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224 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, notes, bibl., index


$25.00 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5864-6

Published: Fall 1995

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Turning Right in the Sixties
The Conservative Capture of the GOP

by Mary C. Brennan

Copyright (c) 1995 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.




Chapter 1.
An Uneasy Alliance

The Republican Party, plagued by philosophical, geographical, and socioeconomic differences among its members, struggled through an identity crisis in the late 1950s and early 1960s that eventually shifted power internally from liberals to conservatives. The battle could not have been won, however, without the assistance of right-wingers outside the party structure. Uniting to form a more effective force, numerous conservative intellectuals, local groups, and journalists worked together to promote conservatives within the political system. Realizing that they needed each other to achieve power, right-wing politicians and ideologues formed an uneasy alliance based on political expediency.

This alliance created the potential for a vibrant conservative movement, but the new unity of the various strains of conservatism was tenuous at best. Traditionalists, libertarians, anticommunists, and right-wing politicians worked together when it suited their purposes but remained firmly committed to their individual agendas. In the 1950s and early 1960s, conservatives recognized the benefits of cooperation and joined forces to create a stronger conservative movement, but their lack of practical experience impeded their efforts. This explains, in part, why they did not gain power until well into the 1960s.

Ideological disputes had bitterly divided the Republican Party since the stock market crash Of 1929. The Great Depression exposed the weaknesses of Republican "trickle-down" economics and the inflexibility of Herbert Hoover's philosophy and policies. It also cost the GOP its reputation and the presidency. More importanly, the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt placed in office a man who embodied all that conservatives despised. Using the Constitution as a guidebook rather than a bible, FDR revolutionized the presidency, laid the foundations of the welfare state, and introduced Keynesianism to the economy. Although many of his policies expanded programs developed by Republicans during the Progressive Era, appalled right-wingers tried desperately to block his initiatives. Just as conservatives of both parties had begun to form a solid bulwark against the New Deal, World War II broke out, halting further expansion of the Rooseveltian policies but ensuring the continuation of the Democratic administration.(1)

Republicans achieved more success in the postwar years. In 1946 they gained control of Congress and prevented FDR'S successor, Harry Truman, from expanding the New Deal. Tbey also discovered that anticommunism could unite their party and inspire voters. Crusaders against the "Red Menace" at home and abroad undermined the Democratic Party by charging that both the party and its platform were "soft on commununism," thereby playing a role in the Republican capture of White House in 1952. Seen by much of the public as a conservative victory, the election of Dwight Eisenhower appeared to quiet the disputes within the party and to herald a new era of bipartisanship.

Just as the consensus of the 1950s proved to be an illusion, however, so the surface tranquility of the Republican Party hid intense factionalism. In part, this factionalism grew out of geographic and socioeconomic differences that, although not always openly acknowledged, divided Republicans. Throughtout the postwar period, members of what conservatives labeled the "Eastern Establishment" dominated the party. Tbese Republicans shared a common background of Ivy League educations, exclusive club memberships, and financial success. Operating many of the major corporations of the United States, they controlled the purse strings of the party and of any candidate who wanted to win on the national level. Although some members were from outside the Northeast, such as Thomas Dewey and Wendell Willkie, they had only succeeded after they moved to the East. Members of the "Establishment," assuming that they knew what was best for the entire country, held sway through their occupation of policy-making positions throughout the executive branch as well as their manipulation of the party machinery.(2)

By the 1950s, however, business people and political leaders from the South and West increasingly challenged these power brokers within the GOP. Rich Texas oil tycoons and people who had profited from the postwar industrial boom in the Southwest demanded greater influence at the national level. They believed that the burgeoning population and economy of their region entitled them to play a more important role in the formulation of policy decisions. Joining with midwesterners who also felt excluded from the "Establishment," these southern and western men and women began to coalesce into what Arizona senator Barry Goldwater described as a new populist movement.(3)

The geographic and socioeconomic distinctions between the two groups contributed to their formation of different ideological and practical goals as well. Following in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism, many members of the wealthy "Eastern Establishment" embraced New Deal-style social and economic programs in the belief that such policies would alleviate class conflicts, lead to economic stability, and keep governmental control in their hands. They envisioned what historian Robert Griffith has called a "corporate commonwealth." Believing it necessary to "come to grips with the problems of twentieth-century life," these people "worked out a program" that was, according to Eisenhower supporter Paul Hoffman, "better than anything the Democrats could offer."(4) As a result, "liberal" and/or "moderate" Republicans accepted the framework of the New Deal, created some new programs, and strove to maintain and expand American economic involvement around the world.

This program appalled the growing number of conservatives in the Southwest who stressed individual initiative over welfare programs, preferred free enterprise rather than government regulation, and desired a return to local control over matters such as schools, taxes, and race relations. Fearing communism at home, they advocated all means of exposing and eliminating real or potential traitors. In their eagerness to uncover left-wing agents, some right-wingers shocked other party members with their willingness to violate civil rights and liberties.

Although most on the right supported this domestic agenda, conservatives tended to disagree on foreign policy. Some right-wingers advocated a kind of isolationist, "Fortress America" style of diplomacy, although they opposed the taxes and bureaucracy necessary to maintain such a defense. Others wanted the United States to move aggressively to destroy communism wherever it appeared. Many of these were "Asia-Firsters," who had traditional business or missionary ties to Asia and thus focused their attention on the Far East.(5) Despite such disagreements, conservative political leaders united whenever necessary to fight against liberal domination of the GOP.

The Right had attempted previously to gain control of the party. In both 1948 and 1952, Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, leader of the conservative faction in the GOP, had sought the presidential nomination. Poor planning, a "loser" image, and powerful opponents prevented him from gaining the prize, however, and left a lingering bitterness in the mouths of many conservatives. Taft's sudden death in 1953 further weakened the Right and left them temporarily leaderless and dispirited.(6)

As the right wing of the Republican Party struggled to survive in the 1950s, a conservative movement began to coalesce outside the political structure. Conservative intellectuals who had long disagreed with one another found common ground in the struggle against communism. While maintaining their loyalty to their own philosophies, these intellectuals recognized the importance of standing united against liberalism. Essential to the development of an effective political movement, these men and women provided the philosophical underpinnings of the new drive for conservatism. Their growing involvement in the political world offered other conservatives legitimacy and justification.

During the postwar era, American conservatives generally followed one of two strands of thought: traditionalism or classical liberalism. Throughout the early 1950s, conservatives of all varieties concentrated on their differences rather than their similarities and therefore limited their audience and impact. Members of each faction behaved that only they truly understood the cause of the United States' grave troubles.

Traditionalists such as University of Chicago English professor Richard Weaver, sociologist Robert Nisbet, and Freeman founder Albert Jay Nock judged the modern Western world distasteful in many respects and criticized the cult of conformity and the emergence of what they labeled "mass man." Others, such as political philosopher Leo Strauss and political scientist John Hallowell, looked back fondly to a time when morality was the guiding principle of humanity's existence and such concepts as relativism, positivism, and totalitarianism were unknown. Although they often disagreed on how to rediscover this so-called golden age, they were certain that it had existed at some point and that the answers it provided would miraculously solve the world's problems. Historian Russell Kirk feared the growth of a "Big Brother" state, but like most traditionalists, he agreed with Edmund Burke that government played an important role in community life because in the end "political problems are religious and moral problems."(9)

Kirk's belief in an active government and his attempts to deemphasize the Cold War contrasted sharply with the views of classical liberals and libertarians such as National Review contributing editor Frank Meyer, Austrian economist Frederick A. Hayek, and creator of the Foundation for Economic Education Leonard E. Read. These men, through journals, books, and organizations, preached the gospel of laissez-faire economics and libertarianism. Their scholarly defense of limited government and a free-market economy effectively attacked the New Deal and redefined the postwar economic debate."

In the early 1950s, intellectuals from both camps found common cause in their fear of the spread of communism abroad, particularly throughout Asia. The anticommunist movement manifested itself in numerous journal articles attacking the foreign policy of the Democrats as well as in the unofficial but powerful China Lobby, which supported the Nationalist Chinese. Nor did anticommunists approve of all of Eisenhower's foreign policy decisions. Although Eisenhower worked very hard to maintain their support, his attempts at arms reduction and his willingness to meet with Khrushchev undermined his credibility as an enemy of communism. Many conservatives felt that the president did not understand circumstances that seemed obvious to them - that, in James Burnham's words, the "third world war" had already begun.(9)

Extending this crusade onto the domestic front, anticommunists applauded members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and cheered the defeat of Alger Hiss and the success of Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Conservative journals featured stories of alleged communist infiltration of prominent institutions in American society, while right-wing authors and citizens scrutinized everyone from senators to school board officials, whether Democrat or Republican. Anyone with a questionable background became suspect; anyone who defended the United States and worked against the communists deserved support and praise.

The crusade against the "Red Menace" played an essential role in unifying disagreeing conservative intellectuals and building a grassroots constituency. No matter what they thought about the domestic situation, almost everyone on the right - indeed, most Americans - feared communism. Consequently, the anticommunist crusade created a broad spectrum of support and provided conservatives with heroes. Besides Senator McCarthy, whose sensational allegations often made newspaper headlines, Alger Hiss's nemesis Vice President Richard Nixon and ex-communist informant Whittaker Chambers became legends in the battle against the Left. They served as magnets drawing diverse conservative groups and individuals to the Republican banner.

Anticommunism was not the only factor contributing to the unification and politicization of conservative intellectuals during the mid- to late 1950s. Equally important were the efforts of the evolving conservative press. Realizing that the various strands of conservative thought could not be fused successfully, men such as National Review founders William F. Buckley, Jr., and Willi Schlamm encouraged right-wing factions to overlook their differences in order to consolidate their opposition to liberalism. Along with other conservative writers working for journals such as Human Events, the Freeman, and the American Mercury, the editors of the National Review helped acquaint the public with the philosophical and practical tenets of conservatism as well as with conservative politicians and platforms. In addition, these journalists gave voice to conservative intellectuals' frustration with what they perceived as liberal domination of academia, the arts, and philosophy. In the process, the right-wing press advertised and encouraged the resurgence on the right during the 1950s.(10)

Buckley's National Review was more than just a chronicler of contemporary events. It played a vital role in articulating conservative grievances and consciously arousing and uniting the various dissatisfied factions. A devout Catholic from a wealthy family, steeped in conservatism from childhood, Buckley saw himself as a rebel against the liberal status quo and a warrior in the struggle against Soviet aggression. He first attacked liberalism in 1951 in God and Man at Yale, in which he charged the Yale faculty with preaching socialism and atheism. A talented speaker and a brilliant debater, Buckley continued his verbal and published assaults on liberalism throughout his brief career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and his pursuit of other business ventures.

Buckley's primary contribution to conservatism came in 1955 with the founding of the National Review. Bringing together men and women of widely divergent views, Buckley encouraged them to explain their positions and to debate the issues. According to publisher William Rusher, the editors strove to present "a world view, rather than merely a political philosophy or the theoretical underpinnings of an economic system."(12) Aimed at intellectuals and opinion-makers, the National Review also appealed to working-class conservatives. Despite financial difficulties in the early years, the National Review became the most important conservative magazine and Buckly the most widely recognized spokesperson of right-wing thought.

Buckley and other right-wing intellectuals were not the only rebellious conservatives. By the late 1950s, a right-wing youth movement was becoming noticeably more vocal. Some of the members of this movement had discovered conservatism through conservative journals, while others had joined organizations such as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and the Young Republican National Federation, both of which shifted dramatically to the right in the late 1950s. M. Stanton Evans, among those young people caught up in the rising tide on the right, explained in his book Revolt on the Campus that by 1960 "at least three bursts of rebellion" occurred against liberalism: "one funneled into the Republican Party, one into a premature effort at a new national organization, and one into the exotic recesses of Bohemia." While he admitted that "none did the job" of turning back the liberal orthodoxy, he believed that each signified youth's frustration" with the conformity of liberalism."(13)

Indeed, these organized young people, by supporting conservative candidates on a national level, spreading right-wing literature, and establishing groups such as the National Student Committee for the Loyalty Oath, provided an active informed conservative constituency, particularly on college campuses, throughout the country.(14) By 1960, enough support existed to create a nationwide conservative youth organization "designed solely for political action." While this new group, Young Americans for Freedom, worked independently of partisan ties, the growing conservatism of the Young Republican organization significantly affected the national party. By 1959, according to active member William Rusher, the "biennial [Young Republican] national conventions were recognized as significant straws in the Republican wind, and there seemed no doubt that in 1959 the signal would be a shift to the right."(15)

Simultaneously, citizens across the country reacted against what they regarded as the "monolithic conformity of "liberalism"' in culture and education as well as liberal politics and economics by forming local and national groups to combat whichever aspect of liberalism particularly offended or outraged them.(16) On a local level, antiintegrationist, antiblack, anti-Semitic, anti-catholic, antifluoridation, and anticommunist as well as libertarian and free enterprise groups appeared.(17) Funded mostly by a few major contributors, many of the organizations also depended heavily on small donations from members.(18) Organizations concentrating on a particular aspect of a broader cause, such as the American Survival Party and the Committee to Warn of the Arrival of Communist Merchandise on the Local Business Scene, had only limited support and impact.(19)

Anticommunist clubs abounded, but single-cause groups had a broader appeal. Many published their own newsletters or journals in an attempt to spread their message, build support, and pressure legislators to stop the growth of liberalism. Although they often reported political events and usually encouraged political participation, most of these groups despaired over the lack of differentiation between the national parties. The Congress of Freedom explained the situation from a grassroots perspective: "running true to form." the Republicans tried "to emulate the Democratic Fakers" by enacting more legislation to "siphon off [the] money of its people to enslave them.(20)

Besides these local groups, a number of national committees and organizations formed during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some, such as the Committee of One Million, focused solely on foreign policy issues. Fred C. Schwarz and others won thousands of converts by combining a hard-line attitude toward communism with Christian fundamentalism, neatly packaged together for the consumer. Other groups were more concerned about curing domestic ills. The Foundation for Economic Education, the National Economic Council, and the National Educational Program concentrated on fighting against collectivism in the government and educating the American public in conservative economics. In fact, many conservatives considered the education of the American people "in the values of freedom [and] our American heritage" to be their primary function. Moreover, right-wing groups had a responsibility, according to the members of Constructive Action, to warn the public about "the dangers and evils inherent in all forms of socialism."(21)

The most significant of these national organizations was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. The "twin centers" of die society's ideology were an antistatism that emphasized individualism and local government and a conspiracy theory warning that certain forces were attempting to take over the world. According to Welch, these "forces" or "Insiders" were a modern manifestation of the ancient Illuminati who wanted to institute worldwide communism.(22) Discounted as fanatics by many. Democrats and Republicans, members of the society used slick propaganda techniques and publications, particularly American Opinion, to build up a significant following that would not be silenced and eventually could not be ignored.

In fact, conservatives of all varieties were increasingly determined to gain political power. Throughout the latter half of the 1950s, conservative writers emphasized the necessity of political action. Human Events author Congressman Howard Buffet asserted that the "transcendent political duty of the citizen" was "vigilance" and that this task should not be left to politicians. Philosopher Richard Weaver similarly warned of the consequences of relying on political leaders, who were too willing to compromise. Notre Dame dean and right-wing organizer Clarence Manion concluded that "the terrible tide" was "turning" and the "political shot-gun marriage that Ike performed" was going to be over by 1960.(23)

Worried that eight years of "Liberal Republican" control of the party had weakened the conservative movement, National Review editor Frank Meyer still found cause for hope in the new activity on the right, which was "creating a climate in which conservatism is on the verge of emerging as the only live option for the intelligent and the independent of the new generation." Accepting the challenge, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, the Young Republicans, and later the Young Americans for Freedom began organizing and lobbying for right-wing causes and candidates.(24)

By 1960, most of this activity focused on developing strength within the Republican Party. As journalist George Sokolsky pointed out, the GOP had to serve as a "rallying point" for the "angry men" of the country because there was "no other party." Although both parties were ideologically "confused, the Democratic Party was a "catchall on every phase of liberal, and even socialist," views. The Republican Party, on the other hand, had, according to Human Events author John J. Synon, "lent little aid and comfort to the collectivists." Conservatives had to build on this trend to ensure that the party did not slip into the wrong hands.(25)

For their part, Republican conservative politicians worked hard to take advantage of this sentiment. As Senate Campaign Committee chair, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater traveled across the country attempting to bring frustrated voters "back n the party" by convincing them "that their positions were not contrary to ours."(26) From the standpoint of conservatives, gaining such support would secure a national platform for achieving their goals. It would also serve the purposes of Republican conservatives who had been struggling to win control of their party.

Although these conservative organizations and individuals provided a natural constituency for the right wing of the GOP, their support created difficulties. Since they were not elected officials, grassroots conservatives did not always see the need for, or the wisdom of, compromise. They could afford to be relentless in their quest for conservative goals; officeholders could not. Lacking political experience, intellectuals and crusaders on the right demanded a high price for their support.

Moreover, the diversity of right-wing organizations proved problematical. How could conservative leaders maintain unity among people with different goals and backgrounds? For example, although atheist Max Eastman agreed with Buckley politically, Eastman withdrew his name from the masthead of the National Review because he found the magazine too "christian." The widely distributed, oversimplified international communist conspiracy theory of Robert Welch and his followers created even greater difficulties. Many people associated with the National Review disagreed with important parts of the Birchite philosophy. Whereas Welch blamed communist conspirators for "delivering" Americans to their "doom," Buckley attributed the dangerous situation to anticommunists who "tragically misunder[stood] the nature of the crisis" Americans faced.(27)

The fact that the editors of the National Review worried more than the average midwestern or southwestern American about these intellectual subtleties created an additional obstacle to conservative unity. Farmers in the heartland, oilmen in Texas, academics in Chicago, and a journalist in New York City might all share the same basic philosophy but interpret that perspective very differently because of their distinct social and educational backgrounds. Conservatives had to treat these socioeconomic differences with care to prevent charges of elitism from undermining their cause. Surface unity existed by the early 1960s, but underlying theoretical and practical disagreements continually threatened to disrupt the calm.

Discord was particularly apparent m the political arena. Conservative Republicans united in opposition to liberal threats but squabbled endlessly when it came to advancing their own conservative agendas. Power struggles between strong personalities limited conservative unity, the most obvious example taking place in California. Both Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator William Knowland, Republican minority leader, saw themselves as the spokesperson for the California GOP. Never forgetting that Knowland had not supported him in his first campaign, Nixon denied the senator's claim to leadership in the Golden State. This rivalry continued throughout the 1950S until Knowland lost his gubernatorial and his power in 1958.(28)

Even those not directly involved in government recognized the danger of such infighting. Both W. Henry McFarland of the American Committee and L. Brent Bozell of the National Review implored their readers join forces with others on the right in order to increase their power. The calls for unity continued throughout the 1950s.(29)

Of more consequence than disunity was the taint of extremism associated with groups such as the John Birch Society. With their conspiracy theories and wild assertions that Eisenhower was a communist agent, Welch and his organization reinforced the view of many moderates and liberals that everyone on the right was a lunatic. This tendency to view a conservative thought as extremist developed during the postwar period for several reasons. Some scholars argued that the United States' lack of feudal past had prevented the development of an indigenous conservative movement. Therefore, as many liberal commentators pointed out at that time, to be a conservative in the United States was an impossibility because it would mean "conserving" liberalism. Others, pointing to the "intellectual flabbiness" of American conservatism, portrayed right-wingers as liberals with an attitude problem. According to this theory, these men and women zeroed in on the parts of liberal philosophy that they opposed and ignored the rest.(30) Such viewpoints led to the conviction that in the United States conservatism amounted to little more than the desire of businesspeople and the upper classes to maintain the status quo.

Reflecting a second aspect of this argument, others acknowledged the existence of a conservative faction but defined it solely by its radical elements. Respected journals such as the New Republic described Goldwater as "the `white hope' of America's thinning Neanderthal ranks" and his fellow conservatives as members of the "radical right" and "the crackpot fringe." Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., also associated the Right with a single segment of society. In his discussion of "the failure of the right" in The Vital Center, Schlesinger examined only the business community, thus excluding all other conservative elements. When he spoke of radicalism, he associated it with a "confused and frightened business community" susceptible to fascism rather than rampaging anticommunists or axwielding moralists.(31)

The Right also was forced to pay for its support of McCarthy's crusade against the "Red Menace." Daniel Bell, Seymour Lipset, and other commentators emphasized the irrationality of the McCarthyites' response to threats from abroad. Most Republicans had applauded the Wisconsin senator's early attacks on communism in government. When he continued his investigations during a Republican administration, however, some began to question his reliability and usefulness.(32) Moderate Republicans believed that McCarthy's willingness to violate the civil rights of suspects and his abuse of senatorial privileged undermined the legitimacy of anticommunism and threatened the reputation of the GOP. Thus, the man who had made a name for himself fighting alleged radicals came to be perceived by many Republicans as an extremist who had to be eliminated before he irreparably damaged the crusade against communism. Censured, McCarthy lost power, but not until he had introduced an extremist dynamic within the GOP.

Obviously, part of the problem conservatives faced in establishing themselves within the GOP and the country was one of definition. Most Republicans supported a basic platform that stressed local government, reduced spending, and anticommunism. As a result, ideological differences among party members became matters of degree; conservatives wanted greater local responsibility for government, less spending, and a stronger stand against communism than did party moderates or liberals. By these criteria from the moderate perspective, someone who articulated different political or more far-reaching goals or who wanted to enact the platform more quickly or more thoroughly would be an extremist and could be legitimately ignored.

Conservatives realized the danger of being labeled "extremist" and worked to counteract such a perception. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, various right-wing journalists warned that anti-Semitic and racist remarks by conservatives undermined their cause. Offering a strategy for increasing conservative ranks, author Elizabeth Churchill Brown encouraged Human Events readers to avoid associating with racists and anti-Semites. Similarly, Buckley cautioned independent publishers that "racists and crackpots" "discredited" the movement. He also attempted to convince such fanatics as Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell to give up their more excessive ideas. In 1960 Buckley denounced the American Mercury for its anti-semitic posture, which he feared would "gravely damage the cause of true conservatism." Welch's ideas, however, presented a dilemma. While Buckley rejected Welch's hypothesis that Eisenhower was a communist agent, he considered the John Birch Society a worthy organization, maintained a friendly correspondence with Welch, and supported his publication, American Opinion, from its beginnings in 1958 into the early 1960s.(33)

Building on a widespread but unarticulated public dissatisfaction with government and society, a resurgent intellectual movement, and a mushrooming network of grassroots groups, conservative Republican politicians began to develop their own organization within the party. Unlike Taft, who had scorned the conservative intellectuals, the New Right enjoyed intimate financial and personalities with these savants, as well as with the burgeoning conservative press. The resulting interaction gave voice to long-standing but previously inchoate sentiments. Conservatives soon discovered that they were not alone, but they confronted a wide range of opinion on the right. It was their willingness, albeit grudging at times, to tolerate the breadth of the developing movement that helped to unify the factions in their assault on the liberal "Eastern Establishment."

This trend toward unity is one of the most important events in the early development of the conservative movement. The integration of various right-wing groups during the late 1950s occurred on several levels. Philosophically, intellectuals with diverse beliefs realized the value of concentrating on their similarities rather than their differences in the common fight against liberals. Politically, conservatives of all stripes and socioeconomic backgrounds rallied around the cause of anticommunism, willingly overlooking their disagreements in their desire to support McCarthy. The alliance between conservative intellectuals, grassroots groups, and right-wing politicians was extremely significant in the long-term development of the conservative movement. The anger and frustration of citizens created a substantial bloc of votes and money; the theoreticians and the press channeled those votes toward support of conservative politicians. By offering intellectual justifications, thinkers such as Frank Meyer, James Burnham, and Russell Kirk gave the developing movement the legitimacy necessary to challenge liberal control of the party.


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