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Milwaukee Bucks

How a Midwestern industrial fortune changed American politics

In 1958 and 1959, in a dozen cities across the country, groups of businessmen huddled behind closed doors to hear a candy manufacturer’s panicked warning. America was in peril from communism, he disclosed, but not in the way that many supposed. The red hordes were not at the gates—they were poisoning the United States from within. The civil rights movement, the unions, wayward educators: All these were working to deliver the USA to the reds. The candy man delivered his message with passion, and it took. His audience, chiefly small-time or middling manufacturers, had felt their blood pressure rise steadily in line with government’s expansion since the New Deal. They didn’t need much persuading to believe the speaker’s labyrinthine conspiracy theories. Indeed, many heeded his call and enlisted in the organization he founded to spread the alarm. The speaker was Robert Welch and the organization was, of course, the John Birch Society.

One of the most smitten in Welch’s audience was Harry Bradley, the top executive of the Allen-Bradley Company of Milwaukee, a maker of electronic controls. So inspired was he by one meeting that upon returning home he fired off a letter to Clarence Manion, the McCarthyite dean of the Notre Dame law school, whose desire to upend the liberal consensus of the day would drive him to agitate for a Goldwater presidential bid in 1960. “The reaction of all the participants was, I felt, strongly favorable,” Harry wrote. “I know that for myself the two-day period constituted one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

A square, a paranoid, a Cold War Dinosaur: Harry Bradley is an easy guy to mock.

Bradley might not have been exaggerating his depth of feeling when he wrote these words. If anti-Communism and laissez-faire economics were the mid-century businessman’s chief articles of faith, Harry was a zealot. He was the kind of man who lined his shelves with sober titles such as Brain Washing in the High Schools, Roosevelt’s Road to Russia, and McCarthyism: The Fight for America. He greeted Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to our shores with an ad in the Wall Street Journal reminding the nation that to the Russian boss, “‘Peace and Friendship’ means the total enslavement of all nations, of all the peoples, of all things, under the God-denying Communist conspiracy of which he is the current czar.” He didn’t have much time for the New Deal and its legacies, either, and supported right-wing Republican candidates from Robert Taft to Barry Goldwater.

That was Harry: a square, a paranoid nut job, a dinosaur, a manufacturing chief. It’s easy to regard him as a pathetic reminder of the way we were—until one pauses to reflect that Harry would have liked how American politics turned out in the coming decades. Pesky unions were beaten down. Government’s biggest domestic job—pursued more assiduously than homeland defense—became cutting taxes. Deregulation and privatization came to be invoked to solve real and imagined crises. Yes, the shift in the country’s business and political climate no doubt would have heartened Harry Bradley, who died in 1965. He would have been happier still to know that a key part in the counterrevolution was played by an organization that bears his and his brother’s names. The biggest sugar daddy of the American right since its founding in 1985, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has dispensed tens of millions of dollars to make Harry’s once desperate dreams a reality.


Harry entered business in 1903 when he joined Lynde at the electronics company his inventive brother had started with $1,000 in seed money from Stanton Allen. After years of scraping by, Allen-Bradley hit the jackpot selling motor control products during World War I. Business roared in the twenties. Like all manufacturers, Bradley was hammered during the early years of the Depression. But unlike thousands of manufacturers during those days, Allen-Bradley survived and was on the rebound by 1935. Economic turmoil wasn’t the only specter haunting Harry. He grappled with another primal fear: that someone else, be it FDR’s damnable New Deal bureaucrats or the insurgent unions organizing Milwaukee’s factory workers, would tell him how to run his business. Unions in particular frightened him, and he worked hard to prevent them from getting a foothold. Besides engaging in the typical anti-union skullduggery, the company tried to woo its workers with generous fringe benefits—a reading room, Tuesday lunch hour concerts, and other early twentieth-century versions of Casual Friday. Harry also made a heartfelt plea to his employees that a “direct personal relationship with the management … is more satisfactory than any relationship through a union.”

Unfortunately for him, his workers—perhaps with past pay cuts in mind—disagreed. In 1937 Bradley’s workers voted in not just any union, but one of the most militant: the United Electrical and Radio Workers of America. The Bradley brothers were even more shaken when workers struck—ultimately unsuccessfully—against the company’s “open shop” policy. Poor Harry was booed by picketers; Lynde, according to the corporate history, looked down on the strikers from a window, saying, “What do they want?”

While thousands of factory owners across the country grappled with a distressingly restive workforce, the pain arguably was more acute in Milwaukee. Not only were unions strong in the “nation’s toolbox”—Allis-Chalmers, the state’s biggest employer, was a hotbed of militant unionism—but the city government itself had been hijacked in the early years of the century by honest-to-god Socialists. It was enough to force even a confirmed conservative to make a hard right turn, and plenty did. William Grede, owner of a major foundry of the same name, was a founding member of the Birch society (today the company’s website baldly declares that unions have no place on the floor). Local industrialist William Brady would declare that capital “was man’s best friend” and gripe that “unions do not create wealth. Their only purpose is to impose requirements and responsibilities on you that they have absolutely no obligation to fill.”

Harry Bradley wasn’t the kind who was content to merely grumble about big gum-mint over martinis at suburban parties. Along with Fred Loock, his right hand man and the real manager of the company, Harry sought nothing less than to wield Allen-Bradley’s assets, human and financial, as weapons against Joe Stalin and his useful idiots in Washington. A 1952 memo Loock sent to employees summed up this apocalyptic worldview: “At the rate our government is spending—and we are paying—it won’t be long before all money in excess of bare living will be taken away from us in Taxes, and except for the bureaucrats, you and I and everyone else will have become ‘slaves of the state’—a title no one should be proud of.” Indeed, he asserted, “we in this country are much farther along on the road to complete socialism than most of us are aware of.”

The pair’s fight to defend profits and the American Way came into high relief during the 1950s, as the Republican Party’s conservative fringe chafed under Eisenhower. Allen-Bradley supported the National Review, which gave the far right a voice that was witty and urbane, as opposed to cracked and scary like the Birchers. (Harry was entranced with using the media to advance his politics. Bradley sponsored right-wing radio host Bob Siegrist, whose labor-bashing rants were broadcast across the Midwest. And, according to the Bradley corporate history, Harry once tried to buy the Milwaukee Sentinel and Newsweek.)

But Harry and Loock didn’t just let their money talk. They also instilled the free-market ethos among management (a bit selectively, it would appear, as the company was nailed for price fixing in 1961) and rallied them to get involved in the political process. The company regularly dragged in political organizer Clif White (who would master-mind the effort to draft Barry Goldwater in 1964) to run seminars that whipped pencil pushers into rabid Republicans and, sometimes, politicians. Welch was called in to fire up the troops at sales meetings.

With Goldwater losing in 1964, it didn’t seem like a world for Harry.

Harry was placed in a sanitarium in July 1960 after months of baffling and confrontational behavior. Fred Loock made sure that the company hewed to the boss’s line in his absence. During Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid—which presaged the Republican Party’s shift to the hard right—Loock dumped copies of A Choice Not an Echo and None Dare Call It Treason onto his sales force with a note saying these potboilers “ought to be required reading.” He also called for their distribution to “those many doubting Thomases who still insist that ‘it can’t happen here.’” Loock cancelled advertising in The Saturday Evening Post after it ran an editorial knocking Goldwater.

Goldwater was annihilated in the 1964 presidential contest. Republicans got rolled in congressional contests as well. Indeed, between Goldwater’s apparent willingness to drop the big one and exposés of the Birchers’ paranoia, most Americans were terrified of the right. Worse yet, Lyndon B. Johnson was talking about building a Great Society and making the Fourteenth Amendment mean something.

It didn’t seem like a world for Harry, who died at the age of eighty in July 1965. His mourners couldn’t be blamed if they suspected his investment of time and money in the movement had been wasted.


Such an appraisal would have been premature, however. Ronald Reagan’s 1966 election as governor of California proved that there was life to the right after Goldwater’s humiliation. And the opposition of Southern whites to the civil rights acts, along with the popular revulsion toward unwashed hippies and fear of crime, gave Republicans a base to build on. The emergence of the neoconservatives—ex-liberals or -leftists who’d seen the light—gave conservatism a patina of intellectual respectability. And while Richard Nixon in the Oval Office couldn’t compare to the dream of a Goldwater White House, he wasn’t Hubert Humphrey. And he sure as hell wasn’t George McGovern.

But conservatives still lived in fear. Social movements from environmentalism to feminism threatened the nation’s laws and businesses. Ralph Nader was flying the consumer flag and unions were getting uppity. Things were falling apart. The American Way needed a defender. And a rising chorus of voices, including leading neocon Irving Kristol, declared it was a job for business.

Corporate America, by and large, had stayed out of the country’s political and cultural battles after the humiliation of the Great Depression. But this was no longer an option, according to Lewis F. Powell Jr., a Virginia corporate lawyer who served on the boards of eleven companies. In 1971, on the eve of his elevation to the Supreme Court, he did what any respectable executive would do when faced with a crisis: He wrote a memo—in this case a memo that predicted how the right would seek to set the terms of national debate.

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” Powell asserted in his legendary note to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But it wasn’t the Yippies who were the real threat: It was the “hostility of respectable liberal and social reformers. It is the sum total of their views and influence which could indeed fatally weaken or destroy the system.” So far business leaders had “shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics, and little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate.” But that had to change. The Chamber, Powell proposed, should enlist a staff of scholars and speakers (“preferably attractive, articulate, and well-informed”) to defend the market and provide a counterweight to slanted professors; monitor textbooks and the media for bias; churn out books upholding the system to counter works “advocating everything from revolution to erotic free love”; and hire lawyers to press business interests in the courts.

The objectives of all this think tankery would have been familiar to right-wingers of Harry’s vintage.

The U.S. Chamber didn’t act on Powell’s suggestions, but others took his warning to heart. The memo “stirred up” right-wing beer baron Joseph Coors, who shelled out $250,000 to launch a Washington-based think tank called the Analysis and Research Association—known now as the Heritage Foundation. Heritage soon began sucking in millions in donations from Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and other spiritual descendants of Harry. Within fifteen years, a phalanx of other think tanks, foundations, and legal action groups were checkbooked into existence by business interests. Older standard bearers, such as the American Enterprise Institute, got in step with the new direction. The scent of money quickly attracted swarms of bright young conservative things, not to mention established scholars, eager to cross swords with the libs.

Soon America was treated to the spectacle of tax-subsidized propaganda mills that attacked the various gains and protections that working people had won over the past century. Legal foundations assailed environmental regulations. Think tanks derided unions, denounced social programs, praised hostile takeovers, and called for rolling back taxes for the rich. The Cato Institute started calling for the privatization of Social Security. At the Heritage Foundation, larval wonks churned out position papers on hundreds of topics assembly-line style. Despite their lofty titles, these think tanks were not models of intellectual rigor or honest inquiry. “We’re not here to be some kind of PhD committee giving equal time,” a Heritage vice president declared in 1986 to The Atlantic Monthly. “Our role is to provide conservative policy makers with arguments to bolster our side.”

The objectives of all this think tankery would have been familiar to right-wingers of Harry’s vintage. But the unseemly red-baiting of the past had been ditched. Now rhetoric focused on enhancing opportunity and freedom for all. Still, for years Heritage and its ilk were beyond the pale of serious discourse. It took the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to put this demimonde in the driver’s seat of policy. The Reagan Administration adopted a wide range of think-tank proposals for remaking government. Just as importantly, think tankers were hired to fill policy positions in the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Think tanks also provided sinecures for old government hands. By the time Newt Gingrich unveiled the Contract With America in 1994, the winger ideosphere had become a political ascendancy.

One of the young stars of this movement was Michael Joyce. Born in 1942 to an Irish-Catholic family in Cleveland, Joyce grew disaffected with his clan’s Democratic politics and in 1972 voted for Nixon. He made another switch soon after, leaving the teaching profession to take the top job at the Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore. But it was in 1978 that he truly began his ascent in the neocon universe, moving to New York to head up the Institute for Educational Affairs, an organization Kristol and former Treasury Secretary William Simon founded to provide cushy thinking jobs for right-wing college students and other young conservatives. (In 1988, the institute started Dinesh D’Souza on his lifelong addiction to foundation cash by giving him a $30,000 taste for a book project.) The next year Joyce hit the big time when Simon tapped him to head the John M. Olin Foundation, an offshoot of a family chemical and munitions business that was one of the premier funders of the right. As further proof that the working-class kid from Cleveland was made, he was appointed to the Reagan transition team in 1980.

A compact and pugnacious super-Catholic, Joyce had a taste for controversy and unshakeable confidence in himself and the cause. “To the extent that the neoconservative movement has any strength,” he said in 1985, “it’s not in numbers, but in sparking debate.” Spark it he did when Olin bankrolled sociologist Charles Murray to write Losing Ground. Published in 1984 and backed by a PR blitz, the book argued that welfare didn’t ameliorate or end poverty, it merely encouraged laziness and urban pathology. Loaded with charts, the book was a hit with the Reagan White House and its message was embraced by a wide swath of the media—notwithstanding the fact its argument relied on dubious statistics, flawed methodology, and bogus claims. Debunked but not discredited, Murray’s arguments were to help shape the welfare reform debate of the early nineties.


The conservative movement already had plenty of reliable millionaire donors when the shareholders of Allen-Bradley sold out to the defense conglomerate Rockwell International in 1985. For Milwaukee, whose industrial core had been decimated by the recession of the early 1980s, the sale was yet another blow to civic pride. But it turned out to be a windfall for the right wing.

To fulfill Harry’s right-wing mission, the Milwaukeeans brought in the dynamic Michael Joyce, who blasted away at creeping socialism wherever it could be found or imagined.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the sale was the Allen-Bradley Foundation. Created in 1942 after Lynde died, the foundation gave primarily to hospitals, colleges, and youth organizations. (Being part of the Bradley world, it also disbursed cash to wingnut groups like the Manion Forum, the Freedoms Foundation, and Morality in Media). At the time it was just another podunk foundation with about $14 million in assets. But as the sole beneficiary of the Margaret Loock Trust (the wife of Fred), the sale inflated the foundation’s assets to more than $290 million.

The foundation proceeded to sever its ties to the manufacturer, becoming the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. But the biggest shift was in its mission. Under the guidance of chairman I. Andrew “Tiny” Rader and director William Brady (who in 1956 had started his own foundation, which grandly took the motto “Ideas have consequences”), the Bradley Foundation would shift its scope of operations from provincial Milwaukee to national policy. As Rader explained: “The principles Harry believed in gave us the strongest economy, the highest living standard, and the greatest individual freedom in the world. We felt that it was our task to do everything we could do to preserve those principles.”

Acting on Harry’s principles meant funding winger schemes. And to fulfill this mission, the Milwaukeeans brought in the dynamic Michael Joyce. Joyce made full use of his expanded arsenal, blasting away at creeping socialism wherever it could be found or imagined. Joyce and Bradley established ties with conservative heavyweights from Bill Bennett to William Kristol and swiftly gained a reputation as a central force of the conservative movement. Upon Joyce’s retirement in 2001, a Wall Street Journal editorial spoke for many when it gushed, “There’s scarcely a part of America’s culture that Bradley hasn’t touched—and left the better for it.” Joyce died in 2006.

This praise wasn’t hyperbole. The foundation has poured tens of millions of dollars onto a wide range of conservative causes, money that simply hadn’t been available before. From 1985 to 2003 it funneled $13.2 million into the Heritage Foundation and $15.9 million into the American Enterprise Institute, the two chief conservative think tanks, according to figures from Media Transparency. It also fronted $2.2 million for the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal frat that numbers forty thousand lawyers and business people (plus five thousand law students), and whose membership rolls include such illustrious government officers as Ted Olson, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and many, many more. The group held a conference in 2001 called “Rolling Back the New Deal.” Millions more have been handed out to a rogues’ gallery of cranks, ranging from Paul Weyrich, who still bemoans the Communist infiltration of the New York Times, to David Horowitz, the self-promoting terror of college newspapers.

Joyce played no small role in the right-wing sniping of the early nineties, when a constellation of talk radio chin-waggers and think tank scribblers upped the ante of political attacks on liberalism. It supported the publisher of the American Spectator, fount of some of the nuttiest attacks on Bill Clinton. In 1992 it slipped nearly $12,000 to Heritage so it could provide sustenance for David Brock as he expanded an article bashing Anita Hill and defending Clarence Thomas into his notorious book The Real Anita Hill.

Bradley also dished out $1 million to Joyce’s old comrade Charles Murray as he and Richard Herrnstein ground out The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Published in that revolutionary year of 1994, the book purported to demonstrate through regression analysis that poor folks—particularly African-Americans—were at the bottom of the heap because they were dumb. Launched with a massive publicity blitz, the book received some favorable, if heavily caveated, reviews from conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and William Bennett. The New Republic actually treated it as a matter worthy of serious discussion.

Bradley also subsidized the intellectual spadework that would one day come to fruition in the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. As detailed in an April 2003 article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Bradley was a significant funder for William Kristol’s New Citizenship Project Inc., which created the Project for a New American Century. This group, which included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and I. Lewis Libby, was an early advocate of imposing regime change on Iraq, a position it articulated well before 9/11.

Bradley has also thrown some swag to the hawkish Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf. The American Enterprise Institute, one of Bradley’s favorite wards, has provided much of the theorizing behind White House policy. And Bradley has long been a supporter of Harvard University’s John M. Olin Center for Strategic Studies, which was led until 2000 by Samuel P. Huntington, whose The Clash of Civilizations has nourished a Manichean view of conflict between the Islamic world and the West. On the home front, it has funded Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, which has blasted college professors and students for opposing the war in Iraq.

But Bradley’s obsessions have always been rolling back and discrediting the public sphere and encouraging the privatization of public services. It has chosen its most prominent fights on its home turf of Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Bradley has looked upon the city and state as free-market “reformers” eyed post-Soviet Russia: as patients on which to test their most radical treatments. Thus did the home of La Follette and the Milwaukee Socialists become a laboratory for right-wing economics.

The fight to privatize welfare—in which Wisconsin was way out in front of the rest of the country, a distinction for which most observers credit Bradley—demonstrates how the foundation’s bucks influenced the debate. Bradley was a major funder of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which routinely bashed the welfare system. It also poured $4.2 million into the Hudson Institute, the Indianapolis think tank that smoked up the so-called Wisconsin Works program. Right-wing talk show host Charlie Sykes, who has been on the Bradley payroll, flacked the Bradley-funded program. (Wisconsin Works, sold as a way “to build a bridge to meaningful work for the poor,” and pushed through by a Republican governor, has produced results that fall far short of its advertising. While the executives of private agencies administering the program have seen their paychecks skyrocket, “clients” have not been placed in good jobs. A study published in May 2006 found that few earned enough through work and benefits to rise above the poverty line.)

Meanwhile, Bradley has moved on to another neocon cause célèbre in Milwaukee, shelling out more than $15 million to support Milwaukee’s school voucher program, paying legal bills to defend it in court challenges and establishing scholarship programs. While originally sold as a means of improving the lot of minority inner-city kids—and Bradley did tap into genuine concerns about the state of schools—Joyce clearly viewed the voucher program as a means of broadly undermining public education. “It is my opinion this will be a hot story,” Joyce wrote to Kristol, then Vice President Quayle’s chief of staff, as recounted in Nina J. Easton’s Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy. “It pits poor, unorganized urban minority parents against the established power of school bureaucracies, unions, old line civil rights organizations, and the advocates of special interests.” (Joyce himself didn’t mind middle-class or rich kids participating in voucher programs and said: “I don’t think public funds should be used to support schools at all. Public funds should be used to support the parents’ provision of education for their children.”) The heat continues, more than ten years after the program took root. Milwaukee public schools haven’t collapsed as some doomsayers predicted. But vouchers have drained sorely needed resources from a cash-strapped school system. And there’s an ongoing fight to expand access to the program beyond the poor kids it was ostensibly designed to save.

Thus did the home of La Follette and the Milwaukee Socialists become a laboratory for right-wing economics.

Bradley wielded its cash to reorder domestic social policy, but it also aimed to change the very vocabulary of public policy discussions. Chroniclers of the conservative movement during the eighties such as Gregg Easterbrook have noted how right-wing think tanks and intellectuals redefined the national dialogue about the role of the private and public sectors and the relation of capital to society. Their efforts went a long way toward creating a consensus view that the market was the best solution to society’s ills. Local organizations, the Bradleyans believe, are the ones best equipped to tackle local problems, and faraway governments can only muck things up. Indeed, Joyce and his henchmen loved to blame the Progressives and Herbert Croly for many of today’s social breakdowns, arguing that turn-of-the-century calls for a national community wiped away a utopian world in which community-based organizations wisely dealt with problems from the neighborhood drunk to juvenile delinquents. It’s a worldview that calls to mind Marx’s illustrations of a communitarian prehistory, and it’s just about as realistic. Churches and private local institutions just know the needy better than any bureaucrat ever could, and they are motivated by a quality no bureaucrat could ever have: compassion.

Bradley thus played a crucial role in introducing one of the most risible currents of American conservatism. Marvin Olasky, a born-again professor of journalism at the University of Texas, was a Bradley Fellow at Heritage when he wrote The Tragedy of American Compassion, which, upon its publication in 1992, introduced the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” Olasky’s thesis is that charity worked great when it was run by churches that “suffered with” the poor and made them work for their gruel; charity went to hell when religious groups and governments began to regard welfare as a right, not a privilege. For compassionate preachers like Olasky, deindustrialization, racism, poor education, and urban rot are not meaningful topics when discussing poverty; nor are the ways in which social factors have shaped charity and relief programs. What matters to Olasky are anecdotes illustrating how private charity is good and government (some aspects excepted) is bad. Tough-love church charities that force the indigent to chop wood for their keep have the right idea. Olasky’s book caught the eye first of Newt Gingrich and then of political operative Karl Rove, who made it part of George W. Bush’s rhetorical repertoire.

Dismantling the safety net in the name of compassion: It’s a subtler argument than likening the New Deal to the Bolsheviks’ NEP—and a more effective one than anything thought up by the Goldwaterites. Who’s against compassion? Indeed, the Bradley Foundation court history takes pains to draw distinctions between the thinking of Harry Bradley and the brain trust now ensconced at the foundation bearing his name:

The conservatives of Harry Bradley’s era tended to be tract writers and podium thumpers, long on convictions but short on intellectual curiosity. Joyce is quite the opposite. He is careful, first of all, to distinguish between ideologies and ideas. An ideology, any ideology, begins and ends as a faith, an object of simple moral commitment. Ideas, on the other hand, begin as potential truths; they are the morally neutral medium of intellectual discovery…. It is the world of ideas that Joyce and his associates navigate. In contrast to the religionists of the 1950s, they operate with the intellectual precision of theologians.

One wonders what, say, Thomas Aquinas would have thought about the Bradley Foundation propping up a hack like Murray. Yet in their professions of distance from the raving right-wingers of the past, one senses that the foundation of today protests a little too much. To be sure, ideas have consequences—but only if they are ultimately translated into action. And if the cool thinkers of today are accomplishing the ends desired by Harry and other hothouse wingers of the past, does it matter what intellectual constructs they use to achieve these ends?

In the past thirty years, the right has seized the mantle of reform and enlisted it in the cause of capital. Joyce and a host of think tank janissaries have stood the impulse of the Progressive Era on its head. Wielding corporate dollars and taking advantage of U.S. tax law, they have spent three decades rolling back the reforms working people won—and men like Harry Bradley opposed—in the century before. Harry is gone, but his money goes marching on.