From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast

Episode 12 - 1957: The Blessings of the Cold War?

January 16, 2021 Logan Rogers Season 2 Episode 2
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Episode 12 - 1957: The Blessings of the Cold War?
Show Notes Transcript

After a brief reflection on troubling recent events in the USA, this episode looks back at a seemingly simpler time - Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term as President. By the late 1950s, Cold War pressures led the US government to build major defense & infrastructure projects, to invest heavily in education & scientific research, & to undertake modest steps in the direction of greater racial equality.  The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was a public works program that created jobs & democratized interstate travel, while displacing some unfortunate urban residents. The USSR's launch of the Sputnik satellites in 1957 led the US to invest in science via the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), & motivated the creation of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). New defense spending spurred further southwestern migration, & this population shift enabled the Dodgers & Giants franchises of Major League Baseball to relocate to the West Coast. In 1957, a new civil rights act passed the United States Senate for the first time in nearly a century. However, the biggest racial justice milestone of the year occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas, where 9 black students courageously faced down jeering protesters & bullying classmates to integrate Central High School. Arkansas's segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, tried to prevent the Little Rock 9 from attending their classes, but when a reluctant President Eisenhower finally decided to send in federal troops to protect these African-American students, racist politicians & vigilantes backed off of their most blatant intimidation tactics.

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Greetings, esteemed listeners. I just want to give a brief pre-script to this new episode. It would be strange not to mention the historic & appalling recent events in Washington DC, which occurred after we had already recorded this show. The violent seizure of the US Capitol Building by partisan fanatics & domestic terrorists consumed much – too much – of our attention in recent days. Rest assured that future episodes of the “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast will be exploring how a prosperous & politically-stable democracy deteriorated into such a state of instability & dysfunction. With that said, here’s our show about 1957, which coincidentally includes a story about the National Guard being called in to disperse a reactionary & intimidating mob of protesters. Cue that intro music!

            From Boomers to Millennials is a modern US history podcast. Welcome to 1957, a/k/a Episode 12, “The Blessings of the Cold War?” (question mark?). Just a brief show note before we dig into our story here – you may notice our intro music & traditional format are back. Our podcast is indeed back to business as usual following the disastrous laptop crash of a few weeks ago. We’ve recently acquired a brand-new laptop, which is exciting for us. Thank you for your patience with our recent technical difficulties. 


By the early 1950s, the rise of Cold War tensions had slowed political momentum for new domestic spending by the US federal government. The initial postwar attempt to extend the New Deal further via the Fair Deal sputtered during Truman’s unpopular administration (see Episode 4). The USA’s rivalry with the Communist Soviet Union deepened Americans’ pride in having a capitalist identity & sapped the popularity of any programs that might be attacked by conservatives as socialistic. Nevertheless, the US government continued to raise considerable revenue, thanks in large part to relatively high tax rates for the wealthy, with a top marginal tax rate hovering around 70% for the very wealthiest Americans during the 20th Century’s middle decades, which was much higher than rates in the eras before FDR & after Ronald Reagan. This ample federal revenue was spent on a few surviving New Deal entitlement programs (above all on Social Security, which was expanded during Pres. Eisenhower’s first term), & also on a large permanent military budget, consisting not only of domestic troops, but also of numerous foreign bases & massive weapons systems. During the Cold War era, much like the period immediately after 9/11, one of the best ways to get a project funded by the government was by invoking “national security.” The resulting system of military-related public spending (often via private defense contractors) would be derided by later critics as the quote-unquote “military-industrial complex,” a term coined in a January 1961 speech by President Eisenhower himself. Nevertheless, there were real benefits to US citizens (outside of the national defense rationale) from all this military spending. By the late 50s, US defense-related expenditures were creating jobs all across the country, building new infrastructure that modernized the USA, & funding a higher education system that would emerge of one of the best in the world by the late 20th Century.


            One of the most important public investments of the Fifties was the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which was passed in part due to national-security concerns. Many government officials worried that US cities would need a road system capable of quickly evacuating large population areas in the event of a nuclear attack. This military priority, when combined with the general need for updated infrastructure in a booming & thriving nation, led Congress to pass the Interstate Highway Act. This bill provided federal subsidies for state & local governments, directing them to build an expanded interstate road network. This new federal spending was funded in part by a small gas tax. Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith calls this (quote) “the largest public works project ever attempted.” According to historians James Henretta, David Brody, & Lynn Dumenil, the Interstate Highway Act (quote) “authorized $26 billion [dollars] over a 10-year period for the construction of a nationally integrated highway system,” which surpassed even the scope of New Deal public works. Despite being a fiscal conservative by 1950s standards, President Eisenhower supported the modernization of US transportation infrastructure; for this reason, he supported the Interstate Highway Act. Smith notes that (quote) “in 1919, Ike had been 1 of 6 officers to lead the Army’s 1st transcontinental motor convoy across largely unpaved roads & makeshift bridges from Washington [DC] to San Francisco, & he understood from [this frustrating] firsthand experience the need for a network of national highways” (close quote). Smith argues that Ike wanted a high-quality system that would surpass even the famed German Autobahn. 


            The construction of improved highways from coast to coast would provide many benefits, but it was not a painless experience for the American people. The creation of a new infrastructure system came at significant costs for certain vulnerable populations. Some Americans whose land stood in the proposed interstate highway’s path were forced via eminent domain to sell their homes to the government & then vacate the property. Perhaps surprisingly, widespread & coordinated resistance to this heavy-handed conduct by government was quite limited, for two main reasons. The first was common conformity & public-spiritedness in the attitudes of most Americans after World War II & the Korean War. Many American citizens had grown accustomed to making major sacrifices for the nation. To a much greater extent than exists in the present (I’m recording this after the divisive & turbulent year 2020), back then there was real public trust in the government & its experts. This made it easier for Americans to accept the premise that their individual interests may have to be set aside to make room for collective efforts to further technological progress & national security. 


The second reason there was not a powerful resistance movement to paving over people’s neighborhoods had far more to do with social inequities & governmental coercion. Engineers planning the highway system knew that they would get considerable political & legal resistance if they attempted to build major roads through lucrative industrial areas & prosperous residential zones. The planners instead targeted areas for demolition that were aging neighborhoods where lower-income workers & racial minorities lived. This decision was not a sneaky political calculus hidden from the public; it was a policy openly stated by government planners, who boasted that they would be improving communities by engaging what they euphemistically labelled “urban renewal” via so-called “slum clearance.” Because the victims of eminent domain were in a few concentrated pockets & the beneficiaries were much more widely dispersed, residents of low-income areas had relatively few political allies to help them fight for their homes. Patterson notes that because interstate highway spending created construction jobs across both urban & rural areas and spread throughout every region of the country, it gained widespread support from politicians across partisan & ideological lines.


According to Smith, Eisenhower was concerned about fiscal prudence, & he therefore initially favored designating these interstate highways as toll roads, with these tolls helping to cover construction & maintenance costs. However, his Cabinet secretaries convinced him to only allow tolls in heavily populated regions, where drivers had access to other roads as free car-travel alternatives. During the decades that followed, the interstate highway system concept planned & approved under the Eisenhower Administration would be implemented & constructed. Smith reports that the completed network (quote) “stretches 46,876 miles & contains 55,512 bridges & 14,756 interchanges” (close quote). The creation of this web of high-quality roads reduced the geographic isolation of remote areas. Interstates democratized state-to-state travel, because combined with cheap gas & widespread car ownership, they allowed both rich & poor to see areas of the USA that previous generations of Americans had lacked access to.


Historian James T. Patterson notes, this infrastructure spending would have dramatic long-term effects on US air quality, energy consumption, & housing patterns. Some of these developments were problematic. New Southwestern metropolitan areas that boomed during the second half of the 20th Century, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, & suburban Los Angeles, were built in a more spread-out & less centralized manner than cities had been in earlier eras, based upon the assumption that most people would travel everywhere by automobile. An emerging American car culture caused the nation to rely upon petroleum products more than ever, & therefore increased global carbon emissions, which eventually contributed to major environmental problems. Interstate highways disrupted historic urban neighborhoods & increased segregation in some areas, as freeways became de facto barriers separating the rich from the poor. Furthermore, rural towns along old railways & highways suffered economic loss if they were not located along an interstate route.


However, many other effects of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 were positive for Americans. In the short term, Patterson reports that highway construction gave a major economic boost to numerous industries, including oil & gas, trucking, construction, & tourism. As public transit & railroad use naturally declined in reaction to the expansion of accessible highways, new jobs emerged that catered to an evolving “roadside culture” consisting of diners, gas stations, motels, fast-food outlets, shopping malls, & highway oddities. Towns that were along a major interstate experienced increased prosperity. Remote national parks & historical sites gained more visitors because they could be more easily reached by the increasingly mobile US population. Modern road infrastructure allowed trucks to move goods across the country more quickly, stimulating the economy. During the early 20th Century, Americans who’d travelled from state to state by car had to traverse decrepit & poorly-maintained 2-lane highway routes.  Under Ike’s new interstate system, long-distance travel became much safer & more convenient. Patterson judges that the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 (quote) “had enormous long-range importance, establishing the basis for the American transportation system for the rest of the 20th Century” (close quote).


Further public investment occurred after a high-profile scientific advance by the USA’s archrival panicked the nation. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union used a powerful rocket to launch into outer space the world’s first man-made orbiting satellite, known as Sputnik. This spherical satellite would not seem impressive today. It weighed less than 200 pounds and measured only about the width of a beach ball. But during the 1950s, this probe’s successful launch was a groundbreaking & unprecedented scientific advancement. Patterson explains that the power of the Earth’s orbit moved the Sputnik satellite at a speed of approximately 18,000 miles per hour, allowing it to circle the globe every 92 minutes. Just one month later, the Soviets launched yet another satellite called Sputnik II, which was a larger object that contained a live animal, specifically a stray mongrel named Laika. The presence of the dog led some American headline writers to nickname this second satellite “Muttnik.” Unfortunately, Laika overheated during launch & did not survive the voyage, making this dog perhaps the first martyr of Earth’s move toward space exploration. In 2008, Russian officials unveiled a small monument to Laika outside Moscow.


Biographer Jean Edward Smith observes that (quote) “Neither Sputnik nor Sputnik II had any direct military application. They carried no weapons systems” (close quote). Still, politicians & pundits fretted that America’s Communist foes had been first to launch rockets into outer space. According to diplomatic historian George C. Herring, (quote) “Sputnik even provoked the question . . . across the world whether the Soviet system might be [technologically] superior to that of the United Sates, a huge problem in the ongoing competition for global hearts & minds” (close quote). US scientists sprang into action in response to the Soviets’ success with the two Sputnik satellites. The Americans attempted their own satellite launch in December ’57. This effort resulted in a humiliating rocket crash, depressing American national morale still further. The failed American attempt to match the Soviets’ launches was mocked in the press as “Kaputnik” or “Stayputnik.”  Congressional Democrats began criticizing the Eisenhower Administration for allegedly lagging behind the Eastern Bloc in scientific research. A hastily-completed National Security Council report in Sputnik’s aftermath recommended significantly increasing US military science spending in order for America to catch up with the USSR’s technological prowess in rocketry.


While the general US public & the press were shaken up by the Sputnik launch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower remained calm & relatively unconcerned. Patterson argues that this presidential serenity derived from the fact that (Quote) “Since 1956, Eisenhower had benefitted from extraordinary intelligence being gathered by U-2 planes, which were . . . designed to fly altitudes up to 80,000 feet” above sea level (close quote). Just a clarification for you Millennials out there: long before U2 was a Gen-X band, it was a Boomer-era spy plane. According to Patterson, the photographic equipment on these super-secret U-2 surveillance planes was so advanced that it (quote) “could capture newspaper headlines 10 miles below” (close quote). According to Patterson, thanks to this confidential intelligence, Eisenhower knew something most Americans didn’t; he was aware that (quote) while “the Soviets had an edge in capacity for thrust – the ability to boost satellites into orbit, [on the other hand they] lagged badly in the production of usable warheads,” bombers, & ICBMs (close quote). Ike knew that at present, the Russians would be far more decimated than the USA if there were a nuclear exchange between the superpowers. He wasn’t concerned about any possible offensive capabilities of satellites, & he was initially reluctant to support a Space Race with the Soviets, which he feared would divert money away from other military programs that were more essential to maintaining national security. (Quote) “We have no enemies on the moon,” the president reportedly quipped. However, Eisenhower could not publicize the intelligence secrets that proved Americans’ current technological superiority to the Soviets, which made it difficult for him to push back against growing political criticisms & pressures.


Herring notes that some social critics were glad to see that Sputnik had shaken the Americans out of their cultural complacency. These intellectuals hoped that their fellow citizens would (quote) “refocus [away] from [their] self-absorption in the era’s consumer culture [& instead pursue] a higher national purpose” (close quote). Other thinkers sought to exploit the political crisis in order to obtain less abstract benefits. Scientists & academics had been lobbying for years for more public investment in education, & they used the Sputnik panic among the American establishment to their advantage. According to the US history textbook Liberty, Equality, Power, (quote) “In 1958, using the magical phrase ‘national security,’ educators obtained the federal dollars that they had been seeking.” That year’s “National Defense Education Act (or NDEA) funneled money to college-level programs in science, mathematics, engineering, foreign languages, & the social sciences” (close quote). This bill broke new ground, because the federal government had previously left higher education almost entirely to state & local governments. Now, Washington DC was strengthening research universities across the nation by providing them with the funds necessary to support talented students & to conduct more complex scientific research. The national defense purposes of the NDEA bill were explicit, not only in its very name, but also in the strings attached to participation; Patterson reports that recipients of federal aid had to swear that they had not engaged in subversive activities & that they were loyal to the US Constitution. Despite these restrictions, Jean Edward Smith contends that this breakthrough in federal funding for education created long-term structural improvements that strengthened the American educational system.


The American legislative response to Sputnik ensured that the so-called “Space Race” had begun between the superpowers. Despite Ike’s reluctance to invest substantial US resources in it, Congress pressured him to sign off on funding this interstellar scientific competition between capitalist & communist nations. The US government increased federal financial support for scientific research & development within both public agencies & private companies. Smith reports that this blitz of research funding was not limited to explicitly defense-related agencies. For example, Eisenhower also increased spending on medical research through the National Institutes of Health. Sputnik also prompted Ike to appoint the president of MIT (also known as the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to a newly-created position as the official White House science advisor. The keystone piece to the scientific puzzle of the Space Race was the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (or NASA), which was founded in 1958 as the US government’s ultimate answer to Sputnik. Patterson describes NASA as (quote) “a civilian bureaucracy . . . created to coordinate missile development & space exploration in the future” (close quote). This new agency would achieve remarkable feats in the decade ahead.


In his book Grand Expectations, US historian James T. Patterson judges that (quote) “as commander-in-chief, Eisenhower deserves mostly good marks for his handling of concerns over Sputnik,” due to his willingness to invest in science on the one hand, & due to his refusal to overreact in a manner that might escalate international tensions on the other. Foreign policy historian George Herring concurs with this assessment, & he suggests that Ike’s caution came from his fear of turning the US into a military-dominated country. Herring notes (quote) “Eisenhower had long feared that excessive military spending would require additional taxes, hold back capital accumulation, retard industrial growth, & risk a garrison state that could threaten American democracy” (close quote). Although the president had approved new programs, including the creation of NASA, he had generally maintained his ideological commitment to fiscal discipline & had avoided a huge buildup of conventional military forces. 


US investments in aerospace research gradually began to pay off. By early 1958, the United States successfully launched into orbit the Explorer 1, which was a small satellite weighing just 31 pounds. However, the Soviets continued to set the pace for the Space Race, landing a probe on the moon in October 1959 that took photographs of the lunar surface. Continued communist successes in space exploration demoralized the American people, who were accustomed to seeing their own inventiveness & productivity set the technological pace for the world, with examples ranging from the atom bomb during wartime to the assembly line during peacetime. Patterson writes that (quote) “Americans . . . liked to think they were the first & the best at scientific . . . innovation. If they fell behind, someone must have blundered” (close quote). Taking advantage of this popular dissatisfaction over being (supposedly) scientifically eclipsed by the Soviets, hawkish Democratic politicians critiqued the Eisenhower administration over an alleged gap in terms of missile technology between the US & the USSR. In the 1960s, a new executive’s administration would come into power, elected on a platform articulating these criticisms, leading up to a young president’s famous announcement that his government would bear any burden necessary to win the space race. However, that is a story for a future episode.


During the 1950s, federal defense spending occurred at a scale that changed the contours of American economic & social life. According to Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil, (quote) “the Department of Defense evolved into a massive bureaucracy . . . Federal money underwrote 90% of the cost of research on aviation & [aerospace], and [it] also subsidized the scientific instruments, automobile, & electronics industries.” This spending “put money in the pockets of millions of people working in defense-related industries, but it also limited the [government] resources available for [social welfare &] domestic needs” (close quote). James Henretta & his co-authors identify the cities of Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, & Washington DC as among the major metropolitan areas transformed by the glut of new defense & aerospace industry jobs. It was in locations such as these that Americans made novel advancements in aircraft technology; for example, Smith mentions that the U-2 spy planes were created (quote) “in a supersecret area . . . at [the] Lockheed [corporation’s] sprawling Burbank, California facility” (close quote).


One cultural effect of the population shift to the West Coast & Sunbelt was a change in the geography of American sports leagues. During the Fifties, average Americans families had more disposable income & free time than they’d had during prior decades. As a result, spectator sports, above all baseball & football, became more popular than perhaps ever before. Sports Illustrated magazine made its debut as part of Time publisher Henry Luce’s print media empire in 1954, & it became a top-selling weekly publication on American newsstands for the rest of the 20th Century. In 1957, two storied franchises of Major League Baseball, the New York Giants & the Brooklyn Dodgers, announced that before the ’58 season they would be relocating to San Francisco & Los Angeles, respectively. Both teams remain located in California to this day. The cross-country moves dismayed many sports fans in declining East Coast urban cores, while delighting baseball enthusiasts West of the Mississippi River, who would finally have big-league teams of their own. More than 78,000 fans packed the stands for the Dodgers’ debut game in Southern California during April 1958. Patterson argues (quote) “the phenomenal financial success of the Dodgers in Los Angeles depended . . . on the ability of people to drive to the ball park . . . on [newly-constructed] multi-lane freeways.” He recounts that the arrival of the SF Giants & LA Dodgers (quote) touched “off subsequent westward movements of sports franchises, leading in the 1960s to [a] dramatic expansion of the major leagues” (close quote).


A much more serious topic, the Southern civil rights struggle, was also experiencing game-changing transformations as a result of the global Cold War. US foreign policy historian George C. Herring contends that (quote) “In the raging Cold War competition for the allegiance of 3rd World nations, the US found itself increasingly handicapped abroad” by the contradiction between its professed democratic values & the South’s Jim Crow racial caste system. African-Americans activists articulated this criticism; Martin Luther King stated that (quote) “Advocacy of free elections in Europe by American officials is hypocrisy when free elections are not held in great sections of America” (close quote). Yet President Eisenhower continued to be a cautious gradualist (at most) when it came to civil rights issues. Herring portrays him as (quote) “personally comfortable with segregation,” having “many friends among the Southern elite” (close quote). Vice-President Richard Nixon, who is not exactly remembered by history as an anti-racist crusader, pushed the president to pay attention to the international impact of domestic prejudice upon returning from a goodwill tour of Africa in Spring 1957. Nixon warned Eisenhower that racial discrimination in the South was fueling anti-American sentiment among non-white populations around the globe. The president took no action at that time, but events during the fall of that year would finally pressure Ike into intervening on behalf of the civil rights struggle, a major shift after the years he had spent expressing reluctance to get the federal government directly involved in Southern race relations.


The first major civil rights milestone of 1957 was the passage of a new civil rights bill, which was approved by both houses of Congress over the summer. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson used his trademark cunning to push through this modest bill in the face of Senate Dixiecrats’ attempts to block it with a filibuster. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 expedited federal prosecutions of voting rights violations & created new commissions to study ways to solve American racial inequities. Yet historian Thomas Borstelmann portrays the act as having been so weakened & watered down by amendments & compromises that it was almost useless to blacks in their battle against Jim Crow. Nevertheless, it was the first bill even nominally aimed at protecting the rights of African-Americans to pass the United States Congress in 80 years, which at least was an important symbolic milestone. President Eisenhower supported & signed this relatively tepid civil rights measure once it reached his desk, yet he resisted pressure from racial progressives in both parties to follow it up with bold executive actions, such as prohibiting discrimination on federal construction sites.


In fall 1957, the most dramatic racial conflict of Eisenhower’s 2nd term broke out in the City of Little Rock, Arkansas. Local officials there were attempting to comply with federal guidelines for school desegregation, as had been directed by US district courts charged with implementing the Supreme Court’s Brown precedent (see Episode 8). The planned integration of a local high school in Little Rock was opposed by Arkansas’s segregationist governor, a man by the name of Orval Faubus. He ordered troops from the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock Central High School, allegedly to maintain “law & order,” but in reality, to prevent the entry of black students. On September 4th, a small group of nine high school students (who would enter civil rights history as the famed Little Rock 9) were met by jeering crowds of racist whites & hostile state guardsmen blocking their entry. Historian James Henretta & his co-authors recount that white protesters chanted slogans such as “two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!”


Patterson reports that (quote) “For the next 18 days [Eisenhower] tried to resolve the issue by conferring with the [Little Rock] mayor & even with [Governor] Faubus himself, who flew to the President’s summer retreat in Newport, Rhode Island” (close quote). According to Smith, the president wanted to ensure that the federal court’s decisions were enforced, but he (quote) “wanted to give Faubus the opportunity to make an orderly retreat.” “I don’t want to see any governor humiliated,” Eisenhower told Faubus. The Arkansas Dixiecrat expressed agreement when Ike suggested that he resolve the situation by simply changing the National Guard’s orders from blocking the Little Rock 9 from entry to letting them in the school & protecting them from mob violence. But when Faubus returned to Little Rock, he refused to carry out this plan, & he kept the state troops in their role enforcers of the Jim Crow status quo. Smith reports that Ike was so furious that Faubus had misled him, that the president’s aides had to talk him out of issuing a statement denouncing the Arkansas Governor’s behavior & his character.


Eisenhower now felt he had no choice but to respond to Arkansas’s defiance of the federal judiciary. Smith says Time magazine reported that Ike agonized over whether to send troops to Little Rock more than any decision he’d faced since D-Day. When he finally decided to intervene, the president portrayed the issue as not being about his opinion of the South’s Jim Crown system, but instead focused upon holding Governor Faubus accountable for his direct defiance of federal courts. As the chief executive of the federal government, Ike had a vested interest in maintaining the principle that state officials cannot defy the central government in Washington DC. Eisenhower used his power as US military commander-in-chief to take control of the Arkansas National Guard away from Faubus. He also ordered thousands of US Army troops from the 101stAirborne Division into Arkansas’s capital city in order to prevent violence & to escort the Little Rock 9 to school in safety. According to Smith, when the troops showed up to escort the black children to class, one of them, Minnijean Brown, later said (quote) “For the 1st time in my life I felt like an American citizen” (close quote).


When it became clear that these bayonet-wielding US troops were committed to defend the Black teenagers, the white mobs outside of Little Rock Central High slowly disbanded, having been intimidated out of their efforts to intimidate the Little Rock 9. Patterson notes that, even upon being admitted & protected by troops posted outside the school, (quote) the “It was never easy for [the black students], however, because a . . . minority of their white schoolmates regularly cursed, pushed, & spat on them” (close quote). As difficult as it was for them to endure such persecution, it remained rather remarkable that the Nine African-American students were able to attend an integrated high school in the 1950s American South. It happened because Eisenhower finally overcame his reluctance & had been willing to become the first US president since the end of Reconstruction to use federal troops to protect the rights of Black Southerners. Segregationist politicians definitely noticed the historic precedent being set by Ike’s intervention, & they tripped all over themselves to express their disapproval of it. According to Patterson, Senator Richard Russell (a Democrat from Georgia) compared the federal soldiers to (quote) “Hitler’s storm troopers.” The Lieutenant Governor of Alabama labelled the federal intervention in Little Rock as morally equivalent to the Japanese invasion at Pearl Harbor. But these dismayed Dixiecrats were ultimately helpless to stop a popular American president at the height of the Cold War from exercising his power to command US forces to respond to a domestic civil disturbance.


Despite the denunciations by some in the Deep South, the national reaction to Eisenhower’s intervention in Little Rock was mostly positive. Smith reports that a poll in late September 1957 found that over two-thirds of Americans (78% of those outside of the South) approved of the president’s decision to send federal troops to protect black students in Arkansas. The president received telegrams from prominent African-Americans, including Louis Armstrong & Jackie Robinson, who praised his intervention in Little Rock. Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith also deems Ike’s handling of the situation as worthy of acclaim, stating that he (quote) “took the most divisive issue to confront American society since the Civil War & moved it toward a solution with as little rancor as possible” (close quote). Smith notes that (quote) “Elements of the 101st Airborne remained in Little Rock until Thanksgiving & were gradually replaced with units from the Arkansas National Guard” under federal command, who remained stationed there for the rest of the academic year to protect the Little Rock 9. Eight of the nine black students successfully graduated from Central High School, & one of them, a young man named Ernest Green, went on to earn a graduate degree from Michigan State University & served as an Assistant Secretary of Labor under the Carter administration during the 70s.


Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned Eisenhower that the widely-circulated photographic & televised images in the news media documenting the Little Rock desegregation crisis had damaged America’s reputation abroad. Pictures of angry mobs of White Southerners engaged in a near-riot in reaction to the prospect of black teenagers receiving equal educational opportunities allowed Communist propagandists around the world to portray American pretenses of equitable democracy as nothing more than hypocrisy. Historian George C. Herring writes that Ike (quote) “concluded that the nation must effectively address its domestic [civil rights] issues to validate its claim to be leader of the free world” (close quote). After the resolution of the 1957 conflict in Little Rock, the US attempted to salvage its image in the Global South. Herring reports that during the final years of the Eisenhower Administration, the USA made a show of supporting a black Haitian candidate for president of the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The Eisenhower Administration’s diplomatic corps became more outspoken & enthusiastic about advocating for African countries hoping to gain complete independence from foreign colonial powers. The Americans also voted for the first time in favor of a UN resolution condemning the system of racial apartheid instituted by the white-dominated government of South Africa. It was a step toward supporting international racial equality, even if it smacked of hypocrisy & opportunism. The pressures of the Cold War were forcing US foreign policy to gradually bend in the direction of more egalitarian treatment of nations across the globe, instead of prioritizing relations with great European powers above all else.


Nevertheless, even after US troops ensured that the Little Rock 9 could complete their school year at Central High, the struggle for integration in Arkansas was just beginning. Despite the fact that Governor Faubus had been foiled by Ike’s federal intervention, the Razorback State’s electorate rewarded him for standing up to the so-called “Yankees.” Patterson recounts that Faubus (quote) “was enthusiastically re-elected in 1958 & for 3 more terms after that. In the 1958-59 school year he closed down all the [public high] schools in Little Rock” rather than see desegregation continue in his state’s capital city (close quote). According to historian John A. Kirk, just weeks later after Faubus made this move, the City of Little Rock’s electorate ratified the governor’s decision & (quote) “decided by a vote of 19,470 to 7,561 to keep its public high schools closed rather than desegregate them” (close quote). Kirk notes that there was one exception to the closure; the city kept its non-integrated high school football programs going, which (quote) “was apparently the single part of its educational services that the city felt it could not survive without.” During the 1958-59 school year, (quote) “white students . . . attended private segregated schools” or public schools in districts outside of Little Rock city limits. “With access to fewer resources, black students were hit the hardest” (close quote). They either took correspondence courses or received no education, because no private schools were available to African-Americans. It took a US District Court order in Summer 1959 to get the city’s desegregated public high schools back open & fully operational. Even then, some white students remained in private schools rather than return to integrated Little Rock public schools. 


Other Southern cities soon emulated the Arkansas tactic of shutting down schools rather than integrating. Although federal courts often stopped these efforts, such closures sped up the transition of many white students out of the public school system & into private schools, which was a phenomenon that the judiciary generally didn’t have the power to prevent. The confrontations of the late Fifties were only the first wave of a series of civil rights showdowns that would reach their height in the mid-Sixties. Southern Blacks were learning that once the national media spotlight was no longer focused upon their troubles, the segregationists were often able to reimpose the racist status quo. After the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott (see Episode 11) & the 1957 school integration in Little Rock, few other major strides toward integration occurred in the South for the remainder of the Fifties, in spite of the fact that years had passed since the Supreme Court had ordered the nation’s public schools to desegregate with (quote-unquote) “all deliberate speed.” Patterson argues that (quote) “By 1960, blacks were despairing about the chances for meaningful help from politicians & were resolving to take action themselves” (close quote). In the years that followed, direct grassroots protest by Southern Blacks would successfully put the issue of civil rights at the very center of American social & political debate. The saga of that struggle will play out over the course of several future episodes.


Make no mistake, the global struggle between the Capitalist Powers & the Communist Bloc caused tremendous anxiety, suffering, & bloodshed during the 20th Century. However, this episode has explored a different side of the Cold War. By the late 1950s, Cold War pressures led the US government to build major defense & infrastructure projects, to invest heavily in education & scientific research, & to undertake modest steps in the direction of greater racial equality. The nation’s priorities for allocating public investment during this period are sometimes criticized (with good reason). Still, the legislative & administrative achievements of the US government during this mid-20th Century period, which ranged from highway construction to higher education to space exploration, stand in stark contrast to the Congressional gridlock & governmental dysfunction that have become recurring problems in the 21st Century USA. During the late 50s & the early 60s, Americans had a growing sense of confidence & possibility about what their country could accomplish. Our next episode will explore a new ideological synthesis that was emerging out of the decline of both New Deal liberalism & Red Scare conservatism. During the late 1950s, a new combination of progressive optimism, centrist pragmatism, & crusading Anti-Communism would come to dominate the US political scene, a development that would culminate in the election of Democratic Party Cold Warrior John F. Kennedy to the White House. We will explore the origins & rise of this political trend toward Anti-Communist Liberalism next time, in the year 1958.



The "From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Written and narrated by Logan Rogers. Please subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform. If you are a social media user (& who isn’t these days, for better or worse?), you can follow us on Instagram & Twitter. Check out our Source Lists on our Patreon page, & while you’re there, please take an opportunity to support our show. Folks, we have somehow survived the year 2020. We hope all of our listeners remain careful & safe as long as this pandemic continues. Thankfully, the study of history teaches you that the world is always changing & that nothing lasts forever. There is plenty of reason for hope that 2021 will be a better year (although we’re not making any promises at this point!). We hope we’ve provided you with at least a few moments of education, entertainment, & escapism during the past few difficult months. All of us here at “From Boomers to Millennials” hope you had a very happy holiday season, & we’ll have much more modern US history for you here in 2021. Thanks as always for listening.