Eisenhower entered the White House in 1953 determined to roll back Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, which he derided as “creeping socialism.” A Republican, Eisenhower wanted to reduce the size and influence of the federal government, give more power to state governments, and allow corporate profits to boost the national economy unfettered. Less government influence, he reasoned, would put America back on track. He appointed prominent businessmen to top cabinet posts in an effort to make the executive branch more efficient. Most Americans praised his hands-off approach to government after twenty years of heavy social engineering under Roosevelt and Truman.
Eisenhower’s desire to halt “creeping socialism” did not, however, mean dismantling the new social welfare programs previously put into place. Eisenhower proved to be a big proponent of programs and policies designed to help those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, who needed help the most. He created the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and allowed the government to continue to subsidize farmers so that the price of farm products remained high. Eisenhower expanded Social Security in order to benefit more Americans, including the elderly and unemployed, and also dumped more federal dollars into the Federal Housing Administration to help Americans purchase new homes.
Most important, Eisenhower endorsed the Federal Highway Act in 1956, calling for the construction of a network of interstate highways, which would improve national transportation. In fewer than twenty years, this highway construction became the largest public works project in U.S. history and cost more than $25 billion. New taxes on gasoline, oil, and trucks helped pay for this massive endeavor. The new interstates had an enormous impact on the growth of the suburbs and prosperity but also severely crippled the development of public transportation systems.
Afraid that a Republican in the White House would mean the end of organized labor, which had flourished under the Democrats and during World War II, the heads of the rival American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor unions merged in 1955 to create the AFL-CIO. This new superunion joined between 10 and 15 million workers under a single umbrella organization and helped millions of families achieve unprecedented prosperity. Never again have so many American laborers been organized in one body.
Scandal after scandal rocked the organization in the 1960s and 1970s, including the expulsion of the Teamsters Union from the AFL-CIO in 1957 for having ties to organized crime. The media attention tarnished organized labor in the public eye and convinced millions to leave the union. Congress eventually passed the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act in the wake of these scandals to limit labor unions’ rights.
Eisenhower privately opposed the civil rights movement and remained relatively silent as the movement began to gain momentum during his presidency. He made no comment after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas , that “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 , but only reluctantly and only after assuring southern legislators that the new law would have little real impact.
Eisenhower did, however, exert federal authority that same year when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court order and mobilized National Guard units to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Eisenhower resolved the Little Rock crisis by placing the National Guard under federal control and sending more than 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers to protect the students and integrate the school by force.
Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt overshadowed all other domestic issues during Eisenhower’s two terms in office. Hoping to boost his own status as a national politician, McCarthy first capitalized on Americans’ fears of Communism when he announced in 1950 that the State Department had become overrun with more than 200 Communists. He claimed that these Communists, including Truman’s own secretary of state, Dean Acheson, were working secretly to hinder American efforts against the Soviet Union.
Although McCarthy never offered any actual proof to back up his claims, “McCarthyism” swept across the nation like wildfire. Thousands of individuals, including liberals, critics of the Korean War and the Cold War, civil rights activists, homosexuals, feminists, and even critics of McCarthy himself, were blacklisted and fired from their jobs.
As a congressman and later as vice president, Richard Nixon fully supported McCarthy, as did future president Ronald Reagan, who at the time held the influential position of president of the Screen Actors Guild. In response to McCarthyism, author and playwright Arthur Miller, who had himself been branded a Communist, wrote the 1953 play The Crucible, a critique of the Red hunts disguised as a play about the Salem witch trials of the 1600s.
Eventually, McCarthy ruined his own name after accusing high-ranking members of the U.S. military of being Communists. During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, millions of Americans watched as the senator made wild accusations without a shred of evidence. These hearings and the Senate’s subsequent formal reprimand of McCarthy effectively ended the Red hunts. Disgraced and discredited, McCarthy became an alcoholic and died in 1957.