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Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Rick Perlstein

3 2001
Volume 7, Number 3


Barry's War

Fall 2001

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein (Hill and Wang, 2001 xvi + 671 pgs)

Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidency in 1964 decisively influenced American conservatism. At last, a candidate who dared to challenge the prevailing liberal consensus! Mr. Perlstein brings to life those decisive days. (I was a high-school student at the time and can testify to how well our author evokes the atmosphere.)

Goldwater's remarkable act of defiance had for him an unhappy outcome: Lyndon Johnson, a quintessential practitioner of New Deal politics, trounced him in the November 1964 election. Why did Goldwater fail? Was his cause one with at most a minority appeal to the American public? Our author, though decidedly not a Goldwater partisan, thinks otherwise. Ronald Reagan, an ardent supporter of Goldwater during the campaign, won the presidency on a platform that resembled Goldwater's; and the Arizona senator's sharp assault on the welfare state, once dismissed as extremist, is today a commonplace.

What, then, happened? In part, an inept campaign led to electoral rout, but the major cause lay elsewhere. The Johnson forces skillfully used shock over the Kennedy assassination to fuel a mendacious assault on the supposed right-wing atmosphere of hate that, it was alleged, bore responsibility for President Kennedy's death. Goldwater fell right into the trap set by his leftist foes. Though his domestic policies stood squarely within the American tradition, he accepted the appellation "extremist" that his enemies sought to pin on him.

And in one essential area, the leftist charge was right. Goldwater enthusiastically championed the cold war, and many who might otherwise have been well disposed to him found frightening his apparent haste to bring nuclear weapons into play. Ironically, in foreign policy, Goldwater stood squarely within the liberal consensus, which was itself extreme. Mr. Perlstein shows that his "extremist" nuclear rhetoric merely echoed earlier remarks by Kennedy, Rockefeller, and other stalwarts of the cold war consensus. Had Goldwater returned to the noninterventionist foreign policy of the Old Right, he could have turned the campaign of fear against his accusers.

Goldwater could have avoided difficulties had he followed the policy of Clarence Manion, a longtime conservative activist who organized the first drive to draft Goldwater as the Republican presidential nominee. Among his many endeavors on Goldwater's behalf, Manion commissioned Brent Bozell to write Conscience of a Conservative, the widely circulated manifesto of the conservative movement that appeared under Goldwater's name. 

Manion, for many years dean of the Notre Dame Law School, firmly supported the foreign policy of Washington's Farewell Address. As a young man, he opposed America's entry into World War I, and "[w]hen Roosevelt began making noises for military mobilization in 1940, Manion once again joined the anti_interventionist cause, taking a leadership position in the left-right coalition America First" (p. 7). Manion's close political associate, who aided him in his efforts to draft Goldwater, was none other than General Robert Wood, a founder of America First. 

Traditional American foreign policy diametrically opposed what our author terms "consensus, managerial, or pragmatic liberalism: the belief that any problem, once identified, could be settled through disinterested application of managerial expertise" (p. 56). Readers of Murray Rothbard will have little difficulty in seeing consensus liberalism as a continuation of the ideology of the Progressive movement. Nelson Rockefeller, aided by his employee Henry Kissinger, ranked among the foremost consensus liberals of the 1950s.

As regards foreign policy, a managerial liberal would reason in this way: Soviet Russia and its allies threaten the United States. Faced with this danger, we cannot stand idly by. A massive military buildup, stressing nuclear weapons, must be used to support worldwide intervention against the Communist bloc. But anticommunism is not enough. Foreign aid programs must be instituted to cope with poverty, the underlying cause of sympathy for communism.

Noninterventionists saw matters in an entirely different light. They did not ignore the evils of communism, but they refused to accept that the proper way to combat it was to establish a militarized centralized state that imitated Soviet Russia. Quite the contrary, the natural forces of the market would eventually bring about the collapse of communism. Probably the most important "positive" foreign policy step the United States could take would be to refrain from foreign aid to prop up the tottering economies of the Warsaw Pact countries. Exactly as with domestic matters, laissez_faire was the order of the day.

Goldwater to a large extent rejected traditional American foreign policy. (An early indication of this, which our author has surprisingly missed, is that he supported Eisenhower rather than the noninterventionist Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican Convention.) Not all of the foreign policy in Conscience was bad. Goldwater opposed most foreign aid and viewed the United Nations with suspicion. He questioned the "balance of terror" doctrine common at the time, according to which peace depended on the United States and Soviet Russia each being able to scare the other with the prospect of nuclear holocaust. In this happy state of affairs, it was alleged, each would deter the other from ever using the dread weapons.

Goldwater was right to challenge the regnant orthodoxy on these matters. Surely peace depends on the concrete interests at issue among competing nations, rather than on an automatic mechanism whose supporters, ad absurdum, viewed it as desirable that the Soviet Union possess a large nuclear arsenal. (Oskar Morgenstern, among many others, advocated precisely this.)

Unfortunately, Goldwater did not move from his defiance of standard nuclear doctrine to a call for a return to traditional diplomacy. Instead, he spoke constantly about the need for a "war of attrition" and denounced "surrender." His frequent reminders of the need to risk death in all-out war were hardly the customary rhetoric of the American right, at least in its pre-William Buckley days. Even Herbert Hoover found it "hard to disagree" with the feeling that Goldwater might get us into war (p. 348). Such inflammatory language, as we shall see, played into the hands of his leftist adversaries, although as Perlstein makes evident, Goldwater did little more here than echo mainstream cold warriors.

On domestic matters, Goldwater went far to justify the confidence that Manion and other rightists reposed in him. His attacks on waste in the welfare state and on labor union violence struck home; these proved very effective issues for him during the campaign. Mr. Perlstein dissents: he appears to question the existence of welfare fraud (p. 132), and he fervently admires Walter Reuther. Concerning the notorious Kohler strike in Wisconsin, our author refers to "violence piling up on both sides" (p. 36). I venture to suggest that had Perlstein paid greater attention to one of his sources, Sylvester Petro's The Kohler Strike, he would have realized the serious threat that labor union thugs posed to the free market (p. 526). 

Goldwater's stand on an even more controversial issue boded well for his election prospects. He deplored discrimination against blacks; but, in contrast with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he refused to accept confrontation and violence as a means to ameliorate racial relations. The nonviolence of Martin Luther King et hoc genus omne was of course a fraud: It aimed to provoke others to violence in the hope that this would advance the civil rights agenda. As incendiarism and looting mounted during the "long, hot summers" of the early '60s, Goldwater's principled stance won him wide support. 

The traditional American order, ably championed by the Old Right, favored peace and laissez-faire on both the domestic and foreign fronts. In view of the widespread fears of nuclear war abroad and racial violence at home then prevalent among the American public, would not an Old Right program that aimed to defuse tensions on both fronts have had great appeal? Unfortunately, Goldwater adopted only the domestic part of this program. His foreign policy proposals fomented unease, a fact his adversaries hastened to exploit.

Indeed, foreign affairs were Goldwater's undoing during his race for the presidency. Although he virtually had to be dragged into the presidential campaign by Manion and F. Clifton White, he had, by 1963, outdistanced Nelson Rockefeller as frontrunner for the next year's nomination. But Kennedy's assassination on November 22 at once changed the situation.

The left, without a pause for breath, pounced. Without the slightest evidence, they indicted the right for a "climate of hate" that they claimed caused Kennedy's murder. "A word was repeated again and again, on the streets, before the television cameras, in the newspapers: hate. . . . Extremism had killed Kennedy" (p. 249). Chief Justice Warren, no doubt resentful of the right-wing call for his impeachment, joined in the hue and cry against "fanaticism."

Largely owing to the antihate campaign, Goldwater lost his position as frontrunner; Perlstein ably chronicles the rise and fall of the many aspirants to the top position. These included the ubiquitous Nelson Rockefeller; Henry Cabot Lodge; and the moderates' last hope, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania. With the help of careful planning by Clifton White, whom our author portrays as a master of convention politics, Goldwater rebounded, regained his leading position, and won the nomination.

Now the crucial question arose: Would the candidate succeed in overcoming the attempt by the partisans of Lyndon Johnson to depict him as a hater and as an extremist hell-bent on nuclear holocaust? Goldwater did not help matters when, in his speech accepting the party's nomination, he reminded his audience, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . . and moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue" (p. 391).

The line stemmed from Harry Jaffa, a frequent target in these pages; but for once, Jaffa had a point. As a good Aristotelian scholar, he knew well that in the Nicomachean Ethics, justice, unlike other virtues, is not a mean between two extremes. Surely, however, the convention was not a fit place to apprise people of this nuance, and Jaffa played into the hands of the scaremongers. Incidentally, in view of the invective Jaffa frequently launches these days against Chief Justice Rehnquist, it is fascinating to learn that the two collaborated on Goldwater's speeches (pp. 424, 461).

Perlstein emphasizes the many tactical errors of those in control of the campaign. Once the nomination had been secured, Goldwater turned from White to the "Arizona Mafia" headed by Denison Kitchel to run the campaign. Our author clearly regrets the shift, as well as the delegation of intellectual leadership to a team headed by William Baroody. But not even the most skilled political operatives could have repelled the leftist assault. Goldwater was his own worst enemy: his bellicose foreign policy might as well have been written to order by his opposition. 

Mr. Perlstein has given us a work remarkable for the scope of its coverage and the depth of its research. I noted a few mistakes: The Fact magazine story that smeared Goldwater did not appear in the "first and only issue" (p. 438); Lyndon Johnson was not the first Southerner since Zachary Taylor to become president (p. 252); Arthur Krock appears as "Arthur Crock" (p. 222); and the thesis of Revilo Oliver's "Marxmanship in Dallas" is misstated (p. 290).

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