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Conservatism as Phoenix | The Nation

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Conservatism as Phoenix

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In the off-year elections of 1958, the Republicans were slaughtered. In Congress, it was "the worst defeat ever for a party occupying the White House." The exceptions were in Arizona. Goldwater, though seen as the underdog, won. So once again the Eastern press, always eager to create myths from Wild West material, seized upon his victory to gush about "the tall, bronzed, lean-jawed, silver-haired man of 49." That gush was courtesy of Time magazine. The Saturday Evening Post gave five pages to "The Glittering Mr. Goldwater." (Ah, the fickle press! Six years later, the Post called for the "crushing defeat" of Goldwater's presidential effort because he was "a wild man, a stray, an unprincipled and ruthless political jujitsu artist." Actually, the "glittering" Goldwater of '58 was pretty much the same man as the "stray" of '64. One way or another, he usually brought out the press's hyper side.)

Robert Sherrill, who worked as a reporter in Washington during much of the Goldwater era, came to enjoy the Senator's sneer.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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But with Democrats on a roll and New Dealism somewhat diminished but still firmly in place, Goldwater and his brand of conservatism were not taken very seriously, except by the very unhappy, forlorn folks on the far right, where there was a significant encampment of Democrats, especially in Dixie, as well as the Ike-is-a-traitor Republicans. But since the national Democratic Party at the time was, as Perlstein says, "now pulled unmistakably in the direction of the eggheads and the do-gooders: left," the only hope for a new far-right leader was among Republicans. And so they followed the star to the Arizona manger and anointed Goldwater as their savior.

Let us pause for a moment to recall that in those days, the "far right" developed from an anti-Communist frenzy. At the end of World War II, many of our leaders saw our recent ally the Soviet Union as a greater threat than Nazi Germany had been. Our policy-makers supported the continued use of Nazi bureaucrats in defeated Germany. And it was commonplace for the US Army and the CIA to recruit Nazi arms experts and spies, among whom were numerous war criminals, and use them both in this country and abroad.

Tens of thousands of Eastern European refugees--often sponsored by conservative religious and ethnic organizations, and by the CIA under special immigration programs--came to this country in that period. An estimated 10,000 were Nazi war criminals, but most were simply people who adamantly opposed peace with the Soviet Union or anything that smacked of "socialism." Joining with the sizable population of native right-thinkers, they helped create a hate-the-commie spirit in America--which often boiled down to hatred of political liberals, and even moderates. George Kennan, a top State Department official in those days, said, "These recent refugees were by no means without political influence in Washington. Connected as they were with the compact voting blocs situated in the big cities, they were able to bring direct influence to bear on individual Congressional figures. They appealed successfully at times to religious feelings, and even more importantly to the prevailing anti-Communist hysteria."

Hysteria was the word for it. Perlstein writes that Senator Tom Kuchel told his colleagues that

10 percent of the letters coming into his office--six thousand a month--were "fright mail," mostly centering on two astonishing, and astonishingly widespread, rumors: that Chinese commandos were training in Mexico for an invasion of the United States through San Diego, and that 100,000 UN troops--16,000 of them "African Negro troops, who are cannibals" [sic]--were secretly rehearsing in the Georgia swamps under the command of a Russian colonel for a UN martial-law takeover of the United States.

Crazy? Of course. But as Perlstein points out, American citizens were expected to make sense of the world around them but were denied, because of cold war secrecy, the information they needed.

Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican, was of course the most adept exploiter of this scariness, but Ronald Reagan was no piker at it. About the time Goldwater's star was in its ascendancy, Reagan was a professional pitchman for General Electric; he went around warning, "We have ten years. Not ten years to make up our mind, but ten years to win or lose--by 1970 the world will be all slave or all free." But prominent Democrats who were liberal-to-moderate in most ways also stoked the hysteria. President Truman launched a "loyalty" program to investigate 4 million federal workers; a few hundred were dismissed as "security risks." His Attorney General, J. Howard McGrath, warned that Communists might not be under America's bed but "they are everywhere...in factories, butcher shops, street corners, in private businesses." Not even McCarthy had the gall to propose building camps in time of war to hold US citizens "suspected" of being Communist sympathizers, but Senator Hubert Humphrey, the liberal from Minnesota, did. And Robert Kennedy, who had been a friend of McCarthy's in the latter's heyday, on becoming Attorney General helped keep the fear rolling across America by announcing (without specifics, of course), "Communist espionage here in this country is more active than it has ever been."

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