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  • Barry’s Boys and Goldwater Girls: Barry Goldwater and the Mobilization of Young Conservatives in the Early 1960s
  • Wayne Thorburn (bio)

It was March 1960 when an unknown publishing company released a short book by the junior United States senator from Arizona. Selling for three dollars in hardback, it quickly went through a press run of more than 100,000 copies. Brought out in paperback and priced at fifty cents, The Conscience of a Conservative became a bestseller at college bookstores across the country.1 With the book’s positive reception, Barry Goldwater became a national political figure. Conscience was clearly a call to arms not only for those already involved in politics but also for a new audience of younger readers just reaching political maturity.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, standing at the crossroads between adolescence and adulthood, young Americans had not garnered the attention and power that they soon would. At eighteen, American men could not vote or legally purchase alcoholic beverages but were subject to being drafted into two years of compulsory military service. Those who attended college, a small minority [End Page 89] during the time before widespread financial assistance and student loans, remained subject to the policy of “in loco parentis” while living on campus.2 In such an environment the search for personal identity and individual freedom had a special relevance. Sociologist Rebecca Klatch maintains many young people were seeking a future that emphasized “values such as individual freedom, the impulse against bureaucracy and big government, the questioning of centralized authority and the embrace of decentralization and local control.”3 This led to an interest in creating their own alternative to what they perceived as a prevailing liberal establishment.4 Goldwater’s book spoke to their concerns and forged a path to create change.

Senator Goldwater’s message was simple and direct: protecting and extending freedom was paramount and must be done within the confines of the Constitution. Government needed to be reduced, not made more efficient, as its intervention in the economy and restrictions on personal behavior were limiting individual rights. Americans had allowed the national government to “grow from a servant with sharply limited powers into a master with virtually unlimited power.” However, Goldwater maintained that to maximize freedom at home the United States must not lose the Cold War to the Soviet Union. In confronting communism, the United States needed to achieve a victory. Unfortunately, as Goldwater stated in his 1960 text, “we have not gotten ahead because we have been travelling the wrong road. . . .The past fourteen years have been marked by frustration and failure.” In meeting this foreign challenge, Senator Goldwater believed that Americans must wage a war of attrition against the Soviets and hope, thereby, to bring about the internal disintegration of the Soviet empire.5

Reading Conscience validated the outlook of many young conservatives. Whatever their backgrounds and philosophical differences, [End Page 90] they were united in a general suspicion of big government and, indeed, any concentration of power. This led to an opposition to the welfare state and the continued policies of the New Deal, programs that they viewed as challenging the work ethic and the sanctity of the individual. These young conservatives were not anti-government; after all, government had legitimate functions to perform, first and foremost the provision of national defense.

Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein described a typical conservative student’s response to Conscience, as “freedom, autonomy, authenticity: he has rarely read a writer who speaks so clearly about the things he worries about.” 6 Former presidential candidate and political commentator Pat Buchanan was a student in 1960 and described Conscience as “our new testament; it contained the core beliefs of our political faith, it told us why we had failed and what we must do.”7 College student Carol Dawson recalled the importance of Conscience to her fellow conservative students. Traveling to various campuses for the Nixon campaign, Dawson observed “nearly every College YR [Young Republicans] or Nixon club member had either heard of the book, had just bought it, or had read it and was enthused about it.” 8 Stanley Armstrong was a college junior who was appointed...


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pp. 89-107
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