The Legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States. In this lesson, we'll explore the ways in which Eisenhower changed the relationship between American politics and faith, as well as the legacy of his domestic and foreign policy.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's Legacy

From 1953 to 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower led the United States through the Cold War, one of the most dangerous eras in world history. At any moment, war between the United States and the Soviet Union could have brought nuclear annihilation to hundreds of millions of people. In negotiating this danger, Eisenhower's Christian faith and sense of fiscal responsibility guided his domestic and foreign policy. As we will see, some of his policies would have important consequences after his Presidency ended.

Faith and Patriotism

President Eisenhower and the British Royal Family at the National Presbyterian Church
Eisenhower and the British Royal Family Leave Church

Eisenhower believed piety and patriotism were naturally linked. He argued that religious faith was necessary to counter atheistic communism and that 'a democracy cannot exist without a religious base.' On his Inauguration Day, January 23, 1953, he and his cabinet attended church services and encouraged other faiths to hold services as well. Initially not belonging to any Christian denomination, Eisenhower became a Presbyterian in 1953. In 1954, Eisenhower signed a bill that added 'under God' to the Pledge of Allegiance. Future presidents, regardless of their previous religious inclination, have often invoked their religious faith in their decision-making. Being religious, and being Christian in particular, has become an unofficial litmus test for the suitability of many political candidates. Eisenhower's faith, with its emphases on moderation and countering communism, was also reflected in his domestic and foreign policy.

Building on the New Deal: Gradualism and Pragmatism

Eisenhower was a gradualist in his domestic policy, believing that an empowered federal government should push reforms at a slow but determined pace. He subscribed to the governing philosophy set out by the New Deal and followed by his predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Eisenhower thought the federal government should intervene in economics and provide a basic social safety net, but should also remain realistic and work toward a balanced budget. That being said, Eisenhower was not afraid of raising taxes or proposing expensive, ambitious domestic projects. On July 29, 1958, he signed a bill that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. NASA was partly a response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, the year before. While Eisenhower believed in the necessity of matching Soviet achievements in space, he also argued that 'the rule of reason had to be applied to these Space projects.'


Unveiling ceremony for the Interstate Highway System with John Eisenhower (the son of Dwight D. Eisenhower)
Eisenhower promoting the Interstate Highway System

Though NASA had an enduring cultural and technological impact on American society, one could argue Eisenhower's most important and enduring domestic project was the Interstate Highway System, started in 1956. Eisenhower feared economic recessions, and he was right to do so, as there were multiple recessions during his presidency. The Interstate Highway System would help the economy by creating jobs and increasing tourism, while also improving national defense. The ambition of this project cannot be underestimated. It would ultimately cost over $130 billion dollars and would take close to four decades to complete. To help fund the Interstate Highway System, Eisenhower raised taxes on gasoline to 3 cents per gallon or 27 cents per gallon in 2017 U.S. dollars. Eisenhower's presidency is remembered as a time of relative economic prosperity, free of major international conflict. But omens of future foreign and domestic problems loomed, some of which he was keenly aware.

The Cold War and Its Inherent Dangers

On the foreign policy front, Eisenhower continued Truman's policy of containment to counter the Soviet Union. Under the policy of containment, the United States would avoid engaging the Soviet Union in open war. Instead, the United States would provide economic and military support to friendly nations in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. After witnessing first-hand the carnage of World War II, Eisenhower was wary of starting new wars. His military philosophy reflected the desire to avoid major foreign conflicts and to forge coexistence between a powerful military infrastructure and democratic society.

Compared to the United States military during World War Two, which consisted of massive numbers of infantry supported by armored units, Eisenhower was in favor of a new military strategy called the New Look. The New Look emphasized a powerful Air Force, armed with nuclear weaponry, and relied less on conventional combat units. In keeping with his pragmatism and emphasis on economic responsibility, the New Look would rely on nuclear weaponry as a deterrent to war and would reduce the economic burden of maintaining a massive conventional military.

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