Eisenhower’s Campaign and the Election of 1952

Winston Du
Vanderbilt University (VHR Blog)

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Electoral College Map (1952)

In 1952, the Republican party nominated General Dwight D. Eisenhower to be its candidate for President. This was a rather strange situation: just four years earlier, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) had tried (unsuccessfully) to draft Eisenhower to replace Truman on the Democratic ticket in 1948.¹ Moreover, at the time of his nomination, Eisenhower was not even a registered Republican (or a registered voter for that matter).² But to many, this seemed to show Eisenhower, the World War II hero, was “above politics.”³

Though running nominally under the Republican ticket, Eisenhower co-opted many of the traditionally liberal positions that his opponent, the Princeton-educated Adlai Stevenson, had already staked out. As political theorist Russell Kirk reflected, Ike was not a conservative, “he was a golfer.”⁴ Though not exactly progressive, Eisenhower’s beliefs had little in common with the rest of the 1952 GOP party platform: he agreed with most of the progressive legislation of the 1930s and 1940s, from social security to various labor laws, and he vowed on the campaign trail “not to turn the clock back – ever.”⁵ Indeed, Henry Wallace, the leader of the Socialist-backed Progressive party, would decide in 1952 to endorse Eisenhower over Stevenson, claiming that Eisenhower advocated most strongly for the progressive platform.⁶

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Dwight D. Eisenhower & Richard M. Nixon (November 4, 1952)

There were few policy differences as a result. Both candidates promised peace and prosperity, both promised to aid “to strengthen democracy, to reduce taxes, to cut spending, to lower the debt, and to secure efficiency.”⁷ The lack of polarization in platforms also extended to the pressing issue of civil rights, where Eisenhower and Stevenson again had few differences. As one commentator put it, “Eisenhower says he’s for integration but gradually; Stevenson says he’s for integration but moderately. It should be possible to compromise between those two extremes.”⁸ With the exception of foreign policy on Korea, which became an issue only in the last weeks of the campaign, there was an unusual level of consensus between the two major party candidates.

Because of these reasons, as the 1952 election cycle began, it seemed that Americans could expect a quiet election. Between the likable Eisenhower and the thoughtful and folksy Stevenson (who famously campaigned with a hole in one of his shoes), the race seemed to be set up more as a friendly match of golf rather than a decision that would determine the survival and fate of the country. Yet, it would nonetheless devolve into a bitter contest.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower Pin

Newspaper editors eagerly endorsed Eisenhower at the outset, citing fears for the two-party system if Eisenhower lost—a surprising argument since if anything threatened the two-party system at the time, it was the GOP control of most media outlets.⁹ The Republican Party itself barraged the Democrats with negative campaign advertisements that accused the Truman administration of appeasing to communism. These allegations somehow stuck to an administration that had “inaugurated the Marshall Plan in 1948, joined the North American Treaty Organization in 1949, and hurled back the Communist invaders of South Korea in 1950, all under the umbrella of the Truman doctrine.”¹

Eisenhower, despite his own reservations about the political mudslinging, did little to contain such peddling. For example, when his fellow Republican Joseph McCarthy denounced General George Marshall (one of Eisenhower’s closest friends in the military) as a communist, Eisenhower was mute. While on the campaign trail in Wisconsin (McCarthy’s home state), Ike purposely omitted a prepared defense of General Marshall. By allowing the Republican campaign literature to continue attacking Truman’s “failed” policies and tying them to Stevenson, Eisenhower could strengthen the image of his anti-communist credentials against that of his opponent’s, even if it meant temporarily aligning himself with the rather crazy McCarthy. In response, President Truman  seized on the Marshall incident. While campaigning for Stevenson, he told the audience he had never thought “the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low.” To support his fellow Democrat’s candidacy, Truman (who had secretly asked Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1948)¹¹ countered with his own somewhat wild and unfounded allegations, calling Eisenhower a “stooge for Wall Street” and a puppet of “Republican reactionaries.”¹²

Corruption was a central electoral issue, which Eisenhower’s campaign zeroed in on. Republicans ruthlessly prosecuted members of the Truman administration for anything that could win them the election. In one case in 1951, the Chicago Tribune reported congressional findings that Truman’s military aide Harry Vaughan had accepted a set of freezers from an associate and distributed them to members of Truman’s family.¹³ Though most such findings were minor, politically overblown, and unrelated to Eisenhower’s actual opponent in the race, the stories did lend credence to the Eisenhower campaign’s charges against the Democratic party. 

Ironically, complaints about corruption also boomeranged their way into Eisenhower’s campaign. Late in the campaign in September, the New York Post charged that Eisenhower’s running mate, Nixon, was operating a secret personal slush fund into which business owners in California funneled “campaign contributions.”¹⁴ The fund was legally murky at worst, and it was not large, amounting to only $17,000 (or about $155,000 in 2016 dollars). Nonetheless, Democrats were quick to capitalize on the opportunity and called for Nixon’s immediate resignation. In his infamous “Checkers speech,” Nixon appeared on television to deny all wrongdoing. He presented himself as a victim of a smear campaign by groups he suggested to be communist-sympathizers, and (in a stunning turnaround) accused the Democratic candidates of also operating illicit funds. Nixon argued that unless Adlai Stevenson and his running mate John Sparkman also made “a complete financial statement,” it will “be an admission that they have something to hide.”¹⁵

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“Ike Victor! Republicans Sweep Blair County” in the Altoona Tribune

The 1952 election resulted in a massive landslide for Eisenhower, who claimed 55.2% of the popular vote and even carried Stevenson’s home state of Illinois. Eisenhower’s victory also brought the Republicans back from the political fringe to which they had been at under FDR and Truman, with narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress. Historians, commentators, and even Stevenson himself have claimed that Eisenhower’s popularity was too overwhelming, and that he was favored to win from the beginning. Just one year after the election, sociologists at the National Opinion Research Corporation found that Eisenhower could have been elected “even in the absence of such strong issues [Korea and corruption]… to go still further, he could have been elected had he espoused the position of the Democratic Party on these issues.”¹⁶ Yet even such an “easy” victory was not a clean-cut affair. While one pollster, Samuel Lubell, found voters who thought of Eisenhower as “the great man this country always produces in times of need,” others said that they voted for the general “only as the lesser of two evils.”¹⁷

During every recent election cycle, especially this year, Americans have evoked nostalgia for a “white picket-fences,” mid-century era when politics was not so divisive. The election of 1952 is a reminder that such an imagined past is mostly illusory. Even without the ideological polarization and slate of controversial candidates, US presidential elections have turned brutal and, for the lack of a better word, nasty.

Endnotes


[1]Michael Gardner. Harry Truman and Civil Rights (SIU Press, 2002), 92.

[2] Richard Winger, ” Dwight Eisenhower Was Not a Registered Republican When He was Nominated for President the First Time,” Ballot Access News, March 4, 2016. Accessed November 6, 2016. http://ballot-access.org/2016/03/04/dwight-eisenhower-was-not-a-registered-republican-when-he-was-nominated-for-president-the-first-time/

[3] Vincent P. DeSantis, “The Presidential Election of 1952.” The Review of Politics 15, no. 02 (1953): 148. JSTOR(1405219), http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1405219.pdf.

[4] Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (JHU Press, 1996), 54.

[5] Vincent P. DeSantis, “Eisenhower Revisionism.” The Review of Politics 38, no. 02 (1976): 191. JSTOR (1405936), http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1405936.pdf.

[6] Whitfield, Culture of the Cold War, 17.

[7] DeSantis, “Election of 1952.” 136.

[8] Ibid, 21.

[9] Ibid, 17

[10] Ibid, 24, quoting historian Stephen Ambrose,

[11] n.a., “Truman Wrote of ’48 Offer to Eisenhower,” New York Times, July 11, 2003, accessed November 6, 2016,

[12] Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Dwight D. Eisenhower: Campaigns and Elections.” Accessed November 7, 2016. http://millercenter.org­/president/biography/eisenhower-campaigns-and-elections.

[13] Arthur Sears Henning, “Truman Regime Scandal Looms as Vote Issue,” Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1951. Part 1-p4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1951/10/15/page/4/article/truman-regime-scandals-loom-as-vote-issue

[14] Robert S. Cathcart and Edward A. Schwarz, ” The New Nixon or Poor Richard.” The North American Review 253, no. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1968): 8-12. JSTOR (25116842), https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25116842.pdf

[15] Richard M. Nixon, “Checkers Speech.” (1952). http://unitedstreaming.com/videos/speeches_transcripts/8538E8A8-C6A1-45B4-BC49-DD57270A138A.pdf. Also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqjwBDH-vhY.

[16] Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley. “The political appeal of President Eisenhower.” Public Opinion Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1953): 443-460.

[17] DeSantis, “Election of 1952.” 136, citing Samuel Lubell. “Who Elected Eisenhower?.” Saturday Evening Post (1953): 26.

Eisenhower’s Campaign and the Election of 1952
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