Text and Context in the 1952 Presidential Campaign: Eisenhower's "I Shall Go to Korea" Speech

By Medhurst, Martin J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Text and Context in the 1952 Presidential Campaign: Eisenhower's "I Shall Go to Korea" Speech


Medhurst, Martin J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


It is not often the case that a single speech is credited with exerting a decisive effect on a presidential election. But Dwight Eisenhower's address of October 24, 1952 is one such speech. Both the Republican strategists who crafted and approved the speech and the Democratic strategists who tried to respond to it have testified to the electric--and possibly definitive--effect that the announcement of Eisenhower's intention to visit the battlefield in Korea had on the electorate, particularly the large group of undecided voters (Hughes 1957; McKeever 1989, 244). Scholars, too, have pointed to the "I Shall Go to Korea" speech as "one of the most effective campaign speeches of modern times" (Donovan 1982, 401; Greene 1985, 219; Caridi, 1968, 234). Barton J. Bernstein (1971) represents a broad scholarly consensus when he argues that "the great impact of the speech rested upon the military prestige of the General, a man whom many believed could end the war' (pp. 3249-50; Alexander 1975; Ambrose 1983).

There can be little doubt that Eisenhower's personal ethos played a large role in voter response to the Republican campaign generally and the speech of October 24 in particular. However, to leave it at that is to miss much of the rhetorical dynamism that characterized the 1952 presidential campaign. It is my contention that the public reaction to Ike's speech of October 24 can best be understood by considering four interlocking contexts of discourse, contexts that formed a large portion of the conceptual, emotional, and interpretive schemata by which voters in 1952 understood and acted upon their world. These four contexts are (1) the discourse of cold war as it had been practiced from 1946 to 1952; (2) the discourse of foreign policy debate, especially as that debate concerned Asia; (3) the discourse of the Korean conflict as practiced from June 25, 1950 to 1952; and (4) the discourse of Dwight D. Eisenhower, formed from 1942 to 1952, but especially those aspects of the discourse revealed during the 1952 campaign and featuring an appeal to ethos. All four contexts inform the text of "I Shall Go to Korea" and together constitute the "mind" of the era--and therefore of the electorate--that found the speech so powerful. By examining the interrelationships between and among this single text and its contexts--rhetorical, historical, psychological, and ideological--I hope to illustrate how texts that may on first encounter appear discrete and self-contained should, in fact, be conceived as "sites" where contending discursive forces meet and in that meeting form rhetorical alloys that, by virtue of their combinations, possess more potency than any single element.

The Korean Conflict and Contextual Discourses

Korea was a hot war that broke out in the midst of the ongoing cold war. Indeed, the Korean conflict cannot be understood at all apart from the strategic dimensions that motivated American intervention. Richard Whelan (1990) puts the matter succinctly when he notes:

   In retrospect, we may say that the rescue of South Korea was not an end in
   itself. It was a means to an end, or rather to several ends: (1) to
   convince the Soviets that they didn't dare to make any further aggressive
   moves and (2) thus to prevent World War III; (3) to uphold America's
   prestige in the eyes of the entire world; (4) as Truman later put it, "to
   demonstrate to the world that the friendship of the United States is of
   inestimable value in time of adversity"; and (5) to squelch domestic, and
   specifically Republican, criticism of the Truman administration. To these
   ends must be added one more ...: to demonstrate the ability of the UN to
   halt aggression (not merely to denounce it) and thus to bolster the Western
   system of collective security. (Pp. 119-20)

Implicit in these goals were the perceptions of the enemy held by both Democrats and Republicans in cold war America: that the Soviet Union was an aggressive power that sought to conquer not only its neighbors but the entire world; that unless Soviet expansionism could be "contained," a third wood war was likely; that only America could lead the "free wood" against such Communist aggression; and that only a united "free world," gathered under the banner of collective security, could hope to prevail over the numerically superior armies of the Soviet Union and Red China (Halle 1967; Feis 1970; Gaddis 1972; Levering 1982; Gaddis 1987; Gaddis 1997). …

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