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The RepublicansA History of the Grand Old Party$

Lewis L. Gould

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199936625

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199936625.001.0001

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From “Had Enough” to Modern Republicanism, 1945–1961

From “Had Enough” to Modern Republicanism, 1945–1961

(p.217) 9 From “Had Enough” to Modern Republicanism, 1945–1961
The Republicans

Lewis L. Gould

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on how the Republicans sought and then won national power during the 1940s and 1950s while their own sense of themselves as a party remained in flux during the years between the end of World War II and the presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon in 1960. It details the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower; the Republicans' problems in the areas of civil rights and foreign policy; and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Keywords:   Republicans, Republican Party, political power, World War II, Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, civil rights, foreign policy, John F. Kennedy

THE REPUBLICANS WERE once again meeting in Chicago in July 1952 amid intense passions as Robert A. Taft and Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled for the nomination. After twenty years out of power, victory against the Democrats in the fall seemed probable. First the party had to decide between “Mr. Republican” and the American military hero of World War II. The contest was close, hinging on a cluster of disputed delegates from the South. The Eisenhower forces charged that Taft’s allies were trying to steal delegates, and they sought “fair play.” The Taft camp believed that their candidate was being cheated out of a nomination that belonged to him. Once again, they felt, eastern Republicans were thwarting the will of the party. A decade and a half of strife between the factions swelled to a climax.

The symbol of frustration for the Taft delegates was the New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey, the losing presidential candidate in 1944 and 1948. Now Dewey was the brains behind the effort to put Eisenhower in the White House and the spirit behind the claim that Taft “can’t win.” At a key moment in the struggle over the delegates, the Taft leaders decided to make Dewey the issue. They selected Senator Everett M. Dirksen to speak on Taft’s behalf during the debate over the issue of the contested delegates. The Senator’s real task was to take on Dewey and his controversial role in the party. With his wavy hair and stentorian voice, the grandiloquent Dirksen assailed the New Yorker. Spotting Dewey in the audience, he said, “We followed you before and you took us down the road to defeat.”1

Dirksen’s words set off a spontaneous outpouring of Dewey denunciation. Boos rang out through the hall, some of them intended for Dirksen, but most directed at Dewey. From the galleries, jeers rained down on the imperturbable New Yorker. A national television audience (or as national as it was in those days) watched as the pent-up animosities of the New Deal and Fair (p.218) Deal were unleashed on the convention floor. The next day the Taft leaders styled Dewey as “the greatest menace that the Republican party has.”2

In the end, Dewey’s cause triumphed and Eisenhower was nominated, but the long-term victory would rest with the conservatism that Taft and Dirksen represented. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Republicans sought and then won national power. Nonetheless, their own sense of themselves as a party remained in flux during the years between the end of World War II and the presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon in 1960.

That television viewers saw for themselves Dirksen’s attack on Dewey was one major indicator of how politics had changed for both parties after the end of World War II. In 1948, under 1 percent of American homes had a television set. By 1952 the number had risen to more than 34 percent. Televised hearings of Senator Estes Kefauver’s investigation of organized crime attracted big audiences in 1951. A new age of politics was dawning as the old alignments that had dominated public life since the turn of the century gave way to a new culture of celebrity and mass media that tested the resilience of both parties.

Although many Americans feared that the depression of the 1930s might return once the fighting stopped, the exact opposite occurred. The nation had become so prosperous during wartime that consumers had built up large amounts of savings as their weekly wages rose by almost 100 percent. Government spending on veterans also increased in the late 1940s. With money at their disposal and marriage rates soaring, couples poured savings into suburban homes for their baby boom offspring by the end of the decade. Mothers stayed home to raise their families, and the couples acquired cars, appliances, and all the trappings of the good life.

With prosperity came moves to warmer climates as veterans who had been stationed in the Sunbelt returned there to make a new start. Fresh from the Navy and then Yale, George Herbert Walker Bush ventured into the oil business in West Texas, and soon his growing family found other Republican-minded friends in Midland and later in Houston. Barry M. Goldwater welcomed newcomers to Phoenix after the war. Still a liberal Democrat, Ronald Reagan witnessed Los Angeles explode with new arrivals after 1945. Richard Nixon accepted the invitation of local Republicans to seek the congressional nomination in his southern California district that same year.

Many Roosevelt Democrats found their allegiance to that party eroding as they acquired a home and achieved prosperity in their businesses. The militance of labor unions now seemed a threat to social stability, and attacks on management had less resonance. Other forces also undermined the New Deal. As Communism loomed, Democrats of Eastern European extraction (p.219) saw their party as less concerned about the Russian threat and the plight of the satellite nations. The influx of blacks in the North strengthened the Democrats, but the resulting racial tensions also strained white ties to the party of Roosevelt and Truman. These pressures emerged slowly but by the 1950s were tilting voters toward the Republicans.

In the South, Democrats chafed at the evident sympathy of their northern colleagues for the aspirations of African Americans following World War II. They began to consider either a third party to represent southern interests or the even more profound heresy of making common cause with the Republicans. White migrants to Atlanta, Houston, Birmingham, and other southern cities found only a shell of a Republican Party in most instances. For decades the Grand Old Party had existed there only to distribute patronage when Republicans held the White House or to furnish delegates to the party’s national conventions. These entrenched leaders did not seek out new converts during the late 1940s even as some of their electorate expanded for the first time since the Civil War. New Republicans would make a powerful statement when Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president.3

The style of national politics also shifted during the postwar era. Radio in the 1920s and 1930s had provided an aural window into a culture that had not changed much since the late nineteenth century. Newspapers had reported conventions and rallies in some detail, and the full text of key speeches often appeared in major urban dailies. The media had only covered what politicians did and had little effect on how politicians conducted themselves. Television proved a devastating blow to “business as usual” for politicians. Lengthy speeches were boring when cameras looked on. Contested conventions proved embarrassing to winner and loser alike when the proceedings ran into the night and disrupted programming schedules. Photogenic qualities trumped sober substance.

Television also created new ways for the parties to market their appeal through commercials. Access to a mass audience came with the costs associated with a national medium. Soon the expenses of campaigns grew in an inflationary cycle that made fundraising a key skill for a politician. Dependence on large donors, whether personal or corporate, became an integral part of political life. Republicans in the 1950s and 1960s combined cultivation of small supporters among their rank and file with the largesse of corporate America.

The century-long trend of declining interest in politics accelerated. Despite periodic surges in voter participation, such as the 1952 and 1960 elections, citizens took a smaller role in partisan affairs during the second half of (p.220) the twentieth century. Other diversions—ample leisure time, professional sports—wooed people away from politics year after year. The number of self-styled independents rose to one-third of eligible voters. Parties became an arena where activists dominated. Ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats become more intense.

The issue of Communism and internal subversion was perhaps the most striking factor in the postwar political equation. The emergence of the Cold War and the rivalry with the Soviet Union and, later, Communist China had turned victory in World War II into a dangerous worldwide struggle with a totalitarian creed. That the USSR took advantage of its military triumph over Germany to dominate Eastern Europe was not sufficient explanation in the eyes of Republicans. Nor did the ability of the Chinese Communists to capitalize on the weakness and corruption of their Nationalist rivals appear to explain the “fall” of China. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration must have been sympathetic to Communism or been taken in by the Soviet agents working in the government. Since the Republicans believed that the Democratic Party was illegitimate in the first place and the New Deal an alien creed on its own terms, a connection between Roosevelt and the Communist threat was easy to make.4

Subsequent revelations taken from Soviet archives and American codebreaking have disclosed the presence of an active Soviet espionage network in the United States. Its membership and impact is a matter of intense dispute. To assert, for example, that Alger Hiss was a spy is to ignite a clamorous controversy. While the weight of the evidence does indicate that Hiss was a Soviet agent, the work of Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and others did not change in a fundamental manner the direction of American foreign policy between 1941 and 1947. Cooperation with the Soviets made sense during World War II, since the Red Army was the main force confronting the Wehrmacht until 1943 or 1944. Historians on the left now believe, moreover, that Harry Truman was too much the belligerent anti-Communist in 1946–1947 rather than the dupe of left-wing advisers.5

Republican attacks on Democrats for their alleged softness on Communism offered tempting rewards beyond asserting a position that many Republicans accepted as an article of faith. It provided the prospect of recapturing the allegiance of voters of Eastern European ancestry who disliked the Soviets. Roman Catholic voters also found the Republicans more palatable because of their stance on Moscow. Anti-Communism put the Democrats on the defensive about their patriotism, while serving to emphasize the differences within the majority party over how to handle the Communist (p.221) challenge. There seemed to be no political risks in the campaign, since being too patriotic in the fight against Communism could never be perceived as a liability among Republicans.

The practical effect was another matter. Rooting out the real Soviet spies was a laborious process for law enforcement and not something done well in the glow of publicity. Labeling as security risks all those in government who had once sympathized with Communism ignored the changes that had occurred in people’s thinking during the 1940s after such events as the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Moreover, the effort to instill conformity on anti-Communism wasted much valuable energy without producing real results in the struggle with Moscow. For more than a decade, however, allegations of disloyalty became a staple element in Republican attacks on the Democrats.

Though Harry S. Truman is now regarded as a great president, his administration got off to a clumsy start in 1945–1946. The dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945 ended the war with Japan, and the economy lurched into peacetime in the months that followed. Organized labor sought to realize wage gains that had been deferred during the fighting, and strikes became a chronic part of American life. Price controls added to the continuing pressure that consumers experienced. Truman stumbled from one crisis to another without the united support of his own party. Liberal and conservative Democrats battled for influence within the new administration over civil rights, foreign policy, and the economy. Martha Taft quipped, “To err is Truman,” and much of the middle class took up the refrain. As the Republicans put it to the voters, “Had Enough?”6

The Republicans also fielded new faces among their candidates. In California a young Navy veteran named Richard Nixon ran against the liberal House member Jerry Voorhis with an indictment of the incumbent’s record “as more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic.” Joseph R. McCarthy in Wisconsin portrayed himself as “Tail-Gunner Joe” (an exaggeration of his military record with the Marines in the South Pacific) in his race against Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., to win the state’s Republican primary. John Bricker of Ohio ran for the Senate and won, as did John Sherman Cooper in Kentucky. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., won reelection in Massachusetts.7

The issue of Communism loomed large in the Republican surge. The chair of the Republican National Committee, B. Carroll Reece, told voters, “The choice which confronts America this year is between Communism and Republicanism.” Senator Taft was at the forefront of this effort. He argued that the Democrats were “so divided between Communism and Americanism” that the party’s “foreign policy can only be futile and contradictory and make (p.222) the United States the laughing stock of the world.” A single phrase summed up this aspect of the Republican campaign. The Democrats were guilty of the “Three Cs,” which were “Confusion, Corruption, and Communism.”8

In fact, the election results produced a Republican sweep. The party gained 13 seats in the Senate to establish control with 51 senators to 45 for the Democrats. In the House, their net gain was 55, and they had a strong working majority with 245 members. The Republicans also elected twenty-five governors in what the Chicago Tribune called “the greatest victory for the Republicans since Appomattox.” For the first time since 1930, the Republicans had control of Congress, and prospects for 1948 seemed bright.9

Congressional Republicans, flush with success, thought they knew what the election meant. As Taft put it, the party should “restore those principles of freedom which had been the foundation stone of America’s historical development.” Most of the Republicans agreed that they had a popular mandate to repeal as much of the Roosevelt program as President Truman would allow. This postelection enthusiasm was misguided. The Republicans had not campaigned on the issue of overturning the New Deal and repudiating the policies of the past fourteen years. The party had won because of discontent with the excesses of organized labor and the early ineptitude of the Truman administration. By going too far in their zeal to reject the New Deal, the Republicans in Congress played into Harry Truman’s hands in 1948.10

In the Eightieth Congress, which convened in January 1947, Robert Taft was the major Republican leader. He did not take the post of majority leader, but he dominated the upper house on domestic issues. Although conservative on most subjects, he advocated government support of housing and federal aid for education. For the most part, however, Taft pursued the agenda of the right wing of his party.

The main Republican voice on foreign policy was Arthur Vandenberg, who had renounced his earlier isolationism in favor of the internationalism of Roosevelt and Truman. He and Taft were sometimes at odds because the Ohioan was suspicious of the administration’s attempts to involve the United States overseas. As a result, the Republicans did not have a coherent voice as the White House developed its containment policy toward the Soviet Union in 1946–1947.

The House, under the leadership of Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, was more determined than the Senate to roll back the New Deal. Legislation came out of the lower chamber that often put the Republican senators in the awkward position of disagreeing with their House colleagues or accepting proposals that would hurt the party’s chances in 1948. The reluctance of the (p.223) House to compromise provided the president with ample evidence to use against the Republicans when 1948 rolled around.

Divisions among the Republicans frustrated the hopes of Taft and his associates to build a platform on which the party could run. In foreign affairs, the Grand Old Party fell in behind the administration on the main components of containment. Congress did pass the Taft-Hartley law aimed at organized labor in 1947 over Truman’s veto. Despite charges that it was unfair to unions, and even a “slave labor” measure, the Taft-Hartley Act became a lasting part of labor law. The unions resented most the measure’s abolition of the closed, all-union shop where every worker had to be a union member. In the short run, therefore, organized labor’s unhappiness with Taft-Hartley helped Truman’s election chances.11

On the issue of Communism, Truman took much of the sting out of the Republican attacks. Aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947, along with the Marshall Plan to rebuild the war-torn economies of Western Europe, showed that the White House was as anti-Communist as the GOP. Truman also launched a large-scale government program to root out alleged subversives, a tactic that preempted that issue. As left-wing elements in the Democratic Party moved away from Truman and toward the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, Truman came to seem even more of a battler against Communist influence in the United States.12

Meanwhile, the congressional Republicans made substantial cuts in farm programs, declined to increase the minimum wage, and rejected housing legislation that Senator Taft had introduced and supported. The assumption that the American people wanted to have the New Deal overturned proved to be out of step with the popular mood in 1947–48. Yet the congressional Republicans declined to modify their conservative positions even to help their party’s chances in the 1948 presidential race.

That contest proved to be the last of the New Deal confrontations between Democrats and Republicans. When the year began the fundamentals seemed to be on the side of Truman. The nation was prosperous and once again at peace within the context of the Cold War. In political terms, dark clouds threatened the incumbent’s chances. On the left, the candidacy of Henry Wallace attracted many Democrats who were not convinced that a hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union was needed. In the South, resistance to Truman’s ambitious civil rights program stirred talk of a revolt among Dixie Democrats (Dixiecrats) against party loyalty because of the race question. The Democratic coalition, so long an amalgam of contradictory elements, seemed to be coming apart.

(p.224) The Republicans appeared to have a good chance of winning against Truman, whose popularity remained vulnerable to political downdrafts. Their available candidates had weaknesses that made the possibility of an outside alternative more attractive. So in late 1947, much talk went around within both parties about the potential of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a presidential candidate. The general had not yet revealed his strong Republican leanings. His Republican supporters entered him in the New Hampshire primary, and Eisenhower was forced to respond. Serving as president of Columbia University and not wishing to enter politics at that time, he wrote a public letter to the publisher of a New Hampshire newspaper that conveyed his decision, in his words, “to remove myself completely from the political scene.”13

That left the Republicans with their main hopefuls, Thomas E. Dewey, Robert A. Taft, and Harold Stassen of Minnesota. Though he would later turn into a political joke, Stassen had real appeal in 1948 as a young (he was forty), dynamic, liberal Republican who had been governor of his state at the age of thirty. Behind a campaign that aimed to rally grass-roots Republicans and the attractive personal facade was a shallow, self-absorbed individual so sure of his own destiny that he could not recognize his own vulnerabilities. Stassen won a number of primaries in the spring but stumbled when he debated Dewey during the Oregon primary. The Minnesotan advocated outlawing the Communist Party, Dewey demolished his argument, and Stassen faded as a candidate.14

Senator Taft still had to overcome the belief that he could not win because of his dour personality. A public relations campaign to humanize the Ohio senator only ended up emphasizing his sterner qualities. Taft may have been “Mr. Republican,” but there persisted in the ranks of the faithful the nagging sense that he would be a poor choice in a presidential race against Truman. Neither he nor his supporters really liked Dewey and his icy efficiency, but Taft’s lack of charisma was his main drawback in 1948.

Despite his loss in 1944, Thomas E. Dewey appeared to be the strongest Republican choice. The defeat by Roosevelt was blamed on wartime conditions, and in an election against the less commanding Truman, Dewey’s victory seemed probable. He could carry his home state against the president and would do well on the eastern seaboard. With Republican strength in the farm belt and the West, a winning electoral coalition seemed to be within reach. Dewey had been a popular governor of New York, where he blended fiscal conservatism with moderation on social issues. During the primary season, Dewey put special emphasis on the struggle with Communism and urged the American people to “insist that government stop listening to the (p.225) left-wingers, the communist propaganda and its own fears and doubts and start believing in our system and telling all the world about it.”15

While Dewey stood in the mainstream of Republican thought, he did not believe that his party would win simply by denouncing the New Deal and all its works. Yet by offering more conservative policy alternatives that still resonated with the goals of the Democrats, he came across to many of his fellow Republicans as a “me-too” candidate. As a result, conservatives thought that Dewey did not attack the opposition with sufficient gusto. A street fighter by instinct, as he had proven in his war with organized crime in the 1930s, Dewey concluded that his slashing attacks on Roosevelt in 1944 had not worked, and he resolved to take a higher road against Truman toward what seemed an inevitable victory.

Many Republicans fretted that Dewey had an unattractive personality. The wife of a Republican leader in New York once said, “You have to know Mr. Dewey very well in order to dislike him.” The working press regarded him as secretive and arrogant. Dewey’s mustache put voters off, but his wife liked it, and he refused to change his appearance. With a poll-driven organization that pretested his views on disputed issues, Dewey often came across as soulless and calculating. As long as he seemed like a winner, the GOP would tolerate him, but he never won the party’s heart in his two presidential campaigns.16

With Truman beset on all sides during the first half of 1948, Dewey disposed of Harold Stassen in the primaries and won the nomination on the third ballot over Taft and the other candidates at the Philadelphia convention. Both parties met in the same city that year because network television coverage over AT&T’s coaxial cable from Richmond to Boston enabled them to reach the small number of set owners in the Northeast. For his running mate, Dewey selected Earl Warren, the popular governor of California. The two men did not get along, and Dewey criticized Warren’s intelligence in private.

In his acceptance speech on June 24, 1948, Dewey sought to rise above the partisan fray and strike a note of unity and national resolve. “Our people are turning away from the meaner things that divide us,” he told the delegates. The Republicans “must be the instrument of that inspiration.” In its lofty tone it read and sounded more like an inaugural address than a call to arms. From the outset of the campaign, the Republican assumption that victory was theirs informed the strategy that Dewey followed. The platform was moderate in its language and centrist in its substance. It called for the Equal Rights Amendment, stood for broader civil rights including abolition of the poll tax, and proposed a “reduction in the enormous burden of taxation.” While there (p.226)

From “Had Enough” to Modern Republicanism, 1945–1961

Everyone expected Governor Thomas E. Dewey to win the presidency in 1948 and return the Republicans to power. Supporters reflected that confidence in New York when he returned from a campaign tour. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-94135.

was a pledge “to expose the treasonable activities of Communists,” the wording did not link the Democrats with subversion. There was a plank supporting the United Nations and the concept of “collective security.”17

The Republicans left Philadelphia confident of their success in November. The postconvention polls showed a “bounce” for Dewey, and he was reported to be eight to ten points ahead of Truman, whose troubles persisted. Southern Democrats, angry about the administration’s civil rights program, split off to form the States’ Rights Party, with Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential nominee. The Progressive Party behind Henry Wallace was certain to draw off voters from Truman’s left. How then could the Democrats ever expect to win? As Dewey’s campaign manager, Herbert Brownell, wrote, “Our optimism for a Republican victory was based in large part on Truman’s political woes.”18

Republican confidence in victory bred a sense of impending entitlement within the party. With polls showing Dewey well ahead, Republicans made plans for a move to Washington in January 1949. Partisans readied their (p.227) résumés and thought about how new policies would be developed. All that remained was the formality of the election itself before the Republicans would retake control of the government and once again play their natural role as the majority party.

Nothing went as the Republicans had planned. Truman made a hard-hitting acceptance speech at the Democratic convention that assailed the Eightieth Congress as the worst in the nation’s history. He promised to summon the lawmakers back into a special session in late July (on “Turnip Day,” as the president put it) to address the nation’s unmet needs on housing, education, civil rights, and economic issues such as rising prices. The strategy was risky, since the Republicans could enact some substantial laws and leave the president looking foolish.19

The Republicans chose principle over tactics during the special session. The lawmakers deadlocked on most issues, even proving unsympathetic to Dewey’s needs. The candidate wanted modifications in the restrictive law governing the admission of refugees from Europe that had alienated urban Catholic and Jewish voters. The Republicans on Capitol Hill took no action on the measure. This episode and other roadblocks solidified the stereotype about a “Do-Nothing” Congress that Truman was now using as a whipping boy in his reinvigorated campaign.20

Both Truman and Dewey campaigned in the fall in the last of the railroad-based presidential contests. The Republican and his team rode the “Victory Special,” with polls showing him some thirteen points ahead in mid-September. Dewey let Taft, Stassen, and other Republicans do the heavy lifting in attacking Truman and his policies. Dewey himself stumped like an incumbent facing a defeated opponent. His propensity for sonorous banalities soon became a trademark. In Arizona on September 23, he told his audience: “You know that your future is still ahead of you.” The next day at the Hollywood Bowl he proclaimed, “We will go forward to develop our resources.” Several weeks later in Kansas City, Dewey intoned, “As never before we need a rudder to our ship of state and a firm hand on the tiller.”21

Dewey’s speeches did have substance, but they often resembled position papers more than exhortations to the faithful to turn out and vote. Truman and the Democrats were not often mentioned, and the record of the Republican Congress received little attention. Like a football team with a secure lead in the fourth quarter, the Dewey camp planned to run out the clock. The problem was that President Truman did not intend to perform the political equivalent of taking a knee. As Dewey’s momentum slowed, the president kept hammering away at his “Give ’em Hell” campaign to large and enthusiastic (p.228) crowds. In his battle, Truman sometimes tinged his remarks with demagoguery: in late October he likened Dewey to a “front man” for fascism on the model of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Dewey wanted to strike back hard but backed off on the advice of his strategists. He chided Truman for a “new low in mud-slinging” but went no further.22

These events would become part of Republican lore. Dewey’s defeat convinced many conservatives that only an all-out attack would work in the future. If Truman could raise the specter of fascism, then Republicans could invoke the more damaging image of Communism at home and abroad. In the mutual exchange of invective that marks American politics, both parties enjoyed playing hardball when they were pitching. The Truman-Dewey campaign left lasting scars on the GOP, and the party would not soon again be outdone in vitriol on the trail.

A key element in Dewey’s loss had little to do with ideology but emerged from a sector of the economy where the party had done well in the past. A revolt in the farm community, unanticipated by the Republicans, cost Dewey crucial votes and the presidency. With crop surpluses at high levels, farmers needed storage capacity for their products or they would have to sell their goods for whatever the market would bear. The Eightieth Congress had not funded the expansion of such facilities when it reauthorized the Commodity Credit Corporation. When farm prices fell in the autumn of 1948, Middle Western farmers blamed the Republicans for their plight. As a gentleman farmer from New York, Dewey seemed less interested in the problem than did Truman, who had been a Missouri farmer. The issue collapsed Dewey’s support in key farm states as the election neared.23

On Election Day, November 2, 1948, everyone expected a Dewey victory. Some pollsters had even stopped taking surveys in late September because Dewey was perceived as so far ahead. The conventional wisdom was that voters made up their minds by Labor Day and rarely changed them after that date. In fact, Dewey lost supporters and Truman picked up votes as the campaign wrapped up. Still, as the returns started to come in and Truman moved into the lead, commentators expected Dewey to bounce back and pull the contest out based on the rural vote in the West.

It never happened. Truman won more than twenty-four million votes; Dewey received just under twenty-two million. The president garnered 303 electoral votes to 189 for Dewey, while the States’ Rights Party carried four southern states with 39 electoral votes. Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party came in a badly beaten fourth. The Democrats also regained control of the House and Senate. Truman carried much of the old Democratic South (p.229) and border states, did well in the Middle West, and scored west of the Rockies. Dewey ran well in the East, picked up Michigan and Indiana, but carried only four states west of the Mississippi. Despite the excitement of the election, fewer voters went to the polls than expected. Republican turnout was not robust, probably because Dewey’s success seemed so certain. The campaign that had begun with so much confidence for the Republicans ended in one of the great electoral surprises in the nation’s history.

The Republican Party spent the postelection season eating political crow. The Chicago Tribune, convinced that the Republicans had won on election night despite all the negative indicators came out the next morning with the banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Alice Roosevelt quipped as the returns came in: “You can’t make a souffle rise twice.” The defeated candidate well summed up Republican feelings in private: “What do you know? The son of a bitch won.”24

The outcome of the 1948 election hinged on Dewey’s lapses as a candidate. Had he campaigned with half of Truman’s vigor and invective, he would have spurred Republicans who stayed home in their confidence of success. Had Dewey been more approachable and trusting of the voters, he could have blended his skill as an administrator with just a touch of humanity. As it was, the American people realized that Dewey was not really one of them.

The results of the 1948 election produced important results for both parties. The Democrats were a tired organization by 1948 after sixteen years in power. While Truman was an effective foreign policy president and pioneer in civil rights, his administration lacked the energy and talent of the New Deal. It was probably time for a change. Had Dewey triumphed, the Korean War would have been fought under Republican auspices, and the issue of domestic Communism might not have taken the virulent form that it did. The country was not as liberal as Truman’s victory made it appear, and Dewey’s administration would probably have reflected the country’s real mood.

As it was, the Republicans were convinced that the combination of Truman’s demagogic campaigning and Dewey’s ineptitude had cost them an election that belonged to them. If Truman could toss charges of fascism against them, then why should the GOP not hurl charges of Communist subversion against their political rivals? After all, most Republicans knew in their heart of hearts that these allegations were true. If pursuing the Communist issue attracted new voters to the Republicans, that was a pleasant dividend from their honest patriotism.

After Dewey’s loss, the conservative and moderate wings of the party argued about the cause of the 1948 debacle in a debate that raged for another (p.230) decade. One influential conservative, Clarence Budington Kelland, complained in February 1949 that the party “had appeased groups and blocs.” He continued, “We have fished for racial voters or sectional votes with evasions. We have not realized our duty, to our party, to our country and posterity.” Faced with a tide of Democratic efforts to take away freedom in the name of liberalism, Kelland added, the Republican Party, “if it deserves to survive, must erect itself as a restraining dam to contain and hurl back this flood.”25

Dewey himself contended in a speech that same month that the Republicans could not win if they joined those “who honestly oppose farm price supports, unemployment insurance, old age benefits, slum clearance, and other social programs.” Should the Republicans come out against these measures, he said, “You can bury the Republican party as the deadest pigeon in the country.” The Republicans sympathetic to Dewey’s point of view made speeches while the conservatives and their supporters worked at the grass roots to reaffirm their dominance within the party. Liberal Republicanism in its twentieth-century form always had an air of electoral expediency rather than real conviction about it. As a result, that faction’s hold on the GOP was more tenuous than it seemed.26

The Democratic victory in 1948 soon turned sour as the Republicans reasserted themselves in and out of Congress. The coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats on Capitol Hill stalled most of the initiatives, including a civil rights program that Truman proposed in 1949. At the same time a series of foreign policy shocks raised questions about the Truman administration’s competence and revived the controversy about Communism in government. In the first half of 1949, the position of the Nationalist Chinese forces deteriorated, paving the way for a Communist takeover in December. The trial of Alger Hiss on charges that he had lied under oath about spying for the Soviets was in the headlines. Most ominous was the news in September 1949 that the Russians had detonated the atomic bomb. The American nuclear monopoly no longer existed.

Republican criticism of the Truman administration’s performance intensified throughout the year. Bipartisan foreign policy continued, since Republican votes helped approve the pact creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the spring. On other issues, however, Republican ire mounted, particularly against Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who seemed to embody the administration’s failure to take a harder line toward the Soviets. Haughty and aristocratic, Acheson drove his political enemies to distraction, especially when he did not rush to condemn the accused spy Alger Hiss. (p.231) With the White House under siege, the Republicans looked to win back some of the ground they had lost in the House and Senate in 1948.

Though few recognized it at the time, the political landscape in the United States shifted in February 1950. In a speech to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, Joseph R. McCarthy, an otherwise obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, told his audience, “I have in my hand fifty-seven cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist party” in the State Department. McCarthy went on to say, “The reason we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but because of the traitorous actions of those … who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in the Government we can give.”27

This speech launched McCarthy’s rise to national influence as the embodiment of the anti-Communist spirit that dominated in the early 1950s. “McCarthyism” soon became a label. Decades after his death in 1957, McCarthy’s place in history still stirs acrimony and debate. The man himself was forty-one on February 9, 1950, when he spoke in Wheeling. He had been elected as a circuit judge in 1939 at the age of twenty-nine and then served with the Marines as an intelligence officer in the Pacific. While his actual war record was respectable, McCarthy inflated the performance to include dangerous missions and phony war wounds. In 1946, he defeated the Republican incumbent in the primary and then went on to win a Senate seat during the Republican sweep in November.

Once McCarthy earned national fame, legends about the impetus behind the speech proliferated. Facing a difficult reelection campaign in 1952, he needed a winning theme, but he had not yet fixed on subversion in government when he appeared in Wheeling. The intense public response to his remarks made McCarthy realized what a rich vein he had tapped, and his campaign took shape from there. As numerous students of McCarthy have noted, he proved to be a master of publicity who used the press to make sensational charges he could never sustain in fact. But for Republicans in 1950, McCarthy was a political asset, and the party establishment in the Senate approved his efforts. “If one case doesn’t work, bring up another,” Taft told McCarthy. From the outset of McCarthy’s rise, there were Republicans such as Margaret Chase Smith of Maine who disapproved of his methods and questioned his effectiveness. For the most part, however, Republicans fell in line behind McCarthy through the 1952 election.28

(p.232) The Wisconsin senator’s profile increased as the troubles of the Truman administration mounted during the second half of 1950. The outbreak of the Korean War in late June produced a brief moment of bipartisan support for the president, but soon Republicans resumed their criticism of the administration. Popular unhappiness about the Korean conflict, where Truman had introduced American troops to counter the North Korean advance into the South, helped the GOP. Republicans argued that a lack of readiness and a soft policy toward Communism accounted for the initial military setbacks that the country experienced in Korea.

The elections produced Republican gains but fell well short of a landslide on the scale of 1946. In the Senate, the GOP picked up five seats. Richard Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas in California in a bitter campaign where the issue of Communism dominated. Everett Dirksen beat the Democratic majority leader, Scott Lucas, in Illinois. Taft won a smashing reelection victory in Ohio despite the stiff opposition of organized labor. The Democrats kept control of both houses of Congress, but the Truman administration was now on the defensive with no political mandate.

Joseph McCarthy was the big winner in 1950. He made many speeches around the country as the best drawing card for the GOP. His efforts were credited with bringing down Democrat Millard Tydings in Delaware and in assisting Republican candidates in general. The accepted judgment in Washington was that defying McCarthy on Communism was political suicide. For the next two years, fears of his wrath shaped the nation’s discourse about Communism.

When the president relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command in the Far East in April 1951, Republican outrage boiled over. Tension between the general and the president had been building for months, and the Republicans took MacArthur’s side in the dispute over military strategy in Korea. MacArthur believed that with the Communist Chinese involved in combat in Korea, the war should be extended into China and total victory pursued even at the risk of nuclear war. The administration countered that such moves would risk an even wider war with the Chinese and the Soviet Union with no guarantee of victory in the end.

The general’s ouster occurred after MacArthur praised a speech by Republican House leader Joseph W. Martin that proposed using the forces of Nationalist China to open a second front against Communist China. In the letter that he wrote Martin after he read the speech, MacArthur renewed his own call for success in Korea by attacks on the Communist Chinese inside their own nation. “As you pointed out,” MacArthur said. “There is no (p.233) substitute for victory.” Truman had decided to fire MacArthur before his letter to Martin became public, but the general’s response encapsulated what MacArthur was proposing to Republicans and the nation.29

MacArthur returned home later in April 1951, addressed Congress in a sensational speech, and was met with a wave of popular adulation. Republicans sang his praises and decried Truman, Secretary of State Acheson, and the British government for his dismissal. The GOP in Congress called for hearings on the war and its aims, which the Democrats had no choice but to hold. Yet the discussion of foreign policy did not produce the political bonanza that the Republicans expected. As the Joint Chiefs of Staff rebutted MacArthur’s arguments for a wider war in Korea and China, some of the steam went out of his presidential bid as the public realized the dangerous implications of his aggressive approach. The Republicans maintained, however, that a negotiated settlement of the war that left Korea divided between North and South was unacceptable. As Senator Taft put it in July 1951, “There is no satisfactory protection against socialism at home and war and ignominy abroad except an overwhelming Republican victory in 1952.”30

The urgent question among Republicans in 1952 was the identity of their presidential candidate. With no major moderate-conservative hopeful left on the scene after the defeat of Dewey, it looked at long last to be Senator Taft’s turn. On October 16, 1951, he summoned reporters to a news conference where he said he would enter the race for the GOP nomination. In the weeks that followed, Taft forged ahead among the Republican regulars, and by the end of the year he estimated that he had as many as six hundred delegates who were “clearly favorable” to him. That total would put him within a few votes of a convention victory. By the start of 1952, Taft was the front runner by all conventional measures of Republican sentiment.31

Lurking behind Taft’s apparent strength were two nagging issues that caused some Republicans to look for an alternative. The first was the well-known fear that the Ohioan could not be elected. Beyond his lackluster personality on the campaign trail, Taft’s record of opposition to so many of the domestic programs of the Democrats led even those favorably disposed to him to wonder whether, in the words of one of them “he can revise his thinking and be positively for something.” More damaging was the perception that Taft was a dedicated isolationist who would pull the nation back from its recent commitments to the defense of Europe. Eisenhower later revealed that he had offered to stay out of the 1952 race if Taft would agree to a larger role for the United States abroad, but Taft refused.32

(p.234) The logical choice for internationalist-minded Republicans was the military hero of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ever since his withdrawal from electoral politics in 1948, Eisenhower had received appeals from Republicans of all stripes to run in 1952. These party members were convinced that only someone of his popular stature could produce a GOP victory and win the White House. In addition, Eisenhower would see to it that internationalist ideas prevailed in the party, a key point with eastern Republicans. On domestic issues Eisenhower’s thinking was as conservative as Taft’s, perhaps even a little more to the right than the senator on questions such as government support for housing. Yet Eisenhower came across as a moderate, balanced politician who would not approach public issues in a radical way.

Eisenhower is one of several major figures in the Republican past who have been airbrushed out of party history since the ascendance of the conservatives. Underrated as a politician while he was alive and downgraded by historians in the 1960s and 1970s, Eisenhower is now recognized as a forceful chief executive and very canny national leader. While he was suspicious of many aspects of the New Deal, he recognized the wide public support for measures such as Social Security and believed that attacking such programs was suicidal. For many Republicans on the right at the time and in the decades since his death in 1969, that made Eisenhower an apologist for what Franklin D. Roosevelt had done. He has faded as a Republican and now seems less significant than Barry Goldwater.33

Eisenhower was no liberal, and he became more conservative as his presidency advanced. He had little regard for Democrats and liberals, but he was equally scathing about the right wing of his own party, which he believed was impractical and often reckless. His disdain was reciprocated. While Eisenhower believed in a strong national defense, he thought that the Pentagon often asked for more than it needed. In the president’s mind, a balanced budget and fiscal prudence were as important an index of the nation’s health as the number of its weapon systems. His emphasis on arms control was another of his departures from Republican orthodoxy.

Eisenhower’s first task in 1952 was to win the Republican nomination. Although Taft was far ahead in the delegate race, Eisenhower had an asset in the form of his broad popularity with the American people, which his rival could not match. As Eisenhower got into the race in the spring of 1952, his allure as a military hero above political strife crossed partisan barriers. He had some learning to do about campaigning and national politics, but he proved a very quick study. With the support of Dewey and his organization, several prominent media outlets, including Time and the New York Herald Tribune, (p.235) and rank and file Republicans across the country, Eisenhower had nearly drawn even with Taft in delegate strength by the time the national convention arrived in Chicago in June 1952.

The Eisenhower forces were close to nabbing the nomination, but Taft likely would still prevail unless some of his pledged delegates could be jostled loose. Eisenhower’s candidacy had prompted a surge of enthusiasm in the South, where conservative white Democrats in states such as Texas had flooded into Republican caucuses. Old-line Republicans who had dominated the party’s deliberations for years fought with these newcomers (in some cases to the point of fist fights) and then used their control of the party machinery to send pro-Taft delegations to Chicago. The Eisenhower Republicans, in turn, contested these results and dispatched competing slates on the grounds that Taft leaders had acted outside the rules. The question turned on whether, as the Eisenhower camp charged, the Taft campaign was trying to steal the nomination.

The Eisenhower leadership knew that if Taft had his disputed delegates from Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana seated, then the general’s candidacy was doomed. Their strategy became to adopt a “fair play” amendment to the convention rules that would preclude the Taft delegations from these states from voting on their own right to be seated (as had been done in past conventions). Equally important was the need to cast this battle as a struggle between virtue (Eisenhower) and old-style machinations (Taft). When the credentials committee tried to meet in secret, Eisenhower’s managers clamored for television coverage of the panel’s proceedings. The Taft men had to give in on that point, and the televised deliberations of the committee built support for Eisenhower outside the convention hall. As a result, the convention adopted the fair play amendment, which meant that Taft’s total vote was reduced. Then debate began on the Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas slates.34

When Senator Dirksen launched his attack on Thomas E. Dewey, he illustrated the fissures that remained in the party from the defeats of Willkie and Dewey. The spectacle again worked in Eisenhower’s favor, since the Taft delegates seemed relics of an older tradition of backroom deals. Eisenhower succeeded in all the key votes about seating contested delegates, and the number of votes committed to him rose. On the first ballot, Eisenhower was within nine votes of victory. After the convention nominated the general, Taft was gracious in defeat, and Republicans hoped that Eisenhower could bring them victory.

The convention’s final task was the selection of Eisenhower’s running mate. The choice of Senator Richard M. Nixon of California was a decisive step for the party’s future. Well before Eisenhower even got into the race, political insiders had seen the young California senator as the logical choice. (p.236) Eisenhower was sixty-two and needed youth to balance the ticket. California was a crucial state in a close election, and Nixon had proven he could win statewide. Nixon’s reputation as a foe of Communism made him an ideal foil for Eisenhower’s foreign policy skills.

Following his nomination, Eisenhower prepared to face the Democratic nominee, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The bitter Republican convention left some hard feelings, and so Eisenhower met with Taft in New York City on September 12. The candidate was already under attack for the lack of energy in the Republican campaign. The influential Scripps-Howard newspapers, which spoke for the Republican middle, said that Eisenhower was “running like a dry creek.” In the meeting, Taft received most of what he wanted from Eisenhower. The national budget would be kept at $60 billion, taxes would be reduced, and the Taft-Hartley law would remain. The episode underscored the unified Republican commitment to ousting the Democrats in 1952.35

The Republicans took the fight to their opponents in what Eisenhower styled a “crusade” to redeem the nation. Nixon and Joseph McCarthy pounded the Democrats on the issue of Communism, while other Republican orators indicted the president for the ethical lapses of his aides (including the receipt of freezers and mink coats). The upshot of twenty years of Democratic rule was a “mess in Washington” that only Eisenhower and the Grand Old Party could clean up.

In this setting, the news that Richard Nixon was the beneficiary of a secret fund of $18,000, collected from his supporters in California, that paid for his office expenses disrupted the Republican momentum. Disgruntled California Republicans, angry at how Nixon had treated Earl Warren at the convention, leaked the news to the press. To some extent, Nixon was the recipient of a bum rap. He did not spend the money for personal needs but only for his political activities and projects.

There was, however, evidence of tangible benefits for some donors. The seeming contradiction between Eisenhower’s ethical standards and Nixon’s apparent transgressions launched a wave of criticism. Calls arose for Nixon to leave the ticket. Thomas E. Dewey urged the vice presidential candidate to give a full accounting on national television. The episode became legendary in American politics for Nixon’s refusal during his half-hour address to return one gift, a cocker spaniel named Checkers that his daughters had received. The public applauded Nixon’s earnest, open demeanor. The candidate urged listeners to send telegrams to the Republican National Committee (not the Eisenhower campaign), and his retention on the ticket was assured.36

(p.237) With the Nixon campaign fund fracas behind him, Eisenhower put the election away when, late in the race, he said that he would go to Korea as president-elect to inspect the military situation. Since the general would not make such a trip to intensify the war, the implications were clear that he meant to end the conflict. Stevenson and the Democrats were outmatched as the voters clamored for a change in leadership. The result was a landslide for Eisenhower. The Republican candidate received 442 electoral votes to 89 for Stevenson. In the popular vote, Eisenhower led by 6.6 million ballots. The Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. Eisenhower won four states in the South, including Texas, and initiated the long-term buildup of Republican strength in that region. After two decades, Democratic dominance of American politics had ended.

From “Had Enough” to Modern Republicanism, 1945–1961

Dwight D. Eisenhower ended the twenty-year Democratic hold on the White House in 1952. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-104961.

In historical perspective, the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower would come to seem a period of peace and prosperity before the tumult of the 1960s. For Republicans, however, Eisenhower is now a forgotten and indeed somewhat embarrassing figure. His acceptance of the New Deal’s main programs made him anathema to conservatives in the 1950s and afterward. A campaign to achieve what he called “modern Republicanism” by making his party more popular with the broader electorate failed to make any lasting impression on the GOP.

Eisenhower was a strong conservative, becoming more so as his presidency progressed. He was not, however, an intense partisan in his Republicanism, and he regarded many on the right as impractical and often obstructive to his administration. In terms of foreign policy, he did not believe in military power as an end in itself and was convinced that simply accumulating nuclear weapons did not enhance the nation’s security. He was thus willing to negotiate with the Soviet Union over arms control in ways that dismayed the Republican right. Given Eisenhower’s military credentials, it was almost impossible to make a credible case that he was too soft on the Soviets, even though many Republicans chafed at the president’s efforts on arms control. Eisenhower resisted GOP efforts to limit presidential power in foreign affairs. The Bricker Amendment to curb the impact of treaties on the Constitution, which Senate Republicans endorsed, was defeated in large part because of Eisenhower’s unrelenting opposition.

(p.238) Once in power in 1953, the Republicans expected that they could turn from Truman’s policy of containing Soviet expansion to an approach that sought to undo the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. It turned out that the containment policy was easier to denounce than abandon. The concept of liberating the captive nations faded away in the face of Soviet power in that region. On defense policy, even though it was called the “New Look,” the Eisenhower White House relied on nuclear weapons to deter Moscow, much as Truman had done. Promising “massive retaliation” in the event of Soviet aggression did not answer the question of when such action was justified.

Eisenhower negotiated a truce in Korea based on the current military balance and an acceptance of a peninsula divided between North and South Korea. He also resisted efforts by the French to involve the United States in a direct military intervention in Vietnam in 1954. When the Hungarians revolted against their Soviet masters in 1956, Washington accepted the incursion of Russian tanks to crush the uprising. Republican critics of Eisenhower noted with dismay the continuity with the Truman years and expressed their disappointment that the government had not been more willing to have a showdown with Moscow.

While Eisenhower worked hard to hold down government spending and achieve a balanced budget, he did not share the suspicion of Social Security that some conservative Republicans felt. As he told his brother Edgar, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” He was convinced that Social Security helped maintain national stability and economic health. For conservative Republicans who wanted to overturn the New Deal, Eisenhower seemed to offer a strategy of expediency rather than principle.37

Eisenhower had never liked the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy but had tolerated them in 1952 in the interest of party harmony and his own election. When the Wisconsin senator continued his course of exposing alleged Communists after January 1953, Eisenhower bristled at tactics that embarrassed a Republican administration. Avoiding a public confrontation, Eisenhower allowed the senator to hang himself. McCarthy obliged in 1954 through the celebrated Army-McCarthy hearings over alleged subversion in the military. Viewers who saw McCarthy’s badgering of witnesses and arguing with fellow senators found the senator a less attractive figure. When McCarthy attacked fellow Republicans, he went too far. The Senate rebuked McCarthy and ended his influence. A broken, alcoholic McCarthy died three years later. The episode damaged the right, which believed that McCarthy had not gone far (p.239) enough in rooting out subversives. Some even suggested that Eisenhower had served the Communist cause.

Had Eisenhower’s approach to the Republicans proven successful at the polls for candidates other than himself, he might have persuaded Republican critics of the merits of his view of the electorate. Unfortunately for the president, the GOP suffered losses in the three congressional elections that followed Eisenhower’s elevation to the presidency. In 1954, the Republicans lost eighteen seats in the House and one in the Senate as the Democrats reestablished control of Congress. Two years later, even though Eisenhower was reelected, the Republicans dropped another House seat and one in the Senate. The big loss for the GOP came in 1958 when their party went through a fifty-eight seat loss in the House and saw twelve seats go into the opposition column in the Senate. The Republicans would not regain control of the Senate for more than two decades and thirty-six years for the House.

During the 1950s, the Republicans confronted both opportunities and challenges stemming from the emerging issue of civil rights. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), ruling school segregation unconstitutional, won praise from blacks who credited the Eisenhower administration for the result. Eisenhower shared the prevailing southern view on race, however, and did little to push desegregation during his first term. The president did well with blacks in the 1956 election, securing as much as 30 percent of their vote. At the same time, the increasing Democratic identification with civil rights was opening the door for Republican gains in the South a decade later.

To capitalize on Eisenhower’s strength with southern white voters, the Republican National Committee created a southern arm of its organization and launched “Operation Dixie” in 1957 to expand the Republican base below the Mason-Dixon Line. The initiative appealed to the expanding postwar white electorate of former Democrats defecting in the wake of their party’s rising commitment to civil rights. Operation Dixie provided the foundation for the emergence of the southern Republican Party during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

Any Republican ideological restiveness about Eisenhower as a party leader was well submerged in the 1956 presidential election. The president had suffered a heart attack in September 1955, but his recovery and his party’s need for a strong candidate justified his decision to seek a second term in early 1956. Eisenhower toyed with the idea of replacing Richard Nixon on the ticket until it became clear that there was no acceptable alternative. Coolness between Nixon and Eisenhower lingered. As Nixon himself later wrote of (p.240) the president, “Beneath his captivating personal appearance was a lot of finely tempered cold steel.”38

At the national convention, the platform sang Eisenhower’s praises while reflecting some elements of his desire to move the GOP away from reflexive conservatism. The delegates promised “to seek extension and perfection of a sound social security system” as well as a balanced budget and a “gradual reduction of the national debt.” As they had done since 1940, the Republicans endorsed “the submission of a constitutional amendment providing equal rights for men and women.” On the time-honored issue of the tariff, the party now said that “barriers which impede international trade and the flow of capital should be reduced on a gradual, selective and reciprocal basis, with full recognition of the necessity to safeguard domestic enterprises, agriculture, and labor against unfair import competition.” Protectionism was yielding to the new world of free trade. The delegates praised Eisenhower’s record in the world, which allowed, the platform stated, “our people to enjoy the blessings of liberty and peace.”39

The 1956 presidential race was never a real contest. Adlai Stevenson was again the Democratic nominee, but his campaign lacked focus and energy. When he called for a ban on nuclear testing, Nixon and others denounced Stevenson’s idea as impractical. Republicans said that the proposal demonstrated that Eisenhower was a trusted world leader and Stevenson was not. Outside events, including the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Canal crisis, convinced most voters that Eisenhower should remain at his post. The reluctance of the United States to get involved on the side of the rebellious Hungarians demonstrated that Republican talk of “rolling back” Communism had been political rhetoric and nothing more. Eisenhower secured a landslide victory with 457 electoral votes and a margin of 9.5 million popular ballots. However, the GOP failed to regain control of Congress. The Democrats benefitted from ticket splitting for their candidates, and made small gains in the House and Senate. Eisenhower proclaimed: “Modern Republicanism has now proved itself. And America has approved modern Republicanism.”40

Eisenhower misread the direction of his party. Instead of accepting the president’s vision of where the Republicans should go, conservatism stirred and then gained momentum during the 1950s. Because of their rules allowing representation at all levels of the party’s conduct, a determined Republican faction could gain control of the grass-roots machinery. Conservative voices such as William F. Buckley’s National Review and the growing number of Young Republicans on college campuses combined to help move the party rightward during the 1950s. Their presence did not yet threaten Richard (p.241) Nixon’s control of the 1960 presidential nomination, but the tension between Eisenhower’s brand of conservatism and the more ideological variety on the right foreshadowed the struggles of the 1960s.

The new champion of the resurgent right in the GOP was a first-term Arizona senator named Barry M. Goldwater. Elected in 1952, Goldwater was handsome, photogenic, and a compelling speaker before a friendly audience. In 1957, he looked over Eisenhower’s budget, which called for $71.8 billion in spending, up some $2.8 billion over the previous year. After reviewing the budget that reflected the assumptions of “Modern Republicanism,” Goldwater denounced the excessive spending, which confirmed how Eisenhower had been enchanted by “the siren song of socialism.” More money was needed for national defense, but funds for what Goldwater called “squanderbust government” were out. Republicans fought among themselves over the size and direction of the government.41

In addition to their internal disputes, the Republicans faced problems in civil rights and foreign policy as they headed toward the 1958 congressional elections. African Americans had given Eisenhower a healthy share of their support in 1956, and the enactment of the mild civil rights law of 1957 provided more credit for the GOP. The crisis over integration later that year set back Republican hopes in the South when Eisenhower used National Guard troops to enforce court decisions that allowed black students to attend Little Rock High School. Southern Democrats drifted back to their traditional allegiance. The future direction of the GOP on race was still in flux. Such young conservatives as William F. Buckley and his National Review were skeptical of a pro-civil-rights stand. As Buckley’s father told Strom Thurmond, his son was “for segregation and backs it in every issue.”42

The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in the fall allowed Democrats to raise more questions about the state of the nation’s defenses. Eisenhower knew but could not say for security reasons that the United States was well ahead of the USSR in retaliatory power. There was a sense of the president and the administration as listless and unfocused as the second term got underway.

A major target for the Republicans in 1957–1958 was organized labor and its political clout, most notably in the case of Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers. In the 1958 elections, the Republicans pushed the virtues of “right-to-work” laws that prevented closed, union shops. The tactic backfired when labor in key states organized effective voting drives. Adding to the Republican problems were allegations of corruption against White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams. He had taken gifts from a favor-seeking friend. The embattled aide stepped down a month before the voters went to the polls.43

(p.242) When the effects of a sharp recession were added to the political mix, Republican defeats in the sixth year of a two-term presidency were to be expected. Their scope staggered the party, as the Democrats added fifty seats in the House and sixteen in the Senate. The loss of such conservative stalwarts as William F. Knowland of California and John Bricker underlined the sweeping nature of the setback. Goldwater won reelection to a second term, confirming his status as the darling of the conservatives. On the other side of the country, Nelson Rockefeller secured the governorship of New York and was recognized as a contender for 1960. Yet the likely nominee remained Richard Nixon, who had piled up credits from Republicans while campaigning for party candidates in 1958.

Nelson Rockefeller soon emerged as a wild card in the Republican contest, but in the process he alienated himself from the mainstream of the party. The distaste for the New York governor was not so much because of his views, which tended to be conservative except on civil rights. Rockefeller seemed to think that his money and celebrity appeal entitled him to leadership. He made little secret of his disdain for the opinions of rank-and-file Republicans. Dominant in New York, where his money and a divided Democratic Party helped him, Rockefeller was not a very good national politician. Along with indecision went a tin ear for Republican attitudes, and his casual approach to his marriage vows compounded the problem. Through his array of publicists and sympathetic journalists, he could make noise about Republican issues whenever he chose.44

After testing the waters and finding that Nixon had a lock on the nomination, Rockefeller announced in December 1959 that he would not be seeking the Republican nomination in 1960. His withdrawal cleared the way for Nixon, or so it seemed. Then the first half of 1960 produced a series of crises that appeared to threaten the standing of the United States in the world. The shooting down of the U-2 spy plane, the failure of Eisenhower’s summit with the Soviets, and Democratic complaints that the country was falling behind in defense because of a “missile gap” with the USSR put the Republicans on the defensive in an area that was usually their strength. The Democratic front runner, John F. Kennedy, was already sounding the theme of getting the nation “moving again.”45

Into this volatile environment stepped Nelson Rockefeller in early June with the announcement that he was back in the race for the GOP nomination. He urged the party to “save the nation by saving itself.” Selecting him, so the argument went, would put in the White House someone committed to rebuilding defense and pushing civil rights. Rockefeller’s strategy (p.243) was Willkie-like. By making an issue of the convention’s platform on foreign policy, he hoped to unsettle the race and sway the delegates to his cause. The approach made little sense. In the unlikely event of Nixon being stopped, the delegates would be much more inclined to switch to Goldwater, who already had a good deal of support as a vice presidential candidate.46

Faced with a Rockefeller insurgency whose power he overestimated, Nixon decided to make concessions to his putative rival. The two men met at Rockefeller’s lavish apartment in New York on July 22, 1960, and produced a joint declaration that became known as the “Compact of Fifth Avenue.” In it, Nixon came out for an increase in defense spending to meet the Soviet challenge. He had in effect endorsed the criticisms of President Eisenhower’s stewardship in foreign affairs. Nixon backed other social causes, among them a plan seeking vigorous support for civil rights and black protestors who had begun “sit-ins” in the South.47

The outreach to Rockefeller backfired. It irritated Eisenhower, who did not appreciate having his defense policy repudiated. More important, it infuriated Barry Goldwater and his conservative base. Goldwater declared that what Rockefeller had agreed to, if it became part of the platform, “will live in history as the Munich of the Republican Party.” A rebellion brewed among southern delegates over civil rights. Nixon decided that retaining Eisenhower’s support was more important than southern electoral votes. The nominee dropped the criticism of Eisenhower and agreed to make the civil rights plank more assertive.48

A compromise was worked out that allowed everyone involved to rally behind the semblance of unity on the platform. Rockefeller dropped out, Nixon received the nomination, and a divisive floor fight was avoided. A cohesive Republican Party presented a positive face to the voters. There was one unscripted, spontaneous moment that cast a spotlight on the Republican future. On Wednesday night of the convention, when nominations were made, Barry Goldwater’s name was placed before the delegates. The Arizona senator then made a speech of withdrawal; that became the first move in the 1964 presidential race and a pivotal event in the history of the GOP.

Before a responsive, cheering crowd, Goldwater proclaimed to his fellow conservatives, “This great Republican party is our historic house. This is our home.” Denouncing the Democrats as a “party which has lost its belief in the dignity of man,” he urged that Nixon be elected. In his closing, Goldwater told the throng: “Let’s grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this Party back, and I think we can some day, let’s get to work.” Goldwater did not say from whom the Republican Party should be reclaimed, but he meant (p.244) Rockefeller and by extension Richard Nixon. For Goldwater the task was to render a conservative party even more conservative.49

The presidential race of 1960 was the most exciting and nail-biting race of the second half of the twentieth century. Nixon’s narrow defeat at the hands of John F. Kennedy has produced a number of plausible explanations for the Republican setback. An array of negative circumstances helped cost Nixon the White House. Eisenhower delivered the opening rebuff to Nixon in August. Asked at a press conference several times how Nixon had contributed to the decisions of the administration, the president evaded his questioners. Finally, a reporter at the end of the session sought, in his words, “an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted,” Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” The comment dogged Nixon throughout the campaign.50

Nixon also faced problems of his own creation. Overconfident about his debating abilities, he agreed to four televised encounters with his Democratic opponent. The first debate, in which Nixon was both recovering from an infection and poorly prepared in terms of makeup and overall readiness, elevated Kennedy to an equal status with his Republican rival. The two men did equally well in the remaining debates, but the political damage to Nixon had been done. As the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, told Eisenhower after watching the first debate, Nixon “looked like a convicted criminal,” while Kennedy appeared to be “a rather engaging young undergraduate.”51

Promising to campaign in all fifty states, Nixon spread his energies too thin and never developed a clear electoral strategy for winning. The choice of Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate was also whimsical. Lodge was not going to help Nixon in his home state of Massachusetts, which Kennedy was sure to carry, and Lodge’s patrician style of campaigning was lazy and self-indulgent.

Still, despite all the advantages that Kennedy had, including more favorable press coverage, Nixon very nearly won. Last-minute campaigning from Eisenhower, a strong late surge by the candidate himself, and doubts about Kennedy’s youth and Catholicism tightened the race at the end. Nixon came within one percentage point and 118,000 popular votes of besting Kennedy. The Democrat captured 303 electoral votes to 219 for Nixon.

In his memoirs a generation later, Nixon blamed the press, especially television, for his unfavorable coverage. The Kennedys themselves also stirred his wrath. The Republicans, he wrote, were “faced by an organization that had equal dedication and unlimited money, that was led by the most ruthless group of political operators ever mobilized for a presidential campaign.” He (p.245) resented the way that, in his mind, the Democrats had capitalized on the issue of Kennedy’s religion. Any criticism of Kennedy’s relationship to the Catholic Church was denounced as bigotry, but the Democratic candidate also stressed his faith in appealing to his coreligionists.52

These elements were important, but they did not account for Nixon’s failure to focus his campaign on a winning strategy, make the case for extending the Eisenhower record, and present his message in a clear and forceful manner. Conservative Republicans also thought that Nixon had not given the party’s base a reason to turn out and vote for him. Nixon believed that Kennedy had stolen the election from him, but decided not to contest the result. The 1960 election became another in a list of Republican losses that would be attributed to Democratic chicanery rather than a lack of GOP appeal to the voters.53

The defeat in 1960, while frustrating to the Republicans, did not represent a decisive setback. So tenuous were Kennedy’s coattails that the Democrats lost a few seats in the House and Senate. Nixon’s loss and the eclipse of Rockefeller left a vacuum in the party that the conservative troops devoted to Barry Goldwater intended to fill in 1964. The process of taking back the Republican Party was already ongoing days after Nixon conceded defeat. A new and turbulent era in the history of the GOP had opened.


(1.) George L. Hart, reporter, Official Report of the Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Republican National Convention Held in Chicago, Illinois, July 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11, 1952 (Washington, D.C., 1952), 178.

(2.) Richard Norton Smith, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times (New York, 1982), 594.

(3.) Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), 57–71.

(4.) Arthur Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (New York, 2000), offers a favorable assessment of the senator.

(5.) The opening of the Soviet archives after the end of the Cold War, along with evidence about American codebreaking, has allowed evidence about Soviet penetration of the American government to be disclosed. Katherine A. S. Sibley, Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War (Lawrence, Kans., 2004).

(6.) James T. Patterson, Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (Boston, 1972), 313.

(7.) Herman, Joseph McCarthy 30–32, 38–39, discusses McCarthy’s war service and the 1946 election outcome. Irwin F. Gellman, The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946–1952 (New York, 1999), 78–79; David W. Reinhard, The Republican Right Since 1945 (Lexington, Ky., 1983), 15–16.

(8.) Patterson, Mr. Republican, 313; David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York, 1983), 49.

(10.) George Steven Roukis, American Labor and the Conservative Republicans, 1946–1948 (New York, 1988), 46.

(11.) For the enactment of the Taft-Hartley law, see Patterson, Mr. Republican, 352–66.

(12.) On Truman’s credentials as a foe of Communism in 1947–1948, see Alonzo Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York, 1995), 391–400, 427–29.

(13.) William B. Pickett, Eisenhower Decides to Run: Presidential Politics and Cold War Strategy (Chicago, 2000), 40.

(14.) Alec Kirby, David G. Dalin, and John F. Rothmann, Harold E. Stassen: The Life and Perennial Candidacy of the Progressive Republican (Jefferson, N.C., 2013), measures its subject’s strengths and weaknesses in a lucid narrative.

(15.) Thomas E. Dewey, Public Papers of Thomas E. Dewey, Fifty-First Governor of the State of New York 1948 (Albany, N.Y., 1949), 592.

(16.) Gary Donaldson, Truman Defeats Dewey (Lexington, Ky., 1999), 131.

(17.) Dewey, Public Papers, 636; Republican Party Platform of 1948, available online at the American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=25836.

(18.) Herbert Brownell, with John Burke, Advising Ike: The Memoirs of Attorney General Herbert Brownell (Lawrence, Kans., 1993), 80. For Strom Thurmond and his presidential effort, Joseph Crespino, Strom Thurmond’s America (New York, 2012), 74–84, is informative and insightful.

(19.) Andrew E. Busch, Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Modern America (Lawrence, Kans., 2012), 109–13.

(23.) Smith, Dewey, 51–512; Busch, Truman’s Triumphs, 159–60, is less persuaded of the salience of the farm vote.

(25.) Clarence Budington Kelland, “Why the Republicans Lost,” American Mercury 144 (February 1949): 181, 182.

(27.) A recording of McCarthy’s speech at Wheeling did not survive, and so a precise record of what he said does not exist. A copy was printed in the Congressional Record, 81st Cong., 2d Sess. (January 25, 1950): 1002–8. These quotations are from David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York, 1983), 108–9. Herman, Joseph McCarthy, 98–99, quotes other excerpts.

(29.) Ronald J. Caridi, The Korean War and American Politics: The Republican Party as a Case Study (Philadelphia, 1968), 145.

(31.) Patterson, Mr. Republican, 499–516, traces the development of the Taft campaign.

(33.) The main source for “Eisenhower revisionism” was Fred I. Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (Baltimore, Md., 1994). Greenstein’s work was first published in 1982.

(34.) The bitter struggle for delegates in 1952 can be followed in Patterson, Mr. Republican, 535–36, and Smith, Dewey, 583–87.

(36.) Nixon’s own account of the fund controversy is in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York, 1978), 92–110.

(39.) Republican Party Platform of 1956, available online at the American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25838.

(40.) Reinhard, Republican Right, 137. It was about this time that the Republicans, led by chairman of the National Committee, Leonard Hall, started the practice of referring to their opposition as “the Democrat party,” on the grounds that there was nothing (p.373) “democratic” about their appeal. The practice annoys Democrats, which may explain why it persists, even though it has never caught on with the press or the public at large.

(41.) Barry Goldwater, “The Preservation of Our Basic Institutions: Effect of Governmental Spending and Taxation,” Vital Speeches of the Day, May 18, 1957, 457, 458.

(43.) Jeffrey Frank, Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage (New York, 2013), 183–88, is excellent on the Adams case.

(44.) Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (New York, 2012), 27–29, is perceptive on Rockefeller’s strengths and weaknesses.

(45.) James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (New York, 1996), 424–27, 433–35.

(46.) Michael Kramer and Sam Roberts, “I Never Wanted to Be Vice President of Anything!” An Investigative Biography of Nelson Rockefeller (New York, 1976), 226–29.

(47.) Nixon did not discuss these events in his 1978 memoirs. Kabaservice, Rule or Ruin, 28–29.

(48.) Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001), 83–87; Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (New Haven, Conn., 1995), 144.

(49.) Perlstein, Before the Storm, 94–95; Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution (Washington, D.C., 1995), 138–39.

(52.) Nixon chronicles some of the problems with his 1960 campaign in RN, 225–27. The quotation is from page 225.

(53.) Overturning the Kennedy win would have been difficult. Nixon and the Republicans would have had to shift the results in Texas and Illinois to change the outcome. The Republican inquiry in Illinois came up short, which made the issue in Texas moot. The best discussion of the case is Edmund F. Kallina, Jr., Courthouse over White House: Chicago and the Presidential Election of 1960 (Orlando, Fla., 1988).