SCIENTISTS WHO HAVE GRUMBLED about George W. Bush's unilateral, bellicose, and preemptive foreign policies and dangerous embrace of nuclear weapons but have not worked actively for his defeat might learn a valuable lesson from the forces behind Lyndon Johnson's lopsided victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Although that election has become part of American political folklore, its uncanny resemblance to and striking differences with the 2004 election have gone largely unnoticed. Unlike in 1964, when Democrats and allied scientists made the nuclear threat the centerpiece of the campaign, they have, this time, remained almost silent about the president's systematic lowering of the nuclear threshold, his blurring the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons, and his destabilizing pursuit of a new generation of nuclear weapons.
For many, the enduring symbol of the 1964 campaign was a Johnson ad in which a scene of a young girl plucking petals off a daisy dissolves into a nuclear explosion. Few, however, remember American scientists' extraordinary contribution to defining the campaign's issues and mobilizing the public against what they saw as Goldwater's foreign policy extremism and nuclear recklessness. Throwing themselves into the campaign with unprecedented unanimity and resolve, scientists helped convince a wary public that Goldwater's slogan "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" should be transformed to "In Your Heart You Know He Might."
As Theodore White noted in The Making of the President, 1964, "The campaign of 1964 was that rare thing in American political history, a campaign based on issues." And Goldwater's nuclear policies topped the list.
Goldwater's troubles began with an October 1963 press conference at which he said that NATO's six divisions could "probably" be cut by one-third or more if NATO commanders had the power to decide to use tactical nuclear weapons. His repeated attempts to clarify his position, such as introducing the term "conventional nuclear weapons," only muddied it more. Goldwater had already appeared to support battlefield use of nuclear weapons in his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, in which he urged the United States to "perfect a variety of small, clean nuclear weapons."
Goldwater repudiated disarmament efforts, contending instead that a buildup was necessary, and opposed the nuclear test ban treaty, the Washington-Moscow "hot line," and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam and expressed contempt for those who questioned American unilateralism. And he made matters worse for himself by harping on the nuclear issue, mentioning nuclear weapons and wartime devastation 26 times in one 30-minute speech. (1)
After Goldwater won the Republican nomination, scientists began to hammer his nuclear stance. Physical chemist Donald MacArthur set the scientists' anti-Goldwater campaign in motion. Married to Lady Bird Johnson's niece, MacArthur took advantage of his social ties and political connections to launch Scientists and Engineers for Johnson, which later became Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey (SEJH). He enlisted three of the scientific community's chief luminaries: Jerome Wiesher, dean of science at MIT and White House science adviser under John...