A Birthday Tribute to William F. Buckley, Jr.

The National Review Institute has extended an open invitation to a dinner in honor of William Buckley’s eightieth birthday, to be held November 17, 2005, at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Though it is difficult to pass up the bargain price of $500 per person to join Mr. Buckley on this happy occasion, those of us who admire Murray Rothbard cannot agree that Buckley is a fit person to honor.

After Rothbard’s death in January 1995, 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 malice stems from a fact he cannot escape: Rothbard exposed the contradiction at the heart of his political views. Buckley professed at the outset of his political career to be devoted to liberty and free enterprise. Like 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)

Nor was his devotion to these writers merely personal: in several of his early pieces, it is evident that he had absorbed some of their ideas. In Up From Liberalism, (McDowell, Obolensky, 1959), he accepted the fundamental libertarian objection to the social security program. He lists and comments on various objections to social security, and of the last on his list he says: “Participation in the social security program is compulsory. Wholly correct. A society has the right to impose negative restraints; but positive acts of compliance it may exact only in extraordinary situations. . . To require participation in a social enterprise is a fatal habit for a free society to get into.” (p.176)

So far, so good; but trouble was soon at hand. In the same passage, Buckley adds, after the sentence just quoted: “There are times when it must be done. A society may compel its citizens to serve in the armed forces when that society is clearly threatened. But it must not conscript its citizens except where such a threat is directly posed.” (p.176)

The fatal exception is at hand: if a “threat” is present, liberty exits the scene. And of course Buckley believed that the Soviet Union and its communist allies posed precisely such a threat. In order to combat communism, interferences with liberty of the severest kind may be imposed.

One may object that this position, however unlibertarian it may be, is not a contradiction. Buckley believes in liberty, but favors its abrogation under certain circumstances. Is this not a consistent view?

It may well be; but it is not a libertarian one. Buckley’s contradiction is that he denied this: he thought he could be fully libertarian while at the same time supporting a militaristic foreign policy and a domestic assault on civil liberties, all in the name of “anti-Communism.” He writes, again in Up From Liberalism, “There is a point from which opposition to the social security laws and a devout belief in social stability are in range; as also a determined resistance to the spread of world Communism — and a belief in political non-interventionism. . .” (p.193)

Once one grasps what Buckley has in mind by “determined resistance”, it is at once evident that he has abandoned liberty. 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.

But why is this inconsistent with liberty? Would not an end to the horrendously cruel tyranny of Mao have been altogether to the good? Indeed; but to achieve this goal, Buckley was quite willing to risk nuclear war: “The Liberals go on: An offensive by Formosa is likely to bring on a third world war, which will be the end of all of us. One replies: In fact, the Soviet Union will not engage in a nuclear war so long as she is convinced that the United States is ready to reply in kind and has the capacity to do so. This is what is generally called the nuclear stalemate, or the balance of terror. It gave birth to the concept of the limited war, and it is that kind of war of liberation which those who would re-enter China favor.” (Rumbles Left and Right, Putnam, 1963, p.58)

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.” (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. Frank S. Meyer found classical liberalism entirely compatible with a war of nuclear annihilation. Concerning him 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.

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.

Rothbard made clear the basis of his opposition to National Review’s foreign policy in an essay, “For a New Isolationism”, written in April 1959; the magazine did not publish it. To those who favored a policy of “liberation” directed against the Communist bloc, Rothbard raised a devastating objection: “In all the reams of material written by the Right in the last decade [1949—1959], there is never any precise spelling-out of what a policy of ultrafirmness or toughness really entails. Let us then fill in this gap by considering what I am sure is the toughest possible policy: an immediate ultimatum to Khrushchev and Co. to resign and disband the whole Communist regime; otherwise we drop the H-bomb on the Kremlin. . .What is wrong with this policy? Simply that it would quickly precipitate an H-bomb, bacteriological, chemical, global war which would destroy the United States as well as Russia.”

To this dire picture, proponents of “rollback” would of course respond that the Communists would surrender. Rothbard dissents; to view the Soviets as blustering bullies who would slink away if challenged is to fall victim to an illusion. He thought it obvious that since “the destruction of the United States would follow such an ultimatum, we must strongly oppose such a policy.”

If “liberation” leads to national suicide, what is the alternative? Rothbard suggests a return to “the ancient and traditional American policy of isolationism and neutrality.” But is this not open to a fatal objection? “But, I [Rothbard] will hear from every side, everyone knows that isolationism is obsolete and dead, in this age of H-bombs, guided missiles, etc.” How can America shun involvement in European power politics if Russia has the ability to destroy us? No longer can we retreat to Fortress America.

To this Rothbard has a simple response: “a program of world disarmament up to the point where isolationism again becomes militarily practical.” If this policy were carried out, America would be safe from foreign attack: no longer would we need to involve ourselves in foreign quarrels. Mutual disarmament was in Russia’s interest as well, so a disarmament agreement was entirely feasible.

Ever alert for objections, Rothbard anticipates that critics will charge that a Fortress America would have crushing military expenses and be cut off from world trade. Not at all, he responds: “this argument, never very sensible, is absurd today when we are groaning under the fantastic budgets imposed by our nuclear arms race. Certainly. . .our arms budget will be less than it is now. . .The basis of all trade is benefit to both parties”. Even if a hostile power controlled the rest of the world, why would it not be willing to trade with us? Unfortunately, Rothbard’s arguments did not have any effect on his bellicose antagonists.

One important point about Rothbard’s argument merits special attention. Defenders of National Review will no doubt respond that Rothbard was a “Cold War revisionist”, with an unduly favorable view of the aims and methods of Soviet foreign policy. But his case for disarmament here in no way depends on a particular account of the genesis of American-Soviet conflict.

Buckley had no answer to Rothbard’s argument; and a personal break soon followed. Buckley vehemently opposed the visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959: for him, as the historian Patrick Allitt has made clear, the struggle against the visit was a veritable Crusade. (Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, Cornell, 1993, pp.67—70) Rothbard, in line with his wish to abate nuclear tensions, hoped that the visit might occasion some good.

For Buckley, such a view passed comprehension; and the matter still aroused him thirty-five years later, when he wrote his tasteless obituary notice of Rothbard. He said that it “pains even to recall” Rothbard’s support for the visit; he “had defective judgment” and “couldn’t handle moral priorities.” He cannot fathom why Rothbard criticized the “noble” James Burnham. How terrible it is to try to avert a nuclear exchange!

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 as his once close friend Revilo Oliver. Anyone who dissented from Cold War orthodoxy had no place at National Review.

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 like 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)

No 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.

Victor Davis Hanson, e.g., a classicist who because of his studies of ancient Greece imagines himself an authority on contemporary warfare, frequently contributes to both journals. He writes that “more often than not democracies arise through violence — either by threat of force or after war. . .We once worried about the negative Communist domino theory, but the real chain reaction has always been the positive explosion of democracy. . . By promoting democracies, America can at last come to a reckoning with the Cold War. . . now we can at least attempt to provide freedom to those states in the past we once neglected.” (National Review Online, February 11, 2005) Faced with such wisdom, Nock and Chodorov need no longer be mentioned.

Despite the many chances American hegemony gives us to spread freedom, Buckley still recalls with nostalgia the years of Cold War confrontation. The spine-tingling thrills of the balance of terror are no longer available. In an interview with Joseph Rago in The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2005, Buckley regretted that conservatism was no longer sutured together by “the galvanizing thread that the Soviet Union provided. And for that reason I think that conservatism has become a little bit slothful.” No doubt a whiff of nuclear grapeshot would revive it.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts