Can 'Peace' Be a Winning Issue in Presidential Campaigns?

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In recent years, the conventional wisdom has been that “Peace” is a losing issue in U.S. presidential campaigns. Proponents of this view point to George McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972, when he called for peace in Vietnam and was trounced at the polls.

But a more thoroughgoing analysis of the peace issue in presidential races supports a more nuanced conclusion. Indeed, it indicates that peace has been a winning issue numerous times.

First of all, peace is only one of many issues raised in most presidential campaigns and, therefore, its influence on the outcome is hard to disentangle from other issues. Moreover, the issue can be muted even further when the candidates of the opposing parties take roughly similar positions on it. In addition, people are not always driven by the issues. Indeed, they are often motivated by party loyalty, by the personality of the candidates, or — in recent years — by slick campaign ads.

Even so, there have been numerous times when the peace issue has been very prominent — and when the candidates raising it have won.

During the 1916 presidential race, in the midst of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson campaigned strongly as a peace candidate. With the Republicans adopting a hawkish line on the conflict, the Democrats rallied behind the slogan: “He Kept Us Out of War!” And it worked. Between 1912 (when he won only because of a split in Republican ranks) and 1916, Wilson’s share of the popular vote rose from 42 to 49.4 percent, carrying him through to victory.

Another sharp division on the question of peace occurred in 1952. When the Democratic Party was blamed for the bloody, unpopular Korean War and its presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, promised to fight the war as long as it took, Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican candidate, made a strong peace appeal. Americans “must avoid the kind of bungling that led us into Korea,” he told a campaign audience. “The young farm boys must stay on their farms; the students must stay in school.” That fall, Eisenhower proclaimed that the Democrats had given the “false answer . . . that nothing can be done to speed a secure peace.” But, if he were elected, he said, he would “concentrate on the job of ending the Korean war,” adding: “I shall go to Korea.” It was perhaps the most popular and most-quoted statement in his campaign. He surged to victory, with 55 percent of the vote.

In 1964, the Republicans nominated a bona fide hawk, Barry Goldwater, who bluntly declared that his goal was winning the Vietnam War and casually chatted about the use of “nukes” in world affairs. Addressing the Republican national convention, Goldwater assured his audience that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Not surprisingly, the Democrats seized the opportunity to paint the GOP candidate into a corner. Party ads played skillfully upon the widely shared view that Goldwater was “trigger-happy, with the best known of them showing a little girl plucking a daisy as the world exploded in nuclear war. Meanwhile, Johnson campaigned as a peace candidate. “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” he told voters. “We are not going north and drop[ping] bombs.” Johnson easily won the election, securing the greatest vote, the greatest margin of victory, and the greatest percentage (61.1 percent) up to that point in American history.

By 1968, Johnson’s betrayal of his peace promises had made him and the escalating Vietnam War so unpopular that he was forced out of the Democratic primaries by two peace candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Furthermore, even Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate, now chose to criticize the war and to claim that he had a “secret plan” to bring it to an end. Although Nixon’s credibility as a peace candidate was not high, the peace credentials of his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, seemed even lower, for Humphrey was clearly Johnson’s stand-in. In the election, Nixon eked out a narrow victory.

Finally, in 1976, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic presidential candidate, sounded many strong peace themes during his campaign. Attacking the Nixon-Ford administration’s cynicism in world affairs, he promised a new foreign policy, based on peace and human rights. In addition, he called for the scuttling of the B-1 bomber, a comprehensive nuclear test ban, and for movement toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons. So impressive was Carter’s peace position that the executive director of SANE, America’s largest peace group, resigned to work in Carter’s campaign. Carter, too, emerged victorious, with 50 percent of the vote.

Even in the case of George McGovern’s 1972 election defeat, it is worth noting that Nixon neutralized the peace issue to some extent by emphasizing his withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Vietnam, his claim that his administration had secured “peace with honor,” and his policies of détente with China and the Soviet Union.

Thus, there seems to be little basis for the assumption that “Peace” is necessarily a losing issue. Indeed, “Peace” has been (and can be) a potent force in U.S. presidential campaigns.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

This article originally appeared on the History News Network.

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