An Introduction to Neoconservatism

Questions relating to neoconservatism — what it is, who runs the show — have begun to be raised by the conventional press, mainly due to the invasion of Iraq, which is clearly the fruit of policy recommendations made by neoconservative advisors to President Bush. Foreign policy is the traditional monopoly of the Establishment. After all, the Council on Foreign Relations is not called the Council on Domestic Policies. Any invasion of turf by outsiders is therefore resented by the Establishment. The neocons are turf-invaders, which bothers the Establishment far more than the invasion of Iraq does.

Criticism of neoconservatism from the paleoconservative Right has also escalated. If the paleoconservatives had any institutional turf to defend, their resentment might be compared with the reaction of the Establishment. But because the paleos have served the Right as non-interventionism’s John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, they were on the attack against neoconservatism as early as the first Bush’s Administration. Their decade-old name is a self-conscious reaction to neoconservatism. Their attitude is straightforward: “We don’t need no stinking neo.”

The paleos resent the neocons for the same reasons that their spiritual forbears, the Taft Republicans, resented the post-war foreign policy interventionism of both Democrats and Republicans: first under Dean Acheson and then long-time internationalist John Foster Dulles. (By far the best book on Dulles is Alan Stang, The Actor, Western Islands, 1968.)

I am a paleo, but with distinctions. I was an anti-Communist. My view of national defense during the Cold War was strictly defensive. I publicly promoted the Strategic Defense Initiative even before President Reagan announced it. I favored the creation of a national civil defense program. (Arthur Robinson and Gary North, Fighting Chance, 1986.) I favored the replacement of offensive ICBM’s by thousands of mobile, subsonic, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which would have eliminated any strategic possibility of a Soviet first strike against these strictly defensive weapons. I was opposed to MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction, where civilians were held hostage by both sides. The idea of war against civilians appalls me. As to my anti-Communist bona fides, you can download a free copy of my 1968 book, Marx’s Religion of Revolution.

In tracing the rise of neoconservatism, it is best to use the five W’s of old-fashioned journalism: what, who, when, where, and why, in that order. I offer these thoughts as an introduction, not as anything remotely definitive. Let us begin with the pre-neo conservative movement.


The American conservative movement of the 1930’s was a grass-roots movement in an era of the dust bowl. It had no political philosophy. It had only one large, unattainable goal: the defeat of That Man, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Justin Raimondo’s book, Reclaiming the American Right (1993), goes into details regarding its intellectual leaders. The movement was nationalist, non-interventionist, and anti-New Deal. To say that it had no funding does not begin to do justice to its condition. After Pearl Harbor, it disappeared.

If we date the rise of American conservatism with Whittaker Chambers’ accusations in 1948 against Alger Hiss, the darling of the internationalists, John Foster Dulles’ hand-picked man to run the Carnegie Endowment, then the post-war movement was grass roots. It was anti-Communist, anti-Soviet Union, and anti-liberal. It appealed to millions of voters. The problem was, the party structure kept them from electing many representatives. The Cold War era Old Right had a lone voice in the House of Representatives: Howard Buffett, whose son Warren has gone on to greater fame.

The post-War Right had no intellectual leadership. It had no organizations that promoted political reform based on a developed philosophy. Three small publishing houses were the only outlets for conservatives in this era: Regnery, Devin-Adair, and Caxton. None had regular channels of distribution, and none had any acceptance in the academic community. Caxton disappeared in the late 1950’s.

I am not speaking of economic theory. Yale University Press published Ludwig von Mises’ books from 1944 to 1957. The University of Chicago Press published books by its economics faculty. But economic theory is not sufficient to provide a worldview for political, moral, and social action, let alone religious reform, another area dominated by liberalism in that era, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of Texas.

In 1953, Regnery published Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind. The book was basically a doctoral dissertation, except that Kirk had not enrolled in a Ph.D. program. It traced American conservatism from Edmund Burke. It highlighted the tradition’s hostility to centralized political power.

Also in 1953, libertarian Frank Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (1953). It did not remain libertarian for long. It became conservative. It favored the free market as a means of decentralizing power, but it presented conservatism as a non-rational development of tradition and intuition. Its target audience was college students.

Then, in 1955, came William F. Buckley’s National Review. In 1956 came The Freeman, a revived version of the Old Right magazine, this time published by Leonard E. Read’s Foundation of Economic Education (FEE). (Buckley had failed in his attempt to gain this name for his magazine.)

These were not well-funded organizations. ISI and FEE were non-profit and non-political. National Review charged a subscription, but produced red ink for decades.

There was a newsletter, Human Events, which became a tabloid in the 1960’s. There was the weekly syndicated TV show by Dan Smoot, a Constitutionalist, sponsored by Dr. Ross dog food and confined to local, non-network stations. Smoot’s exposé of the Council on Foreign Relations, The Invisible Government (1961), sold a million copies, but he did not develop a mailing list based on it. The John Birch Society arrived in 1958, and was initially anti-Communist; it became anti-conspiracy in 1964.

Because these were small organizations that were funded by small donors and book buyers, they had to communicate with the little people who put up the money. They were not mass operations, but they were grass-roots operations. They had to beg, or they had to find buyers. There were very few sugar daddies, and none of them called the shots. Read had a policy that he would not accept donations of more than $10,000 a year from anyone, so as to maintain FEE’s independence.

These organizations were opposed to centralized power. They were aimed at people who did not trust the state. The exception was National Review, which on the question of military expenditure was not distinguishable from standard Establishment recommendations. Its authors never saw a hike in the Defense Department’s budget that they opposed.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, several think-tanks were set up inside Washington’s beltway: the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute. These organizations began to focus on influencing the Federal government. They raised millions of dollars from businesses who were opposed to this or that piece of regulation. As the money poured in, there was a change of perspective: “Make government less arbitrary.” The older viewpoint received less attention: “Put the state on a near-starvation diet.”

For decades, the only source of funding for most libertarian academic projects had been the William Volker Fund, located in Burlingame, California. It funded Murray Rothbard and Rose Wilder Lane, that Old Right writer. It even funded me in the summer of 1963. It ceased operations around 1965. Its money was handed over to the Hoover Institution. From that time on, conservatism’s big money flowed into Washington public policy think tanks.

This is the background to the rise of neoconservatism.


Neoconservatism is a very small movement of highly educated people. It began in reaction to the Great Society projects of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. Part of this reaction — more than they say in their memoirs — probably had to do with Johnson’s crass style. Kennedy had been a smooth operator, in every sense. Johnson’s crassness sent a message: it takes crassness and raw power to push through policies of liberal political redemption. This message began to bother a few intellectuals who had been card-carrying liberal Democrats.

Initially, neoconservatives focused more on economic policy than foreign policy. The movement’s first major publication, The Public Interest, began in 1965. It featured readable, footnoted essays by scholars who had grown skeptical of the Federal government’s programs to eliminate poverty, crime, racial discrimination, and similar domestic evils. To some extent, Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee, also began to feature articles critical of existing government policy. The same authors wrote for both publications.

The Public Interest was a nuts-and-bolts academic journal. I began reading it by 1967 because of the influence of sociologist Robert Nisbet, who wrote for it and Commentary. I took classes under Nisbet, who was later one of the readers for my Ph.D. dissertation.

The “godfather” of neoconservatism is Irving Kristol, who had been a youthful Trotskyite. He defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who was mugged by reality.” This definition is clever, memorable, and accurate. It called forth the definition of a neo-liberal by M.I.T. economics professor Lester Thurow: “A liberal who was mugged by reality, but who has declined to press charges.”

Thurow’s aphorism illuminates the primary difference between the paleoconservative and the neoconservative. The neoconservative has been mugged by reality, but when pressing charges, he always identifies the infraction as a misdemeanor. The paleoconservative wants a felony conviction. He wants the offender to go straight by going cold turkey: no more government money. In contrast, the neoconservative believes deeply in methadone therapy. The deviant’s addiction will remain, but his behavior becomes more controllable by the authorities. The problem is, the authorities still run the programs that addicted the victims in the first place. The programs remain taxpayer-funded.

Neoconservatives want to impose a suspended sentence on the mugger or else immediate parole with counseling. There is a reason for this leniency: most of the movement’s founders were liberals, and they have built up a list of infractions that could lead to criminal convictions in their old age. Today, the neoconservatives run the show politically, but this is only because the statute of limitations has run out.

If I had to identify one neoconservative document that best represents the movement’s early concerns, it would be the government-funded report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was published by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965. Moynihan concluded that the restoration of the collapsing family structure of blacks was more important than any government policies to remediate poverty. Two years later, he wrote Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, a collection of lectures he gave on poverty and the failure of the government’s “war on poverty” to deal with the root problems, which have more to do with families and welfare payments.

A parallel study, also funded by the government, was James Coleman’s 1966 report on American public education, published about the same time, which concluded much the same.

Moynihan was a young Harvard professor. Coleman was a senior Johns Hopkins professor, the founder of the University’s Department of Social Relations. The importance of this will become clearer later in this essay.

Today, the neoconservatives are in the spotlight because of the influence of William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others associated with The Weekly Standard. Their influence is primarily in the area of foreign policy and military affairs, not economic policy. This constitutes a major shift in neoconservatism’s focus. What began a generation ago as an academic protest against failed and failing bureaucratic experiments by the Federal government has shifted to a concern about expanding democracy through American military intervention, especially in the Middle East.

Establishment liberals have been content since 1948 to defend the State of Israel, fund its experiments in government-subsidized housing, and maintain the flow of Arabian oil. In contrast, the neoconservatives see the defense of Israel as necessitating a shift in Islamic states to democracy. Their assumption is that democracy will somehow not lead to theocracy. This non-theocratic transition can be accomplished, if at all, only by American military force, i.e., permanent regional presence. They are willing to pay this price, i.e., have American taxpayers and troops pay it.

This policy is being carried out today in the name of reducing terrorism by cutting off the terrorists’ flow of money and eliminating their safe national havens. Establishment foreign policy specialists have always seen the goal of democratizing Middle Eastern Islamic states as utopian and, if attempted by American military force, highly risky. The neoconservatives begged to differ. Today, it is the Establishment that is begging.

Liberal foreign policy officially has always been “butter and guns.” Guns have always followed butter, but this has been seen as the unfortunate result of unexpected complications. Neoconservative foreign policy officially is “guns and butter.” Butter always follows guns, but this is regarded as the inescapable price of American regional presence abroad. Neoconservatives openly accept the White Man’s Burden, just as long as there is plenty of post-invasion construction contract money for the Good Old Boys back home. There will be plenty of butter, and neoconservative policy-makers know exactly on whose bread to apply it.

Conservatives of most varieties go along with this, despite higher taxes and ballooning Federal deficits, just as long as the wogs learn who’s boss. Colonel Blimp is alive and well in America. He even has his own call-in radio talk show.


The founders’ names are well known: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, and Seymour Martin Lipset. These were authors whose essays appeared regularly in The Public Interest.

Invisible was Leo Strauss, who died in 1973. He was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago. He was known in academic conservative circles in the 1950’s and especially the early 1960’s. As to how many people there are or ever were who have understood his books is a good question, but Irving Kristol has given him a great deal of credit in shaping his thinking. Strauss’ students now occupy senior positions on Bush’s foreign policy advisory teams.

Strauss co-edited an academic volume, History of Political Philosophy (Rand McNally, 1963). One of the contributors, Harry Jaffa of Claremont Men’s College, a year later ghost wrote Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech, which included the words that cost him millions of votes, however true they may be: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

It was no secret that many of the founders were Jews. (So, by the way, have been its most articulate opponents: Murray Rothbard and Paul Gottfried.) Here, I mean Jews in the sense of men who may occasionally attend a Reform synagogue. Their version of the shammah Israel is this: “Hear, O Israel: there is, at the most, one God.” I do not have in mind such men as libertarian economist Israel Kirzner, who is Orthodox, or the traditional conservatives in Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Toward Tradition movement.

With respect to the close connection between Jews and neoconservatism, it is worth citing Nisbet’s assessment of the revival of his academic career after 1965. His only book, The Quest for Community (Oxford UP, 1953), had come back into print in paperback in 1962 as Community and Power. He then began to write for the neoconservative journals. Immediately, there were contracts for him to write a series of books on conservatism, history, and culture, beginning with The Sociological Tradition, published in 1966 by Basic Books, the newly created neoconservative publishing house. Sometime in the late 1960’s, he told me: “I became an in-house sociologist for the Commentary-Public Interest crowd. Jews buy lots of academic books in America.”


On May, 2, 1991, Harry Jaffa’s former student George F. Will wrote a syndicated column that began with these words:

The two most important months in Washington’s history were June 1790 and June 1987. In June 1790, Jefferson and Hamilton met in Manhattan and agreed: Jefferson would support Hamilton’s plan for national assumption of states’ debts; Hamilton would support Jefferson’s plan for moving the capital south from New York. In June 1987, Bea Kristol moved from New York with her husband, Irving.

He is a one-man critical mass, whose move symbolized the movement of the nation’s center of intellectual gravity from New York and to the right. She is a distinguished historian who writes under the name of Gertrude Himmelfarb. (Will, The Leveling Wind, Penguin, 1994, p, 175.)

Columnists employ rhetorical exaggeration to make their points. There have been other equally important events in the history of Washington. As for Mrs. Kristol’s talents, in my opinion, she is the most gifted and reliable thinker in the neoconservative movement. She steadfastly has stuck to her knitting: nineteenth-century Victorian England. What she did to Darwinism in her book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), should have been done half a century before, if not earlier. But we do rarely find her articles in neoconservative journals.

Will’s point was well-taken. The move of the Kristols to Washington (which followed their son’s move to direct Senator Dan Quayle’s staff) did indeed indicate the shift of intellectual leadership in the conservative movement. The New York literati of ex-leftists had visibly staked their claim to direct political influence. What some of them had only dreamed of as youthful Marxist splinter group members in the 1930’s had now come true. Their intellectual journey had matched Reagan’s own journey from membership in the United World Federalists to the Presidency.

In the 1980’s, neoconservatives gained positions in the Reagan Administration. The most famous was Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who served as the American Ambassador to the United Nations, 1981—85. Kirkpatrick was a professor at Georgetown University. Yet in 1976, she served in the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention.

When I speak of the “Reagan Administration,” I mean the Baker-Bush Administration. The shift came when Martin Anderson (The Federal Bulldozer, 1963) departed after one year as Reagan’s senior economic counsellor. From that point on, Reagan’s advisors were Establishment Republicans in the CFR mold. Bush Republican James Baker oversaw any policies that Reagan cared little about, which meant just about everything except his confrontation with the Soviet Union. There, he was a traditional conservative.

Something like this had taken place two decades earlier. The immigration of ex-Communists into the editorial offices of National Review began in 1955. They had been top-level theorists, such as James Burnham and Frank Meyer, whose 1961 book, The Molding of Communists, stands with Whitaker Chambers’ Witness (1951) and Douglas Hyde’s Dedication and Leadership (1956) as a classic exposition of how the mind of the Communist enemy worked. So, in this respect, what happened a decade later in The Public Interest was not unique.

But it was unique in another way. The spiritual outcasts who found a printed outlet with National Review did not come from positions of nearly guaranteed income. The writers who at first filled the pages of National Review had no tenured positions at major universities. They had no legitimacy to impart.

Over at the John Birch Society’s American Opinion, there was even less legitimacy in view. Its authors had not been Communists. They had been anti-Communists back in the days when there was a heavy price to pay for being one. I recall a 1963 essay by novelist and anti-Communist Taylor Caldwell, in which she complained loudly against the ex-Communists who were taking over the intellectual leadership of the fledgling conservative movement. She was greatly annoyed. She reminded her readers that she had never succumbed to the siren call of dialectical materialism. She basically labeled the newcomers as Johnny-come-latelies.

The neoconservatives in 1965 were Johnny-come-safelies. Their heirs still are.

Remember the economist’s rule: “When the production cost of any item falls, more will be supplied.” When it comes to being an intellectual conservative today, the personal costs are in the K-Mart range.

What becomes apparent in studying the rise of the neoconservative movement is this: (1) it is not a broadly based grass roots movement; rather, it is a movement of institutionally subsidized professors and essayists; (2) its founding members had spent their formative years as Democrats or (in some cases) as Trotskyites; (3) they had gained tenured positions at America’s premier universities before they made to journey into the political swamps; (4) they gained access to influence in the Reagan years as conservatives.


The neoconservative movement has always been a movement of university professors, literary figures (mainly in New York City), and, after 1980, non-profit think-tanks, which are located mainly in the New York City area and Washington. The neoconservatives moved from the halls of ivy or the canyons of New York City to the Washington beltway.

The neoconservatives, pre-conversion, had been certified, salaried academic insiders or else respected leftist opponents of the Establishment who had journal access. These journals had distribution in universities and large urban public libraries. These people were not outsiders. They were not ready to don either sackcloth and ashes or hair shirts.

I regard this as the central fact of the neoconservative movement. It is one fact that few essayists write about, mainly because the arrangement seems so normal to them. They, too, have spent their careers holed up in the same sorts of enclaves.

When the neoconservatives began publishing in the mid-1960’s, they provided ammunition for old time conservatives and libertarians. The old timers had argued that, on principle, the centralization of political power is both immoral and corrosive of liberty. The newcomers provided case studies of failures within the Federal government. Their findings were welcomed by the old timers.

The newcomers also had what the old timers did not: academic standing and public reputations. The Establishment’s liberal universities had given these people jobs back when the latter had been young, energetic defenders of the system. Now, for the first time, conservatives could cite case studies of government failure that were written by professors at major universities. These newcomers brought legitimacy, as conferred by the historic enemies of the Right. The lure of legitimacy was difficult to resist. The almost hypnotic introductory phrase took over: “Even [Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Georgetown] University professor [ ] has found . . . .”

William F. Buckley launched his career with God and Man at Yale (1951), a detailed account of the alien worldview being taught at that one-time Puritan institution. By the late 1960’s, his better-informed readers — older now — had their spirits lifted by learning that some professor at an Ivy League school had discovered evidence of failure in Washington.

God was still missing at Yale, but Hillary Clinton wasn’t.

There was a fundamental difference between the older conservatism and neoconservatism: the neoconservatives have never believed that the government’s failures are systemic. They have never called for a rollback of the state, any more than their Establishment predecessors had called for a rollback of the Soviet Union. They hope merely for containment. Furthermore, as their influence grew during the 1980’s as a result of Reagan’s victory, they hoped to get in on the action, go to Washington, take over the administration of the funds, and use them for productive purposes. They planned to do well by doing good. They have certainly done well.

The neoconservatives have always been insiders. They have always had bases of operations that have served as entry points into the ranks of the power brokers. The conservatives were always outsiders who were barely able to gain a toehold on the fringes of power. Never having received either aid or encouragement from the state, they were not enamored by its potential for making the world better.

The difference between neoconservatism and conservatism has been the difference between the greased skid and the bootstrap.


When it comes to the twin motivations of acquiring power and money, there rarely needs to be a detailed investigation of “why else?”

The visible reality of the failure of the American welfare state began to make itself felt by neoconservatives in the mid-1960’s. They were slow learners, but not so slow as their Establishment peers. Some of them still have not learned.

The neoconservatives’ take-over of the conservative movement paralleled the rise of conservative think-tanks that could tap the wallets of highly successful businessmen. When the funding of conservatism moved from developing economic theory and political theory to influencing U.S. government policy-making, the neocons arrived on the scene. So, to anyone who is planning to write a book on rise of neoconservatism, I recommend that you follow the advice of Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein: “Follow the money.”


The neoconservatives did yeoman work in the early days by documenting, chapter and verse, specific failures of U.S. government policy. That was hard slogging in the bog of data. They proved to their own satisfaction that, in certain particulars, what the old-line conservatives and libertarians had always known in general was true: the centralization of power is an expensive threat to progress and freedom.

By this bog-slogging, they initially established their bona fides in the conservative movement. They gained reputations as being conservative scholars who were fully credentialed, of which there were few in 1965, and also as realistic critics of the Federal government’s economic operations. This gained them access to, and eventually dominant influence over, the main distribution centers of money in the conservative movement: policy think-tanks inside the Washington Beltway. They followed the money as a man with a destination follows a compass: to identify the sources of influence. By 1980, rich men within their circles began to supply a lot of it.

A few of us old timers in 1960 or 1950 also knew what Robert Higgs demonstrated in Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford UP, 1987), namely, that war is the health of the state, and a foreign policy based on non-intervention is necessary for keeping the state shrunk to non-messianic levels. But in dealing with the neoconservatives, we old timers feel like the prophet Isaiah, to whom God said:

Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed (Isaiah 6:9—10).

They are as blind in matters of foreign policy as their forefathers were in 1960 regarding domestic policy.

The conservatives’ full-scale rejection of the modern state did not motivate the founders of neoconservatism. In the words of Irving Kristol, they gave at most two cheers for capitalism. Some of them had been advocates of Marxist revolution or socialist take-over in their early years. All of them were liberal Democrats in their middle age. Then they saw the error of their ways.

Or did they? Those of us who, like Miss Caldwell, did not succumb at any time to the siren call of the messianic state, are not overly impressed with calls by neoconservatives to make the state non-messianic, but somehow without cutting its budget back to the level of Egyptian tyranny under Joseph: 20% of income (Genesis 41:34), and then back to the tyranny of Israel’s king: 10% (I Samuel 8:14, 17). In fact, we want to do even better than that.

June 10, 2003

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

Copyright © 2003