The American Dream


After Harry Truman declined to run again for the presidency, the election of 1952 emerged as a contest between the Democratic nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had directed American forces in Europe during World War II (Figure). Eisenhower campaigned largely on a promise to end the war in Korea, a conflict the public had grown weary of fighting. He also vowed to fight Communism both at home and abroad, a commitment he demonstrated by choosing as his running mate Richard M. Nixon, a congressman who had made a name for himself by pursuing Communists, notably former State Department employee and suspected Soviet agent Alger Hiss.

A photograph of Dwight D. Eisenhower is shown.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the perfect presidential candidate in 1952. He had never before run for office or even cast a vote, and thus had no political record to be challenged or criticized.

In 1952, Eisenhower supporters enthusiastically proclaimed “We Like Ike,” and Eisenhower defeated Stevenson by winning 54 percent of the popular vote and 87 percent of the electoral vote (Figure). When he assumed office in 1953, Eisenhower employed a leadership style he had developed during his years of military service. He was calm and willing to delegate authority regarding domestic affairs to his cabinet members, allowing him to focus his own efforts on foreign policy. Unlike many earlier presidents, such as Harry Truman, Eisenhower was largely nonpartisan and consistently sought a middle ground between liberalism and conservatism. He strove to balance the federal budget, which appealed to conservative Republicans, but retained much of the New Deal and even expanded Social Security. He maintained high levels of defense spending but, in his farewell speech in 1961, warned about the growth of the military-industrial complex, the matrix of relationships between officials in the Department of Defense and executives in the defense industry who all benefited from increases in defense spending. He disliked the tactics of Joseph McCarthy but did not oppose him directly, preferring to remain above the fray. He saw himself as a leader called upon to do his best for his country, not as a politician engaged in a contest for advantage over rivals.

A map entitled “1952 Presidential Election” shows the number of electoral votes cast by each state and indicates which candidate won that state. Republican Eisenhower won Washington (9), Oregon (6), California (32), Idaho (4), Nevada (3), Montana (4), Utah (4), Arizona (4), Wyoming (3), Colorado (6), New Mexico (4), North Dakota (4), South Dakota (4), Nebraska (6), Kansas (8), Oklahoma (8), Texas (24), Minnesota (11), Iowa (10), Missouri (13), Wisconsin (12), Illinois (27), Michigan (20), Indiana (13), Ohio (25), Tennessee (11), Florida (10), Maine (5), New Hampshire (4), Vermont (3), Massachusetts (16), Rhode Island (4), Connecticut (8), New York (45), New Jersey (16), Pennsylvania (32), Delaware (3), Maryland (9), and Virginia (12). Democrat Stevenson won Kentucky (10), West Virginia (8), Arkansas (8), Louisiana (10), Mississippi (8), Alabama (11), Georgia (12), South Carolina (8), and North Carolina (14). A pie chart beside the map indicates that Eisenhower won 442 electoral votes (83%) and Stevenson 89 (17%), for a total of 531 electoral votes. A second pie chart indicates that Eisenhower won 33,937,252 (55%) popular votes and Stevenson 27,314,992 (44.5%), with minor candidates winning 299,675 (0.5%).
The above map shows the resounding victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election. Stevenson carried only the South, where whites had voted for Democratic Party candidates since the time of the Civil War.

In keeping with his goal of a balanced budget, Eisenhower switched the emphasis in defense from larger conventional forces to greater stockpiles of nuclear weapons. His New Look strategy embraced nuclear “massive retaliation,” a plan for nuclear response to a first Soviet strike so devastating that the attackers would not be able to respond. Some labeled this approach “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD.

Part of preparing for a possible war with the Soviet Union was informing the American public what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The government provided instructions for building and equipping bomb shelters in the basement or backyard, and some cities constructed municipal shelters. Schools purchased dog tags to help identify students in the aftermath of an attack and showed children instructional films telling them what to do if atomic bombs were dropped on the city where they lived.

“A Guide for Surviving Nuclear War”

To prepare its citizens for the possibility of nuclear war, in 1950, the U.S. government published and distributed informative pamphlets such as “A Guide for Surviving Nuclear War” excerpted here.

Just like fire bombs and ordinary high explosives, atomic weapons cause most of their death and damage by blast and heat. So first let’s look at a few things you can do to escape these two dangers.
Even if you have only a second’s warning, there is one important thing you can do to lessen your chances of injury by blast: Fall flat on your face.
More than half of all wounds are the result of being bodily tossed about or being struck by falling and flying objects. If you lie down flat, you are least likely to be thrown about. If you have time to pick a good spot, there is less chance of your being struck by flying glass and other things.
If you are inside a building, the best place to flatten out is close against the cellar wall. If you haven’t time to get down there, lie down along an inside wall, or duck under a bed or table. . . .
If caught out-of-doors, either drop down alongside the base of a good substantial building—avoid flimsy, wooden ones likely to be blown over on top of you—or else jump in any handy ditch or gutter.
When you fall flat to protect yourself from a bombing, don’t look up to see what is coming. Even during the daylight hours, the flash from a bursting A-bomb can cause several moments of blindness, if you’re facing that way. To prevent it, bury your face in your arms and hold it there for 10 to 12 seconds after the explosion. . . .
If you work in the open, always wear full-length, loose-fitting, light-colored clothes in time of emergency. Never go around with your sleeves rolled up. Always wear a hat—the brim could save you a serious face burn.

What do you think was the purpose of these directions? Do you think they could actually help people survive an atomic bomb blast? If not, why publish such booklets?

View this short instructional film made in 1951 that teaches elementary school children what to do in the event an atomic bomb is dropped. Why do you think officials tried to convey the message that a nuclear attack was survivable?

Government and industry allocated enormous amounts of money to the research and development of more powerful weapons. This investment generated rapid strides in missile technology as well as increasingly sensitive radar. Computers that could react more quickly than humans and thereby shoot down speeding missiles were also investigated. Many scientists on both sides of the Cold War, including captured Germans such as rocket engineer Werner von Braun, worked on these devices. An early success for the West came in 1950, when Alan Turing, a British mathematician who had broken Germany’s Enigma code during World War II, created a machine that mimicked human thought. His discoveries led scientists to consider the possibility of developing true artificial intelligence.

However, the United States often feared that the Soviets were making greater strides in developing technology with potential military applications. This was especially true following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik (Figure), the first manmade satellite, in October 1957. In September 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which pumped over $775 million into educational programs over four years, especially those programs that focused on math and science. Congressional appropriations to the National Science Foundation also increased by $100 million in a single year, from $34 million in 1958 to $134 million in 1959. One consequence of this increased funding was the growth of science and engineering programs at American universities.

A photograph shows a replica of Sputnik.
The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik frightened many in the United States, who feared that Soviet technology had surpassed their own. To calm these fears, Americans domesticated Sputnik, creating children’s games based on it and using its shape as a decorative motif.

In the diplomatic sphere, Eisenhower pushed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to take a firmer stance against the Soviets to reassure European allies of continued American support. At the same time, keenly sensing that the stalemate in Korea had cost Truman his popularity, Eisenhower worked to avoid being drawn into foreign wars. Thus, when the French found themselves fighting Vietnamese Communists for control of France’s former colony of Indochina, Eisenhower provided money but not troops. Likewise, the United States took no steps when Hungary attempted to break away from Soviet domination in 1956. The United States also refused to be drawn in when Great Britain, France, and Israel invaded the Suez Canal Zone following Egypt’s nationalization of the canal in 1956. Indeed, Eisenhower, wishing to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union, threatened to impose economic sanctions on the invading countries if they did not withdraw.