In the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower introduced a new element into American politics – television and radio image ad campaigns — the selling of politicians like corn flakes.
During World War II, as commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Eisenhower had worked with a man named C.D. Jackson, a driving force in his Psychological Warfare Division. Ike asked him to help out on the election campaign. Jackson advised Ike to hire a public relations firm. My father who had hated advertising ever since his short stint on Madison Avenue in 1947, was outraged. Many liberals distrusted advertising, leading one writer to quip, “Philip Morris, Lucky Strike, Aka-Seltzer, I Like Ike.”
Eisenhower’s victory in the 1952 presidential election was a forgone conclusion in my family, however. Democrat Adlai Stevenson was under attack for being an out of touch liberal egghead who might have been on Life’s list of dupes. As novelist Louis Bromfield put it, if Stevenson were elected “the eggheads will come back into power and off again we will go on the scenic railway of muddled economics, Socialism, Communism, crookedness and psychopathic instability.” By contrast, General Eisenhower had led Allied forces to victory in Europe. As an experienced general Ike promised to end Truman’s unpopular Korean War.
My parents were not much worried about Ike but his Vice Presidential choice appalled them. Richard Nixon was famous in California for a brutal and successful anti-communist campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a liberal who was the third woman ever elected to Congress.
Ike won the presidency by a landslide and the unfinished agenda of the New Deal stopped dead in its tracks. He appointed eight millionaires to his first cabinet. One of them, the President of General Motors, famously confided to a Senate committee“what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” However, like most people in the Fifties, Ike accepted the reforms the New Deal had already solidified, whatever his personal preference. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike warned.
Eisenhower’s contribution to the conservative cause was none the less substantial. He helped reshape American culture. “I think one of the reasons I was elected was to help lead this country spiritually,” he confided to the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. “We need a spiritual renewal.” Suddenly, there were prayer meetings everywhere. Ike changed the pledge of allegiance to include the words “under god.” “In God we trust” was added to postage stamps for the first time in 1954 and put on paper money the next year. It was under Ike that Americans began to believe, incorrectly, that we had always been a Christian nation.
Our return to religion was no accident. According to Kevin Kruse in his recent book One nation under God, “Decades before Eisenhower’s inaugural prayers, corporate titans enlisted conservative clergymen in an effort to promote new political arguments embodied in the phrase “freedom under God.” As the private correspondence and public claims of the men leading this charge make clear, this new ideology was designed to defeat the state power its architects feared most— not the Soviet regime in Moscow, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration in Washington. With ample funding from major corporations, prominent industrialists, and business lobbies such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce in the 1930s and 1940s, these new evangelists for free enterprise promoted a vision best characterized as “Christian libertarianism.”
The religious gambit worked. Kruse writes that church membership “remained fairly constant in the early twentieth century, barely rising from 43 percent in 1910 to 49 percent in 1940. The decade and a half after the Second World War, however, saw a significant surge: the percentage claiming a church membership climbed to 57 percent in 1950 and then spiked to an all time high of 69 percent at the end of the decade.”
Encourage faith, discourage reason. Eisenhower also stepped up the expulsion of thinking progressives and liberals from public life. United States Information Agency libraries purged books by Jean Paul Sartre, Langston Hughes, Howard Fast, W.E.B. DuBois, Maksim Gorky, John Reed, Agnes Smedley, Herman Melville, any books illustrated by Rockwell Kent, even mystery writer Dashiel Hammett.
Mainstream media followed Eisenhower’s lead. NBC took Hammett’s The Adventures of Sam Spade off the air. Sam Spade was 190 pounds, tough as nails, cynical about people’s motives and didn’t mind killing to protect the little guy from rapacious businessmen and corrupt politicians through the thirties and forties.
By 1950 Micky Spillain was number one on the mystery best seller lists. In Spillain’s 1951 thriller, One Lonely Night his hero, Mike Hammer, was tough, cynical and willing to kill, but for a different cause and with savage pleasure. “I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it …. They were Commies, Lee. They were red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago … They never thought that there were people like me in this country. They figured us all to be soft as horse manure and just as stupid.”