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  • Barry Goldwater and 1964: A Beginning and an End
  • David Farber (bio)

The presidential election of 1964 occurred against a confounding political backdrop. On the one hand, the American economy was booming. On the other hand, so was crime and disorder. President Lyndon Johnson would do everything he could to highlight the good news. Senator Barry Goldwater would, in the words of a future president, talk about the carnage.

For President Johnson, there was plenty about which to brag. By every measure, the American economy was paying major dividends to the American people across income levels. The gross domestic product recorded an extraordinary nominal growth rate of 6.2 percent in the first quarter of 1964; the good times continued throughout the year. Inflation was inching along at 1 percent, home mortgages were cheap, and Americans celebrated their good fortune by making the brand-new Ford Mustang an instant classic. In 1964 a lot of Americans were celebrating a profound sense of financial well-being, and Lyndon Johnson did his best to take credit for their economic satisfaction.

Still, Barry Goldwater could and did point out that all was not well in American society. Crime rates had begun a decades-long climb; reported aggravated assaults had risen sharply from 154,320 in 1960 to 203,050 in 1964. “Crime in the Streets,” a term [End Page 3] that could incorporate everything from violent muggings to urban riots or uprisings to confrontational civil rights protests and acts of civil disobedience, was a palpable fear in many parts of the United States. Goldwater made sure that voters understood that his liberal opponent was responsible for that, too, and that if he were their president they could count on a return to a more well-ordered and safer society.

The major political issues of the day also ran in sometimes-contradictory directions. Most obviously, black Americans’ demands for racial justice divided white America. According to pollsters a large majority of whites had an unfavorable view of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in September 1964 a large plurality told pollsters that the civil rights movement was dominated by “communist trouble makers.” A month earlier, however, a majority of Americans said that they approved of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That did not mean that whites wanted to see wholesale integration in the United States: in 1963, 78 percent of whites said they would move if more than a few black families bought homes in their neighborhoods.1 Racial justice was treacherous territory for national politicians, as both President Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 presidential challenger Senator Barry Goldwater knew well.

Likewise, the Cold War and questions about America’s broader role in the world roiled the political waters. Even as the United States was, technically, at peace, Senator Goldwater knew that a broad swath of Americans feared the atheistic and totalitarian Soviet Union and its increasing number of communist allies. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater relentlessly attacked Johnson and the Democratic Party for being too accommodating to the communists and too unwilling to take the offensive against the Soviets and their pawns. In August 1964, President Johnson—feeling the heat from Goldwater—felt compelled to respond to that threat; he told the people of the United States that communist forces in Vietnam had attacked “United States ships on the high seas” and were an imminent danger to the safety and security of American allies throughout Southeast Asia. Johnson knew he could not be soft on communism if he wanted to win the election. In 1964, [End Page 4] Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson fenced over the strengths and weaknesses of American society and the role the federal government should play in the life of the American people. And while both pledged to defend the United States and its allies against the threat of communism, they did so with different rhetoric and with a very different sense of that threat’s immediacy.2

In mid-1964, Lyndon Johnson could not know for certain which way the political winds were blowing, whether his brand of progressive liberalism would triumph over Goldwater’s stern conservative message. He watched Goldwater’s...


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