ORE of American History is now a consistently updated digital resource. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or explore the latest articles.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AMERICAN HISTORY (americanhistory.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 30 March 2017

Liberalism from the Fair Deal to the Great Society

Summary and Keywords

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address set out what he termed an “economic Bill of Rights” that would act as a manifesto of liberal policies after World War Two. Politically, however, the United States was a different place than the country that had faced the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s and ushered in Roosevelt’s New Deal to transform the relationship between government and the people. Key legacies of the New Deal, such as Social Security, remained and were gradually expanded, but opponents of governmental regulation of the economy launched a bitter campaign after the war to roll back labor union rights and dismantle the New Deal state.

Liberal heirs to FDR in the 1950s, represented by figures like two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, struggled to rework liberalism to tackle the realities of a more prosperous age. The long shadow of the U.S. Cold War with the Soviet Union also set up new challenges for liberal politicians trying to juggle domestic and international priorities in an era of superpower rivalry and American global dominance. The election of John F. Kennedy as president in November 1960 seemed to represent a narrow victory for Cold War liberalism, and his election coincided with the intensification of the struggle for racial equality in the United States that would do much to shape liberal politics in the 1960s. After his assassination in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson launched his “Great Society,” a commitment to eradicate poverty and to provide greater economic security for Americans through policies such as Medicare. But his administration’s deepening involvement in the Vietnam War and its mixed record on alleviating poverty did much to taint the positive connotations of “liberalism” that had dominated politics during the New Deal era.

Keywords: Liberalism, Fair Deal, American left, Great Society, civil rights, labor, Americans for Democratic Action, Cold War, New Deal coalition

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his annual address to Congress in which he set out his vision for a postwar world. The speech would become known as his “Economic Bill of Rights,” in which FDR made the political transition from wartime commander-in-chief to the president who could recast the New Deal for a new era. He saw the experience of wartime sacrifice as a clear indicator that people around the world were eager for a peacetime politics that stressed social and economic justice. “If ever there was a time to subordinate individual or group selfishness to the national good,” he argued, “that time is now. Disunity at home—bickerings, self-seeking partisanship, stoppages of work, inflation, business as usual, politics as usual, luxury as usual these are the influences which can undermine the morale of the brave men ready to die at the front for us here.” He then laid out a blueprint for a postwar liberal political program: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.” These rights included the right to “a useful and remunerative job,” to a decent wage, to a decent home, to adequate medical care and good health, “to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment,” and to a good education.1

Twenty years later, President Lyndon Johnson gave a similarly rousing statement of his vision for a liberal agenda for the 1960s in his commencement address at the University of Michigan, a speech commonly accepted as marking the launch of his Great Society program. In a strikingly similar approach to Roosevelt he claimed that the lesson of American history was that an unbridled individualism would endanger its future prosperity without a sense of collective social responsibility: “Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”2 LBJ laid out a vision of an activist government that would use the country’s vast resources to eliminate poverty and distribute the fruits of American abundance to all citizens.

We know that much of the planned agenda of the heirs to the New Deal legacy did not quite come to pass in the way Roosevelt and Johnson envisaged. Yet in many ways the period between the end of World War Two in 1945 and the 1960s represented the high point of American liberalism and became a crucial era in shaping the American state’s relationship with its citizens, both in terms of their economic security and their acceptance as full citizens. Four themes illuminate the interlocking historical currents driving politics in this period. The first involves the adaptation of New Deal liberalism, forged in the desperate climate of the Great Depression, to new postwar political demands in an era of increasing prosperity and economic growth. The changing dynamics of what actually constituted “liberalism” in the postwar era is a crucial aspect of the story. The second concerns the interaction of liberal politics with an increasingly globally engaged foreign policy in these years that not only impacted the United States’ relations with the wider world but also upon liberal domestic politics, arguably shattering the New Deal coalition and blunting the capacity of liberals to solve the social and economic problems of the country. The third focuses on the implications that multiple rights revolutions held for American liberal politics by the end of the 1960s. Southern control of the Democratic Party had blunted the capacity of the New Deal to engage fully with deep racial and gendered inequalities embedded in American social relations. But by the time of the Great Society there was no escaping the clear association of liberal politics with racial and gender politics, with enormous implications for its future prospects. The fourth and final theme concerns the fate of the New Deal electoral coalition of organized labor, Democratic Party politicians (including white Democrats from the segregated South), liberal intellectuals, and Popular Front left organizations. Together, they had cemented the Democrats and the Roosevelt agenda at the heart of American politics by the 1944 elections. The elections marked the triumph of labor-liberalism but also presaged tumultuous and contested political readjustments over the following two decades.

Charting a Route Map from the Fair Deal to the Great Society

By 1945 the federal government had constructed an enormous bureaucracy to manage the demands of a complex war economy. The National Resources Planning Board, the Office of Price Administration (OPA), the War Production Board and a plethora of other government agencies combined with business and labor into a corporate alliance to ensure the smooth running of the war effort.3 But as the war came to an end and business and its conservative allies in Congress began agitating for the dismantling of the regulatory state, their most notable early success being the winding up of the OPA in June 1946, liberals in Congress and the Truman administration faced the question of how to manage the difficult readjustment to a peacetime economy and to ensure there were jobs and homes for the millions of returning servicemen and women. “For there can be no lasting peace unless there are jobs for everyone—sixty million jobs for the sixty million Americans who will need them,” shouted textile worker leader Emil Rieve to a labor audience in February 1945. Former OPA chief Leon Henderson echoed his views, informing his audience that he had “just returned from England and France … There are problems and difficulties galore in both countries. But one thing is certain … They know that they must make certain choices to insure employment, that they must not risk the fabric of future freedom to vague laws or to Adam Smith or to automaticity.”4 Wartime collaboration had drawn American liberals closer to their international, in particular European, counterparts, and the war had also drawn for the heirs to the New Deal a link between prosperity and world peace. A Union for Democratic Action (UDA) memo in 1946 noted the importance for American liberals of the European recovery from the war, a recovery managed by the state in many instances, arguing “our differences with governments which, broadly speaking, are social democratic, are differences in degree of public ownership and central planning.”5

Key New Dealers in Congress in 1945 agitated for a full employment bill as an American response to the challenge of managing the economic transition to peacetime. The bill in its original form would have used federal power to guarantee “useful, remunerative, regular, and full-time employment” to all Americans, by means of “such volume of Federal investment and expenditure as may be needed,” including deficit spending, capital projects, and economic planning through a Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) reporting directly to the president.6 The bill represented a logical continuation of New Deal and wartime planning, and its principal sponsor, Senator James Murray of Montana, was also a principal drafter of the federal health insurance bill to tie health care provision to the Social Security system. Economic security underwritten by government as outlined in FDR’s 1944 message seemed to represent a working definition of American liberalism at the end of the war, very much in line with a general international drift toward a welfare state model of social citizenship in this period. James Loeb of the liberal activist group the UDA wrote a friend in early 1945 that “the boys from overseas from whom we hear have one major concern in mind: what kinds of jobs will they have on their return? They feel that they have a right to job security, to the opportunity to work and earn a decent living. We have acknowledged that right so frequently that it would be ghastly if we were to fail them.”7

Unfortunately for Loeb and his allies the political situation after the war served to limit the capacity of the New Deal state to expand its reach and protect the economic security of citizens. Congressional opponents of the Full Employment bill managed to gut its central provisions, removing the requirement for the government to eliminate unemployment and reducing the role of the CEA to one of promoting, through indeterminate means, “maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” The word “full” was eliminated from the bill, and the Employment Act of 1946 set the American liberal state down a path of limited management of economic output by means of interest rate and fiscal policy rather than direct involvement in managing the economy.8 The administration-backed health insurance plan never made it to a full vote in Congress, and the Republican victories in the 1946 midterm elections halted liberal visions of a postwar social democratic settlement. The passage in 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act undermined labor’s capacity to maintain its wartime place at the forefront of liberal statecraft, as the opportunity for state governments to prohibit the union shop allowed business leaders to move their operations to open-shop states and gradually undermine the New Deal political project.

It is true that Harry Truman was able to piece together Roosevelt’s coalition of labor, Midwestern farmers, and some of the Solid South to win the 1948 election and return control of Congress to the Democrats. But the fact that a majority of his own party backed Taft-Hartley and ran scared from government-sponsored health care suggested the future landscape of American politics would be less contested than during the Depression and war years. Truman’s wish-list had included health insurance and the dramatic expansion and transformation of farm subsidies (the ill-fated Brannan Plan of 1949), but his administration’s principal achievement in its second term was the extension of the existing Social Security Act in the major amendments of 1950. These liberalized eligibility requirements, especially relating to the self-employed, increased benefits, and raised the wage base rate for calculating contributions.9 While ever more Americans were being drawn into the limited protective embrace of the New Deal social safety net set up back in 1935 (and the system would expand even more during the 1950s with the creation of a disability insurance program), there seemed little prospect of the kind of social democratic welfare politics envisaged at the end of the war, nor that people would be able to depend upon government action to stem recessions or protect their jobs.

Instead, union leaders wedded in 1945 to the idea of a labor-liberal program on increasing state protection of the American worker instead turned to collective bargaining with employers to ensure their membership received a share of the rapidly increasing economic riches of the world’s largest economy. The leader of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, one of the most vocal champions at the end of World War Two of what he called “a far-flung public works program … not as an emergency glorified WPA project but as a permanent part of a healthy, expanding national economy” and “a broad program of human rehabilitation with adequate Social Security, Health and educational standards” was in 1948 bargaining directly with General Motors for a package of cost of living wage adjustments and fringe benefits of health insurance, pensions, vacations, and unemployment insurance.10 The period between Truman’s Fair Deal and Johnson’s Great Society saw the creation of a vast system of private health insurance provided through employment, usually negotiated through employer-union bargaining: by 1960, 73 percent of Americans obtained their health care through prepaid private insurance schemes, nearly double the figure a decade earlier.11

In many ways the 1950s represented the reconciliation of private enterprise and liberal notions of social citizenship: businesses would ensure the social security of their workers and government would back away from dramatic extensions to government schemes that would tax employers, and would go to the lengths of writing off company insurance liabilities through generous tax breaks. Yet this accommodation rested on very shaky foundations. For one thing, a generous system of private social benefits could easily be rolled back in harder economic times, as would be proved after the 1970s. For another, business leaders and their political allies were by no means reconciled to union power, and were busy campaigning for open-shop laws across the United States, as well as rolling out the welcome mat for businesses in emerging Sunbelt economies overtly hostile to unions.12 Even after right-to-work efforts were defeated in California and Ohio in 1958, national anti-labor organizers only redoubled their efforts to reorient American capitalism away from the post–New Deal accommodation between capital and labor. Lemuel Boulware, vice president of General Electric and head of its powerful public relations wing, put it bluntly: “the major problem in this country is not with the few bad union officials but with the many so-called ‘good’ ones.”13 The refusal of major business leaders to accept loss of control over the social wage represented the fundamental difference between the prospects for American liberalism to transform the workings of capitalism and those of other industrialized states.

It was in this context that liberal politicians and their supporters had to operate after Truman’s Fair Deal had been replaced by the Republican presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson himself had come to national prominence as a popular reformist governor of Illinois who had spoken out sharply against McCarthyism, winning him the support of a new generation of liberals who had not known the rigors of the Depression, as well as many New Dealers. This was particularly true in California, where his 1952 campaign launched the Democratic club movement that would transform party politics in the Golden State during the 1950s.14 But activists and campaigners in both of Stevenson’s campaigns of 1952 and 1956 found it hard to recast the economic liberalism of the New Deal eras for the seemingly abundant 1950s. A California polling report commissioned for Stevenson in 1956 saw the core liberal issues of the era as being harder to nail down than had been the case twenty years earlier: “the issues of credit, jobs and inflation should in some way be underlined … These communities of small new homes, depending on the automobile for transportation and oriented towards California style easy living are overhung by the shadow of monthly payments and mortgages … A psychiatrist told us that his patients here show far more than the usual anxiety about earning enough to keep up in the rat race.” The report argued for a program that “should appeal to the rapidly growing lower middle-class suburbs and might include such items as schools, water, taxes and consumer debt.”15 The emphasis on suburbanization and the daily struggle to “keep up in the rat race” may have reflected certain economic realities of the day, but did not add up to a robust restatement of a liberal mission in economic policy. “The Democrats need a new line,” wrote Connecticut Democrat Chase Going Woodhouse in 1957. “As somebody said we have run out of poor people.” In a reference to the administration’s support of the creation of a disability program within Social Security, she noted that the “Republicans have taken over our entire social security etc. program. Except for inflation the economic program is outmoded.” She thought the key issue defining the age of Eisenhower was “the changes in American life toward conformity and ‘tranquillizers’, the attitude of the Eisenhower administration in not telling the public anything that might disturb them,” a reference to the long shadow cast by McCarthyite witch-hunts over the American polity.16

The increasing emphasis of liberals in the 1950s on quality of life issues became highlighted in public debate when John Kenneth Galbraith published his book The Affluent Society in 1958. Galbraith contrasted the vast resources being poured into seemingly limitless production for private consumption with the paucity of public investment in infrastructure necessary for the public good. Economic growth alone was not enough to ensure everyone had access to social capital, he argued. There had to be some intervention in the market to direct resources to where they were most useful, and not to entrust venture capital that just as often created demand (often with no discernible social value) as reacted to it.17 In its critique of the capacity of the private sector to maintain a balanced economy, Galbraith’s argument represented a return to the full employment, government stimulus agenda of those advancing the original Full Employment bill of 1945, and in so doing he ran into criticism from one of the original members of the Council of Economic Advisors, Leon Keyserling. He argued that stoking the fires of economic growth was essential to alleviating inequality, and that American capital had to take the lead in enriching not just the United States but the wider world. In any case, argued Keyserling, “Galbraith is categorically wrong when he says that I give a higher priority to the problem of economic growth than to the problem of getting sufficient resources into public use. My position is that these two problems interpenetrate throughout, and that a sound grasp of the whole economy in operation must achieve synthesis rather than dichotomy with respect to these two problems.”18 In truth, the debate between these two high priests of mid-20th-century economic liberalism reflected the relative powerlessness of the central state in managing the levers of economic control relative to other industrialized countries.

That said, the Democratic landslide in the 1958 midterm elections to Congress and the election of a Democrat to the White House in 1960 set the stage for a new program of state action in the realm of social welfare and economic management. A sharp recession helped turn public opinion against the GOP, and the Democrats made sweeping gains across the nation, leading the New Republic to comment that for “the first time since 1936, a liberal coalition … may be possible in the House as well as the Senate.”19 The large Democratic majorities would last the best part of the next decade, and formed the basis for a newly invigorated liberal agenda that would coalesce around Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program in 1964. The new Congress passed the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960 to extend some health care benefits to needy aged recipients of old age assistance, and this was expanded to cover other groups receiving categorical assistance in the shape of the Medicaid program of 1965. This renewed focus on the alleviation of poverty in the 1960s stemmed from the election of a large group of activist liberals keen to divert the productive power of the economy to reduce the huge gulf between the haves and have nots. In his campaign for the governorship of California in 1958, Pat Brown laid out his vision of what he called “Government with a Heart,” in which he pledged “the State’s obligations to the aged, to needy children, to babies without homes, to the alcoholic, to wayward youth, to the mentally and physically ill, to crippled children and adults.” This social safety net was predicated not simply on “humanitarian grounds” but crucially “on the ability of the State to pay the bills.”20 The logic of Brown’s view lay in its melding together of New Deal liberalism of tackling economic want with a 1950s liberalism of prosperity providing the means to widen the parameters of social inclusion. Lyndon Johnson best represented this spirit of optimism that assumed a combination of public concern with questions of poverty and a motoring economy would tame America’s historic tolerance of inequality. “We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance, isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs, stunted by a poverty of learning and an emptiness of leisure,” argued Johnson in his 1965 State of the Union address. “The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.”21

The Great Society programs represented the high point of the idea that activist government could directly improve people’s lives, and in particular the access of the poor to better health, education, housing, and economic security. Foremost among its achievements were the federal and state programs of health care to the elderly and needy poor (Medicare and Medicaid), which attempted to tackle the clear problem of the fact that by the 1960s most Americans accessed health services through employment, leaving a large gap of those who had retired or who lacked insured employment. The program to the elderly was funded through Social Security payroll taxes, and provided hospital care and an optional doctor’s fee program. Medicaid was funded and managed by the states and provided a range of health benefits to those eligible for welfare programs (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC; Old Age Assistance, or OAA; and aid to the needy disabled). These health care policies, despite their evident shortcomings, have become vitally important and enormous operations and central to many Americans’ lives to this day. The Great Society also included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I of which set up a nationwide program of compensatory education to improve academic standards of low-income students. The 1968 Housing Act provided government-subsidized mortgages to encourage low-income Americans to access the housing market, as well as offering subsidies to developers to pass on to poorer citizens with lower rents. The Johnson administration’s Job Corps program aimed to recruit jobless young Americans to employment coupled with vocational training. Overseeing anti-poverty programs was the Office of Economic Opportunity, headed by Sargent Shriver, whose most ambitious and controversial initiative was the Community Action programs, an attempt to direct resources to local communities and to involve them in concerted efforts to alleviate poverty and to connect the remote federal government to its people. By June 1966 there were more than a thousand Community Action Agencies all over the United States.22

The legacy of Great Society efforts to tackle poverty and inequality remains deeply contested. A combination of targeted programs and robust economic growth nearly halved the U.S. poverty rate during the 1960s, and Medicare and Medicaid dramatically widened many people’s access to high quality medical care.23 If we take poverty to be a relative, rather than absolute, yardstick measuring access to goods and services, poorer Americans enjoyed a better standard of living than their forebears in any era up to that point.24 Yet in their emphasis on the rehabilitation of the poor, politicians often pathologized poverty and failed to pump the huge funds needed into communities wrecked by the inability of private capital to direct money to areas of dire need. Indeed, many of the Great Society programs pumped funds directly into the hands of private capitalists (like developers and home builders or medical professionals), or established political operators (like racist southern mayors and school districts), and rarely managed to redistribute income directly to the needy. Programs like Medicare actually worsened the health care access crisis by the writing of a blank government check to private health care providers, accelerating health care inflation dramatically in the decades following the act’s passage. And the massive U.S. investment in the war in Vietnam destabilized the American economy and spent valuable political capital that undermined the Johnson presidency just as the anti-poverty programs were trying to take flight.25 The Great Society served to define the wider problem facing American liberalism: without the political power to challenge the basic workings of capitalism, the capacity of liberals to challenge economic inequality would remain limited.

Cold War Liberalism

At the height of the New Deal in the mid-1930s, the United States had a smaller standing army than even some small European states. Its involvement in World War Two changed that situation dramatically, and by 1945 the United States had some 12 million servicemen and women under arms. It was clear before the end of the war, as the United States took its place as one of the Big Three powers planning how to reconstruct a world torn apart, that American policymakers would continue to play a significant role on the world stage. Prominent advisors to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman such as George Kennan and Clark Clifford were architects of a foreign policy that saw the United States as the fulcrum of a world bound together by organs of international cooperation, including the United Nations and World Bank, all undergirded by American power and money. “The United States believes that its own security, its prosperity, the liberties of its citizens and the survival of their free institutions are intimately related to the survival of the free institutions, individual liberties, and effective national independence of other peoples,” claimed a State Department memorandum in 1947.26 President Truman in his speech asking Congress to approve military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey in February 1947 set out the terms of what would become the predominant political view of the purpose of American foreign policy for the rest of the century. “I believe,” he stated, “that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic stability and orderly political process.”27 Freshman Congressman John F. Kennedy argued that Americans had only “to look at a map to see what might happen if Greece and Turkey fell into the Communist orbit … The barriers would be down and the Red tide would flow across the face of Europe and through Asia with new power and vigor.”28 Truman’s plan of “scaring the hell out the American people” certainly worked with many liberals, and his key foreign policy measures of assisting Greece and Turkey and providing massive aid to western Europe through the Marshall Plan passed both Houses of Congress with large majorities.

It is well understood that the notion of a “Red tide” threatening the non-communist world rapidly came to dominate the formation of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War. But the rhetoric of anti-communism quickly came to transform the political priorities of American liberalism at home, and imposed limits on the ambition of heirs to the New Deal at the same time as it revitalized the anti-statist message of their opponents. This was readily apparent in the tortured attempts by Americans for Democratic Action in its early years to reconcile militant anti-communism with a domestic program that still had the idealism and drive of the age of FDR. Fresh from their bruising battle to take on the followers of Henry Wallace and to expunge popular frontists from the postwar liberal movement, ADA leaders resented attempts by Republicans in the 1950 midterms and 1952 presidential election to tar all liberals with the taint of subversion. “To suggest that ADA is ‘left wing’ or ‘pro-communist’ is preposterous,” stated a 1952 ADA press release indignantly. ADA “was highly successful in purging the American liberal movement of individuals with left-wing loyalties to Communism, who in the past perverted that movement.” The statement, signed by prominent ADAers such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Herbert Lehman, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, and Chairman Francis Biddle, made the unambiguous point that the collapse of the wartime Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union had irrevocably changed the political landscape of American liberals. Crucially, however, it went further, blunting its domestic policy message with appeals to the language of free enterprise. “ADA is, in its own words, opposed to the ‘over-centralization of controls and attempts to assert Government supervision over the details of economic life.’ At its 1952 convention ADA reaffirmed its ‘belief in the principle of free and private competitive enterprise.’”29

The effects of this on Stevenson’s 1952 campaign were clear: he publicly repudiated the Fair Deal commitment of the 1940s to federal health insurance and used the language of free markets to chart a political path for his campaign. Fair Deal Senator William Benton of Connecticut, fighting for his political life against strong GOP opposition in 1952, wrote Stevenson in April congratulating him on a Newsweek interview in which he claimed he opposed “subsidies, doles, or interference with free markets, free men, and free enterprise.” Benton wrote that this was “a great phrase, and I hope you will keep hammering it.”30 Liberals like Benton hoped to ensure their political survival by adapting Cold War anti-left tropes to their own purposes, but in so doing they left voters and supporters confused about their policies and, as often as not, were unsuccessful: Benton lost his Senate seat in November 1952.

At the same time as the direction of domestic political discourse, warped by a growing anti-communist hysteria in national debate, became less hospitable to New Deal–era policy debates, American liberals became ever clearer on their view of the purpose of U.S. foreign policy. Chester Bowles, formerly director of the wartime Office of Price Administration and Fair Deal governor of Connecticut whom Truman appointed ambassador to newly independent India, wrote Stevenson from his residence in Delhi during the 1952 campaign that the United States needed India as a “counterpull … to that of Communist China which will profoundly influence the remainder of Asia.” If, he warned, India “goes under (and in my opinion there is at least a forty percent chance of this happening) Southeast Asia will be doomed and Japan will be brought under almost impossible pressures.” He urged Stevenson to expand and strengthen a commitment to the containment of communism by supporting non-communist regimes not just in Europe but in Asia, and his warning of countries and regions “going under” communist control would form the justification for JFK and LBJ’s later commitment to escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam.31 Kennedy himself set the tone for his eventual successful run for president with a winning campaign for the Senate in 1952 in which he ran to the right of incumbent Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a vocal supporter of President Truman’s bipartisan containment policy. Democratic campaign materials portrayed Lodge as “riding at the head of the Administration’s foreign policy parade” but “unwilling to accept responsibility for errors … It is strange that, as a powerful member of the bipartisan bloc, he had never raised his voice against the Administration’s policy, or lack of it, in China and the Far East. Never, that is, until after Korea.”32 Kennedy claimed that just as “from 1939 to 1941 he was an isolationist of the deepest dye toward Europe, until Korea he has been an isolationist in Asiatic affairs.”33 And in selling his candidacy to the American Federation of Labor in the 1952 campaign, Kennedy ignored the achievements of the New Deal in favor of a narrative of organized labor’s anti-socialist heritage in the United States, noting that early union leaders like Samuel Gompers “were confronted with a problem just as menacing as communism, the trend towards a Socialism that would have destroyed the American system of private enterprise … [Labor] could solve its problems within the American labor movement itself without feebly resorting to the alien thing called Socialism.”34

As we have seen, there remained opposition to Cold War liberalism in American politics, particularly in the Young Democrats during the 1950s and in the emerging New Left. Yet the reality of mainstream liberals’ readiness to support the Eisenhower administration’s intervention in South Vietnam and refusal to allow elections to unify the country out of fear of a Vietcong victory set the stage for Kennedy’s 1960 election to the presidency in which domestic issues played a subsidiary role to his determination to deploy the United States as a bulwark against communism globally. The Soviets’ successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista regime in Cuba in January 1959 dominated the 1960 campaign. In accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency in July, Kennedy affirmed his commitment to what he termed a “New Frontier,” a restatement of Fair Deal liberalism for a new era, endorsing medical assistance to the aged and civil rights, but he placed this limited reform program squarely in the context of the communist threat. “For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history,” he argued. “We must prove all over again whether this nation—or any nation so conceived—can long ensure—whether our country—with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives—can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system.”35 The shadow of the Cold War fell over JFK’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society, and the disastrous Bay of Pigs incursion of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and the United States’ rapid descent into the quagmire of Vietnam during the decade have come to dominate the historical narrative of the fate of Cold War liberalism in the postwar era.

Liberals and Civil Rights

In 1937 the New Deal cabinet insider Harold Ickes—himself a liberal on racial issues and a member of the Chicago National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—mused in his diary about the difficult relationship between a New Deal tied politically to the segregated South and the stark racial inequality at the heart of the American experience. “I think it is up to the states to work out their own social problems if possible,” he wrote, “and while I have always been interested in seeing that the Negro has a square deal, I have never dissipated my strength against the particular stone wall of segregation … After all, we can’t force people on each other who do not like each other.”36 World War Two changed the racial dynamics of American liberalism dramatically. A war economy required efficiency in hiring practices, and the federal government passed a Fair Employment practices law to try to eliminate racial discrimination in war contracts. And the whole notion of the United States as an “Arsenal of Democracy” shone a spotlight on American racial discrimination: Dr. Seuss in a war propaganda cartoon portrayed arch-segregationist Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge as a thorn in the side of a nation struggling to act as crusader against totalitarianism when so many Americans did not enjoy democratic freedoms at home. State and local struggles for fair employment laws at the end of the war illustrated that the question of civil rights was not going to go away: New York passed the country’s first state Fair Employment Practices law in 1945 and the newly elected Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey forced through a local ordinance the same year.37 Humphrey was a key figure in ensuring the national Democratic Party would endorse a civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention, beginning a slow and tortuous dissolution of the long marriage of the white South and the Democrats. And the Supreme Court in a series of rulings, beginning with the striking down of the all-white primary in Smith v. Allwright in 1944, was nudging electoral politics toward a reckoning with the civil rights question: the 1954 Brown decision would dominate domestic politics in the South for the next two decades.

An important part of the story of American liberalism between the 1940s and 1970s is that of political efforts to adjust the democratic promise of the New Deal to the demands of a society bifurcated by social difference. As Ickes had noted in 1937, the politics of this process were far from straightforward. Racial segregation and discrimination was bound in a complex web of economic power relations that also encompassed gender difference and was maintained by a powerful fear of change fueled by the Cold War and the rejuvenation of private capitalism. The growing opposition to government regulation of the economy underpinned much political anxiety about wider social change in the postwar years. At the same time as the American Medical Association was carrying on a bitter campaign to destroy the Truman administration’s plans for federal health insurance, its journal was publishing medical articles associating perceived health problems such as “female frigidity” with changing gender relations, notably female employment. The career women were characterized by “a refusal to assume any serious obligation of wifehood or motherhood … This type will take great interest in travelling alone, in purchasing expensive clothes, perhaps even in aggressive pursuit of a career. Pregnancy is avoided as a nuisance or even a calamity.”38 The centrality of economic questions to matters of race and gender was evident too in the establishment and later continuation of the wartime bracero program to import legal migrant farm workers from Mexico to work on huge agribusiness concerns in California and the American Southwest: braceros, like African American sharecroppers, were economic tools, dehumanized and deprived of the benefits of full citizenship by their use as cheap labor. “The black slave, the sharecropper, the hired hand, the migratory harvester, the wetback, the bracero … never had any institutional connections with government because they had never possessed land,” wrote farm union organizer Ernest Galarza. “At the base of social injustice lay the denial of participation in the national wealth.”39 The interweaving of questions of race and economic power made it difficult for liberals wedded to existing models of capitalism to chart a clear path toward racial, gender, and social equality.

Many liberal northern Democrats and Republicans recognized the fact that the war had torpedoed Jim Crow, at least in national political terms if not in the South itself. “It is sheer hypocrisy to preach the principles of democracy abroad while we violate them dismally at home,” argued former New York Governor Herbert Lehman in a speech to the New York Liberal Party in September 1946. “It is dishonest to claim that we give equal civil rights to all when we know that we deny to many of our people equality of employment opportunities, equality of medical and social welfare facilities, equality of political participation, equality of education.”40 Lehman was one of a growing number of political figures in liberal politics in the Truman era and beyond, including Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas, and Estes Kefauver, who would lead the charge to associate themselves with an assault on Jim Crow and on racial discrimination. And at a state level, the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) bills mushroomed across the country: already by 1949 New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, New Mexico, and Oregon had joined New York in getting laws on the statute books, and a further eight states had seen legislation defeated. In California, the effort to pass a law—which occurred finally in 1959 after the Democrats swept into power for the first time in twenty years—forged a new multiracial coalition dedicated to civil rights action on a number of fronts, including but not limited to employment.41

While many northern and western states were pushing ahead with civil rights initiatives during the 1950s, national politics remained hamstrung by the power of Southern Democrats in Congress. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, a product of liberal indignation at the horrors of Massive Resistance in the South, symbolized most notably by the Little Rock School Crisis, lacked real substance. Again, however, the huge Democratic victories across the north in the 1958 midterm elections set the stage for the major push on civil rights under JFK and LBJ, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The elimination of Jim Crow and the codification of equality in law were landmark pieces of legislation, but so too was Great Society economic legislation that highlighted the inbuilt gendered and racial assumptions of New Deal–era social policy. The massive expansion in AFDC rolls during the 1960s was in part due to the liberalization of the eligibility rules in a number of states in recognition of the changed social attitudes among liberal legislators toward questions of family structure. And the liberal-dominated Congress eliminated the bracero program in 1964. Yet liberalism remained wedded to racially constructed ideas about poverty, exemplified most notably by the Moynihan Report on the African American family. And the singular failure of Great Society programs to tackle the systemic economic inequality at the heart of American capitalism left liberals open to charges from the right that poverty programs actually worsened poverty and blunted economic growth.42

Crucial in the transition from 1940s liberalism to that of the post–Great Society period was the increasing interdependence of questions of individual rights and economic rights. Not that this link actually meant liberals were able to tackle economic inequality in convincing fashion, but the language of economic citizenship offered various civil rights movements an entrée into mainstream political debate at a time when the question of individual legal rights for all was not on the agenda. This fact united bracero farm workers, Martin Luther King’s later political campaign after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, second wave feminism, and the early gay rights movement in San Francisco. California feminists’ efforts to add the category of sex to the state’s fair employment law were predicated upon the economic impact of sexual inequality on women’s lives. “Millions of women must work to support themselves and their families in today’s world,” wrote campaigner Del Martin to the State Assembly’s Committee on Labor Relations in 1970. “Contrary to popular belief, those who find themselves in the position of having to accept welfare are not doing so by choice, but are forced to because of arbitrary, unfair, and traditional discrimination against women in the job market.”43 Gay rights activists in San Francisco used the political trope of poverty to lobby for funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity in the mid-1960s. Senior members of the city’s Society for Individual Rights wrote a report for the OEO asking for the Tenderloin area (an area home to many gay hustlers) to be given anti-poverty funds, arguing that they were “convinced that there is a terrifying need for some sort of program directed toward helping these outcasts of society, these young people who are unloved and unwanted because they don’t fit into society’s general idea of productive citizenship.”44 The 1960s saw a complex dynamic of interlocking political forces around questions of race, gender, and sexuality, all vying uneasily for access to funds offered by Great Society liberalism at the same time as they demanded basic legal rights to citizenship unburdened by police harassment and the denial of the democratic franchise.

The Struggle for a Liberal Political Movement after World War Two

The coalition that had undergirded the New Deal through the Depression and into World War Two came under extreme strain at the end of the war. It had given FDR an unprecedented fourth term in office in November 1944, and elected a Democratic Congress, including powerful victories in strongly labor states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. But in April 1945 Franklin Roosevelt died just as the war was concluding, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, was a source of deep suspicion to liberal activists loyal to the New Deal. Truman had become vice president because anti–New Deal forces centered on the southern wing of the Democratic Party had managed to force FDR to dump Henry Wallace from the ticket, a man more closely associated with the more radical political agenda outlined by Roosevelt in his 1944 message to Congress.45 In addition, Truman’s main political problems—forging a peacetime settlement for a world exhausted by global conflict while also tackling a painful readjustment of the American economy to the different demands of peacetime—set him immediately at odds with the two lynchpins of the liberal coalition: organized labor and ideological liberals often still wedded to the notion of the Popular Front of the war. These tensions between activist idealism and the demands of coalition politics in the postwar era would heavily influence the fate of liberal politics throughout the period.

The rapid development of a “Dump Truman” movement between 1946 and 1948 reflected the difficulties of managing a peacetime liberal movement far more ambitious in its political aspirations than an administration in Washington struggling to control inflation, manage the biggest wave of strikes the country had ever seen, and adjust to the unravelling of the wartime alliance with the USSR. A Democratic campaign manual from New York in 1946 set out the key issues for party candidates as “1) the realization of the Roosevelt Economic Bill of Rights 2) more comprehensive price control act covering essential commodities and rents to ward off inflation 3) enactment of the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Housing Bill and the Murray-Wagner-Dingell Social Security and Health Insurance Bill 4) enactment of a permanent FEPC,” and a raft of ambitious New Deal–style measures that were at odds with Truman’s 1946 battle with unions to force them to accept compulsory arbitration and mediation while also threatening to draft striking railroad workers into the army. In addition, the principal references to foreign policy in the New York manual were to the United Nations, aid to developing nations, and a vague reference to “uncompromising opposition to the forces of Fascism and Communism,” a phrase that concealed ongoing deep divisions within American liberalism over relations with the Soviet Union and fear over the developing Cold War.46 The Union for Democratic Action (UDA), the precursor to the Americans for Democratic Action set up in 1947, was locked in bitter rivalry by the end of the war with the Progressive Citizens of America, a Popular Front organization that would form the bedrock of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign of 1948. The latter struggled to maintain a commitment to open democracy when dominated by Communists and fellow travelers openly aligned with Soviet foreign policy. The former would continually face the challenge of maintaining a staunch commitment to anti-communism without watering down its domestic political vision. A UDA policy statement from December 1946 articulated what would become the hallmarks of Truman’s Fair Deal program later in the 1940s: “equal opportunity and economic security for all men” based upon “equitable distribution of the national income, and a system of social insurance which will eliminate the major hazards of life,” but also warned “against undue concentration of governmental authority” and argued liberalism to be “neither a set of dogmas nor a prescription of specific measures.”47 The UDA’s vision of postwar liberalism was more conflicted and tentative than had seemed likely during the war.

Ironically, the vicissitudes of Truman’s early years in office, including the loss of control of Congress in 1946 and the staunch hostility of both the GOP majority and much of his own party, actually gave him a platform for his political renaissance. His veto of the Taft-Hartley labor bill—a law outlawing the closed shop and placing shackles on union collective bargaining rights—won him back the support of much of organized labor and his 1948 Fair Deal platform and ineffectual campaigning by Progressive rival Henry Wallace helped win him the White House in November 1948. Yet one cannot argue that these gaping cracks in the New Deal coalition over major domestic and foreign policy matters were healed. The legacy of the Popular Front to postwar politics was far more significant than has often been understood.48 In California, a state with a strong history of left-wing activism and home to a new generation of liberal figures in the 1950s unmoved by many national liberals’ obsession with the Cold War, the Americans for Democratic Action made little headway setting up local chapters. A visit from senior ADA official Nathalie Panek to Los Angeles in May 1954 prompted her to report back that “I have had more stupid pre-ADA type of arguments on whether or not we can work with Communists than I have had in the last five years.” A Berkeley liberal in 1963 wondered whether the ADA “should try to make an opening to center-left by de-emphasizing ADA’s thus far consistent stance on domestic anti-communism.”49

The Young Democrats in the 1950s also demonstrated the emerging divisions between those who had cut their teeth on the bruising disputes over the Cold War in the 1940s and those coming to age haunted by the fear of the bomb a decade later. The platform and language of younger activists in the 1950s anticipated the birth of the New Left and the emergence of a strong antiwar faction in the American liberal movement in the 1960s. “The most powerful single force in the world today is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent,” stated the meeting agenda of the California Young Democrats in September 1957. “In recent years, this country has put relatively too much emphasis on pacts, treaties, and international diplomacy, and too little on measures to promote the growth of stable, effective democratic societies abroad—societies which will remain in the free world not because they have been coerced or bought but because they are politically healthy and mature.”50 The Young Democrats’ national organization broke ranks with the party hierarchy in the 1950s by accepting the need to recognize Mao’s regime in Beijing as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people on the world stage, and its increasingly strident anti-imperialist rhetoric clearly pointed the finger at the seemingly consensual politics of foreign policy at large in Washington.

A major domestic fissure threatening to undermine a liberal coalition in the 1940s and 1950s was the position of the Southern Democrats in national politics. Without the support of at least some southern congressmen and Senators it was impossible after the loss of FDR’s supermajorities in Congress in 1938 to pass some of the more ambitious parts of the New Deal agenda.51 Yet the period between Roosevelt’s death and the Great Society marked the total breakdown of the unofficial pact between Dixie and northern liberalism. The fight at the end of the war to extend the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee, to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, and to place a civil rights plank in the Democratic—as well as the Republican—party platform brought about open revolt from white supremacists when Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina mounted a third-party challenge to President Truman and carried four southern states. “It is clear,” remarked liberal Republican congressman Jacob Javits in a 1949 speech to the New York Liberal Party, “that a struggle is going on within the two major parties between ultra conservative and liberal and progressive forces. In the Democratic Party this is often a sectional struggle between the North and Northwest and the South … This struggle within each of the major parties may lead to a realignment between them or it may lead to a third party … The great fight for civil rights and the enactment of the trilogy of Federal civil rights bills—FEPC, anti-lynching and anti-poll tax—cannot be successful without a progressive Republican-liberal Democratic coalition both in the House and the Senate.”52 As state after state outside the South passed FEPC bills during the late 1940s and 1950s, at the same time as southern states rejected their remaining New Deal–supporting politicians like Claude Pepper of Florida and Frank Graham of North Carolina and passed right-to-work laws to strip away any chance of labor union growth in Dixie, it was clear that the future political fate of New Deal liberalism would depend on very different coalitional support structures than had been true in the 1930s.


In some respects the contours of liberal politics looked very different in the 1970s compared to thirty years earlier. The Wall Street Journal noted in September 1972 that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s biggest source of funds was “a new constituency of wealthy first-time contributors, some of them still in their twenties and thirties—an odd assortment that includes sons of millionaires, antiwar businessmen, civil rights activists and environmentalists.”53 At the same time as presidential politics seemed to be moving the Republicans’ way (Democrats only won once between 1968 and 1992) many more affluent suburban districts, attuned to problems of urban sprawl and environmental concerns, anxious about American foreign policy overreach, and moderate on questions of social diversity, were trending Democratic in state-level and congressional elections. A good example is Colorado’s First District, which elected Patricia Schroeder to the House in 1972 from a previously Republican suburban area. And 49 percent of voters in high-tech Silicon Valley south of San Francisco voted for McGovern that year, an election in which he was trounced nationally.54 Yet at a time of growing economic crisis it was unclear how far the suburban liberals would retain the link to social inclusion that had given the Democratic Party such wide appeal in that window of opportunity in the early 1960s. “In the middle class, even many McGovern liberals were startled by the income-redistribution proposals,” commented a piece in Fortune magazine in September 1972. “Suburbanites who take what are regarded as liberal attitudes on civil rights or disarmament are not necessarily interested in paying higher taxes to increase incomes for welfare recipients. Many middle class liberals, in fact, are among those screaming loudest against the taxes they now have to pay.”55 The legacy of multiple civil rights movements made liberalism a far more complex and contested political worldview than could be summed up by Harold Ickes during the New Deal. Questions of racial equality (symbolized by bitter disputes over busing children to integrated schools early in the decade), same-sex sexuality, abortion, and immigration (especially from Latin America) loomed large in political discourse in the 1970s. Sluggish economic growth, spiralling property taxes, and high health care costs made it hard to envisage another period of liberal activist government after the 1960s.

Yet the period between World War Two and the 1970s witnessed a clearly discernible—if uneven and halting—dovetailing of questions of economic rights and civil rights, a process that has come to define modern liberalism. The link between liberalism and labor remained, and was expanded in the 1960s to included unionized farm labor. The rights revolutions of the 1960s left their mark on modern liberal politics, ensuring questions of racial, sexual, and gender equality would become defining issues. The question of poverty and the need for a social safety net intensified as a political issue during the Great Society, and continued to shape much grassroots activism after that point, as demonstrated by Edward Kennedy’s presidential bid of 1980.56 The original commitment of the New Deal to the construction of a contributory social welfare system for most employed Americans was dramatically expanded by the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. Promoting access of all Americans to health care (by the 1970s unaffordable without insurance for all but a tiny elite, making virtually everyone dependent on some form of welfare, either public or private, in this respect) has become a sort of Holy Grail for liberals in recent decades.

Discussion of the Literature

A useful starting point for understanding liberal politics in this period is the books devoted to the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Alonzo Hamby’s classic Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973) remains an impressive survey of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he has also written important further works, including his edited book Harry S. Truman and the Fair Deal (Lexington, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and his useful overview Liberalism and Its Challengers: FDR to Bush (2d ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). On the 1960s, the best overview is Allen Matusow’s The Unravelling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). See also Irving Bernstein’s Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) and Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

On the question of the changing dynamics of economic liberalism in the postwar period, see Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) and Kevin Mattson, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Routledge, 2004) for divergent views of what liberalism meant by the 1950s. It is worth reading Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (New ed., Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1999), and a good analysis of his work is David Reisman, Galbraith and Market Capitalism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1980). Two important works on the effects of liberal welfare and labor politics in the postwar era are Jennifer Klein, For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) and Jennifer Mittelstadt, From Welfare to Workfare: The Unintended Consequences of Liberal Reform (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

The literature on the politics of the Cold War is vast, but crucial works include Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992) and Michael Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of a National Security State, 1945–1954 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press,1998). In order to understand the shadow cast by Vietnam on the liberal project, see George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1945–1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1986).

Just as importantly for our understanding of the Cold War and liberalism is the question of the domestic political fallout from the United States’ involvement in the world after 1945. A classic example is Richard Freeland, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and Internal Security, 1946–1948 (New York: New York University Press, 1985) but read also Jonathan Bell, The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). On the impact of Cold War political hysteria on people’s lives an important study remains Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (New York: Little Brown, 1998), but an excellent study of the effects of anti-communism specifically on liberal politics is Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013). A good overview of the damage inflicted on 1960s liberalism, see Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). An interesting and provocative recent study that tries to cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that the Cold War damaged liberal political prospects is Jennifer Delton, Rethinking the 1950s: How Anti-Communism and the Cold War Made America Liberal (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Liberalism and civil rights is an important field of scholarship, and has often also been tied to the United States’ Cold War mission against totalitarianism and its consequences. Important works include Timothy Thurber, The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) and Jennifer Delton, Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). On race and foreign policy, key books include Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) and Thomas Borstelman, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations and the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). On the limits of racial liberalism after the war, especially in terms of a turn away from labor radicalism, see Risa Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) and Robert Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003). On the wider question of race and rights that focuses on the West rather than the South, see Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). On the political project to tie economic liberalism to broad movements for civil rights that also encompass gender and sexual politics, see Jonathan Bell, California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

The aforementioned book also discusses the legacy of popular front politics on postwar liberalism, as does Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). For a good analysis of interest group liberalism, see Steven Gillon, Politics and Vision: The ADA and American Liberalism, 1947–1985 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). On labor and postwar American politics, Nelson Lichtenstein’s Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995) is superlative, and an excellent summary of labor’s turn to a private sector social safety net can be found in his essay in Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle’s edited volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), and all the essays in this volume are important. See also Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945–1968 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

Primary Sources

The presidential libraries of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson are excellent repositories for sources covering political liberalism between the 1940s and 1960s. Not only do they house huge collections relating to the administrations of the time, but all three of these politicians were senators before becoming president and so have extensive political papers relating to wider electoral and congressional politics across three decades. Some resources at the Truman Library are available online, and some only by visiting the library in Independence, Missouri. The JFK Library in Boston is a rich treasure trove, including papers of Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy and also Edward Kennedy, as well as key liberal insiders, including John K. Galbraith. Adlai Stevenson’s huge archival collection is also very useful for understanding liberalism in the 1950s, and is held at the Seeley Mudd Library at Princeton University.

The Americans for Democratic Action records are a vital source of information on liberalism in this period, and are held at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, though many universities have the collection on microfilm. This repository also has numerous records relating to 1960s radicalism, antiwar protest, civil rights, and popular front leftism.

For labor politics, the best starting point is the Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Finally, excellent collections on left politics relating to sexuality and gender can be found in the Social Protest Collection at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and at the LGBT Historical Society in San Francisco, especially the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and Don Lucas (these are also available to purchase as microfilm so may be in university libraries elsewhere).

Further Reading

Bell, Jonathan. The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Bell, Jonathan. California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Knopf, 1995.Find this resource:

Delton, Jennifer. Rethinking the 1950s: How Anti-Communism and the Cold War Made America Liberal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Fraser, Steven, and Gary Gerstle, ed. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Gillon, Steven. Politics and Vision: The ADA and American Liberalism, 1947–1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Klein, Jennifer. For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Matusow, Allen. The Unravelling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.Find this resource:

Storrs, Landon. The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.Find this resource:


(1.) FDR State of the Union Address to Congress, January 11, 1944, reproduced in American Presidency Project.

(2.) LBJ Commencement Adress, University of Michigan, May 22, 1964, reproduced in American Presidency Project.

(3.) Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

(4.) Rieve and Henderson speeches at Town Hall Meeting, February 26, 1946, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) MSS, microfilm reel 6.

(5.) UDA memorandum on “the German problem in the light of Soviet policy,” 1946 nd, ADA MSS, reel 7.

(6.) “Assuring Full Employment in a Free Competitive Economy.” Report from the Committee on Banking and Currency, 79 Cong., 1st Sess. (Government Printing Office, September 1945).

(7.) James Loeb to Ralph Wolf, February 12, 1945, ADA MSS, reel 6.

(8.) Employment Act of 1946, 79 Cong., 2d Sess. (5.380), Public Law 304.

(9.) Edward Berkowitz, America’s Welfare State: From Roosevelt to Reagan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

(10.) Walter Reuther speech at dinner in honor of Henry Wallace, January 29, 1945, ADA MSS, reel 16; see Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 282.

(11.) Dr. E. Richard Weinerman, “Trends in Medical Care in California: Implications for Medical Education,” Presentation to Annual Meeting of American Public Health Association, San Francisco, October 31, 1960, Steve Zetterberg MSS, California State Archives, Box 1, CDC Medical file. See also Jennifer Klein, For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

(12.) Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

(13.) Lemuel Boulware to Raymond Moley, April 20, 1960, Moley MSS, Hoover Institution, Box 6, Boulware file.

(14.) Jonathan Bell, California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

(15.) “The Stevenson Campaign in California—A Research Report,” by Edward L Greenfield and Company, Stevenson MSS, Princeton University, Box 299, folder 5.

(16.) Chase Going Woodhouse to William Benton, September 30, 1957, Benton MSS, University of Chicago, Box 282, folder 5.

(17.) John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (New ed., Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1999).

(18.) “Leon Keyserling on Economic Expansion, New Republic, November 17, 1958, 16–17.

(19.) “Immoderate Times,” New Republic, November 17, 1958, 3.

(20.) Brown speech “Government with a Heart,” Brown MSS, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, Box 46, Govt with a Heart file.

(22.) See Alan Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), chaps. 8 and 9.

(23.) “Poverty in the Fifty Years After The Other America in Five Charts,” Washington Post, July 11, 2012.

(24.) As Matusow noted, in 1970 “41 percent of poor families had cars, 62 percent had central heating, and 99 percent had refrigerators.” Matusow, Unraveling of America, 219.

(25.) See Alan Matusow, Unraveling of America, chapter 6.

(26.) US Department of State, “The Development of the Foreign Reconstruction Policy of the United States, March-July 1947” (Washington, DC, 1947).

(27.) Harry Truman speech to Congress on aid to Greece and Turkey, March 12, 1947.

(28.) JFK speech, April 1, 1947, Kennedy MSS, JFK Library, Boston, Box 94, Greece and Turkey file.

(29.) “ADA and its Critics,” ADA press release, October 22, 1952, ADA MSS, reel 106.

(30.) Benton to Stevenson, April 15, 1952, Benton MSS, Box 279, folder 11.

(31.) Chester Bowles to Stevenson, September 10, 1952, Benton MSS, Box 279, Folder 11.

(32.) Democratic Party report on Lodge, 1952, JFK MSS, Box 112, Congressional Record report on Lodge file.

(33.) JFK foreign policy draft speech, JFK MSS, Box 102, speeches—foreign policy file.

(34.) JFK speech to AFL 1952, JFK MSS, Box 99, labor file.

(35.) JFK nomination acceptance speech, Democratic Party National Convention, July 15, 1960.

(36.) Harold Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: Volume II: The Inside Struggle, 1936–1939 (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 115. Entry for April 9, 1937.

(37.) See Anthony Chen, The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941–1972 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Jennifer Delton, Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

(38.) William Kroger and Charles Freed, “Psychosomatic Aspects of Female Frigidity,” Journal of the American Medical Association (June 10, 1949), 526ff.

(39.) Ernesto Galarza, Farm Workers and Agribusiness in California, 1947–1960 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 88.

(40.) Herbert Lehman Liberal Party speech, September 18, 1946, Lehman MSS, Columbia University, HHL speeches 1946 file C235-12.

(41.) See Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(42.) An important example of this is Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (New York: Basic, 1984).

(43.) Del Martin to California Assembly Committee on Labor Relations, March 12, 1970, Martin/Lyon MSS, GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco, Box 55, folder 9.

(44.) Report, “The White Ghetto: Youth and Young Adults in the Tenderloin Area of Downtown San Francisco,” Don Lucas MSS, Box 15, folder 5.

(45.) Torbjörn Sirevåg, The Eclipse of the New Deal and the Fall of Vice-President Wallace, 1944 (New York: Garland, 1985).

(46.) New York campaign manual 1946 in Herbert Lehman MSS, Columbia University, file C235/11. For a discussion of Truman’s early years as president, see Alonzo Hamby, Beyond the New Deal: Harry S. Truman and American Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), chap. 3.

(47.) UDA statement on domestic and foreign policy, December 19, 1946, Lehman MSS, ADA special file 17b

(48.) See Jonathan Bell, “Building a Left Coast: The Legacy of the California Popular Front and the Challenge to Cold War Liberalism in the Post–World War Two Era,” Journal of American Studies 46, no. 1 (February 2012), 51–71; Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

(49.) Nathalie Panek to David Williams, ADA Education Director, May 20, 1954; Paul Seabury to Edward Hollander, March 19, 1963, ADA MSS, microfilm reel 58.

(50.) California Young Democrats Policy Statement at Monterey meeting, September 7–8, 1957, Phillip Burton MSS, UC Berkeley, Box 16, 1950s file.

(51.) Ira Katznelson et al, “Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933–1950,”Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 283–306.

(52.) Remarks of Jacob K. Javits at Liberal Party Institute, 1949 nd, Javits MSS, SUNY Stony Brook, 1/1/2. Republican New York was the first state to pass a state FEPC bill in 1945.

(53.) “McGovern Moneymen a Lot of Skinny Cats and Some Fat Kittens,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1972.

(54.) Michael Barone, Grant Ujifusa, Douglas Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics 1976 (New York: Dutton, 1975), 131–133; 73–74.

(55.) “The McGovern Wave Is No Passing Ripple,” Fortune, September 1972.

(56.) Timothy Stanley, Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).