Radical Squares

The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics, by John A. Andrew III


The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics, by John A. Andrew III, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 286 pages, $19.95

It's a curious fact of contemporary politics that conservatives have emerged as keepers of the 1960s flame. Although the '60s–that great blob of a decade most expansively defined as beginning with Kennedy's inauguration and ending with Nixon hopping a helicopter to San Clemente–were arguably the high-water mark of liberalism, contemporary liberals seem content to skip over the period. The tendency is understandable: Though the decade started out well enough for them, it ended badly. The era's legacy of failed social programs, foreign-policy blunders, and righteous skepticism toward ruling authorities undermined enthusiasm for all sorts of centralized planning, thereby laying the groundwork for the end of the era of big government. As liberal historian David Burner wrote in the bitter but engaging Making Peace with the 60s, "An era promising in its beginnings and heroic in its ambitions ended by programming liberalism into a long decline." (See "Peace Corpse," May 1997.)

If liberals are wont to ignore the decade (adding an ironic twist to the old joke that if you can remember the '60s, you weren't there), conservatives hope to keep the memories burning brightly–though controllably–in the nation's collective memory. Conservatives gain a sense of self, mission, and momentum by defining themselves against the '60s: As they see it, they share none of the blame but deserve all the credit for delivering us all from a Day-Glo social and political Apocalypse Then. Hence, Newt Gingrich's condemnations of leftoid "McGovernik[s]" and his contention that the country "went off on the wrong track" starting "with the Great Society and the counterculture"; House Majority Leader Dick Armey's belief that "all the problems began in the Sixties"; conservative historian Harvey C. Mansfield's gloss that the "late sixties were a comprehensive disaster for America"; and a recent issue of The American Enterprise dedicated to exploring the '60s as "days of confusion" and a "national nervous breakdown." Unsurprisingly, much of the conservatives' wrath is directed at the baby-boomer counterculture, that "age cohort" which turned "to dreams of revolution and the destruction of institutions," to quote from Slouching Toward Gomorrah, Robert Bork's etiology of "American decline" that opens with two chapters devoted to '60s-era "revolutionary nihilism."

In this context, John A. Andrew III's The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics is a particularly interesting act of historical recovery. Not only does Andrew, a liberal historian at Franklin & Marshall College, document just what young conservatives were up to in the '60s (activity largely ignored by previous historians), his identification of YAF as one of the era's three major student groups (along with Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee) suggests a reading of the decade that provocatively complicates conservative castigations of student "radicals." Like SDS and SNCC, writes Andrew, YAF "challenged the status quo…and…believed that the path of change lay through grass-roots organization and activism….All three criticized ruling elites, and combined ideology with activism, principles with politics." Also like SDS and SNCC–albeit from a right-wing perspective–YAF "emerged to offer an ideological and structural critique of the reigning liberalism. They sought to reject, not reform, the consensus liberalism."

Contrary to conservative bromides, then, it was not only left-wingers who dreamed of revolution during the '60s. Indeed, as time passes, it is becoming more apparent that the '60s were a radical decade, irrespective of ideological orientation. At various moments, fringe groups such as the John Birch Society and the Black Panthers enjoyed considerable influence within mainstream politics, which itself tended to extremes. Even as liberals shifted to the left, embracing bold plans to remake American society from top to bottom, conservatives–and especially YAF–rallied around Barry Goldwater, who cast his contempt for liberalism and Rockefeller Republicanism alike in characteristically extreme terms. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Goldwater famously thundered in his speech accepting the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" (Andrew recounts an early '60s New Yorker cartoon with the punchline, "And then we have another son–a radical–who's joined Barry Goldwater's conservatives.") And as Tom Hayden, of all people, wrote in 1961, "What is new about the new conservatives is their militant mood, their appearance on picket lines." In summarily dismissing the '60s, contemporary conservatives make two mistakes: They ignore their own past and forget where their oxymoronic rhetoric of a conservative "revolution" comes from.

The brainchild of William F. Buckley Jr. and a few other prominent conservatives (including then-National Review Publisher William Rusher, conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans, and Republican fund-raiser Marvin Leibman), YAF was designed to combat the bland, centrist "modern Republicanism" that Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Richard Nixon had brought to the GOP. Specifically, Andrew writes, it "sought to place conservatives in control of the Republican Party, and to inject conservative politics into the mainstream of American political life." The group officially came into existence in late 1960, after Buckley and his colleagues invited more than 100 young people they considered "outstanding youth leaders" and "active and influential conservatives" to a confab at Buckley's estate in Sharon, Connecticut (an odd setting, perhaps, to protest Rockefeller Republicanism).

Two years before SDS's better-known "Port Huron Statement," YAF came out with its own angry rebel yell, the "Sharon Statement," which characterized the late 1950s–the very period contemporary conservatives invoke as an American Eden–as a "time of moral and political crisis." Largely written by M. Stanton Evans, the Sharon Statement is pitched to youthful idealists–"It is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths"–who saw danger in creeping governmental centralization.

"Foremost among the transcendent values is the individual's use of his…free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force," reads the statement. "Liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom." At the same time, the statement invoked Cold War containment politics that suggested national interests could be placed ahead of individual rights: "The forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties…the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace." Hence, YAF supported the peacetime draft and its early national director, Douglas Caddy, defended before Congress the loyalty-oath provisions of the National Defense Education Act, arguing state intervention was justified in the name of national security.

As Andrew notes, this mix of individual liberty and collective response was not particularly stable and would in fact lead to significant splits within the organization. But he also notes that "more than anything else…their anticommunism bound them together and made possible agreement despite the conflicting strains of conservative thought." (Throughout the book, Andrew identifies libertarians–"libs"–as a subset of "conservatives." Which, in a YAF context and the context of the times, they were.)

The Other Side of the Sixties details YAF's activities during the early 1960s, especially its significant contribution to Goldwater's nomination. Members testified before Congress, published essays and op-eds excoriating every manifestation of liberalism, proselytized on college campuses, and pulled the GOP rightward by lobbying for hard-core conservative candidates and issues. A measure of YAF's appeal was their 1962 "Conservative Rally for World Liberation from Communism" in New York, which pulled an "overflow crowd" to Madison Square Garden. Dues-paying membership probably peaked around 30,000 and YAF was considered important–and subversive–enough to be surveilled by the federal government and regularly attacked by other student groups such as SDS.

But, Andrew argues persuasively, the group's real contribution cannot be measured in numbers, or even be understood only in terms of the '60s themselves. "Although never able to transform electoral politics or enact dramatic reforms during the period," he writes, "YAF infiltrated the Republican Party at the grass roots and served as a breeding ground for future generations of conservative leaders. The Goldwater defeat in 1964, often considered a lethal blow to conservatism, stilled neither the excitement nor the commitment of [young conservatives]."

Indeed, YAF provided a training ground for scores of people who would later become influential in conservative politics, including figures such as former Rep. Robert Bauman (and his ex-wife Carol Dawson), fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, pundit/presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Moral Majority and Conservative Caucus co-founder Howard Phillips, and U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain. More important, perhaps, YAF provided a rhetoric for latter-day conservatism. When Newt Gingrich "told reporters in 1995 that he would cooperate with President Bill Clinton, but not compromise with him, he was speaking a language advanced by YAF in the early 1960s," writes Andrew.

If The Other Side of The Sixties has a significant failing, it is that the book basically stops with the electoral blowout of Barry Goldwater. This seems to be partly due to archival limitations (Andrew notes that there is "no central manuscript archive for either YAF or the right wing"). It is also partly due to Andrew's interest in exploring less-picked-over parts of the 1960s (an impulse that led him to YAF in the first place). While those authorial decisions are understandable, they mean that the whole story of YAF in the 1960s is not told. It's a tale worth telling, since it completes the narrative Andrew has begun and suggests yet another way that YAF–and the 1960s–remain very relevant to contemporary politics.

By the late '60s, the ideological divisions in YAF between conservatives–who, heavily influenced by people such as Buckley in-law and Goldwater speechwriter L. Brent Bozell, saw the state as a means to achieve a return to a "traditional" society–and libertarians–who championed individual liberty above all else–could no longer be masked over by an overriding commitment to anti-communism. The Vietnam War–or, more precisely, the draft–effectively split the organization. Conservatives felt the Cold War legitimized conscription; libertarians saw the draft as slavery.

At the 1969 YAF convention in St. Louis, a heated debate broke out over the group's position on the draft. Conservatives eventually agreed to call for the replacement of a conscripted force with a voluntary one, albeit on efficiency grounds. When YAF's Libertarian Caucus pushed for a resolution advocating draft resistance as a legitimate form of civil disobedience, conservatives demurred. When a member of the Anarchist Caucus (in the '60s, even a predominantly right-wing organization could support an anarchist faction) denounced the war as an imperialist adventure and burned his draft card, all hell broke loose. The convention devolved into a shouting match between conservatives and libertarians. The latter were derided as "lazy fairies" and essentially run out of the organization. As a libertarian attendee once told me, the scene, a watershed moment for the self-consciously "libertarian" movement, was exhilarating in a very '60s way.

That same split between social conservatives and libertarians only continues to grow in contemporary politics, perhaps made irreparable by the demise of communism and a common enemy. Indeed, conservatives are increasingly viewing libertarians–with their embrace of individual choice and evolving social orders–as their true enemy. In recovering an ignored part of an important decade, The Other Side of the Sixties documents the tensions that existed at an early stage in that once-strong alliance; the institutional history of YAF suggests that the conflict will only become more heated.