As the 1952 presidential election approached, Truman’s popularity was again at low ebb; he chose not to seek reelection. In choosing their candidate, the Republicans passed over the twice-defeated Dewey and their most prominent leader, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, an outspoken conservative, and nominated General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower’s popularity did not grow merely out of his achievements in World War II. Although a West Pointer (class of 1915), he struck most persons as anything but warlike. After the bristly, combative Truman, his genial personality and evident desire to avoid controversy proved widely appealing. In his reluctance to seek political office, Eisenhower reminded the country of George Washington, whereas his seeming ignorance of current political issues was no more a handicap to his campaign than the similar ignorance of Jackson and Grant in their times. People “liked Ike” because his management of the Allied armies suggested that he would be equally competent as head of the complex federal government. Eisenhower’s campaign was also the first to use television effectively. It featured what came to be known as “spots,” twenty-second tapes of candidate Eisenhower responding to questions about his opinions on issues, important and trivial. Eisenhower’s promise during the campaign to go to Korea if elected to try to bring the war to an end was a political masterstroke.
The Democrats nominated Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, whose grandfather had been vice president under Grover Cleveland. Stevenson’s unpretentiousness was appealing, and his witty, urbane speeches captivated intellectuals. In retrospect, however, it is clear that he had not the remotest chance of defeating the popular Eisenhower.
The result was a Republican landslide: Eisenhower received almost 34 million votes to Stevenson’s 27 million, and in the Electoral College his margin was 442 to 89.
On the surface, Eisenhower seemed the antithesis of Truman. The Republicans had charged the Democratic administration with being wasteful and extravagant, and Eisenhower planned to run his administration on sound business principles. He spoke scornfully of “creeping socialism,” called for more local control of government affairs, and promised to reduce federal spending to balance the budget and cut taxes. He believed that by battling with Congress and pressure groups over the details of legislation, his immediate predecessors had sacrificed part of their status as chief representative of the American people. Like Washington, he tried to avoid being caught up in narrow partisan conflicts. But like Washington, he was not always able to do so.
Eisenhower’s somewhat doctrinaire belief in decentralization and private enterprise reduced the effectiveness of his social welfare measures—an extension of Social Security—but on balance, he proved to be an excellent politician. He knew how to be flexible without compromising his basic values. His “conservatism” became first “dynamic conservatism” and then “progressive moderation.” He summarized his attitude by saying, “In all those things that deal with people, be liberal, be human.”
Yet his policies toward illegal Mexican immigrants and native Americans proved less than humane. In 1954 he authorized Operation Wetback, which rounded up and deported nearly a million illegal Mexican immigrants. He also sought to weaken New Deal policies that strengthened Native American tribes as political entities. Indian leaders resisted this change, and the policy ended in 1961.