Eisenhower, King Utopus, and the Fifties Decade in America. (Articles)

By Abbott, Philip | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Eisenhower, King Utopus, and the Fifties Decade in America. (Articles)


Abbott, Philip, Presidential Studies Quarterly


William Connolly (1993) once wrote that the basic concepts of political philosophy can be described as "essentially contested." He noted that a contested concept emerges when the concept is appraisive and internally complex and when its rules of application are relatively open. Thus, Connolly concluded that concepts such as "equality," "freedom," and "justice" invite a variety of contending formulations and applications. Similarly, I plan to argue that a recent decade in America functions in the same manner. In fact, in taking the fifties as an example, I also hope to show that as a contested concept, the disagreements about the normative character of the decade are so starkly drawn that the fifties seem to mimic all the qualities of utopian discourse. As such, assessments of the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower appear, admittedly in a secluded fashion, to parallel assessments of King Utopus, the founder of Utopia in Thomas More's 1516 work, as well as other founding figures in utopian fiction. Of course, Eisenhower was not a utopian founder; nor was his career identical to that of the fictional King Utopus. Nor were the fifties a utopia or even its fictional structural counterpart, a dystopia. Nevertheless, we can, I think, profitably understand the differences and fluctuations in assessments of the Eisenhower presidency by utilizing this utopian format, examining contested assessments of the fifties in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties as if they were offered by utopian or dystopian guides who accept or reject Eisenhower as a utopian founder. Of course, not all decades are cast in utopian/dystopian formats, but the case of Eisenhower illustrates the cultural complexity of assessments of presidential leadership. (1)

The Reign of President Eisenhower

Political discourse about the fifties includes two distinct and opposite appraisive images. First, there was a sense of exuberance and search for perfection, then later a longing or regret about the decade corresponding to what Lyman Sargent (1994), in his analysis of utopian thought, called "social dreaming." Nevertheless, to many commentators, a specter haunted the fifties and was also magnified in the sixties and beyond. Perhaps, critics have suggested, the fifties were not a utopia at all but its opposite, a dystopia: a time when scoundrels ruled and the peace was maintained by demands for silence and conformity.

This utopian/dystopian pairing of the fifties can be understood more fully by examining features of the concept of utopia itself. Students of the genre disagree about definition. (2) For our purposes, let us grant variations and employ one recent definition that tells us that "utopia is about how we would live and what kind of a world we would live in if we could do just that" (Levitas 1990, 1). Were the fifties a world that we would live in if we could? Many commentators in the fifties and in other decades made such claims. To William L. O'Neill, for example, the fifties were a "golden age" that "we would give almost anything for if only they could be recovered" (1995, 101, 104). Or, if utopia is a world we would live in if we could, then dystopia is a world we would least like to live in. Many commentators of the fifties and later made such claims as well. Norman Mailer concluded, for example, that the fifties were "one of the worst decades in the history of man"; and Eric Goldman described them as "the dullest and dreariest in all our history." (3)

Why do disagreements about the fifties assume these features of utopian/dystopian narration? One answer, which I shall review, involves the representation of the fifties as a life of stability. Stability suggests permanence, tranquility, peace, and order-qualities that the thirties, forties, and sixties notoriously lacked. But just as stability denotes so many good and desired things, it also provokes consideration of the opposite states of stagnation, repression, and conformity.

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