published in Inquiry,
October 27, 1980.
now it is no news to anyone that public opinion in America has
shifted sharply to the right and that an authentic leader of American
conservatism may well assume the presidency in 1981. And yet,
despite this surge, there is still no adequate treatment of the
American Right or of the permutations and transformations it has
undergone in the past half-century or so. George Nash's The
Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976)
was a careful and encyclopedic compendium of the various ideological
tributaries and branches of conservatism, but no book has yet
come along to describe and analyze the right-wing movement as
such and to place it in its historical context.
uninspired account [The
Odyssey of the American Right] tries to fill the gap,
but unfortunately, it is a notable failure. For one thing, Miles
suffers from a basic absence of insight; he simply doesn't understand
the conservatives, their various "wings" and incarnations,
or what they were and are trying to do. His failure in the foreign
policy area is egregious; whenever he gets himself into a hole,
he just makes new categories — "isolationist," "internationalist,"
"old nationalist," and "new nationalist,"
none of them carefully defined or distinguished from one another.
What are we to make of Miles's assertion, for example, early in
the book, that Senator Joseph McCarthy "denounced the New
Deal and internationalist foreign policy as equivalents of treason,"
which is followed approximately a hundred pages later by the author's
admission that McCarthy was an "internationalist" or
(whatever this may mean) a "new nationalist"?
confusion — fatal in this kind of enterprise — is just as painfully
evident in his discussion of classical or "true" liberalism.
In the United States, he asserts, "true liberalism meant
true Republicanism," from which it follows that although
in England classical liberalism called for free trade, in the
United States "true liberalism was compatible with protective
tariffs… [and] countenanced not only the tariff but huge land
grants, tax benefits, and other subsidies to business, which ate
its fill at what Vernon Louis Parrington called the u2018Great Barbecue.'"
Elsewhere, Miles talks senselessly of the "old laissez-faire
capitalist order and its foreign policies of protectionism
and Pacific First."
classical liberalism to the Republican party, Miles could scarcely
be more ignorant of nineteenth-century American history. The classical
liberal party throughout the nineteenth century was not the Republican,
but the Democratic party, which fought for minimal government,
free trade, and no special privileges for business. Moreover,
laissez faire is nothing if not determined opposition to
protectionism in any of its guises. As for Pacific First, it was
the last of the New England laissez-faire individualists
who formed the Anti-Imperialist League at the turn of the twentieth
century and battled hard against America's imperial conquest of
the Philippines and the brutal suppression of the Philippine national
tries to link classical liberalism in America with xenophobia,
ultranationalism, "Americanism," and the Know-Nothing
party of the 1850s, and he sees modern classical liberalism as
a blend of libertarian economics and repression of immigrants.
Since this bizarre conjunction depends entirely on Miles's positing
of the Republicans as the avatars of classical liberalism, the
less said about it the better.
Miles tries to offer documentation, however feeble, for his rather
wild generalizations. But when he refers to the libertarian strand
in pre- and post-World War II conservatism he enters a world totally
of his own creation. Libertarians, he believes, were opposed to
civil liberties; in America, he writes, "the u2018libertarians'
had a consistent record since the 1930s of defending the free
market while attacking the Bill of Rights." Miles also opines
that the "u2018libertarians' derived from the old Protestant
exactly were these libertarians? Miles doesn't bother to
say. There were only a handful. The outstanding libertarian, H.
L. Mencken, mentioned only in passing by Miles — and as a "conservative"
— is justly famous for having fought hard for the Bill of Rights
all of his life. So, too did the essayist Albert Jay Nock, who
doesn't even rate a mention in Miles; and then there was Nock's
leading disciple Frank Chodorov, who gets passing notice (with
only marginal distortion) as a "right-wing anarchist."
So did all the libertarians. The only person named as a libertarian
by Miles is National Review editor Frank Meyer. Although
Meyer was significantly more libertarian than the other NR
editors (not a difficult feat), he did go along with Buckley's
expulsion of the libertarians from the conservative movement in
the late 1950s, part of the purge of embarrassing "extremists"
of all sorts that was to clear the movement's path to future power.
And while it is true that Meyer, at least, attacked the Bill of
Rights during the 1930s, he could hardly have been termed a libertarian
at the time, since he happened to be one of the leading members
of the U.S. Communist Party.
many of these libertarians "Protestants." Meyer and
Chodorov were Jewish, Mencken was an atheist, and Nock, although
a lapsed Anglican minister, could hardly have belonged to any
of the sects that Miles, in his obsolescent way, identifies with
the Calvinist Protestants who were supposed to have ushered in
the spirit and institutions of Western capitalism.
correct that the modern conservative movement was born as a reaction
against Roosevelt's New Deal. Yet although he notes that the Liberty
League, the major organization opposing the New Deal in its first
term, was formed by conservative Democrats, he soon falls into
his usual cadence and portrays the league as a Republican institution.
In fact, given the origins of modern conservatism, its nucleus
was a necessarily disparate coalition of anti-New Deal forces.
The philosophical thrust was provided by libertarians like Mencken
and Nock, and the political base was formed by the waning group
of classical liberal Democrats like the Liberty Leaguers Albert
Ritchie of Maryland and Senator James A. Reed of Missouri.
Most of the
opponents, of course, were Republicans, who had never been classical
liberals or libertarians. They were led by Herbert Hoover, whose
whole political career had been dedicated to foisting the "government-business
alliance" on America. In opposing the New Deal's leap into
a more advanced form of statism, these Republican politicians
were forced to use the unfamiliar rhetoric of classical liberalism,
in which they had little genuine belief. After all, what other
rhetoric was there? So began that grievous disjunction between
high-sounding free market and libertarian discourses and actual
statist practice that has marked conservatism ever since.
II confused matters further. Many conservative internationalists
— like Dean Acheson and Lewis W. Douglas, who had left the early
New Deal in disgust with its heterodox economic creeds — were
happy to rejoin the Roosevelt team as part of the World War II
crusade, and many Progressive isolationists joined the anti-New
Deal coalition. In the turbulence of the great leap further to
statism during the war, the latter found themselves becoming sympathetic
to free-market economics as well. Senators Borah, Nye, and Wheeler
are examples in politics; Harry Elmer Barnes, Frank Hanighen,
and John T. Flynn among intellectuals.
movement thus emerged after World War II very different
from what it had been before. Once opposed to domestic statism,
in the name of the free market and personal liberty, it came to
encompass not only hostility to war and foreign intervention but
also to American statism in the international arena. When he introduces
such labels as "new nationalist" and "Pacific First,"
Miles gets the whole exceedingly important story muddled.
In all of
Miles's book, there is no hint that the hard core of the political
Right was solidly anti-interventionist throughout the postwar
years. Senator Wherry of Nebraska, and in the House such ultras
as the libertarian Howard Buffett of Nebraska (Robert Taft's Midwest
campaign manager in 1952), and George Bender of Ohio were opposed
to all intervention.
Taft's right-hand man in the House, and for those who totally
identify the American Right with advocacy of militarism, hysterical
anti-Sovietism, and global adventuring, this characteristic statement
of his from a speech of March 28, 1947, might prove illuminating:
that the White House program [for aid to Greece and Turkey —
the "Truman Doctrine"] is a reaffirmation of the nineteenth
century belief in power politics. It is a refinement of the
policy first adopted after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919
designed to encircle Russia and establish a "Cordon Sanitaire"
around the Soviet Union. It is a program which points to a new
policy of interventionism as a corollary to our Monroe Doctrine
in South America.
collaborated with pacifist scholars and intellectuals, was also
fond of referring to Chiang Kai-shek's regime as "fascist,"
and he considered the Voice of America to be nothing more than
"a vast foreign propaganda machine."
opposition to Truman's entry into the Korean War consisted almost
solely of the Communist party on the left and the ultraconservative
Republicans in the House on the right, which led some liberal
publications at the time to refer to the Kremlin-Chicago Tribune
isolationist axis. It is easy to forget that the right-wingers,
in those years, were not the only red-baiters.
to analyzing the conservative movement of the early postwar years
is exclusive concentration on its undoubted political leader,
Robert A. Taft. Although both a free-market man and a noninterventionist,
Taft, partly due to his addiction to compromise as a way of life,
faltered on both counts throughout his career. Second-echelon
militants like Wherry and Buffett are far more revealing of the
right-wing ideology of the period than is Taft himself.
But why the
ferocious red-baiting? If the conservative movement of the 1930s
and 1940s was basically classical liberal and libertarian, as
I would contend, how come the witch-hunts against Communists and
fellow travelers? How come McCarthyism?
In the first
place, we must realize, as even Miles does fleetingly, that Joe
McCarthy was not himself a right-winger, but came in fact from
the moderate, internationalist wing of the Republican party. Even
in his book seeking to indict General George Marshall for continuing
"treason," the charges begin no earlier than the middle
of World War II. The senator did not use the familiar indictment
of Marshall by the right: that he had collaborated in Roosevelt's
alleged plot to provoke the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor.
McCarthy did not use this charge against Marshall because he had
no quarrel with our entry into that war — only with the alleged
"appeasement" of Russia toward the end.
himself is not the major problem. Why did the right wing, even
if isolationist on the Cold War, countenance or even cheer McCarthy
on? The answer is rooted in what had happened to the conservative
movement during the war. Even though it had shut up shop as an
organized movement after Pearl Harbor, it had been antiwar, and
as such was subjected to repression once the war had started.
Antiwar writers like Flynn, Barnes, Mencken, Nock, and Oswald
Garrison Villard were driven from their customary outlets by the
interventionists. Flynn and Barnes were forced to publish their
pioneering Pearl Harbor revisionist pamphlets privately, since
no firm would publish them. Various isolationists were jailed
as alleged agents for the Germans or Japanese, and, in the most
disgraceful act of repression — an attempt to prove seditious
conspiracy via content analysis of numerous tracts opposing the
war — the U.S. government put dozens of isolationists and others
through a lengthy mass sedition trial.
were understandably embittered at such treatment, and in assessing
blame they pardonably hit upon the Communists as at least partly
responsible for their plight. Again, it is all too easy to forget
that from the onset of the Popular Front, and especially after
the German attack on Russia made them ardent prowar converts,
the Communists were in many ways the left wing and the point men
of the Roosevelt New Deal. They applauded and led the way in repressing
isolationists and hailed the Smith Act when it was originally
used to arrest Trotskyist opponents of the war effort. When we
add the observations that Communism is, to say the least, an aggravated
form of statism, and that World War II as the right wing
had predicted, produced a far more powerful Soviet Union, the
red-baiting of the right falls into perspective.
wing at first did not apply this fierce anti-Communism to foreign
policy. But in a sense, McCarthy was a transitional figure in
the radical and fateful shift from Old Right to New Right in the
mid-1950s. The last gasp of the old, classical liberal Right was
its militant opposition to the Korean War — as well as the Andrews-Werdel
third party presidential ticket in 1956 (scarcely noted by Miles),
which had as its foreign policy plank strict nonintervention in
the affairs of other nations. In focusing on such marginalia as
the infusion of Catholics into the Right — unbeknownst to Miles,
they had been leaders of the isolationist movement in World War
II — and in manipulating his old-nationalism/new-nationalism categories,
Miles misses the whole point of the shift from Old to New Right.
In fact, in all but the most trivial sense, he seems barely aware
that such a shift took place at all.
was this. The political leaders of the Old Right began to die
or retire. Taft's death in 1953 was an irreparable blow, and one
by one the other Taft Republicans disappeared from the scene.
In fact, Taft's defeat in the bitterly fought 1952 convention
was to signal the end of the Old Right as a political force. It
is typical of Michael Miles's myopia that the only difference
he sees between Barry Goldwater, the star of the New Right, and
the Taftites is that Goldwater was more "optimistic"
than they. In fact, Goldwater was — and is — an all-out interventionist
in foreign affairs; it is both symbolic and significant that Goldwater
was an Eisenhower, not a Taft delegate to the 1952 Republican
the intellectual leaders of the Old Right too were fast disappearing.
Nock and Mencken were dead or inactive, and Colonel Robert McCormick,
publisher of the Chicago Tribune, died in 1955. The
Freeman, although the leading right-wing journal in the late
forties and early fifties, had never been a powerful force; by
the mid-fifties it was weaker than ever. Since the thirties, the
Right had suffered from a dearth of intellectuals; it had seemed
that all intellectuals were on the left. A disjunction therefore
existed between a tiny cadre of intellectuals and writers, and
a large, relatively unenlightened mass base. In the mid-1950s,
with a power vacuum in both the political and the intellectual
areas, the Right had become ripe for a swift takeover. A well-edited,
well-financed magazine could hope to capture the dazed right wing
and totally transform its character. This is exactly what happened
with the formation of National Review in 1955.
In a sense,
Joe McCarthy heralded the shift when, after his censure by the
Senate, he feebly changed his focus in early 1955 from domestic
Communism to the championing of Chiang Kai-shek. For National
Review, led by Bill Buckley and William Rusher, was a coalition
of young Catholics — McCarthyite and eager to lead an anti-Communist
crusade in foreign affairs — and ex-Communists like Frank Meyer
and William S. Schlamm dedicating their energies to extirpating
the god that had failed them. NR filled the power vacuum,
and with Rusher as point man in the political arena, it managed,
in a scant few years, to transform the American right wing beyond
recognition. By the early 1960s, the Rusher forces had captured
the Young Republicans and College Young Republicans, established
Young Americans for Freedom as their campus arm, and had taken
over the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists as a more theoretical
the 1960 GOP convention, Barry Goldwater had become the
political leader of the transformed New Right. By 1960, too, the
embarrassing extremists like the John Birch Society had been purged
from the ranks, and the modern conservative movement was in place.
It combined a traditionalist and theocratic approach to "moral
values," occasional lip service to free-market economics,
and an imperialist and global interventionist foreign policy dedicated
to the glorification of the American state and the extirpation
of world Communism. Classical liberalism remained only as rhetoric,
useful in attracting business support, and most of all as a fig
leaf for the grotesque realities of the New Right. (This entity
is not to be confused with the fundamentalist factions now on
the warpath against abortion and ERA.)
a few brief years the character of the right wing had been totally
transformed: Once basically classical liberal, it had become a
global theocratic crusade. Such is the lack of acumen and memory
among the right-wing masses that few even noted that any shift
had occurred — but why does Michael Miles fall into the same trap?
N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State, Conceived
in Liberty, What
Has Government Done to Our Money, For
a New Liberty, The
Case Against the Fed, and many
other books and articles. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The