It’s really something to watch it today, with its constant appeals to peace, and to grasp that a Republican president was appealing to the public to vote for him as a more certain guarantor of keeping America out of war. One reason the old general could do this was that an enormous number of American men (and, by extension, their families) had lived through the horrors of World War II and Korea, and knew how precious peace was. I wonder how different our politics would be if a draft had caused a large number of Americans to have to serve in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, instead of our volunteer army.
Me: I think that’s all correct and perceptive. But it also leaves out an important piece of the story. Another reason why Ike could run an ad like this (besides his staggering immunity to the charge that he was soft on national defense) is that the Democrats had been throughout the first half of the 20th century the war party. World War One, World War II, and the Korean war were all launched by Democrats. It’s forgotten now that FDR was widely seen as moving America toward war long before Pearl Harbor. And the New Dealers from the beginning invoked the Wilsonian war machine as their model. People remembered that stuff a lot more clearly in 1956, because Democratic presidents had sent voting age men, or their fathers to wars all their lives. To be sure, some Republicans were bellicose too (starting with T.R.), but the Democrats had earned a rep, fair or not, for getting America into wars. This was a small part of the backdrop for Bob Dole’s famous gaffe about “Democrat wars” in the vice presidential debate in 1976, because Dole was part of that generation.
It’s also part of the long narrative of how the GOP can’t win. When it’s reluctant to join international crusades, liberals call it isolationist. And when it’s hawkish, they cry warmonger.