In January 1959, Eisenhower seemed to be entering his final two years in office as the lamest of lame ducks. The number of congressmen who were ideologically uncongenial to his policies had substantially increased. He had lost the services of Adams. In addition, Secretary of State Dulles was terminally ill with cancer. As it turned out, the period from 1959 to the end of his presidency came be viewed in the press and by many politicians as the period of "the new Eisenhower." Eisenhower was portrayed as a hitherto politically aloof president who had belatedly begun to employ the resources of his office in the political area with a vigor reminiscent of the combative styles of Roosevelt and Truman.
Eisenhower had, of course, not previously eschewed politics. He had been practicing a delicate approach of bargaining privately with congressional leaders, personally and through his personal emissaries, in order to weld legislative majorities in three closely divided Congresses. But during the period of the Eighty-sixth Congress he increasingly found it to his advantage to speak out boldly against and veto legislation that was plainly in conflict with his conception of good public policy.
Ironically, though he was less able to get policy results from the new Congress, his adversarial relationship with a major bloc in it made him seem more like an activist president. Eisenhower furthered this impression by taking highly visible steps to create a political climate that might foster an accommodation with the Soviet Union, though he took the first such step as a result of an error in communication. In the spring of 1959, he was privately urged by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to take part with the allied leaders and Soviet Premier Khrushchev in a summit conference on such points of contention as whether West Berlin was to remain under Western control. Meanwhile, Khrushchev, who also favored a summit, proposed publicly that he and Eisenhower exchange personal visits to each other's countries. Eisenhower's general view was that unless summit conferences and personal diplomacy by national leaders followed Soviet concessions or could otherwise be seen as likely to bring about change, they would create complacency in the West and provide the Soviet Union with propaganda forums.
Eisenhower instructed Under Secretary of State Robert Murphy to pass a message of qualified acceptance to the Soviet leader Frol Kozlov, who was then completing an official visit to the United States. In so doing, he meant to stipulate that if there were previous Soviet concessions, he would be open to a summit and an exchange of visits. His qualifications were lost in the transmission, and he discovered to his chagrin that he had conveyed an invitation that was not contingent on some initial act by Khrushchev, such as the withdrawal of the Soviet threat to West Berlin.
Making a tactical virtue of what had inadvertently become a necessity, Eisenhower told reporters that only his personal prestige was at risk in a meeting with Khrushchev and that the stakes were too great for him not to attempt an unorthodox approach to seeking a better understanding with the Soviet leadership. Before Khrushchev's ten-day tour of the United States in September 1959, Eisenhower visited Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of Germany and President Charles de Gaulle of France to stress that he would not make concessions to the Soviet leader without full consultation with them.
Khrushchev's lively ability to command press attention through his American trip persuaded Eisenhower that his own visit to the Soviet Union would at minimum have Cold War propaganda value, advertising to the world that his nation was deeply intent on settling East-West tensions. Even though foreign ministers' conferences were regularly stalemated, he also concluded that some progress in negotiation might be possible at another great-power summit meeting, since his private discussions with Khrushchev had led to a statement that the Soviet Union would not initiate unilateral action affecting West Berlin.
In the winter of 1959–1960, Eisenhower made two international goodwill trips, greeting foreign leaders and publics with a vigor that belied his age. In December 1959 he employed the new technology of the jet plane to visit eleven European, Asian, and North African countries on a nineteen-day trip, replete with enthusiastically cheering crowds as he traveled in motorcades, and earnestly spoke of his nation's desire for peace. His party flew to Rome and then visited the capitals of Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco.
Events in the Caribbean helped ensure that the other goodwill trip Eisenhower was able to take before the spring summit conference would be in Latin America. The Cuban government of Fidel Castro had seemed to be fundamentally nationalistic when it overthrew that nation's military dictatorship in January 1959, but the Eisenhower administration soon became persuaded that the Castro government was Communist-controlled and would provide the Soviet Union with a base for exercising influence in the western hemisphere. While seeking to destabilize Castro's government (for example, by barring sugar imports from Cuba and training Cuban émigrés for guerrilla war on the island), Eisenhower also worked to strengthen American ties to other Latin American countries. Choosing the four southernmost countries in the hemisphere for his next trip, in February 1960 he visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, coordinating these visits with announcements of increases in aid to Latin America. On these trips he also had overwhelming receptions.
Now Eisenhower, rather than Khrushchev, was making international headlines. He hoped his trips would contribute to an international climate in which the Soviet leaders would be more likely to agree to realistic steps to reduce international tensions, both at the summit conference that now had been scheduled and during his follow-up trip to the Soviet Union. Long-pending negotiations between American and Soviet diplomatic representatives and scientists had led to numerous proposals and counterproposals for arms control and nuclear test bans, and it was possible that in a changed international climate, firm agreements might be reached on these matters.
On 1 May 1960, two weeks before the summit meeting of the Western and Soviet leaders in Paris, the fateful U-2 episode occurred. Anticipating disarmament negotiations, Eisenhower had ordered a final surveillance flight over an area of the Soviet Union that he considered to have been inadequately examined for possible nuclear and missile sites. When the U-2 failed to return, a cover story was released that a plane on a meteorological expedition was lost and might have strayed over Soviet air space. Eisenhower had been authorizing overflights on the premise that if at any time the Soviet Union developed the capacity to shoot down a high-altitude "spy plane," the vehicle, including not only its film but also the pilot, would be destroyed, making proof of surveillance impossible.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union recovered the plane, film, and pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who admitted to his mission. The Soviet announcement was not made until after Eisenhower had personally denied that such flights occurred. Eisenhower immediately reversed himself and acknowledged that flights had taken place for five years under his direction and that they were necessary to provide the West with reliable information about Soviet military capabilities and intentions.
Under these unpropitious circumstances, Eisenhower traveled to Paris on 15 May to meet with the Soviet premier. He appropriately titled the chapter in his memoirs on the Paris meeting "The Summit That Never Was." Bringing with him the wreckage of the U-2 plane, Khrushchev insisted that Eisenhower apologize and punish those responsible for its flight—a responsibility Eisenhower already had personally assumed. The demand was couched in terms that left no room for Eisenhower to proceed and effectively terminated his presidential peace-making efforts, including his projected visit to the Soviet Union, although he did make a goodwill trip to Asia.
By early in 1960, Vice President Nixon had Succeeded in building up enough delegate support to ensure him the Republican nomination. Running to succeed a still extraordinarily popular president with whom he had been closely associated, Nixon was a more promising bet for election than Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate. Although Nixon was better known and Kennedy's Catholicism cost him votes, the Massachusetts senator won in one of the closest elections in American history.
Eisenhower was deeply disappointed by the Republican defeat and the resulting likelihood that many of the policies to which he was committed would be reversed. He turned to preparing the Kennedy administration for its accession to power, personally briefing Kennedy and his associates on two occasions and ordering that all government agencies cooperate with Kennedy's appointees in easing the transition to the new administration.