The 1960s saw the United States go through several long-term changes in its political and social characteristics, and have been generally described by historians as a decade of domestic and foreign instability. John F. Kennedy maintained a generally-consistent approval level during his presidency. Through 1961 to 1963, he led the United States through the Cuban Missile Crisis, signed the first agreements with the Soviet Union to decrease nuclear testing, reaffirmed American solidarity with West Germany against the division of the Berlin Wall, saw the first American astronauts go to space, began drafting federal legislation to completely eliminate racial segregation, and deployed small numbers of special operations forces to Vietnam to aid the pro-democracy south against the pro-communist north. In November 1963, Kennedy’s assassination during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas came as a shock to the entire country, including the Democratic and Republican parties. With Lyndon B. Johnson appointed president in Kennedy’s place, a mutual agreement was reached where all political campaigning, discussions, and debates would be frozen until January 1964, that being the official beginning of the new election season. The 1964 presidential election saw the Democrats and Republicans face each other again, with their respective candidates being the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson and the challenger Barry Goldwater, a U.S. Air Force veteran and Arizona Senator. Due in large part to the increasing intensity of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson faced competition from several other politicians vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination. These rivals ranged from Democrats who supported segregation like Alabama Governor George Wallace, and pro-civil rights politicians who had personal rivalries with Johnson, such as Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of the late John. Johnson managed to secure the party’s nomination for president, but he notably refused to offer the seat of vice president to anyone in his cabinet. Instead, he opted for Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who had previously competed against Kennedy in the 1960 election. The Republican Party was not exempt from its own political divisions, either. After the moderate Republican Richard Nixon opted out of the 1964 election, the Republicans split into two branches, each representing the moderate and conservative elements of the party at large. Out of the many candidates for the Republican ticket that emerged, Goldwater himself and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller were the two leading candidates in the state primaries. After a bitterly-divisive Republican National Convention, the nominations for president and vice president went to Barry Goldwater and New York Representative William E. Miller, respectively.
The 1964 campaign season was defined by a deeply-entrenched sense of rivalry and antagonism, which had not been seen since the 19th century. Republican candidate Goldwater was the focus – and sometimes the outright target – of repetitious criticism and controversy. He notably voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which formally banned all forms of discrimination and marked the end of segregation in the United States. Goldwater not only alienated liberal and moderate Republicans in his own party because of this, but also lost the majority of African American support for claiming that desegregation was a “states’ rights” issue. Goldwater’s public remarks were heavily scrutinized by his critics, as he was notable for his dark jokes and abrasive words. At a press conference, Goldwater made his disdain for liberal economic policies publicly known, saying that he thought the country would be better off if “we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.” Inspired by his additional jokes about using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union – as well as earning the ire of former president Eisenhower for calling his administration a “dime store New Deal” – the Democrats used Goldwater’s own words to lampoon and criticize him in their campaign ads. In spite of these repetitious controversies, Goldwater managed to receive consistent support from the divided Republican Party. The most notable instance of party-wide support for Goldwater came from former actor, U.S. Army veteran, and General Electric spokesman Ronald Reagan. Speaking on Goldwater’s behalf, Reagan announced his belief in smaller government in his “A Time For Choosing” speech, forewarning that a federal government with too much authority and power would undermine the concept of individual freedom. The speech was widely praised when it was broadcasted in October 1964, and certain historians and political analysts have since considered it to be one of the greatest American political speeches. “A Time For Choosing” gave Reagan the nickname of “the Great Communicator,” and signaled the transition in his life from acting to political leadership. Reagan would later be elected Governor of California in 1966, and then as President of the United States in 1980 and 1984.
Meanwhile, the incumbent Johnson administration took a more aggressive approach to challenging Goldwater’s campaign, implementing a meshwork of advertising and small-scale espionage. William Colby – former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – remarked later in his life that the Goldwater campaign was intentionally sabotaged by Johnson’s administration. Two of the most effective implements that were used against Goldwater were a pair of television advertisements. Airing in July 1964, “Confessions of a Republican” featured a man speaking to the audience regarding his reluctance to vote for Goldwater in the election. He talked about the Republican Party’s history and accomplishments, but mentioned that Goldwater supported nuclear warfare and was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. The speaker then rhetorically asked the audience how any Republican can maintain their party loyalty to someone as apparently divisive – and potentially destructive – as Goldwater. The more controversial and famous of the two commercials was the “Daisy” advertisement from September 1964. The commercial featured a young girl counting down from ten while picking the petals off of a flower. A louder voice-over countdown drowns out the young girl, culminating in a montage of atomic explosions with an anti-war poem being read out loud by Johnson himself. The “Daisy” advertisement was made in response to Goldwater’s public support for using nuclear weapons in the ongoing Vietnam War. Although it was pulled from circulation due to the controversial reception, it has since been extensively viewed and analyzed by scholars and historians, both for its historical insights into the time period, as well as it being a common example of “fearmongering” in political advertising. Additional elements were used by the Johnson campaign to criticize Goldwater, including the parody of the latter’s own campaign phrases. The common Goldwater slogan of, “In your heart, you know he’s right” was intentionally rephrased by the Johnson campaign to say, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” and “In your heart, he’s too far right.” Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign addressed the prevailing concern of low voter turnout by directly calling people to action with their slogans. At the end of both the “Daisy” and “Confessions of a Republican” commercials, a voice-over read out loud, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
Johnson won the 1964 election with 486 electoral votes against Goldwater’s 52. The success of the Democratic platform in the election had several long-term effects on American politics over the following twenty years. Support for the Civil Rights Movement by Johnson shifted the African American voter electorate to being majority pro-Democratic. At the same time, the Democrats’ civil rights platform alienated many of the New Deal-era figures from the party, where they would later re-emerge as working class Democrats who supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Although the Republicans were defeated in 1964, Goldwater’s campaign laid the foundation for the modern American conservative movement later in the century. In the years after the 1964 election, Johnson’s popularity would erode in the face of the Vietnam War, the intensifying Civil Rights Movement, and the radically-changing cultural and political characteristics of the United States through the rest of the decade.
When the 1968 election season started, President Johnson’s approval had plummeted in the eyes of the public. The Vietnam War had been losing public support every passing year, as American military involvement and casualties increased. At home, the financial costs of the war effort sapped the funds from Johnson’s own Great Society and War on Poverty programs. The assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the same year deepened the nationwide strife and feelings of misfortune in the decade. With his approval ratings plummeting to 35%, Johnson chose not to seek re-election in 1968. The Democratic Party struggled to nominate a candidate for president, as the troubles of the 1960s had the party divided into smaller political enclaves. Even when they eventually agreed to select Hubert Humphrey as their Presidential nominee during the Democratic National Convention, the gathering was still met with widespread anti-war protests and harsh police action. Meanwhile, the Republicans selected former vice president Richard Nixon as their candidate for president. Selecting Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate, Nixon’s platform as a moderate Republican promised a campaign of reconciliation among American conservatives. Throughout the 1968 campaign season, Nixon appealed to southern voters who felt disaffected by the Democratic policies of the Johnson administration. Directly responding to the widespread rioting and protesting in the wake of the King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, Nixon promised to contain the civil unrest and restore “law and order.” From a civil rights angle, Nixon promised to extend tax incentives to the African American community, specifically to redevelop businesses and homes. Nixon later won the 1968 election with 301 electoral votes against Humphrey’s 191.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum