Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Paul Matzko, Penn State University
During the summer of 1963 the Kennedy administration was worried about the President’s reelection chances. Kennedy tasked his legal adviser, Myer Feldman, with researching the extent of the radical Right’s influence. Feldman did so, identifying the usual suspects among Right-wing broadcasters and industrialists. Yet what most worried Feldman was a new community of ordinary activists, the “average American who supports one, or several, Right-Wing organizations by small contributions, by work, and by the purchase of books, pamphlets, and tape recordings.” To give the President some idea of who he meant, Myer proffered the example of a group of housewives who “invade supermarkets which sell Polish hams,” and constantly “harass local school boards, local librarians, and local governing bodies.”

That specific incident involving Polish hams, which had gained the attention of the White House itself, began with a boycott instigated by a conservative radio broadcaster named Carl McIntire. By the early 1960s, nearly a dozen Right-wing broadcasters aired daily programs on a hundred or more stations nation-wide. They were the source of a surge of activism by housewives, teenagers, pensioners, and small businesspeople. Political historians often identify that activism with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, but his surprising candidacy was simply one product of a much broader grassroots conservatism enabled by access to new forms of media. The rise of the New Right cannot be adequately explained as a top-down, Astroturfed creation of elite industrialists and politicians. This was apparent to the Kennedy Administration by 1963; political historians have been slower on the uptake. This paper uses the story of the Polish ham boycott to explore the role of radio broadcasting in the creation of grassroots conservatism during the mid-twentieth century.