July 16, 2023

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

On July 16, 1964, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater uttered his most remembered quotation in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination:

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said. “And…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

Those words quickly became both famous and infamous.

They resonated in a positive way with Conservative Republicans, who were beginning their long domination of the Republican Party.

Democrats, including the Democratic candidate, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, pounced on them as proof that Goldwater was a dangerous war-mongering extremist who might be crazy enough to start a nuclear war. (A characterization masterfully capitalized on in the Johnson campaign’s notorious “Daisy ad.”)

It’s true that Goldwater believed America needed a strong military and should use it aggressively it to fight the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

But this view wasn’t really all that different from the position of most high-profile Democrats in the 1960s, including President John F. Kennedy and his Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who became president in November 1963 after Kennedy was assassinated.

Nonetheless, the Democrats’ portrayal of Goldwater as an extremist nut was effective and helped Johnson win a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election.

In the decades since then, Goldwater’s famous quote has also been misused to try to justify extreme positions or actions that bear little or no relation to what Goldwater actually believed or would have condoned.

For example, when the “Obamacare” health insurance legislation was approved by Congress, a protester hurled a brick through the office window of the Monroe County Democratic Committee headquarters in Rochester, New York. A note attached to the brick said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Barry Goldwater had strong libertarian views and was generally against big government.

But he would never have supported vandalism in the name of politics or liked having his words associated with it.

This seems clear not only from Goldwater’s political record, but also from the words he spoke right after the famous quote in his 1964 acceptance speech.

Here’s what he said in that key part of the address:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Why, the beauty of the very system we Republicans are pledged to restore and revitalize — the beauty of this Federal system of ours — is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity.

We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution.

Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.

Ours is a very human cause for very humane goals.”

In this era of increasingly uncivil discourse, the sentences that come after Goldwater’s famous quotation are also worth remembering. 

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