This week, we are also reposting a classic series from the FF archives: Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Secret History of the Republican Party.”
For the past several decades, moderates have believed that their position in the Republican cosmos is, at best, that of a small and wary moon orbiting a raging conservative sun. It was not ever thus. In the mid-1950s, one prominent Republican, Paul G. Hoffman, rejoiced that moderates had the upper hand in the party and urged that conservatives be eliminated from the GOP. Hoffman is an obscure figure now, lacking even that modest indicator of contemporary relevance, a Wikipedia entry. But as a renowned businessman, chief administrator of the Marshall Plan, head of the Ford Foundation, and chief proponent of overseas development aid, he was among President Dwight Eisenhower’s best known moderate Republican advisors. He was also one of the right wing’s main targets, and his battles with conservatives point to the intraparty tensions that boiled within the GOP even during the placid era of Ike.
Hoffman became famous for reviving the Studebaker Corporation, a midsized auto manufacturer, after its near-bankruptcy during the Depression, and for his innovations in marketing and salesmanship. Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine lionized him as a young, intelligent business leader bringing a progressive spirit of rational and scientific management to the auto industry.
In 1942, he founded and served as first chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, an organization of business leaders and academics created to prevent a post-war depression and serve as a counter to reactionary business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers. Hoffman was a Republican and was disturbed by the anti-business animus of the New Deal and its attempts to control prices and profits. At the same time, he believed that the era of laissez faire was over and that government needed to meliorate the harsher aspects of capitalism. It was in the enlightened self-interest of business to negotiate in good faith with labor unions and to support government social welfare programs such as unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. Robber-baron types who kept wages low and tried to squelch unions actually threatened the free enterprise system; by refusing to give workers an equitable share of capitalism’s benefits, they sparked class conflict and undermined the economy by allowing potential consumers too little purchasing power.
Not all businessmen held such views, of course, and the NAM bitterly criticized Hoffman and the CED for surrendering to socialism. But many executives during the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially the heads of large corporations, believed that they had to demonstrate social “responsibility” and win back the public confidence that was lost when the economy collapsed into Depression.
Hoffman’s standing as a moderate Republican business spokesman led Harry Truman to select him as head of the Economic Cooperation Administration, the agency set up in 1948 to administer the Marshall Plan. The U.S. spent some $13 billion, a stupendous sum at the time, to rebuild Western Europe after the war’s devastation. While Hoffman acknowledged that it was in the U.S. interest to revive overseas export markets, he stressed the program’s contribution toward making Europe sufficiently strong, integrated, and prosperous that it could resist Communism’s appeal and Soviet domination. By the time Hoffman stepped down after two and a half years as the ECA’s chief, European production had increased to more than 25% above its prewar levels.
Hoffman was named president of the Ford Foundation in 1950, and raised conservative hackles by using some of the organization’s immense resources to support civil rights and civil liberties. He set his standard further against the isolationist wing of the GOP by helping to create the first incarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger (1950-53), a citizens’ group that lobbied for military preparedness and negotiation with the Soviets from a position of strength.
In 1952, Hoffman predicted economic catastrophe if the Democrats held the presidency and World War III if the anti-internationalist Robert Taft obtained the GOP nomination. He took a leave of absence from the Ford Foundation to become the chairman of the Advisory Committee of Citizens for Eisenhower. He helped persuade Ike to enter the presidential contest, and played a significant role in attracting liberals, moderates, and independents to the General’s winning campaign.
In 1956, Hoffman wrote an article in Collier’s magazine praising President Eisenhower’s party leadership, estimating that 95% of the Republican rank and file shared his moderation, and insisting that his philosophy should “become the permanent program of the party.” He called for the expulsion from the GOP of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers, who were “a totally new element” in the party and “had nothing in common with rigid but honest conservatives such as Senator Robert A. Taft.” McCarthy’s “rampage” against civil liberties was unnecessary, since Americans already were united in their resistance to communism, and created a disastrous image for the party at home and abroad. Men of such “dangerous thinking and reckless conduct” had “little place in the new Republican party.” While the conservatives around Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater were not wild men like McCarthy, they were unable to accept “the modern America with its needs of social security, or balanced labor-management relations, or government partnership and guardianship of our complex economy.” Nor could they “accept America’s role as the chief champion of peace and decency in active international relations.”
Congressional conservatives howled in outrage, and right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr. charged that Hoffman was leading “his ultra-liberal modernist Republicans” in a GOP coup. Readers of the new National Review magazine mounted a letter-writing campaign against Hoffman.
While Eisenhower privately shared Hoffman’s low opinion of the right wing of his party and threatened to run for reelection as an independent, he took no action against his conservative detractors in Congress. Hoffman was too hot a target for conservatives to be reconfirmed in his position as US delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations, but served as a top-ranked official in the UN Secretariat from 1959 to 1971. There he became the foremost American advocate of policies to help the less developed countries, both to enable them buy U.S. exports and to advance peaceful economic development as an alternative to Communism and revolution.
Hoffman was representative of a sizable swathe of Republican business opinion that considered conservative domestic and foreign policies to be outmoded and irresponsible. Their opponents in turn regarded such businessmen as a graver threat than liberal politicians, and conservative critics of Hoffman were fond of quoting Lenin’s prediction that the capitalists would sell him the rope he would use to hang them. But his example may be instructive at a time when, amidst another severe economic downturn, business leaders once again seek to regain the public’s esteem.
Originally posted on February 15, 2009