Fifty Years Ago
The Republicans Get Their Man
By Bret Hovell
On The Home Front
Although the summer of 1952 was a time of domestic prosperity, that did not necessarily connote domestic tranquility. The economy of the United States was on its way to producing an output of $350 billion, the largest to date. General Motors began building cars with air conditioning and the U.S. won seventy-six medals in the Olympic games in Helsinki, Finland, seven more than our Soviet rivals. Puerto Rico became the first self-governed commonwealth of the U.S.; Dr. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. America was reading Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, and watching I Love Lucy.
At the same time the country was enjoying Lucy, people were concerned about the stalemate in the Korean War. So too was President Truman, who ordered the bombing of North Korea. War tension, combined with almost daily accusations of communist infiltration in the United States government, led to uneasiness with the status quo. After twenty years of Democrats in the White House, the nation was ready for a change and turned to its outstanding military hero.
Once he made the decision to run, General Eisenhower made the decision to win. Never one to do things half-heartedly, he vowed to "start swinging from the hips" and to "keep swinging until completely counted out." To do this, General Eisenhower, for the first time in his public life, had to take a side in the political fray. No longer could he invoke his status in the military to justify his bipartisanship. To woo conservative Republicans, Eisenhower had to differentiate himself from the Roosevelt and Truman administrations he had served with such distinction. While he was pushing away from the Democrats, he also had to set himself apart from his opponent in the race for the Republican nomination, Senator Robert Taft, who had his own core group of followers.
What came along with such politicking, much to General Eisenhower's dissatisfaction, were the various personal affronts presidential candidates and their families were forced to endure. Ike was accused, among other things, of being a Soviet, a Jew, and of having a disease that might compromise his presidency. His wife, Mamie, was accused of being an alcoholic. The General would never get over his dislike for this type of personal attack politics, which he described during his second campaign for president as "really a lousy business. This is about as low as it can come."
It is a common misconception that because General Eisenhower won the New Hampshire primary without campaigning, and won the general election in November with relative ease, he must also have easily taken the Republican nomination from Senator Taft. This was not the case. Despite the success of the campaign being organized on the General's behalf by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and the popularity he enjoyed on the campaign trail, the nomination was never a sure thing. In fact, immediately before the Republican convention in Chicago, the Associated Press released data indicating that Senator Taft would win 530 delegates to General Eisenhower's 427.
The reason the General's popularity was not translating into convention votes was a large number of contested delegates. In Texas, for example, where the majority of primary voters were turning out for Eisenhower, a group of Taft supporters formed their own state convention and nominated another slate of delegates to go to Chicago. General Eisenhower was concerned that citizens were being "disenfranchised by the decision of a small committee" in the states with two sets of delegates, and wanted to make sure the right group was seated. Eisenhower backer Herbert Brownell spent the week leading up to the convention in the New York public library reviewing the minutes of a similar situation that had occurred at the convention of 1912, when William Howard Taft, the father of Senator Taft, took the nomination away from Teddy Roosevelt. The product of his work was the proposal at the Republican Convention of the Fair Play Amendment, which, if approved, would have kept delegates of unofficial state conventions from being seated at the national convention. Importantly, it also kept the contested delegates from voting on the amendment, assuring, as Eisenhower wrote later in his memoirs, "that those on trial would not sit on the jury." The convention voted to approve the amendment, and the path was clear for an unobstructed vote.
General Eisenhower won the Republican nomination on the first ballot. When he went to Mamie's room to tell her the news, he reported later, neither had any doubt that he would go on to win the Presidency in November. In his biography of Eisenhower, Relman Morin wrote that it was "characteristic of him" to display this kind of confidence. "Once in a struggle," Morin writes, "he always expected to succeed."
The Path to the Presidency
After the ballot was cast making Eisenhower the nominee, the General went across the street to speak with Senator Taft and ask for his friendship throughout the rest of the campaign. He knew better than to leave the party split after such a close and divisive convention. His goal now was to continue to unite the party, preventing factionalism that could cost the Republicans the White House. The meeting went as well as could be expected: a disappointed Taft pledged to support Eisenhower in his bid for the White House as distraught Taft supporters and campaign workers looked on.
Perhaps most important in the process of uniting the party was the Eisenhower's selection of a running mate. A prospective Vice Presidential nominee needed to be relatively young - to balance the ticket in terms of age - and from the West, for geographic balance. He would have to appeal to both the hard-line Republicans the General had worked so hard to win over, but he needed to be tolerable to the moderates as well. The man who met all these criteria and had delivered the state of California to General Eisenhower, helping tremendously in securing the nomination, was Senator Richard Nixon.
Though the General and the Senator did not know each other well, the campaign began smoothly. Eisenhower conducted an old-fashioned campaign by train throughout the country. He worked long, vigorous hours, often making his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, look exhausted by comparison. His standard stump speech included vows to clean up corruption in Washington and requests that the American public join him on his "crusade." Nixon focused campaign efforts on the war in Korea, as well as ridding corruption from Washington and communism from the world.
With a few exceptions, Eisenhower's campaign for president went very smoothly. One problem, however, was the allegation that Nixon had a secret fund of money provided to him by some of his millionaire constituents. The Senator compounded the problem by insisting that Communist forces had created the story in an attempt to defame him. Eisenhower and his people were not happy about this and many within the campaign urged the General to remove Nixon from the ticket immediately. Eisenhower was conflicted. A major part of his campaign focused on eliminating corruption from Washington, and keeping Nixon on might have seemed hypocritical. But without him, it was unlikely that Eisenhower could win the White House, a simple fact that was recognized by very few in the campaign.
Without the approval of his running mate, Nixon went on television to defend himself in his now famous "Checkers" speech. Not only was he successful in doing so, he had an ace up his sleeve. It had just been announced that Stevenson too had a fund, and Nixon also knew of one held by the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee which was not yet public. During the speech, Nixon called for a full financial disclosure from the two Democratic candidates and promised produce one on himself. Eisenhower was furious. Though he had nothing to hide, he despised the idea of having to make his private finances public, something that would be required if the other three candidates were doing so. Though the flap ended with Nixon's speech, Eisenhower never forgave him for forcing the disclosure.
The summer closed with a return to the relative normalcy of the campaign. Eisenhower maintained a strong lead over Stevenson that would hold until the first Tuesday in November. Though the road to the election was not completely smooth up ahead, it was becoming more and more likely that Dwight David Eisenhower would be the thirty-fourth President of the United States.