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Feb 1, 1977

Oglesby & Sale, The Yankee and Cowboy War / Power Shift

“The Yankee-Cowboy model identifies within the national political-economic elite two groups, or “poles,” whose members hold fundamentally different world-views.”

The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate

By Carl Oglesby

Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment

By Kirkpatrick Sale


Reviewed by Alan Fairgate / Power Shift /Random House, 1975 / $12.95 / Yankee and Cowboy War / Sheed and Ward, 1976 / $4, pb; $12, hc


For many years now, the “Yankee-Cowboy” model of conflict within the national political-economic elite has been widely discussed within American radical circles. Originally developed in the late 1960s by Carl Oglesby, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, the model provided an extremely useful theoretical framework for analyzing the broader meaning of such prominent and traumatic political events as the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, the John F. Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s sudden and unexpected resignation and the Watergate crisis that precipitated the downfall of Richard Nixon. Oglesby argued forcefully that the significance of these events could not be grasped by considering them in isolation. Instead, he contended that they were manifestations of a far more fundamental tension that, in one form or another, has divided the political-economic elite governing America since the earliest days of our Republic, a tension that, in recent years, has contributed to growing political instability at the national level.

Oglesby’s early, fragmentary formulations of the Yankee-Cowboy model were presented in a series of articles appearing in such periodicals as theGuardian, Ramparts, and the Boston Phoenix. As a result, they did not receive wide attention among the general public, but they did capture the imagination of many radicals and libertarians who preceived the analytical insights of the model. Murray Rothbard was one of the first libertarians to recognize the importance of Oblesby’s model in his “Only One Heartbeat Away,” which appeared in the September 1974 Libertarian Forum.

The Yankee-Cowboy model identifies within the national political-economic elite two groups, or “poles,” whose members hold fundamentally different world-views.” The Yankees are those individuals concentrated in the old, established families of the Northeast whose power is derived from their control of Wall Street financial firms and vast, multinational corporations. These are the people who direct the affairs of the network of interlocking institutions that comprise the “Eastern Establishment.” Strongly Anglophile, the Yankees perceive the North Atlantic industrial community as the focus of their economic, political, and cultural interests. The Rockefellers, Morgans, Harrimans, and Dillons are some examples of Yankee families.

The Cowboys represent a second group within the national political-economic elite, and this group has its geographical foundations in the “Southern Rim” extending from Miami through New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Deriving their economic strength from such diverse “growth” sectors as petroleum, agribusiness, high-technology research and development, and defense contracting, the Cowboys have emerged as a major new power center contending for control of the national apparatus. The Cowboy members of the political-economic elite share a common cultural heritage that is largely derived from the frontier heritage of the West and that sharply distinguishes them from their Yankee associates. Unlike the Yankees, the Cowboys perceive the Pacific Basin as the focus for their essential interests and tend to be far more doctrinairely anti-Communist.

To drastically simplify a highly detailed analysis, Oglesby argues that the Kennedy assassination in 1963 represented a virtual coup d’etat within the political-economic elite, transferring leadership from the Yankee elements to the Cowboy elements represented by Johnson and Nixon. However, following growing disillusionment within the Yankee camp over the direction of the Vietnam War, the Yankee elements attempted to reassert their control within the national political-economic elite through a carefully orchestrated campaign to remove Nixon without revealing the full extent of covert activites by government agencies—in effect, a second coup d’etat.

In the past year, two books have been published that explore various aspects of the Yankee-Cowboy model in considerably greater detail than is possible here: Carl Oglesby’s The Yankee and Cowboy War and Kirkpatrick Sale’s Power Shift. The publication of these two books in such close succession ensures that the Yankee-Cowboy model will receive widespread public attention and should provoke a reexamination of many of the most prominent events of the past 15 years from this new perspective. For example, while Woodward and Bernstein provided us with extensive coverage of the events surrounding the Watergate crisis, in a very real sense they merely told us what happened; Oglesby has gone beyond this and very persuasively argued why it happened. Similarly, many authors have compiled evidence challenging the assumption that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy, but Oglesby has situated this evidence within an analytical framework that highlights the significance of the Kennedy assassination during a period of increasing tension within the political-economic elite. Earlier researchers concentrated on establishing that a conspiracy did exist; Oglesby provides a compelling explanation of the forces that gave rise to the conspiracy.

Sale’s Power Shift offers a somewhat different perspective on the Yankee-Cowboy model, and its most valuable contribution is a detailed discussion of the “six basic pillars of the cowboy economy: agribusiness, defense, advanced technology, oil and natural gas production, real estate and construction and tourism and leisure.” However, Sale’s analysis is seriously flawed by the tendency to present the reader with a false dualism involving and either-or choice between two undifferentiated regions: the Northeast v. the Southern Rim. Moreover, Sale displays a a pronounced bias in favor of the Northeast, leaving the reader with little doubt as to which protagonist he favors in the epic encounter between these two regions.

By persistently focusing on the role of political-economic elites, Oglesby manages to avoid much of Sale’s regionalist bias, and he calls upon the reader “to turn against Yankee, and Cowboy elites equally.” Oglesby, far more than Sale, appreciates that the Yankee-Cowboy model represents an attempt to analyze tensions within the national political-economic elite and that, the vast majority of the American people in both regions of the country are essentially victims of a power struggle which few of them fully understand. This is an extremely important distinction from the viewpoint of political strategy, since if Sale’s regionalist perspective is adopted, one would be tempted to write off the population of an entire region as morally bankrupt. On the other hand, Oglesby carefully distinguishes between the activities of the political-econoimic elites and the rest of the population, thereby appealing to constituencies in all regions to unite in rejecting the parasitic expansion of power favored by both Yankees and Cowboys.

As I have already indicated, a major portion of Oglesby’s Yankee and Cowboy War is devoted to a detailed analysis of two political events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Watergate crisis. Oglesby regards the Kennedy assassination as particularly significant, and he contends that, by politicizing this issue and demanding a reopening of the investigation into the assassination, a popular movement could be mobilized that may succeed in exposing at least one dimension of the rivalry between the Yankees and Cowboys.

It is unfortunate that Oblesby has only written one book, since he could have written at least two very valuable books on the Yankee-Cowboy model. The one that he did write clearly demonstrates the value of the model in interpreting the confusing and occasionally even chaotic events that have dominated the political scene over the past 15 years. By skillfully weaving historical detail and theoretical analysis into a coherent and compelling interpretation of two of the most dramatic events of this period, Oglesby establishes a persuasive case for the validity of his model.

The book that Oglesby did not write would have provided the reader with a more detailed and systematic elaboration of the Yankee-Cowboy model itself, tracing the origins of both elite groups, examining their early evolution and analyzing the full scope of the conflict that continues to separate them. Such a book might be characterized as an essay in historical sociology studying the institutional framework within which members of both groups are socialized into their roles, accumulate wealth and exercise power.

Unfortunately, despite a number of important insights into the foundations of the Yankee-Cowboy conflict, Sale’s Power Shift does not satisfy this need for a second book. By presenting a regionalist variant of the Yankee-Cowboy model, Sale instead has departed significantly from Oglesby’s original insights in a direction that threatens to weaken the radical content of the model. As a result, that second book remains to be written, hopefully by Oglesby himself, or, if not, at least by someone who will build upon the foundations that Oglesby has laid.