Extremism is No Virtue
I’m one of a decreasing few that heard Barry Goldwater bellow “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” when he accepted the Republican nomination for President in San Francisco’s Cow Palace stadium in July, 1964. I was just finishing post-graduate work at Harvard and was about to begin my teaching career at Hope College in Michigan, and though I had been a lifelong Republican I was appalled.
Later in that campaign, Goldwater went on to claim that our generals had the right to use what would come to be called “tactical” nuclear weapons to end the war in Viet Nam, at a time when we had only a few thousand troops there, troops who were supposedly advisors, not combat soldiers.
I was stunned. But then I moved to western Michigan and the most Republican County in the state, and met many who were all for Goldwater and his message.
They hated the way Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had changed society, and rightly feared Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society would do more of the same. LBJ won in a historic landslide, carrying Michigan by a million votes, though my Ottawa County neighbors stoutly backed Barry. People were frightened by the thought of war, especially a nuclear one, and once Goldwater was seen as a mad bomber, the election was essentially over.
Ironically, it was Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in Vietnam, and tore America apart in the process, though he never used nuclear weapons. That was more than a half-century ago, and what was seen as Goldwater’s once-radical extremism has become the mantra of the Republican Party, or so says CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
But what strikes me most today is that Barry Goldwater’s thinking was not really about how to deal with the modern crisis of his time – Vietnam – but was based on the conflict he had taken part in, World War II.
And I want to concentrate on here is a fatal flaw we seem to have: When tough guys bellow, scientists who helped win victories over the hideous enemies of the past, are hauled out of their labs to fight the old good fight, whether it now makes sense or not.
That’s what has plagued the scientific establishment, for example the directives on which the National Science Foundation was based, for decades. We should be marshalling our national armada of brilliance to catch the next virus before it emerges. Instead, we seem once again to be fighting the last war.
We’ve done it before: The napalm used in Viet Nam was based on the flame throwers that Harvard’s Louis Fieser invented in 1944. The chemical weapons we’ve stockpiled are descendants of the Lewisite of Harvard’s James Bryant Conant’s genius in 1918, and on and on.
The thousands of nuclear bombs that still remain are relics of the Cold War. In January, 1962, President Kennedy authorized the use in Viet Nam of ‘Agent Orange’, a defoliant discovered at the University of Illinois. Over the next decade, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons of it as well as various other chemicals – the "rainbow herbicides" and defoliants – over Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia.
After Vietnam ended, it was discovered that nearly all of the food the sprays had been destroying in Vietnam was not being produced for guerrillas; it was, in reality, being grown for the local population. So most of what this spraying of Agent Orange accomplished caused massive starvation.
That, and millions of birth defects among generations yet unborn, to say nothing of thousands of American veterans who would carry the aftereffects of being exposed for life.
All this is not to say that Barry Goldwater was an evil man. Goldwater, the last presidential nominee not to have graduated from college, was an Arizona department store owner, with an impressive military record. Everyone I’ve met that knew him thought him a good guy. His trouble was that he was sometimes unsophisticated, and clever speech writers put ill-advised words in his mouth.
I also grew up in New York State, and have long admired the work of two Republicans who were my co-citizens: Former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Senator Charles Goodell. Rockefeller, a rich man with a purpose, was singularly responsible for the State University System of New York.
How would the nation be different now, if the clairvoyant, generous Rockefeller had prevailed in 1964 and been the Republican candidate? How different would the country be had Rocky been elected, then or in 1968?
Committed patriots and scientists across the land did give us weapons of mass destruction when we needed them to fight the monsters that attacked us in World War II, the war the 1960’s saw in the rear view mirror. Today’s war is, however, is on a small “bug” -- the virus that causes COVID-19.
How many of the best and brightest will we have the sense to engage to fight this bug and all the other viruses that are certain to follow? Our survival may depend on the answer.
Doug Neckers, distinguished research professor (emeritus) is the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences, and chair of the board of directors at the Robert H. Jackson Center.