The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945; Prophets on the Right


The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George H. Nash, New York: Basic Books, 1976, 463 pp., $20.

Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism, by Ronald Radosh, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975, 351 pp., $9.95.

"Can the Vital Center Hold?—the concluding chapter of George Nash's fine history—raises important questions about the nature of the conservative intellectual tradition.

A 1970's neoconservatism has been forming from a coalition of conservatives and Vital Center—a phrase initiated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—cold-war liberals. The latter—mainly New York Jewish intellectuals, often ex-Trotskyists, Berkeley, Harvard, and NYU professors distressed by antiwar demonstrations—have adopted conservative inclinations while conservatives have accepted Vital Center policies. Nash singles out Irving Kristol as the leader in Vital Center neoconservatism and gives as the prime indicator Kristol's New York Times Magazine article, "Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship." There Kristol acknowledged the influence of the Straussian Walter Berns, whose work appeared in Kristol's The Public Interest.

Vital Center neoconservatism has found congenial Milton Friedman's negative income tax as well as "Friedman's suggestion that the economy be regulated by an automatic, fixed annual expansion of the money supply." But Vital Center neoconservatism excludes "doctrinaire laissez-faire purism." Kristol and William F. Buckley, Jr., have denounced the libertarian consistency of Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and Friedman. A quarter century ago Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s Vital Center included conservatives Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck, but not Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, John Chamberlain, or the Freeman because of their "fiery dogmatism."

Cold-war liberalism's exclusion of laissez-faire capitalism was also embraced by 1950's conservatives. Nash observes: "Nearly all of the leading new conservatives took pains to dissociate themselves from the 'nineteenth-century liberalism' that was also enjoying a new vogue on the Right." Kirk, for example, opposed materialistic businessmen and "the dogmas of Manchesterian economic theory."

In his first chapter, "The Revolt of the Libertarians," Nash considers the prospects for individualism in the early 1940's. War had brought a superstate, a controlled economy, and "success for a philosophy of 'tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.'" In America, the official goal following the war was "enhanced state power" to maintain war-created prosperity. Ludwig von Mises, who arrived in America in 1940, published both Omnipotent Government and Bureaucracy in 1944. Not capitalism, but war, Mises explained, produces socialism and totalitarianism. Mises was considered "uncompromising; one review called him 'Cato-like.'" In a 1944 review, however, University of Chicago Professor Henry Simons called him "the greatest living teacher of economics."

Meanwhile, in England, Mises's former student F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom (1944). Although it was rejected by several American publishers, the press at Robert Hutchins' University of Chicago—where Hayek would eventually teach—encouraged by Henry Simons, Aaron Director, Frank Knight, and John U. Nef, printed 2,000 copies (with an introduction by John Chamberlain). Due to a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review by Henry Hazlitt, a Mises associate, The Road to Serfdom became a bestseller. Political Scientist Charles Merriam, war-time vice chairman of the National Resources Planning Board, called Hayek's book "one of the strange survivals of obscurantism in modern times." But Hazlitt followed with Economics in One Lesson and Frank Knight with Freedom and Reform, "which argued forcefully a more or less Hayekian liberal position."

Of another University of Chicago professor, Richard Weaver, who was a major influence at this time, Nash notes: "Both Hayek and Weaver, in their separate domains, perceived the same phenomenon: the decline of the West as a result of the triumph of pernicious ideas. Each man was shocked by the experience of World War II." All his life Weaver was impressed by the role of war in the development of the collectivism surrounding him. The Second World War institutionalized the "totalism" of the First World War. As Weaver noted, "The advance toward totalism in this war certainly appears in the sweeping nature of the conscription practiced by all belligerents and in the way in which every phase of life—economic, financial, social, and cultural—was drawn into the struggle and made ancillary to war."

Weaver, "beginning to analyze the crisis the war had precipitated" sought to deduce "the fallacies of modern life and thinking that had produced this holocaust and would insure others." Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric, and Visions of Order were written because correct ideas "suffered not so much because of inherent defect as because of the stupidity, ineptness, and intellectual sloth of those who for one reason or another were presumed to have their defense in charge."

Nash also emphasizes the important role in the 1940's of the ideas of Albert Jay Nock and his associate, Frank Chodorov. Nock's works, especially Our Enemy, the State, influenced large numbers of intellectuals, including John Chamberlain, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk. Chodorov, "unabashedly antiwar and isolationist," published the monthly analysis. It "goes along with Albert Jay Nock in asserting that the State is our enemy, that its administrators and beneficiaries are a 'professional criminal class,' and interprets events accordingly. It is radical, not reformist." As examples of Chodorov's role, he brought James J. Martin in touch with the revisionist histories of Harry Elmer Barnes and John T. Flynn and convinced William F. Buckley, Jr., Murray Rothbard, and this reviewer of the consistency of pure libertarianism.

In 1954, H. Stuart Hughes of Harvard emphasized: "The publication ten years ago of F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, was a major event in the intellectual history of the United States.…it marked the beginning of that slow reorientation of sentiment—both in academic circles and among the general public—toward a more positive evaluation of the capitalist system which has marked the past decade."

What has happened since? Why has capitalist economics since then lost its primacy as an intellectual force? How did Keynesian liberalism stabilize and regain its initiative from the critiques of Mises and Hayek?

In the 1950's, political scientists like Harvard's Samuel Huntington held that Keynesian liberals "must be the conservatives in America today" to withstand the criticisms of laissez-faire individualism. The conflict was highlighted in a review of Hayek's Capitalism and the Historians (1954) by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. "Schlesinger denounced the book as a 'summons to a witch-hunt,' adding: 'Americans, one would think, have enough trouble with home-grown McCarthy's without importing Viennese professors to add academic luster to the process.'"

The cold-war liberals' hostility to the growing primacy of laissez-faire principles found common cause in the counterrevolution of the anti-individualist conservatives. "In a lengthy critique of Ludwig von Mises, dean of the Austrian School, Kirk warned of the dangers of rationalistic, atomistic capitalism and utilitarianism." Kirk, on reading Bureaucracy and The Road to Serfdom in 1944, had praised Austria's "great school of economists of a very different and much sounder mind." According to Nash, toward the end of the Second World War Kirk thought that to avoid the political effects of a postwar depression "the New Dealers would deliberately create an enemy abroad; it could only be the Soviet Union."

After graduate work at St. Andrews, Scotland, however, Kirk was influenced strongly by Edmund Burke and challenged the laissez-faire intellectual movement with an alternative focus in The Conservative Mind (1953). Kirk substituted Burke, Scott, Coleridge, Disraeli, Adams, Calhoun, Hawthorne, Brownson, Babbitt, and More, conservatives "routed" since 1789, for the individualism that started with the French Revolution. Starting with Burke's definition of Jacobinism—"the revolt of the enterprising talents of a nation against its property," that is, feudal "property" challenged by free market enterprise—Kirk accepted Keynes's statement that "it was the Benthamite calculus, based on an overvaluation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular idea."

In A Program for Conservatives (1954) Kirk strongly emphasized community against reason, capitalism, and industrialism. He found "the general theory of choice and preference" in Mises's Human Action radically deficient because of its basis in reason. "Hardly anyone but Dr. Ludwig von Mises and his intellectual ancestors of Manchester ever pursued beneficient social conduct upon the grounds of pure reason and pure utility. This is a doctrine which destroys itself in proportion as it is generally promulgated: once supernatural and traditional sanctions are dissolved, economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order. Prescription and prejudice are the defenses of justice and peace." In the conservatives' campaign to replace the leading role on the Right of the Misesian Freeman, Kirk declaimed: "It…subscribes to a kind of ossified Benthamism, preaches Cobden and Bright as Holy Writ, and is edited by a philosophical anarchist [Chodorov] who declares that government is an unnecessary evil and that radicals are the salt of the earth."

John Chamberlain, among others, decrying conservatism's attack on individualism, emphasized that "libertarians need 'not new authors' but 'supporting media'—especially a Saturday Review." Instead, the impact of libertarians and the Freeman of the 1950's disappeared, and new conservative magazines appeared. At the beginning of National Review's career there was conflict about individualism in a debate between Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk over John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Arrayed against libertarianism were Leo Strauss, Willmoore Kendall, Walter Berns, Harry Jaffa, and others who held that virtue, not freedom, is the goal of political life.

In contrast to Lockean individualism, Straussian political philosophy "was logically congenial with energetic government designed to improve the polis, inculcate virtue, and help man attain his 'natural' end. The nationalistic ideas of Union and of a powerful government determined to implement a 'proposition' fitted in very well with Straussianism. For in that conception of politics the libertarian distinction between state and society, between individual and polis (Union), broke down." Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (1960) was one response. Another was offered by Frank Meyer, who "emphasized the superiority of Christianity, with its Incarnation, its stress on the infinite worth of the individual, and its 'desanctification' of the State."

An intense debate surrounded National Review's criticism of Ayn Rand. The 1950's American Solzhenitsyn, Whittaker Chambers, denounced Ayn Rand as "godless" in "Big Sister is Watching You." "For all her opposition to the State, Rand, according to Chambers, really wanted society controlled by a 'technocratic elite.'" Chambers was supported by Kirk, Meyer, and Buckley, while Garry Wills declared, "When Galt asserts the immediate perfectibility of man (an achieved perfection in his own case), he is working from the first principle of historical Liberalism." But John Chamberlain and Murray Rothbard praised Ayn Rand's free market economics; and E. Merrill Root favored her literary skill and found her "metaphysical roots tended toward religion in spite of her denials."

The current Vital Center neoconservatives, drawn from Irving Kristol cold-war liberals and National Review conservatives, have found common cause also in foreign policy. When an anti-interventionist neoliberalism arose, "on foreign policy as on the campus issue, many conservatives found themselves defending what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had once called the 'vital center.'…an alliance of conservative and liberal internationalists was possible, in the face of the anti-internationalist enemy to the left." Cold-war liberals, whose policies the post-1945 Right most criticized, had become praiseworthy by the late 1960's: "One conservative duly noted that "Mr. Acheson's internationalism (Mr. Truman's internationalism for that matter) is in many ways closer to today's conservative position than to the left-wing isolationism of Eugene McCarthy and his supporters."

Nash attempts to analyze the contradiction in some conservatives' paying lip service by acknowledging "a domestic enemy, the State," while all conservatives view the State as an ally in foreign affairs. He notes that many of the conservatives had been Communists or Trotskyists, just as many of the cold-war liberals had been. "The conservative understanding of foreign affairs as a titanic conflict of ideologies, religions, and civilizations was decisively shaped by the former Communists and Trotskyists who dominated the National Review circle in its early years." Nash emphasizes that many conservative strategists are East European refugees; their presence in America reflects the defeat of their strategies in Europe. And he raises some hard questions: "Were these conservatives trustworthy analysts If they had been deceived by Communism once in their lives could they be depended on now?…Were not these people fanatics who longed for absolutes—first Communism, now Christianity and Western Civilization?"

These conservatives, full of caution about challenging the oppression of their own State, are reckless in their willingness to challenge someone else's. Concerning war and nuclear weapons, Frank Meyer declared: "Even granted the most horrendous estimates of the effects of their use, the preservation of human life as a biological phenomenon is an end far lower than the defense of freedom and right and truth." The conservative strategists' mind-set was summarized by William Schlamm when he said that the Communist "thrives on peace, wants peace, triumphs in peace." This was diametrically opposed to the Old Right, characterized by Herbert Hoover. Hoover had come out of the experience of World War I and the Soviet Revolution with the conclusion that collectivism thrives on war and that war creates the conditions in which people become convinced that communism is the solution for the economic crises caused by war.

Hoover could have used a "defense" scare to unify the country around him and reverse the depression by "legitimate" government spending on arms, at least until after the 1932 elections. As Harry Elmer Barnes noted: "In January, 1932, Secretary of State Henry Stimson openly played his Lucifer hand in Far Eastern diplomacy. He took Hoover to the mountain top and, even if he did not promise him 'all the kingdoms of this world,' he did make it evident that Mr. Hoover could recoup his political fortunes and have every prospect of reelection in the autumn if he would make war on Japan. But Hoover would have nothing to do with the idea."

A major omission in Nash's otherwise well-done book is his neglect of the Old Right. The Old Right came into existence in the 1930's, defending constitutionalism in the face of New Deal foreign and domestic policies. It took definite shape in opposition to Roosevelt's 1937 attempt to pack the Supreme Court immediately after his landslide reelection. The strength and confidence of the anti-court-packing coalition threw the New Dealers on the defensive, compounding the effects of the 1937 depression, which disproved Keynesian remedies. Roosevelt resorted to a foreign policy campaign with a huge military budget to prop up the economy.

The Old Right was unified around the isolationist opposition to American intervention in the Second World War. The Old Right opposed it and the cold-war because defense spending would institutionalize New Deal principles, would drain the productive resources of America, and would cause the American people to look to socialist solutions, preventing a consideration of laissez-faire.

The Committee for Constitutional Government, which lasted through the mid-1950's, is one of the important Old Right influences neglected by Nash. The post-1945 period witnessed the great debate between the revisionist historians and the "official historians." A work like Harry Elmer Barnes' Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace played a major role in right-wing thought. Herbert Hoover was a crucial supporter of post-1945 historical revisionism. The omission of the post-1945 decade-long Old Right tradition makes Nash's book incomplete at a crucial point. Ronald Radosh's Prophets on the Right is an indispensable remedy.

Richard Hofstadter was distressed that Charles Beard was a cold-war advisor to Hoover and Old Right isolationists. Ronald Radosh, in his brilliant chapters on Beard, answers: "It is not strange that Beard moved closer to such a man as Herbert Hoover. As President at a critical juncture in the nation's history, Hoover had refused to take America into war on behalf of the empire in Asia. That act alone allowed Beard to offer Hoover the kind of respect and admiration he could never have toward Franklin D. Roosevelt. Beard honored those Americans who waged a courageous opposition to unlimited presidential power."

Beard "insisted upon the interdependence of domestic and foreign affairs," that foreign policy had many times been formulated in response to domestic problems. He took as his text a passage from "Henry IV" (act 4), in which Henry counsels his son that peace would cause the people to "look too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry, be it thy course, to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels."

Beard's magesterial President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 was a major contribution to the Old Right tradition that Nash neglects. Radosh notes: "Beard, of course, was anti-Communist. But his moral opposition to totalitarian government did not lead him to support a holy crusade against such systems.…The totalitarian ideology of another nation was not sufficient reason to engage it in cold or hot war." Beard concluded that with the bipartisan cold war, "supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to an aleatory expedition in the management of the world."

Oswald Garrison Villard, owner of the laissez-faire Nation, began his journalism career as a spokesman against U.S. conquest of the Philippines for the Anti-imperialist League, founded by such laissez-faire leaders as Edward Atkinson and William Graham Sumner. Villard was impressed by Sumner's argument that war causes a constitutional government to take on the collectivism of its opposed statist regime. As Radosh notes, in 1914 Villard warned that war would bring "increased powers to a strong central government. War would mean the necessity of abandoning the time-honored tradition of weak government. War and liberalism, Villard believed, were totally incompatible." On the eve of Wilson's 1917 declaration of war Villard said that "the progress of socialism would certainly be great if the war continued for any length of time." This view of the direct causal relation between the progress of socialism and war, a relation that Hoover recognized after the war was over, was shared by the Nation's editor, Albert Jay Nock.

The Nation was seized by Post Office censors for Nock's editorial attacking AFL president Gompers for being Wilson's "bagman" to buy support of the war among Europe's trade union leaders. Villard and Nock published the secret Allied treaties, opened by the Bolsheviks, and Nock wrote the first revisionist history, The Myth of the Guilty Nation, serialized in his newly founded Freeman. Just as Nock sought to stem the tide of war in Chodorov's late 1930's Freeman, Villard used his column in the Nation (which he had sold) to combat American intervention. When his column was dropped in 1940 Villard unsuccessfully tried to found a new magazine with John Chamberlain and John T. Flynn, who had been fired for anti-interventionism by the New Republic.

In "Laissez-Faire Critic of the Cold War: Lawrence Dennis," Radosh builds on the pioneering work of Justus Doenecke. "America had become a socialist nation. Government spending on war, the military, and defense revealed the true character of the American state.…the U. S. defense program was 'the most obvious and practical way imaginable to convert America to a totalitarian socialist basis.'" Dennis held that due to the advanced stage of statism in America, big businessmen were not capitalists, but bureaucrats administering the economy according to the programs of the State's policymakers. Dennis's newsletter, Appeal to Reason, long predated the analysis of Seymour Melman's Pentagon Capitalism. More than 20 years before Athan Theoharis's Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism and Richard Freeland's The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism, Dennis saw that the administration's purpose in pushing the "red-scare" was to gain a "super W.P.A. project based on war, which unlike welfare projects, is acceptable to Republicans." For Dennis, there is "nothing you can't put over on American conservatives if you spice it with war and anti-red" rhetoric.

Roosevelt's attempt to solve the Keynesian 1937 depression by military spending was challenged by John T. Flynn, who charged that FDR was "deliberately planning to use a great armament program as a means of spending money to create employment." Flynn feared that if the public could be convinced of a mythical foreign enemy "they might be willing to submit to further weird methods of spending money." Of business support for New Deal military spending, Flynn said: "If the conservative objectors to deficits do not like WPA, very well, he will give them what they like—battleships, armies. He will create an industry for them: the armament industry, which henceforth is to become one of the props of our national economy. A short time ago the liberals were trying to invent some reasons for further support of government deficits. But now the President has found one which the Tory elements will applaud."

In his important 1938 "Recovery through War Scares," Flynn also criticized American Communists for supporting war spending. His opposition was rooted in their betrayal of earlier antimilitarism and their coalition with interventionist business interests. They had "lined up with the extreme right-wing internationalists of our Eastern border who would press in the same direction but for a different reason." Flynn criticized the push for postwar central planning organized by the National Resources Planning Board under Alvin Hansen, and in his As We Go Marching insisted that to sustain public support for central planning foreign enemies would become an economic necessity."

Flynn opposed not only the cold-war liberals but the New Right, led by Nixon, that emerged after the death of Senator Taft. Excluded from the New Republic for his isolationism, Flynn received the same treatment from National Review for the same reason. "William Buckley's New Right ideology, which lay within the context of the cold-war consensus, did not countenance John T. Flynn's antiwar heresy, his persistent argument that the Soviet threat was not military." Against New Deal liberals and New Right conservatives, Flynn maintained that "the only threat was domestic militarism and fascism."

Prefiguring the conflict between the post-1945 Old Right and the cold-war liberals and conservatives, Robert A. Taft rebutted Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s maiden article. In December 1941, Schlesinger charged that big business supported isolationism. Taft answered: "The most conservative members of the party—the Wall Street bankers, the society group, nine-tenths of the plutocratic newspapers, and most of the party's financial contributors—are the ones who favor intervention in Europe." Taft declared that the isolationist majority was obstructed "principally by the big business interests of the East, fearful among other fears of Hitler's destruction of our foreign trade." Taft opposed risking American lives "in an imperialistic war for the domination of Europe, Asia and Africa, and the supposed 'manifest destiny' of America."

For Taft, Truman's cold-war policies were an "international WPA" that surrounded Russia with military bases "stimulating the Russians to increase still further their development of war forces." Denying that Russia was a military threat, Hoover and Taft advocated negotiations with the Russians rather than military spending. The Nation, speaking for the cold-war liberals, declared that communism had captured for its purposes Herbert Hoover and a good section of the Republican Party." When it came to the Korean War, Taft viewed it as an illegal usurpation of presidential power comparable to the illegal acquisition of the Panama Canal or to the Mexican War, of which he cited Lincoln's criticism.

Taft feared that American military power would tempt policymakers to use it, as an example, Taft suggested, in Indochina, which would lead to America's economic exhaustion. The New Republic sneered that Taft "presented the full GOP case—based on Hoover, the value of the dollar and a benign image of the Politburo." Sharing Hoover's analysis that war is the major cause of collectivism and of communist success, Taft held that America's world role is to uphold the principles of limited government, sound money and free economy, and not "to force on…foreign peoples through the use of American money, and even perhaps American arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles."

These Prophets on the Right were intellectuals whose books and articles were as articulate and thoughtful as any included in Nash's study. They had a significant role in the post-1945 tradition that Nash's details. Their exclusion from participation and the continuity of their analysis remains an important untold story.

Leonard Liggio teaches American Studies at the State University of New York College at Westbury. He assisted Murray Rothbard in the writing of the first two volumes of Conceived in Liberty.