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Ike's Korean Shadow

It was a simple, solemn, powerful promise by America's top military hero of his time, made while a war raged half a world away and during a presidential campaign at home.

"I shall go to Korea," said Dwight Eisenhower in the closing days of the 1952 race for the White House.

By that point in the campaign, the general-turned-presidential hopeful was considered a cinch against Adlai Stevenson. That vow by the Allied mastermind behind the Normandy invasion capped Eisenhower's first victory at the ballot box. And Ike's win in '52 - the only presidential race of the Korean War - shaped the nation's Cold War politics for decades to come.

These days, foreign policy rarely registers on our national radar, but back then it was all headlines, all the time - and the Korean War was one of many. The Soviet Union got the Bomb. Eastern Europe fell under the Iron Curtain. Berlin escaped a similar fate thanks to a daring airlift. China went communist under Mao. Spy scandals: from Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and the Pumpkin Papers to the Rosenbergs. And don't forget Joe McCarthy, witch hunts, blacklists and loyalty oaths.

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In 1952, the Korean War was mired in military impasse. Democrats had held the White House for nearly 20 years, but their hold was slipping as the nation wearied of the war. Harry Truman was far from popular in the eyes of many Americans when the buck stopped in his Oval Office. The two-year-old war was regarded as his war. And Truman was reviled by some for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to expand the war into China and preached "no substitute for victory" - even if it meant going nuclear.

Stalemate in Korea gnawed at the Democrats' political fortunes on the domestic front. So after Truman announced he wouldn't run for another term in '52, what were the choices for Leader of the Free World? The Democrats settled upon Stevenson, the erudite, eloquent, egghead governor of Illinois. Yet not even he could talk his way out from under Truman's baggage, nor was he a match for the country's "I Like Ike" yearning.

Still, Eisenhower was not coronated as the Republican standard-bearer in a cakewalk. Internationalist Ike, the first commander of NATO, had to overcome Ohio Sen. Bob Taft, son of the former president and symbol of the GOP's isolationist old guard - the party's "Fortress America" wing. Ultimately, Eisenhower prevailed - and in a bid for unity and a nod to his party's right, he picked California Sen. Richard Nixon as his running mate.

In the '52 campaign, Candidate Eisenhower pledged to lead a "Great Crusade" against communism. But in the White House, President Eisenhower largely stuck with Truman's approach of containing communism, rather than rolling it back as the GOP right craved - and thus perhaps sparking a Third World War. So where did Ike succeed where Give 'Em Hell Harry failed? Personality was no doubt a factor: the feisty Truman was seen a too strident and polarizing, likeable Ike exuded soothing calm from above the fray.

The most decisive difference may have been the most partisan. As the nation's top Republican, Eisenhower used his leadership skills to check the GOP right on foreign policy (mostly behind the scenes) or symbolically appease it where Democrat Truman could not. Ike's popularity, his military record, and the truce that ended the Korean War soon after he took office enabled him to successfully claim the middle ground.

From Eisenhower in '52 until the Cold War's end, Republicans often had the edge over Democrats on defense and national security issues in presidential races. Stung by Korea, Democrats countered the GOP trump card with a "me too" toughness, later finding themselves in Vietnam. After that war splintered the Democrats, they sought contrast with the Republicans by touting détente, if not dovish skepticism - as well as criticizing the GOP as recklessly bellicose on defense and out to gut domestic social programs to pay for it.

Exceptions to that electoral rule occurred, of course. In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy, a charismatic war hero who outfoxed Eisenhower's number two over claims about a missile gap. Four years later, Barry Goldwater's shoot-from-the hip hawkishness scuttled his GOP bid for the White House. And in 1976, Gerald Ford was a Republican president under Bicentennial siege - battered by the backlash over Watergate and his pardon of Nixon, fending off a challenge by Ronald Reagan and anti-détente feeling on his party's right.

Eisenhower set a tone about the Cold War in domestic politics that reverberated through the fall of communism. His promise to go to Korea in '52 may not have won him the election or ended what's now called America's "Forgotten War." But Ike did keep that promise, something that hinted at things to come.