In 1958, Pres. Eisenhower grew fearful that Middle Eastern revolutions were posing a threat to America's military & economic interests, so he flexed US muscles by sending troops to Lebanon in what turned out to be an uneventful beachside deployment. Vice-President Nixon received a menacing reception while on tour in South America. In domestic politics, the big story of the late 50s was the rise of Cold War Era Liberalism, which became possible once the fears of McCarthyism subsided & Americans again began dreaming of major reforms. A new avant-garde emerged in the arts, as figures such as Jack Kerouac & Lenny Bruce were not afraid to challenge conventions. The Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren issued rulings protecting civil liberties. John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Affluent Society" & other non-fiction bestsellers made the case for more government funding to public education & social services. In the 1958 Congressional elections, Democrats gained significant ground in both houses of Congress. Senator John F. Kennedy began laying the groundwork for an upcoming presidential bid. Meanwhile, figures on the Conservative Right (such as National Review published William Buckley, Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand, & John Birch Society founder Robert Welch) began challenging Eisenhower's moderate Republicanism. Finally, the United States expanded its official borders to new frontiers on the fringes of the North American continent by granting statehood to both Alaska & Hawaii.Support the show
From Boomers to Millennials is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations, from the end of World War II clear up to the present day. Welcome to 1958, a/k/a Episode 13, “The Rise of Cold War Liberalism.” Our last episode discussed the US government response to Soviet expansion into outer space via the Sputnik satellite. Today, we turn to some 1950s foreign policy challenges that were a little more down-to-earth, before spending the remainder of our program discussing a key shift in US domestic politics. In the mid-50s, the Eisenhower Administration believed that growing instability in the Middle East was emerging as a major threat to US interests. The Pan-Arab nationalism promoted by Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser, who had first seized power in Cairo during a 1952 revolution, was now spreading radical sentiments across the vast Arab world. Supporters of Pan-Arabism hoped that one day, all of the Arabic-speaking nations would join together into a single united country. Not all Arabs supported this movement, of course, but a significant minority of people in several Arabic-speaking nations were inspired by this vision of a united future, one where an Arab world that stood together as a unified front would be too strong to be victimized by Western colonial powers.
A step in the direction of Arab unity occurred in February 1958, when Syria merged with Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic, also known as the UAR (not to be confused with the United Arab Emirates or UAE, which is a completely different country that emerged later). Nasser’s fervent Pan-Arabist supporters in Damascus in effect handed him dictatorial governing powers over both Egypt & Syria. Of course, on an administrative basis, the UAR proved to be a difficult governing arrangement over the long term, since Syria & Egypt were two demographically & culturally different nations that were not geographically contiguous. The UAR broke up just 3 years later in 1961, as Nasser was unable to reconcile the logistical difficulties of merging 2 separate countries into a single nation, & many Syrians eventually resented being governed by a predominantly Egyptian regime. Still, during the late Fifties, Western powers genuinely feared that many nations in the Middle East would experience Pan-Arabist revolutions seeking to join them to the UAR. In 1958, nationalist military officers in Iraq staged a bloody coup, overthrowing their country’s British-aligned monarchy in Baghdad & establishing a new left-leaning Iraqi Republic. Although it did not formally join the UAR, the new government in Iraq aligned itself with Nasser & the radical nationalist nations of the Middle East. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was concerned that more Arab nations would go down this revolutionary road. Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that (quote) “revolutionary Arab nationalism [of the 1950s was] a decidedly secular movement . . . not to be confused with Muslim religious fundamentalism,” which Westerners are familiar with as an extremist geopolitical threat during the 21st Century. Yet Americans during the Cold War were more concerned with a left-leaning movement that might work with the Soviets than they were about any religious extremist threat. The Eisenhower Administration perceived Pan-Arab Nationalism as a danger to the Western capitalist world.
Despite these American fears, adherents of the Pan-Arabist movement generally rejected Communist ideology & Marxist dogma. Nasser personally remained an observant Muslim, despite the secular nature of his political creed. The Pan-Arabists did not intend to do away with private property or to prevent individual religious worship, & they were far too nationalistic to put their regional self-interest aside in the name of some global ideology. Nevertheless, by ’58 Nasser had a closer diplomatic relationship with the Soviets than he had with the capitalist powers, in part because of his recent clashes with the British & the French (see Episode 11). He continued to buy weapons from the Communist bloc, which greatly troubled US officials, who feared that Soviet influence in the Middle East would grow if the pro-Nasser nationalists continued to gain ground. Furthermore, historian James T. Patterson notes that President Eisenhower (quote) “was determined to protect Western oil interests” in the region, & foreign assets & oil rights were at risk of being seized & nationalized if radical nationalist governments took power. According to history professor Salim Yaqub, Ike & his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (quote) “believed that Nasser had . . . grown so hostile to the West that he had become, albeit perhaps unwittingly, a tool of Soviet expansionism” (close quote).
In 1957, Eisenhower sought & obtained a broad authority from Congress to send troops to the Middle East if the government of any nation there was menaced by forces sympathetic to international communism. This so-called Eisenhower Doctrine was, according to Jean Edward Smith, (quote) “deliberately vague as to the circumstances that might trigger it” (close quote); such circumstances may well have included Pan-Arabist attempts to gain control over oil resources in the region. Ike overestimated (or exaggerated) the threat of Arab nationalist cooperation with the Communist Bloc in pushing for the Eisenhower Doctrine resolution. He implored Congress by stating, (quote) “The existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the United States before it is filled by Russia” (close quote). According to US foreign relations historian George C. Herring, some liberal Democrats expressed an understandable concern about voting to provide a blank check for the president to use military power. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota feared that the Eisenhower Doctrine was a (quote-unquote) “predated declaration of war.” Nevertheless, Congress proved unable to resist the political pressure upon them to approve a military authorization requested by a popular president. Now that Eisenhower had obtained the needed Congressional approval for the policy, in 1958 he would find cause to use his new Eisenhower Doctrine authority.
The Eisenhower Administration had grown concerned over the situation in Lebanon, a Near Eastern nation that had long struggled with demographic tensions. Lebanon’s government was based upon a delicate power-sharing arrangement designed to keep the peace between its Muslim majority & its sizable Christian minority. This balance had been disturbed by growing Arab Nationalism & by an influx of more Muslim Palestinian refugees into Lebanese territory after the 1956 war between Egypt & Israel. The pro-Western, Catholic president of Lebanon faced a growing challenge to his leadership from Muslim factions sympathetic to Nasser & the UAR. The Lebanese president feared he might be deposed by those forces in a coup or revolution, so he appealed to the United States for assistance. Herring writes that (quote) “Eisenhower sent 14,000 Marines to help stabilize Lebanon, [in what was] the largest US amphibious operation since [the landing at] Inchon” during the Korean War (see Episode 5). However, (quote) “upon hitting the beach, the Marines encountered vacationers rather than enemy soldiers” (close quote).
The Arab Nationalist opposition to the existing Lebanese government became muted & cautious in response to this American troop presence. No rebellion or revolution was even attempted. To Americans, it increasingly appeared that the threat to the pro-Western Lebanese regime had been blown way out of proportion. Critics derided the Marines’ mission in Lebanon as a superfluous waste of US military resources. By the fall, Eisenhower caved to these criticisms & decided to remove American forces from the region after they had spent months in the sunny Mediterranean coastal nation without facing any armed opposition. Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that in this instance, lke had maintained his preference, also demonstrated during the Little Rock Crisis in the previous year, for defusing a trouble spot with a massive show of force, in an effort to demoralize any potential opposition. President Eisenhower argued in his (unsurprisingly self-justifying) memoir that his decision to send a large military force to Lebanon had changed Nasser’s attitude & made him think twice about pushing his luck in the region.
However, many of Ike’s political contemporaries, as well as present-day historians, have not shared this rosy assessment of the 1958 US intervention in Lebanon. Diplomatic historian George Herring reports that a major National Security Council report written at the year’s end criticized the confrontational US approach to rising Arab nationalism in the Mideast, stating that (quote) “By permitting itself to be ‘cast as Nasser’s opponent’ the US had helped him become the ‘champion’ of Arab nationalism” in the eyes of the public throughout the Arab world. James T. Patterson shares a harsh assessment of the 1958 military intervention, arguing that (quote) “The incursion accomplished nothing, for Lebanon had faced no real threat. In his eagerness to display the resolve of the United States, Eisenhower had resorted to a form of gunboat diplomacy that bestowed no honor on the nation or his presidency” (close quote). Salim Yaqub, another historian of US foreign policy, notes that, far from being an unwitting stooge of Moscow, by early 1959 (quote) “Nasser was publicly feuding with the Soviets” (close quote). This fact made the Eisenhower Doctrine’s rhetoric about creeping Communism in the Middle East seem completely overblown. History professors James Henretta, David Brody, & Lynn Dumenil sum up their view of American motives: (quote) “The attention that the Eisenhower administration paid to developments in the Middle East in the 1950s demonstrated how the desire for access to steady supplies of oil increasingly affected [the] foreign policy” of the US (close quote). Cheap petroleum was proving to be the lifeblood of a modern America that had just invested in building a massive interstate highway system (see Episode 12). The postwar US economy now depended upon automobiles & airplanes to transport its people & its goods. The prospect of losing access to this vital energy supply deeply troubled US officials, which helps explain the American preoccupation with the Middle Eastern region.
Throughout Dwight Eisenhower’s first term as president, it seemed that the wily ex-general had stabilized US foreign policy after the relatively volatile years of the Truman Administration. However, by the end of Ike’s second term, it increasingly appeared that his international policies were getting too aggressive, & they consequently were provoking backlash & becoming less effective at maintaining a Pax Americana (or an American-led global peace). The Central Intelligence Agency (better-known under its initials: C.I.A., perhaps you’ve heard of it?) had helped to overthrow the governments of Iran & Guatemala during Ike’s first term (see Episode 9). The agency now continued to back attempts at regime change in countries with governments unfriendly to the US all around the globe. Patterson reports that in 1958, the CIA (quote) “attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the government of Indonesia, & in 1959 it helped to install a pro-Western government in Laos. Eisenhower knew of & approved of such efforts” (close quote). Patterson also states that Eisenhower had given the CIA enough of a free hand that the agency didn’t believe it needed his authorization for plots it was hatching to assassinate problematic foreign leaders, including the president of the newly-independent African nation known as the Democratic Republic of The Congo. In Patterson’s view, (quote) “The CIA was becoming a rogue elephant” (close quote).
One important example of the destabilizing US foreign policy environment was the worsening diplomatic situation in Latin America. Herring contends that (quote) “a recession in the US caused a catastrophic drop in prices for Latin American exports, halting economic growth & leaving widespread human misery” (close quote). The depressed financial situation in the Western Hemisphere south of the US border led to greater governmental instability & widespread anti-American sentiment, especially in South America. Eisenhower dispatched Vice-President Richard Nixon to the continent in an effort to smooth things over, but the veep’s very presence provoked angry protests in several nations. The most frightening & dangerous incident during this tour took place in Caracas, Venezuela, where an enraged mob surrounded the vice-presidential motorcade & managed to shatter some windows of Nixon’s vehicle. American drivers found an escape route just in the nick of time, perhaps rescuing the future president from serious peril. Sadly, recent events have shown that this incident would not be the last time in modern American history that an angry mob would seriously threaten the life of a sitting vice-president.
That sums up the foreign policy portion of this episode. We will continue to explore the international turbulence in the Western Hemisphere during the late 50s in our next full-length episode, about the year 1959, but the main focus of today’s podcast is to explain how liberal anti-Communists became increasingly successful in American politics during the period from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. We will now recap how post-Baby-Boom era events allowed President Eisenhower’s center-right government to win the support of the American public, & then we will explain the ascendant challenges (from both left & right) to this moderate status quo. After the trauma of World War II, most Americans had hoped for a placid period of peace & prosperity. After a brief time of economic turbulence immediately after the war, the situation calmed & the United States experienced a broad-based economic boom that most Americans could have only dreamed of during the Depression years of the Thirties. However, the US public still did not enjoy the domestic tranquility & geopolitical security that most people craved after surviving the Second World War. Instead, the citizens of America experienced a postwar period defined by a Red Scare, McCarthyism, & a Cold War that turned hot in Korea.
When former General Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped onto the political stage & announced his run for the White House, his competent, centrist, & pragmatic approach seemed a breath of fresh air. As president, Ike had provided the American people with the geopolitical stability they had been seeking. The world news headlines didn’t seem quite so frightening anymore by the mid-50s. US historian James T. Patterson writes that during this period, instead of worrying too much about political crises or social issues, people relaxed & (quote) “millions of Americans . . . listened happily to . . . Pat Boone, Doris Day, & Frank Sinatra, laughed at the adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, & flocked to watch movie stars like John Wayne” (close quote). But after a few years of relatively stable politics, by the very end of the Fifties, many Americans seemed to be growing restless. Patterson contends that by the late 50s, new groups of (quote) “idealistic Americans, [who were] cherishing increasingly grand popular expectations about forging a new & better society, unsettled aspects of national culture & politics” (close quote).
Alienated dissenters emerged on the cultural Left, emboldened by the decline of McCarthyism. The Red Scare had died down, the Cold War had entered a mild thaw, & Americans felt less fear in straying outside the bounds of conformity. According to Patterson, a subcultural group known as (quote) “the Beats ([who] critics came to call . . . beatniks) represented perhaps the most publicized form of dissent from mainstream culture between 1957 & 1960” (close quote). One of this movement’s key writers was the poet Allen Ginsberg, who as (quote) “a political radical, a drug user, & a pansexual” broke the conformist mold of the 1950s several times over. The most famous Beat was Jack Kerouac, whose book On the Road was first published in 1957. It went on to become, in Patterson’s words, (quote) “a sacred text of sorts not only for the handful of self-proclaimed Beats but also for many others . . . who responded to the message of escape from convention extolled in the book” (close quote). The cultural avant-garde was also represented by boundary-pushing comedians such as Lenny Bruce, whose raunchy material sometimes led him to face obscenity charges. Patterson argues that Bruce, (quote) both “foul-mouthed & abrasive, assaulted mainstream values” (close quote). Patterson identifies Tom Lehrer as another noteworthy comedian with a subversive edge. He recalls that Lehrer (quote) “attracted enthusiastic audiences of college students who roared at his brilliantly-crafted songs against Cold War paranoia & nuclear overkill” (close quote). Young people weren’t just joking about the absurdity of nuclear war either – by this time, they were taking action. In 1957, worries among the youth regarding the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war motivated some college students to found an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing organization known as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Literature & cinema also began exploring more controversial political themes. According to historian Stephen Whitfield, during the late 50s & early 60s, British novels such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American & John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold helped paint a more critical & nuanced picture of international consequences of the Cold War struggle. Whitfield also contends that the Hollywood Blacklist finally broke down for good in late 1960, when President-Elect John F. Kennedy, an avid Cold Warrior, nevertheless had boldly defied right-wing picketers to attend the movie “Spartacus,” which had been written by a blacklisted screenwriter.
By the end of the decade, some on the political Far Right also were rebelling against the Fifties’ status quo, albeit in a different way & for very different reasons. Popular right-wing agitators often combined the stoking of middle-class fears regarding the spread of global Communist power with nostalgic appeals to return to the economic & social world that existed in the USA before the New Deal. They resented & distrusted Eisenhower’s moderate policies on issues both foreign & domestic. The most infamous expression of populist, conspiratorial conservatism during the late 50s was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by a wealthy, recently-retired candy manufacturer named Robert Welch. The “John Birch” organization was named after an American soldier who, while serving in China during the 40s, had been killed by Chinese Communist forces just days after the end of World War II. Welch believed that Birch’s death was the first casualty of an inevitable Third World War between Communists & their opponents. Robert Welch’s anti-Communist paranoia extended beyond anything that even Joe McCarthy had ever alleged; Patterson reports that the John Birch Society founder claimed that even President Eisenhower himself (quote) “was a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” (close quote). Despite his espousal of unhinged conspiracy theories that were without basis in any real evidence, Welch claimed that his organization had obtained around 40,000 dedicated members in the US by 1963. The growth of this so-called “Bircher” movement demonstrates the inherent power of conspiracy theories about powerful elites, even during a mid-20th Century era, when extremist beliefs could not yet be amplified by social media algorithms.
Other figures organized a more philosophically coherent & “respectable” Right Wing during the mid-to-late Fifties. A magazine entitled National Review emerged as the key journal for conservative intellectuals. Patterson characterizes it as (quote) “the anti-Communist creation of William F. Buckley, a young Catholic intellectual not long out of Yale [University]” (close quote). Buckley became famous for his love of philosophical debate & for his carefully-cultivated manner of speaking, which imitated the mid-Atlantic accent associated with America’s Northeastern WASP elite. This image obscured Buckley’s more complicated & colorful background. His father was a wealthy Texas oilman of Irish Catholic heritage whose business ventures led him to temporarily move with his wife & children to Mexico. The young William F. Buckley grew up south of the border, speaking Spanish until age 7, when his family returned to the United States. Buckley Junior then received a prestigious private school education, which he capped off by graduating with honors from Yale. He then wrote a book about his college experience, in which he complained that secular & “collectivist” ideas had become too pervasive in elite American universities. In publishing National Review, Buckley tried to steer conservatism into serious debate & away from explicit bigotry & conspiracy theories. However, Buckley’s worldview was nevertheless reactionary. He was concerned with preserving traditions & favored the rollback of recent reforms; he pledged that his magazine would (quote) be “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” (close quote). During the late 50s, it seemed that National Review magazine & the John Birch Society represented 2 opposite poles of the conservative spectrum, highbrow to lowbrow, although both agreed upon a course of strident opposition to left-wing ideas & policies.
A more divisive, but also important & influential, thinker on the post-World War II American Right was the author Ayn Rand, whose successful 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged became an important text for generations of economic libertarians. Her book portrayed a wealthy industrialist named John Galt as a heroic rebel against incompetent & meddlesome government bureaucrats who were jealous of talented & enterprising citizens like him. In her portrayal, the self-interested energy, creativity, & productivity of capitalists contributed more to society than centralized government programs ever could. Rand was an immigrant to the United States; she had been born in the Russian Empire in 1905. After living through the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the tsarist regime, Rand escaped the Soviet Union during the contentious 1920s. Her negative experiences living under the harsh communist regime of the USSR motivated her to be a militant defender of capitalism. Yet Rand’s Jewish ethnic background & her atheistic views on religion caused her to be deeply distrusted by the nativist & fundamentalist factions of the American Right. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein notes that her (quote) “repudiation of any claim to ethics outside of self-interest horrified traditionalist conservatives like William F. Buckley,” but she nevertheless “was tremendously popular among [prominent] businessmen” (close quote). On the other hand, Phillips-Fein observes that most conservative American business owners were more comfortable with ideas that attempted to portray Christianity & capitalism as naturally compatible. A big part of the postwar US conservative intellectual project would be attempting to create the seat of modern conservatism upon a foundation referred to as a “3-legged stool,” which fused together 3 key principles: aggressive foreign policy, religious conservatism, & free-market capitalism.
Professor Donald T. Critchlow, a sympathetic historian of conservatism, writes that at their best, (quote) “Postwar conservatives [increasingly] distanced themselves from isolationist foreign policy & anti-Semitic cranks. Intellectuals” such as Buckley, Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, & Russell Kirk “provided the Right with a systematic defense of individual rights & the free market” (close quote). These conservative forces were building an institutional & ideological foundation that would pay off for their movement in the future. Over time, the political Right learned to exploit developments in American life that were creating potential lanes of opportunity for conservatives. According to historian Rick Perlstein, liberals had worked to create a (quote) postwar “consumer economy that built the middle class [& which provided] a prosperity for ordinary laborers unprecedented in the history of the world . . . Now, history had caught [these liberals] in a bind: with the boom they had helped build, ordinary laborers were becoming ever less-reliably downtrodden, [& were more] vulnerable to appeals from Republicans” (close quote). Indeed, as workers grew wealthier, they sometimes identified less with the poor & became more politically conservative. However, the election results in 1958 proved that the conservatives’ moment for winning over the middle class had yet to arrive. Although most Americans liked Eisenhower’s moderate Republicanism, they generally distrusted the Far Right. At mid-century, there were still many more registered Democrats than Republicans in the USA, thanks to the continued resilience of the New Deal coalition. Most voters thought that the Democrats’ economic policies had improved their lives in recent decades, & they didn’t trust conservatives to defend the interests of the common working man. As long as liberals reassured American voters that they would defend the country from foreign Communist threats, they had a good opportunity to regain power.
American liberals made the most of their opportunity. The ascendant political faction in the US from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties was the center-left, which attempted to combine the domestic progressivism of Franklin Roosevelt with the tough-minded foreign policy of Truman. The intellectual origins of this so-called “Cold War liberalism” stretch back to the 1940s, when an organization called Americans for Democratic Action (or ADA) emerged to represent those liberals who opposed the Far Left’s attempts to rationalize the undemocratic & aggressive actions of the Soviet Union. ADA founders included liberal politicians such as Hubert Humphrey, union leaders such as David Dubinsky of the CIO, & intellectuals such as economist John Kenneth Galbraith (more about him later on in this episode). Back in 1948, when many leftist groups had rallied around the 3rd-party presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, the ADA campaigned for the mainstream Democratic ticket led by incumbent President Harry S Truman (for details, see Episode 3). Indeed, Truman (with the assistance of Kennan, Acheson, Marshall, & other “wise men”) had waged the early Cold War struggle via an administration staffed by anti-Communist liberals & moderates. Of course, the events of Truman’s 2nd term caused him to lose popularity & Democrats’ reputation took a hit; hardline conservative Republicans then took over American Cold War efforts for most of the Fifties. But the liberal Cold Warriors were still there waiting in the wings, angling for a chance to return to the struggle.
Patterson writes that these Anti-Communist Liberals generally differed from their Conservative counterparts in that they were opposed to Red-Baiting; they understood that the tiny American Communist Party was not a major domestic threat. But they were concerned about the international menace posed by the Soviet Union & China in conjunction with their various Red satellite states & allies. Liberal Cold Warriors also opposed what they considered to be the totalitarian nature of hard-line Communist political ideology. Some prominent left-liberals based this upon personal experiences they’d had in attempting to work alongside dogmatic Communists within progressive political organizations during the 30s & 40s. For example, Democratic socialist Irving Howe bitterly recalled that (quote) “those who supported Stalinism . . . befouled the cultural atmosphere . . . perpetuated one of the great lies of the 20th Century, [&] helped destroy whatever possibilities there might have been for a resurgence of serious radicalism in America” (close quote). Patterson recalls that by the 1950s, the ADA organization had emerged as (quote) “an important pressure group for liberal programs at home & anti-Communist policies abroad” (close quote). After the purge of Communists from the labor movement during the Red Scare (see Episodes 4 & 5), the AFL-CIO became another powerful institution supporting a liberal anti-Communist approach. The growing strength of this center-left political tendency became clear during the late 50s & early 60s.
In his book Grand Expectations, US historian James T. Patterson writes that (quote) “opponents of a conservative status quo . . . seemed to be gaining ground in the late 50s, especially after a recession struck in 1958. Democrats triumphed in the ’58 [Congressional] elections, greatly increasing their numbers on Capitol Hill” (close quote). The Democratic Party gained 48 seats in the House & picked up a whopping 15 Senate seats, causing Senate Dems’ narrow majority to balloon into a 60-plus seat supermajority. Ten Republican incumbent Senators lost to Democratic challengers, & the Democrats picked up 5 open Senate seats (including 2 brand new seats in the newly-admitted State of Alaska – more about that later). After the ’58 midterms, House Democrats outnumbered House Republicans by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Author Robert Caro credits Democratic gains to (quote) “growing unemployment, anger among farmers at Pres. Eisenhower’s veto of a bill to increase farm price supports . . . & the revelation of [an] influence-peddling” scandal involving one of Ike’s top aides. Perlstein argues that the strength of organized labor during the 50s played a key role in Democratic victories; the Republicans had appealed to anti-labor-union, right-to-work sentiment in an attempt to win votes from middle managers & small business owners. The move apparently backfired & helped fire up the Democrats’ pro-labor, blue-collar base, a group that was already hurting during the recession & voted its pocketbook.
Democratic Senate gains were especially strong in the Midwest & Mountain West, including pickups in stereotypically conservative states such as Utah & Wyoming. New incoming Democrats who upset incumbent Republican Senators in ’58 included Edmund Muskie of Maine, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, & Robert Byrd of West Virginia, all of whom would go on to be prominent figures in mid-to-late-20th Century American national politics. Caro reports that most of the newly-elected Senators were either moderate or liberal, which helped reduce the influence of conservative Dixiecrats within the Democratic caucus. Massachusetts re-elected Senator John F. Kennedy in 1958, & that charismatic young politician responded to his continuing success & growing popularity by making plans to run for President in 1960. However, Patterson identified other Senators, such as Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Herbert Lehman of New York, & Paul Douglas of Illinois, as the actual leading lights of liberalism in the United States Senate. These figures urged (quote) more “federal aid to education, a public system of health insurance, & government assistance to ‘depressed areas’” (close quote). Yet Patterson suggests that they had limited success in pushing this agenda during the Eisenhower years, given that Democrats in both houses of Congress were led by relatively moderate Texans, Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in the Senate & Speaker Sam Rayburn in the House of Representatives. Both men wanted to avoid pushing programs that would be attacked or vetoed by the still generally well-liked Republican President. Junior senators such as Maine’s Edmund Muskie & William Proxmire of Wisconsin publicly criticized Johnson’s moderate agenda & his heavy-handed leadership style, but according to Caro, LBJ was still the “master of the Senate,” & he kept firm control over what bills received attention & approval. Furthermore, a Democratic Congressional majority did not equal a liberal majority, given that a significant minority of Democrats were Southern conservatives who often voted with Republicans. Festering problems, ranging from poverty to health care to race relations, would have to wait until the liberal presidencies of the 1960s to be significantly addressed by major acts of legislation. Patterson writes: (Quote) “The moderate-to-conservative center that dominated the US in the early to mid-50s, while weakened, managed to hold” (close quote).
One particularly acute example of the lingering cultural conservatism that predominated during the late Fifties is the tale of the political defeat of Coya Knutson, one of just 16 female members of Congress (out of 533 total members). The daughter of Norwegian-speaking farmers in Minnesota, Ms. Knutson formally trained as an opera singer at the Julliard School of Music in New York City before her interests turned to politics. After her singing career faltered, she returned to Minnesota, where she taught high school & became active in the state’s Democratic Party. During the 1950s, she successfully ran to be the first-ever female Minnesotan member of Congress. According to journalist Liz Halloran of NPR, Knutson was also the first woman in US history to serve on the House Agriculture Committee. She achieved this breakthrough despite the fact that the Ag Committee Chairman initially objected to having a woman appointed to his committee. House Speaker Sam Rayburn insisted that the Chairman accept Rep. Coya Knutson as a member, because she represented a rural district & because such total gender exclusion was beginning to seem old-fashioned even by 1950s standards.
However, in 1958, during what was a very good year for most other Democratic Congressional candidates, Knutson’s political career came to an end through a shocking incident of sexist political sabotage. According to Halloran, Rep. Knutson had incurred the wrath of Minnesota Democratic Party officials by repeatedly defying the wishes of the centralized party machine. This behavior by a Democratic candidate would have likely upset the party bosses under any circumstances, but it particularly galled them that a female politician would defy them. Party officials decided to make use of some “dirt” they had against Knutson – they knew she was separated from her husband Andy, who was known to be an abusive alcoholic. Remarkably, in rural Minnesota in the 1950s, the separation, not the abuse, was the controversial part. Journalist Liz Halloran recalls that the party bosses had Coya’s estranged husband Andy Knutson sign a letter that they had written in his name, which they then submitted to local newspapers. Halloran reports that (quote) “The letter urged the congresswoman to abandon her re-election campaign [& return to Minnesota to] . . . ‘make a home for [her] husband and son’” (close quote). Andy Knutson’s infamous “Coya come home” letter also endorsed her primary challenger & stated (quote) “I’m sick & tired of having you run around with other men all the time & not your husband” (close quote). This statement further spread already-present rumors that Knutson was having an affair with a young man who was her top Congressional aide. Halloran quotes a local Minnesota historian as saying (quote) “It’s the dirtiest trick I’ve ever seen in politics.”
Coya Knutson nevertheless ran for a third term in 1958, narrowly winning the Democratic primary, but she lost the general election to a Republican state legislator named Odin Langen (who was apparently named after the Norse god Odin – it seems this was a very Scandinavian district). Langen did not hesitate to exploit the Knutson family controversy for his own benefit; he ran for Congress using the slogan – and I kid you not – (quote) “A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job.” This type of chauvinistic “identity politics” appears to have been effective, because Rep. Coya Knutson was the only Democratic incumbent in the entire US Congress to lose a seat to a Republican challenger in the “blue wave” election of ’58. According to NPR, ex-Congresswoman Knutson divorced her husband & later returned to Washington DC to work in the Defense Department. The story of the rise & fall of her political career is a prime example of how talented women’s ambitions were often hamstrung by the conservative gender expectations of the mid-20th Century.
It was in response to such commonplace acts of bigotry that progressives in positions of power during the late 50s were pushing to make the USA more hospitable for law-abiding non-conformists. One key institution to the rise of Cold War Era liberalism was the Supreme Court of the United States. This period in American legal history is referred to as the Warren Court era, named after Earl Warren, the progressive Republican politician who Eisenhower had appointed as US Chief Justice (see Episode 8). Patterson notes that the Warren Court contributed to cooling down the Red Scare hysteria by emerging (quote) “as an advocate not only of civil rights, but also of civil liberties” (close quote). This process accelerated during the late Fifties, when new justice William Brennan of New Jersey established himself as perhaps the most strident left-liberal voice on the court, joining Chief Justice Warren, William O. Douglas, & Hugo Black on its progressive wing. According to Patterson, by this time the US Supreme Court was examining laws designed to purge & punish people suspected of Communist sympathies (especially the Smith Act), & interpreting these laws so narrowly as to render them unenforceable in most cases. Such decisions made taking legal action against people with radical left-wing political views more difficult; it was a win for free-speech advocates & a loss for right-wing red-baiters. Of course, these rulings soon incurred the wrath of the populist Right. Patterson writes that the newly-established John Birch Society (quote) “focused considerable resources on impeaching Warren & on curbing the authority of the Court” (close quote). However, the leadership of both major parties opposed this far-right movement, & the Birchers’ efforts went nowhere. Nevertheless, there was a growing risk of backlash, because some liberal Court decisions were beginning to push into areas outside of the mainstream of public opinion. Older liberal justices on the court, such as Felix Frankfurter, began worrying that this quote-unquote “judicial activism” could eventually lead to a major public outcry against the court, one that mobilized mainstream voters & serious politicians, not just fringe Bircher types. This backlash indeed would eventually occur, but not yet, not during the Fifties.
In 1958, a newly-published non-fiction book became a best-seller. It provided ideas that shaped the rising Cold War liberalism. Entitled The Affluent Society, it expressed the growing national dissatisfaction with the Eisenhower-era status quo. The book’s author, John Kenneth Galbraith, was born during 1908 to an ethnically Scottish family in Ontario. As a young man he moved from Canada to the United States to pursue an academic career. He became a prominent Professor of Economics at a top American university, but it was only after composing The Affluent Society that he truly gained nationwide fame as a public intellectual. Patterson characterizes the book as (quote) “concerned above all with the contrast, as [Galbraith] saw it, between private opulence & public austerity” (close quote). The work argued that the growing wealth of the USA should not be spent on mindless consumerism, but instead, through the proper public policies, it could be directed to address major social problems. According to Patterson, Galbraith’s progressive left-liberalism led him to favor (quote) “greater spending on public education, price controls to curb profiteering, & a national sales tax to raise money for social services” (close quote). Among the book’s fans was that dynamic young Massachusetts Senator whose name will be coming up a lot during the next few episodes of our podcast. After the Democrats recaptured the White House in 1960, that man, President John F. Kennedy, appointed Professor Galbraith as an economic adviser to his new administration.
Galbraith’s The Affluent Society provided an early entry into what proved to be a slew of influential non-fiction books advocating political & social reforms during the late 50s & early 60s. Other entries into this genre included: The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills in 1956, which critiqued the nation’s power structure & later became influential upon the New Left; The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs in 1961, which condemned so-called ‘urban renewal’ policies that displaced culturally-rich urban neighborhoods; The Other America by Michael Harrington in 1962, which addressed major pockets of poverty that remained outside of American prosperity; Silent Spring by Rachel Carson also in 1962, which brought attention to the environmental degradation caused by modern industrial chemicals & pollutants; The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963, which launched the second wave of the feminist movement; & Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader in 1965, which sparked the consumer product safety movement. The growing popularity of these arguments & ideas helped create a new “zeitgeist” in American society that favored change over conformity, one that combined optimism about human potential with deep concern over existing injustices. This spirit of reform helped give birth to the turbulent events of “the Sixties”: a whirlwind of political protests & social changes that shook American life to its foundations for a few wild years. The Boomers would then spend decades debating with each other over the legacy of those years.
Most changes & challenges of the Sixties in America were not inevitable. We can trace their early origins back to the optimistic & adventurous spirit that was emerging in the USA by the late 1950s. Americans were expanding their political expectations, widening their geographical horizons, & growing more comfortable with their role as a global superpower. During the last 2 years of the 50s, the borders of the United States themselves expanded to encompass new frontiers with the admission of 2 new states into the Union: Alaska in 1958 & Hawaii in 1959. Both of these regions had been United States territories for several years prior to obtaining statehood. The USA first obtained the Alaskan Territory from the Russian Empire in 1867. Alaska was a vast, Arctic land in the far northwestern corner of North America, & many 19th Century Americans mocked its acquisition as a “folly,” thinking it worthless. Over time, however, it proved to be a place of considerable geostrategic importance, as well as a source of vital natural resources. The United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands into the union during the 1890s, taking charge of that Pacific region without too much concern for the opinion of the territory’s indigenous Polynesian population. Hawaii primarily consists of a chain of 8 major islands located in the tropical heart of the Pacific Ocean, over 2,000 miles to the southwest of the 48 contiguous United States. Like Alaska, Hawaii eventually became a place of great economic & military importance to the USA. Nevertheless, both non-contiguous US territories would face unique obstacles in their paths to admission before becoming full-fledged US states.
According to journalist Alan Greenblatt of Vox.com, at the beginning of his administration President Eisenhower was skeptical about admitting Alaska as a state. Ike thought that full-fledged statehood was inappropriate for such a vast & distant territory, & he worried that it would be (quote) “forever dependent on the federal government for support” (close quote). The debate over Hawaii’s admission to the Union was even more contentious. Greenblatt reports that (quote) some “conservatives were worried that Hawaii would be dominated by the West Coast longshoremen’s union, which they viewed as Communist” (close quote). This fear turned out to be vastly overblown, but the state’s unique ethnic composition was a bigger matter of concern; at the time, Hawaii would be the only state in the USA where the majority of its residents were not of European descent. Many citizens of Hawaii were indigenous Polynesians, but the largest group consisted of Asians, particularly people of Japanese descent, who had migrated to the islands to find employment in the agriculture industry since the 19th Century. During the 50s, one conservative Republican Senator from Nebraska explained that he opposed Hawaiian statehood for racial reasons, stating bluntly that after World War II he did not want to see ethnically Japanese people serving in the United States Congress. Greenblatt indicates that (quote) “Southern Democrats [also] disapproved of the nonwhite population of the islands, worrying that Hawaii would send senators of Asian descent who would [almost certainly] represent 2 more votes against filibuster rules that helped them kill civil rights legislation” (close quote).
However, by the late Fifties, both Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson & President Dwight Eisenhower were influenced by public opinion polls showing that most Americans favored statehood for both territories; the USA’s increasingly global profile & Cold War defensive prerogatives made it seem less strange to the American public that the nation would expand out to the fringes of the North American continent. Even the fact that increasing the Union to a total of 50 states would provide the nation with an iconic round number of states may have added to the appeal of these additional admissions. Greenblatt argues that (quote) “Leaders in both parties came to believe it was a fair deal all around, largely because Alaska at that time was Democratic & Hawaii” leaned Republican. Congress passed a bill approving Alaskan statehood in summer 1958 & another permitting Hawaiian statehood in spring 1959; both states were formally admitted into the Union during ’59, & as a result, 2 more stars were added to the American flag. The 2 non-contiguous states continue to balance each other out politically, but ironically, they do so in the exact opposite way as initially expected – during the 21st Century, Alaska has been a reliable Red state & Hawaii has been one of the “bluest” states in the Union. There has recently been much talk among activists of getting the District of Columbia admitted as the 51ststate, but advocates of DC statehood face a political problem. The District is overwhelmingly Democratic, & there is no Republican territory seeking admission that would provide the political trade-off necessary to get DC statehood passed through a hyper-partisan US Congress. Then again, the changing American attitudes over time regarding Alaskan & Hawaiian statehood indicate that unexpected future developments might make DC’s admission possible.
The United States may have been branching out to distant frontiers during the late 50s, but trouble was brewing in the nation’s own backyard. A scrappy revolutionary movement was emerging in the Caribbean not very far south of the State of Florida. It would soon create new tensions between the Cold War superpowers, & it would eventually bring the world to the very brink of nuclear annihilation. That story begins next time, in the year 1959.
“From Boomers to Millennials” is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Written & read by Logan Rogers. You can contact the show at firstname.lastname@example.org, or track us down on social media. Here at the podcast, we hope that all of our listeners have a chance to do their own extensive on-site research into Hawaiian history as soon as the pandemic is completely over. Thank you for listening!