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HOME > ARTICLES > OCTOBER 2002

"I SHALL GO TO KOREA" -
IKE'S OCTOBER SURPRISE


by Ed Wyszynski

If Dwight D. Eisenhower's "I shall go to Korea" speech was not the first "October surprise" sprung in a presidential campaign, it certainly defined what an "October surprise" is, even 50 years later. With Adlai Stevenson chipping away at Eisenhower's lead all October, Ike's advisers were looking for a dramatic finish for the campaign. They found it in Ike's late October speech in Detroit, Michigan addressing the Korean War. By 1952, America had grown weary of the war, begun two years earlier in resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. America was frustrated when Red Chinese troops joined the battle, by Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, and with the continuing stalemate both on the battlefield and at the truce talks. Republican conservatives referred to the conflict as "Mr Truman's war."

In June, Eisenhower cautioned he had no plan for ending the war and warned against bombing the Chinese side of the Yalu River as advocated by MacArthur. Instead, Ike said, the United States should try for a "decent armistice." Ike's moderate position lulled Stevenson into believing there would be a bipartisan approach to the Korean War throughout the campaign. On September 22, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Eisenhower displayed a changing attitude toward the Korean war, declaring it the result of Truman's demobilization of the armed forces and his abandonment of China to the communists. He changed Truman with allowing the United States to become weak and announcing to the world America had written off the Far East. Stevenson and his advisers knew Ike's Cincinnati speech required a response and decided to do so in Louisville, Kentucky on September 27.

Stevenson discussed with his advisers his idea of going to Korea and then on to Japan and India after the election. The plan was not mentioned in the speech, however, because they feared it would be seen as a blatant attempt to win votes. Stevenson's speech would be a refutation of Eisenhower's speech and a broad outline of Stevenson's plan for containing communism. According to Stevenson biographer Porter McKeever, the basic weakness of Stevenson's position was evidenced in the final words of his speech.

I promise no easy solutions, no relief from burdens and anxieties, for to do this would be not only dishonest, it would be to attack the foundations of our greatness. I can offer something infinitely better: an opportunity to work and sacrifice that freedom may flourish.

As October wore on, it became clear to Eisenhower's advisers they needed a dramatic finish for the campaign. Eisenhower speech speech writer Emmet J. Hughes advised it had to be something late enough in the campaign to guarantee a high level of popular attention but not so late it would be seen as a last minute attempt to win votes. It was decided Ike would deliver a major speech on the Korean War in Detroit, Michigan on Friday, October 24. Hughes's draft speech, which contained the dramatic pledge to go to Korea if elected, was read to Eisenhower in a Buffalo, New York hotel room by C. D. Jackson some 24-hours before he was to give it. Stretched out on a bed after a long day of campaigning, Eisenhower approved of the speech as written. Eisenhower arrived in Detroit shortly after noon on Friday, October 24. His motorcade made its way to the Statler Hotel where he spent the afternoon resting, along with his wife, Mamie, his mother-in-law, and top political advisers. Eisenhower's speech was scheduled for 9:00 pm that evening at the Masonic Temple and would be broadcast nationally over CBS Local Republican leaders, convinced the 5,000-seat auditorium would not seat everyone who would want to hear Eisenhower that evening, made arrangements to handle the over-flow in Cass Park across the street from the Masonic Temple. Loudspeakers were set up in the park and an appearance by Eisenhower, on a second-floor balcony of the Masonic Temple, was planned for after the speech. Floodlights were trained on the balcony in anticipation of Ike's appearance. Some 10,000 people turned out - - 5,000 people jammed the auditorium, while another 5,000 or so supporters filled the park across the street. According to The Detroit News the following day, enthusiasm for Ike was evident that evening, with most in the crowd wearing Ike buttons, waving small American flags, and loudly chanting "We Like Ike." Ike's speech on Korea was greatly anticipated and the crowd would not to be disappointed.

Inside the auditorium, Eisenhower blasted the Truman Administration. He termed the Korean War a result of the "collapse of our political defense," a collapse he blamed on President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Eisenhower promised one of the first jobs of his administration would be to bring an end to the fighting in Korea. He said:

Where will a new administration begin? It will begin with its President taking a simple, firm resolution. That resolution will be: to forego the diversions of politics and to concentrate on the job of ending the Korean War- -until that job is honorably done. That job requires a personal trip to Korea. I shall make that trip. Only in that way could I learn how best to serve the American People in the cause of peace. I shall go to Korea!

The pledge had the electrifying effect Eisenhower's advisers sought. According to The Detroit Free Press, thunderous applause both inside and outside the Masonic Temple greeted Ike's pledge. Stevenson advisor Colonel Jacob Avery, listening to the speech at home on his radio, turned to his wife and said, "That's the speech that will beat us." An Associated Press political reporter, hearing the speech, packed up his typewriter and left the campaign train, declaring the campaign was all over.

The pledge, according to Piers Brendon, in Ike: His life & Times, was wonderfully ambiguous, allowing Eisenhower to use his reputation and prestige to win votes while also maintaining his flexibility:

It suggested a reversal of Ike's earlier position, which was that he had no easy answer to the Korean conflict. The pledge smacked of action but committed Ike to nothing more than making the journey. It implied to hawks he would win the war and to doves he could end it. It reminded voters of Ike's paradoxical military record, the soldier of democracy, the crusader for peace...

The opposition was at a loss on how to respond. Stevenson quipped if were elected, he would go to the White House. His quip missed the mark and as Brendon writes, "merely seemed to underline his lack of gravitas." President Truman assailed Eisenhower, charging he was conducting "one of the lowest gutter campaigns I have ever seen" and said if Ike really wanted peace, he should go to Moscow. The voters responded by giving Ike a resounding victory on Election Day. President Truman felt Ike's campaign was hypocritical, attacking as he did the foreign policy he had helped to create and execute in his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The day after the election, Truman sent Eisenhower a frosty telegram, inviting him to the White House for a meeting on the transition and snidely offering Ike use of the presidential plane for his trip to Korea, "if you still want to go."

On November 29, 1952, Eisenhower left for korea in great secrecy, taking off from Mitchell Field, Long Island and Landing at a little-used airfield outside Seoul three days later. During his time in Korea, Ike conferred with Generals Mark Clark and James a Van Fleet. He inspected military units and installations within a few miles of the front, even flying on a reconnaissance mission. He lunched in the snow with ordinary GIs and studies an artillery duel with his binoculars.

Eisenhower concluded the situation in Korea was intolerable, which reinforced his instinctive belief the war had to end as quickly as possible on the best terms he could get. As he flew home on December 5, Douglas MacArthur, speaking in New York City to a meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers, said he had a definite and clear plan to end the war but when pressed by reporters said he could reveal the plan only to the President-elect.

Going against his advisers, Eisenhower said on December 9 he would be happy to the meet with MacArthur. MacArthur, responding, said he was thankful Ike was willing to do so since "despite my intimate personal and professional concern therewith," this was the first time anyone expressed the slightest official interest in what he had to say. Upon reading this exchange, Truman was livid. He issued a statement saying that if MacArthur had a plan to end the war, he should tell the President at once. In a press conference the next day, Truman called Eisenhower's Korean trip, a "piece of demagoguery." Eisenhower was infuriated by Truman's remark and the two were never on speaking terms again. At 9:30 pm on July 26, 1953, Eisenhower was notified an armistice agreement had been signed, bringing the Korean War to an end. Eisenhower considered it one of his greatest achievements. As Eisenhower biographer Stephen E. Ambrose writes in Eisenhower: The President:

[Eisenhower] took great pride in [the armistice agreement]. He had promised to go to Korea; he had implied that he would bring the war to a close; he made the trip, despite intense opposition from his own party, from his Secretary of State, and from [South Korean President] Syngman Rhee, he had ended the war six months after taking office.

Fifty years later, it is clear the outcome of the 1952 campaign was never really in doubt. The "October surprise" sprung by Ike on October 24 certainly provided the dramatic ending his advisers sought. Not only was it one of the most memorable highlights of the 1952 campaign, it is easily one of the most memorable highlights of presidential campaigns in general

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