Ira Chernus  


Eisenhower: Faith and Fear in the Fifties

Ira Chernus


The decade of the 1950s holds a privileged, even mythic, status in recent United States history. In public memory it is the time of the "American High," with widespread prosperity, unprecedented world power, and stable family values undergirded by a great religious revival. It is the era against which all later times are measured—and, most often, found wanting. Recent studies tend to stress not the gap between that decade and its successors but the continuity; many of the tensions that would erupt later are now found to have roots in the ‘50s. Yet the popular image of "Happy Days" shows no signs of disappearing very soon. Precisely because it remains a touchstone of public discourse and a yardstick of U.S. life in so many respects, and because the interpretation of the decade remains so contentious, the ‘50s remains worthy of careful attention.

Robert Wuthnow has recently focused attention on one salient fact about the ‘50s: its spirituality was dominated by imagery of place, home, and dwelling. This fact helps to explain the enduring power of the ‘50s myth. "Images of a safe, secure spiritual dwelling have continued to inspire nostalgia," especially among those who grew up in the ‘50s, Wuthnow asserts. They "lament the breakdown of the family, worrying that life has become too complicated and expressing a desire to ‘go back home again.’" The "home" of the ‘50s might mean not only the family home and the home town, but the local church, attended by record numbers of Americans. "Home" could also mean the entire nation. Most Americans viewed their nation as "sacred space, a place in which spirituality and identity were forged together." A perceived decline in the power of nation and religion as well as family helps to keep the ‘50s myth alive and well today.

If the nation seemed like a vast home to many, the national paterfamilias was the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. For his fellow citizens and for later historians, Eisenhower was the symbolic figurehead of the religious revival of the 1950s. This was no accident. He consciously intended to spark a revival. While campaigning for president in 1952, he told a friend, "The farther I proceed in political life, the more I believe that I should have striven to be worthy of the pulpit as an avenue of public service instead of the political podium." Not long before, he had written that "the poor old world needs a new Moses.…He must be civilian and he must be legion—he must speak to each of the countries, every day of every year—he must be the product of American leadership." Eisenhower ran for president hoping to become a Moses in the White House.

To anyone who remembers Eisenhower as president, that image may be amusing at best. After all, as he prepared to assume the presidency, he pronounced the words that made him famous to students of U.S. religion: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is." Historians of religion have often used these words to highlight the unique quality of the 1950s religious revival, its so-called "faith in faith." Some have criticized the words as the epitome of a shallow and empty religiosity. Journalist William Lee Miller wrote at the time that Eisenhower seemed to present religion as something effortless, making no demands upon people and creating no complications in their lives. In his rhetoric, both the means and the ends of faith conjured up reassuring images of a life of endless ease. Many scholars have since agreed with his evaluation. Eisenhower seems an appropriate symbol of the religious revival of the era that bears his name. He was apparently (in a famous phrase of the day) the bland leading the bland.

The millions who admired and voted for Eisenhower found his bland persona more reassuring than troubling. His apparent sense of certainty, with no need for self-questioning, seemed proof that the nation was a place in which all could be at home. As Wuthnow writes, "Being at home means having the answers before one has questions." Home mitigates against introspection because "true homes are places where no acute division exists between the private, inner self and the self that acts and is on display to others." Of course Eisenhower also inspired confidence as the great war hero who had defeated Nazism and saved democracy. When a 1954 Gallup Poll asked people to account for the religious revival, most cited a general feeling of uncertainty and fear of the future, particularly fears of war with the Communists and the atom bomb, along with memories of World War II. For many, family home, church, and nation became homologous loci of spiritual strength and places of refuge against these perceived threats. The president's combination of spiritual and military fervor seemed to make him a uniquely powerful guardian of the national home.

There are two things wrong with this picture, however. First, since the late 1970s, revisionist political historians have created a very different picture of Eisenhower. The history books now present him as a canny knowledgeable leader who skillfully created the image of a bemused, inept, but kindly national grandfather because it served his political purposes. In 1981, religion scholar Patrick Henry gave the famous saying about faith a revisionist interpretation too. He suggested that it deserved to be taken seriously because it "made, in rather unpolished language, a point that many very sophisticated people would want to make: namely, that there are deep religious roots of democracy." The president-elect did indeed want to make this point. And he had a surprisingly well-developed understanding of the relation between religion and democracy. That understanding holds the key to his notion of faith.

Understanding the meanings of religion, faith, and democracy in Eisenhower's discourse leads to a second crucial corrective in the received picture. Although he presented himself as the nation’s guardian against threats to the security of the homeland, he bore a primary responsibility for provoking and promoting the very sense of threat he was supposed to allay. The intimate link between faith and fear in Eisenhower’s discourse holds a key to understanding the spirituality of home and dwelling so central to his era.


It was self-evident to Eisenhower that all religions shared the same essential truth. He assumed that truth is the same everywhere, so whatever element of truth is contained in one religion must be the same truth found in any other religion. The differences among religions are merely different ways of expressing the same core of truth. Hence it was perfectly reasonable to say, "and I don’t care what it is." Any particular religion could serve democratic government, as long as it contained the genuine essence of true faith.

What was that true essence? Eisenhower’s answer appears in the myriad private letters and public statements he produced throughout the 1940s and early ‘50s. (And there was surprising congruence between his public and private words.) Whatever subject he addressed, his words always pointed back to a fundamental perception of human nature and human life: "Selfishness and cupidity will never be wholly eradicated from within us"; "None of us...can escape his responsibility for understanding that within him is a certain amount of greed, a certain amount of selfishness, a certain amount of prejudice. Those things are not going to be eradicated from our breasts within our time…" Eisenhower had inherited his premise of innate selfishness from generations of his Christian ancestors who had taken for granted some form of belief in original sin. But he did not accept the solution they took for granted: God’s grace given through Jesus Christ. His answer to greed and selfishness was rather more Pelagian: "We can find ways to control them, to turn them to practical use, so we can get along together." This effort to get along together was crucial, because without it, the darker side of human nature would turn society into a chaos of all against all. The effort to get along and stave off chaos was the sphere and the purpose of political life.

There was only one great question in Eisenhower's worldview, which was the essence of religious as well as political life: Would the effort to get along be undertaken voluntarily? Would the selfish impulse be restrained voluntarily individual effort? If not, the social chaos produced by selfishness would have to be restrained by some external force. He allowed no third possibility. Eisenhower had some hope that education and rationality would teach people to control themselves. But his view of human nature imposed limits to the power of reason. Ultimately, he believed, only religious faith could supply the power needed for continuing self-restraint. He was enough of a pragmatist to ignore the questions of where faith came from and how it functioned; that was the province of religious professionals. He cared only about faith’s vital societal function. So in Eisenhower's discourse the purpose of faith became its defining characteristic. It was simply the power of voluntary self-control. He assumed that every religion was devoted primarily to encouraging people to choose self-restraint and supporting them in their voluntary effort. All were merely different roads to that same mountaintop.

He assumed, too, that democracy had the same goal. The essence of freedom, as he defined it, was the freedom to restrain voluntarily one's own selfishness. Equality meant, above all, equal opportunity for self-restraint. God, who created us all, intended us all to have that equal opportunity. Democracy was the best political system because it guaranteed freedom and equality. Democracy’s antithesis, totalitarianism, was odious because it imposed control by external force and deprived individuals of the freedom to control themselves. But totalitarianism inevitably triggered rebellions that created the very chaos the dictators wanted to prevent. Democracy was therefore the only effective way to restrain the forces of selfishness and chaos. "The essence of the democratic method, the antithesis of regimented compulsion" was to bring "the discordant wills of many men into an effective union of strength, preserving them from dissolution into a futile mob." Thus democracy performed the same function as religion. So there was no way to separate religion from politics.

Eisenhower first articulated this idea in a wartime letter to his wife, where he reflected on what the postwar world would bring:

Just as the [First] World War brought in an era of almost hysterical change and restlessness, so will this one bring about revolutions in our customs, laws and economic processes. If we could hope for a greater mass discipline—self-imposed—there would be cause for rejoicing; the danger is that special economic, industrial or social groups will apply pressures that will either be disruptive or might force, for a time at least, the adoption of some form of dictatorship in our democracies. Either outcome would be tragic.…It looks as if we must face a long struggle.

Since selfishness had to be restrained, either voluntarily or by force, every society had to be either democratic or totalitarian, "governed by justice or enslaved by force." Again, there was no third option. This dualism grew directly from the another important element of his ancestors’ religiosity: the apocalyptic tradition. Under its influence, he saw history as an uncompromising war between the selfish and the self-controlled, "a long struggle" that would have to be fought to the bitter end. However this entangled him (quite unwittingly) in theological contradiction. Apocalypticism prophesied that historical tensions themselves would ultimately produce a climactic battle that would put an end to history and to the effects of sin. Eisenhower, on the other hand, assumed that selfishness was not produced by historical circumstances; thus it could not be ended by historical processes. The implacable enemy would always be there, and the battle would have to rage on without compromise, forever. So he defined society’s problems in apocalyptic terms, yet he ruled out a priori any apocalyptic solutions.

When he entered the White House in 1953, Eisenhower was convinced that the nation was threatened by three kinds of problems, all of apocalyptic magnitude. It was threatened from the outside by communism and from the inside by excessive government spending. Either one might eventually lead to war. In his discourse, communism, financial instability, and war were three facets of a single apocalyptic threat. And the root of that threat was the ineradicable selfishness of every human being. When he read a letter written in 1823, which complained that "the world is bursting with sin and sorrow," he was "sad to realize the world hasn't changed a bit since 1823. Nor apparently have its inhabitants." He lamented to an aide: "We try to talk so much about the moral purposes we believe in. But it is discouraging when everyone wants to receive so much and give so little." A few months after he took office, he mused in his private diary that

the principal contradiction in the whole [American] system comes about because of the inability of men to forego immediate gain for a long time good.…We do not yet have a sufficient number of people who are ready to make the immediate sacrifice in favor of a long-term investment.…The danger is very real and very great that even the so-called enlightened areas of Western Europe, Britain, United States, and the other English-speaking people will, by stubborn adherence to the purpose of achieving maximum immediate gain, actually commit suicide.

There was one escape from suicide. If "men and nations" could give "the long-term good of all" as much consideration as immediate selfish gain, "we could laugh at all the other so-called 'contradictions' in our system, and we could be so secure against the Communist menace that it would gradually dry up and wither away." The really vital question of cold war policy was how to transform the souls of "free men." The conclusion of his diary entry suggested that he meant more than just manipulating public opinion: "Even if the free government were not originally based upon some form of deeply felt religious faith, then men should attempt to devise a religion that stresses the qualities of unselfishness, cooperation, and equality of men."

apocalypse management and nuclear fear

Eisenhower wanted his presidency to be a great crusade on behalf of the religion of unselfishness. He wanted every American to battle this root of apocalyptic chaos. But his own ideology allowed no prospect of final victory, since the threat was rooted in the eternal facts of human nature. Moreover he understood that a war against the external enemy would be self-defeating, since it would undermine the democracy and capitalism it would be fought to preserve. The stalemate in Korea, which Eisenhower had pledged to conclude, was clear evidence that apocalyptic victory was no longer an option. The enemy might well be there forever. "I don’t know—whether it’s 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, or what," he told journalists; "The free world is picking up a burden that it may have to carry on indefinitely." And in a formal message to Congress he spoke of the need to contain communism for an "indefinite future." Eisenhower and his advisors rejected the administration’s planning for a "year of maximum danger." They insisted on planning to wage cold war for what they called "the long haul."

Since no victory was possible, the best to hope for was containment over the long haul. As Stanley Hoffman has said, the Eisenhower era "turned containment into routine." According to Robert Divine, this attitude made the cold war "a problem to be managed, not an all-consuming crusade against the forces of evil." The government's job was no longer to eliminate, but only to manage, crises and threats. But the problem the president aimed to manage was ultimately the threat of civilization engulfed in chaos. He was still intent on fighting an all-consuming crusade against this chaos. He had renounced only the crusader's means—a single climactic battle—but not the crusader's language. Apocalypse was the problem that had to be managed in perpetuity. The government's role and purpose, as Eisenhower saw them, can best be called "apocalypse management."

Apocalypse management might require occasional confrontations with communist states, pushing the world to the brink of war. But diplomatic and military "brinkmanship" was only one tactic in the larger strategy of apocalypse management, because the communist threat was only one part of the much larger triple-faceted threat. Eisenhower's strategy required perpetual containment not only of communism but of every danger to the nation. The best to hope for was to protect the U.S. and "the American way of life" against an ever-changing world by imposing a U.S. - dominated regime of global stability. The only way to guarantee stability, it seemed, was to manage every form of apocalyptic threat in perpetuity. His policies were all designed to achieve that goal. He asked the nation to trust that he and his advisors could arrange such a perfect rational balance of threatening forces that they could all be safely managed. If they succeeded, they could make brinkmanship a thing of the past; apocalypse management would continue without ever having to go to the brink.

Eisenhower's rhetoric was meant to rally public support for cold war policies aimed at this lofty goal. Yet he feared that natural selfishness could easily persuade most people to forget about their obligation to society. And by 1953 the McCarthyite right wing was redirecting public fear away from the Soviet Union and its nuclear weapons, toward the danger of internal communist subversion. Reporting on an atomic test in Nevada, Life magazine said that "the audience was disappointed." The bomb was only "something between a heavy hand grenade and an artillery shell.…The bloom is off infinity’s rose."

So Eisenhower took it as his responsibility not to reduce but to heighten the public’s fear of the Soviets and their threat of nuclear war. He warned the nation to prepare to deal with that danger for the long haul. The U.S. would have to "hope and work for the best, but arm and be ready for the worst…for an indefinite period of time.…Our danger cannot be fixed or confined to one specific instant. We live in an age of peril." He told the speechwriter who penned these words: "This phrase of not an instant but an age of peril—I like that fine."

Eisenhower's aides spent the first months of his administration developing a campaign to spread the alarm. They called it Operation Candor. James Lambie, who headed the project, wanted to teach the public to accept "the new and to all intents permanent normalcy" of "an age of peril…the fight for freedom or the struggle for existence (call it what you will)." "Candidness is a mere tool," Lambie told Eisenhower's chief of staff Sherman Adams, "not going to the essence of the operation, which I believe to be largely inspirational." Adams agreed; he called the project "fiber-toughening for the long pull." At times, the president himself suggested a more mundane purpose. He told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "If we are to attempt real revision in policies--some of which may temporarily, or even for a very extended time, involve us in vastly increased expenditures--…all of these people would have to understand that increased military preparation had been forced upon us because every honest peaceful gesture or offer of our own had been summarily rejected by the Communists." In other words, if the public were sufficiently afraid of communist aggression and belligerence, it would pay the higher taxes needed for higher military budgets.

Yet Eisenhower shared Lambie’s enthusiasm for inspiration. When science advisor Vannevar Bush suggested scaring the public to raise defense spending, the president responded that the nation's greatest weapon was its "spiritual strength." In Eisenhower's vocabulary spiritual strength was equivalent to the faith that fostered self-discipline. As a general, he had taken his highest obligation to be generating that spiritual strength among his troops. A good general told his soldiers candidly the true extent of the dangers they faced, but then inspired them to obey orders and make courageous self-sacrifices in the service of their unit. In the nuclear age, all citizens were on the front line. A leader's task was to find precisely the right words to render them obedient to the common need in a time of continuing emergency. Now that he was president, the entire nation had become his troops. He had to speak the right words of fear and sacrifice.

The outcome of Operation Candor was Eisenhower's famous "Atoms for Peace" address, in December, 1953. He proposed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union should cooperate by sharing a certain amount of their fissile material in a pool to be used for atomic power plants. Before the speech got around to making that proposal, though, it offered the most chilling picture yet given by a U.S. official of the dangers of nuclear weapons. "Atomic weapons have virtually achieved conventional status within our armed services," the president announced. But the cold war enemy would soon reach the same capability, and the U.S. would be defenseless against a devastating attack. If not checked, the nuclear arms race would leave "two atomic colossi doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world." This would bring "the probability of civilization destroyed, the annihilation of the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us from generation to generation." Eisenhower claimed that "Atoms for Peace" would be a way out of this "dark chamber of horrors." In fact, he knew that the plan was framed with so much U.S. advantage that the Soviets were likely to reject it. Its real purpose was to be able to offer this frightening picture of the nuclear age while creating a public relations image of peaceful U.S. intent.

During his second year in office Eisenhower continued to use public rhetoric to evoke fear of the Soviets and the bomb. He told a press conference in March, "You know, the world is suffering from a multiplicity of fears." "What would you do if you suddenly were facing a gigantic Pearl Harbor?" he asked the assembled reporters, adding: "This thing isn't academic." Two weeks later, the reporters and the nation learned what he meant. With the president by his side, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss announced the results of the first series of hydrogen bomb tests. Responding to a question about the power of this new weapon, Strauss said it could be made "as large as you wish, large enough to take out any city." "Any city? New York?" asked a startled reporter. "The metropolitan area, yes," Strauss responded. This revelation, and accompanying explanations of the dangers of radioactive fallout, sparked a new wave of nuclear fear throughout the nation (and indeed throughout the world).

Yet Eisenhower did not make any major effort to downplay the rising nuclear fear. On the contrary, he seemed to encourage it. Just a week later, he told his next press conference, "I don't know whether the scientists would place any limit [on the power of nuclear explosions]; and, therefore, you hear these remarks about 'blow-out,' which, I think, is even blowing a hole through the entire atmosphere." In speeches and press conferences he said things like, "Our Nation today is not truly tranquil. We, her people, face a grave danger"; "This horrible cloud of threatened destruction hangs over the world." There was always the possibility, he warned, that the Soviet leaders might launch a nuclear attack "in a fit of madness." And he claimed that the understandable desire to avoid the peril was itself the greatest peril: "What I fear more than anything else in this time, is a failure to look this danger in, you might say, its broad face.…We don't know, this may last 40 years. Now, what we must design is such a program of defense in the military field that our country can stand the strain and live under a representative form of government for years and years," while still waging cold war and arming itself with an ever-expanding nuclear arsenal. Occasionally Eisenhower reprised the hope for peace he had voiced so eloquently in the "Atoms for Peace" speech. But he was much more likely to warn that "a completely trustworthy peace, one in which we could have confidence as between ourselves and the communist world today, seems to be something over the horizon."

The president's rhetoric never aimed to calm fear. Neither, though did he want to provoke excessive, uncontrolled fear (which he referred to as "hysteria," and blamed on his political foes of the McCarthyite right.) In a nationally broadcast speech devoted specifically to growing public fear, he admitted that "sometimes you feel almost that we can be excused for getting a little hysterical." Yet he admonished: "We do not have to be hysterical. We can be vigilant. We can be Americans." To be American meant to be afraid yet voluntarily keep that emotion under control. Any uncontrolled emotion, he believed, could contribute to the breakdown of order and trigger apocalyptic disaster. Restraint was still his goal. So he attempted to evoke just the right amount of fear—to manage this volatile public emotion and bring it under tighter control—and proclaim it essential to "the American way."

Officiating at countless ritual celebrations of the American way of life, Eisenhower pursued this goal with a two-stage strategy. First, he placed the fears of his people in a larger rhetorical context that went beyond nuclear weapons. He compared modern life to "living in a squirrel cage…and we can't get out. All sorts of things bother us: the terrible power of destructive weapons, the uncontrolled ruthlessness of unbridled ambition, the wonder whether democratic forms…can possibly hold their own." The dangers, he explained, came from "a world of ideological division, competitive rivalry, turbulent crisis in one place and political upheaval in another." In the broadcast "fear" speech, he lamented, "We see threats coming from all angles—internal and external, and we wonder what is going to happen to us." As he linked this lament to the recent nuclear tests, he made his strategy quite plain: "Now the H-bomb—the H-bomb and the Atomic Age, they are not in themselves a great threat to us." The hydrogen bomb was merely "a dramatic symbol" of the rapid technological change that had "outraced our social consciousness." That lag in understanding was the real source of anxiety.

The effort to portray the H-bomb as only a symbol of copious fears was one way to minimize fear of the bomb itself. If successful, it would certainly aid the administration's goal of breaking the tabu on nuclear weapons. But it was more than just a cynical rhetorical ploy. Eisenhower habitually saw many dangers besetting the nation. And just as habitually he saw them as interwoven strands of the single danger of selfishness. He was also genuinely frightened by the rapidity of change. The real problem of social consciousness was that excessive change allowed selfish interests to flourish with no corresponding increase in public commitment to voluntary self-control. So the problems of rapid change and growing fear were, in Eisenhower's ideology, essentially two more facets of the same enduring spiritual problem.

The answer to this spiritual problem, according to the president's ideology, was voluntary self-restraint, the spiritual virtue of faith. The stability he sought was the political expression of the ultimate fruit of faith—restraint of the historical changes wrought by human desire. It was quite logical, then, to admit the immensity of the dangers and then exhort the audience to confront those dangers with the power of faith. This was the second stage of the rhetorical strategy he adopted in response to the H-bomb news: offering faith as the antidote to fear.

"the power that is concentrated in the faith we have"

"If there is no religious faith whatsoever, then there is little defense you can make of a free system," the president declared. The most crucial faith was "faith in the destiny of America." Americans had "always reserved their first allegiance to the kingdom of the spirit.…So long as we seek favor in sight of the Almighty, there is no end to America's forward road; there is no obstacle on it she will not surmount." He asked the nation to take seriously the biblical dictum that with faith all things are possible: "America is great and is powerful, and it can do anything when we are united among ourselves.…United, Americans can conquer the atom bomb and hydrogen bomb, or anything else in this world to which they set their minds and their hearts." "We must, of course, prevent ourselves always from overexaggerating danger, just as we refuse to become complacent because of our historical position of geographic isolation. We do look at them seriously.…But I am certain also that America does not forget.…The great problem is to meet the difficulty in time, so that it does not become a major catastrophe." Having raised apocalyptic fears, he had to offer infinite power to set the public at ease. Only an infinitely powerful nation, he implied, could contain the threat of an infinitely powerful weapon.

He insisted that religious faith meant the same thing for everyone: "In our fundamental faith, we are all one." "Free peoples…are all moved by the same human aspirations, the same general purposes." Since U.S. values were universal, it was up to the U.S. to save not only itself but the whole world from catastrophe: "In our own endurance and vision rests the future of civilization and of all moral and spiritual values."

Eisenhower was calling on the nation and the world to live by his own definitions of faith, of reasonable versus excessive fears, and of controllable versus uncontrollable dangers. Both the foreign communist enemy and the domestic McCarthyite enemy were placed squarely in the camp of uncontrollable excess. The word faith became a linguistic representation of the values of rationality, predictability, and control. It meant self-discipline, articulating yet controlling or suppressing one's fear, cultivating just the right amount of fear. It became a symbol for a utopian vision of an omnipotence that would contain every threat. Only the faith and spiritual virtue of self-controlled anxiety could manage the apocalyptic peril in perpetuity. The H-bomb, on the other hand, posed no necessary danger, as long as it was wielded by the faithful. This was the religio-political reasoning that Eisenhower wanted all to embrace. Such a shared discourse, he implied, was the essential content of faith and the prerequisite to living securely in the face of a permanent threat of disaster, without losing control.

This universalizing religious framework formed the context for the president's public commitment to peace. In his broadcast "fear" speech, he proclaimed spiritual values the key to "the one great aspiration of America…a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.…It is up to us to lead this world to a peaceful and secure existence." "Your government is devoted to one thing, and one thing only, a fair and just peace for all mankind.…Until we have peace we can not move forward to attain the dream of freedom," the president told a Freedom Celebration Day. To a Christian group he asserted that spiritual values were necessary for "permanent, lasting, durable peace among all the men of the world.…Weapons of war can produce no real or lasting peace. Only a great moral crusade, determined that men shall rise above this conception of materialism…will win through to victory. Then the world will have prosperity and peace—prosperity beyond all the imaginings of the past."

Eisenhower had reason to avoid such an eschatological vision. His view of human nature and his political aims both mitigated against it. He was trying to toughen the national fiber for a long war, not raise hopes for an imminent peace, which could easily be dashed. But his frequent resort to religious language made it impossible to eliminate utopian flourishes completely. The rhetoric that heightened fear had to promise "peace among all men." The words of catastrophic anxiety and the words of millennial hope reinforced each other in his discursive construction of faith. Both were equally essential to the frame that his words created, encouraging the public to see both the problems and the solutions in apocalyptic terms.

The new logic of apocalypse management erased the contradiction between peace and fear. Peace would be lasting and universal, Eisenhower implied, as long as the national security managers skillfully deployed the new H-bomb and credible threats to use it. Peace now meant, not harmony among all nations, nor the elimination of every foe, but rather perpetual containment of every foe. Peace meant apocalypse management—containing all those interlaced forces that threatened self-restraint, including excessive hope as well as excessive fear. The spiritual values that Eisenhower claimed would bring peace required a balanced array of self-disciplined emotions, including fear. Universal peace depended on spreading this authentically American kind of fear around the world. By linking faith so consistently with his cold war strategy, the president endowed this argument with religious meaning. As Rachel Holloway says, he used the language of faith "to define the hydrogen bomb in positive terms consistent with America's present orientation.…The sinister bomb became a saving grace."

But the language of faith sacralized more than just the H-bomb. It sacralized the entire emerging paradigm of apocalypse management. That paradigm was built on a pair of complex chains of metonyms. Peace, faith, "the American way," U.S. preeminence, stability, world order, and cold war victory were all treated as metonymous. Eisenhower's increasing resort to religious language effectively sacralized all the terms in this chain of "free world" values. Every term in the chain became a representation of salvation, the ultimate good. Peace and cold war victory, now virtually identical, both came to represent salvation. But since victory depended on an unending process of maintaining stability, salvation meant continuing to wage the war. Fighting the war, winning the war, and making peace were all equivalent manifestations of the faith on which salvation depended.

Eisenhower's rhetoric also demonized all the terms in the opposing chain of metonyms: war, atheism, communism, and the Soviet Union became representations of the damnation of global chaos and slavery. He presented these as the only alternative to endless apocalypse management. In this way, the continuing rigors of apocalypse management, including the continuing threat of nuclear holocaust, were legitimated because they were endowed with eschatological spiritual meaning. Of course the price of this meaning was a stark Manichaean dualism. The alternative to nuclear fear was not rapprochement with the enemy, but confronting the enemy with a "free world" so strong and permanent, so in control of its fear, and so faithful that it could successfully wage cold war as long as necessary. Peace meant not diminishing the global polarization but heightening it, not easing global tensions but sharpening them, under U.S. control.

national insecurity and the spirituality of dwelling

What was the impact of all this public rhetoric? Robert Divine has argued that nuclear fear diminished as abruptly as it had arisen. A 1954 Gallup poll found 54% of the public believing that the H-bomb lessened chances of another world war and 71% opposing suspension of U.S. tests. "They placed their faith in the government," he concludes. That was not exactly where the president advised the public to place its faith. But it was the ultimate goal of his rhetoric.

And it seemed to work. As Eisenhower draped the mantle over sacrality over himself and apocalypse management, his great prestige and popularity (plus his privileged access to public news space) ousted any competing discursive options. By the summer of 1954, if not earlier, there was no longer any effective alternative. There was no linguistic foundation on which to frame challenges to, or even questions about, the administration's basic orientation. God was on the president's side because there was no longer any other discursive side on which God could be.

Eisenhower implied that the national security managers were doing God's work and fulfilling His will, that God would surely bless their efforts. His God was, above all, the divine author and guarantor of apocalypse management. Thus his God needed, and perhaps wanted, the perpetual challenge of chaos that came from the other side of the Iron Curtain. With God and threat so intimately intertwined, it seems unlikely that faith in the government, or the rhetoric of faith, could truly diminish public anxiety. It is far more likely that it merely accomplished the administration's goal of diverting anxiety into new, more controllable channels. Apocalypse management was a vision of total control over every facet of the cold war, including public emotions and attitudes. The public had to be brought to the emotional brink and then convinced that the brink was the place were it would not only survive, but flourish beyond all expectation, if it played its proper role without question.

Apocalyptic Christianity had been accomplishing this feat for centuries. Now an ostensibly secular government was trying a similar experiment. Eisenhower's rhetoric, like traditional Christian rhetoric, had to offer promises of ultimate perfection. But in the one, as in the other, these promises had to be hemmed in by dire warnings of the dangers looming at every bend on the path to perfection. Faith was the "middle way," the ideal blend of hope and fear that was now proclaimed essential for peace.

The religious prototype for Eisenhower's rhetoric could be traced back even further, to the Jerusalem Temple of biblical times, whose ritual was one matrix of apocalypticism. The "lament" psalms sung in the Temple heightened the worshipers' fears of an unspecified "enemy," so that the priests could more effectively claim that only Yahweh (and his surrogate on earth, the king or high priest) could defend Judea against this "enemy." The whole liturgical complex hinged on the claim that Yahweh alone could maintain an eternal cosmic balance between eternally opposing forces of order and chaos.

Apocalypse management and its Christian and Judaean precursors all implied that a direct encounter with world-threatening chaos was a necessary part of a religiously meaningful life. Each gave chaos a significant role to play in the structure of the cosmos and of religious life. Each gave it a different role, however. For the priests of ancient Jerusalem, the chaotic threat of the "enemy" would return periodically, always to be conquered by God's power, in a never-ending cycle. For the Christian apocalypticists, a single chaotic cataclysm would be evoked by God so that He (through His Son) could vanquish it once and for all. For the national security managers of the cold war era, the impending chaos of communism would have to be constantly present. There could be no experience of victory over the enemy, either permanent or temporary. The "free world" would have to be in a constant encounter with the forces of chaos. This was the essence of what it meant to live forever, triumphantly, on the brink of apocalyptic disaster. No one—not even God—could change that. Thus the nation would have to live indefinitely as what historian H.W. Brands, Jr., has called "the national insecurity state."

It was not at all necessary or inevitable that communism, the Soviet Union, or nuclear weapons would make Americans feel insecure. That link had to be created by specific historical decisions and processes. Perhaps the most crucial of these was the factor that has previously escaped the notice of historians: Eisenhower's own words and policies. The leader to whom Americans looked, above all others, as a reassuring source of security was also a prime source of insecurity. His language of faith as apocalypse management made this paradox inevitable. Whenever it was invoked to speak about security, it necessarily added to the growing sense of insecurity. The more people sought a safe haven and looked to the nation to be part of that haven, the more they intensified the fears that sent them looking for that haven in the first place.

The resulting state of national insecurity surely contributed to the spiritual power of images of home, place, and dwelling, which Wuthnow has so ably documented. His analysis shows the clear parallels between religion and state as sources of hoped-for security: "Spiritual sanctuaries were thus fortresses whose walls needed to be protected from exterior threats so that life inside could be kept under control.…The Soul was deemed to reside in a sacred space that required geographic fortification.…Being a good American was a way of exhibiting faith, and both depended on keeping intruders out." Eisenhower's public rhetoric promoted this idea of spirituality as fortification. He consistently implied a logically necessary link between faith and "keeping intruders out": faith meant keeping at bay all the forces that might impinge on, and ultimately undermine, the stability of U.S. society. And he treated military, geopolitical, economic, and spiritual forces as merely different facets of a single threat that had to be managed forever. The president’s efforts at spiritual revival were meant to serve that protective project.

As Wuthnow observes, however, the quest for a sense of inviolable dwelling place ultimately failed: "Americans feared that their fortress could be invaded at any time. They spent increasing amounts on national defense, built bomb shelters, and searched for subversives in their midst." Eisenhower’s own discourse bears a significant degree of responsibility for this paradoxical outcome. The way he wove religious language together with the language of national security insured that the people he led would actually feel less secure. Wuthnow finds the religious revival of the ‘50s to be a direct response to the growing insecurity: "To buttress their strength, Americans repeatedly declared their trust in God: in 1954, the phrase "one nation under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance, and "in God we trust" was printed on the currency." The prestige of the very popular and respected president was one important factor in this growing centrality of religion. He turned to religion—and urged all Americans to do the same—to remedy the problem that his own religiously-laden language had helped to create. But this intertwined religion and the language of national security ever more tightly, which only heightened the insecurity it was meant to allay.

It seems plausible to hypothesize that this vicious spiral contributed to two quite opposite effects. Some people no doubt became trapped in it. They responded to their growing insecurity with a more ardent quest for the safety of an inviolable dwelling place. Others came to doubt whether any dwelling could truly provide safety. Perhaps they felt (either consciously or unconsciously) that the whole enterprise of seeking a safe haven was self-defeating and doomed to fail. For them, in Wuthnow’s words, "home has increasingly become a point of departure rather than a place to live." Thus the 1950s became the breeding ground for a new form of spirituality, what Wuthnow calls "the spirituality of seeking," which would become the distinctive mark of the 1960s. So it is fair to say of Eisenhower’s discourse what Wuthnow says of religious discourse in the ‘50s: its contradictions were "fracture lines that could become bases of serious cultural cleavage." If the so-called "culture war" is in some sense a struggle between those who still yearn for an inviolable place to dwell and those who accept a life of endless seeking, it was spawned in part by the two very different responses to the effects of apocalypse management.

The tension between these two responses is still with us because the language of apocalypse management is still so pervasive. The end of the cold war brought stern warnings from public leaders that the world is not less but more dangerous than before; public discourse is still framed largely in terms of apocalyptic threats and efforts to manage them. As long as that is the case, the dialectic of faith and fear that marked ‘50s spirituality will continue to be a prominent feature of the U.S. cultural landscape. An understanding of apocalypse management offers one more piece of evidence that the relation between the ‘50s and later decades holds more continuity than rupture. The fantasy of the 1950s as "Happy Days" rests on a mistaken premise. To return to the ‘50s would not mean returning to a decade of sheltered safety radically different from the decades that followed. Rather, it would mean returning to the roots of the cultural confusions and conflicts that have marked the religious life and public discourse of the nation ever since.