Eisenhower was the first president who was constitutionally limited to two terms under the Twenty-second Amendment. Thus, he took office as an official lame duck. Conventional wisdom is that other leaders will take such an official less seriously, on the assumption they can wait him out rather than reach accommodations with him in order to bring about policy outcomes. Resolving to turn his status as a president who could not run again to his purposes, Eisenhower made it clear that precisely because he did not have to think about reelection, he would feel free to take politically unpopular or unconventional actions.
He began the first session of the Eighty-fifth Congress with an unconventional action, one that, like much that occurs in politics, had unanticipated effects. The budget he was presenting to Congress had been shaped in the latter part of 1956, when he was unable to concentrate single-mindedly on making certain that proposed expenditures were kept to a minimum. Wanting to make clear that budgets of the magnitude of his 1957 recommendation for the 1958 fiscal year should not be viewed as a precedent and evidently also interested in cutting back from his present requests, he took the unprecedented step of having his treasury secretary, George Humphrey, release a statement stressing the importance of holding down spending on the same day the budget went to Congress.
Humphrey's statement was carefully worded so that it did not contradict Eisenhower by criticizing the present budget request, but in the final minutes of the press conference that followed his statement, Humphrey made headlines by using the colorful phrase "a depression that will curl your hair" to refer to the likely consequence of continued large budgets. The press and, more provocatively, Democrats smarting from the recent election defeat took Humphrey's statement to be a revolt against Eisenhower's message of the same day. In subsequent months Humphrey's statement was frequently mentioned by budget-cutting congressmen, who in particular attacked the foreign-aid and overseas-information programs that were central to Eisenhower's program but politically vulnerable. Most of the proposed cuts were restored, but only after special messages to Congress on Eisenhower's part.
While no debacle, Eisenhower's foray into unconventional lame-duck politics led to the kind of polemics and political gamesmanship he deplored and was not an effective maneuver. Indeed, Eisenhower's recollection in his memoirs was that the first session of the Eighty-fifth Congress was the low point of his presidency in executive-legislative relations. The session did, he granted, yield one major enactment—the first national civil rights law since Reconstruction.
Eisenhower held the traditional conservative view that changes in deeply held beliefs and traditions cannot be legislated, but rather must evolve from education and changing social conditions. In 1954, when the Supreme Court reversed its 1896 decision allowing racially segregated schools, Eisenhower was quick to point out that since school segregation had been legal for the past half century, it was understandable that southern whites would initially resist the Court's new reading of the Constitution. He consistently refused to express an opinion about the desegregation decision, arguing that it was improper for a president to enter the judicial domain and pronounce on Court actions. Undoubtedly he also was influenced by his personal background and political base. A number of his prewar army duty stations had been in the South, and some of his strongest supporters were white southerners.
During his first term he had kept his 1952 campaign commitment to take those actions on behalf of civil rights that were clearly within his administrative power as chief executive. These included enforcing desegregation in the District of Columbia and in federal shipyards in the South. The steps taken in desegregating the shipyards typify the kind of nonconfrontational resolution of heated issues that Eisenhower favored. No announcement was made that desegregation was taking place. Instead, teams of maintenance workers were brought in on weekends, when the yards were closed, and instructed to paint out the signs designating race on rest rooms, drinking fountains, and eating places. The employees were quietly encouraged to use any facilities they chose, and the supervisory personnel were instructed not to interfere. Desegregation occurred without conflict. Only after the fact was it made public that Eisenhower had acted on his campaign promise.
A new bill designed to proceed in one of the less deeply emotional, but nevertheless important, areas of racial discrimination—voting rights—was drafted by the Justice Department early in Eisenhower's second term. Eisenhower's reasoning in proceeding in the area of voting was that if southern blacks had the vote, their power at the polls would enable them win other rights. The law that eventually emerged from Congress—the Civil Rights Act of 1957—did not have effective enforcement provisions. Its major accomplishment was the creation of the federal Civil Rights Commission, which through its regular reports focused attention on rights abuses, as well as the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
School desegregation was a far more explosive issue in the 1950s than voting rights. Many southern white parents were determined at all costs, including use of violence, to ensure that their children were not "mixed" with black children in the schools. Southern political leaders were prepared to back them up. One such leader, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, initiated the kind of direct federal-state confrontation over a racial issue that Eisenhower had been striving to avoid.
In compliance with the Supreme Court ruling that desegregation of schools should proceed with "deliberate speed," the city of Little Rock had instituted a program in which desegregation would begin at the high school level in September 1957 and in later years work down to lower grades. Faubus employed the National Guard to bar black students from entering Little Rock's Central High School, ostensibly to prevent civil disorder. Eisenhower requested Faubus to meet with him and thought he had won Faubus' agreement not to interfere with desegregation. Faubus then withdrew the National Guard and stood aside while a massive mob of anti-integrationists descended on Little Rock, ready to do violence to any black students who entered the high school.
Faced with a blatant disruption of the constitutional order, Eisenhower acted decisively by calling the Arkansas National Guard into federal service so that Faubus could no longer command it and by sending regular army troops into Little Rock to disperse the mob and maintain the peace while black students proceeded to attend the high school. The episode was forced on Eisenhower, but when it became necessary for him to take action, he did so effectively, using a military contingent so large that there was no danger of resistance. He explained to associates that he had substituted federal troops for the National Guard in order not to pit Arkansan against Arkansan.
Eisenhower turned to Congress for foreign policy support early in the Eighty-fifth Congress, as well as for backing on his budget and civil rights proposals. In the aftermath of Suez, Egypt became increasingly tied to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet influence in the area increased more broadly. In addition the Middle East was marked by continuing rivalries between the Arab states and exacerbated Arab-Israeli tensions. Eisenhower met in January 1957 with leading congressmen of both parties to discuss the Near Eastern power vacuum and the danger that the Soviet Union might succeed in establishing itself in that strategically vital area. He requested that Congress pass a resolution, similar to the Formosa Resolution, authorizing a United States commitment of troops to the area if any of the governments requested assistance. It was an indication of the decline in Eisenhower's influence with Congress that the resolution was more hotly debated and approved by a smaller margin than the Formosa Resolution had been.
The most dramatic and politically consequential challenge to Eisenhower's leadership in 1957 was not the budget, civil rights, Little Rock, or the passage by Congress of the Eisenhower Doctrine, as the resolution on the Middle East came to be called. Rather it was an ostensibly scientific event—the launching by the Soviet Union on 4 October of Sputnik , the first space satellite. By making it obvious that the Soviet Union had achieved the capacity to produce rockets of sufficient power to propel an object into outer space, Sputnik had obvious implications about the respective military strengths of the two superpowers.
In the months before the Sputnik launching, the Soviet Union claimed to have rockets capable of propelling intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to the United States. The Soviet success in putting a satellite in orbit (and soon after a much larger one) was not matched by the United States until January 1958.
By then, Lyndon Johnson had initiated hearings examining the entire question of American versus Soviet military strength. For the remainder of Eisenhower's time in office, a "missile gap" was alleged to exist by major forces within the Democratic party, led by Johnson, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, and the man who was to win the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The missile-gap controversy continued through the 1960 presidential campaign and contributed to the strategic point of view that led the Kennedy administration to engage in a massive escalation of missile production between 1961 and 1963. In fact, Eisenhower and a handful of his closest associates were well aware that the Soviet Union had virtually no ICBM production under way. Their information came from the highly declassified aerial photographs of the Soviet Union obtained on high-altitude U-2 plane flights that the Soviet leaders privately protested but did not refer to in public, lest they acknowledge an area in which they were vulnerable to the United States.
Eisenhower sought to reassure Americans and their allies that although the Soviet Union might for the moment have greater capacity to produce long-range rockets, in toto the West was well defended, since it could retaliate against a Soviet attack with bombers and with intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in allied nations. Resisting crash increases in spending for missile development programs, Eisenhower took a number of other steps to enhance and highlight the American commitment to retain sufficient military strength to deter a Soviet attack.
In the immediate aftermath of Sputnik , Eisenhower set up a presidential science advisory council and installed a full-time science adviser in the White House. In the 1958 legislative session he proposed, and succeeded in having enacted, the National Defense Education Act, which made available college scholarships for students specializing in the sciences, mathematics, and foreign languages. He also used the new atmosphere of national emergency to achieve legislative changes in the organization of the Defense Department that he had been seeking since he was army chief of staff. These changes increased the influence of the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the individual military services and ostensibly reduced the capacity of the military services to vie with one another for appropriations and duplicate one another's programs.
The American space program was visibly under way by the 1958 midterm election. In addition, two Cold War episodes that, if they had been differently handled, might have caused voter disaffection had been resolved or had subsided. On 15 July, acting consistently with the Middle East resolution, Eisenhower dispatched a force of United States Marines to Lebanon at the request of its president, Camille Chamoun. The Western-oriented Lebanese government seemed to be threatened by the aftereffects of a proNasser coup in Iraq. By 25 October the situation had fully stabilized and American troops were withdrawn. Meanwhile, in August, on the other side of the world, mainland China resumed shelling the anti-Communist forces on the offshore islands. Armed with superior aircraft weaponry by the United States and provided with a technology for supplying the islands, the besieged Nationalists held. By October, shelling from the mainland was reduced to an alternate-day ritual that permitted supply of the islands. The conflict eventually vanished from the headlines.
Although the Eisenhower administration seemed by election time to have allayed the foreign policy concerns of most members of the general public (though not of its Democratic critics), the 1958 off-year voting saw a major Democratic surge in congressional strength. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats' strength increased to 282–154, their greatest margin since 1938. In the Senate the increase from 49 to 64 brought the Democrats to their highest level since 1940. Thus, Eisenhower was fated to spend his final two years with a Congress in which a strong bloc of liberal Democrats would be pressing for social legislation that he found unacceptably liberal and for a more costly military commitment than he was prepared to countenance.
The Democratic gains appear mainly to have had economic causes. Late in 1957 the economy slipped into a major recession. By the middle of 1958 the recession was over, but the experience of a significant economic downturn reinforced the long-standing tendency of voters to associate the Republican party with economic hard times. An undoubted further contribution to the 1958 Republican losses and the election of the liberal Eighty-sixth Congress was the controversy in the months immediately before the election that led to the resignation of the chief White House staff aide, Sherman Adams. When he was governor of New Hampshire, Adams and his family had formed a friendship with the family of the New England textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine. Early in 1958, congressional investigations of federal regulatory commissions revealed that Adams had telephoned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to inquire about cases then pending that had a bearing on whether Goldfine's company was labeling its products in a manner consistent with federal regulations. Further, it came out that Adams had received gifts from Goldfine—a vicuna coat, free use of a hotel suite in Boston, and a Persian rug.
Adams explained that the gifts were part of a pattern of gift giving between his family and Goldfine's, a result of their long friendship. He had intended his phone calls to the FTC as no more than a normal White House service request for information, he maintained, although he now recognized that he had been indiscreet. Eisenhower promptly announced that having acknowledged his error, Adams was to return to his duties as a valued White House aide. No sooner had Eisenhower taken this step than further hearings showed Goldfine to be an entrepreneur who habitually made gifts to public officials and declared them as business expenses. The gifts to Adams took on a new and more questionable meaning.
The recession-beleaguered Republican candidates for reelection were uniform in urging Adams to resign. Eisenhower also was quickly made aware by many of his closest supporters in the Republican party that Adams had become a liability. Evidently this became Eisenhower's own view. Nevertheless, having put himself behind Adams, he did not fire him; rather, he tried indirection, commissioning Vice President Nixon to have an "objective" conversation with Adams that was heavily stacked with arguments for resignation.
Adams declared that he would follow any orders he received from the president, but that he would not resign on his own in the face of unfair charges. Rather than personally order Adams to resign, Eisenhower commissioned Meade Alcorn, the Republican national chairman, to inform him that he was damaging the party's electoral chances and that Eisenhower knew this to be the case but refused personally to fire Adams. With so blunt a message Adams resigned, but so late that questions about the propriety of his performance were grist for the midterm campaign.