Lee Edwards has written a very useful book (William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement). He is a longstanding conservative activist and intends to celebrate William F. Buckley as the founder of the political movement to which he adheres. For Edwards, Buckley’s “vision of ordered liberty shaped and molded and guided American conservatism from its infancy to its maturity, from a cramped suite of offices on Manhattan’s East Side to the Oval Office of the White House, from a set of ‘irritable mental gestures’ to a political force that transformed American politics.” (p.191) But this book discloses a great deal that supports Lew Rockwell’s verdict that the “‘conservatism created by William Buckley . . . gave us the most raw and stupid form of imperial big government one can imagine.’” (p.175) Edwards, by the way, calls Rockwell an “ultralibertarian,” in the same way leftists used to call those on the Right “ultraconservatives.”
Buckley, Edwards tells us, began as a follower of the libertarian Albert Jay Nock; and Nock’s disciple, Frank Chodorov, guided his early writing. (To Edwards, Nock is an “archlibertarian.” Whether there is a difference between “arch” and “ultra,” Edwards does not disclose.) Edwards mentions Nock’s “radical antistatism” but he tells us next to nothing about the views of Nock and his great follower. From Edwards’s account, one might imagine that Nock wished merely to curtail the New Deal. In fact, of course, Nock condemned the “political means,” i.e., the State, as of its nature predatory. Edwards also ignores completely Nock’s views on foreign policy. Nock opposed militarism and interventionism and his The Myth of a Guilty Nation was an early revisionist classic.
Despite Buckley’s early exposure to Nock, his fundamental premise thrust libertarianism aside. Buckley stated this premise early in his career: “[I]n his January 1952 essay in Commonweal Buckley wrote that given the ‘thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. . .we have got to accept Big Government for the duration.’” (p.53) Buckley here expressed no mere passing thought. Putting into action his belief in a crusade against Communism, he had after graduation from Yale joined the CIA for a brief period from 1950–51. Though he ostensibly left that agency, ex-CIA agents, as we shall soon see, played a major role in National Review.
Edwards mentions three other writers, besides Nock, as “seminal” influences on Buckley’s political thinking. Each of these was a determined enemy of Nock’s libertarianism. The first of these, Willmoore Kendall, taught Buckley political science at Yale. (Edwards, by the way, is probably wrong that “Kendall taught the young conservative [Buckley] to read with the close attention to the text that the political philosopher Leo Strauss advocated.” [pp.34–5]. Kendall’s Straussian period came later than Buckley’s time at Yale.) Kendall rejected with scorn natural rights. Instead, he followed Rousseau: for him, the general will was the “deliberate sense of the community,” in America best incarnated in Congress. He attacked John Stuart Mill on freedom of opinion and called for the imposition of a public orthodoxy. His position would have justified the Athenians in executing Socrates, an implication he readily acknowledged. It will come as no surprise that he too had been a CIA agent.
James Burnham, the major influence on Buckley’s approach to foreign policy, managed the difficult feat of being worse than Kendall. Edwards tells us that Burnham, after his break with Leon Trotsky, “published [in 1941] The Managerial Revolution, which described the emergence of a new and unelected ruling elite, the managerial class, and its profound implications for Western society. In subsequent books, Burnham argued that the Soviet Union was the most advanced managerial regime and sought global power through subversion, aggression, and intimidation – an argument that Buckley fully endorsed.” (p.42)
Edwards’s account of Burnham grievously misleads the reader by what it omits. Someone who gained his knowledge of Burnham from Edwards would naturally think that Burnham opposed rule by the managerial elite just described. In fact, Burnham celebrated this elite. In a notable review, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” George Orwell denounced Burnham as an incipient totalitarian, fascinated by power, who could barely conceal an admiration for Hitler and Stalin. Edwards notes that Burnham was a consultant to the CIA, but he does not tell us that in The Struggle for the World (1947), Burnham proposed a preventive nuclear war against the Soviets.
Whittaker Chambers, “the fourth seminal influence on Buckley’s political thinking” (p.61), also vehemently opposed libertarianism. For Chambers, Ludwig von Mises was a superficial and dogmatic thinker; and in a notorious review of Atlas Shrugged, he said: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber – go!” (Edwards fails to quote this.) Like Burnham, this vest-pocket Dostoyevsky saw the world in apocalyptic terms.
As if this were not enough, two other early editors of National Review, Frank S. Meyer and Willi Schlamm, also favored preventive nuclear war.
If Buckley betrayed the libertarianism he had learned from Nock, he showed himself an apt pupil of his other mentors. Like Meyer, he was willing to risk nuclear annihilation to overthrow communism: better dead than red. “In May 1983. . .Buckley delivered a lecture at a Catholic college on ‘moral distinctions and modern warfare.’ A central proposition of his remarks: “To venerate life is to attach to it first importance. Surely if we were to do that, any talk of war, just or unjust, prudent or imprudent, limited or unlimited, provoked or unprovoked, would be an exercise in moral atavism.’” (p.145). In other words, when thinking about war, do not rate preserving life too highly. So much for the just war tradition.
Buckley and war had an elective affinity. “Following Tet [in 1968], Buckley called for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam as a way to bring the war to a swift end, a radical course of action that even Barry Goldwater, the alleged wild-eyed bomb thrower, had never suggested.” (p.111). Buckley was here nothing if not consistent. “In the first half of 1982, Bill Buckley, intractable anti-Communist, pressed the Reagan administration to declare war on Cuba because ‘it is difficult to think of a measure that would give greater heart to the entire anti-communist defense enterprise.’” (p.141)
But what of those who declined to join Buckley and Burnham in the struggle for the world? These remnants of the Old Right had to be purged. Murray Rothbard thought that the Cold War could be ended through peaceful negotiation. Buckley could not tolerate such views at his journal. Peace? Who ever heard of such nonsense!
Edwards misstates the reason for Buckley’s dispute with Rothbard. He says, “Buckley treated laissez-faire economist Murray Rothbard and ‘his merry anarchists’ more gently [than he treated Rand], but no less firmly, stating that their antistatism collided with conservatives who recognize that the ‘state sometimes is, and is today as never before, the necessary instrument of proximate deliverance’ from Communism.” (p.79) But Rothbard’s challenge to Buckley over the Cold War did not center on anarchism. Rather, he opposed Buckley’s reckless bellicosity. Buckley, echoed by Edwards, sought to portray Rothbard and his followers as head-in-the clouds utopians. In point of fact, the Rothbardians had a realistic perception of the dangers of nuclear adventurism.
The dominant theme of Buckley’s politics, as we have seen, was the need for a Big State to combat communism. But he was hardly a paragon of classical liberal virtue on domestic policy, either. In his Four Reforms, which Edwards calls “an intriguing and too-little-known work” (p. 123), Buckley suggested a radical constitutional reform. He proposed “that the Fifth Amendment be repealed.” (p.124) So much for civil liberties! He also suggested a “voluntary” year of national service for high school graduates. Edwards neglects to inform his readers of the considerable pressures contemplated in Buckley’s scheme to make sure that the “voluntary” decisions of the graduates went the “right” way.
Murray Rothbard, as usual, has the best comment on Buckley’s brand of conservatism. The theoreticians of National Review “transformed the Right from a movement that, at least roughly, believed first of all in individual liberty (and its corollaries: civil liberties domestically, and peace and ‘isolation’ in foreign affairs) into a movement that, in fact glorifies total war and the suppression of civil liberty.” (Confidential Memo to the Volker Fund, “What Is to Be Done?” July 1961)