Powell Memo: Start of the Counterrevolution

Photograph Source: The Library of Congress – Public Domain

It was good seeing CounterPunch publish an article on what is known as the “Powell Memo” by Brad Wolf.  He rightfully notes, “Powell expressed his grave concern that American business and free enterprise were under full-scale attack from “leftists” and might altogether collapse unless drastic steps were taken.”  However, far more was at stake.

Lewis Powell was a Virginia attorney, tobacco-industry lobbyist and future Supreme Court Judge.  He can be credited with helping launch the conservative social wars of the last half-century.  In 1971 he delivered a secret study for the Chamber of Commerce entitled, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.”  His advice to the business community was simple:

Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

He took special care to note:

There should be no hesitation to attack the [Ralph] Naders, the [Herbert] Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the system. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.

He called for business leaders and conservatives to aggressively fight for political power.

Jane Mayer noted in her essential work, Dark Money, referred to the memo in the following terms:  “In the spirit of Hannibal, it called for a devastating surprise attack on the bloated and self-satisfied establishment, which regarded itself as nonpartisan but which the conservatives regarded as liberal.”

As the historian Benjamin Waterhouse observes, Powell articulated a deeply shared belief that “anti-capitalist forces — from the universities to the pulpits to public-interest law firms — were waging a cultural assault on business, and that groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had no choice but to become politically active.”  Powell argued that, as Waterhouse notes, “Business-people had to become more involved in national politics.”

Influential Americans took Powell’s warning to heart.  In February ‘73, three of the nation’s richest conservatives – Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and H. L. Hunt — backed Paul Weyrich and the creation of the Heritage Foundation.  In May, the National Council of Catholic Bishops spun off its National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) into a separate, activist anti-abortion organization.  And in September, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators.

Powell’s memo came at a propitious moment. The nation faced mounting international tensions and Nixon’s foreign-policy tsar, Henry Kissinger, worried that America’s global fortunes were faltering.  The Soviet Union was growing in power and international influence; independence movements were spreading throughout the third world; and Europe and Japan were resurging. In response, Nixon visited China in February ’72, signaling its entry onto the world stage; the CIA backed the bloody coup in Chile; and the disastrous, nearly-two-decade long Vietnam War dragged on.

Nixon’s veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 was most telling. Promoted by Pat Buchanan, Nixon claimed the act was “a long leap into the dark” that would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”  It was a first-strike assault against Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.

That same year, religious conservatives were particularly offended by an IRS ruling in which Christian academies that enforced segregation violated their non-profit tax status, thus threatening the then-heavily segregated evangelical educational infrastructure.  The ruling was based on two earlier Supreme Court decisions that had refashioned the nation’s religious landscape.  In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Court ended school prayer and in School District of Abington Township v Schempp (1963) it prohibited mandatory bible reading. An increasingly secular curriculum, grounded in Darwinian evolution and “subversive” liberal thought, challenged long-established traditionalist teachings.

The following year, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative lawyer and writer, began a successful campaign to block the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Schlafly was a devoutly Catholic, rightwing activist and militant anticommunist long affiliated with the John Birch Society.  Often unappreciated, her “STOP-ERA” campaign became more than a single-issue “war,” more than an effort to block a proposed constitutional amendment.  It set the agenda for an awakened grass-roots conservativism, the remaking of the Republican Party and social struggle for decades to come.

Today’s social wars over values and politics are a long festering reaction to the social disruption that was the tremulous 1960s.  After more than a decade of struggle, the civil-rights movement achieved the passage of major voter-rights legislation, but, in 1968, the nation was wracked by awave of riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King.  In 1968, half a million U.S. soldiers were at war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia; in May ’70, U.S. forces expanded the war from Vietnam to Cambodia. In response, major protests erupted at Ohio’s Kent State University (National Guardsmen killed four students and wounding nine) and Mississippi’s Jackson State (city and state police killed two students and injuring twelve).  When the U.S. withdrew its military from Vietnam in 1973, 58,000 Americans had died as well as an untold number of Vietnamese.

The ‘60s was a decade that saw the widespread popularity of the counterculture.  This was a subculture that championed sex, drugs & rock-and-roll that became widespread and redefined popular culture.  It saw the emergence of second-wave feminism and the gay liberation movement.  It also saw the rise of consumer activists and the early ecology movement.

Over the following half-century, the culture wars were relatively contained by neo-liberal social policies, a moderate Supreme Court and a marketplace that encouraged a “freer,” more sexual popular culture.  Those days are over, and the Christian right and conservative business class have come back with a militant vengeance.  The Powell memo reveals how these values wars got started?

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.