What Would America Be Like If Strom Thurmond Had Been Elected President?

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Mr. Markowitz is an associate professor of history at the New Brunswick Campus of Rutgers University.

While channel surfing last week I suddenly came across a wacky propaganda film on C-SPAN about who else but Strom Thurmond. There was Strom being born in 1902, winning his first elective office the year Herbert Hoover became president (1929); becoming a county lawyer, politician and judge in 1930s South Carolina; landing on D Day with the Allies and being shipped to the Pacific for the final invasion that never came; running for governor in 1947, abolishing the Poll Tax (I swear); running for president against big government and for States' Rights in 1948 (not one mention of segregation and racism); then fighting the "machine" to win a write-in vote for the U.S. Senate in 1954 (not one mention of the Brown Decision and its role that year). The brief film went on, praising Strom's defense of the big military and States' Rights against big government through the century, the twentieth not the nineteenth.

The film, however, wasn't being shown at a White Citizens Council Reunion but in the United States Senate (which today is sometimes reminiscent of a White Citizens Council Reunion). It was Strom's one hundredth birthday and he was retiring from the Senate after forty-eight years. J. Edgar Hoover headed the FBI for forty-eight years, I remembered, and died in office. In the "good old days," Strom and J.Edgar had a lot in common.

Then as the ceremonies continued for a man who fortunately didn't seem to be all there-including a Marilyn Monroe imitator singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" the Republican majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi reminded Strom and everyone else that Mississippi (or its white voters) had given him its electoral votes in 1948 and if the rest of the country had followed suit, "we wouldn't be in this mess."

That got me to thinking. Having written a book about Henry A. Wallace and American liberalism long ago and having often thought about what would have happened if Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate, had become president (not in 1948, which was impossible, but in 1945, which he would have if he had retained the vice presidency), I began to think about Lott's statement, using the film, a sort of cornpone "Triumph of the Will" (maybe a poor man's "Birth of a Nation" would be better) to imagine what would have happened if Strom Thurmond had become president in 1948 instead of being president in spirit today, when we have something like a Dixiecrat government based on the "solid" white South, a government based on old Southern style voter turnout, combining bible belt appeals with anti-federal government rhetoric and military saber rattling.

Well, Strom certainly wouldn't have set up NATO, not if they let the Italians, the Greeks, and the Turks in. He might not have fought in Korea, in spite of his rabid anti-Communism, because the issue couldn't be defined in terms of white supremacy and States' Rights. But then again he might have declared the South Koreans "honorary white people," and fought the war to a draw, much as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower did. Only South Korea today might have three sets of drinking fountains and bathrooms-one for "whites," one for "blacks" and one for assorted "Asians," which would create real hardships for the Korean population.
In the long run, conservative influence over the judiciary might have been undermined, since Strom, assuming he won a second term in 1952 by bringing South Carolina voting practices to the North, would have abolished judicial review by a whites-only referendum when the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation.

I don't see Strom supporting Israel in the Near East, although he was well suited temperamentally to get along with the Saudis. He certainly would have liked their exclusionary social system and their costumes-in his younger days Strom liked to wear capes. He might have even improved relationships with the Soviets, since Khrushchev would probably have reminded him of a South Carolina county Sheriff and Strom believed in spheres of influence and co-existence between two opposed social systems. After all, what Khrushchev preached on the world scene as an alternative to nuclear war Strom and his fellow Dixiecrats had long practiced to preserve that brutal racist dictatorship history calls segregation in the name of "States' Rights."

We don't know what Strom Thurmond would have done if Trent Lott's dream of his becoming president in 1948 would have come true. We do know that he joined James Eastland in 1955 to become one of the two leaders of the forces of segregation in the United States Senate, keeping in shape to set filibuster records against civil rights legislation. We do know that his joining the Republican Party in 1964 after Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of that year, the most important Civil Rights Act of the 20th century, was a fateful turning point in American politics. Although the Civil Rights movement destroyed de jure segregation, the "Solid South" of white supremacy and segregation which Strom led into the Republican party was to become central to the political strategy of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes, making the Republicans of today something far closer to Strom's 1948 National States' Rights party than to the party of Thomas E. Dewey, much less Lincoln.

After trying to get Richard Nixon to repeal the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Strom came to accept in the 1970s the right of blacks to vote (which they had begun to lose in South Carolina in the 1870s) and even hired some black staff people.

As was true at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the "great reconciliation" blessed Southern segregation and disenfranchisement and romanticized the confederate soldiers of the "Lost Cause," so Strom flies today into the sunset, waiting perhaps for a Hollywood biography film about his exploits in time for the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. My personal choice to play Strom would be Arnold Schwartznegger (Schwartz means black in German). Then Bush could give the film a boost, in the name of "compassionate conservatism" just as Woodrow Wilson did in 1915 for "Birth of a Nation."

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Kenneth Chad Keith - 7/23/2005

Mr. Holder,

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Evidently, Mr. Markowitz is nothing but another politically correct Yankee with narrow-minded views about the South. In my opinion, it's a good thing he feels that way. Maybe he won't move down here and litter our beaches with more condos, and try to tell us "how they did things up north".
For what it's worth, Mr. Thurmond is a personal hero of mine. We both graduated from the same college and I have always admired him. This is just like the Confederate flag issue - nothing but northern liberals trying to elaborate about something they know nothing about.

Truance Holder - 10/6/2004

Markowitz has evidently never talked with the thousands of black South Carolinians that THE Senator did help. Nor did he seem to recall that Strom was the first Senator to hire a Black Lead Staffer, nor did he remember that he has a black daughter who has been on record as stating that he had no racist bones in him.
What Strom did was represent his constituency at a time in history when they were wrong. THIS is true servant leadership, doing what your constituents desire even if you may have some problems with it.
I suggest that this is taken as just another attempt by the Northern Academic Elite trying to make up a history of a man, yes the record is there, yet, the man was much different.
I am a better person because of Strom Thurmond, I grew up in a better South Carolina because of Strom. The author needs to go to Orangeburg, Aiken, Edgefield, Anderson, Florence, or any other aria where his influence was felt and where the great things he did are evident.
Go talk with some of the blacks who graduated from SC State because of him, talk withthose who, when needed, he came rushing in to assist, REGARDLESS of race.
I, for one do not appreciate the bias that this associate prof has placed within this article.

Peter Sean Bradley - 12/16/2002

Shallow and superficial. Something interesting could have been done with the topic. For example, what would a Thurmond administration have done about Korea? Wouldn't he have been required to intervene? Would Thurmond's putative bigotry against Italians have jettisoned the Marshall plan? Instead of an informed and interesting answer we get comic book posturing designed to equate modern Republicans with southern Democrats in 1948. Academic history today looks a might inbred.

J. Merrett - 12/12/2002

Where has increased school funding been shown to correlate with better education? Why isn't the DC school system the best in the country?

Chuck Heisler - 12/12/2002

The sentence comparing current Republicans and the '48 Dixiecrats is academically snotty enough to get kudos from the Politically Correct but the obvious response is to say that Markowitz simply does not make his case. The claim is not supported with reasoned evidence and therefore we will have to take the statement in the manner in which it was offered: just another example of an academic that can't resist a sneer when he thinks or writes the word "Republican". How juvenile!

james dickinson - 12/11/2002

Republicans seem to be the only folks around who believe that "better schools" and "higher academic achievement" can be created by taking money away from the schools and refusing to establish a national standard for achievement. With all due respect, the "lower taxes" do NOT go to "the burgeoning black middle class", but to the (already "burgeoned") white elite. (Institute a FICA "tax holiday" instead of gifts to the wealthy, and we'll talk.) The first person to leave a major office in the Bush administration was John DiIulio, the head of the office of faith-based programs. (He later referred to some of Bush's closest advisors [specifically Karl Rove] as "Mayberry Machiavellis" and said that White House programs were dictated by political, rather than practical, reasons. Attack the Democrats if you must; just be accurate, please, when you do.

arica coleman - 12/11/2002

Yes, the republicans. The great white hope! Sad they won't do a damn thing about corporate welfare. Talk about "dependent on power and patronage." Geeez

Greg Piper - 12/11/2002

I don't know where you get off calling today's Republicans "far closer to Strom's 1948 National States' Rights party" (I've never cared for Strom, personally). Just because Republicans are eroding the Democrats' traditional base of support in the South (and not even Louisiana) doesn't make them tolerant of racism, and just because they think affirmative action does more to hurt minorities than help doesn't make them segregationists in some abstract way. Republicans are the ones pushing for better schools and more choice for minorities, higher academic achievement, lower taxes for the burgeoning black middle class, community assistance through faith-based programs, and most other "progressive" policies that the Democrats have abandoned in their narrow-minded zeal to keep everyone dependent on their power and patronage. Minus the racial animosity, they are more Stromish than today's Republicans.