William F. Buckley, Jr., R.I.P.
by David Gordon
by David Gordon
Much of what I have to say about William Buckley is critical, and it could be claimed against me that I have violated the maxim that urges us to speak only good of the dead: de mortuis nil nisi bonum. But, as an eminent classicist once noted, the maxim is a mistranslation from Chilo of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, who enjoins us not to malign the dead. In any case, I can always appeal to what Laurence Sterne said, defending certain passages of Tristram Shandy: "‘De Mortuis nil nisi bonum'. I declare that I have considered the wisdom and foundation of it over and over again as dispassionately as a good Christian can, and, after all, I can find nothing in it, or make more of it than a nonsensical lullaby of some nurse, put into Latin by some pedant, to be chanted by some hypocrite to the end of the world for the consolation of departing lechers."
Almost all accounts of Buckley portray him as a warm and generous friend, and guests on his Firing Line television program have praised the way he allowed them full scope to make a case that he opposed. Unfortunately, his tolerance had a very strict limit. Libertarian and conservative opponents of a militaristic and interventionist foreign policy had to be at all costs suppressed.
We can grasp the essence of Buckley's foreign policy view by reflecting on the title he chose for his magazine, National Review. He selected this to recall a British journal of the same name that was edited by Leopold J. Maxse between 1893 and 1932. Maxse's principal theme before 1914 was the need for an aggressive policy toward Germany. He was the quintessential British jingo, and his sister was the wife of the famous imperialist Lord Milner. After, the war, Maxse opposed the Treaty of Versailles — on the grounds that it was not harsh enough. (Maxse's views on Versailles, incidentally, are echoed by the contemporary neoconservatives Donald and Frederick W. Kagan, in their While America Sleeps [St. Martin's, 2000]).
Buckley, like Maxse, urged his country to adopt an even more bellicose foreign policy than the aggressive one it already pursued. He denounced the American Cold War policy of containment of Communism as insufficient: America must, if necessary, use force to liberate the nations enslaved by the Soviets. In "Will Formosa Liberate the United States?" e.g., he supported a "war of liberation" by the Nationalist Chinese to overthrow the Communist regime.
Buckley did not confine his policy of liberation to China: we should, if necessary, risk war wherever the Communists held power. Praising Barry Goldwater, Buckley commented: "In foreign policy, the Goldwater program is fashioned out of hard steel, and is not distinctively Republican. In fact it happens to be almost identical with the policy of Senator Thomas Dodd, a Democrat who votes on the other side of Goldwater on most domestic issues. . . we must fight, fight hard, at every front, with courage to oppose Soviet advances by the threat of the use of force." (Rumbles Left and Right, Putnam, 1963, pp.39—40)
If anything, the foreign policy supported by the Senior Editors of National Review was even worse than Buckley's. James Burnham, who dominated the foreign policy sections of the journal, called in The Struggle for the World (1947) for preventive nuclear war against Soviet Russia. Burnham, the dominant figure on the magazine's Editorial Board, was an ex-Trotskyist of whom George Orwell remarked: "That a man of Burnham's gifts should have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called ‘realism'" ("Second Thoughts on James Burnham," 1946)
Frank S. Meyer, another Senior Editor, was an ex-Stalinist who also supported preventive war. Concerning him Murray Rothbard remarked: "Frank S. Meyer and his fellow anti-Communists look forward almost with enthusiasm to a nuclear holocaust against the Communist nations which would annihilate tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of human beings. The devastation and suffering caused by nuclear war would bring about so many more ‘screams in the night' as Communism has ever done as to defy comparison." (Unpublished Letter to H. George Resch, October 28, 1961) As if this were not enough, another of the founding editors, Willi Schlamm, wrote a controversial work that became a best seller in West Germany, Germany and the East-West Crisis, also defending preventive nuclear war. He too was a former Communist. He soon exited the scene, though, after a quarrel with Burnham.
But Buckley was not just the usual warmonger. Buckley professed at the outset of his political career to be devoted to liberty and free enterprise. Like Murray Rothbard himself, Buckley held in high esteem the individualist anarchist Frank Chodorov; and he served as the first president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, which Chodorov founded. Again like Rothbard, he admired Albert Jay Nock, who as late as 1967 he called "the stunning belletrist" (Buckley, The Jeweler's Eye, Putnam, 1968, p.344)
How can one support both the radical individualism of Nock and Chodorov and demand at the same time an all-out crusade against Soviet Russia? With characteristic prescience, Murray Rothbard had identified the basic contradiction in Buckley's position as early as 1952. In a comment written for a newsletter, The Vigil, on Buckley's article, "A Young Republican View" (The Commonweal, January 25, 1952), he refused to accept Buckley's ostensible individualism at face value. "The brief article begins splendidly, with the affirmation that our enemy is the State . . . [he] sides with Spencer that ‘the State is begotten of aggression and by aggression.'. . . [But] it soon appears that Buckley is really, in 1952 terms, a totalitarian socialist, and, what is more, admits it." Buckley acknowledged that he favored "Big Government for the duration" of the Cold War, owing to the Soviet threat. Heavy taxes and centralized power were the order of the day, and Buckley's individualism was nothing more than pleasant rhetoric.
Despite his severe misgivings about Buckley, Rothbard agreed to write for National Review; but his opposition to Buckley's bellicose policy eventually outweighed their cordial personal relations. Collaboration became impossible, and Rothbard departed from the magazine, never to return.
Unfortunately, Buckley was able within a few years to seize control of much of the American Right. As Rothbard noted in a speech in 1992, "Very quickly, National Review became the dominant, if not the only, power center on the right wing. This power was reinforced by a brilliantly successful strategy (perhaps guided by NR editors trained in Marxist cadre tactics) of creating a battery of front groups. . . And so, with almost Blitzkrieg swiftness, by the early 1960s, the new global crusading movement, created and headed by Bill Buckley, was almost ready to take power in America." To Rothbard's penetrating analysis, one has only to add that Buckley, along with his Senior Editors James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall, had all served as CIA agents.
But before taking power, one task remained: "all the various heretics of the Right" must be purged — "all the groups that were in any way radical or could deprive the new conservative movement of its much-desired respectability in the eyes of the liberal and centrist elite, all these had to be jettisoned."
Isolationists, such as John T. Flynn, were among the first to be booted out. In Up From Liberalism, Buckley refers with respect to "three famous professors, [the revisionist historians] Charles Tansill, Harry Elmer Barnes, and the late Charles Beard" (p.31); and, as late as 1958, National Review published Barnes's "Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe." But Buckley eventually found the company of Henry Kissinger much more to his liking than that of such extremists. Anyone who dissented from Cold War orthodoxy had no place at National Review. Further, he used his position at ISI to force out Chodorov, replacing him with E. Victor Milione, whose foreign policy views were in accord with National Review orthodoxy.
However much one may differ with his foreign policy, Buckley deserves praise for the many talented writers he attracted to National Review in the 1950s and 60s. Rothbard frequently reviewed books on economics; and Henry Hazlitt, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Hugh Kenner, Richard Weaver, and Thomas Molnar were other contributors well worth reading. Kendall, a majoritarian disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a powerful though aberrant thinker. Mel Bradford, a very fine mind indeed, occasionally wrote for the magazine, though his contributions were far outnumbered by the Lincoln idolator Harry Jaffa. When Frank Meyer, who when he strayed from foreign policy often made sense, dared to criticize Lincoln, Buckley rebuked him.
Buckley himself, though a fluent writer and expert debater, was not an original thinker. His first and most famous book God and Man at Yale is a journalistic effort. Buckley shows that the Yale faculty was generally hostile to orthodox Christianity and to the free market. But although he offers many anecdotes about what various Yale professors had said, he never tells us why their views are mistaken. Why should we support Christianity and the market, if indeed we should? This is a question Buckley never attempts to answer. In like fashion, he offers in Up From Liberalism no serious arguments against the leftism he condemns. Again, he gives us anecdotes, e.g., how Joseph Rauh of Americans for Democratic Action was taken in by a con man, but little of intellectual interest. He devotes much attention to the fact that under the U.S. tax system, rich states pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits. A valid point, no doubt; but it is hardly a very decisive consideration.
The end of the Cold War presented Buckley with a supreme opportunity to redeem, at least in part, his libertarian credentials. He had maintained, as we have seen, that we must accept Big Government and the constant threat of nuclear war, owing to the unique menace of World Communism. He hoped to "keep in range" individualism and a bellicose foreign policy. Rothbard denied that this was possible; Buckley, faced with this untenable combination, had responded by abandoning his opposition to the state.
Now Buckley had the opportunity to prove Rothbard wrong. America had won the Cold War: could we not return to exactly the noninterventionist foreign policy that Buckley claimed to favor? If Buckley were to support such a policy, with its attendant reduction in the size and scope of the government, would he not show himself a true friend of liberty?
To adopt this course, once more, would require no conceptual revolution on Buckley's part: quite the contrary, he would have only to adhere to his own frequently stated convictions. Unfortunately, an obstacle stood in the way. As Rothbard accurately noted, Buckley was enamored of his access to power; and, were Buckley to reaffirm the views of Nock and Chodorov he had once supported, the political establishment would no longer regard him with favor. The state was hardly likely to liquidate itself: a libertarian Buckley would become just the sort of "extremist" he had shunned in order to gain the esteem of the elite.
Buckley made his choice clear during the Gulf War. No longer was Soviet communism a threat, but he strongly supported the assault on Iraq, or as he preferred to call it, resisting Saddam Hussein's war of aggression. "I [Buckley] and other editors had written several columns and editorials backing Bush's tough response to Iraq." (Buckley, In Search of Anti-Semitism, Continuum, 1992, p.105)
Not one who differed with this response could remain as an editor of National Review. He dismissed Joseph Sobran as senior editor because, by his opposition to the war, "Joe had become, for all intents and purposes, a member of the American pacifist movement" (Ibid., p. 26) Buckley had for some time been embroiled in controversy with Sobran, owing to his views on Israel; but it was not this issue but his "pacifism" that led to Sobran's dismissal. (Buckley says that Sobran "agreed" to step down, but this is reminiscent of Bismarck's resignation as Chancellor at the command of Kaiser Wilhelm II.)
A "tough response" to Iraq was required. Buckley was now without apology an exponent of standard power politics, and he did not even pretend to reconcile his views with the individualist tradition.
It is hardly surprising that neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz rushed to embrace Buckley. They saw in him an ally for their schemes to spread "democracy" throughout the world by American armed might. A reader of National Review today would find it difficult to distinguish its foreign policy articles from those in the principal neoconservative organ, Commentary.
During their brief association at National Review, Rothbard found Buckley engaging and cordial. But once Rothbard challenged him fundamentally on his militaristic foreign policy, matters were entirely different. That anyone would dare to suggest that the views of Nock and Chodorov should actually be put into effect was too much for Buckley, and he never forgave Rothbard for such an outrageous thought. In June 1979, National Review devoted an issue to an attack on the Cato Institute, which at that time was under strong Rothbardian influence. One contributor, Ernest van den Haag, did not scruple to suggest that Rothbard was a Communist sympathizer.
When Rothbard died, Buckley reacted with malicious spite. In an obituary published in National Review on February 6, 1995, Buckley classed Rothbard with the cultist David Koresh. He wrote: "In Murray's case, much of what drove him was a contrarian spirit." Rothbard, in Buckley's view, was mentally ill, the victim of "deranging scrupulosity." Buckley did not scruple to mock Rothbard, who, "huffing and puffing in the little cloister whose walls he labored so strenuously to contract," was left with "about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God." Buckley's reference to "huffing and puffing" was especially deplorable, since Rothbard suffered from congestive heart failure.
I do not think those of us who admired Rothbard should repay Buckley in kind. Let us say rather that Buckley was an effervescent enthusiast who had the misfortune to fall under the sway of ideologues whose views he was ill equipped to evaluate.
March 4, 2008
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