members of Eisenhower's cabinet were millionaire corporate executives. Three men --
Charles E. Wilson, Arthur Summerfield, and Douglas McKay -- had ties to General Motors,
which prompted Adlai Stevenson to say,
"The New Dealers have all left Washington to make way for the car dealers."
Eisenhower was a staunch opponent of deficit spending and he vetoed the following legislation:
Two public housing measures
Two anti-recession public works projects
An area redevelopment proposal
To be fair, Eisenhower's term did see a rise in Social Security coverage, introduction of a higher
minimum wage, and expanded unemployment insurance coverage. Although he wanted to
balance the federal budget, there were three obstacles to Eisenhower's attempts to reduce federal
1. Growing demand for military and foreign aid
2. Negative effects on economy when the federal government reduced spending
3. Unacceptable political costs
As a result, the end of the Eisenhower administration saw the highest peacetime deficit to that
time. It had grown from $266 billion in 1953 to $286 billion in 1959.
The Call for an Active Presidency
By 1959, a great debate was brewing in American society about the present and future of the
United States. This debate centered around two major focal points: 1) America's spiritual and
cultural malaise, and 2) Cold War politics. Many looked forward to the 1960 presidential
election as the beginning of a new direction for America under new leadership. As it turned out,
many Americans identified both candidates -- Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F.
Kennedy -- with McCarthyism and the politics of tranquility.
The 1960 campaign
Thanks to his experience in Congress and his eight years as Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon
was highly qualified to be President, especially when it came to foreign affairs. However, he also
had a reputation as a hatchet man and a red-baiter from his role in the Alger Hiss trial. When Ike
had a heart attack in 1956 and people began to express apprehension that Nixon was next in the
chain of command, the Republicans unveiled a "New Nixon." This New Nixon, although slightly
less menacing than the old version, still exemplified the hollow man of a homogenized society.
On the other side of the aisle stood John F. Kennedy, who many American believed was little
more than a Democratic Nixon. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, had been the lone
Democrat to support Joe McCarthy when the Senate voted to censure him. In another
demonstration of questionable ethics, Kennedy took credit for writing, Profiles in Courage, a
book that he signed his name to after his research assistants had written for him. Practically since
birth, JFK had been groomed to become President. His father, Joseph Kennedy, who had made a
fortune in Hollywood, still felt shunned by elite society because his family was Irish Catholic.
Religion did play a part in the campaign, if only briefly. Before Kennedy, American voters had
never elected a Roman Catholic President. The only other serious Catholic contender for the
presidency was Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928. In 1960, however, JFK managed
to defuse the Catholic issue when he won the Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia,
a largely Protestant state.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963)
Kennedy won the election, but only by a popular margin of about 120,000. Once in office,
Kennedy proposed a new plan for America, which he dubbed the "New Frontier." Overall, the
New Frontier had three main points:
1. A more sophisticated sense of economics
2. An emphasis on social welfare programs
3. Cold War policies and the space program
Specifically, Kennedy had eight goals in his New Frontier, most of which Congress rejected:
1. Increased federal aid for education. Defeated.
2. Medical care for the elderly. Defeated during the Kennedy administration, but
eventually enacted as Medicare and Medicaid.
3. Increase in the minimum wage. Passed.
4. Urban reforms. Modest success.
5. Civil rights. None. Despite the lingering myth that JFK was a strong proponent of civil
rights, his administration saw no major civil rights legislation. It was actually brother
Robert Kennedy, JFK's attorney general, who was committed to civil rights. JFK, afraid
of losing the always tenuous support of Southern Democrats, put civil rights on the back
burner once he was in office.
6. End to poverty. No.
7. Major tax cuts. Defeated.
8. Cold War goals. Yes, Kennedy's term saw both increased expenditures on defense and
money for the new space program.
Kennedy proved to be a man of much rhetoric and little action. He appeared frequently on
television to promote the New Frontier, but actually accomplished little in the way of legislation.
To his credit, Kennedy did demonstrate growth in his understanding of economics. Having come
to the White House as a fiscal conservative, he grew to understand the complexities of the
economy. Kennedy and his advisors dubbed his economic plans a "New Economics," although
they weren't much different from Keynesian economics. They advocated:
1. A moderate increase in federal spending
2. Trade Expansion Act
3. Efforts to stabilize interest rates
4. Major tax cuts
Unfortunately, both Congress and the American public received such ideas either lukewarmly or
negatively. Many people eventually recognized that many of Kennedy's economic arguments
were true, but only after his term in office, which an assassin's bullet cut short on November 22,
1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy caused a powerful mythology to spring up around
the memory of the President. One myth regards Kennedy's alleged devotion to civil rights for
Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History