The world changed in 1956. The year served as a transition period for America as people uneasily wondered which direction events would turn. African-Americans took to the streets in Montgomery while Southern power brokers clung to power. The Soviet Union became less oppressive and then rolled the tanks into Hungary. The U.S. seemed placid, yet went wild for Elvis. All the while, President Eisenhower presided over the country providing reassuring leadership in a changing world.
Josef Stalin died in 1953. Three years later, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, presented a full accounting of Stalin’s crimes. Khrushchev carefully detailed the purges and political murders under his predecessor and criticized Stalin’s cult of personality. However, he never criticized communism and wanted his country to return to Leninism. Additionally, the speech served as a political weapon against the secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, whom Khrushchev executed immediately following Stalin’s death.
Khrushchev wanted to end the political repression in the Soviet Union. However, his policies only extended to the Soviet borders. If President Eisenhower and the west hoped for a less aggressive Soviet Union, Khrushchev dashed their hopes with an invasion of Hungary. The U.S.S.R. conquered Hungary during World War II and established a puppet regime. The Hungarian people revolted against the regime in 1956. In response, the Soviets rolled the tanks into Hungary crushing the revolt.
While the Soviets crushed the pro-democracy movement in Hungary, the world’s attention turned to the Middle East. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and established closer ties with China and the Soviet Union. In response, Israel, Britain, and France attacked Egypt and seized the Canal Zone. President Eisenhower hoped to establish friendlier relations with the Arabs and essentially ordered the Allies out of the Suez region. The Allies complied with the United States and the crisis defused. The Suez Crisis provided cover for the Soviet crackdown in Hungary. It also demonstrated American power. Before World War II, Britain and France would have ignored American entreaties, but the conflict changed the dynamic dramatically. In the postwar world, the British and French took their queues from the United States.
Eisenhower’s attempts to foster better relations with the Arab world failed in the long term. At home, he tried to ignore the Civil Rights Movement’s demands for equal rights. The president wanted tranquility, which proved impossible considering the depths of southern racism. On December 1, 1955, the movement launched a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama designed to force the south into complying with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schooling unconstitutional. In Montgomery, blacks were forced to sit in the back of buses. For over a year, African-Americans hoped to force compliance with the ruling. Eventually, the case went to court. In Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court ruled segregated busing unconstitutional. Montgomery surrendered after the ruling. It made the bus company happy since they lost a lot of money in the boycott. At one point, they wanted to give in, but city officials threatened the company.
As the bus boycott wore on, a number of southern members of congress wrote The Southern Manifesto opposing integration. The manifesto attacked judicial overreach and advocated legal resistance to the courts. They went as far as claiming states could ignore federal law. 99 Democrats and two Virginia Republicans signed the document. Senator, and future president, Lyndon Johnson refused to sign. Northerners of both parties condemned the document. President Eisenhower rejected the manifesto and employed federal troops in 1957 to enforce the law.
The Soviet aggression and southern anger reaffirmed voters’ desire for stability. People loved President Eisenhower. He won World War II, ended the Korean War, and presided over an economic expansion. On top of this, the Soviets dare not mess with America with Ike in the White House. The Suez Crisis reaffirmed Ike’s ability to manage a crisis. As a result, the American people overwhelmingly re-elected President Eisenhower in 1956.
Before his November landslide victory, Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law. The act created the interstate highway system connecting the nation. It took 35 years to complete the system and accelerated the creation of suburbia. Americans could now work in the cities and live in the suburbs. It also boosted tourism and the automobile. Eisenhower’s highway changed the country as much as any act ever passed by the federal government.
While interstate highways connected the country, Elvis united America’s youth. Elvis Presley began his recording career in 1954. Two years later, he dominated the music scene. According to John Lennon, “before Elvis, there was nothing.” Teens had no music to call their own until Elvis. Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, and others did not speak to youth. They were safe, bland and lily white. Presley brought African-American music to the masses. He also gyrated on stage frightening parents with this overt sexuality. Many felt Elvis subversive, aggressive, frenzied, and black. However, rock music remained and mutated into the dominant music form until the 1990s.
As the old world crumbled under the pressure of rock music, civil rights, and suburbia, one constant remained. The New York Yankees won another World Series. In 1956, Mickey Mantle enjoyed his best season winning the Triple Crown. That fall, journeyman Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history defeating the defending champion Brooklyn Dodgers. As of 2011, it remains the only perfect game in postseason history.
The old world met the new in 1956. The Soviet Union experienced a new air of freedom while crushing Hungarians seeking their independence. African-Americans won the Montgomery Bus Boycott while southerners resisted legally and illegally. The Suez Crisis demonstrated American power and European weakness. Rock music burst onto the scene alongside Sinatra. The new world concerned the older generation and set up events to come. President Eisenhower provided the only constant in the whirlwind of change.