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The Other Brother Duo That Brought Us the Modern GOP

Darren Dochuk is associate professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and author of Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, recently published by Basic Books.

First, the brothers made a fortune in oil; then, they used it to attack the Democratic president eager to regulate their industry and to elect conservative candidates. They wanted to drive the moderates out of their party, and their money made sure that happened.

I’m not talking about the Kochs.

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David Koch’s death last week set off a new round of chatter about his and his brother’s impact on U.S. politics. It’s true they’ve had a big impact: Over the past four decades, David and Charles funneled profits from the family’s petroleum company, started by their father, into the Tea-Party Republican right. They might have soured on the populist and protectionist tendencies of Donald Trump’s Republican brand, but their imprint on the GOP remains indelible.

The Kochs, however, are just the latest in a long line of oil-rich brothers driving the Republican Party’s rightward march. The very first were the Pews, who, between the 1930s and 1960s, spent their oil fortune remaking the GOP in their libertarian and conservative Christian image.

Today, we associate the Pew name with moderate bipartisan organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust and Pew Research Center. But decades ago, J. Howard Pew and his brother Joseph N. Pew, Jr., made sure it stood for staunchly conservative principles and an unbending right-wing Republicanism. From the rise of the religious right to the death of the moderate Republican, it’s the Pews whose fingerprints are all over the modern GOP.

The Pews’ political ambition was driven by two bitter hatreds: Of Franklin D. Roosevelt and of the Rockefeller family.

The Rockefellers piqued the Pews’ rage from the very beginning. Their father, Joseph Newton Pew, struggled during the late 19th century to keep his company, Sun Oil (Sunoco), afloat in the corporate seas ruled by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Paralyzed by the predatory ways of the Standard monopoly (Standard controlled 90 percent of U.S. oil refining by 1890), the senior Pew prayed that his company would survive long enough to get reestablished in a new field, beyond the Rockefeller controlled oil patch of western Pennsylvania. Pew’s prayers were answered partly with the opening of the Lima pool in Ohio in the 1890s, and wholly with the 1901 Spindletop discovery in Southeast Texas. At first word of the Texas strike Pew set up drilling operations in Beaumont, the sleepy town near the gushing crude that became the bustling epicenter of the world’s new megafield. Sun Oil was now a player in the industry.

Sun’s ascent mirrored that of a host of independent oil companies whose fortunes thereafter would be tied to “Texas Tea.” Defined by their limited integrated capacities of production, refining and transportation, these independents also embraced the label for what it said about their wish to work outside (and against) the juggernaut of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the sector of “major” oil. By the mid-20th century, major oil would consist of seven integrated, multi-national firms, three of which were offshoots of the original Standard: Standard California (Chevron), Standard New Jersey (Exxon/Esso), and Standard New York (Mobil). Squashed by Standard in Pennsylvania, independent oilmen’s relocation west spawned a new reality for them and their industry. There, amid a “Gusher Age” (1900s-1940s) in the oil patches of the Southwest, they gained the ability to compete with the majors.

Their new corporate clout drew them into a fight with another foe: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Observing Roosevelt’s efforts to install an expansive New Deal for industry in hopes of restoring the nation’s economic health during the Great Depression, J. Howard Pew, who became Sun’s president in 1912, and Joseph N. Pew, Jr., who assumed its vice presidency that same year, grew enraged at what they considered a dictatorial attempt by Washington to squash the libertarian principles on which their company—and, they believed, their country—were built. But it was the New Deal’s encroachment on their corporate sector that truly animated them. Led by Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, the Roosevelt administration imposed regulations on an industry turned frantic by the gushing crude of East Texas, including price-fixing measures and costly conservation controls—measures that hurt small producers far more than the majors. Angered by Ickes, a man they reviled as friendly to big government and big oil, the Pews responded.

They did so with dead seriousness. Of Howard a U.S. senator quipped that the “stiff-necked, bushy-browed, six-footer” had the constitution of “an affidavit.” That constitution was on full display as the brothers turned into warring politicos in the 1930s, eagerly becoming the vanguards of the independents’ anti-statist revolt. Their company’s foothold in Texas and popularity among its citizens (the Pews were “square dealers,” locals chimed, contrasting them with Standard and Washington men) secured them that right to lead. Howard lectured widely to rally his peers. His most popular sermon was “The Oil Industry: A Living Monument to the American System of Free Enterprise,” which praised oilmen’s free-market heritage and painted their wars with New Dealers as a life struggle for America’s soul. “The persistent effort to bring industry, business, commerce and enterprise under government domination is a flat denial of all the lessons of the century and a half of the industrial age,” he inveighed. Pew told oilers they had a huge “part to play” in the takedown of tyranny.

Joseph H. Pew, Jr.

Joseph H. Pew Jr., a Philadelphia oil man and industrialist, appears June 12, 1940, before a congressional committee in Washington investigating wiretapping. (AP Photo) | AP Images

The Pews also poured money into media with intent to turn their lobbying into a popular movement. They bought newspapers, sponsored the Three Star Extra radio program on the NBC network, extended their leadership in business associations, and through these and other channels transmitted anti-Roosevelt doctrine into the average American home. In their quest to spread animus against the New Deal there were few more determined or well-to-do crusaders than the Pews, and while they would realize few immediate political payoffs, their efforts would help set the stage—and provide the institutional structure—for the GOP’s reconstitution in the post-World War II period.
At the time, though, the Pews were dogged in their grassroots action because national party politics did not yet provide space for them. To be sure, they tried to carve such space out. Joseph became active inside the Republican Party and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. From 1934 to 1940 he gave over $ 2 million to the party, representing one portion of Pew family donations to the GOP over the same time period. But the Pews could coax little return. In 1940, wanting a no-nonsense conservative like Ohio Senator Robert Taft to take the reins of the party as the presidential nominee, they were stuck instead with Wendell Willkie, a Democrat-turned-Republican centrist who spurned them. “I don’t know Joe Pew,” Willkie avowed publicly, “but I am 100 percent against his policy of turning the Republican Party back to the days of Harding and Coolidge,” referring to two presidents who had nurtured Taft’s brand of pro-business, anti-progressive politics in the 1920s. On another occasion Willkie even scorned Pew’s kind: “The good Lord put all this oil in the ground, then someone comes along who hasn’t been a success at doing anything else, and takes it out of the ground. The minute he does that, he considers himself an expert on everything from politics to petticoats.” Willkie mocked their power, and independent oil men promised never again to let a politician get away with that sin.

Their pledge to respond to Willkie in kind and roll back liberal forces both in the party and outside of it gained traction in the 1940s. Flourishing businesses during the war helped. Washington, ironically, was kind to the Pews. Thanks to lucrative federal contracts for Sun Oil’s fuel (the company would blend over a billion gallons of aviation fuel for the armed forces, outpacing even its main competitor, Standard New Jersey), annual income rose accordingly, from $ 131.5 million in 1939 to $ 600.8 million in 1944. With their coffers full of federal dollars, the Pews could expand their influence in other ways, with Howard in the lead. In 1947, after 35 years of bullish leadership, during which his company grew 40 times over, Howard resigned as Sun’s president; Joseph did so the same day. As chairman of the Board, Howard would continue to oversee corporate expansion, but going forward he would focus on fighting progressivism in politics, philanthropy, and church pulpits and pews.

That meant engaging an old enemy—the Rockefellers—on a new plane. By the late 1940s, Howard was not only bitter about major oil’s global expansion at the cost of U.S. domestic production (and with Washington’s privileging of that trend), but also about how the Rockefellers were reshaping society with their mammoth charity. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his sons were, by now, heading a multifaceted foundation that sought to provide humanitarianism and economic development on an international scale. In Pew’s mind, it was the Rockefellers’ brand of ecumenical, interdenominational and internationalist (“monopolistic”) Protestantism, and its prioritizing of science and structural reform over personal matters of the soul that was responsible for the nation’s secular slide. Determined to offset the Rockefellers’ modernistic gospel, in 1948 Pew helped his siblings incorporate the Pew Memorial Trust to “help meet human needs” through support of “education, social services, religion, health care and medical research,” then christened his own, the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, whose charge was even bolder: “to acquaint the American people with the values of a free market, the dangers of inflation, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “promote the recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom.”

Pew held nothing back when bankrolling allies who would help defend Christian libertarianism. During the 1950s he sent huge checks to agencies that shared his laissez-faire faith. Besides giving generously to Spiritual Mobilization, a Los Angeles–based libertarian lobby, and the Christian Freedom Foundation (CFF), based in New York, Pew reached out to same-thinking Catholics. Familiar, no doubt, with William F. Buckley, Sr.—a Texas Catholic who, his family fondly recalled, was “above all, an independent oilman in a world of oil Titans, whom he held in no awe”—Pew eagerly funded William F. Buckley, Jr.’s new conservatism. When, in 1955, the junior Buckley released the inaugural issue of National Review, its back cover carried several endorsements, none more glowing than Pew’s. Pew also gave generously to Catholic conservative schools and causes that his ally in the business Ignatius O’Shaughnessy, Fred Koch’s onetime partner, generously supported.

Pew channeled most of his funds to evangelical Protestant entities. Unlike Fred Koch, who, at the time, was also starting to steer his corporate profits and political energies toward anti-communist and anti-statist causes, Pew underscored the “Christian” in his libertarian ideology. That propensity grew out of his family’s ties to the Free Presbyterian Church, which broke from Old School and New School Presbyterian Churches in the 1840s over slavery. Anti-slavery to the core (their farm served as a way station on the Underground Railroad), the Pews rigorously protected personal liberty in theological terms. Howard continued that tradition in the Cold War years. While serving as chair of the National Lay Committee in the National Council of Churches (NCC), he agitated against the “collectivist” drift in Presbyterianism and America’s Protestant mainline.

He found another way to push back by funding pastors, seminaries and lobbies associated with “new evangelicalism,” the loosely coordinated movement that would lay the groundwork for the religious right. In one respect, new evangelicals sought simply to continue a fight against liberal “modernist” trends in American Protestantism and society that self-identified “fundamentalists” had waged in the previous half century. Thanks to the unmatched financial support of independent oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the brother tandem at the helm of Union Oil Company of California (whose own hatred of the Rockefellers knew no bounds), fundamentalists had proved highly successful at constructing an alternative infrastructure of churches, missionary agencies and schools that resisted progressivism’s pull. Yet new evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists, wanted to engage rather than recoil from mainstream society—they sought to redeem it rather than run from it. The number of institutions within the new evangelical orb that would benefit from Pew’s millions would be spectacularly large, including illustrious representatives such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals and evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his friends were known to lean on the “big boys” of southwestern oil for financing, among them the super-rich Sid Richardson and Hugh Roy Cullen. But J. Howard Pew was the biggest backer among them.

By the late 1950s, the phalanx of political action that Howard and his brother had constructed started to send notice to the Willkies of Republicanism that they were operating on borrowed time. The Pews and their peers in independent oil had by then given up on Dwight Eisenhower, a president they actively backed in 1952. Not only did he seem unwilling to protect their interests (his hesitancy to impose quotas on foreign oil was one point of contention), but he also refused to tack their ideological line from the center to the right. As a result, Howard bemoaned privately, “We are suffering today from a one-party system. … If you can find any difference between the Democratic Platform and the Republican Platform, you have a more discerning eye than I have.”

As the GOP primaries of 1964 approached, the Pews identified an antidote: Barry Goldwater. Although they rebutted claims of membership in the John Birch Society, which Fred Koch helped found, the Pews were just as anxious as Birchers to back the cowboy politician. Before his death in 1963, Joseph Pew would pour countless funds into Goldwater’s emerging campaign, while Howard would prove to be just as “overly generous” (as a Goldwater adviser would gush in a note of thanks) in his support of the candidate. Goldwater’s vanquishing of Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 GOP primaries gave Howard (as it would have given Joseph, had he lived just long enough to see it) exceeding pleasure, even if his defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in the general election proved that the conservative revolution had a ways to go.

The fact that Rockefeller Republicanism would meet its demise in subsequent years pleased Howard even more. Besides conjuring up bad memories of Sun Oil’s early struggles in the face of the Standard monopoly, the Rockefeller name represented a trend toward concentrated power and ideological compromise that Pew abhorred. As the 1968 election season unfolded he answered calls from conservative strategists to help Richard Nixon get elected. Nelson Rockefeller’s pondering of another run for the GOP nomination gave Pew extra incentive. “I do know much about Nelson Rockefeller,” he wrote an ally, and “he would be the worst man that I can think of for President of this Country of ours. To put a Republican in as President like Nelson Rockefeller, who supports all of the evils that have brought this Country to its knees, would be the most tragic thing that could happen to our Country.” Pew vented some more. “If we must continue these evil Democratic principles, let the Democrats destroy us. I have always voted the Republican Ticket, but if Rockefeller is our candidate, I shall either vote the Democratic Ticket or go fishing.” Rockefeller failed, again, and Pew could rest easy.

Now retired from Sun Oil’s Board, Pew’s involvement in the networks he funded intensified. Shortly after Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey, he joined movement conservatives at Nixon’s prayer breakfast in Washington to offer supplications on behalf of the new “silent majority.” Then, as a capstone of sorts for his philanthropic career, on July 4, 1970, he and Billy Graham oversaw “Honor America Day,” which brought 350,000 people to the Washington Mall in a show of Christian patriotism and traditional values. In no small way the celebration was a launch of the culture-war politicking of the 1970s. A year later, on November 27, 1971, Pew died at his home on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Graham offered a benediction at his funeral. That was only fitting. Pew had had nailed to his Sun office walls two portraits “of his most admired Americans”: one was of Herbert Hoover, the other of Billy Graham.

By the time of Howard’s death, the Pews’ renown as God’s bankrollers was being passed on to other independent oilmen, none more illustrious than the Hunt brothers of Dallas. Their petrofunds would pour into an ever-broadening and politicized evangelicalism that would spawn the religious right of the late 1970s and fuel its rise in Republican ranks during the 1980s. They would also ensure that the Pews’ fierce passions for God, liberty and black gold would continue to shape the religious impulses of an aroused American society. When the Koch brothers stepped to the fore in the early 2000s to back a Tea-Party Republicanism that called for patriotic marches on Washington and beseeched politicians to protect traditional family and fiscal values and (in Sarah Palin’s words) let oilers of the West “drill, baby, drill,” they tapped a sentiment running deep in American history—one that the Pews had taken advantage of decades before.

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