January 10, 2008
The Betrayal of the American Right, by Murray N. Rothbard br>
Edited and with an introduction by Thomas E. Woods
Ludwig von Mises Institute, 231 pages, $20
The year was 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy [.pdf file] started congressional hearings on alleged Communist infiltration of the federal government, Marilyn Monroe wedded Joe DiMaggio, President Dwight David Eisenhower refused French pleas for American intervention in the battle of Dienbienphu – and Murray Rothbard was red-baited for the first time.
This last may not make the Encyclopedia Brittannica, or even Wikipedia, but it was surely a watershed event for the young Old Rightist, who had just entered the lists on behalf of a movement that was just about to expire.
This was really the year that marked the nadir of the Old Right, and the nearly complete evisceration of the conservative movement in America. National Review had yet to be founded – not that that would have been a plus, but more about that later – and the organizations and leading figures of the Right were at an all-time low in terms of influence as well as numbers. The complete rout of the Taft wing of the GOP had been accomplished with the nomination of Eisenhower, and the General’s election marked the beginning of a decade or more of “moderate” hegemony in the party.
Within the conservative movement of the time, such as it was, the main appeal was a visceral anti-Communism, which generally appeared in two varieties. The McCarthyite “enemy within” version, practiced with alacrity by such outfits as “Counterattack,” which put out the infamous Red Channels pamphlet that purportedly exposed “Communist-inspired” propaganda in the media, and the advocates of “rollback,” who concentrated on pushing a foreign policy that would, in effect, declare war on the Soviet Union and seek to free the “captive nations” behind the Iron Curtain.
Naturally, these two tendencies meshed easily with each other, with one flowing into the other without much contradiction, and yet they were different in that the McCarthyites, or many of them, were former “isolationists,” with some, like John T. Flynn, still adamantly upholding the old faith. McCarthyism was really, in an important sense, a movement motivated in large part by the desire for revenge against the Commies and left-wing “liberals” who had hounded the antiwar conservatives before, during, and immediately after World War II. The Roosevelt administration and its Popular Front supporters had smeared such stalwarts of the America First Committee as Flynn and Charles Lindbergh as agents of the Third Reich. Now, at last, the Left was getting it’s come-uppance! The Communists and fellow-travelers who had called for prosecuting America First and the “isolationists,” and accused them of acting as a German ‘fifth column,” were now getting a taste of their own medicine – and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.
Yet it was inevitable that the fierce anti-Communism directed at an internal fifth column or conspiracy could easily be re-directed to alleged enemies and threats abroad, and so the second arm of the anti-Communist upsurge of the Fifties took the form of a demand to confront Communism militarily. Rothbard, who had by this time begun moving in these circles, was an enthusiastic supporter of McCarthy, but was also determined to revive the Old Right tradition of non-interventionism, which had by this time largely faded out of the picture. The sudden recruitment of a passel of ex-Communists, who made a veritable industry out of red-baiting, infused the conservative movement with a militaristic air, with their calls for aiding the Chinese Nationalists against the followers of Chairman Mao – actively supported by the infamous China Lobby [.pdf file] – and increasing belligerence directed at alleged Communist attempts to dominate Southeast Asia. In 1947, the ex-Trotskyist James Burnham published The Struggle for the World in which he advocated nuking the Soviet Union and setting up a “World Federation” with the US at its head.
Truly a man ahead of his time.
A few years later, Professor Burnham would become one of the founding editors of National Review, and a leader of the “New” Right” which would make a militant (and militaristic) anti-Communism the linchpin of the modern conservative movement. In the meantime, however, the battle of the ex-Communists to engage in the politics of revenge by taking over the Right and turning it into a vehicle for obliterating their old enemies in the Kremlin, had begun with assaults on the remnants of the Old Right.
In April of 1954, Rothbard—determined to fight back against the rising interventionist tide—convinced William Johnson, the editor of Faith and Freedom, to put out an all-“isolationist” issue of the magazine, which reached thousands of supporters around the country. It was a blockbuster, featuring Rothbard’s comprehensive piece – provocatively entitled “The Real Aggressor”—which argued that militarism was incompatible with the freedom philosophy in economics, politics, and every sphere of life. Also making an appearance was Garet Garrett, who attacked the War Party for threatening to start World War III with Russia and averred that “the idea of imposing universal peace on the world by force is a barbarian fantasy.” Another contributor was Ernest T. Weir, whom Rothbard deems “the Cyrus Eaton of the 1950s,” head of the National Steel Corporation, who had seen the non-interventionist light and made a lecture tour of the country counseling caution against the alleged Communist colossus. In Faith and Freedom, he wrote:
“We have to accept the fact that it is not the mission of the United States to go charging about the world to free it from bad nations and bad systems of government. We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that there will always be bad nations and bad systems of government.”
This was too much for the proto-neocons over at The New Leader, the semi-official organ of Social Democracy in America, which published a piece by the ex-radical William Henry Chamberlin, “Appeasement on the Right,” which targeted Weir as a fellow traveler or maybe even a Commie, whose article “could have appeared in the Nation, perhaps even in Masses and Mainstream.” Rothbard’s piece was attacked for having drawn up “a blueprint for American policy tailor-made to the specifications of the Kremlin.”
Notice how the neocons’ tactics have changed little over the years. Yesterday, opponents of a preemptive strike on the Soviets and a world crusade to impose “democracy” at gunpoint were smeared as agents of the Kremlin – today they calumniate opponents of the Iraq invasion as doing bin Laden’s bidding – and, of course, typified as “leftists” (a ridiculous charge, on its face, when applied to Weir, whose reputation as a union-busting reactionary made him an unlikely fellow-traverler).
In both cases, their battle cry was and is “Appeasement!” “Munich” came up in Chamberlin’s smear piece, as did the specter of Hitlerian evil. And yet Chamberlin himself had opposed US entry into World War II: he had even written an entire book, America’s Second Crusade, which made the “isolationist” case, i.e. that the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany should have been left alone to tear each other to pieces. Now that Hitler was gone, however, Chamberlin, the former “isolationist,” had no compunctions about bringing out the old smears that had been hurled at him earlier. When Rothbard wrote to the New Leader, taking Chamberlin to task for his hypocrisy, all the old turncoat could manage to do was splutter that Weir had recently been “hailed in the Warsaw Trybuna Ludu, and that perhaps I would soon ‘receive [my] appropriate recognition from the same or a similar source.”
This battle with the New Leader prefigured the internal battle within the organization that put out Faith and Freedom, the Spiritual Mobilization movement (see Part II), which pitted Rothbard against his fellow Faith and Freedom columnist, the German émigré Willi Schlamm. Senor Schlamm had been an editor of the German Communist Party’s daily, Rote Fahne, defected to the Trotskyists, and then abandoned Leninism altogether: his sole concern, after leaving the Communist movement, was exacting retribution on his former comrades. In 1959, he would come out with a book calling for a preventive war against the Communist bloc.
In response to Rothbard’s March, 1955, column in Faith and Freedom calling for US withdrawal from Taiwan, Schlamm red-baited Rothbard, demanding to know how he could possibly be taking the “Communist” line.
Yet there was nothing “communist” about the line Rothbard was taking. How would we react, Rothbard wanted to know, if the Chinese Commies had a base in, say, the Great Lakes? Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, he wanted peace on the Korean peninsula, but this was heresy to the vehement Schlamm, who answered him with the usual neocon smears. Soon afterward, Rothbard’s column was discontinued: the reason, he was told, was that “because [Faith and Freedom’s] Protestant minister readership had come to the conclusion that I was a ‘Communist.’ Red-baiting again, and this time from ‘libertarians!’”
The year 1954 also saw the ascension of Frank Chodorov, “a libertarian’s libertarian,” to the editorship of The Freeman: once a weekly, the direct descendant of Nock’s sprightly individualist review of the 1920s and 30s, the publication had been taken over by the Foundation for Economic Education and turned into a monthly. It was still, however, “the leading organ of the intellectual Right,” as Rothbard dubs it, and the battle for the future of the conservative movement soon commenced in its pages.
Chodorov fired the first shot, with “The Return of 1940?”, accusing the interventionist conservatives of deferring the rollback of Big Government until the Commies could be defeated. The war had given us a federal Leviathan, confiscatory taxation, the loss of personal liberties (including a peacetime draft): “All this,” wrote Chodorov, “the ‘isolationists of 1940 foresaw.” Yet it was happening again, only this time with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the human race like Damocles’ sword:
“We are again being told to be afraid. As it was before the two world wars so it is now: politicians talk in frightening terms, journalists invent scare-lines, and even next-door-neighbors are taking up the cry: the enemy is a the city gates; we must gird for battle. In case you don’t know, the enemy this time is the USSR.”
It is interesting, how nothing really changes: the same scare tactics, the same demagoguery, and almost identical appeals to what Garet Garrett called “a complex of vaunting and fear.” These words might have been written yesterday, or tomorrow: it’s an old game the neocons of 1954 were playing, and they’ve continued to play it to the present day, with variations in terms of the identity of the “enemy” – but always with the same objective in mind: to institute a wartime atmosphere of hysteria and conformity, in which dissent, if not outlawed outright, is practically unthinkable.
Schlamm replied not merely with the usual calumnies, but with a campaign to oust Chodorov from The Freeman, which succeeded shortly after the exchange between the two. The Freeman was turned over to the tender mercies of Leonard Read, who proceeded to imbue it with the high-school-level free-enterprise-is-great ethos that persists to this day.
The interventionist assault on the former institutions of the Old Right continued in the takeover of Human Events, which had been founded, in the 1940s, by Felix Morley, a Washington Post editor and president of Haverford College, the journalist Frank Hanighen, and Henry Regnery, a conservative businessman and founder of the Regnery publishing firm. Morley, an intellectual and a libertarian of the “old liberal” school, was aghast at McCarthyism and objected to the trumpeting of the Hiss case in Human Events. The final split came when the China Lobby made its big push to get the US to guarantee the Nationalist dictatorship on Taiwan. Morley did not want to become the spokesman for a foreign despot: Hanighen and Regnery had no such compunctions. Morley was out, and Human Events went on to become the unremarkable and reliably neoconnish rag it is today.
The Old Right – beleaguered by attacks from the right-wing Social Democrats and ex-Commies of Schlamm’s ilk, and considerably shrunken in numbers and influence – soldiered on. Such groups as “For America,” run by Dean Clarence Manion – whose radio and television broadcasts on the “Manion Forum” were a mainstay of conservative activism – came out against the draft and also issued a platform plank warning that American foreign policy must be to “Enter no foreign wars” unless the continental US came under direct attack. The Congress of Freedom also became host to a number of libertarian and Old Right activists, who took it over, albeit briefly, and managed to make a few anti-interventionist pronouncements before control reverted to more conventional rightists.
“The last great gasp of the isolationist Right,” as Rothbard explains, “came in the fight for the Bricker Amendment.” Designed to prevent treaties and UN regulations from becoming the law of the land in the US, the Bricker Amendment garnered the support of virtually all the conservative grassroots groups of the day, including the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau, as well as more ideological groups such as For America and the Committee for Constitutional Government.
The Amendment went down to inglorious defeat, and, with it, what was left of the Taft wing of the GOP in Congress. As the Eisenhower administration lined up with Americans for Democratic Action, the American Association for the United Nations, and the United World Federalists, so did a number of “moderate” and formerly “isolationist” Republicans: the stampede to internationalism crushed the Old Right underfoot, and it would not rise again, in any significant form, until the present day.
The rise of National Review coincided with – and accelerated—the demise of the Old Right as the dominant intellectual tendency in opposition to liberalism, and the beginning of a conservative movement dominated by one overriding general principle: the inevitability and indeed the desirability of war with the Soviet Union. Rothbard complains that “at right-wing rallies no one cheered a single iota for the free market, if this minor item were ever so much as mentioned; what really stirred up the animals were demagogic appeals by National Review leaders for total victory, total destruction of the Communist world.” He cites L. Brent Bozell, Buckley’s nephew, who later went off on a Carlist tangent, declaring at a rightist rally: “I would favor destroying not only the entire world, but the entire universe out to the furthermost star, rather than suffer Communism to live.”
Crazed is not the word, and it wasn’t long before Rothbard had his fill of such rhetorical mania. Aside from this, however, there was the suspicion – which sounds creditable, although not provable – that the National Review faction of the Right was in large part a CIA creation. Rothbard cites the CIA affiliation of several prominent National Review editors, including not only Buckley but also Burnham: he also cites Frank Meyer as telling Gary Wills that he, Meyer, was certain that the magazine was a CIA operation. Meyer, a longtime National Review editor and veteran of the Communist Party, knew whereof he spoke, at least as far as Rothbard was concerned.
The editors of National Review were culled from the ranks of what Rothbard calls “the exes” – the ex-leftists who migrated rightward in their pursuit of revenge, respectability, money, and power, although this harsh judgement certainly did not apply to all: Frank Meyer was a sterling exception, as was John Chamberlain. As for the overwhelming majority of these converts from the left fringe, however, they were not so much for liberty as against the Communists, and especially the brand of Communism that toed the Kremlin line. Many of them started out on the anti-Stalinist left, and wound up in the conservative-libertarian movement by default. On account of their intellectual weight, and the machinations of Buckley and his circle, they soon came to dominate the movement, although, in many cases, their domestic politics were no more rightist than the New Leader.
Mind you, this was before the Great Migration of story and song that the neocons of today undertook: Irving Kristol was still a leftist, Norman Podhoretz was still writing paeans to the Soviet defense of Stalingrad: and the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic party had not yet jumped the aisle and penetrated the GOP with such devastating effect, giving us Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and Paul Wolfowitz, to name the most infamous graduates of this school for warmongering statists. The neoconservative takeover of the American Right is not, contrary to what is generally assumed, a recent phenomenon: it occurred at the dawn of the modern conservative movement, and its main vehicle was National Review, which nevertheless tried to maintain at least a veneer of libertarianism, which it trotted out on special occasions.
It was all a show, however, as Rothbard soon began to realize, and the final break with the Buckleyites – he’d been writing economics pieces for them, as well as occasional book reviews – came with Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, which the editors of NR took as an affront to the anti-Communist cause and an outrage that had to be protested. An exchange of letters with Buckley, in which Rothbard averred that Winston Churchill had been responsible for far more deaths in two world wars than old Nikita had ever dreamed of, was not calculated to heal the growing rift. From that point on, Rothbard, the Old Rightist, would wander in exile until the end of the cold war and the rebirth of the Old Right in the Buchanan campaign of 1992.
There is much more to this volume: Rothbard’s adventures in the League of Stevensonian Democrats (!), more conflicts with Buckley (this time in the pages of the New Individualist Review, with the issues being foreign policy and the draft), and the sudden collapse of the Volker Fund – which he had worked with for over a decade – due to the conversion of its leading light to the lure of a Calvinist dictatorship that would stamp out Communism, ban pornography, and defeat Evil itself as the prelude to a nuclear Armageddon.
Rothbard said “So long!” to the American Right at that point, and wandered gaily(if uncertainly) in the pastures of the Left as the tumult of the 1960s began to shake things up and the Vietnam war loomed large as the political issue of the day. Rothbard and the small circle of New York-based libertarians began to move on the edges of the ascendant New Left: in Betrayal, there are some truly hilarious stories of his adventures in the land of the lefties.
The book comes to an end in the 1970s, with Rothbard taking his place as the grand old man of libertarianism – a movement that, thanks in large part to his intellectual entrepreneurship, strategic acumen and amazing persistence, had grown far beyond the ability to fit into his living room. Yet the story doesn’t end there, with the founding of an independent pro-freedom movement and the launching of the libertarian institutions with which we are all too familiar. In looking at the Ron Paul phenomenon, for instance, I often wonder how Rothbard would have reacted: well, actually, I don’t wonder, because I know he would be thrilled at the birth of a real mass libertarian movement, at last – one opposed not just to taxation and the ministrations of the Welfare State, but also unalterably opposed to the Warfare State, the motor of the tyranny that grinds us underfoot.
The Old Right is back, and in a big way. The Buchanan campaign(s) were the harbinger, and the rise of the “paleoconservatives” as a separate tendency within the American Right was another premonition of the coming rebirth. The Paul campaign is the apotheosis of a long process of rediscovering and reclaiming our intellectual roots. In his book, Rothbard shows how the American Right was betrayed – and points the way to its possible redemption. As the Old Right once again rears its head, and roars its defiance, one might justifiably call this latestt chapter in the history of the Right “Rothbard Vindicated.”