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Americans for Democratic Action

American political organization that lobbied for liberal-democratic values at home while taking a firm anticommunist line abroad. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) emerged from a January 1947 conference in Washington, D.C., of prominent New Deal activists, leftist intellectuals, journalists, and trade unionists, some of whom had been members of a smaller World War II group, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA). The impetus for their meeting was the recent creation of former Vice President Henry Wallace's Progressive Citizens of America movement, which had clearly staked a bid for the institutional leadership of the American Left.

While there was little disagreement among the ADA founders and Wallace's Progressives on broad questions of domestic policy, they differed sharply on foreign affairs, specifically on the issue of Soviet relations. The ADA's position was that any compromise with a totalitarian state, no matter what its socialist credentials, would bring about the moral corruption of liberal principles championed in the United States. One of the first acts of the group was therefore a strident rhetorical drive against Wallace's third-party candidateship in the 1948 presidential election, with charges that the Progressives were communist stooges. This developed ironic overtones when the ADA was itself accused of being a communist front by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy two years later.

In its early years the ADA had no shortage of high-profile leaders, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Hubert Humphrey, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. It even boasted as a founding member the well-known Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, then a liberal New Dealer. The group's difficulty lay in expanding its membership beyond the narrow confines of the upper-middle-class, predominantly East Coast elite. Initial collaboration with unions such as the United Auto Workers and the Textile Workers of America faltered in the 1950s as the traditional labor politics (and social conservatism) of the unionists diverged from the civil rights priorities of the ADA's academic and professional supporters. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had given important financial aid to the early ADA, merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955, it rerouted these contributions to its own political action committees. Thus, blue-collar support dwindled, and the group's coffers never recovered from the loss of union contributions.

Perhaps the ADA's biggest challenge was the conflict between its liberal ideals and its party pragmatism. Although officially nonpartisan, in practice the organization operated from the left of the Democratic Party platform, which often meant endorsing electoral candidates and policies with which it disagreed. The ADA found it difficult to strike the right balance between criticizing Democrats who paid insufficient attention to civil rights while at the same time denying Republicans gains at the polls. For example, the group took an ambivalent line on President Harry Truman's 1947 Loyalty Program and was less than supportive of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation for fear of scaring away Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats) from the national party.

As with so many other American Cold War institutions, however, it was the Vietnam conflict that brought the ADA's internal contradictions into full-blown crisis. The group had been a strong supporter of the John F. Kennedy presidency, with several members holding important posts in the administration, and President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited this enthusiastic backing upon his accession in 1963, particularly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1964 announcement of his Great Society program. But Johnson's increasingly hawkish line in Vietnam discomfited many members, and disagreement brewed within the ADA between those who saw Vietnam as a cautionary extension of the anticommunist containment policy and others who viewed it as illiberal aggression.

The ADA stuck to the Democratic mainstream in the 1964 election and declined to take part in the following year's antiwar mass protest in the capital. But by 1968 there was little remaining enthusiasm for Vietnam within the movement, and an open split emerged between moderate (though lukewarm) supporters of Hubert Humphrey's presidential candidacy and those reform liberals rallying around Allard Lowenstein, who opted instead for the antiwar campaign of Eugene McCarthy. These internal battles resulted in a transfer of membership, as more traditionalist campaigners left and were replaced by younger but less politically connected radicals. ADA influence within the Democratic Party consequently dwindled, and although the organization survived into the 1970s and beyond, it was henceforth relegated to the political margins.

Alan Allport

Further Reading
Gillon, Stephen M. Politics and Vision: The ADA and American Liberalism, 1947–1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.; Kleinman, Mark L. A World of Hope, a World of Fear: Henry A. Wallace, Reinhold Niebuhr, and American Liberalism. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

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