A Generation Awakes: Young Americans for Freedom and the Creation of the Conservative Movement, Wayne Thorburn, Jameson Books, 576 pages
By David Franke
On the weekend of Sept. 9, 1960 nearly one hundred young conservatives gathered at the Buckley family estate in Sharon, Connecticut, to start a conservative youth organization. We had started single-issue and single-campaign groups; now something more permanent was needed. Adult supervision was minimal—host William F. Buckley Jr., editor of National Review; several other editors from the magazine, and its publisher, Bill Rusher; and Marvin Liebman, the genial PR puppet master who taught us all how to organize, how to conduct a successful picket line or demonstration, how to get media attention, how to raise money, and how to have fun while doing all this. We became particularly good at that last task.
The organization we formed—Young Americans for Freedom—lasted more than 30 years and was successful far beyond what any of us at Sharon dreamed was possible. That calls for a celebration, and this book is an important part of that celebration.
Wayne Thorburn has given us an unbelievably thorough, yet highly readable and enjoyable history of Young Americans for Freedom. He credits the “generous support” of Young America’s Foundation—the successor to the youth organization—for making it possible for him to write this book, and all I can say is that he earned every cent and then some.
When Stan Evans wrote the first history of the young conservatives, Revolt on the Campus, in 1961, we affectionately dubbed it “the telephone book” because he included every young conservative who showed any medical sign of life, and the first thing you did was look at the index to see whether Stan mentioned you. A Generation Awakes is Revolt on the Campus on steroids. The names-only index is 18 large double-columned and densely packed pages. By my estimation, Thorburn tracks the activities of 2,163 YAF activists, 16 YAF national conventions, and 21,934 YAF factional fights. (Okay, I made up that last figure. But you get the idea.)
The most amazing aspect is how fair Thorburn seems to be. I was active in Young Americans for Freedom from its creation in 1960 to 1967, when my last hurrah was to get YAF on board the fight for a volunteer military. I read the 163 pages covering that era with rapt attention and have no complaints.
Present at the Creation
What was it like to be at Sharon? Words such as “exciting” don’t begin to do justice. But it was largely an excitement based on finally meeting people we had heard about in one way or another—what today is called “networking.” This was an opportunity to meet people who shared your convictions in what otherwise was a desolate landscape of liberals and leftists on your campus or in your community.
Doug Caddy, the main organizer of the conference, and I probably knew more people there than anyone else, since we had started the very first conservative youth organization—the National Student Committee for the Loyalty Oath—in late 1959 and had been in touch with young conservatives from across the nation ever since. But for probably half the attendees, this was their first excursion into organizational politics. They had read about the upcoming Sharon Conference in National Review, Human Events, or ISI’s The Individualist and signed up to come at their own expense.
The greatest thrill for most of the participants was to meet William F. Buckley Jr. in the flesh. I don’t think it is possible for a young conservative today to understand the overwhelming presence of WFB Jr. in 1960. Sure, a college student involved in libertarian youth politics today will be absolutely thrilled to meet Ron Paul. But that student also has countless other sources of information and inspiration—organizations, websites, radio and cable personalities, you name it. We had a much more limited conservative universe, and it revolved around one person, Bill Buckley. (I’m not including here the politicians who inspired us, such as Barry Goldwater.) We were just beginning to think of ourselves as a “movement,” and that was thanks to Bill Buckley and his National Review. He was the brilliant rhetorical fighter who first took on the Liberal Establishment, a gifted orator, our first TV star, prolific and organized beyond belief, and charismatic, to correctly use an overused term. And now he and his family had opened up their estate to us.
Did we have a sense of this being an historic moment? Yes and no. Yes it was historic in the sense of being unprecedented, and even audacious in its aims. But I don’t think most of us realized just how historic the occasion would be—that in less than two years we would host an overflow crowd at Madison Square Garden, that in four years we would be run candidate for president who would capture the GOP nomination, and that in 20 years our movement would elect a conservative as president of the United States. Granted, in 1957 Stan Evans had given the three of us who made up the very first Human Events journalism class our instructions: “First we take over the Young Republicans. Then we take over the Republican Party. Then we take over the White House. And then we defeat world communism.” But that was the sort of bravado young people engaged in over late-night pizza and many, many beers. At Sharon our dreams were more sober. At least mine were. We had officers to elect, a Sharon Statement (written by Stan Evans) to adopt as our guiding principles, an operational plan to start working on. And, true to my nature, I had discovered a beautiful coed from Smith College to pursue.
For an historian and researcher relying on the memories of others, Wayne Thorburn does a good job of detailing what went on at Sharon. But it’s too much to ask of him to capture the essence of what was going on in our minds. You had to be there.
What Ever Happened to Tom Huston?
A Generation Awakes is a very good example of a “house history”—that is, a work commissioned to celebrate a particular person, organization, corporation, or movement. I say this not as denigration. Every movement needs a house history to tell the tale of great deeds done, and YAF is fortunate to have Thorburn’s.
In a house history, scandals or embarrassing events are elided. You don’t open a house history celebrating the 50th anniversary of Acme Industries expecting to find tales of how the beloved founder seduced female employees, stole secrets from his competitors, and colluded with government officials to gain market share. Similarly, you don’t expect those kinds of tales from a movement’s house history.
I am not saying that Thorburn has covered up any great YAF scandal. But there were, let us say, embarrassments that you won’t find detailed in these pages. And I’m not talking about the countless factional fights. Omit the schisms and internal battles, whether in a chronicle of SDS or YAF, and you’ve lost 90 percent of your history. We all look back on those fights with amusement and Thorburn seems to be uncommonly fair in recounting them. There are no “bad guys” in those tales.
As an example of an embarrassment that gets the silent treatment, however, let me bring up the Huston Plan. (And I bring up this example without any personal animus.) This project was authored by a former national chairman of YAF, Tom Charles Huston, when he was on the personal staff of President Nixon. Nixon wanted ideas on what to do about left-wing hippie radicals, and the author of the Huston Plan knew how to give Nixon what he wanted to hear. According to Wikipedia, “the plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic ‘radicals.’ At one time it also called for the creation of camps in Western states where anti-war protestors would be detained.” You know you’ve gone over the top when J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, reacts in alarm and gets Nixon to rescind the plan before it is implemented. The proposed plan came to light during the Watergate hearings and created quite a scandal of its own. (This was years before torture became part of the “conservative” arsenal.)
A reflective history would ask what brought the author of the Huston Plan to this point. Does this represent some disturbing sentiment in the heat of the Vietnam War beyond one person, and what are the lessons to be learned? Indeed, what does Huston himself think about the whole brouhaha today, decades later? That would be an interesting interview. But in a house history, you simply don’t mention this tale.
The greatest limitation of a house history is that there is no thinking outside the box. That’s not allowed. A house historian of the Texian Revolution is not going to second-guess the motivations or decisions of Sam Houston and the defenders of the Alamo—at least he wouldn’t have done that when I was growing up in Texas, or he would have been lynched. We want our heroes in white, not gray, hats, and our revolutions without serious blemishes.
With a house history, the past is fixed. We are looking at it with 20/20 hindsight, and the unspoken assumption is that whatever happened was inevitable. It happened, therefore it was meant to be. History is in the documentable details, without the distraction of musings about what might have been. In reality, of course, we had choices every step of the way, and our choices are what determined the outcome.
How the Movement Failed
From my perspective, the conservative movement that I helped start has been an unmitigated failure. Since the 1955-1965 period when the conservative movement began, the U.S. government has expanded its hold over our lives in ways we would not have dreamed possible. Liberty has been in retreat in our personal lives, in the economic realm, and in the growth and scope of unconstitutional government activities. And this retreat has been constant—with some ebbs and flows, to be sure—under Democratic presidents and Congresses as well as Republican presidents and Congresses, under the rule of “conservatives” as well as “liberals.”
Add to this the constant dumbing down of what conservatism stands for. For just one example out of hundreds, conservatives once stood firm against an imperial presidency—a rereading of James Burnham’s Congress and the American Tradition is instructive in that regard. Fast forward to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Yoo, and the message is that anything the emperor wants, the emperor gets—as long as it’s a Republican in the Oval Office, of course.
To be sure, it’s hard to find a conservative today who admits to having supported that crowd—we are in the midst of a national epidemic of short-term memory loss. But the truth is that 95 percent of Republicans (i.e., “conservatives”) voted the GOP ticket in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Republicans lost Congress and the White House because of the defection of independents, not because conservatives abandoned the party.
The conservative response usually is, “Well, it would have been much worse if we had not been fighting the good fight.” Given that the United States is now a bankrupt nation facing political chaos, I wonder what “much worse” could be. And ask President Obama and the congressional Democrats how hard it is to sell the line, “Well, the recession would be much worse if the Republicans were in power.”
The ultimate conservative response, however, usually is, “At least we defeated the Soviet Union and communism, and that makes it all worthwhile.” What they mean is that under Reagan we took advantage of having the world’s reserve currency—the U.S. dollar—to force the Soviets to spend themselves to ruin. Another way of looking at that version of history is that conservatism means owning the printing press and keeping it going 24/7. The problem is, that leads to an addiction. The printing press didn’t go into mothballs once the Cold War was over, and untamed money creation has led us to our present bankruptcy.
Actually, not everyone agrees about why the Soviet Union fell. An alternative explanation is that it was their adventure in Afghanistan that led to their financial and geopolitical demise. Oops. For some reason that doesn’t make me feel any better, given our own excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Either way, the “conservative” victory over communism is turning into a Pyrrhic victory.
To me all of this spells failure for the conservative movement. I fully realize how hard it is to accept this. Many of us at Sharon remained involved in the conservative movement throughout our lifetimes. Those of us who went on to nonpolitical careers nevertheless remained committed to the cause. It is extremely hard to look over 50 years of that sort of commitment and admit it was a waste of effort, other than the pleasant personal relationships it led to. But if we don’t do that, others who are more emotionally detached, more objective, more analytical, will have to do the job of answering the question, “Why did conservatism fail?”
So thanks, Wayne, for the memories, and I suppose we need these self-congratulatory nostalgic pick-me-ups. But once the cheering is long over from YAF’s 50th anniversary celebration, conservatives will still have to determine why we have failed in what we set out to do, with such youthful spirits and pure hearts, 50 years ago in Sharon, Connecticut.
David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency.
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