The Two Frank Meyers
Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement By Kevin J. Smant (ISI Books, 2002) Review by Ryan McMaken
Over a decade after its inevitable end, American conservatives still love to talk about the Cold War. Those were the good ol’ days — the days when conservatives could suggest any barrage against human freedom and dignity as long as it could be justified as necessary in the battle against communism. The communist bogey-man has always been a cornerstone of American conservatism since the end of the Second World War, and it has not been surprising to see the rise of what we might call the neo-Cold War movement in which conservatives longing for a return to the righteous days of the Cold War have jumped at the chance to replace Soviets with terrorists and communism with militant Islam, and to declare the "war on terrorism" to be the "new Cold War."
The charge has been led, of course, by the National Review conservatives who have never met a war they didn’t like, and have devoted themselves to defending the doctrines of a brand of conservatism that has built itself on decades of militarism and imperial expansionism in the name of defending freedom. The defense of freedom argument has always been a key part of the conservative justifications of foreign adventures, and the fact that the Bush administration tramples the Bill of Rights while being cheered on by the alleged defenders of individual rights should surprise no one familiar with the militarist subterfuge always present in the modern conservative movement.
In recent months, the name of Frank Meyer has resurfaced amid the denunciations of foreign nations and the calls for an ever expanding military budget and ever more belligerent foreign policy. Indeed, Frank Meyer was in many ways the father of modern conservatism and his claims to be a libertarian sympathizer while simultaneously supporting a costly and imperial foreign policy were always at the heart of what the conservative movement claimed to be good, just, and necessary.
For anyone interested in the intellectual history of the American Right since the Second World War, Frank Meyer is a name that is difficult to avoid. In both the political and intellectual affairs of the post-war American Right, Meyer was in the front rank of the New Right. He was a prominent member of the National Review cadre that dominated the conservative movement of the Cold War era, and continues to hold considerable influence with the "conservative" administration of the president.
It is most timely and appropriate then, that historian Kevin J. Smant examines Meyer’s life and works in his new book Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement, and he examines Meyer thoroughly both as an ordinary person and as an intellectual within the context of the conservative movement. He does not attempt to portray Meyer as either a hero or a villain, but attempts to present "the historical Meyer" although there is no denying that Meyer comes off as a sympathetic figure.
It becomes clear early on in the book that it is impossible to separate Meyer from National Review, the "New Right," and the Cold War conservatism that he epitomizes so well. In fact, readers will probably find themselves wishing that the author spent more time on Frank Meyer the man instead of Frank Meyer the National Review columnist, but the Meyer biography/NR history that we are presented with is interesting nevertheless. Meyer’s political philosophy was instrumental in shaping much of the party line developed by National Review for the New Right, and Smant spends a great deal of his book examining Meyer’s role among the NR gang of William Rusher, William F. Buckley, and James Burnham.
As a young man, Frank Meyer was a former Marxist and Communist Party operative, yet by the end of the Second World War, Meyer had largely abandoned the ideology of his youth and spent the rest of his life denouncing the international communist movement as uniquely powerful, uniquely militant, and uniquely evil. In 1961, Meyer published The Moulding of Communists: The Training of the Communist Cadre in which Meyer examined his theory that the communist movement was unlike any movement seen before. In his review of the book, Murray Rothbard observed:
"Frank S. Meyer is by far the most intelligent, as well as the most libertarian-inclined, of all the National Review stable of editors and staff. Of all the National Review editors and contributors, for example, Meyer is the only one to lend his name to the recently organized Council for a Volunteer Military, which calls for abolition of the draft…. But tragically, Meyer is also of the war-mongering crew of intellectuals on the Right, perhaps the most frankly and apocalyptically war-mongering of them all…. Meyer’s libertarian inclinations are fatally warped by his all-consuming desire to incarcerate and incinerate all Communists, wherever they may be. Meyer is, therefore, an interesting example in microcosm of the swamping of any libertarian instincts on the current Right-wing by an all pervading passion for the Great Crusade to exterminate Communists everywhere."
It is difficult to find a better summation of Meyer’s political philosophy. If Meyer had only spent his career examining domestic politics, he might be remembered today as a great libertarian thinker, but Meyer was mostly interested in foreign affairs and it is here where Meyer’s philosophy breaks down to the point of incoherence. Meyer devoted much of his time to examining the sovereignty of the individual and the natural-law roots of individual rights. Meyer was very suspicious of claims by the "community" against individual prerogatives, and echoed Ludwig von Mises when he affirmed that individuals are the basic unit of any society, and that any public policy must be judged against how it protects the rights of individuals. In Meyer’s domestic policy, when it comes to building a free and virtuous society, the ends do not justify the means. When we examine Meyer’s foreign policy however, we find that the ends frequently justify the means. We find that Meyer was willing to subject his countrymen to numerous wars, both nuclear and conventional, runaway government spending, and a widespread spy network as long as the end result was the destruction of communism. Mr. Smant documents this contradiction thoroughly throughout his book, but makes no attempts to explain or justify the contradiction. Nor does he hint that Meyer saw any conflict between his libertarianism at home and his militant adventurism abroad.
Meyer felt that that he had resolved any contradictions through his unique theory of "fusionism" that strained to unite libertarians and traditional conservatives within a single movement. Since communism was a threat both to the community and virtue that the traditionalists valued and to the individual freedoms that the libertarians valued, Meyer concluded that both groups could unite in harmony behind Meyer’s militant crusade against communism and the increasingly hot Cold War:
"[T]here has been general agreement in the practical political sphere on the necessity both to resist the collectivism and statism that emanates from indigenous Liberalism and simultaneously to repel and overcome the Communist attack upon Western civilization, which — though it has its subversive detachments operating domestically — is primarily based upon the armed power of a foreign enemy."
Meyer is conscious, however, of those who oppose "collectivism and statism" but fail to agree with his militant anti-Communist program:
"Recently, however, there has arisen for the first time a considered position, developed out of the "pure libertarian" sector of right-wing opinion, which sharply repudiates the struggle against the major and most immediate contemporary enemy of freedom, Soviet Communism — and does so on grounds, purportedly, of a love for freedom."
Meyer slyly slips in his incorrect assertion that the antiwar libertarian position has appeared for the "first time" in American history (the Washington doctrine apparently being of little interest) in an attempt to de-legitimize it among the tradition-minded American Right; he dismisses the antiwar libertarian view as "patently distorted," and claims that the libertarians were opposed to the American government exercising its "legitimate function" of self-defense. In his zeal to send American troops into battle across the globe, however, Meyer never addressed what all his military plans had to do with the "legitimate" defense of the United States.
Mr. Smant examines Meyer’s record on foreign policy, and illustrates that at various times in his career Meyer had supported the invasion of China in order to crush their nuclear program, he supported the use of first-strike nuclear weapons, and he was an avid supporter of the war in Vietnam, even going so far as to denounce the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society for its opposition to what it saw as a costly and pointless war. Also, Meyer was undoubtedly aware that his editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., had declared that in order to defeat the communists, the United States must emulate the enemy and adopt their methods and their mind-set. And, through it all, Americans were taxed more every year to pay for the engines of war. Boys were being enlisted against their will, and were dying by the thousands on the other side of the globe to prop up friendly dictators. Huge standing armies of Americans crisscrossed the globe, while the arms race threatened to incinerate 20 million Americans, yet Frank Meyer would never admit that militant anti-communism had any effect on individual liberty, something he claimed to cherish greatly.
And in the end, it is a great shame that the principles of individualism and liberty so eloquently defended at times by Meyer would be so distorted by his pessimism and paranoia over his former communist comrades. Indeed, Meyer was undoubtedly a victim of what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style" in American politics, a class of intellectuals who had moved from the "paranoid Left to the paranoid Right, clinging all the while to the fundamentally Manichean psychology that underlies both." Within his circle, Meyer was also the most consistent defender of private property and individual freedom not on the basis of tradition, community interests, or utilitarian grounds, but on the grounds that human beings are inherently sovereign beings. Like Rothbard, whom he dismissed as a "pure libertarian," Meyer defended the individual on the grounds that society exists for the individual and not the other way around, and that the free individual must be defended not because it is the efficient or the utilitarian thing to do but because it is the only moral thing to do within the confines of the natural law.
Meyer’s closet libertarianism was also evidenced by his criticisms of Abraham Lincoln and his approval of the 1965 book Freedom Under Lincoln which according to Meyer "dared to pierce the myth of Abraham Lincoln’s benevolence and examine the realities of an authoritarianism that was, in terms of civil liberties, the most ruthless in American history." Smant illustrates that Meyer believed that "the right of secession was a state’s u2018last sanction,’ needed if the federal government was not u2018to grow so strong as to destroy the tension that guaranteed liberty’" Meyer was virtually alone in these sentiments that today are unequivocally denounced by Meyer’s successors at National Review as "extreme" and "racist."
It is not clear from Smant’s writing that he has any interest in promoting Meyer as anything other than an influential theorist in the conservative movement, and this certainly cannot be denied. As one who is not a conservative ideologue or a prominent member of any movement within the Right-wing it seems that Smant has no interest in promoting any anti- or pro-Meyer factions. He does a commendable job of simply telling a story about a political movement. Smant is often too forgiving of some of Meyer’s philosophical inconsistencies, but for anyone looking for a concise history of the New Right and National Review, and for a book that does not set out only to demolish Meyer’s detractors, Smant’s book should be regarded as a helpful resource.
It is clear by the end of this book that in the intellectual world, there were two Frank Meyers. There was the Frank Meyer that defended private property and liberty as the mandate of natural law, who supported the right of secession and denounced the idea that freedom originated in the community. Then, there was the Frank Meyer who supported the aggressive use of nuclear weapons, who viewed all movements toward peace as "appeasement," and who questioned the patriotism of those who disagreed with him. Given these fundamental contradictions, Murray Rothbard asserted that "fusionism" never really existed and that Meyer’s efforts to explain away the incoherence in his own thought through fusionism was just part of an attempt to "paper over the contradictions within conservatism" itself. As a leader of a political movement, Meyer was undoubtedly a tireless and effective activist, but intellectually speaking, the conservatism he left behind is in little better shape now than when Meyer first tried to piece it together fifty years ago.