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America: From Colony to Superpower. Part III: 1929-1960

Upon re-election, Truman faced many important international issues. The weakening of British and French control in the Middle East saw Israel create its own state and the U.S. muscling in on the area. Access to a huge supply of crude oil was a major factor in the move. America's declaration to defend Israel's newly created independence angered the huge Arab population in the region. In September 1949 evidence reached Washington that an atomic explosion had occurred in the Soviet Union. The Russians had broken the atomic monopoly and the era of seeming American invincibility had come to an end. In response, Truman proceeded with the construction of a hydrogen bomb. Simultaneously, the National Security Council was instructed to undertake a basic reappraisal of America's strategic position. The result, a document known as NSC 68 (April 1950), accelerated a shift from a political to a military definition of the Cold War. NSC 68 called both for a rapid build-up in nuclear weapons and for enlarged capacity to fight conventional wars whenever the Russians threatened.

The Korean War

American and Soviet troops had occupied Korea after World War II, and agreed to divide the country along the 38th parallel. This soon hardened into a geopolitical line. In 1948 the Russians set up a People's Democratic Republic in North Korea, while the Americans recognised the Republic of South Korea. In June 1949 Soviet and American forces withdrew from Korea. How would America react to such Communist aggression? Without hesitation, Truman committed American forces under General MacArthur to the defence of South Korea. UN approval was secured when Russia boycotted the Security Council vote. Truman created a stir at home by refusing to ask Congress for approval to send troops, instead relying on apparent inherent presidential powers. This move would give future presidents greater freedom to declare war without congressional approval.

By October 1st 1949 General MacArthur had recovered almost all of Korea below the 38th parallel. The UN General Assembly then authorised the troops to push beyond the line, with the aim of unifying Korea. Truman had agreed to such a move upon MacArthur's insistence that Communist China would remain neutral. However, in late November the Chinese army intervened, forcing the UN forces (mainly Americans backed by small smatterings of men from other nations). Tension grew between President Truman and General MacArthur. Truman was not prepared to provoke an all-out war with China, and so differed with MacArthur over the tactics and ultimate aims of the Korean War. In April MacArthur was relieved of his command after continually issuing provocative statements to the media and the enemy without presidential approval. The Korean War had fastened even more the fear of a Communist worldwide plot upon the American psyche. Truman increased military spending again and sent four extra army divisions to Western Europe. The U.S. cancelled its policy of neutrality in the Chinese Civil War and instead promised to defend the nationalists in Taiwan. The local uprising in French Indochina was declared a Communist coup.

At home, the government initiated prosecutions against top Communist leaders under the Smith Act of 1940, which prohibited groups from conspiring to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. But more conservative elements of the Senate wanted to go even further. At Senator Joseph McCarthy's prompting, a subcommittee was set up to investigate apparent Communist agents in the State Department. Although nothing substantial was uncovered, the administration was regularly accused of being Communist sympathisers. Revelations of corruption in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Internal Revenue further hurt the government. Republicans made gains in the 1950 elections and looked forward with vigour to the 1952 presidential election.

Senator Robert Taft had been favourite for the Republican nomination, but the party's Eastern wing regarded him as too isolationist, and instead chose war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Senator Richard M. Nixon of California became his running mate. Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois became the Democratic candidate, Truman having withdrawn from the race. The Republican campaign attacked the Democrats based on the themes of &ldquoKorea, communism, and corruption”. When Eisenhower, late in the campaign, declared his intention to go to Korea if elected, he clinched his victory. The popular vote showed 33.9 million for Eisenhower, 27.3 million for Stevenson. The margin in the Electoral College was 442 to 89. The Republicans also captured Congress. Twenty years of Democratic rule had come to an end.

Eisenhower and Foreign Policy

The Korean War was still raging. Negotiations began but floundered upon the issue of prisoners of war repatriation. Eventually this issue was resolved and an armistice was concluded in July 1953. But long-term questions on Korea remained unanswered. The country remained divided into north and south, with the Russians defending the North and America sworn to defend the South. Despite bombastic rhetoric from his administration about 'liberalisation' of oppressed nations by America, containment was quietly reinstated as American policy by Eisenhower. But, unlike Truman, Eisenhower was quite prepared to develop and use nuclear weapons in the Cold War. With its hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the United States was able to appear tough, leaving the Soviet Union unsure of what it would do if provoked. The world thus entered the period of the Cold War when fear of a nuclear holocaust was omnipresent.

Another key development was the use of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a quasi-spy army. In the 1950s the CIA's covert action expanded dramatically. Because CIA director Allen W. Dulles was the secretary of state's brother, the agency had unusual freedom of initiative. The CIA not only spied on nations but planted agents in countries, and helped to overthrow governments the U.S. deemed pro-Communist (such as in Iran in 1953). By 1957 the CIA devoted more than 50 percent of its personnel and more than 80 percent of its budget to &ldquocovert action”. Despite misgivings from some of his advisors about the CIA's role, President Eisenhower allowed it to continue unchecked. Dulles purged government departments and the CIA to assure complete support of the government's Cold War policy. This had the offshoot of creating vested interests for members in the idea of a military expansionist Soviet Union.

The Middle East was seen as a crucial Cold War battleground with Russia. Its vast quantities of oil made it of enormous economic importance to both sides. In 1957 Congress passed the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine, which authorised the deployment of American troops anytime a Middle Eastern nation was under the threat of Communism. In Latin America, Roosevelt's Good Neighbour policy was forgotten as the CIA was used to shape government to suit the U.S. The Cuban revolution in 1959 alarmed Washington, which promptly donated aid to American countries that rejected Communism. Khrushchev greatly increased Soviet activity in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. The launch of Sputnik caused great alarm. There was real fear that America would fall behind in the missiles race. But Khrushchev was also more prepared to talk to America than Stalin. In 1959 talks occurred, and a summit meeting was agreed for May 1960 in Paris. But a problem occurred when the Russians intercepted an American spy plane caught flying over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower refused to apoligise to Khrushchev in Paris and the summit collapsed. Relations with the Soviet Union would remain tense for the remainder of the president's reign.

Republican Domestic Policy

President Eisenhower was mainly interested in foreign policy and its ramifications. When focusing on domestic issues, he abrogated liberal government control and federal interference. He called this 'modern Republicanism', although it seemed very similar to that advocated by his predecessors in the 1920s. The main difference in the two eras lay in Eisenhower's regard to the New Deal. By not attempting to overturn Roosevelt's legacy, Eisenhower tacitly accepted it. An exception to the administration's dislike of federal works was the Highway Act of 1956, which saw major highways built across America. This hastened the drift away of the middle classes from the cities to the suburbs, leaving behind inner cities decaying and trapped in poverty. The government's lack of a social policy didn't help.

President Truman's civil rights plans had mainly been stalled by Congress, and so in Eisenhower's era these issues appeared before the Supreme Court. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, the Court reversed an earlier decision and interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as outlawing racial discrimination in public schools. The doctrine of 'separate but equal' was outlawed. Desegregation of schools was ordered and in the case of Little Rock, Arkansas, militarily enforced by the government. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first of its kind since Reconstruction almost a century before, authorised the Department of Justice to seek injunctions on behalf of black voters' rights. The rising tide of public indignation at racist attitudes, the increase of non-violent protest by black rights groups and the legal force of Supreme Court decisions all hammered away at segregation. By the 1960s no senator would even attempt to make an argument for white supremacy, although in the Deep South equal rights still had some way to go. Eisenhower, ironically, was disappointed with Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he had appointed. Warren had been responsible for many of the liberal decisions of the Supreme Court during this period, and the president did not necessarily agree with much of his reasoning.

Senator McCarthy enjoyed continuing support for his anti-Communist purges for sometime in the new administration. Eisenhower disliked him but regarded it as too dangerous to attempt to clash with the senator. But after the Korean War the rationale for McCarthyism declined, and by the time of his death in 1957 he was a marginalised voice. One offshoot of McCarthy had been Eisenhower's refusal to grant him access to Department of Defence files in May 1954, claiming &ldquoan uncontrolled discretion” to refuse information anywhere in the executive branch. This theory, which acquired in 1957 the name of &ldquoexecutive privilege”, ushered in an extraordinary time of executive denial. The president's power of withholding information from Congress was at its strongest ever. In its remaining years, the Eisenhower administration frequently rejected Congressional requests for information.

The 1960 presidential election

We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations- three of these involved our own country.

Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world

President Eisenhower's Farewell Address, 196112

Eisenhower had easily won re-election in 1956, beating Adlai Stevenson for a second time, but his popularity did not trickle down to his party. The Democrats took control of both houses in 1954 and increased their hold of Congress in 1956 and 1958. Rising unemployment and a series of scandals tarnished the government's reputation as the 1960 presidential election loomed on the horizon. Vice President Nixon secured the Republican nomination with Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts his running mate. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was the Democratic candidate with the Democratic Senate leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, completing the ticket. The 1960 campaign saw the first use of televised presidential debates, as the influence of the media grew ever more acute. Kennedy argued for a 'New Frontier', a supreme national effort to reverse America's apparent decline and improve the economy and society. In the closest popular vote since 1888, Kennedy won with a margin of just 119,057 out of 68.3 million votes. His Electoral College margin was much greater, 303 to 219 for Nixon. Fifteen Southern votes went to Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.

Eisenhower had been a popular president of an unpopular party. Although his foreign policies and granting of carte blanche to the CIA remain dubious, he had presided over the end of the Korean War and not entered the United States in any other major conflict during his presidency. America stood still the most powerful nation in the world, but its relationship with its only rival, the Soviet Union, remained strenuous. Domestically Eisenhower had done little, and as the 1960s dawned there was public support anew for social issues.


  • The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)
  • A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)
  • The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams (London, 1961)
  • American Politics & Society by David McKay (Oxford, 1997)
  • Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War by B. H. Liddell Hart (London, 1970)
  • The Hutchinson History of the World by J.M. Roberts (London, 1976)
  • From Bismarck To De Gaulle: A History Of Europe 1870-1966 by Francis T. Holohan (Dublin, 1988)
  • References

    Pg. 697 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)

    2Pg. 700 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)

    3Pg. 736 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)



    6Pg. 293 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)



    9Pg. 301 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)

    10Pg. 333 of From Bismarck To De Gaulle: A History of Europe 1870-1966 by Francis T. Holohan (Dublin, 1988)

    11See pg. 986-987 of The Hutchinson History of the World by J.M. Roberts (London, 1976)

    12Pg. 313 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)

    Part I 1776-1876 America: From Colony to Superpower

    Part II 1867-1929 – America: From Colony to Superpower

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