From the Occasional Papers of the Conservative Citizens Foundation Issue Number Six: Neoconservatism. (2004) Pages 6-12.
“Neo-conservation” is the label for a contemporary intellectual and political movement that began to emerge in the United States in the late 1960s. It is considered “neo” (new) for two principal reasons: first, because most of its adherents and architects were (at least originally) “new” to any kind of right-of-center orientation, having previously identified with the political left; and second, because the formulation of “conservatism” that they produced was a “new” one noticeably different in content and style from the mainstream American Conservatism that had prevailed since the New Deal-World War II eras.
Neo-conservatism was in large part a reaction on the part of largely northeastern, urban, academic and literary figures associated with the liberalism of the New Deal-New Frontier-Great Society eras to the attacks on American society and government (including attacks on liberalism itself) by the New Left of the 1960’s. Unlike many of the leading figures in the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s (a movement generally described here as the “Old Right”), who often had been actual members of the Communist Party, most who became neo-conservatives were never that far to the left. Some, like Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol, had been Trotskyists, but for the most part the leftist political background of the neo-conservatives lay in democratic socialism, organized labor, and the establishment academic liberalism that prevailed in the politics and culture of the post-New Deal era.
Moreover, while the main figures of neo-conservatism were frightened and repelled by the violent tactics, confrontational style, and explicit and anti-Americanism of the New Left, they were also often driven to the “right” by yet another consideration. Many of the intellectual and political figures who originated neo-conservatism were of Jewish background and strongly identified as Jews in both a cultural and ethnic sense (perhaps much less so in a religious sense for most of them). As Jews, they were alarmed by the New Left for radical Palestinian causes, including Palestinian movements the viewed as terrorist, and by the support given to the Arab enemies of Israel in the Middle East by the Soviet Union and its Satellite states. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, a prestigious establishment magazine published by the American Jewish Committee and which became the chief organ of neo-conservatism under his influence, noted in a passage in his memoirs that after lifelong opposition to high defense spending, he suddenly realized that the United States would not have been able to defend Israel during the 1973 Middle East war had U.S. defense capacities been reduced to the low levels he as a liberal had long advocated. Such considerations led him to change his views not only about defense spending and policies but many other related issues as well.
Jewish neo-conservatives also expressed skepticism about the re-appearance of racial and ethic quotas in the admissions programs of colleges and universities. While most had been extremely supportive of the “civil rights movement,” they soon realized that mandating college admission to unqualified blacks often meant that highly qualified Jewish students were being excluded from Universities – to which Jews had only recently begun to gain large-scale access themselves. Most Jews had unpleasant memories of or association with the experience of being excluded from certain college because of their own ethic background and because of quotas that limited their admission. I addition the emergence of overt and often virulent anti-Semitism among the black radicals whom the New Left cultivated and champion also antagonized and alarmed many Jewish liberals.
The sort of “conservatism” to which the emerging neo-cons adhered thus both differed from and resembled the traditional conservatism of the American right. While neo-conservatives generally supported a strong anti-communist foreign policy and shared the conservative distaste for the New Left on college campuses and in the media, they were far less interested than the traditional right in supporting such “small government” causes as reducing the size and cost of the welfare state, limiting taxes, preserving states rights, promoting free market economics. In general, the neo-conservative right embraced a federal government far larger in scale and power than what most Old Right conservatives could support. On social and cultural issues, neo-conservatives agreed with the right on the need for more “law and order” and “tough on crime” policies and on the need for sustaining “traditional morality,” “religion,” and “public decency,” though the emphasized the latter mainly out of a sociological awareness of the needs of the social order rather than from any deep religious and moralistic commitments themselves.
Moreover, while they rejected or at least tended to be wary of affirmative action and the more radical direction of the “civil rights movement” in the late 1960s, they strongly disagreed with the traditional conservative opposition to the original civil rights movement. Neo-conservatives had little interest in defending the American South, its peculiar racial institutions, or the Confederate flag; they hailed Martin Luther King as a hero and displayed little inclination to discuss or explore inherent biological and psychological differences between the races. “Racism” remained as much of a devil to neo-conservatives as it did to the left from which they came, and most Jewish neo-conservatives associated any expression of racial sentiment with anti-Semitism.
The conservatism of the neo-conservatives therefore was largely what can be described as a positional one --- not a conservatism founded on adherence to serious philosophical, religious, or ethical principles but one that simply adopted a position somewhat farther to the right and simply “more conservative than” that of the liberalism from which they were defecting. The attitude of most traditional conservatives to the early neo-conservatives varied, with some greeting them with more skepticism than others, but in general , in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the traditional right, disoriented by Watergate and American defeat in Vietnam, was eager to accept whatever help the neo-conservatives had to offer. If the neo-cons could not move as far to the right as traditional conservatives, the latter hopped that in time they would move farther and in the meantime sought common cause with them on those issues on which they could work together. In the early 1970s, Pat Buchanan, later a major critic of the neo-conservatives and himself the target of some of their most bitter and vitriolic attacks, set up a meeting in the Nixon White House with Irving Kristol, a major leader of neo-conservatism.
Some traditional conservatives, however, did point out that their new-found allies had not yet made a complete transition to an authentic conservatism. James Burnham, a major intellectual leader of the conservatism of the 1950s and 1960s, pointed out in an essay in National Review in 1972 that while the intellectuals who espoused neo-conservatism might have broken formally with “liberal doctrine,” they nevertheless retained in their thinking “what might be called the emotional gestalt of liberalism, the liberal sensitivity and temperament.” In other words, even though, neo-conservatives no longer consciously believed in certain liberal ideas, they still showed the habits of thought and emotional reactions that those ideas instilled. Burnham’s words have proved prophetic, as it became increasingly clear in the course of the neo-conservative alliance with the Old Right that their conversion away from liberalism was in many respects merely superficial.
This has become clear in any number of ways as neo-conservatives began to acquire more and more influence within the conservative movement itself. By the early to mid 1980s, American conservatism was being financed mainly through major foundations that fell under neo-conservative influence as they or their allies were invited onto boards of directors or were appointed to management positions. Almost all conservative efforts in publishing and education depended on the financial support these foundations provided, and conservatives began to discover that very much disagreement with the neo-conservative line was not welcome and would lead to a withdrawal of financial support.
Moreover, traditional conservatives also discovered that any of their own efforts that met with neo-conservative disagreement would be the target of campaigns of outright vilification. This occurred in several cases in the course of the 1980s as soon became notorious within knowledgeable circles of the American right.
Perhaps the first and still to this day the most vicious such campaign of vilification took place in 1981 over the appointment of the new Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the Reagan administration. The candidate for the nomination whom most traditional conservatives supported was the late M.E. Bradford, a professor of English at the University of Dallas who had written several books of literary criticism, historical scholarship, and political polemics and who had also been a major figure in both the conservative intellectual movement and in the presidential campaigns of George Wallace in 1968 and 1972 in Texas. In 1980, Bradford, who enjoyed considerable influence with rank and file conservative Democrats in Texas and the rest of the South, supported and campaigned for Ronald Reagan and materially assisted the Reagan campaign in winning the votes of disaffected Democrats. Bradford was also, as an intellectual figure, a nationally know disciple of the Southern Agrarians and the Jeffersonian political tradition.
Bradford’s qualifications for appointment to the NEH were therefore both political as well as academic, and he gained the support of both Senators Jesse Helms and John P. East of North Carolina as well as more than a dozen other U.S. Republican senators and many academic figures, in addition to movement conservatives support.
Nevertheless, Bradford was by no means the only candidate for the NEH position. His chief rival was a then-obscure academic figure named William Bennett, at the time the Chairman of the National Humanities Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bennett had few academic qualifications and little identity as a conservative. Indeed, he had not been known as a conservative of any kind until shortly before or perhaps even after the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. Nevertheless, he soon acquired the backing of the neo-conservatives in his campaign to win the NEH.
Bradford soon found himself the target of a mysterious smear campaign in both the national press and inside the White House. Claims were made that he advocated slavery, had praised Adolf Hitler, and was a virulent racist. An anonymous document repeating these unfounded charges, titled “Quotations from Chairman Mel,” circulated within the White House for the purpose of frightening the administration into denying him the appointment. Bradford had written several scholarly critiques of Abraham Lincoln, and these were dredged up, quoted out of context, and used to “discredit” him as an “extremist.” Academic conservatives reported that a telephone campaign” was conducted against Bradford by neo-conservatives who would contact Bradford’s friends and supporters, tell them he was a defender of slavery or some such charge, and warn that his appointment would be a serious political liability for the Reagan administration and conservatism. Neo-conservative columnist George Will and left-wing historian Eric Foner joined in the attack on Bradford in the pages of The Washington Post. Terry Eastland, a neo-conservative Bennett protégé who had ghostwritten Bennett’s 1979 book on affirmative action so he could have some claim to credentials qualifying him for the NEH post, denounced Bradford and the two North Carolina conservative senators who supported him on the editorial page of the Norfolk (Virginia) Pilot , a newspaper that circulates in North Carolina and could damage the political standing of both Conservatives senators, writing that “the Reagan administration no more needs to sign on Stephen Douglas Democrats [as he supposed Bradford was] than it does Tip O’Neill Democrats.” Of course, most political analysts at that time and since have emphasized that Reagan had won the election at all precisely because large numbers of rank-and-file Democrats had defeated from their party to vote for him. Bradford thus had played a significant role in making the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrats” possible.
Eventually, despite the endorsement of Bradford by some 18 U.S. senators, Pat Buchanan, and both Senators Jesse Helms and John East from Bennett’s own state of North Carolina, Bennett received the NEH nomination from the White House and was later confirmed. By creating the controversy in the press about Bradford and what he had written and then claiming that he was so controversial that his appointment would be a liability to the Reagan administration, the neo-conservatives successfully manipulated the White House into rejecting his appointment.
The neo-conservative attack on Bradford can be said to have initiated the “war” between the traditional right and the neo-conservatives. A few years afterward, in 1986, Bradford, as President of the Philadelphia Society, a conservative discussion group that consisted of most of the leading conservatives intellectual figures in the United States, organized a meeting that explored the nature of neo-conservatism and the differences between it and traditional conservatism. Neo-conservatives at once denounced the meeting and some of the addresses delivered at it as “anti-Semitic” and “extremist,” charges that merely replicated those muttered about Bradford himself.
Not long afterwards in 1988, Russell Kirk, probably the leading conservative intellectual figure of the post-World War II era, delivered a speech on neo-conservatism at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and playfully remarked that “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neo-conservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States,” a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neo-conservatives. His remark was immediately greeted with a vitriolic personal denunciation of Kirk himself - a beloved and deeply respected figure on the American right - as “a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neo-conservatives” by neo-conservative Midge Decter, wife of Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and herself a leading neo-conservative writer and activist. Kirk, she claimed, “said people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty.” (This writer was personally present at the Kirk speech and he said nothing of the kind.)
While neo-con tactics of denouncing traditional conservative rivals and critics as “extremist,” “racist,” “McCarthyities,” and similar bad names were identical to those of the left (Harry Truman, for example, had denounced Robert Taft as a “Nazi sympathizer” because he had criticized the Nuremberg trials), the neo-cons tended to emphasize the supposed “anti-Semitism” of the Old Right. The major Old Right figure to be attacked in this way in the 1980s was columnist and National Review editor Joseph Sobran.
Sobran had indeed written some columns that were highly critical of Israel, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and Jews in general, and in one particular column he praised the racialist and anti-Semitic magazine Instauration as “an often brilliant magazine” (and also had criticized it for what he called its demand for total “racial antagonism”). Shortly thereafter, in a letter to Sobran of May 19, 1986, Decter accused him of being “little more than a crude and naked anti-Semite” and then distributed the letter to several editors of magazines for which Sobran wrote with the purpose of intimating them into refusing to publish him. Although Sobran’s employer at National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., at first defended him against these charges, he later demoted him as an editor of the magazine and in an editorial in National Review of July 4, 1986 publicly reprimanded Sobran for his “obstinate tendentiousness” in his recent columns for violating the “structure of prevailing taboos respecting Israel and the Jews.”
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an Old Right foundation that specialized in recruiting college students and academics and educating them in the intellectual background of conservatism, also, came under neo-conservative attack around this time, when its journal, The Intercollegiate Review, published a symposium on conservatism that included criticisms of neo-conservatism by M.E. Bradford and others. Midge Decter again denounced this and a speech at the Philadelphia Society meeting as anti-Semitic as well. “It’s this notion of a Christian civilization,” she remarked to John Judis of The New Republic. “You have to be part of it or you’re not really fit to conserve anything. That’s an old line and it’s very ignorant.”
Perhaps the major onslaught by the neo-conservatives against the Old Right in the 1980s took place against the Rockford Institute in 1989, which publishes Chronicles magazine, had hired neo-conservatives religious writer Richard John Neuhaus, a former speech writer for Martin Luther King Jr. and at that time a Lutheran pastor and a later convert to Roman Catholicism and a Catholic priest, as its religion editor. When Chronicles published articles criticizing immigration and a book review that expressed a cautiously favorable view of writer Gore Vidal, who had already been attacked by neo-conservatives as an “anti-Semite” for what he had written about Israel, Neuhaus and Norman Podhoretz reacted.
Podhoretz sent a letter of February 15, 1989 to Neuhaus in which he denounced Vidal for “his anti-Semitic attack on me” and the review of Vidal in Chronicles . I know an enemy when I see one, and Chronicles has become just that so far as I personally am concerned ? and, I would hope, so far as any decent conservative of any stripe is concerned as well.” On May 5, the president and vice-president of Rockford visited the Institute’s New York offices where Neuhaus worked and fired him, as Rockford Vice President Michael Warder explained to The Washington Post , “after Neuhaus ignored their request to curtail expenses and countered with what Warder characterized as an ‘ultimatum that smacked of extortion.’ He accused Neuhaus of threatening to bring accusations of anti-Semitism, racism and financial irregularities against the institute. ‘He was saying, “I’m going to smear you guys if you don’t go along with what I say.””
The firing of Neuhaus, who was physically ejected into the street by the Rockford executives, not only constituted an act of war (actually, an act of defense against the war the neo-conservatives had already initiated) against neo-conservatives but also incited drastic retaliatory measures by the neo-cons and their allies. Rockford was soon denied funds it had received from major conservative foundations that were under neo-conservative influence or control, a funding loss that almost caused its collapse. Rockford and Chronicles have survived, however, as the major organs of what has now come to be called “paleo-conservatism,” the principal ideological rival to the now-dominant neo-conservatism, though without the support of many “Old Right” conservatives who had been conscripted or intimidated by the neo-conservatives. In the issue of National Review of June 16, 1989, Buckley himself took the neo-conservative side in the Rockford dispute, pontificating that “it is something necessary to excrete unwholesome bodies, as in the past was done, e.g., to the John Birchers, and the Ayn Randians.” In the same issue, however, Buckley was obliged to wish farewell to the departing book review editor of National Review, Chilton Williamson, Jr., and to congratulate him on his new post - as the senior editor for books at Chronicles! The question was, Who was excreting whom?
Similar campaigns of vilification were mounted by neo-conservatives against several of their other critics on the right. In 1990 and 1991, columnist Pat Buchanan was attacked because of his criticisms of Israel and American Middle East policy and for his positions criticizing immigration and cultural trends. He too was labeled an “anti-Semite,” along with Kirk, Sobran, Rockford, Bradford, and others. Professor Paul Gottfried, a paleo-conservative historian and himself Jewish, was rather mysteriously denied an academic position at Catholic University after neo-conservative complaints about him as an “anti-Zionist” surfaced. The John Randolph Club, a new organization that sought to build a coalition of paleo-conservatives and old libertarians, was quickly denounced by neo-conservative David Frum in the Wall Street Journal and later in his 1994 book Dead Right as a collection of racists, xenophobes, and anti-democratic extremists. Refreshingly, he seems to have refrained from accusations of anti-Semitism, though in a 2003 article in National Review , Frum (by that time an editor at the magazine) denounced the paleo-conservatives as “Unpatriotic Conservatives” for their skepticism of and opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
This catalogue of neo-conservative efforts not merely to debate, criticize, and refute the ideas of traditional conservatism but to denounce, vilify, and harm the careers of those Old Right figures and institutions they have targeted is by no means exhaustive. There are countless stories of how neo-conservatives have succeeded in entering conservative institutions, forcing out or demoting traditional conservatives, and changing the positions and philosophy of such institutions in neo-conservative directions. There are indeed individuals on the far right who voice views of race, Jews, democracy, etc. that are and almost always have been “beyond the pale” in American politics and culture, but not one of the victims of neo-conservative attacks belongs in such categories. Writers like M.E. Bradford, Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, and Russell Kirk, and institutions like Chronicles, the Rockford Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the Intercollegiate Studies have been among the most respected and distinguished names in American conservatism. The dedication of their neo-conservative enemies to driving them out of the movement they have taken over and demonizing them as marginal and dangerous figures has no legitimate basis in reality. It is clear evidence of the ulterior aspirations of those behind neo-conservatism to dominate and subvert American conservatism from its original purposes and agenda and turn it to other purposes.
Those purposes include in part simply the personal ambitions of those who have opportunistically latched on to conservative vehicles to advance their own careers, but they also include a profound hostility to conservatism itself on the part of partisans who are nothing more than liberal of leftist. What neo-conservatives really dislike about their “allies” among traditional conservatives is simply the fact that the conservatives are conservative at all - that they support “this notion of a Christian civilization,” as Midge Decter put it, that they oppose mass immigration, that they criticize Martin Luther King and reject the racial dispossession of white Western culture, that they support or approve of Joe McCarthy, that they entertain doubts or strong disagreement over American foreign policy in the Middle East, that they oppose reckless involvement in foreign wars foreign entanglements, and that in company with the Founding Fathers of the United States, they reject the concept of a pure democracy and the belief that the United States is or should evolve toward it. The history of neo-conservatism since its emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s demonstrates that James Burnham was right - the neo-conservatives retained the “gestalt of liberalism”, and that gestalt has led them into constant attacks on and conflicts with traditional conservatives. Foolishly, conservatives allowed this gang of pseudo-conservatives not only to enter their ranks but even to dominate key financial and policy-making organizations, so that today the entire conservative movement has come under virtual neo-conservative control and the commitments and ideas of real conservatives have been abandoned and forgotten. Not until American conservatives understand what happened to their movement and why and have reclaimed it by throwing out the leftists who have stolen it - or until they are able to construct a new movement free of neo-conservative influence - can the American right hope to recover the country and civilization they have lost.
* Samuel Francis is a nationally syndicated columnist and Editor in Chief of the Citizens Informer.