The Political Landscape of 1960
The 1950s had been a time of rest and renewal, and President Dwight Eisenhower, a World War II hero, was finishing up his eight years in office with solid popularity. The country may have projected a Father Knows Best public face, but behind closed doors traditional roles were resented and challenged. If Jack was to win the presidency in the 1960 election, he would have to overcome some major obstacles, including his youth and his religion.
Nobody embodied 1950s social and political conservatism more than President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, considered one of the most popular presidents in American history. He served two terms, from 1953 to 1961, and led America during a time of postwar economic prosperity. He was also the last president born in the nineteenth century.
Eisenhower rose to the rank of general during World War II, eventually overseeing the invasion of Italy. Although some in the military felt Eisenhower's strategies in Italy had been overly cautious, both Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt were impressed with Ike's ability to successfully command soldiers from different Allied countries. As a result, he was appointed to oversee the invasion of Europe.
Now known as D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe began on June 6, 1944, on the coast of Normandy, France. On the first day, 156,000 soldiers landed along a thirty-mile stretch of beach. Tens of thousands of Allied troops died, but the invasion gave the Allies a valuable foothold on the European mainland, which they used to push the Nazis back.
Less than a year after the Normandy invasion, Germany surrendered. Eisenhower retired in 1948 and was appointed president of Columbia University. Four years later he was recruited to be the Republican Party presidential candidate. Ike and his running mate, Richard Nixon, easily defeated Adlai Stevenson.
Eisenhower's election in 1953 coincided with a move toward conservatism. Jobs were plentiful and America was booming. Americans wanted the good times to keep rolling, and the prevailing mood was one of political and social conservatism. But with that came paranoia and suspicion against anyone who threatened the status quo. Eisenhower continued President Truman's Cold War policies. He fought against the spread of communism both in the United States and abroad.
Politicians warned that communism was a direct threat to American democracy. The “Red Menace” frightened people enough that they turned a blind eye when a rabidly anticommunist senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy trampled civil rights in his quest to ferret out communists.
THEY SAID …
“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down — they are truly down.”
— Senator Joseph McCarthy, United States Senate
Ambitious and eager to make a name for himself, McCarthy used America's fear of communism to promote his political goals. His assertions were the basis of ongoing hearings that in the end ruined countless lives and ultimately led to McCarthy's official censure. McCarthy was a Kennedy family friend and fellow Catholic. Jack had supported him in the early days of his anticommunist campaign, and he was slow to publicly oppose McCarthy. He was recuperating from back surgery when McCarthy was censured and did not vote on the resolution or declare his support for it.
Segregation was prevalent throughout the 1950s. In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education mandated integration, but segregation remained the rule if not the law in much of the country. The Eisenhower administration pledged it would support federal legislation outlawing lynching and poll taxes. Eisenhower also promised to work toward racial integration in the federal government and the armed forces.
THEY SAID …
“I personally believe if you try to go too far too fast in laws in this delicate field that has involved the emotions of so many Americans, you are making a mistake. I don't believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions.”
— President Dwight Eisenhower, in Abundance and Anxiety: America 1945–1960
Despite his stated agenda, Eisenhower was not a civil rights advocate, politically speaking. Foreign policy was most important to his administration, and to get his policies passed he needed the support of southern Democrats in Congress — who were mostly white segregationists. Kennedy himself did not have a strong record on civil rights in his congressional career, and gaining support from minorities was a challenge for his campaign.
Through the end of the 1950s, American religion was dominated by the major Protestant faiths. In the years following World War II, Americans returned to church in great numbers. Parents of the baby boomers — children born between 1946 and 1965 — had been profoundly affected by the carnage of the war and turned to religion to find comfort from and meaning in the horrors of genocide and atomic destruction. Families flocked to suburbia en masse to enjoy low crime rates, big lawns, and Sunday services. Religion and family became the focal points for Americans trying to regain their footing.
Although the Constitution guaranteed everyone the freedom of religion, America's Protestant heritage was so deeply entrenched that it was extremely difficult for Catholics and Jews to be accepted in high society or advance too far politically. It would take someone with extreme cunning, tireless ambition, and deep — almost limitless — financial pockets to break through. It would take someone like Joe Kennedy.