The Eisenhower Years
In November 1952, the American people voted a Republican President into office, breaking the Democratic Party's 20-year hold on the Presidency. The successful candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, defeated the Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, by a decisive margin; he repeated the victory four years later. Despite a Republican in the White House , the Democratic Party controlled Congress for six of the eight years Eisenhower served as President.
On domestic issues the Eisenhower Administration followed a policy described as "modern Republicanism." One element of this policy was the effort to limit government interference in the affairs of states and in private business. Nevertheless, the Administration retained all of the social and economic legislation developed during the New Deal-Fair Deal era, and actually expanded federal programs in such fields as social security, Support for education, public housing, slum clearance, and public health.
Shortly after he took office in January 1953, President Eisenhower approved the transformation of the Federal Security Agency and other government elements into the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He also supported congressional action in raising the minimum wage from 75 cents to a dollar an hour.
In 1955, the two largest trade-union federations (the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations) ended their long rivalry by merger. The newly-formed AFL-CIO claimed 15 million members. Evidence of corrupt practice in some unions led the new organization to adopt a strict ethical practice code. Congress, meanwhile, passed a law requiring full public disclosure of union finances, particularly in relation to pensions and welfare funds, and guaranteeing union members their democratic rights.
Other domestic problems proved less amenable to solution. New advances in agricultural technology intensified the problem of overlarge farm production in relation to national demand. The Eisenhower Administration replaced the existing policy of guaranteeing farmers fixed prices with a flexible scale intended to encourage farmers to grow crops that were not in surplus. In addition, a "soil bank" program paid farmers to let their land lie fallow, to plant trees, or to adopt other conservation measures.
The Eisenhower years saw continued albeit gradual progress toward fuller political, social and legal rights for black Americans. It was in this period that the nation was confronted with the fact that post-Civil War commitments to equal opportunity for blacks had been virtually forgotten; that, in spite of sporadic efforts to improve the lot of America's largest minority, blacks in the north experienced discrimination in education, housing and employment; that in the south, they were denied economic mobility, restrictions were put on their ability to rent or own land, and that they lived in a segregated society which extended to railroads, street cars, parks, hotels, schools, hospitals, even cemeteries.
Not until late in the 1930s was there a noticeable attempt to provide a form of equality. It was then that some blacks found places in the government and federal money was allocated for recreational centers, schools and hospitals for blacks. This new trend gathered momentum during World War II when President Roosevelt, encouraged by black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, ordered an end to discrimination in production under war contracts. After the war, President Truman established a civil rights commission, ordered the military services desegregated, and appointed an increasing number of blacks to federal office. The two most important professional baseball leagues and the most important professional basketball league , meanwhile, began to employ blacks.
During the 1950s more blacks than ever before went to college, voted in elections, owned their own homes and automobiles, held professional or supervisory jobs, and occupied high posts in government, although. the number of blacks in each of these categories was noticeably less than their percentage of the country's total population. The outstanding development in civil rights during this period was the unanimous Supreme Court decision of 1954 which ruled that state or local laws requiring separate schools for black and white children were unconstitutional. Since public schools in most states were not formally segregated, this ruling applied mainly to southern states with a long tradition of racial segregation. Toward such areas the Supreme Court instructed federal district courts to require local school authorities to "make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance" and to move with all deliberate speed."
School desegregation proceeded rapidly in the District of Columbia and some border states but met strong opposition in the deep south. Dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, after violence had broken out over the issue, reflected efforts by the government to enforce court orders for school desegregation. And, some argued, granting full statehood in 1959 to Alaska and particularly Hawaii, with their racially diverse populations, provided further evidence of progress toward social as well as political democracy.
Between 1950 and 1960, Americans in general enjoyed a rising standard of living. However, the rate of economic growth was slower than some would have hoped, and in addition, the nation faced a widening deficit in its balance of payments, and persistent although moderate unemployment. Despite an increase in unemployment after the 1957-58 recession, wages continued to rise, business gained momentum, and optimism prevailed. The gross national product-the value of all goods and services provided in the nation-rose from $285,000 million in 1950 to almost $504,000 million in 1960.