The Old Right

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Originally
published in Inquiry,
3, 18 [October 27, 1980], pp. 24–27.)

Michael
W. Miles, The
Odyssey of the American Right
(New York: Oxford University
Press, 1980).

By
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.

Michael
Miles’s uninspired account 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”?

Miles’s
conceptual 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 ‘Great Barbecue.’”
Elsewhere, Miles talks senselessly of the “old laissez-faire
capitalist order and its foreign policies of protectionism
and Pacific First.”

In
tying 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 independence movement.

Miles
also tries to link classical liberalism in America with xenophobia,
ultranationalism, “Americanism,” and the Know-Nothing party of
the l850s, 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.

Generally,
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 ‘libertarians’ had
a consistent record since the 1930s of defending the free market
while attacking the Bill of Rights.” Miles also opines that the
“‘libertarians’ derived from the old Protestant right.”

Well,
who 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.

Neither
were 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.

Miles
is 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.

World
War 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.

The
right-wing 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.

Bender
was 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:

I
believe 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

Bender,
who 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.”

Indeed,
the 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.

One
obstacle 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.

But
McCarthy 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.

The
conservatives 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.

The
right 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.

What
happened 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 leader 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
convention.

Meanwhile,
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 arid 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, weIl-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 organ.

By
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.)

In 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?

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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