The 1952 Presidential Election

Truman decided not to seek the presidency in 1952. Given the passage of the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution that limited a presidential candidate to two terms in the office, it was questionable whether Truman was qualified to run. The Democratic Party had to choose among three possible candidates: Adlai E. Stevenson, Governor of Illinois, Averell Harriman, a Wall Street banker and railroad executive and Estes Kefauver, Senator from Tennessee. In the presidential primaries, Kefauver, campaigning in a coonskin cap, often by dogsled, won an electrifying victory in the New Hampshire primary. Kefauver won 12 of the 15 primaries in 1952, losing three to “favorite son” candidates. He received 3.1 million votes, while the eventual 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, got only 78,000 votes. But, primaries were not, at that time, the main method of delegate selection for the national convention. Kefauver entered the convention with a few hundred votes still needed for a majority of the delegates. The Kefauver campaign became the classic example of how presidential primary victories in the Democratic Party do not automatically lead to the nomination itself. Although he began the balloting far ahead of the other declared candidates, Kefauver eventually lost the nomination to Stevenson, the choice of the Democratic Party political bosses.

The Republican Party nominated General Dwight D. Eisenhower, hero of World War II, to be its presidential candidate. Both parties tried to convince Eisenhower to run on their ticket, but Eisenhower eventually chose to run on the Republican ticket. Domestic issues in the election included an economic recession in the early Fifties, Civil Rights/segregation, McCarthyism (the alleged infiltration of the State Department by Russian spies), support for the Taft-Hartley Act, continuing agricultural price supports and restricted activities of labor unions. Major foreign policy issues included Russia and the Cold War, “loss of China” and the Stalemate in Korea, and Soviet/USSR attempted efforts to establish Communist regimes in Latin and Central America.

Richard M. Nixon, a member of the House of Representatives from California, was Eisenhower’s pick for Vice-President. During the campaign Nixon got involved in a scandal and was almost dropped from the Republican ticket. Nixon was accused by several newspapers of receiving $18,000 in undeclared “gifts” from wealthy donors, a “slush fund.” Nixon, who had been accusing the Democrats of hiding crooks, suddenly found himself on the defensive. Eisenhower and his aides considered dropping Nixon from the ticket and picking another running mate. Nixon went on national TV and gave a speech later known as “The Checkers Speech.” The speech was named after Nixon’s dog, Checkers, whom he referred to in his speech. In this speech, Nixon denied the charges against him, gave a detailed account of his modest financial assets, and offered a glowing assessment of Eisenhower’s candidacy. The highlight of the speech came when Nixon stated that a supporter had given his daughters a gift – a dog named “Checkers” – and that he would not return it, because his daughters loved it. The “Checkers speech” led hundreds of thousands of citizens nationwide to wire the Republican National Committee urging the Republican Party to keep Nixon on the ticket. So, Eisenhower stayed with him. Toward the end of the campaign, Eisenhower promised to go to Korea to get a firsthand view of the situation and to end the impasse of the war. The promise boosted Eisenhower’s popularity. The country voted overwhelmingly for Eisenhower, who carried 39 of the 48 states. Eisenhower won 55.18% of the popular vote, carrying every state outside of the South, as well as Florida, Virginia and Tennessee, states that had almost always voted for Democrats since the end of Reconstruction.

Shortly after his election, Eisenhower fulfilled his campaign pledge, though he was not very specific about exactly what he hoped to accomplish. After a short stay in Korea, he returned to the United States, yet remained mum about his plans concerning the Korean War. After taking office, Eisenhower adopted a get-tough policy toward the communists in Korea. He suggested that he would “unleash” the Nationalist Chinese forces on Taiwan against communist China, and he sent only slightly veiled messages that he would use any force necessary (including the use of nuclear weapons) to bring the war to an end unless peace negotiations began to move forward. The Chinese, exhausted by more than two years of war, finally agreed to terms and an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. According to the armistice agreement (note that the parties did not sign a formal peace treaty) there would be a cease fire, with all troops retreating to the 38th parallel – basically the border between North and South Korea before the beginning of hostilities. The war ended with about four million casualties overall: 2 million civilians dead, 33,600 American soldiers were killed in action and another 20,000 died of other causes. (McCullough, p. 935.)

Eisenhower adopted a domestic policy known as “Modern Republicanism.” This represented Eisenhower’s attempt to strike a balance between traditional Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism. It reflected the American mood. Modern Republicanism supported limited government and balanced budgets but Eisenhower did not support dismantling the New Deal and Fair Deal legislation which provided for Social Security and farm subsidies. Eisenhower’s moderation was popular with American voters. In 1956, Eisenhower and Nixon were reelected with 58 percent of the popular vote and 457 electoral votes.

“Eisenhower Summer, 1952” George Wirth (2005) (This song paints another picture of a typical Fifties scene.)

Saturday morning, 10:00 AM, she’s walking out the door
Her old man is still in bed sleeping off the night before
She’s heading up to Main Street, on this warm July
Off to see another side of life go marching by

A thousand forty-eight star flags are waving up and down the street
Cops in full dress uniform out in the morning heat
There’s hot dog stands and marching bands and it’s all red white blue
It’s an Eisenhower summer, 1952

Old folks are lined along the curb parked in folding chairs
Kids are climbing lamp posts and running everywhere
It’s a symphony of sight and sound on a perfect summer day
The crowd down here lets out a cheer as the band begins to play

Xylophones and snare drums set the rhythm and the rhyme
Majorettes spin steel batons and step in perfect time
And the high school band is wailing, man, they’re just about in tune
They’ll be playing in the park tonight beneath that summer moon

Here comes the new Miss Reingold in a brand new Cadillac
She’s waving at the people and they’re all waving back
And she looks just like her picture up on that billboard sign
Five foot two, eyes of blue, lips like cherry wine

There’s that brand new fire truck, an adolescents dream
The chrome is polished up so bright it makes it hard to see
And the driver makes that siren sing with a face that’s filled with pride
Kids are lining up around the block to take her for a ride

Now the boys from the VFW march by with new recruits
In uniforms that fit too tight and worn out combat boots
And some of them are looking back, and some look straight ahead
And some look like they’d rather be somewhere else instead

Jaycees and Young Republicans are marching to the beat
Democrats for Stevenson are staring at their feet
When even little kids sing “I like Ike ” there’s not much left to lose
In an Eisenhower summer, 1952

Everybody gathers in the square once they all get downtown
There’s nothing left but speeches then things start winding down
And she doesn’t speak much English but she stays until the end
Then she heads back down Grove Avenue on that long walk home again

On Monday she’ll be back at work at the factory down the street
Hands burning from the acid wash, standing all day on her feet
And she’ll close her eyes and visualize a sky of perfect blue
From an Eisenhower summer day, 1952