Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

The presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower began on January 20, 1953 at noon Eastern Standard Time, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on January 20, 1961. Eisenhower, a Republican, took office as the 34th United States president following a landslide win over Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential election. This victory upended the New Deal Coalition that had kept the presidency in the hands of the Democratic Party for 20 years. Four years later, in the 1956 presidential election, he defeated Stevenson again, winning a second term in office. Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to be constitutionally limited to two terms in office under the 22nd Amendment. He was succeeded in office by Democrat John F. Kennedy.


The nation experienced considerable economic prosperity during the Eisenhower Presidency, except for a sharp recession in 1958–59. It was also, following the conclusion of the Korean War in the summer of 1953, at peace, even as the world was polarized by the Cold War. The President's main goals in office were to keep pressure on the Soviet Union and reduce federal deficits. A self-described "progressive conservative", he continued New Deal program agencies and expanded Social Security. He also spurred development of the Interstate Highway System, and after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, authorized the establishment of NASA.

Voted Gallup's most admired man twelve times, he achieved widespread popular esteem both in and out of office. Since the late 20th century, consensus among Western scholars has consistently held Eisenhower as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents.

Election of 1952

Eisenhower had been a favorite of the New Dealers during the war, especially Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. Rejecting Democratic efforts to nominate him in 1948 and 1952, Eisenhower instead chose to run for the Republican Party nomination in 1952. His goal was to prevent Robert A. Taft's non-interventionism—such as opposition to NATO—from becoming public policy.

On domestic issues they were in general agreement, and a compromise was reached after Eisenhower won the nomination that Taft would be dominant in domestic affairs and stay out of foreign affairs. Ike crusaded against "Korea—Communism—Corruption", identifying these as failures of the Truman administration. He electrified the country just before the election by promising to personally go to Korea and end that stalemated conflict.

Eisenhower's choice for vice-president on his ticket was Richard Nixon. He saw Nixon's strong vocal opposition against communism as an asset to his campaign. When Nixon's Checkers scandal was revealed to the public, Eisenhower still kept Nixon on the ticket.

In the 1952 U.S. presidential election, Eisenhower easily defeated Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II and became the first career soldier since Ulysses S. Grant to be elected president. Although many presidents have served in the military, Eisenhower was the only general to serve as president in the 20th century.

Election of 1956

The United States presidential election of 1956 was held on November 6, 1956. Eisenhower, the popular incumbent, successfully ran for re-election. The election was a re-match of 1952, as his opponent in 1956 was Adlai Stevenson, a former Illinois governor, whom Eisenhower had defeated four years earlier. Compared to the 1952 election, Eisenhower gained Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia from Stevenson, while losing Missouri.

This was the last presidential election before the admissions of Alaska and Hawaii, which would participate for the first time as states in the 1960 presidential election. It was also the last election in which any of the major candidates was born in the 19th century, and it was the last where both candidates were renominated for a rematch of the previous presidential election.

Presidency (1953–1961)

Eisenhower created the positions of White House Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor. He expanded the role of the National Security Council and was the first president to conduct televised press conferences. Reporters of that time have said that Eisenhower was the first president to employ the "non-answer" during these events. Journalist Clark Mollenhoff said of Eisenhower's simultaneous decisions to televise press conferences and not answer questions as asked: "No President and White House of my acquaintance ever gave out at once so much and so little."


According to David A. Crockett, "Much of Eisenhower's nonpartisan image was genuine, for he found Truman's campaigning distasteful and inappropriate, and he disliked the partisan aspects of campaigning." With little interest in routine partisanship, Eisenhower left much of the building and sustaining of the Republican Party to his vice president, Richard Nixon. "With few formal duties, Nixon threw himself into state and local politics, making hundreds of speeches across the land. With Eisenhower uninvolved in party building, Nixon became the de facto national GOP leader."

Eisenhower paid close personal attention to foreign and military affairs. However in domestic policy, his avoidance of partisanship meant that he did not interfere with the conservative policies of Senate leader Robert Taft. The Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress of 1954. Eisenhower's largely nonpartisan stance allowed him to work smoothly with the Democratic leaders Speaker Sam Rayburn in the House, and Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. Jean Smith says that:

Ike, LBJ, and "Mr. Sam" did not trust one another completely and they did not see eye to eye on every issue, but they understood one another and had no difficulty working together. Eisenhower continued to meet regularly with the Republican leadership. But his weekly sessions with Rayburn and Johnson, usually in the evening, over drinks, were far more productive. For Johnson and Rayburn, it was shrewd politics to cooperate with Ike. Eisenhower was wildly popular in the country....By supporting a Republican president against the Old Guard of his own party, the Democrats hoped to share Ike's popularity.

Foreign affairs

Eisenhower's presidency was dominated by the Cold War, the prolonged confrontation with the Soviet Union which had begun during Truman's term of office. When Joseph Stalin died, Eisenhower sought to extend an olive branch to the new Soviet regime in his "Chance for Peace speech", but continued turmoil in Moscow prevented a meaningful response and the Cold War deepened.

In 1953 Eisenhower opened relations with Spain under Fascist leader Francisco Franco. Despite its undemocratic nature, Spain's strategic position in light of the Cold War and anti-communist position led Eisenhower to build a trade and military alliance with the Spanish through the Pact of Madrid, ultimately bringing an end to Spain's isolation after World War II, and bringing about the Spanish Miracle.

During his campaign, Eisenhower had promised to end the stalemated Korean War. This promise was fulfilled on July 27, 1953 by the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. Defense treaties with South Korea and the Republic of China (Formosa/Taiwan) were signed, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) alliance in an effort to halt the spread of Communism in Asia was formed.

Eisenhower, while accepting the doctrine of containment, sought to counter the Soviet Union through more active means as detailed in the State Department memorandum NSC-68. His covert action policy was laid out in NSC 162/2. Working with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, developed the tactic of covert action, used the Central Intelligence Agency—directed by Allen Welsh Dulles to interfere with suspected communist governments abroad. An early use of covert action was against the elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq. The Shah of Iran and pro-monarchy forces ejected him from power in the complex 1953 Iranian coup d'état (Operation Ajax). The CIA also supported the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état by the military that overthrew the Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, in Operation PBSUCCESS.

Covert action continued throughout Eisenhower's administration. In the newly independent but chaotic Republic of Congo, the Soviet Union and the KGB had intervened in favor of popularly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Anti-communism had become an issue and the U.S. and CIA gave weapons and covert support to pro-Western and democratic CIA assets Joseph Kasavubu and his subordinate, Colonel Joseph Mobutu. The initial struggle came to a close in December 1960, after Kasavubu and Mobutu overthrew Lumumba and proceeded to turn the country (now named the Democratic Republic of the Congo) into an autocracy which was unstable long after the end of Eisenhower's term.

Eisenhower also increased U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, a process which had begun under his predecessor Truman. In 1954, he sent Dulles to Geneva as a delegate to the Geneva Conference, which ended the First Indochina War and temporarily partitioned Vietnam into a Communist northern half (under Ho Chi Minh) and a non-Communist southern half (under Ngo Dinh Diem). Neither the United States government nor Ngo Dinh Diem's State of Vietnam signed anything at the 1954 Geneva Conference. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the Viet Minh proposal that Vietnam eventually be united by elections. The United States countered with what became known as the "American Plan", with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom. It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations, but was rejected by the Soviet delegation. South Vietnam became an independent nation; the French left, and Eisenhower offered military, economic, and technical assistance.

In 1956, Eisenhower warned the UK and France not to use force to regain control of the Suez Canal, which Egypt had nationalized. He repeatedly told British Prime Minister Anthony Eden that the U.S. would not tolerate an invasion. Regardless the UK, France and Israel invaded Egypt to seize the canal, which was then blocked for years by Egypt. He used the economic power of the U.S. to force his European allies to back down and withdraw from Egypt. It marked the end of British and French dominance in the Middle East and opened the way for greater American involvement in the region. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out in November 1956, he condemned it but refused to use military force against the Soviet repression.

During his second term he became increasingly involved in Middle Eastern affairs; he sent troops to Lebanon in 1958 to maintain the peace. He promoted the creation of the Baghdad Pact, a military alliance among Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as Britain.

Under Eisenhower's presidency the U.S. developed as a global nuclear power. When Russia also developed their nuclear weapons, fears of mutual annihilation in a Third World War intensified. On October 30, 1953, Eisenhower approved the security policy document NSC 162/2, which emphasized nuclear weapons above all other defense means. Nuclear weapons were seen as the most economically feasible means to deter the Soviet Union from military action against what then was called the "Free World." Throughout his presidency, Eisenhower insisted on having plans to initiate, fight, and win a nuclear war against the Soviets, although he hoped he would never feel forced to use them. With the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, America became vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack by this new indefensible weapon.

Americans were astonished when the first space satellite – "Sputnik" – gave the Soviets the lead in space, and Eisenhower came under heavy criticism. The administration responded to this crisis with many strategic initiatives, including the creation of NASA in 1958 and a speeding up of the American space program. Eisenhower started NASA's human spaceflight program and funded visionary projects such as Saturn and the F-1 rocket engine which were necessary for success in the subsequent administrations' effort to win the Space Race.

Eisenhower hoped that after the death of Stalin in 1953, it would be possible to come to an agreement with subsequent Russian leaders to halt the nuclear arms race. However his efforts to reach a disarmament agreement throughout his presidency aimed mainly to gain military and diplomatic advantage over the Soviets. He never agreed to any proposal unless he thought it would yield such advantage to the U.S. Several attempts at convening a summit conference were made.

The final attempt failed in 1960 when Nikita Khrushchev withdrew following the May 1 downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. The U-2 flight had been authorized to gain photo intelligence before the scheduled East–West Paris summit conference between President Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle.

The Eisenhower Administration, thinking the pilot had died in the crash, authorized the release of a cover story claiming that the plane was a "weather research aircraft" which had unintentionally strayed into Soviet airspace after the pilot had radioed "difficulties with his oxygen equipment" while flying over Turkey. Further, Eisenhower said that his administration had not been spying on the Soviet Union; when the Soviets produced the pilot, Captain Francis Gary Powers, the Americans were caught misleading the public, and the incident resulted in international embarrassment for United States prestige. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a lengthy inquiry into the U-2 incident. During the Paris Summit in 1960, President Eisenhower accused Khrushchev "of sabotaging this meeting, on which so much of the hopes of the world have rested". Later, Eisenhower stated it had all been ruined because of that "stupid U-2 business".

Space race

On the whole, Eisenhower's support of the embryonic space program was modest until the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, gaining the Cold War enemy enormous prestige around the world. After the success of Sputnik, Eisenhower initially downplayed the gravity of the Soviet accomplishment, but he had to quickly face the reality that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in a technological field. This created problems for the United States’ image both abroad and domestically. Sputnik’s success allowed the Soviets to use it as a claim for the superiority of communism over capitalism, and for the superiority for the Soviet system as a world power. This pushed Eisenhower to take a stronger stance for U.S. involvement in space. He became interested and more willing for the advancement of the Vanguard program, and he ordered that military test pilots be the source of the first astronaut recruits. The selection of military test pilots as the basis of the United States’ astronaut corps gave NASA an advanced starting point for recruits who were already experienced pilots and had special government clearances. He then launched a national campaign that funded not just space exploration but a major strengthening of science and higher education. He rushed construction of more advanced satellites, created NASA as a civilian space agency, signed a landmark science education law, and fostered improved relations with American scientists. On the clandestine side, he expanded the use of spy satellites and weapons research. Critics looked for reasons for the American failure to keep pace with the Soviets, and pointed to Eisenhower's policies, the dumbing effects of television and brainless advertising, and the spoiled and complacent American consumer.

Critics at the time, led by Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller levied charges, which became a campaign issue in 1960, to the effect that there was a "missile gap"—that is, the U.S. had fallen militarily behind the Soviets because of their lead in space. Historians now discount those allegations saying the U.S. remained ahead in most important areas, although they agree that Eisenhower did not effectively respond to his critics.

Public opinion was now engaged and Congress allotted billions of dollars toward not only defense, but education. America's defensive game of catch-up carried on through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

In strategic planning terms, it was Eisenhower who devised the American basic strategy of nuclear deterrence based upon the triad of B-52 bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and Polaris submarine-launched missiles.

Eisenhower warned against an arms race in outer space in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 22, 1960:

The emergence of this new world poses a vital issue: will outer space be preserved for peaceful use and developed for the benefit of all mankind? Or will it become another focus for the arms race – and thus an area of dangerous and sterile competition? The choice is urgent. And it is ours to make. The nations of the world have recently united in declaring the continent of Antarctica "off limits" to military preparations. We could extend this principle to an even more important sphere. National vested interests have not yet been developed in space or in celestial bodies. Barriers to agreement are now lower than they will ever be again.

Domestic affairs

Eisenhower appointed a Cabinet of nine "businessmen and a plumber," and gave them wide latitude in handling domestic affairs. He allowed them to take credit for domestic policy, and this allowed him to concentrate on foreign affairs. Eisenhower was a conservative whose policy views were close to those of Taft— they agreed that a free enterprise economy should run itself. He did not attempt to roll back the New Deal—he expanded Social Security. His major project was building the interstate highway system using federal gasoline taxes. Throughout Eisenhower's presidency, the top marginal tax rate was 91%—among the highest in American history. While his 1952 landslide gave the Republicans control of both houses of the Congress, Eisenhower believed that taxes could not be cut until the budget was balanced. "We cannot afford to reduce taxes, [and] reduce income," he said, "until we have in sight a program of expenditure that shows that the factors of income and outgo will be balanced." Eisenhower kept the national debt low and inflation near zero.

There were three recessions during Eisenhower's administration—July 1953 through May 1954, August 1957 through April 1958, and April 1960 through February 1961. Real GDP growth averaged just 2.5% over those eight years. Eisenhower allowed the recessions to occur, to wring out the inflation of wartime. Under the Eisenhower administration the stock market performed very well, with the Dow Jones Industrials stock market index more than doubling (from 288 to 634), however job creation slumped drastically, with fewer new jobs per month during the Eisenhower presidency than during any other post-World War II presidency other than that of George W. Bush.

The Democrats regained control in the 1954 Senate and House elections, limiting his freedom of action on domestic policy. He forged a good relationship with congressional leaders, particularly House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

On June 17, 1954, Eisenhower launched Operation Wetback in response to increasing illegal immigration to the United States. As many as three million illegal immigrants had crossed the U.S. Mexican border to work in California, Arizona, Texas and other states. Eisenhower opposed this movement, believing that it lowered the wages of American workers and led to corruption. The Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed 1.3 to 2.1 million Mexicans were deported or left voluntarily under the threat of deportation. The Texas State Historical Association reported that the San Antonio district (all of Texas outside El Paso and the Trans-Pecos) officially apprehended about 80,000 immigrants, and notes that the INS numbers are criticized as inflated by guesswork.

In 1957, he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas after Governor Orval Faubus attempted to defy a federal court order calling for desegregation of Little Rock public schools. The soldiers escorted nine African-American students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, to Little Rock Central High School. He wrote legislation that would create a Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch and a civil rights department in the Justice Department, along with protecting voting rights; Nixon stepped in to break a filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats attacked Eisenhower for not taking a public stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist campaigns. Privately he held McCarthy and his tactics in contempt, writing, "I despise [McCarthy's tactics], and even during the political campaign of '52 I not only stated publicly (and privately to him) that I disapproved of those methods, but I did so in his own State." Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to weaken McCarthy, in particular by putting together a task force headed by Herbert Brownell, Sherman Adams, and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to oversee the defense of the Army, leading to the pivotal Army–McCarthy hearings which led to his downfall in 1954.

Eisenhower promoted the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the United States' Interstate Highways. It was the largest public works program in U.S. history, providing a 41,000-mile highway system. Eisenhower had been impressed during the war with the German Autobahn system, and also recalled his own involvement in a military convoy in 1919 that took 62 days to cross the U.S. Another achievement was a 20% increase in family income during his presidency, of which he was very proud.

Eisenhower retained his popularity throughout his presidency. In 1956, he was re-elected by an even wider margin than in 1952, again defeating Stevenson, and carrying such traditional Democratic states as Texas and Tennessee.

Little Rock crisis

During the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, President Eisenhower denied backing with strong opinion the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in the public arena. Just before the court ruling was made, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Supreme Court Chief Justice. Although some writers believe Eisenhower once remarked that his appointment was "the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made," Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith concluded in 2012 that "Eisenhower never said that. I have no evidence that he ever made such a statement."

President Eisenhower verbally rebuked Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas for his insertion of the Arkansas National Guard to override congressional law. Further instances of lawlessness in Little Rock, Arkansas brought about an angry response from the President and gave him little choice but to intervene. He issued Executive Order 10730 to place the Arkansas National Guard under his command, also sending in one thousand of the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division of the US Army.

Medical events

In 1949 General Eisenhower quit his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit. In 1955, the President took a vacation in Denver, Colorado and complained of stomach pains following a round of golf. That night after dinner with his wife and doctor, he had more complaints. The doctor had left the dinner unconcerned. Eisenhower's distress became worse, and his wife Mamie drove him by car to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora after 2 a.m. on September 24.The President had a myocardial infarction, keeping him and the nation's attention on the eighth floor of Fitzsimons Hospital for seven weeks. In November he returned to Washington and then on to his farm in Gettysburg to recuperate. In December he considered announcing he would not run for reelection in 1956. In February 1956 the medical opinion was "his present active life satisfactorily for another five to ten years." On February 28, 1956 Eisenhower announced he would indeed seek a second term.

President Eisenhower was diagnosed with Crohn's disease or ileitis on May 10, 1956. On June 8, he required surgery at Walter Reed Hospital, thus the public learned of the diagnosis during the election year. He won his second term. On November 25, 1957 Eisenhower suffered a mild stroke in the Oval Office. This left him with a slight speech impediment. The next year Eisenhower wrote a letter of authority giving Vice President Richard Nixon means to assume power in the event of incapacitation of the president. The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1967, formalized conveyance of authority if a living president was incapacitated.

List of international trips

Eisenhower made one international trip while president-elect, to South Korea, December 2–5, 1952, where he visited Seoul and the Korean combat zone. He also made 16 international trips to 26 nations during his presidency. Between August 1959 and June 1960, he undertook five major tours, travelling to Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. On his "Flight to Peace" Goodwill tour, in December 1959, the President visited 11 nations including five in Asia, flying 22,000 miles in 19 days.

An official air traffic control call sign for a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President was established for security purposes during Eisenhower's presidency. This came about following a 1953 incident where an Eastern Airlines commercial flight (8610) had the same call sign as the flight the president was on (Air Force 8610). The airliner accidentally entered the same airspace, and after the incident, the unique presidential aircraft call sign Air Force One was introduced in 1959.

White House staff and advisors

  • Emmet John Hughes
  • Sherman Adams
  • James C. Hagerty
  • Andrew J. Goodpaster
  • Judicial appointments

    Eisenhower appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • Earl Warren (Chief Justice) – 1953
  • John Marshall Harlan II – 1955
  • William J. Brennan – 1956
  • Charles Evans Whittaker – 1957
  • Potter Stewart – 1958
  • States admitted to the Union

    Two new states were admitted to the Union while Eisenhower was in office:

  • Alaska – January 3, 1959
  • Hawaii – August 21, 1959
  • References

    Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower Wikipedia