After the war-ravaged times of the 1940s and early 1950s, Americans turned their attention to domestic concerns. President Eisenhower's strong yet pleasant demeanor was the antithesis of Truman's cold scowl and helped usher in a more friendly and family-oriented era. While the Republican accepted much of the previous administration's New Deal, he also promoted policies that nurtured the growing economy. The philosophy of the Eisenhower administration—labeled by many as "dynamic conservatism"—appealed to both Republicans and Democrats. "In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be humane," explained Eisenhower. "But when dealing with people's money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative."
Eisenhower worked with the Democratic Congress to extend many programs created by Roosevelt and Truman. Amendments to the Social Security Act expanded coverage to millions of Americans formerly excluded, including professionals, farm workers, and members of the armed forces. Federal expenditures for public health rose each year during Eisenhower's two terms in office, and federally funded construction of low-income housing remained steady throughout the mid-century decade. The Eisenhower administration also expanded farm-related aid programs. In 1954, farm product surpluses were exported as gifts to needy nations, and in 1959 surpluses became available to qualified Americans through the food stamp program.
Productivity of American workers increased steadily each year during the 1950s. Rising wages in the quickly expanding steel and automobile industries offered factory workers opportunities to experience a middle-class way of life. Groups like the Urban League and the National Association of Colored Women pushed for fair employment laws, which helped minorities secure family-wage jobs with large corporations.
As more blacks entered the workplace and moved into white communities, desegregation became a prominent issue. When Eisenhower took office, he announced his commitment to the principle of civil rights; however, he only acted on the federal level. During his first term, public services in Washington D.C., navy yards, and veterans' hospitals were desegregated. But on civil rights issues that affected the majority of the black population in America, he deferred power to local and state authorities. Eisenhower soon found himself at the heart of the civil rights struggle when segregationists reacted to a Supreme Court decision declaring that "separate but equal" schools denied black children equal treatment under the Constitution.
In 1951, the parents of Kansas third-grader Linda Brown challenged Topeka's school segregation laws so their daughter could attend a neighborhood school, which allowed only whites. Three years later, with help from NAACP attorneys, Brown v. Board of Education reached the United States Supreme Court. The justices reversed an earlier decision—Plessy v. Furguson—and ruled that even if the quality of separate facilities were equal, separating people by race produced feelings of inferiority. The Court then directed states to start the process of integrating schools. The justices did not set a deadline for compliance, but rather instructed the states to carry out the order "with all deliberate speed."
In northern states, many people applauded the Supreme Court's decision, but a large contingency of southern whites despised being forced to open their schools to blacks. The following year, 101 southern congressman and senators issued the Southern Manifesto, which asserted that the Court's decision was unconstitutional. By 1956, only a handful of school districts in the south desegregated, and the region became alienated from the rest of the country.
Eisenhower privately opposed the Supreme Courts' decision because it contradicted his plan to place authority in the hands of local policymakers. He did not believe that racial attitudes could be changed by government edict, and anticipated negative reaction from many Southerners—including Republicans whose votes he was courting. Although the president said the Court's ruling should be obeyed, he did little to enforce it. "I am convinced that the Supreme Court decision set back progress in the South at least fifteen years," he commented to one staff member. "The fellow who tries to tell me you can do these things by force is just plain nuts."
As Eisenhower anticipated, problems materialized in 1956 when a mob in Clinton, Tennessee, blew up a school with dynamite before it could be integrated. Later that same year, riots broke out at the University of Alabama when the school admitted a black woman. School officials eventually expelled the student when they deemed her complaints about unacceptable treatment improper.
In 1957, Eisenhower moved to action when the governor of Arkansas refused to allow black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock. As resistance to civil rights efforts in the area became violent, Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the school. Although a meeting between the president and governor proved fruitless, a judge eventually ordered Faubus to withdraw the soldiers and allow the students to attend classes. However, when a frenzied mob of whites screamed obscenities and threatened the blacks, the nine students had to be removed for their own safety.
Eisenhower, who once remarked that he could not imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce him to send federal troops, ordered one thousand paratroopers to the city to protect the students, and placed 10,000 National Guardsmen on federal service. A small force of soldiers remained in Little Rock through the remainder of the school year.
Charles Wilson, head of General Motors and later Eisenhower's first secretary of defense, proclaimed "what was good for the country, was good for General Motors, and vice versa." The statement effectively represented the central theme of the booming 1950s economy. Eisenhower's administration looked to rebuild urban America with an agenda of economic development.
In 1954, Congress modified the public housing program to focus on urban renewal. City leaders accepted federal money to replace run-down housing and low-rent businesses located in dilapidated downtown districts. Within a few years, construction of new office towers, hospitals, civic centers, and luxury apartments reshaped the American urban landscape.
The Eisenhower administration also leveraged growing concern over the Cold War to generate Congressional support for the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. The $27 billion plan called for the development of more than 40,000 miles of freeways across America. The roads, Eisenhower and his staff argued, would improve national defense because they would be wide and strong enough for trucks to haul military components quickly and easily; they would also allow Americans to promptly evacuate the cities in case of a Soviet attack.
Construction of these modern, multilane roads created numerous jobs and provided huge financial gains for the steel and concrete industries—the plan required the construction equivalent of 60 Panama Canals. The fast motorways cut in half travel time from city-to-city, and promoted long-distance trucking. However, America's commitment to the automobile seriously damaged the nation's railroad industry and displaced thousands of Latinos and African-Americans, whose neighborhoods were often plowed under to make way for the new roads.
As roadways surrounded larger cities, urban areas expanded and commuting became easier. More and more residents looked to escape crowded inner-cities for new subdivisions located on the cusp of city limits. Federal grants for basic facilities, such as sewers, reduced suburban development costs and helped speed construction of the subdivisions. At its peak during the late 1950s, construction of new single-family homes built in suburban neighborhoods tallied one million per year.
The Eisenhower administration also helped to convert many inland cities, like Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, into seaports accessible by most oceangoing ships. For more than 100 years, politicians debated the idea to build a series of dams and locks to open the Great Lakes to cargo ships. The St. Lawrence Seaway, however, for years languished in Congress as east coast businesses opposed the increase in competition. In 1954, Eisenhower cited the growing need of American steel producers for Canadian ore to persuade Congress to approve the plan and partner with Canada—which had already started construction—to complete the project. A separate agreement called for New York to supply other states with electricity generated from hydroelectric plants constructed along the seaway.
The space race grew out of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Each of the superpowers wanted to win the race to prove the superiority of not only their technology, but also their own political and social philosophy. On October 4, 1957, Soviet scientists amazed the world by launching into space the first man-made satellite. The nearly 200-hundred-pound Sputnik (Russian for "satellite" or "baby moon") successfully orbited the earth as elated Russians celebrated on the ground. The following month the same team lofted the larger Sputnik II above the earth's atmosphere, this time carrying a dog. The United States, considered by many the world scientific and industrial production leader, had seemingly fallen behind the Soviet Union.
Many were concerned that while U.S. engineers and scientists spent time developing household items for public consumption, like the color television, the Soviets pooled their resources to develop advanced rocketry. Americans quickly became aware of the military implications of the artificial satellites. If the Soviets could send heavy objects into space, they could easily hit U.S. cities with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The thought of a nuclear attack on the United States frightened Americans. Life magazine published an article entitled "The Case for Being Panicky," and a Democratic senator demanded that Eisenhower meet with Congress to discuss Sputnik and the "missile gap." However, the president refused and, in an attempt to ease American anxiety, reassured the public that United States missile technology did not lag behind that of the Soviet Union. Privately, Eisenhower knew the notion of a missile gap was misleading. Secret high-flying American U-2 spy planes offered the president critical information on the Soviet weaponry capabilities.
In early 1958, the United States launched its own artificial satellite, Explorer I, into outer space. But the successful launch did little to quell public fears that the capabilities of the U.S. military were inadequate. Republicans blamed the Truman administration for not supporting the country's missile program, and Democrats claimed Eisenhower refused to take the Soviet threat seriously.
The Soviet's success with Sputnik, coupled with the demand from politicians to close the apparent missile gap, pushed Eisenhower to act. He first prepared a plan to increase the defense budget. Fearing that Soviet technological advancements posed viable threats to national security, anxious legislators voted to give the president the money he requested and more to bolster defense programs. By the end of the year, the United States placed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in strategic locations around the world, including Britain, Italy, and Turkey.
Eisenhower also supported the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to coordinate space efforts. In 1958, he introduced the Mercury program and the first seven U.S. astronauts—Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Donald Slayton, Virgil Grissom, and Gordon Cooper. The new organization quickly developed a program to send a man into orbit before 1959. Delays, however, forced America's first manned space flight, commanded by Shepard, to take place more than two years later.
To match the Soviet accomplishments, the United States needed experienced engineers and scientists, but high schools and colleges were not graduating enough qualified students. Many believed the educational system in the Soviet Union was superior to that found in the United States. Educators in the states overhauled curriculum standards to focus more on reading, writing, and arithmetic, and less on what they considered "soft" courses, such as art or home economics. In 1958, Congress enacted the National Defense Education Act, which authorized almost $900 million in federal grants for enhanced teacher salaries and improved laboratories and equipment. The Act also included funding for college scholarships that encouraged students to take additional courses in mathematics, science, and modern languages.
Within a decade, enrollment in higher education institutions jumped significantly and nearly one-third of university scientists and engineers were involved in some capacity in weapons research for the United States government. America had accepted the challenge to equal, and surpass, Soviet Union technological capabilities. But the rivalry and distrust between the two countries intensified, as each side substantially increased its military might.
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