October 10, 2004
ESSAY: Once Again America FirstBy Franklin Foer
n May 4, American conservatism took an unexpected turn. That morning, George Will -- the movement's most influential columnist, one of its icons -- slapped George W. Bush with a tart reprimand. For a year, Will had obliquely hinted of his grave misgivings about the Iraq war and the push to democratize the Middle East. But with the insurgency escalating, he now felt obliged to state his frustration bluntly. ''This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts,'' he wrote.
From the war's start, a few stray conservatives have criticized it. The columnist Patrick J. Buchanan vociferously opposed Bush's campaign against Saddam Hussein, just as he had opposed the one waged by Bush's father. Other opponents resided in heterodox corners of the movement like the libertarian Cato Institute and the traditionalist Chronicles magazine. But Will's migration toward the antiwar camp represented a significant shift: full-fledged members of the conservative establishment were now expressing doubts about the prospects for American success in Iraq. Indeed, Will has been joined by a small legion, from the powerful Representative Henry Hyde to the influential lobbyist Stephen Moore. ''I supported the war and now I feel foolish,'' the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson confessed to The New York Times.
While this backlash against the war may seem unexpected -- the Bush presidency has inspired fierce loyalty from conservatives -- it is hardly surprising if one looks at the movement's past. The right's skepticism of the state has long reverberated within its foreign policy. Conservatives have raised questions about the ability of the American government to spread democracy abroad, just as they have doubted its ability to deliver social welfare at home. They have long feared that wartime is like a strong fertilizer heaped on government, causing it to sprout new departments and programs that never manage to disappear once peace resumes. For most of the cold war, conservatism sublimated these doubts to pursue its overriding objective of eliminating global Communism. But with the Iraq war hitting a rough patch, this anti-interventionist tradition is suddenly poised for revival.
The conservative movement has its own creation myth, told in books like William A. Rusher's ''Rise of the Right.'' Before the early 1950's, these histories usually begin, there was no such thing as a conservative. Sure, you could find scattered libertarians and traditionalists camped in obscure little magazines. But they hardly constituted a movement, and they certainly didn't have a coherent ideology. In the early 50's, however, the tide began to turn. Whittaker Chambers unleashed his masterwork, ''Witness,'' in 1952, and Russell Kirk published ''The Conservative Mind'' a year later. Two years after that, National Review was founded to bottle this new energy and serve as a vanguard for a coalescing movement.
This version of events almost makes it seem as if the right mystically appeared from nowhere. It's easy to understand why conservatives would want their movement's biography to exclude its earlier history. Before World War II, isolationism had been a major tendency, perhaps the major tendency, on the right. And by the 50's, isolationism had been badly (often unfairly) stigmatized.
One of conservatism's early and now largely forgotten folk heroes was Albert Jay Nock, the flamboyant author of ''Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,'' who wore a cape and celebrated Belgium as his ideal society. In 1933, Nock wrote about ''the Remnant,'' borrowing the term from Matthew Arnold and the Book of Isaiah. By the Remnant he meant an enlightened elite that rejected the phoniness of mass society. A few historians have used Remnant as a synonym for the pre-National Review right -- a group that included the economic journalists Garet Garrett and Frank Chodorov, Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter) and, to an extent, H. L. Mencken. Nock's allusion to Isaiah works nicely for these polemicists, who issued thunderous, Old Testament-like warnings about American decline. Finding themselves at the forefront of opposition to World War II, they turned to the America First movement. Their hatred for war followed from their radical individualism. As the essayist Randolph Bourne (not a conservative) famously put it about World War I, ''War is the health of the state.'' Since these writers disliked the state, they came to dislike war, too.
While the greatest generation has become deeply etched into the national mythology, only a smattering of scholarly monographs, like Wayne S. Cole's ''Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-1945,'' have dwelt on the opposition to World War II. But the America First Committee achieved a significant following in the late 30's. At its pre-Pearl Harbor peak, it claimed approximately 800,000 members -- and not just angry farmers and protofascists. Its Yale Law School chapter included Gerald Ford and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice; John F. Kennedy sent the organization a $100 check.
Even though the antiwar movement drew support from across the political spectrum, it included many of the intellectuals and activists who would help revitalize the conservative movement in the 50's. Russell Kirk supported the Socialist Norman Thomas because of his antiwar stand. Henry Regnery, the seminal conservative publisher (whose house, now run by his son, Alfred, has had a recent success with ''Unfit for Command''), broke into the business with pro-German tracts critical of the Nuremberg trials. Willmoore Kendall, William F. Buckley's intellectual mentor at Yale and the inspiration for Saul Bellow's short story ''Mosby's Memoirs,'' began on the far left. But when his comrades renounced their neutrality to side with the Allies, a disillusioned Kendall took a major leap in his journey rightward. As a precocious child, Buckley followed his father's anti-interventionist politics and named his first sailboat Sweet Isolation. At times, these conservatives foreshadowed the arguments made by 60's radicals opposing American intervention in Vietnam. In a wartime speech, the Ohio senator Robert A. Taft intoned, ''Political power over other nations, however benevolent its purposes, leads inevitably to imperialism.''
So how did these isolationists turn into the cold war's most fervent hawks? The most persuasive explanation is also the most obvious: Communism. National Review -- filled with Catholics and former leftists -- viewed the Soviet Union as such an overwhelming threat that it willingly set aside its fear that the cold war would create a Leviathan federal government. In fact, anti-Communism's primary importance to the movement came to be enshrined in a doctrine called fusionism, formulated by the National Review writer Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist. The doctrine, which Meyer hashed out in his 1962 book, ''In Defense of Freedom,'' held that conservatism's competing wings, traditionalist and libertarian, should make ideological peace. Above all, they faced a common Red enemy.
Even if they hadn't been so eager to combat Communism, conservatives would have had good political reasons to distance themselves from their earlier isolationism. After Pearl Harbor, public opinion swung heavily in support of the war. In the process, isolationism emerged as a synonym for disloyalty and anti-Semitism. At the height of the so-called Brown Scare, Walter Winchell read the names of isolationists on the radio and pronounced them ''Americans we can do without.''
Given the abuse suffered by isolationists during World War II, it may seem surprising that they often became the most fervent boosters of the fierce cold warrior Joseph McCarthy. But in fact, McCarthy helped ease the isolationists into their new hawkish identity. In his history of the postwar era, ''Troubled Journey,'' Fred Siegel argues that McCarthy served as the isolationists' ''tribune of revenge.'' He enabled them to retaliate against the internationalist liberals who had sent our boys to war, and to strike back at the very men who had tarred them as traitors during the struggle against fascism. As George H. Nash put it in his classic book, ''The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,'' Joseph McCarthy's crusade had drawn many of the embattled conservatives together in ''a bruising common struggle.''
But it hadn't drawn all of them together. Conservatism emerged out of the McCarthyite moment with a new enemy: that small band of conservatives who continued clinging to isolationism. National Review, for one, didn't have any place for them in its pages. According to Buckley's biographer John B. Judis, with the founding of the magazine, and its masthead brimming with stalwart interventionists like James Burnham, Buckley ''was turning his back on much of the isolationist and anti-Semitic Old Right that had applauded his earlier books and that his father had been politically close to.'' And he did more than turn his back. He waged war against them. After the John Birch Society announced its opposition to the Vietnam War in 1965, National Review spent 14 pages denouncing the group and its conspiracy theories. (The Birchers considered Communist infiltration of the American government the threat that required attention.) Upon the death of the libertarian isolationist Murray Rothbard in 1995, Buckley quipped, ''We extend condolences to his family, but not to the movement he inspired.'' The historian Jonathan M. Schoenwald has documented many of these struggles between National Review and its fellow conservatives in his book, ''A Time for Choosing.''
Without a home in the conservative movement, the isolationists had no choice but to search for allies in unlikely quarters. During the late 60's, they often teamed up with the New Left, becoming stalwarts of the antiwar movement. Karl Hess, a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign and the author of the memoir-cum-political tract ''Dear America,'' argued, ''Vietnam should remind conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up an apologist for mass murder.'' In 1969, Hess joined with a libertarian antiwar faction that quit the Young Americans for Freedom (Y.A.F.), the campus conservative group. And a few on the New Left returned the favor, heartily embracing the apostates. In 1975, the historian Ronald Radosh (then a man of the left) published ''Prophets on the Right,'' a book championing the prescience of Robert A. Taft and other ''conservative critics of American globalism.''
This long history of residing on the fringe ended suddenly with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In 1992, Buchanan ran a surprisingly strong campaign in the Republican presidential primaries on an explicitly ''anti-imperialist'' platform -- a platform that he further developed in his revisionist history, ''A Republic, Not an Empire.'' ''When we hear phrases like 'New World Order,' we release the safety catches on our revolvers,'' he wrote in one of his newspaper columns. Even if his party ultimately rejected him, it co-opted much of his program, and in 1995, a year after Republicans ascended to the majority in the House of Representatives, 190 of them voted to deny funds for American troops stationed in Bosnia. By the end of the decade, condemnations of ''foreign policy as social work'' and ''nation building'' had become standard in conservative boilerplate.
Buchananite foreign policy has an intellectual wing, paleoconservatism. Long before French protesters and liberal bloggers had even heard of the neoconservatives, the paleoconservatives were locked in mortal combat with them. Paleocons fought neocons over whom Ronald Reagan should appoint to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, angrily denouncing them as closet liberals -- or worse, crypto-Trotskyists. Even their self-selected name, paleocon, suggests disdain for the neocons and their muscular interventionism.
Clustered around journals like Chronicles and Southern Partisan, the paleocon ranks included the syndicated columnist Sam Francis and the political theorist Paul Gottfried. Their writings have been anthologized in ''The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right,'' edited by Joseph Scotchie. The paleocons explicitly hark back to Garrett, Nock and the Remnant, what they lovingly call the ''Old Right.'' Like their mentor, Russell Kirk, the paleocons venerate traditional society, celebrating hierarchy, patriarchy and even the virtues of the antebellum South. They bemoan feminism, immigration and multiculturalism. A foreign policy naturally follows from these domestic views. The dismal state of American civilization so depresses them that they see no point in exporting its values abroad. Kirk announced in a 1990 lecture to the Heritage Foundation that America's contribution to the world will be ''cheapness -- the cheapest music, the cheapest comic books and the cheapest morality that can be provided.''
Counterattacking, the neocons often accused the paleocons of anti-Semitism. David Frum, for instance, built this case in his 1994 book, ''Dead Right.'' Indeed, this is a charge that has dogged isolationists -- from Nock to Charles Lindbergh (who is elected president in Philip Roth's new counterfactual novel, ''The Plot Against America'') to Buchanan. With their pleas for ''America first'' and their rejection of cosmopolitan foreign policy, they have occasionally vilified the oldest symbol of cosmopolitanism -- the Jew. During the gulf war debate, Buchanan spoke of the Israel defense ministry's ''American amen corner.'' Even the best thinkers in this tradition haven't been immune from repeating canards about Jewish dual loyalties. In 1988, Kirk accused the neocons of mistaking ''Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.''
George W. Bush entered office implicitly promising agnosticism in the long-running debate between neocons and paleocons. On the 2000 campaign trail, he promised a ''distinctly American internationalism'' that would provide ''idealism, without illusions; confidence, without conceit; realism, in the service of American ideals.'' Of course, after 9/11, Bush dispensed with this doctrinal neutrality. And in adopting a neocon foreign policy, he rallied most conservatives behind his ambitious agenda, a dramatic turnabout in opinion from the 90's.
Will this consensus hold? Already, many conservative writers seem primed to abandon it. Even when they haven't gone as far as Will or Carlson in their criticisms of the war, they have flashed their discomfort with Bush's goal of planting democracy in Iraq. National Review has called this policy ''largely, if not entirely, a Wilsonian mistake.'' With these signs of restlessness, it's easy to imagine that a Bush loss in November, coupled with further failures in Iraq, could trigger a large-scale revolt against neoconservative foreign policy within the Republican Party. A Bush victory, on the other hand, will be interpreted by many Republicans as a vindication of the current course, and that could spur a revolt too. If the party tilts farther toward an activist foreign policy, antiwar conservatives might begin searching for a new political home. In the meantime, the publishing industry may be providing a test of the Bush consensus: Pat Buchanan's new book, ''Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency,'' has already climbed onto the New York Times best-seller list.
Perhaps the movement's current state of mind is best reflected in its godfather, William F. Buckley. In June, he relinquished control of National Review. When asked about Iraq by The New York Times, he confessed: ''With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn't the kind of extraterritorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.'' It is noteworthy that Buckley's departure from the right's flagship journal should be accompanied by such ambivalence and profound questions about the movement's first principles. Conservatives could soon find themselves retracing Buckley's steps, wrestling all over again with their isolationist instincts.