Barry Goldwater, the Daisy Ad, and Nuclear War

Many Americans have heard of the Daisy Ad.

Most politics buffs probably watched this ad at one time or another. And after it was over, they may have wondered – how in the world was the daisy ad so effective?

By modern standards, it seems both outdated and completely transparent. The implication is most unsubtle: voting for Senator Barry Goldwater will bring nuclear war. Today’s viewer might find it somewhat ridiculous, even laughable. It would be as if Senator Barack Obama cut an ad implying that Senator John McCain would start World War Three.

Yet the Daisy Ad worked. Mr. Goldwater went on to lose the election by a landslide, partly as a result of said ad.

This was because in 1964, believe it or not, many Americans actually worried that Mr. Goldwater might use nuclear weapons.

Several events contributed to this perception. Firstly, Senator Goldwater publicly “proposed that NATO field commanders be able to initiate nuclear strikes in Europe without explicit permission from the White House.” This caused considerable controversy; most Americans criticized the proposal – rightly – as incredibly reckless, something that left humanity’s fate in the hands of one short-sighted general.

Mr. Goldwater also had a reputation for making careless statements – much like a modern-day Vice President Joe Biden, except far worse. Not all of these involved nuclear weapons (for example, the senator publicly supported shutting down the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was why he lost the state of Tennessee), but several unfortunately did. In one such instance, the candidate mused, “Let’s lob one (nuclear weapon) into the men’s room of the Kremlin.” In another, reporter Howard S. Smith asked about disrupting supply lines in Vietnam. Mr. Goldwater answered,

…There have been several suggestions made. I don’t think we would use any of them. But defoliation of the forests by low-yield atomic weapons could well be done. When you remove the foliage, you remove the cover…”

Even with the qualification, it is still disconcerting to hear Mr. Goldwater immediately suggest using nuclear weapons. Most Americans, however, heard something far worse: Republican candidate Barry Goldwater wanted to nuke Vietnam. The media generally left out the part where Goldwater said, “I don’t think we would use any of them.”

Mr. Goldwater did not do himself any favors in pointing out this fact. His clarification went:

I would never use a nuclear weapon when a conventional weapon would do. I would leave it up to the commanders.

Since this opened gigantic loopholes (if conventional weapons wouldn’t do, for instance), Mr. Goldwater still appeared quite reckless.

All these missteps gradually cemented a very negative perception: Barry Goldwater was a hawkish extremist, irresponsible and unfit to wield the presidency’s vast powers. “In your gut, you know he’s nuts,” went the Democratic refrain, and the majority of voters came to believe this statement.

The Daisy ad focused on this perception and shifted the national conversation to Goldwater’s recklessness. It worked not because it persuaded Americans that Senator Barry Goldwater would start nuclear war (not even the most effective negative ad can do that), but because it reminded them that he just might do so.

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