James R. Lawrence III doesn’t look like a campus misfit. The North Carolina State University senior has the kind of clean-cut, buttoned-down appearance one expects of a major in biomedical engineering, a field whose academic rigors leave little room for an “Animal House” or Abbie Hoffman way of life. But Lawrence is more unusual than his demeanor might suggest. He’s distinctly in the minority of a minority, as both a campus conservative and one who’s against the Iraq War.
In the eyes of some of his friends on the Right, that makes Lawrence really a kind of leftist. When he published an editorial for the anniversary of Hiroshima criticizing Harry Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan, one of his colleagues on the campus conservative paper, The Broadside, suggested he was its “token liberal.” That isn’t surprising—student conservatives across the country tend to resent any suggestion that U.S. foreign policy could be immoral. But it is ironic, considering that one of the classic texts of postwar conservatism, Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, was written in response to the horrors of the Second World War, including America’s use of nuclear weapons. “The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity,” Weaver wrote to a friend in 1945.
Lawrence cited Weaver and Human Events founding editor Felix Morley in his article, but that counted for little. The young men and women of the Right aren’t reading much Richard Weaver these days—nor much Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk, to name two other seminal conservative thinkers critical of modern warfare. The time when Young Americans for Freedom wore badges blazoned with the slogan “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton” has long passed. Now College Republicans parade in shirts proclaiming “George W. Bush Is My Homeboy.” The campus Right has almost always been more activist than intellectual, just as the wider movement has been more political than cultural. But where once students were at least familiar with the names Kirk and Weaver, or Mises and Nock, today they look to Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter for guidance. They’re little acquainted with the wisdom of the contemporary Right’s founding generation, and it shows.
Campus conservatives are not just the future of the movement, they are its present as well. Alumni of the major right-wing youth organizations fill the ranks, and hold the commanding heights, of the institutions that mold conservative orthodoxy today. American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene is a former national director of Young Americans for Freedom. Ann Coulter and National Review editor Rich Lowry are veterans of student papers affiliated with the Collegiate Network, the breeder reactor of conservative campus journalism. Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff launched their political careers as leaders of the College Republicans National Committee, as did Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed.
Reed might not like the look of today’s conservative students. Journalists left and right have remarked upon how little they resemble the young Republicans of old; “there are plenty of ragged T-shirts, backward baseball caps and frayed jeans” among them, according to the New York Times Magazine, as well as the occasional instance of “full goth regalia.” The Times labels them “Hipublicans.” City Journal’s Brian Anderson calls them “South Park Conservatives” and notes they differ from Ralph Reed on more than just sartorial questions: “For most of the conservative students I interviewed, traditional values did not extend to homosexuality— most are okay with state-sanctioned civil unions for gays.” But that’s a reflection of the mores of their generation rather than a sign of philosophical libertarianism, which appears to command as few Hipublican adherents as Kirkian conservatism does. “We have to use any and all means to defend ourselves from the terrorists, who hate the American way of life even more than the French and Germans do,” one “mildly libertarian” Cornell student told Anderson.
The odd nose ring or purple Mohawk notwithstanding, these students are best understood not as Hipublicans or South Park Conservatives but as something altogether more prosaic—College Republicans. With over a quarter of a million members and chapters on nearly 1,200 campuses, the College Republicans are the superpower of the student Right. No other organization has comparable reach or influence, though a few nonpartisan conservative groups, such as the Leadership Institute and Intercollegiate Studies Institute, do have campus affiliates. The predominance of the CRs predictably gives college conservatism a partisan slant—a CR chapter is an unlikely place to find criticism of Bush from the Right. What’s more, the CRs naturally put a low premium on encouraging students to read the canon of intellectual conservatism—whose works, after all, are more concerned with history, literature, and philosophy than with practical politics. From the point of view of a campus activist, “Why should I spend my time reading about Albert Jay Nock or Irving Babbitt, when I could be out changing the world?” asks Emporia State University Professor Gregory Schneider, a historian of the conservative youth movement.
Promoting the party’s candidates and officeholders—and, by extension, their policies—is the College Republicans’ raison d’etre. For most CR chapters that entails steadfast support for the Iraq War. To coincide with the president’s State of the Union address in January, the College Republicans National Committee organized “Finish the Job! Support Our Troops!” rallies on 130 campuses and in Washington. Pro-war and pro-administration lecturers like John Ashcroft and David Horowitz are among the most popular CR-sponsored campus speakers. Horowitz’s hawkish arguments made an especially strong impression on students attending the CR national convention last year. “This isn’t an invasion of Iraq, it’s a liberation—as David Horowitz said,” one attendee insisted to Nation reporter Max Blumenthal.
So gung-ho are the CRs for liberating Iraq, their enthusiasm sometimes crosses party lines: in July, the Princeton College Republicans offered members a chance to campaign for pro-war Sen. Joseph Lieberman in his Democratic primary fight against Ned Lamont. Yet there are at least a handful of antiwar CRs scattered across the country. James Lawrence was one; he learned the Broadside was looking for a new editor from an e-mail sent through the NC State CR list. Joseph Grigoletti, a sophomore at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is another. Like Lawrence, he’s been called a “left-wing loony” by other conservative students for his views on war. “Most College Republicans,” he says, “have never heard of Richard Weaver or Russell Kirk.”
There was a time, before the College Republicans became the biggest and often the only conservative group on campus, when students on the Right could be expected to know who Kirk and Weaver were. Young Americans for Freedom, the pre-eminent conservative youth adjunct of the Goldwater and Vietnam eras, was activist in orientation. But it included an intellectual component strong enough that members could identify the brands of conservatism to which they subscribed with such figures as Kirk, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Frank Meyer. And even earlier, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, the first national conservative student organization, unabashedly emphasized ideas over politics.
In a sense the modern Right began as a youth movement in the person of William F. Buckley Jr. When the 26-year-old Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, the pre-war Old Right was very old indeed. Its spiritual exemplar, Albert Jay Nock, had died six years before. Frank Chodorov, evangelist of Nock’s gospel, was 64 and within a decade would suffer a career-ending stroke, a fate that had already befallen H.L. Mencken. These cantankerous individualists were neither a movement nor, arguably, conservative. But they were the vanguard of opposition to the welfare state—and the warfare state, too. By the ‘50s, their tradition was in need of a new voice. With Buckley, whose book called for Yale to purge its Keynesians and fellow travelers and whose father had been an ardent America Firster, it seemed to have found one.
Buckley became the axis around which newly devised conservative institutions could spin. One of the first of these was the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, conceived by Frank Chodorov in the early 1950s as an alternative to influence Intercollegiate Socialist Society founded by Jack London. Chodorov invited Buckley to become titular head of this effort, which would establish a lecture bureau—at first, just Chodorov and Buckley—and distribute literature extolling economic individualism. A third organizer, 29-year-old E. Victor Milione, a Roman Catholic (like Buckley) whose thinking had been informed by Jacob Burckhardt, would bring to ISI an increasingly traditionalist emphasis.
Within a decade, some 30,000 students had been involved with ISI. By design, the organization appealed to a self-selective elite, of whom “nothing is required … other than that they read the literature,” Chodorov wrote. “Among the books ISI distributed to students, free of charge or for a minimal fee,” Gregory Schneider notes in Cadres for Conservatism, “were Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Felix Morley’s Freedom and Federalism, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and Buckley’s and Brent Bozell’s McCarthy and His Enemies.” Chodorov hoped that through ISI, “the individualist would become the campus radical, just as the socialist was forty years ago, and the halo of intellectualism would descend on his brow.”
Yet for all of ISI’s success, another group would become the face of the campus Right in the 1960s. Once again, Buckley was present at the creation: the organizational meeting for Young Americans for Freedom was held at his family home in Sharon, Connecticut over Sept. 10-11, 1960. The gathering brought together students and young activists from a plethora of other organizations, including ISI and the Young Republicans, at the instigation of Doug Caddy—who as a Georgetown University School of Foreign Service student had created the nationwide Student Committee for the Loyalty Oath with George Washington University student David Franke—and fundraising guru Marvin Liebman. YAF was to be an activist group, an explicitly conservative alternative to the Young Republicans then dominated by their Nelson Rockefeller wing. Out of the meeting came not only YAF but also the Sharon Statement, a credo for the group drafted by M. Stanton Evans, 27-year-old editor of the Indianapolis News. The Sharon Statement was an early example of Cold War conservative orthodoxy, combining staunch anticommunism with the economics of classical liberalism.
Early YAFers took their ideas and principles seriously. So much so that from the beginning there was tension between YAF’s anticommunist and traditionalist side and its libertarians. The word “God” only made it into the Sharon Statement by a narrow vote of 40-44. Before long, the New Individualist Review, a libertarian student journal at the University of Chicago, was questioning the military measures implied in the Sharon Statement’s anticommunism. From the other direction, traditionalist Notre Dame Professor Gerhart Niemeyer objected to the document’s classical liberalism, which he believed, “divorced the public order form the historical world of Western culture, positive law from natural law, political theory from religion.” But for almost a decade, the center held: membership soared, chapters proliferated, and YAF played a crucial role in securing the 1964 Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater.
War in Vietnam and the campus unrest accompanying it finally drove a wedge between YAF’s conservatives and radical libertarians. The battle of ideas that simmered in YAF’s early years became a battle of fists at the organization’s 1969 convention in St. Louis, where bedlam erupted when a libertarian student burned his draft card—or rather, a convincing facsimile—on the convention floor. Fusionism became fission as the radical libertarians split from YAF. Some YAF chapters switched affiliation to the newly formed Students for Individual Liberty or the California Libertarian Alliance. Yet YAF’s dwindling momentum and membership in the ‘70s owed less to the libertarian schism than to the decline of campus activism in general, according to Gregory Schneider. And as the conservative movement became institutionalized in Washington, YAF increasingly came to resemble the College Republicans. There was room in the movement for only one youth adjunct to the GOP, and it wouldn’t be YAF.
Then as now, there were few outright antiwar conservatives—as opposed to libertarians—on campuses. All along, YAF had been supportive of the Vietnam effort. The student Right of the ‘60s was well-read compared to the Sean Hannity generation, but what it had been reading was National Review, whose steady broadsides against the antiwar Left were more than enough to compensate for any doubts the works of Richard Weaver might have sown. (Weaver himself died in ’63, too soon to address the conflict in Indochina.) The Kennan-esque realist conservatism of Robert Nisbet and John Lukacs, meanwhile, was still developing; neither man’s stature as a giant of the postwar Right was yet indisputable. As for the anti-interventionist Old Right, it “was pretty much forgotten,” according to Schneider. “There wasn’t really this sense that Albert Jay Nock or John T. Flynn had any bearing on [YAF’s] thought at all.”
One exception was David Franke. “He told me that one of the things that drew him to conservatism was John T. Flynn,” Schneider relates. Franke didn’t oppose the war, but he did come out against the draft in 1967, and as editor of YAF’s journal, New Guard, he commissioned anti-conscription essays from libertarians and traditionalists alike, including Russell Kirk. He won over the group’s national board: at the ’69 convention, although a radical libertarian proposal to support draft resistance was defeated, YAF did endorse a call to end conscription. But the draft was a separate issue from the war, however intimately linked they were. Franke later stated what, more than anything, sustained conservative students’ support for the fight: “Because SDS and the Leftists were against the war in Vietnam, [Lyndon Johnson] effectively got Republicans and conservatives to back him in waging it.”
Much the same holds true today for the war in Iraq, according to Daniel Flynn, author of Why the Left Hates America and a man of wide acquaintance with the student Right as a campus lecturer and former organizer with Accuracy in Academia and the Leadership Institute. Flynn himself is a critic of President Bush’s foreign policy: “I gave a speech the night the war broke out, at St. John’s College in Minnesota. In pretty much every speech I’ve given since then I’d mention my opposition to the war in Iraq.” In his experience, the campus Right is overwhelmingly pro-war because “it’s anti-Left.” Moreover, “students are coming into the conservative movement without the intellectual grounding, with no real basis for disagreeing with popular politicians” like President Bush.
In making his case against the Iraq War to conservative students, Flynn argues that “it wasn’t a liberal/conservative issue,” pointing to antiwar conservatives and pro-war liberals. He also recommends re-examining conservative principles: “I would look back to the Sharon Statement”—with its emphasis on “America’s just interests”—“as a clear and succinct statement of what the conservative attitude to foreign affairs is.” But Flynn doubts whether the canon of intellectual conservatism provides much guidance for today’s foreign policy: “The present historical situation is new. Even 20 years ago, no one would have thought of having these humanitarian interventions. If you’re looking back to Kirk and Nisbet, I don’t think you’re going to find a whole lot. It wasn’t an issue because there was little demand for intervention from the Left or the Right.”
Yet it can be surprising just how much effect reading Russell Kirk, for example, can have on students’ ideas about war and foreign policy. The New York Times provided a case in point on July 31, in a story reporting on a Kirk seminar organized by Young America’s Foundation, a student-oriented conservative nonprofit. The piece suggests both the relevance and ambivalence of the canon. One student, University of Baltimore senior Ann Lightle, concluded from her reading of Kirk’s Korean War-era work The American Cause that the Iraq War was indeed grounded in conservative philosophy. Hillsdale College junior Matthew McCorkle thought otherwise on the basis of Kirk’s Roots of American Order—“My impression is that Iraq doesn’t have those roots,” he said.
Are both readings equally valid? Students who delve deeper into Kirk’s life and work will find an answer. While he never openly dissented from the Cold War, Kirk left little doubt about his feelings toward more recent foreign-policy developments, saying at the time of the first Gulf War, “Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” Young conservatives who turn to George H. Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in the United States Since 1945, meanwhile, will discover Kirk writing in a 1946 letter that “there is no tyranny more onerous than military life” and warning against perpetual war for perpetual peace.
No single work by Kirk or Weaver or even Robert Nisbet—whose last books, Conservatism: Dream and Reality and The Present Age are strongly anti-militaristic—makes a comprehensive case against preventive war and interventionism. A casual acquaintance with the conservative canon wouldn’t change any College Republican’s mind. But students who seek a fuller knowledge will find little in the conservative intellectual tradition that accords with George W. Bush’s view of the world and America’s place in it. Increasingly, conservatives over the age of 65—including George Will, Milton Friedman, Jeffrey Hart, and Bill Buckley himself—have come to see the Iraq War as folly. If students critically engage the works of the wisest men of an even older Right, they too may be forced to conclude that George W. Bush is no conservative all—or else that Kirk and Weaver, like James Lawrence, are really leftists.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.