It is tempting to view the history of the Republican Party in Arkansas as simply a two-act play driven by larger national and regional developments. Act one came after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, in the first period of Republican ascendency. As in other Southern states, Republican government was imposed on Arkansas as an accompaniment to military rule over the defeated Confederacy. When Reconstruction ended in the state in 1874, the Republican Party retained some presence in state politics through coalitions with other groups. By the 1890s, however, Democratic domination of elected offices consigned the Republican Party mostly to the role of a political spectator.
Act two began in the 1990s when, in the second period of Republican ascendency in the state, behind the cusp of the rest of the nation and the South, a new conservative Republican Party emerged. Taking its cue from the rise of the “New Right” in the 1980s (itself part of a much longer history of a rightward shift in the GOP stretching back into the 1960s), conservative Republicans won state offices. In 2014, for the first time in Arkansas history since Reconstruction, Republicans completed a full sweep of all major political offices, winning all four congressional seats, both U.S. Senate seats, both the state Senate and House, the governorship, and the attorney general, all of which has seemingly ushered in a second era of Republican rule 140 years after the last one ended.
Yet there is a third, largely overlooked act in the Republican ascendency in Arkansas, centered on Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1950s and 1960s, which is also tied to larger national and regional developments. During most of that period, a brand of moderate conservatism, which was fiscally conservative but socially progressive, dominated the Republican Party. Dubbed “Eisenhower Republicanism” in the 1950s, named after its most influential proponent, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this morphed into “Rockefeller Republicanism” in the 1960s, named after Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York and an unsuccessful moderate Republican nominee for the party’s presidential ticket in 1964.
Winthrop Rockefeller, Nelson’s younger brother, brought his own brand of Rockefeller Republicanism to Arkansas. Both Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller were part of the wealthiest family dynasty in the United States, founded by their grandfather John D. Rockefeller, an oil tycoon and business magnate. Winthrop was raised in New York and worked in various family enterprises before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he saw active service in the Pacific and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After returning from war, as the only unmarried Rockefeller of five brothers, Winthrop was one of the United States’ most eligible bachelors and reveled in the big-city highlife.
In 1948, Rockefeller entered into an ill-fated marriage with divorcee Barbara “Bobo” Sears. The union produced Winthrop’s only son, Win Paul (who would later become a Republican lieutenant governor of Arkansas), but lasted just over a year before the couple split. To escape messy divorce proceedings and the accompanying media interest, in 1953 Winthrop took the advice of former Army buddy Frank Newell, a Little Rock insurance salesman, and moved to Arkansas. Soon after, he purchased a 927-acre tract atop Petit Jean Mountain. He built a ranch there, named it Winrock Farms, and began an enthusiastic career as a cattle rancher.
Ironically, it was the Democratic Party that got Rockefeller involved in Arkansas politics. During the 1955 Arkansas General Assembly a state of emergency was declared. Arkansas was hemorrhaging population at an alarming rate. The state had lost almost a fifth of its population in the previous decade. Its agricultural economy was shrinking and industrial and manufacturing companies, many of them based outside of the South, were not locating to Arkansas to provide much-needed jobs and employment. With no jobs coming to the people, people were leaving to find jobs elsewhere.
To address the situation, the General Assembly passed Act 404, creating the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (the AIDC, today the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last month) to coordinate new efforts to bring industry into the state. Gov. Orval Faubus appointed Rockefeller to the commission and fellow AIDC members elected him chair. No one in Arkansas matched the national influence and connections that Rockefeller had, and he was the obvious choice to take the lead in industrial development. The results of the AIDC’s first year in operation were impressive. A total of 10,431 new jobs were created through the establishment of 75 new plants employing 7,236 people, and 50 plant expansions employing an additional 3,195 people. This represented a 150 percent increase over announced new industrial employment in any of the previous three years and added approximately $27.5 million to the annual payroll.
Faubus was pleased. “I want to express my sincere gratitude and approbation for the wonderful job done by yourself, the Commission members and the personnel of the AIDC,” he gushed to Rockefeller. “Your accomplishments were not only heartening and appreciated by this administration, but I know from the many expressions, both verbal and written, that the entire people of this state are not only mindful of the good that has been accomplished but are as well grateful and appreciative.”
The good feelings toward Rockefeller and the AIDC were also in evidence in the 1957 Arkansas General Assembly. Rep. Jack Gwin of Grant County initiated an enthusiastically accepted vote of commendation praising Rockefeller’s “high accomplishments, able leadership and personal generosity.”
Yet even as Rockefeller and the AIDC basked in glory, there were dark clouds on the horizon. The 1957 General Assembly also saw the state gearing up for massive resistance to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education school desegregation decision. East Arkansas politicians introduced four pro-segregation bills. One piece of legislation in particular was cause for concern, proposing to create a State Sovereignty Commission that would have far-reaching investigative powers into the activities of all organizations operating in the state. In untypically strident language, Rockefeller condemned the bill as “dangerous” and warned that it would create “what you might call an Arkansas gestapo. It is far reaching in what it could do. No organization would be safe from embarrassment of an investigation, and behind closed doors, too.”
The pro-segregation bills passed and foreshadowed the conflict over school desegregation in the state that culminated in the Little Rock school crisis in September 1957. As far as industrial progress was concerned, the school crisis was an unmitigated disaster. Rockefeller had sought to reason with Faubus not to call out the National Guard, without success. A Time magazine report claimed that “Rockefeller rushed to the executive Mansion, [and] pleaded against the move for more than two hours, arguing that it would give the state a bad name with industry.” Apparently, the reply from Faubus was, “I’m sorry, but I’m already committed. I’m going to run for a third term [as governor], and if I don’t do this, Jim Johnson [an arch segregationist and head of the Arkansas White Citizens’ Council] and Bruce Bennett [segregationist Arkansas attorney general] … will tear me to shreds [in the Democratic Party primaries].”
Rockefeller continued to speak out against Faubus’ actions, driving a wedge between the two men. When, in 1960, Rockefeller met the residency requirements to run for office, he announced that he was thinking of running for governor as either a Republican or as an independent. At the news, Faubus balked at reappointing Rockefeller to the AIDC. Eventually, bowing to popular opinion, he begrudgingly did so. But the political threat of Rockefeller only grew. Writing about the November 1962 election results, Arkansas Democrat reporter George Douthit noted, “Rockefeller, as leader of the Republicans in Arkansas, organized a good fight against the Democrats this last general election. … While the voting results didn’t seem to indicate this strength, it was offset because the Democrats really had to work and spend some money for the first time. In fact, a lot of them were worried.”
Rep. Paul Van Dalsem of Perry County was chief among the worriers. The oldest member of the House and a close Faubus ally, in 1962 for the first time the Republicans had the temerity to run an opponent against him in the general election. He led the 1963 Arkansas General Assembly attempts to oust Rockefeller from the AIDC. “Just who the hell does Mr. Rockefeller think he is that he can get you opposition and take credit for everything?” Van Dalsem asked his fellow Democrats.
Outsiders were incredulous at Rockefeller’s treatment. “What’s Win’s Sin?” the Tulsa World asked, answering, “He’s a Republican, that’s what. Imagine a Republican holding office in Arkansas!” Offering the “Feeding-Hand Biting Award for 1963” to Arkansas Democrats, it insisted that, “Oklahoma would be glad to have him. … Yes, sir, Mr. Rockefeller, come right on over. And if you want to bring along any of those industries, don’t feel a bit shy about asking permission.” In a similar vein, the Charleston Daily Mail proposed that West Virginia should vie for Rockefeller’s affections. “Until recently, Arkansas was West Virginia’s closest rival in the skid toward economic decline,” but Rockefeller had almost single-handedly turned that around, “far better than West Virginia has been able to.” The paper went on to do “a little day-dreaming. Maybe the Arkansas Democrats will succeed, and Mr. Rockefeller will be out of a job. He might then be open to an offer from West Virginia. West Virginia could do with a man who would work for nothing and add $212 million to its industrial payroll.” Three state representatives from Missouri sent Rockefeller a telegram informing him that, “In the event they don’t want you in Arkansas, we welcome you to Missouri, and bring some of those plants with you.”
Many in Arkansas were also sympathetic. The Harrison Daily Times said, “Some Arkansas legislators are wanting to shoot the state’s Santa Claus,” but “Rockefeller’s efforts and money have been the best assets Arkansas ever had.” Forrest City’s Daily Times Herald agreed that, “the past ten years under the leadership of Mr. Rockefeller should delight every intelligent citizen of our state.” Warren’s Eagle Democrat told readers, “Winthrop Rockefeller — his name, his influence, his contacts — have meant more to Arkansas industrialization than any other group of factors.” On the University of Arkansas campus, students hung an effigy of Faubus and anti-Rockefeller General Assembly members from a tree. The Arkansas Gazette concluded, “Across Arkansas a groundswell of public support for the embattled Winthrop Rockefeller shows how sadly his enemies misjudged the popular appreciation for Mr. Rockefeller’s investments in and his services to the state.”
Once again, Faubus and his allies in the Arkansas General Assembly were forced to back down. But the writing was on the wall: Faubus continued to put pressure on Rockefeller to resign. He packed the AIDC with his own cronies and tightened the fiscal reins, making Rockefeller’s position untenable. On March 28, 1964, Rockefeller submitted his resignation as AIDC chair to Faubus. “Off and on over the past months I felt for a variety of reasons that perhaps the time had come when I should offer my resignation from the [AIDC] where I have served for more than eight years as Chairman,” he wrote. “I have finally come to the conclusion that now is the moment, and I would by this letter request that I be relieved of this responsibility as of the first of April.”
Rockefeller summarized his achievements in his eight years with the AIDC: “Approximately 90,000 new jobs since 1955, yielding a net increase of more than 50,000. The additional industrial jobs represent approximately $270 million of annual payroll. General state revenues have increased by better than 50 percent. The per-capita income has increased approximately $600. In the year 1961 over 1960 the increase was at a rate of 8 percent and led the nation. In excess of 600 new plants have moved to the State, and on all sides existing industry is expanding. Something in the neighborhood of $100 million has been spent in capital construction.”
Rockefeller ran as a Republican against Faubus in the November gubernatorial election but lost against a firmly entrenched Democratic machine. Two years later, after Faubus bowed out, Rockefeller ran against and beat Democratic candidate Jim Johnson. Rockefeller became the first Arkansas Republican governor in 92 years. In two successive terms in office he advanced a reform agenda that, among other things, promoted African Americans in state government and looked to improve race relations, tackled the state’s archaic prisons system and effectively suspended the death penalty, and continued to push economic development and two-party politics.
Over a period of 16 years between becoming AIDC chair in 1955 and leaving office as governor in 1971, Rockefeller played a transformational role in the Arkansas economy and in its social and cultural infrastructure. His lasting impact on Arkansas politics was evident in the sea change in the Democratic Party that dumped the ideologue segregationist candidates of the past in favor of new and more progressive leadership, many of whom continued Rockefeller’s reform legacy. At a time when Arkansas was mired in economic problems, racial strife and entrenched one-party politics, and the social and cultural backwardness that came with them, Rockefeller’s brand of moderate Republicanism provided a much-needed tonic for the state.
As historian James C. Cobb explains, economic progress cannot guarantee progress in other areas “unless those who seek a developed economy are equally committed to a developed society as well.” In Arkansas, Rockefeller brought with him a commitment to change in other areas beyond the economy that ensured industrialization would bring with it a more broadly encompassing set of changes. He sought out and partnered with many other like-minded and sympathetic groups that shared his vision for a more democratic and forward-looking Arkansas. It was this coalition of interests that was influential in pushing a broad-based agenda for reform in the 1960s on a number of fronts that opened up, if only tentatively and temporarily, the promise of making Arkansas one of the most innovative and dynamic of the Southern states.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and Department Chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is currently working on the first full-length biography of Winthrop Rockefeller.