Modern history

The Liberal Consensus and Its Challengers



How did a Republican politician who advocated the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II end up presiding over the most liberal Supreme Court in U.S. history? As attorney general of California at the outset of World War II, Earl Warren helped convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order the relocation of 110,000 Japanese Americans. After the war, as governor, he continued to fight against perceived threats to national security by joining the anti-Communist crusade. In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Warren to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, a choice that many observers saw as a safe conservative pick by a safe conservative president.

As chief justice, however, Warren defied expectations and instead led the Court in a liberal direction. In 1954 Warren wrote the landmark opinion ordering school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Departing from his own strong anti-Communist record, Warren upheld the rights of political dissenters and extended the boundaries of free speech. The Warren Court did not shrink from controversy, and its rulings expanding the rights of accused criminals, banning prayer in public school classrooms, and upholding birth control as a right of privacy evoked harsh criticism from the police, religious fundamentalists, and conservative politicians.

Unlike Earl Warren, Bayard Rustin worked outside of regular political and social channels to achieve change. Raised by his Quaker grandparents in Pennsylvania, Rustin began his career as an activist for social justice in 1937 when he moved to New York City to work as a youth organizer. He joined the Young Communist League because of its commitment to economic justice, racial equality, and international peace, but the pacifist Rustin quit the organization in 1941 when the party supported U.S. intervention in World War II and retreated on its fight against racial discrimination during the war.

In 1942 Rustin helped found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that pioneered nonviolent, direct-action protests against racial bias. A committed pacifist, Rustin was imprisoned from 1943 to 1946 for declining to perform alternative service after he refused to register for the military draft. Prison strengthened his determination to challenge racial injustice through unconventional means. After his release, he continued to push for racial equality, and in 1947 Rustin helped plan and lead the Journey of Reconciliation, which challenged segregation on interstate buses in the South (see chapter 24). In the 1950s and 1960s, he became an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and a major strategist in the civil rights movement in his own right.

Rustin remained active in various causes throughout his life. One of his last efforts was perhaps his most personal: the struggle against antigay prejudice. As a homosexual, Rustin had to conceal his sexual identity at a time when the public and his political allies rejected homosexuals. Rustin often had to work behind the scenes to avoid unfavorable publicity, and even Dr. King on occasion kept his distance from him. In the 1980s, as the gay liberation movement grew more vocal, Rustin spoke out for tolerance and equality until his death in 1987.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Earl Warren and Bayard Rustin demonstrate the complexity of social change. The federal government had the power to encourage social movements by interpreting the Constitution, enacting legislation, and enforcing the law in a manner that eliminated barriers to racial, sexual, and political equality. Yet federal action likely would not have happened without the pressure applied by activists like Rustin. At the same time, efforts to promote equality and social justice produced a strong reaction from conservatives who feared that their political and social values were under assault. By the end of the 1960s, liberal reformers had achieved many of their objectives, but they had also triggered a stiff challenge from conservative opponents who sought to roll back those gains and pursue their own policies of small government, low taxes, and self-help.

Demonstrators carry American flags on the march from Selma to Montgomery to support voters' rights, 1965.

The Politics of Liberalism

In 1960 the liberal agendas of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman remained unfinished. Hoping to build on the legacy of the New Deal, liberals sought to increase the role of the federal government in the economy, education, and health care. Most liberals supported a staunchly anti-Communist foreign policy, differing with Republicans more over means than over ends. Indeed, when Democrats recaptured the White House in 1960, they seized opportunities in Cuba and Southeast Asia to vigorously challenge the expansion of Soviet influence.

Kennedy’s New Frontier

With victory in World War II and the revival of economic prosperity, liberal thinkers regained confidence in capitalism. Many saw the postwar American free-enterprise system as different from the old-style capitalism that had existed before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In their view, this new “reform capitalism,” or democratic capitalism, created abundance for all and not just for a few elites. Rather than pushing for the redistribution of wealth, liberals now called on the government to help create conditions conducive to economic growth and increased productivity. In this context, the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued in The Affluent Society (1958) that increased public investments in education, research, and development were the key to American prosperity and progress.

These ideas guided the thinking of Democratic politicians such as Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Elected president in 1960, the forty-three-year-old Kennedy brought good looks, charm, a beautiful wife, and young children to the White House— presenting a public image that matched the kind of nuclear family that Americans tuned in to watch on their television sets during the 1950s. Yet this was no ordinary family. The Kennedy family had numerous estates, and the president’s father had used his fortune to bankroll his son John’s political ambitions, first as a Massachusetts congressman, then as a U.S. senator, and finally as president. As president, John Kennedy pledged a New Frontier to battle “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war,” but lacking strong majorities in Congress, he contented himself with making small gains on the New Deal foundation established by Franklin Roosevelt. Congress expanded unemployment benefits, increased the minimum wage, extended Social Security benefits, and raised appropriations for public housing, but Kennedy’s caution disappointed many liberals.

The Kennedy administration showed greater zeal in fighting the Cold War abroad. The president believed that the same reform capitalism that had worked well in the United States should become a global model, especially in newly developing nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Communism, like fascism before it, posed a fundamental threat to American interests and to other countries’ ability to emulate the economic miracle of the United States. The faith of liberals in American ingenuity, willpower, technological superiority, and moral righteousness encouraged them to reshape the “free world” in America’s image.

President Kennedy’s first Cold War battle took place in Cuba. During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy criticized the Eisenhower administration for allowing Fidel Castro to establish a Communist dictatorship in Cuba—despite Kennedy’s knowledge of a secret CIA plan, devised by the Eisenhower administration, to topple Castro from power. After becoming president, Kennedy approved the scheme that Eisenhower had already set in motion.

The operation ended disastrously. On April 17, 1961, the invasion force of between 1,400 and 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA, landed by boat at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southwest coast. Kennedy refused to provide backup military forces for fear of revealing America’s role in the attack. After three days of fighting, Castro’s troops defeated the insurgents. CIA planners had underestimated Cuban popular support for Castro, falsely believing that the invasion would inspire a national uprising against the Communist regime. The Kennedy administration had blundered its way into a bitter foreign policy defeat.

Two months later, Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit meeting in Vienna. At the conference, Khrushchev took advantage of the president’s embarrassing defeat in Cuba to press his own demands. The confrontational summit meeting increased tensions between the superpowers. Returning from Vienna, Kennedy persuaded Congress to increase the defense budget, dispatch additional troops to Europe, and bolster civil defense. In August, the Soviets responded by constructing a wall through Berlin, making it more difficult for refugees to flee from East Berlin to West Berlin, but they did not close off U.S. access to West Berlin. After the building of the Berlin Wall, tensions seemed to subside for a time, only to spike again the following year in a confrontation over Cuba that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster.

Following the Bay of Pigs disaster, the United States continued its efforts to topple the Castro regime. Such attempts were uniformly unsuccessful, but a wary Castro decided to invite the Soviet Union to install short- and intermediate-range missiles in his country to protect against further U.S. incursion. On October 22, 1962, Kennedy went on national television to inform the American people that Soviet missile sites were under construction in Cuba. The Kennedy administration decided to blockade Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from supplying the deadly missile warheads that would make the missiles fully operational. If this effort failed and Soviet ships defied the blockade, the president would order air strikes on Cuba. Ordinary Americans, particularly those within striking distance of Cuban-based Soviet missiles, nervously contemplated the very real possibility of nuclear destruction.

On the brink of nuclear war, both sides decided to compromise. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, and Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and secretly promised to dismantle U.S. missile sites in Turkey that were aimed at the Soviet Union. The outcome did not please everyone. Castro, who still feared U.S. intervention, remained disappointed, as did Soviet hard-line leaders who believed that Khrushchev had displayed weakness. (Two years later, they deposed him.) The rest of the world breathed a sigh of relief, and Kennedy and Khrushchev, having stepped back from the edge of nuclear holocaust, worked to ease tensions further. In 1963 they signed a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty— which prohibited atmospheric but not underground testing—and installed an electronic “hot line” to ensure swift communications between Washington and Moscow.

Containment in Southeast Asia

In addition to Cuba, Kennedy inherited the policy of containing communism in Southeast Asia. He shared his predecessors’ belief that the Soviet Union was behind wars of national liberation throughout the third world. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy believed that if Communists toppled one regime in Asia it would produce a “domino effect,” with one country after another falling to the Communists. Kennedy, a World War II veteran, also believed that aggressive nations that attacked weaker ones threatened world peace unless they were challenged.

Kennedy’s containment efforts ran into difficulty in Vietnam because the United States did not control the situation on the ground. After supporting Ngo Dinh Diem as president of South Vietnam in 1955, the United States poured more than $1 billion into the country to implement land reform and create a stable government capable of withstanding Communist opposition from the Vietcong and North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces in North Vietnam. However, Diem spent the money on building up military and personal security forces to suppress all political opposition. In 1961 Kennedy sent military advisers to help the South Vietnamese fight the Communists, but the situation deteriorated in 1963 when the Catholic Diem prohibited the country’s Buddhist majority from holding religious celebrations. In protest, Buddhist monks committed suicide by setting themselves on fire, a grisly display captured on television news programs in the United States. With political opposition mounting against Diem’s oppressive regime and the war going poorly, the Kennedy administration endorsed a military coup to replace the Diem government with one more capable of fighting Communists. On November 1, 1963, the coup leaders removed Diem from office, assassinated the deposed president and key members of his regime, and installed a military government.

Diem’s death, however, did little to improve the worsening war against the Communists. The Vietcong had more support in the rural countryside than did the South Vietnamese government because the rebels promised land reform and recruited local peasants disturbed by the corruption and ruthlessness of the Diem regime. The Kennedy administration committed itself to supporting Diem’s successor, but by late November 1963 Kennedy seemed ambivalent about what to do next. He was torn between sending more American troops and finding a way to negotiate a peace.

This ambivalence was reflected in Kennedy’s more general effort to balance his hard-line anti-Communist policies with new outreach efforts to inspire developing nations to follow a democratic path. The Peace Corps program sent thousands of volunteers to teach and advise developing nations, and Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress supplied economic aid to emerging democracies in Latin America. In June 1963, Kennedy announced his departure from his earlier militant Cold War stance in a commencement address at American University. Instead of describing a bipolar world of good and evil, Kennedy envisioned a “world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.”

On November 22, 1963, three weeks after the assassination of Diem, Lee Harvey Oswald murdered Kennedy as he rode in an open motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The fatal shots from the assassin’s rifle brought the nation to a standstill and prompted an outpouring of public grief not seen since President Roosevelt died in office in 1945. In death, Kennedy achieved immense popularity, and many Americans viewed him as a martyr. Yet Kennedy had left many problems unresolved. His legislative agenda, including civil rights, remained unfulfilled, and at the time of his death there were 16,000 American military advisers in Vietnam.

Johnson Escalates the War in Vietnam

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, faced a difficult decision about Vietnam. Privately, the new president harbored reservations about fighting in Vietnam, but he was fearful of being considered soft on communism and was concerned that a demonstration of weakness would jeopardize congressional support for his domestic plans. Although President Johnson eventually concluded that more U.S. forces had to be sent to Vietnam, he hesitated to act immediately. Instead, he waited for the right moment to rally Congress and the American public behind an escalation of the war.

That moment came in August 1964. On August 2, North Vietnamese gunboats sixty miles off the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin attacked an American spy ship. Two days later, another U.S. destroyer reported coming under torpedo attack, but because of stormy weather this second ship was not certain that it had actually been fired on. Neither ship suffered any damage. In fact, when informed of the assaults, the president responded: “For all I know, our navy might have been shooting at whales out there.” Despite the considerable uncertainty about what actually happened, Johnson seized the opportunity to prompt Congress to authorize military action. On August 7, with only two dissenting votes, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which empowered the president to “repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” In effect, Congress provided Johnson with unlimited power to make military decisions regarding Vietnam.

After winning election in 1964, President Johnson stepped up U.S. military action. In March 1965, with North Vietnamese forces flooding into the South, the president initiated Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam and infiltration routes into the South along the Vietnamese borders with Cambodia and Laos, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For more than three years, American planes dropped a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, more than the total amount the United States used in World War II. Despite this massive firepower, the operation proved ineffective. A largely agricultural country, North Vietnam did not have the type of industrial targets best suited for air attacks. It stored its vital military resources underground, and the North Vietnamese were able to reconstruct rudimentary bridges and roads to maintain the flow of troops into the South within hours after U.S. bombers had pounded them.

Responding to the need to protect American air bases and the persistent ineffectiveness of the South Vietnamese government and military, Johnson deployed ever-increasing numbers of ground troops to Vietnam. In 1963, when Johnson became president, 16,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam; this number grew to 380,000 in 1966, to 485,000 in 1967, and to 536,000 in 1968, with Johnson hoping that each new infusion would be the last. An estimated 200,000 North Vietnamese reached draft age annually, and Hanoi replenished its troops to counter the U.S. escalation. The U.S. military also deployed napalm bombs, which spewed burning jellied gasoline, and Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant that denuded the Vietnamese countryside and produced long-term adverse health effects for those who came in contact with it, including American soldiers. These attacks added to the resentment of the South Vietnamese peasants living in the countryside and helped the Vietcong gain new recruits.

The United States confronted a challenging guerrilla war in Vietnam. The Vietcong fought at night and blended in during the day as ordinary residents of cities and villages. They did not provide a visible target, and they recruited women and men of all ages, making it difficult for U.S. ground forces to distinguish friend from foe. To meet this challenge, the military, under the direction of General William C. Westmoreland, established “strategic hamlets” to separate the Vietcong from noncombatants. Troops moved residents out of their villages to a new location, set up a defense perimeter around it, and assumed that anyone found outside this zone must be the enemy. Westmoreland then instituted “search and destroy” missions throughout the countryside to defeat the Vietcong. In the end, these policies did little to advance the U.S. military effort and alienated the population they were designed to safeguard.

On the ground, frustration also bred racism, as many American soldiers could not relate to the Vietnamese way of life and dismissed the enemy as “gooks.” Lieutenant Philip Caputo later admitted that he could order his men to burn the thatch and bamboo shacks the Vietnamese lived in because to him a “home had brick or frame walls, a window, a lawn, a TV antenna on the roof.” This attitude pushed some of the troops over the line between legitimate wartime practices and murder. Frustrated by rising casualties from an enemy they could not see, some American soldiers indiscriminately burned down villages and killed noncombatant civilians. Such disreputable behavior peaked in March 1968 with the My Lai massacre, when an American platoon murdered between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai.

On January 31, 1968, the Buddhist New Year of Tet, some 67,000 Communist forces mounted a surprise offensive throughout South Vietnam that targeted major population centers (Map 26.1). For six hours, a suicide squadron of Vietcong surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. U.S. forces finally repelled the Tet Offensive, but the battle proved psychologically costly to the United States. Following the Tet Offensive, the most revered television news anchor of the era, Walter Cronkite of CBS, turned against the war and expressed the doubts of a growing number of viewers when he announced: “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only reasonable, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.”

Tet marked the beginning of the end of the war’s escalation. On March 31, 1968, President Johnson ordered a halt to the bombing campaign and called for peace negotiations. He also stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek reelection. By the time he left the White House in 1969, peace negotiations had stalled and some 36,000 Americans had died in combat, along with 52,000 South Vietnamese troops.


• How did President Kennedy's domestic agenda reflect the liberal political ideology of the early 1960s?

• How and why did the United States escalate its role in the Vietnam War?

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