Republicans Return to Power: 1952
The 1948 election was the last with a direct connection to Roosevelt: Truman had been his Vice President and successor, Wallace his Vice President, and Dewey his opponent. In 1952, the economy was doing well, Americans wanted a change, and they didn’t want to look back at the New Deal in spite of its many benefits. For the future, they had a clear choice: Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Twenty years after FDR’s first presidential campaign, voters chose to bring the Republicans back to power.
Retired General Dwight David Eisenhower became the Republican nominee for President. He had previously declined to run in 1948 when solicited by both parties to be the candidate. Thomas Dewey helped engineer his nomination in 1952, and persuaded him to put California Congressman Richard M. Nixon on the ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate. Eisenhower was of course well known to the American public, having helped bring World War II to an end as Commander-in-Chief of the D-Day invasion and later, Chief of Staff of the Army. After an interlude as President of Columbia University, he was recalled as the first Supreme Commander of NATO forces with the outbreak of the Korean War.
Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois became the Democratic candidate. Descending from a long line of public servants dating to the Lincoln era, he had worked in the New Deal, assisted the Secretary of the Navy during World War II, served as an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, and been elected Governor of Illinois in 1949. Though part of a wealthy family, he was frugal in his personal life. This trait was revealed in a 1952 campaign photo showing a hole in the sole of his shoe. He was not well known when he started the campaign – especially in contrast to a national hero like Eisenhower – and did not enjoy the glad-handing required of candidates. He delivered thoughtful speeches, many of which he wrote himself, which appealed to better-educated voters but not so much to other constituencies in the Democratic Party. Republicans dubbed him an “Egghead” and this pejorative label probably contributed to his loss. Truman became active in the campaign to try and boost Stevenson’s chances as did the supportive comments of Eleanor Roosevelt.
On Election Day, Eisenhower won with 55% of the popular vote (34 million), and as great a victory as any by FDR with 442 Electoral College votes to 89 for Stevenson (27 million). Eisenhower defeated Stevenson again in 1956. After John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the young president appointed Stevenson as the Chief U.S. Delegate to the United Nations, a post in which he served with distinction until his death in 1965.
The 1952 Campaign and Television’s New Role
Eisenhower proved to be an adept and strong campaigner, using the tried and true campaign train to visit 45 states where his smile and confident manner elicited great support. “I Like Ike” proved a winning campaign slogan. His greatest failing, however, may have been his refusal to criticize the demagogic activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had even accused Eisenhower’s colleague General George C. Marshall of being part of a Communist conspiracy. About this failure to stand up for his former comrade in arms, President Truman remarked, “I had never thought the man who is now the Republican candidate would stoop so low.” Stevenson was also critical of McCarthy’s tactics, charging they undermined democracy. But when Eisenhower promised to end the war in Korea late in the fall, and to travel there if he won, it greatly strengthened his campaign. No matter how many pithy, Twitter -like comments Stevenson was able to offer reporters, he was unable to match that offer by an experienced man of war.
This campaign was the first in which television played an important role – as TV sets were now owned by millions of Americans. The Republicans aired, for the first time in a campaign, 30-second commercials in which the candidate himself appeared. Eisenhower was supremely comfortable in this role. In addition, when Nixon was accused of using campaign funds for personal matters, he went on television on September 23, 1952 to defend himself. It became known as the “Checkers Speech,” because he vowed to keep Checkers, the dog that had been a gift to his daughters. The appeal proved successful and augmented the popularity of the Republican ticket. Stevenson did not handle television well. Though the Democrats bought air time, his long speeches gained him few votes.
FDR had been the first President to appear on television when it was barely an experimental technology. The broadcast of him opening the New York World’s Fair in Queens, NY, on April 30, 1939 went to a very limited audience at the fair and at Radio City in Manhattan. With World War II the development of television technology slowed, except for military purposes. On October 5, 1947 President Truman became the first president to address the nation on TV from the White House, asking Americans to conserve food to help the U.S. send supplies to the starving peoples of Europe. In 1948, running for his second term, he broadcast a political ad. His inauguration speech in January 1949 was broadcast too. The use of television became more prominent in the 1952 and 1956 campaigns but the televised debates in 1960, between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon, established its importance in presidential campaigns which remains true to the present day.