Study Guide

1964 RNC Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech Historical Context

By Barry Goldwater

Historical Context

Normally, if a person says, "I don't want to be president, and even if I did, I'd never win the election," we wouldn't expect them to go out and, say, run for president.

But that's exactly what Barry Goldwater did in 1964.

His reasons for not wanting to be president were sound and logical:

  • First, his wife was a private person and he didn't want the paparazzi up in his family's biz. They already had enough notoriety in Arizona, both from the family's chain of department stores and his own Senatorial career, and he felt like that was enough fame for him.
  • Second, President Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year before and Lyndon B. Johnson had taken over the Oval Office. Barry didn't think the American people would want three POTUSes in less than a year, especially since the tragedy of JFK's murder was still so fresh. Too soon.
  • And finally, while he'd toyed with the idea of running against Jack Kennedy, whom he liked and even sometimes admired, he didn't have the same warm fuzzies toward Lyndon Johnson. He detested the man, actually, and made no bones about that fact. He felt like running against LBJ would be more of a shady, underhanded political circus than a mature discussion about the issues, and he just wasn't down for that.

So what changed his mind? Well, in order to answer that question, we need to pack our bags and hop in our DeLorean. It's time to take a little trip around the world… the world, that is, of the early 1960s.

Cuba Non-Libre

The first stop on our trip of international intrigue is the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, circa 1961.

In 1961, Cuba had only been under the control of communist revolutionary Fidel Castro for two years. Until 1959, Havana had been filled with American businesses, American tourists, and American money. But that all changed when Castro and his fan club overthrew Cuban leader General Fulgencio Batista. Castro definitely wasn't as big of a fan of the U.S. as General Batista had been, and his first order of business, after declaring himself Cuba's Prime Minister, was to basically toss all of the Americans—and their businesses and their money—right off the island.

The U.S. had owned several sugar plantations on the island, and it was a popular vacation destination for rich folk. The spicy food and spicier music, along with the white-sand beaches, tasty rum, tropical weather, and close proximity to Florida, made Cuba seem like an island paradise.

But not everyone was living large in what was being called the Latin Las Vegas. Many Cubans were desperately poor, and Castro and his revolutionaries felt that the heavy American presence in their country was contributing to the growing inequality. Castro was determined to put a stop to all of that and make his country strong and independent on its own again. He felt like maybe communism was what Cuba needed.

Of course, this horrified the United States.

The death blow for the Cuban-American relationship came when Castro agreed to buy oil from the Soviet Union, America's arch-nemesis. The decision caused a little friction. So the United States did what any mature, responsible country would do: they took their ball and went home—and imposed super-strict economic sanctions against Cuba while they were at it.

In response, Cuba beefed up its BFFness with the Soviets, which scared the suspenders off the United States. Cuba is only 90 miles from Miami; no way did the U.S. want the Soviets to have a bestie that close to its own shores.

That fear really started bubbling over in 1960, and the U.S. decided it was time to take matters into its own hands. In what later became one of the biggest U.S. government miscalculations ever, the CIA recruited a bunch of Cuban exiles to storm the beaches of their own homeland and overthrow their new communist dictator.

What could go wrong, right?

Pretty much everything, as it turns out.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a huge mess, one that had ramifications that can still be felt today. Between defectors, double agents, lies told by the U.S. to the UN, leaked information, and last-minute plan changes, the whole operation seems in hindsight like it was destined for failure.

After the first phase of the invasion plan hit a few snafus, President Kennedy asked Senator Goldwater to come to the Oval Office and maybe throw a little advice his way. JFK was questioning the whole point of getting involved in Cuba (though maybe it was a little late to get cold feet). Goldwater felt that JFK had lost his nerve in dealing with the communist threat, and it was after that meeting that, for the first time, Barry thought he might actually have what it takes to be a United States President after all.

Vietnam: Go Big or Stay Home

Meanwhile, 10,000 miles away, another Cold War conflict was just beginning to heat up.

The skirmish in Vietnam made Goldwater nervous from the get-go. Fresh in his mind was America's experience in Korea, and he was afraid that President Kennedy would follow in President Truman's tracks with a similar "no-win policy" in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.

His fears were realized when Kennedy sent the first troops into southern Vietnam—and called them "advisors." JFK also effectively tied those "advisors'" hands by telling them, essentially, that their job was to train the South Vietnamese armed forces for battle, but if the North got irked by that and started pushing them around, they couldn't push back.

That's no way to win a war, Barry thought to himself.

Barry's stance on international conflict earned him a reputation as a nuke-loving hawk, but that may be a bit of an oversimplification. His position was that, if a country was going to intervene in another country's affairs, it needed to go in strong, take care of biz, and then get the heck out. He wasn't a fan of the dribble troops in, dribble troops out approach. He felt like it caused more casualties and cost a lot more money than was necessary.

When he thought that JFK, and then LBJ, were going to take the same meek approach to Vietnam that he'd seen during the Korean War, he was convinced the U.S. would lose the war there before war was even declared. The country needed a strong Commander in Chief, and he figured it might as well be him.

He was right about losing the war, BTW, but to be fair, JFK and LBJ weren't solely responsible for that. To get your knowledge fix on America's longest war, check out Shmoop's awesome-sauce guide here.

Now let's get back to Senator Goldwater's rocky road to the Republican nomination.

Moderation in All Things—Except Conservatism

Our final stop on this whirlwind tour is right here in the U.S. of A. While Senator Goldwater was concerned about international goings-on, he was also way worried about what was happening to his party at home.

Goldwater's domestic political convictions can be summed like this: freedom from taxes, freedom from regulation, freedom in individual choices and decisions. The Republican Party was supposed to be all over freedom, but there were, in his mind, two factions that were really screwing up the whole thing.

The first was the old-guard Eastern establishment.

(And when we say "Eastern" here, we mean the northeastern United States, not the Communist East. Just to be clear.)

While Goldwater and other like-minded conservatives were all about making government smaller, these Eastern or Rockefeller Republicans didn't seem to be on that train at all. They weren't as concerned with cutting government spending as they were on changing where it was spent, and a lot of them publicly supported some of LBJ's Great Society policies, which Goldwater saw as unconstitutional and totally outside the bounds of the responsibilities of government.

The other group that was starting to chap Barry G's hide was the group that's come to be known as the Radical Right, or Moral Majority. Barry grew up Episcopalian and considered himself to be a spiritual man, but he didn't like how this new faction was attempting to push religion as a governmental and legislative issue.

To be sure, his campaign focused a bunch on the "decaying morality" of America. But for him, that moral decay wasn't a religious issue, it was a government issue. Government restrictions and entitlements had led to people allowing—even expecting—the government to make their lives awesome. And since it couldn't do that, these unmet expectations were leading to violence, corruption, and even, according to his campaign ads, fighting in the streets.

Barry wasn't a sit-around-and-complain kind of guy, so in 1960, he'd published The Conscience of a Conservative, a book that outlined his vision of a conservative political platform. The book was an underground sensation, gobbled up across college campuses everywhere, inspiring a whole new generation of Republicans. Millions and millions of copies of this book have been sold, and it's still in print (and available as an e-book) today.

In 1964, Goldwater took his brand of conservatism to the people, using the principles he'd outlined in his book as the platform for his presidential race. He drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, especially those from the Eastern establishment like Nelson "Rocky" Rockefeller and moderate Republicans like future POTUS Richard Nixon. (Yes, Nixon was a moderate.) He was battered by the media, depicted as a warmonger on one hand and a racist cowboy on the other. He was called an extremist and compared to Hitler.

But many Republicans ate it up, and the Arizona Senator's popularity soared across the nation. He won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, much to his own surprise, but was decimated in the general election, losing 44 states to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. That's one of the biggest thumpings in American election history.

Looks like his own prediction of defeat had come true. But he didn't let it get him down. He'd said that his whole point was to get his conservative message out and get the Republican Party back on what he believed to be the right track. He went right back to the Senate and served as a respected and influential senior lawmaker until his retirement in 1987.

Well, he achieved his goal or reinvigorating the conservative wing of the GOP. Many credit Goldwater's conservatism with paving the way for Reagan's election to President in 1980. And to this day, almost two decades after his death, many registered Republicans identify themselves as Goldwater Republicans, even those born long after his 1964 defeat.

Not too shabby of a legacy for a store manager from Phoenix, Arizona.

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