suppose there are people who imagine that the conservative
movement was pretty much on the right track, before
it succumbed to a boarding party of former Cold War
liberals – some of whom had been Trotskyites before
they were Cold War liberals. Certainly, some important
changes stem from that hostile takeover, but in the
area of foreign policy the contrast can easily be
overestimated. There were plenty of warmongering crazies
on the Right before the arrival of Neo-Conservatives.
Warmongering crazies were in fact
the leaders of the right-wing movement from
the mid-fifties onward. They drew up its unstable
ideological blueprint and gave their followers their
marching orders. By "unstable," I do not
refer to their mental health, but to the inner contradictions
of their world outlook.
partly on the pre-World War II "isolationist"
mass base of the Old Right, these new leaders had
to persuade their charges that everything had changed
in world affairs: a colossal crusade to contain and
then "roll back" communism was needed, one
that might last for decades. At the same, these leaders
had to show fealty to the republican and laissez faire
liberal values that their followers once embraced,
however fitfully and inconsistently.
A foreign policy, which increasingly
added up to empire – from the Greek-Turkish aid bill
to NATO, NSC-68, Korea, and other such excitement
– had to be squared with a rhetorical commitment to
free enterprise, prevention of inflation, low taxes,
individual liberty, and the lot. Thus was born the
incoherent ideology of the New Right, centered on
National Review, with its coalition of ex-communists,
ex-leftists, New Conservatives, remnants of the Old
Right, and Catholic writers with a talent for making
up theological rationalizations for Cold War measures
and criminal weaponry.
transition from Old to New Right lasted about a decade,
and since those years were full of turmoil and controversy,
a nearly complete erasure of memory concerning the
differences between the two Rights took place. It
was one of Murray Rothbard's great contributions that
he rescued the transformation from oblivion; it was
also an act of piety toward the Old Right in which
he grew up.(1)
WAR LIBERALS WHO VOTED REPUBLICAN
a definitive history of Cold War Liberalism is ever
written, its author may well conclude that, on foreign
affairs, the differences between liberals and conservatives
was, in the end, rather minimal and largely rhetorical,
with the Cold War conservatives mostly articulating
the liberals' very own policies while damning the
latter as "too soft." What did Barry Goldwater
ever call for, that Cold War liberals had not already
theorized and modeled in their various think tanks
and conclaves? That a handful of liberals turned away,
finally, from a war in Vietnam, which was entirely
their own creation, while others clung to it as bitter-enders,
does not prove that those others had ever disagreed
substantially with Cold War liberalism.
No, the chief complaints from liberal
publications and the press generally, during those
years (and for many historians today) would have been
that the conservative Cold Warriors were insufficiently
friendly to trade unions, backward on civil rights,
recalcitrant about the progressive income tax, etc.
The complaints centered, then, on the residual Old
Right elements in New Right politics, aspects, which
were incrementally tossed aside and forgotten as the
Cold War wore on. The arrival of the Neo-Conservatives
merely overlapped with – and helped speed up – the
long-run process of sell-out.
The New Right's way of handling the
contradiction between empire abroad and republican
government at home was the quiet and gradual abandonment
of what little "libertarianism" still existed
on the Right.
is not to deny the existence of sundry tendencies
and factions on the Cold War Right. There were those
given to literary-philosophical musings – to steal
a phrase from a colleague of mine – who wrote for
Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review,
and elsewhere. There were the followers of Leo Strauss,
who now must number in the hundreds, and who were
in their way, proto-Neo-Cons, but with murky doctrines,
much of which they cannot reveal.
Some of these writings were interesting,
insightful, and important; the rub is, that when it
came to foreign policy, most of these writers marched
in rather unreflective lockstep behind the Cold War
was precisely to challenge the dominance of this New
Right consensus that Murray Rothbard and his associates
formulated a rigorous libertarianism, which
stressed among other things, the permanent struggle
between liberty and the state, and the crucial role
of war and preparation for war in strengthening the
welfare-warfare state, thereby reducing individual
freedom to a mere slogan suitable for burping over
at a Republican Party dinner.(2)
That was the point of libertarianism:
a critique of, and opposition to, the modern, overmighty
"sovereign" state in all its aspects, including
war and militarism, as against a half-hearted call
to tinker with fiddly bits of the tax code or "demunicipalizing
the garbage service." Those who do not see things
this way are under no compulsion to call themselves
libertarians. Their heritage is an extension of the
Cold War "conservatism" of the New Right
– not to be confused with a later "New Right":
the 1970s movement centered on social issues, which
partly grew out of the Wallace movement.
WERE CRAZY, WHEN CRAZY WASN'T COOL
have to hand it to the Cold War liberals: whatever
they thought up in their post-constitutional agencies
and academic environs – nuclear annihilation of "enemy"
civilians, defoliation, and so on – they had a knack
for sounding humane when they presented it. The Cold
War conservatives threw off the mask, as a matter
of style. It was more heroic, apparently, to dwell
on the hoped-for carnage, the loveable kilotons and
NR senior editor and ex-Trotskyite, James Burnham,
who wanted, already in 1947, an "American empire."
The empire would seek "decisive control"
and promote European federation. If rhetorical cover
were needed, all this could be termed "the policy
of democratic world order." By 1953, he was asking
for "winged soldiers, air cavalry, able to raid
two thousand miles behind the lines tonight and be
gone before the defense arrives tomorrow, ready to
liberate a Siberian slave labor district this week,
spearhead a revolt in the Caucasus the next, and blow
up an enemy powerhouse over the weekend."(3)
the War in Vietnam, Burnham issued strategic and tactical
wish-lists, which might sound – to an uninitiated,
conventional thinker – like a set of prospective war
crimes: "biological and chemical weapons should
be used. North Vietnam's rice crop could be wiped
out, while an 'incapacitating gas' might prove ideal
for ridding South Vietnamese villages of Vietcong
infiltrators, since the latter could be seized without
risk to friendly locals. Nuclear devices could also
be put to use, e.g., cobalt dust to create a radioactive
barrier between the two Vietnams…"(4)
Sounds like chemical-biological warfare,
Weapons of Mass Dementia, and "dirty bombs"
the US did leave Vietnam, Burnham wanted Haiphong
and Hanoi to be "immediately and totally atomized,"
if any atrocities were committed by the communists.(5)
this higher ethical math gives a person a headache,
but Burnham – former philosophy professor and ex-CIA
analyst – was up to it. You can see why he joined
NR as soon as it came into being in 1955.
TRUTH GOES MARCHING ON
Cold War favorite is Professor Harry Jaffa, of the
aforenamed Straussian sect. He is mainly known these
days for his project of proving that Abraham Lincoln
embodied the wisdom of the ancients and the political-moral
reason of the moderns and bears installing in the
Trinity, should the Holy Ghost need time off. His
Lincolnian realpolitik was much on display
during the High Cold War.
a piece written in the early sixties, "The Case
for a Stronger National Government" – no surprise
there! -, Jaffa remarked, not quite in passing, that
the "heart of America's defenses, in this nuclear
age, consists in its ability to destroy sixty, eighty,
or one hundred million of a possible enemy's population
with a single stroke."(6)
Oh, the singularity of the stroke,
the finality of the act, the collaterality of the
damage! This would be enough to make the average person
wonder whether the word "defense" really
encompasses the case in hand. But not Jaffa, he wanted
a positive program to make it all work.
It was all about whether we could
"absorb an attack." And Jaffa had plans
for us. He called for a federal building code,
such that no new structure could arise anywhere in
the US without having a bomb shelter built into it.
where, one might ask, is the enumerated power under
which this could be done? No matter, said Jaffa: it
was a perfect illustration of the irrelevance of states
rights and other such quibbles. We have this
foreign policy, we must therefore have these shelters,
and it follows somehow that a majority of Congress,
pushed along by the President, simply have
the power to do what a man's got to do, or at least
"such things [as] are not actually prohibited."(7)
This is "big government conservatism"
with a vengeance and, indeed, before that vice acquired
a name. Such earnest calls to gut the Constitution
and exalt the (central) state in the name of the great
emergency might have driven "conservatives"
to look into the advantages of a more peaceful foreign
policy, before the next wave of emergency-fighters
asserted federal power to do anything, including things
But of course they didn't look into
is not space here to do full justice to other bomb-brandishing
crazies of the New Right. Young Mr. Buckley (forever
thus, like young Mr. Grace), Frank Meyer, and a whole
legion of High Cold War theoreticians held forth for
decades about missile throw-weights, warhead specs,
etc., always demanding, at the drop of a diplomatic
slight, that the damned things be used. Bad
as it was, they made it worse with a moralizing pseudo-Christian
overlay of bastardized "Just War" theory
and pseudo-Catholic moral "reasoning." On
this, the much-abused Bishops were sounder, even if
they failed to go far enough.(8)
Of the whole lot, only Murray Rothbard,
Robert LeFevre, and a few others thought it worthwhile
to rethink the whole Cold War business. Rothbard had
noticed that the Cold War conservatives just wanted
war, period. The creation of a "libertarian movement"
separate from conservatism stemmed from precisely
that realization. At this late date, I can't spend
much more time fighting over labels, but it is worth
knowing, for the record, whose forebears are which.
What the Neo-Conservatives did do,
was to finish off the Right's lingering pretense that
it cared a wee bit about domestic liberty. Big government
conservatism came into its own, and the "Right"
could now take up Trotsky's permanent revolution (export
version) as its overriding cause. Today's younger
"conservatives" – leaving aside, for now,
the pro-war "libertarians" – imagine there
will be no domestic consequences of imperial foreign
policy. But wait! Could they, as products of Neo-Conservative
training, spot a domestic consequence, even if one
slapped them upside the first ten amendments? Probably
not, and perhaps they don't care.
WORTHY LEGACY FOR PRO-WAR "LIBERTARIANS"
it stands: the imposing hulk of Cold War conservatism,
entombed in all those ancient issues of National
Review and at other points east and west. Pro-war
"libertarians" looking for a heritage should
read this material. Admittedly, the contemporary PC
"conservative," sensitized by long association
with high-minded Neo-Conservatives, would have to
tiptoe past a few embarrassing tulips and whistle
past a few ideological graveyards involving race,
gender, and other such matters, while reading his
or her forefathers.
Some of the outpourings of the New
Right mind in its earlier stages may seem quite repellent
to some of our pro-war "libertarians." I
urge them, however, to soldier on. They will find
wonderful material there about atomizing foreigners
and wiping whole countries off the map. I am certain
they will feel right at home.
It may be time to quit worrying about
who gets to steal whose label. The pro-war "libertarians"
and "conservatives" will most likely get
their war. I hope they enjoy it.
few more exercises like the one now pending and there
won't be much liberty and there won't be much to conserve.
There will just be the same old welfare-warfare state,
grown even fatter and more vicious. But perhaps conserving
that is the point for present-day conservatives
and their hangers-on.