The Secret Coalition: Ike, LBJ, and the Search for a Middle Way in the 1950s

The Secret Coalition: Ike, LBJ, and the Search for a Middle Way in the 1950s

by Gary A. Donaldson


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The politics of the 1950s revolved around two primary leaders, one Republican and one Democrat—both moderate, and both willing to compromise to move the nation forward.

The Republican leader was President Dwight Eisenhower. His two administrations changed American politics. Ike’s desire to be president of all the people, to run his administration down the middle of the road, to be a “modern” Republican, set the stage for what the Republican Party would be for decades to come. His politics of moderation triggered a backlash from the party’s right wing that eventually grew into a conservative surge that reached fruition in the following decades.

Standing astride the opposition was the Democratic leader in the Senate, Lyndon Johnson. At age 44, Johnson was the youngest leader in Senate history. His willingness to join forces with Eisenhower in the president’s battles against isolationism and reaction in his own party, along with the willingness of both men to compromise rather than engage in a politics of search and destroy, turned the 1950s into an era of political moderation.

In The Secret Coalition, Gary A. Donaldson insightfully explores a period in U.S. history that many Americans regard as an “Era of Good Feeling”—when the two parties got along, and the nation achieved some sort of equilibrium and cooperation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631440007
Publisher: Carrel Books
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Gary A. Donaldson is the Keller Foundation Chair in American History at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. He is the author of numerous books on American political and diplomatic history.

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Postwar Politics

With the 1944 presidential campaign on the horizon, Republicans began casting about for a candidate who might be able to unseat Franklin Roosevelt, then preparing to run for an unprecedented fourth term. They looked first to General Douglas MacArthur, the theater commander in Asia and an outspoken conservative, and then to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe. It had been suggested to Eisenhower by a war correspondent as early as 1943 that politics might be in his future. Eisenhower's glib response was that the correspondent had surely "been standing in the sun too long." But by late 1943 and early 1944 the drumbeat quickened as the Republicans became increasingly desperate. Arthur Eisenhower counseled his younger brother to issue a statement that he was not interested in a political career, arguing that MacArthur's military reputation was being damaged because he had refused to issue such a statement immediately. Eisenhower responded that any such statement would only make him appear ridiculous and that he would not, he wrote to his brother, "tolerate the use of my name in connection with any political activity of any kind." There was even some additional talk that Roosevelt might choose Eisenhower as his running mate in 1944, particularly if the Republicans nominated MacArthur. But both MacArthur and Eisenhower became consumed with the war effort, and all talk of making generals into politicians in the midst of the war quieted.

On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died, quite unexpectedly, at his home- away-from Washington, in Warm Springs, Georgia. Vice President Harry Truman became president of the United States. The war in Europe was winding down quickly. The war against Japan, it seemed, would last much longer.

In 1945, at the Potsdam Conference in Berlin, the new president Truman and Eisenhower were bantering about the postwar world when Truman jolted the general with a suggestion that he might want to consider a political future. "General," Truman said, "there is nothing that you may want that I won't try to help you get. That definitely and specifically includes the Presidency in 1948." Eisenhower later recalled his amazement at the offer. "I doubt that any soldier of our country has ever [been] so suddenly struck in his emotional vitals by a President with such an apparently sincere and certainly astounding proposition as this. ... [T]o have the President suddenly throw his broadside into me left no recourse except to treat it [as] a very splendid joke which I hoped it was." "Mr. President," Eisenhower replied, "I don't know who will be your opponent for the presidency, but it will not be I."

When Eisenhower returned home after the war, he was asked over and over again: will you run? To an audience in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas, in 1945, he seemed to make it pretty clear. "It is silly to talk about me in politics," he said, "and so for once I'll talk about it, but only to settle this thing once [and] for all. I should like to make this as emphatic as possible. ... In the strongest language you can command, you can state that I have no political ambitions at all, make it even stronger than that if you can. I'd like to go even further than Sherman in expressing myself on this subject." He could hardly have been anymore definitive, but the 1948 campaign was still three years away, and in that time Eisenhower definitely considered making a run.

As the 1948 election approached, the nation seemed poised for a wave of Republicanism that was about to wash over Washington. The Democrats had been in power since March 1933; they had taken the nation through the Great Depression and the war. Now, some fifteen years after the Democrats pushed their way back onto the political stage, it seemed time for a Republican resurgence and what many Americans saw as a return to normalcy — or something resembling a lifestyle away from the emergencies of the last decade and a half. If anyone doubted the Republican resurgence, there was the evidence of the 1946 midterm elections when the Republicans swept both houses of Congress for the first time since Herbert Hoover was in office. On the first day of that congressional session, Republican members of the new 80th Congress arrived on Capitol Hill carrying brooms. They refused to reveal to the press what the brooms symbolized, but to anyone who knew the mind of the GOP in 1946, they were intended to represent a sweeping away of the New Deal.

All of this assumed that Truman would be cast out two years later in the 1948 presidential election. The "Little Man from Missouri" had brought the war to a conclusion in good order, but to most Americans he had done little more than observe the giant American war machine as it did its business of finishing off Germany and Japan. He had made the decision to drop the bomb on Japan, and he was generally praised for that decisive act — and for ending the war as quickly as possible. But even that was perceived by many Americans as little more than carrying out a decision that had already been made.

* * *

It is a phenomenon of the American political system that (in order to appeal to the largest possible range of voters) a presidential candidate is often bound to select a running mate who carries nearly the opposite appeal. Such was the case in 1944 when Roosevelt chose Harry Truman to run with him on the Democratic ticket. Roosevelt was urbane, urban, a wealthy patrician, a career politician who had risen to political importance in New York as a reformer, a battler against the corrupt bossism of Tammany Hall. With the Roosevelt money and Roosevelt name, he had glided through life from the social prominence of Hyde Park, to Groton, Harvard, and on to Columbia Law. He headed to Wall Street, the New York state legislature, national politics in 1920, and finally to the White House in 1933. Truman was different. His life had been hard. He grew up on the Missouri frontier where opportunities were limited and prospects were bleak. There was no prominent family name, no family wealth, no marvelous education to carry him through life. Harry Truman was ordinary. He served in France during World War I and returned home to try his hand at business. His small haberdashery in Kansas City, Missouri, soon failed. He then tried his hand at investing in oil and mining interests, failing at that as well. At thirty, he turned to politics and found some success at the local level where he seemed destined to stay. But by allying with the Pendergast machine (a corrupt Kansas City organization named after political boss Tom Pendergast), Truman moved up the political ladder and finally into the U.S. Senate, where he made a name for himself by uncovering wasteful wartime spending and then as one of the few southerners who stood by Roosevelt and the New Deal.

After the death of FDR, Truman stepped into the White House with a convincing 87 percent approval rating, a figure that clearly owed more to his anonymity and the nation's expectations than to his popularity. By 1946, however, his approval rating had slid to a paltry 32 percent. For most of the nation, Truman's problems revolved around reconversion, the process of regulating the postwar economy that was his first real act as president. And he generally stumbled. Taking advice from economists who insisted that the immediate removal of wartime price controls would cause either debilitating inflation or depression, or both, Truman left price controls in place for nearly two years after the war ended. At the same time, organized labor pushed at the other end. Generally quiet during the war in an effort to keep production up, unions went out on strike when the war ended in numbers that were unprecedented. As labor and other production costs increased, while prices remained fixed by the federal government, production of consumer goods ground to a halt. To meet the demand, a vibrant black market emerged, embarrassing the government even more. Finally, under pressure from just about every direction, an embattled Truman removed the price controls. It was a popular decision, but the long wait had hurt the president. His first real decision had been wrong.

Organized labor presented an additional challenge. Truman's handling of the postwar labor strikes not only brought the unions out against him, but it hurt his standing generally. Certainly, labor had done its part to win the war, but following V-J Day the American worker was taking home less real income than before the war. In addition, when the war brought an end to cutbacks in overtime, wages were dragged down even further. In 1941, the average American laborer's real wage was just over $28.00 per week. That had risen to $36.72 in 1945. But by the fall of 1946, inflation and a reduction in overtime pay had pulled real wages back to the 1941 level. The pie was expanding, but labor's share remained the same. Industry, however, argued that it was shackled with Truman's wartime price controls, plus it was stuck with the immense cost of retooling for peacetime production. Labor and management were on a collision course that would engulf the nation in the immediate postwar years. And Truman, caught in the middle, was damaged by the events.

The result was nearly inevitable. Through the summer of 1945, the nation experienced 4,600 work stoppages involving some five million workers. Following V-J Day, the situation worsened. In September, 43,000 oil refinery workers went out on strike, cutting off one-third of the nation's oil supply. Six weeks later, the United Auto Workers struck General Motors, idling some 325,000 workers. Then in January, 750,000 steelworkers walked out, followed by 200,000 electrical workers and another 200,000 meatpackers. The nation seemed on the verge of paralysis, and the people looked to their president for answers. Truman responded as he often did to crises: he pulled together a blue-ribbon committee to find a solution. They had none.

In April 1946, the United Mine Workers went out on strike, and the nation's infrastructure (fueled by coal) ground to a halt. Truman responded by seizing the coal mines. It was a decisive, even popular, decision, but it alienated organized labor, whose leaders and rank-and-file began to see the president as a tool of management. Finally in May, railroad engineers and trainmen struck, which threatened to shut down the nation's commerce and industry. Truman responded by asking Congress for emergency powers to bring contempt charges against labor leaders, and then he threatened to draft striking workers into the military. Truman's threats caused labor leaders in the railroad industry to back down, and the president basked in his victory. But as the 1946 midterm elections approached, it was clear that organized labor had no friend in the White House.

As Washington geared up for the 1946 election campaigns, Truman's approval ratings sank to the low thirties. And most Americans had come to see him as a sort of caretaker president, someone who would keep things going until the Democrats could nominate a strong candidate to take the reins of the party. The Democratic National Committee, in fact, had so little confidence in Truman's appeal that in several congressional campaigns that year they purchased national radio time and broadcast old Roosevelt speeches rather than send Truman out on the campaign trail.

Not surprisingly, Truman's general lack of leadership abilities caused a splintering within the Democratic Party. Through the 1930s, Roosevelt had cobbled together a fragile coalition of diverse groups that included southern conservatives, northern liberals, western farmers, organized labor, big city bosses, and minorities and immigrants in northern cities. Truman simply did not have the qualities necessary to hold these disparate groups together. Roosevelt was a born leader. He held the coalition together with well-applied charm, cajolery, and flattery. Without Roosevelt's leadership parts of this fragile coalition began to break away, each intending on building its own power base and lead a new party coalition into the next political generation.

All this became apparent in 1946 when the Democrats lost control of Congress for the first time since Hoover was in office. The losses were big, but predictable. The Democrats lost fifty-four seats in the House and twelve in the Senate. The era of Democratic dominance appeared over, and the nation seemed ready for a tidal wave of Republicanism. Truman's lack of effective leadership, followed by the 1946 Republican surge, all seemed like the natural order of things to most Americans. The political pendulum had swung back. Thus, the Republicans of the 80th Congress entered the Capitol in January 1947 carrying their brooms, ready to use their mandate to sweep away what they saw as the refuse of New Deal liberalism. Their November campaign call had been "Had enough?" And the nation, it seemed, had answered with a resounding yes.

The Republicans of the 80th Congress coalesced around Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican," the austere conservative and prewar isolationist, the son of a president. It was no secret that Taft had his eye on the 1948 Republican nomination, and just about everyone agreed that whoever received that nomination would ride the Republican wave into the White House with little difficulty.

Truman, however, was not prepared to hand over power to the Republicans — at least not yet. Through the next two years, he maintained a unique relationship with the 80th Congress. On domestic issues, it was a gloves-off affair. The president vetoed seventy-five bills in the two sessions. Five of his vetoes were overridden, and very little was accomplished. On foreign affairs, however, it was a different story. A Cold War consensus was in the process of forming, and the two parties worked together to establish a foreign policy that would prevail for another forty years. In the final analysis, however, Truman used the 80th Congress to enhance his standing with several sectors of his party. By introducing and pushing liberal legislation that he probably knew would never pass, Truman was able to portray the Republicans as the political arm of big business, insensitive to the needs of the average American, and unwilling to act on much needed domestic reforms.

Consequently, as the 1948 campaign approached, Truman was able to present himself as the defender of the common man, a fighter against oppression, and the real successor to the New Deal. And by opposing the Taft-Hartley Act (designed by the Republicans in the 80th Congress to curtail the powers of organized labor), Truman was able to pull many of those disgruntled organized labor leaders back into his coalition. Then on foreign affairs, he worked with congressional leaders to adopt a firm and decisive anti-Soviet stance that was generally popular. Using Congress as his foil, Truman, by the summer of 1948, had established himself as the new leader of the old New Deal coalition, the defender of the common man and organized labor, and a strong world leader.

In turn, the Republicans in the 80th Congress proceeded under the assumption that the 1946 election was a portent for the future and that in 1948 they would put one of their own into the White House with little effort. That is, they played right into Truman's hands. A Republican bill to reduce taxes in the upper income brackets was passed over Truman's veto. The Republicans excluded several groups from Social Security benefits, overriding two presidential vetoes to get the job done. They killed administration-supported bills to provide aid to education, increase the minimum wage, and provide comprehensive housing. Southern Democrats, seeing no need to support what appeared to be Truman's failing lame-duck presidency, got behind most Republican initiatives in exchange for Republican support in killing civil rights legislation. All this appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle to Truman's domestic agenda, but it worked to increase Truman's image with the American people as their representative fighting against the forces of big business and privilege.

After 1946, Taft emerged as the clear leader of the Republicans in Congress, and in that position he was considered the immediate frontrunner for the 1948 Republican nomination. But he was not uncontested. Standing in the wings were at least two formidable candidates: Eisenhower, who continued to claim that politics was not in his future; and Thomas Dewey, who had lost to Roosevelt in 1944 and (it seemed to be common knowledge) would at some point make a run for the 1948 nomination.

It was Eisenhower, however, who was the true wildcard. It was clear that if he wanted the nomination — of either party — he could have it. And that was, in fact, part of his appeal. No one knew if he was a Republican or a Democrat, and he refused to reveal his affiliation, even to the point of avoiding issues that might define him. In this noncandidate role, he was able to maintain a candidate's visibility without carrying the weight of a candidate's responsibilities. With his intentions unknown, no one dared attack him, and he made no enemies. He was also not responsible to the press or the public for possessing policies on specific issues. All of this added to his growing popularity. In a 1947 poll, 22 percent believed Eisenhower was a Republican; 20 percent thought he was a Democrat. The largest group, 58 percent, confessed that they did not know his affiliation. In 1946, Time reported the obvious, that he could run successfully on either ticket.


Excerpted from "The Secret Coalition"
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Copyright © 2014 Gary A. Donaldson.
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Table of Contents

Introduction vii

Chapter 1 Postwar Politics 1

Chapter 2 The 1952 Presidential Campaign: Awaiting the New Order 25

Chapter 3 Shared Objectives: Bipartisanship in the 83rd Congress 39

Chapter 4 "I Like Ike," But Not the Repulicans: Johnson and the Democrats in the Majority 75

Chapter 5 Moderates Among Moderates: Eisenhower and Johnson at the Height of Their Powers 109

Chapter 6 Bipartisanship in Decline-and the Election of 1960 149

Chapter 7 Conclusion: The End of a Decade and the Beginning of the Future of American Politics 177

Notes 189

Bibliography 223

Index 233

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