Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republican Party
The first Republican candidate to be elected president was Abraham Lincoln, back in 1861. The Republican Party still exists today, but it looks very different. Lincoln's Republican Party was not the same one that got McKinley elected in 1896, which was not the same party that got Nixon elected in 1968, which was not the same one that got Reagan elected in 1980. Political parties change over time, but there are watershed moments where these changes are particularly evident.
One of these moments was the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who held the Oval Office from 1953-1961. Eisenhower came into office after about 20 years of Democrat control, following the three full terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the term-and-a-half of Harry Truman. It had been a while since Republicans were in a position to define national politics, so it's no surprise to see this as a moment that redefined the party's positions. Eisenhower was personally at the center of this, championing what he called Modern Republicanism.
Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism represented a different vision for the Republican Party, one which would set the tone for their postwar ideologies. In many ways, Eisenhower was paradoxically an unusual and ideal person to oversee this transition. Why? Because he had never actually been a member of the Republican Party before his election. In fact, he'd never even voted.
Dwight D. Eisenhower became a household name during World War II, not as a politician but as a five-star general. Eisenhower was one of the most influential figures in the war, operating as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. He had overseen the Allied invasion of France, and later the invasion of Germany that catapulted the Allies to victory.
Eisenhower left WWII as a celebrated American hero and quickly found both political parties courting him, despite the fact that he expressly communicated his distaste for politics. Democratic president Harry Truman asked Eisenhower to run as his vice president in 1948, an offer that Eisenhower refused. However, as Truman's term was beset by accusations of corruption, the Republican Party managed to convince Eisenhower that his country needed a strong figure to reunify the nation and restore trust in the government. The country needed its general once again.
Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism
After winning the election of 1952, Eisenhower was sworn into office in 1953, as the first Republican President since 1932. Very few people really knew what to expect from the man who had so actively avoided politics. Eisenhower was not a life-long Republican but had only just joined the party. He'd also vocally supported both Republican and Democratic leaders over the last several decades. So, what did Republicanism mean to him?
Eisenhower quickly asserted his middle-of-the-road approach to politics, his focus on maintaining national unity and stability over party politics. In some ways, Eisenhower was a traditional conservative, especially in terms of money. Eisenhower was devout to fiscally conservative policies and worked to reduce federal spending, and invest the government's resources, in what he saw as the most responsible ways.
At the same time, Eisenhower took a strong step away from the traditional conservative view on social programs. Many Republicans hoped that Eisenhower would finally be the one to dismantle the liberal New Deal social programs, but the President quickly dashed those expectations. In fact, Eisenhower not only maintained these programs, but also increased social security, raised the minimum wage, promoted free distribution of the polio vaccine, created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and oversaw the development of the interstate system.
This was what Eisenhower termed Modern Republicanism. It was fiscally conservative but liberal with social programs. In his own words, Eisenhower described himself as ''conservative when it comes to money and liberal when it comes to human beings.'' He maintained this middle-of-the-road approach and became frustrated with those who didn't. Sometimes this meant bickering with liberals who wanted more programs regardless of the cost, but more frequently saw Eisenhower embattled with members of his own party, who kept insisting that he dismantle social programs entirely.
Modern Republicanism and the Cold War
Eisenhower's middle-ground approach to domestic policies was partly due to the fact that the President came from a military background, and had a military focus. True to traditional conservative ideologies, Eisenhower supported a military buildup throughout the 1950s, focused on fighting the spread of communism in Korea and Vietnam.
Eisenhower's firm anti-communism stance did prove to be dangerous through the 1950s. He actively supported strengthening federal loyalty programs intended to route out communists in the government and provided new platforms, for Senator Joseph McCarthy, to continue his witch-hunt. It wasn't until after McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and discredited in 1954, that Eisenhower backed down slightly from domestic containment, and started expressing his support of other domestic issues like civil rights. This back-and-forth between conservative and liberal ideals is what really defined Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism, and really Eisenhower himself. He wasn't elected as a true representative of any political party, but someone who had supported policies and politicians of both.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. During this time, he championed a middle-of-the-road political ideology he called Modern Republicanism. This approach maintained the conservative values of fiscal responsibility and a strong military, and expanded the role of the government in hunting, and containing, communists both at home and abroad. At the same time, Eisenhower maintained the New Deal social programs of liberal Democrats and even expanded several of them. This often put him at odds with other Republicans, but Eisenhower maintained his middle-ground stance, switching between liberal and conservative ideas as he saw fit. He may not have been the Republican president that Republicans expected, but after all, parties change their positions over time. For postwar Republicans, it took someone who had just joined the party and had never voted, in order to do it.
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