Discussion Questions

These question will help students explore the major ideas and themes in the film. See the Program Summary for descriptions of specific program segments.

Before Watching

1. Explain to students that during World War II Eisenhower became an enormously popular military hero and, at one point, was approached by both major political parties as a candidate for president -- he decided to run as a Republican. Ask students why they think a distinguished military career such as Eisenhower's might be make a person an appealing candidate for president. When might such experience not be advantageous? Ask students to consider how the military careers -- or lack of -- of other presidents, candidates, or potential candidates (such as Colin Powell) have affected their political careers.

2. What was the Cold War? Why was it considered "cold"? Develop a class definition and timeline. Have students brainstorm a list of issues, images, and events from the Cold War during the 1950s. Ask students to choose a particular issue or event and watch for it during the program. Have them take notes to add to their prior knowledge.

3. Before viewing the program, ask students to watch a 1950s television show together in class, such as "I Love Lucy," "Father Knows Best," "Leave It to Beaver," etc. Have them take notes about the lifestyle and values presented in the program. What does the program reveal about the economy, lifestyles, societal values, and political climate of the 1950s? What perspectives are missing? Ask students to look for examples of these elements as they watch Ike.

After Watching

1. In what ways did the experiences of his early years, especially his military experience, form Eisenhower's personality and views, and influence his behavior as president?

2. When Eisenhower left the presidency, he had a reputation as a "do-nothing" president who played golf during serious crises. Recently, historians have begun to revise this view. Why was Eisenhower considered to be a failure in his own time? How did his personal style, described as the "hidden hand," contribute to the contemporary view of his presidency? What has contributed to an improvement of his reputation? How much can a president predict or create his own legacy? How might a president's interest or concern in his or her legacy affect the way he or she governs?

3. Eisenhower regularly used the intelligence services to gather information about the activities of the Soviet Union (see the U-2 documents), but also attempted to initiate a policy of "open skies" so that countries could inspect each other's missile installations from the air. Ask students what they think of "open skies" as a policy. Was it an innovative attempt to de-escalate the Cold War? Why did it fail? What other policies could or should Eisenhower have pursued? How might the Cold War have been different if the U.S. and Soviet Union had been more open with each other from the 1950s onward?


Early Career -- Ad Campaign For or Against Ike

Eisenhower was a great military hero and "father figure" who was elected due to his enormous personal popularity, rather than his political views. How was Eisenhower's 1952 campaign slogan -- "I Like Ike" -- indicative of the country's feelings about him? What was it about his background and personality that made him such an American icon? Ask students to research Ike's appeal using contemporary magazine and newspaper articles, political commentary, as well as Ike's Inaugural Address, 1953 -- Inaugural Address, 1957 -- and more modern views about him and his presidency. You may also want to ask some students to consider the opposite viewpoint: Who didn't "like Ike"? Why did some critics feel he symbolized dullness and conformity? Have students use their research to develop an ad campaign for or against Ike. They can design a brochure, flyer, poster, or song that expresses their opinion of Ike. (Program References: Tape One, Segments 2-5)

Presidential Politics -- Memo: To Balance the Ticket

Have students investigate the practice of "balancing the ticket" in presidential races. Have students suppose they are political advisors involved in the 1952 election campaign. Using Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and magazine and newspaper articles from that time, have them review the careers of some of the leading Republicans (such as Robert A. Taft, Earl Warren, or Harold Stassen) and decide who they think should have run with Eisenhower. Was Nixon the right choice? Ask them to write a memo to Eisenhower listing the advantages and disadvantages of their recommendation. (Program References: Tape Two, Segment 1)

Domestic Policy -- Write a Speech for the President

Have students suppose they are speech writers for President Eisenhower during the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. Using the Program Transcript, Ike In "Quotes," the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and related resources, have them write a speech that Eisenhower might have given defending his actions in Arkansas, as well expressing his views about the Brown decision and the state of civil rights in America. (Program References: Tape Two, Segment 4)

Foreign Affairs -- Diplomat or Warrior: An Essay

Despite his past as a military leader, Eisenhower was not a warmonger. In fact, he had extensive experience as a diplomat during his years as Supreme Allied Commander and later as head of NATO. Given Eisenhower's background in the military, he was particularly savvy about how domestic politics can affect international policies, and once said, "God help the nation when it has a president who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."

Have students read Eisenhower's Farewell Address, 1961 in which he warns the American public about the "military-industrial complex." Have students work in groups to list the main points of the speech, and then ask students to write individual essays in response, either agreeing or disagreeing with Eisenhower's main points, and including facts to support their opinions. (Program References: Tape Two, Segments 2, 3, 5, 6)

Legacy -- Design a Memorial

Have students suppose they have been hired to design a national memorial for President Eisenhower. Using existing presidential memorials as guides, have them create an outline of the plan, including what artwork and other symbols they would select to represent Eisenhower's presidency. Then they should draw sketches of their memorial or create a model. Students may present their designs to the class and create a display. (Program References: Tape Two, entire)

The Era -- Remember When: A Documentary

The 1950s was an affluent period in America, remembered with fond nostalgia by many. Others, however, have criticized the era as being oppressive and uninspiring.

Have students write and produce a multimedia "documentary" that describes the politics, culture, lifestyle, and other societal aspects of the decade after the war. With the class, brainstorm a list of events, people, terminology, and trends that should be represented. Divide the class into small groups, with each group assigned to some portion of the documentary, such as the arts or politics.

Encourage students to use a variety of approaches, including re-created scenarios from home life, photographs, news reports, television or radio shows, etc. Have students conduct interviews with people who were alive at the time, choose visual images, gather artifacts (such as clothing, posters, magazines, records), watch television and movies about the time, etc. Remind students to represent a diverse group of people and cultures. Their finished product should present the "real" 1950s in comparison with the nostalgic view.

After the smaller groups have completed their work, have the whole class work together to determine the best method to produce the documentary: they may want to present a series of skits, write a narrative script to read as various teams show their work, create a class book or class display, etc. Present the completed program to invited guests, such as parents and other students. You may want students to videotape the program for use in other classes. (Program References: Tape Two, Segments 3-5)

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to Dwight Eisenhower and his times:

Suppose you are a soldier at the Battle of the Bulge. Write a letter to a family member describing what happened.

Humorist Dave Barry has written of the launching of Sputnik in 1957, "All of a sudden Mrs. DeLucia [his 5th grade teacher] was telling us that we were going to have to study a LOT more science and math... As if the whole thing were our fault." Interview someone who, like Barry, was a student when the Soviets launched Sputnik. Find out how people reacted to this event and how it affected their lives. Present your interview to the class.

Imagine you are on the bus that Rosa Parks was riding in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat in the "whites only" section. Write a letter, or a journal or diary entry about what you saw and how you felt about her actions.

Write a dialogue of what might have been said during the meeting between Ike and Senator Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin during the 1952 presidential campaign.

Research the "termination policy" adopted by Congress in 1953 regarding Native Americans. What was the outcome of the policy?

Research and report on the rise of the FBI and its use during the 1950s. If you were to apply for a job there at that time, what qualification might you want to stress in a job interview?

Research the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted for espionage in 1951 and executed in 1953. What were they accused of? Why was their case -- and sentence -- so controversial? What is the current thinking about their guilt or innocence?

Read The Crucible by Arthur Miller or watch the feature film version. In a review, explain how the play is a metaphor for McCarthyism.

Write a storyline or script for an episode of "Happy Days," the television sitcom about the 1950s.

Learn a song by The Kingston Trio, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, the Weavers, Little Richard, or other performers popular in the 1950s and perform it for the class.

Imagine you are a talk-show host today doing a show about the 1950s. Which guests would you invite to represent the era and why? What questions would you ask?

Read a book about growing up in the 1950s, such as Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Maggie-Now by Betty Smith, or Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals and write a book review.

Choose a Beat poet or other artist of the period and study his or her work. How were the "beatniks" a response to the 1950s? Write a Beat poem of your own, in response to some aspect of society today.

Write a restaurant review that a reporter might have written about the first McDonalds, which was opened by Ray Kroc in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.

Write a brief history of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. What were its roots? Who were the primary singers and songwriters? Who coined the term? How and why did it grow in popularity? How did people react to it at the time? How has rock 'n' roll changed since then?

Watch a movie from the 1950s, such as Rebel Without a CauseInvasion of the Body SnatchersWest Side Story, or Some Like It Hot, and write a commentary as to why the movie represented the values, trends, or issues of the 1950s. You may also want to view movies made recently about events of the 1950s, such as Quiz Show (about the TV game show bribe scandal) or The Long Walk Home (about the Montgomery Bus Boycott), and write a review explaining how it captures the event, issue or mood of the time.

In the movie Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox plays a character who goes back 30 years to 1955, where he encounters his own parents as teenagers. As you watch the movie, note what he discovers about the era. If your parents (or other family or community members) were teenagers in the 1950s, ask them to watch the movie with you or interview them about their life then.

View paintings by Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and other abstract expressionists and write about your reaction to their work.

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced American life and society during Eisenhower's presidency, and present a short biography to the class highlighting the person's achievements. Students might also enjoy creating a poster or collage featuring their subject, which could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing the person's work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do an oral reading of a speech or an essay.

Harry Belafonte: singer who popularized Calypso music

Leonard Bernstein: conductor and composer who wrote the music for "West Side Story" and many other classics

Fidel Castro: Cuban revolutionary leader and prime minister

James Dean: star of Rebel Without a Cause and other movies of the 1950s

Ralph Ellison: African American writer -- author of Invisible Man

Orval Faubus: governor of Arkansas who resisted integration

Billy Graham: evangelical preacher

Lorraine Hansberry: playwright -- author of A Raisin in the Sun

Estes Kefauver: political leader and vice-presidential candidate in 1956

Jack Kerouac: Beat poet and novelist

Martin Luther King, Jr.: civil rights leader

George Marshall: secretary of state and secretary of defense whose Marshall Plan provided economic aid to postwar Europe

Thurgood Marshall: chief counsel for the NAACP -- helped argue the Brown v. Board of Education case

Arthur Miller: playwright who wrote The Crucible

Marilyn Monroe: movie star who was idolized in the 1950s

Edward R. Murrow: journalist whose criticism of McCarthy helped defeat the senator

Richard Nixon: Eisenhower's vice president and later 37th president of the United States

Rosa Parks: civil rights activist whose actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Gary Powers: U2 pilot shot down and captured by the Soviets in 1960

Elvis Presley: rock 'n' roll star

Jonas Salk: scientist whose vaccine helped eradicate polio

B. F. Skinner: behavioral psychologist

Adlai Stevenson: political leader and presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956

Emmett Till: a 14-year-old African American boy murdered in 1955 for speaking to a white woman

Charles Van Doren: television quiz show contestant who shocked the nation by admitting he had cheated

Earl Warren: chief justice of the Supreme Court

Richard Wright: short story writer and novelist -- author of Native Son and Black Boy

Terms to Know

boycott: an organized refusal to purchase a product or service as a protest to force a company to take some particular action.

Brown v. Board of Education: the 1954 Supreme Court case that yielded the unanimous decision that public schools could not be segregated by race.

containment: the U.S. policy after World War II of attempting to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and control.

Eisenhower Doctrine: a U.S. foreign policy resolution adopted in 1957 stating that the United States would come to the aid of any Middle Eastern nation that requested help against any communist-backed military aggression.

McCarthyism: refers to the 1950s hunt for communists in the U.S. government, and the suspicion of communist activity in general. The term derives from the name of leader of the Congressional investigations in the matter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

military-industrial complex: first used by Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address, the term refers to the combined interests of the military and related industries, which the president felt might develop too much influence over the government.

Sputnik: the satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, which started the space race. Sputnik is Russian for "fellow traveler."

Suez Crisis: a series of events in 1956 sparked by the Egyptian seizure of the Suez Canal. Subsequently, Egypt was attacked by Israeli, French, and British forces to take back the canal, and the Egyptian air force was destroyed. The United States and the Soviet Union both supported a UN resolution that forced the withdrawal of the French, British, and Israelis from Egyptian territory. UN troops were then sent to the Middle East to keep the peace.

U2: a type of American military plane used for aerial reconnaissance. In 1960, a U2 plane was shot down in Russia, and the pilot, Gary Powers, was captured alive, forcing Eisenhower to publicly admit that the US was spying on the Soviet Union. (See documents about the U2.)

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of Dwight Eisenhower. Each is followed by a series of questions you may want to raise with your students.

"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity."

Questions to Consider:

  • Is this a surprising thing for Eisenhower to have said? Why or why not?
  • How was this sentiment reflected in his actions during his presidency?


"There is -- in world affairs -- a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does truculent mean?
  • What did Eisenhower mean by a "steady course"?
  • What does this say about his theory of leadership?


"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this quotation reflect Eisenhower's character and concerns?
  • Do you agree with what he is saying?
  • What do you think should be the ratio between domestic spending and defense spending?
  • How important is defense spending versus a strong domestic economy?


"The world moves, and ideas that were good once are not always good."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does Eisenhower mean by this?
  • What are some attitudes that have changed between the 1950s and the 1990s?
  • Do you consider these changes "good"? Why or why not?
  • What might Eisenhower have thought of these changes?


"The only way to win World War III is to prevent it."

Questions to Consider:

  • What kind of prevention do you think Eisenhower meant?
  • Was Eisenhower ahead of his time in his thinking about war? Why or why not?


"The final battle against intolerance is to be fought -- not in the chambers of any legislature -- but in the hearts of men."

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you think Eisenhower was correct in this view?
  • Can legislation ever force a change "in the hearts of men"?
  • What is the responsibility of our leaders in helping to change attitudes such as racial prejudice?
  • In a representative government, how far can leaders move ahead of their constituencies to make changes in society?


"If the day comes when we can obey the orders of our courts only when we personally approve of them, the end of the American system will not be far off."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this quotation highlight the constitutional duties of the presidency?
  • Why are the decisions of the courts, especially the Supreme Court, so important in our system of government?
  • What would happen if a president refused to uphold a Supreme Court decision, even if it was very unpopular?


"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it."

Questions to Consider:

  • What do you think Eisenhower is saying about government?
  • How might government stand in the way of peace?
  • Do you think the U.S. government has or has not helped promote peace in recent years? How?


"One of my major regrets is that as we left the White House I had to admit to little success in making progress in global disarmament or in reducing the bitterness of the East-West struggle... But though, in this, I suffered my greatest disappointment, it has not destroyed my faith that in the next generation, the next century, the next millennium these things will come to pass."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this statement reflect Eisenhower's experiences during World War II?
  • How could he have wanted to reduce the effects of the Cold War and at the same time been actively waging it?
  • How was this "failure" the result of his own beliefs, international events, or public opinion??

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?

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