The Democratic-controlled Eighty-fourth Congress had barely convened in January 1955 when Eisenhower requested and, after sharp debate, received overwhelming support for a resolution according him power to employ military force in the strait between the Communist-controlled mainland of China and the Nationalist Chinese refuge on Formosa (now Taiwan), one hundred miles from the mainland. When the Nationalists were defeated on the mainland in 1949 and retreated to Formosa, they also maintained control of a number of small islands virtually within sight of the mainland. Late in 1954 the Communists had begun to shell the offshore islands in a seeming prelude to taking possession of them and eventually of Formosa.
Eisenhower viewed a Nationalist-held Formosa as essential to maintaining non-Communist governments on the Pacific "island barrier" running from Japan through the Philippines to Indonesia. In his view the offshore islands were militarily dispensable but politically important for maintaining the morale of the Nationalists, who hoped someday to use them to return to the mainland. The Nationalists had powerful support in the Republican party, including the zealous backing of Senate Republican leader Know-land. Knowland and the Nationalists urged American protection of the offshore islands. Congressional liberals and the British, on the other hand, urged that these vulnerable flyspecks be abandoned.
Eisenhower made certain that the "Formosa Resolution" that authorized him to use American military force to defend Formosa and areas necessary to its defense was vague with respect to those islands. It approved the defense of Formosa, but then added cryptically that the president also was authorized to use American force to defend "such related positions . . . now in friendly hands . . . required or appropriate in assuring the defense of Formosa." The offshore islands crisis subsided in April 1955, when the Chinese Communists announced at the Bandung, Indonesia, conference of African and Asian nations that as evidence of their commitment to peace they would not seek to gain control of islands in the Formosa Strait by military means.
Shortly after the Chinese action at Bandung, the Soviet Union took a step toward decreasing Cold War tensions, declaring that it was prepared to withdraw from its postwar occupation of Austria and to join the West in signing a peace treaty with that nation. Eisenhower and Dulles, who had resisted calls for a summit meeting, concluded that circumstances now permitted one, for it could be portrayed as a response to Soviet accommodation and might, without excessive danger of raising false expectations, test the Soviet willingness to advance further toward East-West agreement.
The ensuing meeting in Geneva between 18 an 23 July 1955 provided Eisenhower with an opportunity to make a widely acclaimed proposal that was even more dramatic than the Atoms for Peace speech. He called for the United States and the Soviet Union to exchange blueprints of their military establishments and for inspection flights by each nation over the other to eliminate the fear of surprise attack. His speech received widespread accolades in the press, and the conference ended with journalists writing of the promising "Spirit of Geneva." Nikita Khrushchev, whose demeanor at the conference made it clear that he was now top man in the post-Stalin "collective leadership" of the Soviet Union, broadly hinted in conversation with Eisenhower that he considered the proposal no more than a means of spying on the Soviet Union. Apart from being a propaganda coup for the United States, the "open skies" proposal anticipated the later practice, which both nations later came to take for granted, of mutual aerial surveillance by orbiting satellites. Eisenhower was well aware of the potential usefulness of surveillance; in fact, at the time he was setting in motion a highly classified program of overflying the Soviet Union with high-attitude U-2 reconnaissance planes, a program that was to have unhappy consequences in his second term.
Between the Geneva conference and the October foreign ministers' conference at which it became certain that there would be no Soviet acceptance of his program, Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack. He was stricken on 24 September 1955, in Denver, Colorado. Fortunately no international crises or immediate domestic issues required immediate presidential attention. The first session of the Eighty-fourth Congress had adjourned, having enacted a three-year extension of tariff-cutting powers that Eisenhower requested, but not much else of his legislative program.
Eisenhower was soon able to make himself understood and within weeks was conducting rudimentary public business from his bed, using Sherman Adams as his intermediary. He encouraged the cabinet and National Security Council to hold regular meetings. These sessions were presided over by Vice President Nixon, who took pains to make clear that he was serving as a mere stand-in during Eisenhower's absence, but the meetings did serve as a symbol that the government was continuing to function. Meanwhile, the list of Eisenhower's bedside visitors gradually increased, and he even held brief meetings with visiting foreign leaders.
Nevertheless, national and international affairs were bound to be in a state of uncertainty during a period when the president of the United States was hospitalized and the extent of his illness was uncertain. Republican party leaders were distressed with the prospect that their one surefire winning candidate for 1956 might not be fit to run. Individual party members who were prominent enough to seek the nomination—most conspicuously, Knowland—began to jockey for position. Paradoxically, and in spite of the fears of the bulk of Republicans that Eisenhower would not be able to run again, his heart attack had the effect of making him feel obliged to seek a second term.
Just as Eisenhower had originally hoped not to have to cap his military career by serving as president, he had throughout his first term considered it likely that he would serve only a single term. The fall of 1955 was the period when he could have helped enhance the stature of whoever seemed most appropriate as his successor or could have sent out signals that would encourage a field of Republican competitors to emerge. During this period, as he gradually increased his governmental activities, he had to await a medical judgment on his own health, which could not be made until early February. By the time his heart specialist reported him fit for a second term, no other Republican was available who seemed likely to win in 1956, and it was manifest that much of what he hoped to attain as president remained unaccomplished. He announced that he was willing to run again.
Although anticipation of the fall election led to a partisan impasse on many of the issues before the second session of the Eighty-fourth Congress, three administration measures of consequence passed. Each initiated the kind of change that, unlike welfare-state policies, Eisenhower unambiguously favored—investment in natural resources and improvements in the nation's material base. In agricultural policy, the farm subsidy program was adjusted to include a "soil bank," whereby farmers, rather than being paid for growing foods that later would be stored as surplus, were given incentives to take unprofitable land out of cultivation in order to conserve and improve its topsoil. A multiyear program to improve national parks was also approved. Finally, the largest public works bill in American history was passed, creating the interstate highway program, which was to transform the country by constructing a network of limited-access, high-speed roads.
Eisenhower again ran with Nixon as the vice presidential candidate. He had attempted to persuade Nixon to step down, arguing unconvincingly that Nixon's career would be helped by serving as secretary of defense rather than seeming to be second man to the president. Unprepared to split the party by dropping Nixon, he did not achieve his aim of substituting a candidate who might be a better vote getter and more to his liking as the 1960 Republican candidate. The Democrats renominated Stevenson, pairing him with the popular Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee as vice presidential candidate. Eisenhower won handily (35.5 million votes to 26 million), increasing his share of the popular vote from 55 percent to almost 58 percent, in what clearly was a personal, not a party, victory. For the first time since early in the nineteenth century, a president was elected without control of Congress by his party.
During the final weeks of the presidential campaign two of the major foreign policy crises of Eisenhower's presidency erupted. The first was the Hungarian uprising. Since Stalin's death in 1953, there had been a series of protests of varying degrees of intensity against Soviet control in Eastern European nations. On 22 October 1956, inspired by concessions won by Polish insurgents, Hungarian students and workers began engaging in protests, seeking to broaden the base of the government and to have Soviet troops removed from their nation. After Soviet forces fired on protesters, a revolt broke out. Fighting with primitive weapons, Hungarian rebels called on the United States to help. As in other instances of Eastern European unrest, Eisenhower was unwilling to act on his administration's rhetorical stance that the Soviet Union should not just be contained but be pushed back. He lodged diplomatic protests, offered food and medical aid, and fostered immigration by Hungarians who escaped to the West before the Soviet Union crushed the rebellion on 4 November. But he would not risk general war or fight a limited war in an area in which the Soviet Union had the advantage and which was not vital to American security.
The other crisis, one that blunted the capacity of the West to brand the Soviet Union as a distinctly aggressive nation, resulted from the coordinated attacks on Egypt by two nations directly allied with the United States—France and Great Britain. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had acted to nationalize the Suez Canal in the summer of 1956. Long controlled by the British, the waterway was viewed by the British and French leaders as necessary for their nations' economic survival. The two Western nations provided Israel with the military aid to make an ostensible retaliatory attack on Egypt, which had been the base for commando raids on Israel. On 31 October, on the pretext of protecting the canal, the British and French bombed Egypt and dropped paratroopers in Egypt, and Israeli troops entered the Sinai.
By 1956, Eisenhower was far from enthusiastic about the Nasser regime. The previous year he had been disposed to support Egypt's request for American aid for a major irrigation project—the Aswan High Dam—but Nasser's policies then took an anti-Western tack. Nasser purchased large supplies of arms from the Eastern bloc, recognized Communist China, and berated the West. As a consequence, the United States withheld support for the Aswan Dam, an action that immediately preceded Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal.
In spite of his aversion to Nasser, Eisenhower was convinced that open military action against Egypt on a patently hypocritical pretext would infuriate Arab and other Third World nations and would not even accomplish its immediate geopolitical purposes of securing the canal and keeping oil flowing to the West. Rather than allow the Soviet Union to take credit for condemning the Anglo-French-Israeli action, the United States introduced a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations. As a result, the United States ironically found itself voting with the Soviet Union on the same side of a resolution directed against a military intervention by its own allies at the very time it was attempting to muster world condemnation of Soviet action in Hungary. One unintended consequence of the Suez episode that would undermine Eisenhower's long-term goals was British withdrawal from an international role in the Middle East.
The 1956 election victory, as resounding as it was, left Eisenhower with major international problems. Relations with the Soviet Union were less satisfactory than they had been a year earlier and the Western alliance needed mending. His problems in the initial period of his second term, moreover, were not only in foreign policy.