4 Another Dream for America: The Conservative Vision
The 1960s is known as a decade of political movements. The civil rights movement, the New Left student movement, the feminist movement, and the antiwar movement all attracted a great deal of attention. Each of these movements had its own goals, yet each shared one characteristic: they were dominated by those who believed that through direct public action the government could be convinced to respond to the needs and demands of the people. Colorful and dramatic, these movements attracted the largest share of media coverage in the decade that they helped to define. There was another movement, however, one that was equally important in terms of its long-term impact on American politics. Driven by people who wanted to decrease the size and influence of the federal government, and to combat the spread of Communism, the modern conservative movement appealed to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum from civil rights and antiwar protestors. In response to the defeat of Republican Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) by Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) in the presidential election of 1960, American conservatives Page 49 | Top of Article began to craft a set of political positions that came to characterize Republican Party politics into the 2000s.
The center in American politics
Politics in America is often described as existing along a spectrum of opinion that ranges from left to right. This entire spectrum is typically known by the term "liberalism," a complicated set of beliefs with a long history in the United States and other modern democratic nations, like the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries. Some of liberalism's basic tenets are the belief in progress, the protection of civil liberties, and the support of free competition in the economy. But within this broad political philosophy there is much room for disagreement. Those on the left have typically argued that the federal government should play a larger role in regulating the economy and should be willing to assert its authority with social issues so as to assure equality and protect civil liberties. Those on the right have typically argued that the federal government should intervene as little as possible in the free play of economic markets and that it should leave most social issues to local governments, which best reflect the interests of the people. For the better part of American history, politicians have fought over which version of political liberalism should inform the actions of the federal government at any one time.
In the 1950s, however, many Americans believed that the age-old contest between the left and the right for control of government had been resolved. It appeared that most Americans shared the view that government should provide a safety net of social programs for the truly disadvantaged, take steps to ensure a healthy economy, and otherwise allow local and state government to handle the interests of citizens living within the local area. The Democratic Party, taking a moderate-left viewpoint, was nearly indistinguishable from the Republican Party, which held a moderate-right viewpoint. And both parties were united in their opposition to Communism, the system of government in the rival Soviet Union.
This apparent consensus, or general agreement, broke down dramatically in the 1960s. Several factors encouraged those on the left to push for more rapid social changes than Page 50 | Top of Article the United States had experienced in years. The election of John F. Kennedy was a crucial factor. Kennedy was a youthful, dynamic leader; in his impassioned campaign speeches and in his inaugural address of 1961, in which he had urged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," he encouraged people to commit themselves to making the United States a greater country by working hard for the causes that mattered most to them. Many young people took Kennedy's words to heart as they sought to reshape the policies of the colleges that they attended. Members of the civil rights movement, which had been working for the expansion of civil rights to African Americans for years, also believed that the time might have come for them to make real gains. Similarly, American women sought ways to enlarge their role in economic and political life. Youth groups, civil rights groups, and women all believed that through committed activism they could enlist the federal government in their quest to improve conditions for all Americans.
Conservatives looked critically on the rise of leftist activism. They did not want to see the federal government expand, and they feared that a minority of liberal activists would trample on the rights of a majority. In the early 1960s, however, they had no organized basis for asserting their political viewpoints. Many who had supported the Republican Party were disappointed by that party's lack of vision. And so, on college campuses across the country, and in governor mansions in Alabama and Arizona, conservative thinkers and activists began to put together a movement of their own, one that they hoped could take back power from the federal government.
Student roots of American conservatism
Like much of the activism on the left, activism on the right began in the nation's universities—and for some of the same reasons. U.S. campuses were in the middle of a huge surge in enrollments, from two million students in 1950 up to seven million in 1968. College enrollments in the 1960s showed the influence of the "baby boom," a name given to the huge generation of children born in the years immediately following World War II (1939–45). This large
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generation, some 76 million strong, had come of age during the politically quiet 1950s, but they would not remain quiet for long. Told again and again how important they were to the nation's future, baby boomer college students became more interested in their future roles. Some of the earliest student activism began in 1957, the year that professors in universities who received grants from the federal government were forced to sign an oath of loyalty renouncing Communism. This oath became a source of controversy on college campuses. Students who protested the oath discovered that they shared political leanings, and many of them later joined the leftist Students for Democratic Society (SDS). But there was also a group of students who supported the oath, and they too found that they had much in common. Before too long, they had joined together to form the first important conservative organization, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).
The Young Americans for Freedom formed in September of 1960, when some ninety students from forty-four colleges in twenty-four states gathered at the Sharon, Connecticut, estate of conservative spokesman William F. Buckley Jr. Page 53 | Top of Article (1925–; see sidebar). They appointed a national director and set out plans to recruit members between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Most importantly, they drafted a set of principles designed to guide their growing political movement. That set of principles became known as the "Sharon Statement."
Short and direct, the "Sharon Statement" made clear several crucial positions for the conservative movement. It declared that the role of government should be limited to preserving internal order, providing for national defense, and administering justice; that the Constitution reserves primary power to the states and the people; that the economy works best with minimal government intervention; and that America must commit itself to victory over, and not coexistence with, international Communism. In declaring such clear-cut principles, YAF intended to break with an earlier generation of conservatives, who its members said had been primarily interested in generating profits for businesses. In the words of William F. Buckley Jr., writing to the subscribers of the National Review in 1960, as quoted in Conservatism in America since 1930, YAF was committed to a political program that went beyond economic issues and included "the moral aspect of freedom; … transcendent values; … the nature of man. All this together with a tough-as-nails statement of political and economic convictions.…"
At first, YAF drew its greatest support from its fervent anti-Communism position. YAF initiated a "Stop Red Trade" campaign that urged American companies to withdraw from any trade with Soviet bloc countries. The group staged letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, and demonstrations, and claimed to have blocked Firestone from building a rubber plant in Romania. YAF's strong anti-communist agenda helped draw nearly 20,000 people to a 1962 rally in New York's Madison Square Garden. YAF also attracted attention when its members spoke out against leftist groups like the SDS and staged counter-demonstrations at antiwar rallies. But YAF truly had its biggest impact when it supported the political career of Arizona governor Barry Goldwater (1909–1998).
Conservative icon Barry Goldwater
As they prepared for the presidential election season of 1964, members of the Republican Party had good reason
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to be discouraged. Richard M. Nixon's loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election had divided the party. The party's most conservative members distrusted Nixon, and they wanted a true conservative to run against the liberal incumbent (which, after Kennedy was assassinated late in 1963, was Lyndon B. Johnson [1908–1973; served 1963–69]). But the party's Eastern Establishment, so known because of their location in the East and their long-standing ties to banking and business interests, wanted a more moderate candidate. The stage was set for a battle for the heart of the Republican Party.
The champion of the conservative cause was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. A handsome, fiery former Air Force pilot, Goldwater had jumped straight from Phoenix, Arizona, city politics to the U.S. Senate, where he made his mark as a die-hard conservative. In 1960, he published The Conscience of a Conservative, which outlined his approach to politics. In this book, he asserted: "I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its Page 55 | Top of Article size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them." Such statements—along with Goldwater's willingness to take a clear stand on Communism—endeared him to many conservatives who worked for his nomination, including YAF members.
Committed conservatives threw themselves behind Goldwater in the Republican presidential primaries, but he received strong opposition from the moderates, who backed Eastern Establishment candidate Nelson Rockefeller (1908–1979). When Goldwater won the nomination at the Republican nominating convention held July 13-16, 1964, Americans recognized that the conservative wing had taken over the Republican Party. Goldwater capped his acceptance speech with words that thrilled conservative listeners: "Our people have followed false prophets. We must, and we shall, return to proven ways—not because they are old, but because they are true.… I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," as quoted in Robert Alan Goldberg's book, Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater's fiery conservatism, so appealing to those on the far right, turned out to be too strong for the general electorate. In the era before political candidates were so carefully coached on how to speak to the media, Goldwater made statements that came back to haunt him. He suggested that poor people suffered from laziness and stupidity, that the eastern seaboard ought to be cut off and let float out to sea, and—infamously—that the United States should consider using atomic weapons in Vietnam. To a nation that was terrified of the effects of a worldwide nuclear war, this was too much. In the end, Johnson crushed Goldwater, winning 61.2 percent of the popular vote. Yet Goldwater had won the Deep South—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—something no Republican had ever achieved. It gave Republicans hope that eventually they could break the hold that the Democratic Party had traditionally held on southern states.
George Wallace's working-class conservatism
Barry Goldwater's was a clean-cut brand of American conservatism: it was focused on issues like Communism and
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shrinking the size of the federal government. Supported by the youthful conservative members of YAF and the hard-charging businessmen of the American West, Goldwater was clearly in the American mainstream. The other prominent conservative leader of the mid-1960s could claim no such air of respectability. George Wallace (1919–1998), the colorful governor of Alabama, tapped into very different sources of dissatisfaction and anger as he united southerners and many other working-class Americans behind his conservative movement. Wallace joined the anti-communist, small-government conservatism of Goldwater with appeals to common-sense, old-fashioned values, resistance to federal intervention in local issues, and, especially in the South, with coded calls for a continuation of white political and social dominance. By 1968 Wallace's strength was so great that he mounted a highly successful third-party candidacy (a candidacy that was not backed by one of the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans) for the presidency.
From the moment he returned from his service in the Air Force in World War II (1939–45), Wallace began to leave his mark on Alabama politics. As a state attorney general and then a state representative, Wallace was known as a political liberal. But when he first ran for governor in 1958 he was soundly defeated by an opponent who openly promoted segregation—the policy of restricting access to schools, restaurants, and other facilities on the basis of race. Recognizing that he would never claim the governorship in Alabama by supporting civil rights for blacks, Wallace switched his position and won the Alabama governorship in 1962, thanks to the support of the racist group the Ku Klux Klan (an organization whose members kept their identity secret as they terrorized black citizens). In his inaugural speech in January 1963, Wallace defined his position when he stated: "In the name of the greatest people that ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" as quoted in Our Nation's Archive.
Wallace's speech captured the attention of southerners who believed the federal government had overstepped its authority by passing federal desegregation laws, but he did not stop there. Later in 1963 Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama, physically blocking black students from access to the school. President Kennedy was forced to order National Guard troops to help integrate the state's schools, thus ending the separation of the races. The graphic image of Wallace staring down federal authorities was televised across the nation. Wallace was a hero to southern racists—but how would his belligerence play to northern audiences?
Wallace had always been known as a political chameleon; he was capable of shifting his presentation to suit voters' views, and he did it again as he rose to national prominence. The key to his rise to fame was his recognition that northerners were facing some of the same issues as southerners. While northerners had supported civil rights for blacks in theory, they felt very differently when African Americans moved into white neighborhoods and competed for white jobs. Moreover, many northern whites were becoming more concerned with the rising violence that occurred alongside or because of the civil rights movement and the growing anti-war movement. According to Wallace biographer Dan T. Page 58 | Top of Article Carter, author of The Politics of Rage, "Without using the cruder vocabulary of traditional racism, George Wallace began his national career by skillfully exploiting [the] fears and hatreds [of working-class, northern whites]. For the age-old southern
cry of 'Nigger, nigger,' he substituted the political equivalents of apple pie and motherhood: the rights to private property, community control, neighborhood schools, union seniority." Through the mid-1960s, Wallace refined his message, adding to it criticisms of the women's rights movement and the sexual promiscuity and drug use of the younger generation. Increasingly he appealed to what political analysts have called "white backlash," "the silent majority," or "alienated voters," all terms used to refer to Americans who did not like the violence and upheaval of protests led by students, civil rights demonstrators, and women, and wanted a return to stability in American political life.
Since he did not receive the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, George Wallace ran for president as the candidate of the American Independence Party. He got on the ballot in all fifty states, and polls showed that his support was at 21 percent of the electorate as late as September 1968. Wallace hoped that he could win the southern states, where his support was strongest, take a few border states (such as Maryland and Missouri), and throw the election into confusion. But as the election became more intense, Wallace's weaknesses proved too great. A powerful speaker in person, Wallace came off as overheated and extreme on television; many people were turned off by his apparent racism, which he steadfastly denied; and his running mate, General Curtis LeMay (1906–1990), publicly stated his willingness to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In the end, Wallace's support faltered as election day neared, and he ended up with just over 13 percent of the vote—a solid number for an independent candidate, but not enough to stop the election of Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon.
Wallace's career continued after 1968, though he was never again so prominent. He won reelection as governor of Alabama in 1970 with an actively racist campaign, then decided to run for president as a Democrat in 1972. On May 15, 1972, a deranged gunman shot four bullets into Wallace at a campaign stop, causing injuries that resulted in his using a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Wallace continued his campaign, but George McGovern eventually won the Democratic nomination. In 1982, while campaigning once again for governor of Alabama, Wallace renounced his past racism and won the support of African Americans. He died in 1998.
Return to mainstream conservatism: The Nixon presidency
Richard Nixon was no one's favorite candidate when he ran for the presidency in 1968. Nixon was hard driving, intensely competitive, and fearful; not even his closest aides claimed to personally like him. Yet Nixon was capable of bridging the divide that separated moderate and right-wing Republicans, and he beat out several rivals for the nomination. Nixon was accepted by mainstream, big business Republicans who had long provided major funding for the party, for he supported their pro-business interests. More importantly, Nixon appealed to the growing majority of Republicans who wanted an end to violence in American cities (riots flared in urban centers in 1967 and 1968), to antiwar demonstrations, and to the lifestyle excesses of the counter-culture. Promoting himself as the "law-and-order" candidate and the representative of the "silent majority," Nixon was elected to the presidency. He led a Republican Party that had been much influenced by the conservative movements led by Goldwater and Wallace.
As president, Nixon worked to please both sides of the party. In terms of domestic policy, Nixon was limited by the miserable state of the economy, which was suffering from the combined effects of funding a war in Vietnam and expanded social aid programs created by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Nixon might have liked to scale back the social programs, but he hesitated to do so out of fear of damaging the already fragile economy. Instead, Nixon used the power of the federal government to freeze wages and prices in selected areas of the economy. In fact, Nixon's greatest impact on domestic policy was symbolic: he spoke out publicly against the lawlessness of antiwar protestors and the immorality of drug use and sexual freedom. His messages created a climate of intolerance for these behaviors, but Nixon left it up to local authorities to enforce these values. When local officials cracked down on demonstrations, Nixon remained conspicuously silent. It was under this policy that, in May of 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on protesting students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding several others.
Nixon's greatest achievements as president were in foreign policy, an area in which Nixon and his secretary of Page 61 | Top of Article state, Henry Kissinger (1923–), shared a deep interest. Nixon wanted to open foreign markets to U.S. trade, and it was very difficult to do so when tensions between the United States,
the Soviet Union, and the communist People's Republic of China were so high. Nixon sought out high-level contacts within the Chinese government and visited the nation in February of 1972. He also opened talks with the Soviet Union about improving U.S.–Soviet relations. In the early 2000s these actions were considered Nixon's most important achievements as president.
Nixon also understood one point very clearly: that the United States could not afford to remain involved in a distant and expensive war in Vietnam. Once he took office, however, he discovered how difficult it would be to get the United States out of the war. Although it took several years, Nixon's policies in Vietnam—which relied on a combination of negotiations, increased bombing, and the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops—did result in the end of U.S. involvement in the conflict. A cease-fire between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces was finally signed on January 27, 1973. (For more details on the Vietnam War, see Chapter 10.) Moreover, Nixon announced that in the future the United States would avoid direct military involvement overseas and would instead provide economic and military aid. This policy of sending materials and money but not soldiers was known as the Nixon Doctrine.
Nixon was scarcely able to enjoy the triumph of ending the war in Vietnam, for by 1973 he was deeply involved in the controversy that ultimately forced him to resign his position as president. Beginning in 1971, Nixon had authorized members of his administration to spy on his political enemies. In the run-up to the presidential elections in 1972, several of his spies, nicknamed the Plumbers, were caught by the Washington, D.C., police breaking into rooms at the Watergate Hotel where the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was located. Nixon used the power of his office to obscure his connection to the break-ins, and he won Page 63 | Top of Article reelection in 1972. In the years afterward, however, the truth about his relationship to the Watergate burglars emerged amid intense investigations. Nixon resigned his office on August 9, 1974, facing certain impeachment (removal from office for misconduct) by Congress.
The conservative legacy
The success of the conservative movements led by Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, as well as the emergence of radical right-wing organizations, reshaped the Republican Party in ways that continued to be felt through the end of the twentieth century. The key issues promoted by conservatives in the 1960s—reducing the size of the federal government, promoting conservative social values, and fighting Communism—were adopted by Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), who was elected president in 1980 and again in 1984. Reagan's popularity helped elect more conservative Congress members, and in 1994 House Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (1943–), campaigned for a statement of policy they called the "Contract with America," which recommitted them to political programs outlined nearly three decades before in the Sharon Statement. Though it took several decades, the issues first championed by people considered to be on the conservative fringe in the late 1950s had become central to the Republican Party in the 1980s and beyond.
For More Information
Andrew, John A. III. The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Bruun, Erik, and Jay Crosby, eds. Our Nation's Archive: The History of the United States in Documents. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1999.
Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Edwards, Lee. Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1995.
Farber, David, and Beth Bailey, with others. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Goldberg, Robert Alan. Barry Goldwater. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative. Shepherdsville, KY: Victor Publishing Co., 1960.
Goldwater, Barry Morris. With No Apologies: The Personal and Political Memoirs of United States Senator Barry M. Goldwater, New York: William Morrow, 1979.
Lesher, Stephan. George Wallace: American Populist. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Perlstein, Rick. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.
Schneider, Gregory L. Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Schneider, Gregory L., ed. Conservatism in America since 1930. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
"Alabama Governors: George Corley Wallace." ADAH: Alabama Department of Archives and History. www.archives.state.al.us/govs_list/g_wallac.html (accessed on June 1, 2004).
"George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire." American Experience. www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wallace/ (accessed on June 1, 2004).
Young Americans for Freedom. www.yaf.com (accessed on June 30, 2004).