The election proved to be a watershed moment in American political historybut not in the way most contemporaries viewed it. Democrat Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater in a huge landslide. To most observers at the time, liberalism rode triumphant and conservatism crumbled, with some even talking of the demise of the Republican Party. But it was not to be, as the liberal wave crashed almost immediately and conservatives came to dominate a resurgent Republican Party in the late twentieth century.
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Conservatives in the "Modern" World of Eisenhower, and the Rise of Goldwater
The election of 1952 finally ended the Republican drought. Dwight D. Eisenhower, once he took his oath of office in January 1953, would be the first Republican in the White House since Herbert Hoover was voted out of office in 1932. For twenty long years the Democrats had controlled the presidency while the Republicans sat on the sidelines as a sort of loyal opposition to the expansion of American liberalism. "For most of a very full generation," a conservative Republican leader wrote years later, the Republican party had been "the shapeless, gutless alternative to well-formed, principled Democratic programs and candidates." Another called the GOP "a satellite of the Democratic party, a political Doppelganger that moves only with the impulse of its original." In an attempt to harness the American mood for themselves, Republicans had presented the nation's voters with a series of presidential candidates who promised to do the job in Washington better, more efficiently, and with a greater anti-communist commitment than the Democrats. Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican offering, had, in fact, voted for Roosevelt in 1936 — a point that Willkie and the Republicans made often in hopes of pulling moderate votes away from Roosevelt. Tom Dewey, the Republican candidate in 1944 and again in 1948, was often referred to as a liberal, a candidate with strong ties to labor and farmers, plus a record on civil rights that was often described as progressive. By the early 1950s Dewey had become, to GOP conservatives, the symbol of Republican failure, the leader of a coalition of moderates and liberals primarily centered in the Northeast who sanctioned the New Deal and touted a foreign policy of global engagement known as internationalism.
Through the twenty years of GOP drought between Hoover and Ike there had been a few bright spots for the Republicans. In the 1946 mid-term elections, the first election after the war and the first election since Roosevelt's death, the Republicans made a grand sweep of Congress. American voters seemed to be saying that the time of Democratic dominance was coming to an end, that the era of the New Deal and its federal management of the economy were over. But two years later, Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor in the White House, rallied the Democratic forces once again and won the presidency, along with a Democratic majority in Congress. The defeat was devastating to Republicans. The voters, it seemed, had reaffirmed the New Deal and rejected the Republican alternative.
Throughout these post-war years a number of conservative Republicans led by Ohio senator Robert Taft had argued that the Republican party was constantly losing political ground to the Democrats because it offered a political philosophy that was only barely distinct from what the Democrats were offering. What voters would respond to, these conservatives argued, was a significant alternative to the liberalism of the Democratic party. That alternative was a conservative one, which was, generally, less government spending (leading to a balanced budget), less federal interference in state and local-level affairs, a staunch anti-communism, and a strong (though unilateral) national defense.
After each GOP loss through the 1940s conservatives gained control of the party apparatus and began building their strength in anticipation of running one of their own in the next election. But in each instance, as the next election neared, a liberal-moderate coalition grabbed control of the convention and won the nomination. This scenario was played out in 1940 when Willkie won the nomination, and then again in 1944 and 1948 when Dewey was nominated. After the 1948 GOP defeat, conservatives again took over the party structure and looked forward to placing Taft in nomination four years later. But as the 1952 election approached, the moderates, behind Eisenhower, steamrolled all opposition. Taft made his strongest bid yet for the nomination that year, but Ike and the moderates were simply too strong.
Electability had always been a problem for the conservatives. They had never had a charismatic, attractive figure to represent them as a presidential candidate, a character whose mere physical presence could excite the masses and send voters to the polls in swarms. Certainly, Bob Taft was not that. Taft had a distinguished career in the Senate; to be sure, he was one of the most effective conservative legislators in the post-war era. But he was not an appealing figure and was never an electable presidential candidate. In 1948 Taft hired an image-maker to turn his dour personality into something that the masses would see as an appealing fatherly type. The effort was a dismal failure. It was a common refrain among Republicans in Washington in the 1940s and up until 1952 that "Taft can't win," that he simply could not match up to Eisenhower — or even Dewey, whose own personal appeal was considerably less than charismatic. As one Republican party operative noted, "Taft was ... the first notable casualty of the age of image." At the 1952 GOP convention in Chicago, Senator John Bricker of Ohio, a long-time Taft supporter, withdrew Taft's name from consideration for the third time in twelve years. And for the fifth time in as many elections, Republican conservatives were forced to compromise their principles and reluctantly get behind a moderate candidate for president. To the conservatives, the eastern-liberal-moderate wing of the party had, again, denied them a chance to run a conservative candidate.
The 1952 election was not all bad for Republican conservatives. Obviously, a Republican had won the White House for the first time since the Great Depression. In addition, Ike's coattails were enormous; he brought with him a Republican Congress, the first since the 80th Congress in 1946. But Eisenhower was a moderate on most issues (discontented conservative Republicans called him a liberal), and through the 1950s he slowly split the Republican party between the conservatives on the right and moderates on the left. Eisenhower called his political philosophy "Modern Republicanism," a plan that conservatives snubbed as little more than a validation of the New Deal plus a foreign policy of internationalism. They countered with their own policies, which they called "Real Republicanism." The distinction would not become important until after the 1956 election when Ike was a lame duck and conservatives in Congress could no longer depend on his coattails to stay in office.
Despite the Republican sweep in 1952, GOP conservatives were hurt badly in the election. Several Republican senators on the Far Right lost their seats that year, including James Kem of Missouri, Harry Cain of Washington, Zales Ecton of Wyoming, and Patrick Hurley of New Mexico. In addition, nearly all conservative senatorial candidates ran behind Eisenhower's numbers, while Republican moderates and liberals generally ran ahead of him. Even Senators Joe McCarthy and William Jenner, the two most prominent figures in the Republican party's communist hunt, would probably have lost had it not been for Ike's long coattails. The political winds, it seemed, were not blowing to the right in 1952, at least within the GOP.
Among the election's bright spots for the conservatives in 1952 was Barry Goldwater's slim victory over Senate majority leader Ernest McFarland in Arizona. Goldwater was an avowed Taftite, but he was forced to attribute his November victory to Ike's popularity in Arizona. Goldwater's victory, however, was something of an affirmation of McCarthy's power. McCarthy had personally campaigned against McFarland and three other Democratic incumbents, and all four failed in their bids for reelection.
The election also showed that the South was beginning to find its way, albeit slowly, into the Republican party. The white South had made up the conservative wing of the Democratic party since the end of Reconstruction. At various times in the late 1920s and again in the late 1930s the South exhibited discontent with the Democrats, but until 1948 they stayed in the party, voting almost solidly Democratic in each presidential election. It was in 1948 that Truman pushed for the urban black vote and defeated Dewey in one of the greatest political upsets of the century. Many white southerners, however, bolted the party and joined Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats. Thurmond took four southern states, while Truman won a large number of African-American votes in several northern urban areas. For Truman it was a good trade-off, but it meant that the Democrats had chosen northern urban black votes over southern white votes, and this left large numbers of white southerners without a political home. The result was that in 1952 Eisenhower cracked the South, and that region began its long slow journey into the Republican party. Eisenhower that year took the states that had gone for Thurmond in 1948, plus Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and the border states of Kentucky and West Virginia. The Republicans would have trouble hanging on to the South in the next two elections, but it was clear as civil rights became a more volatile issue that large numbers of southern whites would vote Republican under certain circumstances.
Divisions within the Republican party also revolved around the issue of foreign and domestic communism. The Far Right was virtually engulfed in an anti-communist crusade. Led by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, they searched relentlessly for communists inside the federal government, and they considered even the slightest diplomatic concession to international communism (most specifically the Soviet Union and Communist China) to be an act of appeasement. At the 1952 GOP convention the conservatives controlled the platform committee and forced a plank into the platform that called the Democratic party's foreign policy of containment "negative, futile and immoral," because it "abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism." Containment, they believed, was not aggressive enough. It should be replaced with a policy of liberation. Although Eisenhower was nominated and then elected on this right wing-generated platform, he always steered clear of supporting such a policy, realizing that liberation of communist-held territory was much the same as invasion. The Communist Chinese intervention in Korea was, of course, the primary lesson. Many conservatives, however, saw Eisenhower's lack of aggression against international communism as weakness — appeasement of the nation's enemy.
Eisenhower rankled the right almost immediately after he came to office by nominating Charles "Chip" Bohlen to be the nation's ambassador to Moscow, obviously a sensitive post. Bohlen had been a career officer in the state department (precisely the place where Joe McCarthy was insisting there were communists giving away America's secrets), and he had been Roosevelt's translator at the Yalta Conference. Yalta had become, to the members of the Republican right, the Great Betrayal, the Democratic party's delivery of Eastern Europe into communism. To make matters worse, Bohlen testified at the Senate confirmation hearing that the problem at Yalta had not been the agreement, but that Stalin had violated the agreement — precisely the official Democratic party's stand. It looked like the issue would split the Republicans, but Taft, wanting desperately to maintain party harmony, went along with the Bohlen appointment, then followed with a demand to the White House, "no more Bohlens!" The incident convinced the Republicans on the right that Eisenhower would be following the Democrats on foreign policy issues, and despite Taft's surrender to harmony, the Bohlen nomination split the Republicans further. Bohlen was finally approved overwhelmingly, but in the vote on the Senate floor Jenner, Styles Bridges, Bricker, Everett Dirksen, McCarthy, and Goldwater, along with seven others on the Republican right, voted to reject Bohlen.
The situation in Korea also served to split the Republicans. As Eisenhower had promised during the campaign, he pushed quickly after his inauguration to bring an end to the war — much to the disgust of many on the GOP right. The armistice, signed in April 1953 with the North Koreans and the Chinese Communists, was perceived by conservatives as the worst kind of appeasement, an acceptance of the status quo ante, an unwillingness to confront and defeat the enemy. Republican conservatives like Jenner and George Malone of Nevada even insisted that the armistice was, in fact, a victory for international communism and a defeat for the forces of Western democracy. William Knowland, the conservative senator from California, argued that the armistice would cause the United States to "lose the balance of Asia." Eisenhower's willingness to end the war in Korea was even more offensive to conservatives because two years earlier General Douglas MacArthur, the first American commander in Korea and a darling of the Republican right wing, was relieved of his command by President Truman (as many conservatives perceived it) for advocating a complete victory over communism in Asia. To those on the right, MacArthur became a martyr to the cause of anti-communism and a symbol for the conservative perception of freedom. To many right-wing Republicans, Eisenhower became an appeaser. They even went so far as to applaud South Korean president Syngman Rhee's eleventh-hour defiance of Eisenhower and the armistice.
GOP conservatives also blamed the failures in Korea on the United Nations — or more specifically, the American government's willingness to compromise its foreign policy initiatives in order to meet UN objectives. To those on the right like Taft, Jenner, House Speaker Joseph Martin, Bridges, Knowland, McCarthy, and others, America's foreign policy should always be unilateral and should never be compromised by the goals of any international organization like the UN, where the Soviet Union maintained veto power over all U.S. military action. Eisenhower's only response to such complaints from his party's right was that the United States simply could not "go it alone" in foreign affairs. The GOP right prepared to mount an attack against the president on the issue (with Taft in the lead), with the potential of causing a full breach in the party. Taft, however, fell ill with the cancer that would eventually take his life, and without his leadership the GOP conservatives pulled back from the issue. At the same time, polls showed clearly that most Americans were anxious to get out of the Korean quagmire — nearly at any cost. In fact, the armistice was a popular decision. Nevertheless, the administration's decision to end the war increased the already growing antagonisms between the GOP right and the Eisenhower moderates; and conservatives continued to oppose the nation's roll in the UN.
Anti-communism, more than any other issue, defined the Republican right in the early 1950s, and the preeminent Republican crusader against communism was Joe McCarthy, senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy had been in the public eye since 1950, holding Senate hearings and accusing any number of federal employees, mostly inside the State Department, of being communists or communist sympathizers. Eisenhower disapproved of McCarthy and his crusade, and as the Eisenhower administration matured in office, the disapproval turned to hatred. "Eisenhower came to loathe McCarthy," Stephen Ambrose has written, "almost as much as he hated Hitler." McCarthy had taken a swipe at Eisenhower's friend and mentor General George Marshall following the firing of MacArthur in 1951. Marshall had supported MacArthur's dismissal, and McCarthy's response was to accuse Marshall, on the floor of the Senate, of being associated with "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man." It looked as though Ike and McCarthy would clash. But it was not that simple. McCarthy maintained the support of the GOP right wing while Eisenhower carried the party's moderates. Any clash over McCarthy would further divide the two wings of the party. Also, the nations' anti-communists (in and out of Congress) had come to believe that any attack on McCarthy aided the growth of communism. As late as January 1954 a full 50 percent of Americans polled by Gallup approved of what McCarthy was doing; only 29 percent disapproved.
One of McCarthy's primary supporters was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. Over the years, the two men had become good friends. They first met in the 1940s when McCarthy made occasional trips to Arizona for health reasons. A decade later in Washington, McCarthy and Goldwater became Senate colleagues and personal friends who often shared an occasional drink. As McCarthy's methods and objectives came under fire, and several even on the right abandoned him, Goldwater stood by his friend to the bitter end. Even decades later, Goldwater wrote, "I couldn't approve of some of the charges McCarthy was making, but there was a tremendous amount of evidence to support his allegations. ... I supported McCarthy's efforts to bring this out in the open." Goldwater's support of McCarthy went a long way toward straining the relationship between Eisenhower and Goldwater that was to come, and between the moderates and the right wing of the Republican party.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Liberalism's Last Hurrah"
Copyright © 2002 Gary A. Donaldson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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