I suppose there are people who imagine that the conservative movement was pretty much on the right track, before it succumbed to a boarding party of former Cold War liberals – some of whom had been Trotskyites before they were Cold War liberals. Certainly, some important changes stem from that hostile takeover, but in the area of foreign policy the contrast can easily be overestimated. There were plenty of warmongering crazies on the Right before the arrival of Neo-Conservatives.
Warmongering crazies were in fact the leaders of the right-wing movement from the mid-fifties onward. They drew up its unstable ideological blueprint and gave their followers their marching orders. By "unstable," I do not refer to their mental health, but to the inner contradictions of their world outlook.
Building partly on the pre-World War II "isolationist" mass base of the Old Right, these new leaders had to persuade their charges that everything had changed in world affairs: a colossal crusade to contain and then "roll back" communism was needed, one that might last for decades. At the same, these leaders had to show fealty to the republican and laissez faire liberal values that their followers once embraced, however fitfully and inconsistently.
A foreign policy, which increasingly added up to empire from the Greek-Turkish aid bill to NATO, NSC-68, Korea, and other such excitement had to be squared with a rhetorical commitment to free enterprise, prevention of inflation, low taxes, individual liberty, and the lot. Thus was born the incoherent ideology of the New Right, centered on National Review, with its coalition of ex-communists, ex-leftists, New Conservatives, remnants of the Old Right, and Catholic writers with a talent for making up theological rationalizations for Cold War measures and criminal weaponry.
The transition from Old to New Right lasted about a decade, and since those years were full of turmoil and controversy, a nearly complete erasure of memory concerning the differences between the two Rights took place. It was one of Murray Rothbard’s great contributions that he rescued the transformation from oblivion; it was also an act of piety toward the Old Right in which he grew up.(1)
COLD WAR LIBERALS WHO VOTED REPUBLICAN
If a definitive history of Cold War Liberalism is ever written, its author may well conclude that, on foreign affairs, the differences between liberals and conservatives was, in the end, rather minimal and largely rhetorical, with the Cold War conservatives mostly articulating the liberals’ very own policies while damning the latter as "too soft." What did Barry Goldwater ever call for, that Cold War liberals had not already theorized and modeled in their various think tanks and conclaves? That a handful of liberals turned away, finally, from a war in Vietnam, which was entirely their own creation, while others clung to it as bitter-enders, does not prove that those others had ever disagreed substantially with Cold War liberalism.
No, the chief complaints from liberal publications and the press generally, during those years (and for many historians today) would have been that the conservative Cold Warriors were insufficiently friendly to trade unions, backward on civil rights, recalcitrant about the progressive income tax, etc. The complaints centered, then, on the residual Old Right elements in New Right politics, aspects, which were incrementally tossed aside and forgotten as the Cold War wore on. The arrival of the Neo-Conservatives merely overlapped with and helped speed up – the long-run process of sell-out.
The New Right’s way of handling the contradiction between empire abroad and republican government at home was the quiet and gradual abandonment of what little "libertarianism" still existed on the Right.
This is not to deny the existence of sundry tendencies and factions on the Cold War Right. There were those given to literary-philosophical musings to steal a phrase from a colleague of mine who wrote for Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, and elsewhere. There were the followers of Leo Strauss, who now must number in the hundreds, and who were in their way, proto-Neo-Cons, but with murky doctrines, much of which they cannot reveal.
Some of these writings were interesting, insightful, and important; the rub is, that when it came to foreign policy, most of these writers marched in rather unreflective lockstep behind the Cold War drummers.
It was precisely to challenge the dominance of this New Right consensus that Murray Rothbard and his associates formulated a rigorous libertarianism, which stressed among other things, the permanent struggle between liberty and the state, and the crucial role of war and preparation for war in strengthening the welfare-warfare state, thereby reducing individual freedom to a mere slogan suitable for burping over at a Republican Party dinner.(2)
That was the point of libertarianism: a critique of, and opposition to, the modern, overmighty "sovereign" state in all its aspects, including war and militarism, as against a half-hearted call to tinker with fiddly bits of the tax code or "demunicipalizing the garbage service." Those who do not see things this way are under no compulsion to call themselves libertarians. Their heritage is an extension of the Cold War "conservatism" of the New Right not to be confused with a later "New Right": the 1970s movement centered on social issues, which partly grew out of the Wallace movement.
THEY WERE CRAZY, WHEN CRAZY WASN’T COOL
You have to hand it to the Cold War liberals: whatever they thought up in their post-constitutional agencies and academic environs nuclear annihilation of "enemy" civilians, defoliation, and so on they had a knack for sounding humane when they presented it. The Cold War conservatives threw off the mask, as a matter of style. It was more heroic, apparently, to dwell on the hoped-for carnage, the loveable kilotons and genial megatons.
Take NR senior editor and ex-Trotskyite, James Burnham, who wanted, already in 1947, an "American empire." The empire would seek "decisive control" and promote European federation. If rhetorical cover were needed, all this could be termed "the policy of democratic world order." By 1953, he was asking for "winged soldiers, air cavalry, able to raid two thousand miles behind the lines tonight and be gone before the defense arrives tomorrow, ready to liberate a Siberian slave labor district this week, spearhead a revolt in the Caucasus the next, and blow up an enemy powerhouse over the weekend."(3)
During the War in Vietnam, Burnham issued strategic and tactical wish-lists, which might sound – to an uninitiated, conventional thinker – like a set of prospective war crimes: "biological and chemical weapons should be used. North Vietnam’s rice crop could be wiped out, while an ‘incapacitating gas’ might prove ideal for ridding South Vietnamese villages of Vietcong infiltrators, since the latter could be seized without risk to friendly locals. Nuclear devices could also be put to use, e.g., cobalt dust to create a radioactive barrier between the two Vietnams "(4)
Sounds like chemical-biological warfare, Weapons of Mass Dementia, and "dirty bombs" to me.
When the US did leave Vietnam, Burnham wanted Haiphong and Hanoi to be "immediately and totally atomized," if any atrocities were committed by the communists.(5)
All this higher ethical math gives a person a headache, but Burnham former philosophy professor and ex-CIA analyst was up to it. You can see why he joined NR as soon as it came into being in 1955.
HIS TRUTH GOES MARCHING ON
Another Cold War favorite is Professor Harry Jaffa, of the aforenamed Straussian sect. He is mainly known these days for his project of proving that Abraham Lincoln embodied the wisdom of the ancients and the political-moral reason of the moderns and bears installing in the Trinity, should the Holy Ghost need time off. His Lincolnian realpolitik was much on display during the High Cold War.
In a piece written in the early sixties, "The Case for a Stronger National Government" no surprise there! -, Jaffa remarked, not quite in passing, that the "heart of America’s defenses, in this nuclear age, consists in its ability to destroy sixty, eighty, or one hundred million of a possible enemy’s population with a single stroke."(6)
Oh, the singularity of the stroke, the finality of the act, the collaterality of the damage! This would be enough to make the average person wonder whether the word "defense" really encompasses the case in hand. But not Jaffa, he wanted a positive program to make it all work.
It was all about whether we could "absorb an attack." And Jaffa had plans for us. He called for a federal building code, such that no new structure could arise anywhere in the US without having a bomb shelter built into it.
And where, one might ask, is the enumerated power under which this could be done? No matter, said Jaffa: it was a perfect illustration of the irrelevance of states rights and other such quibbles. We have this foreign policy, we must therefore have these shelters, and it follows somehow that a majority of Congress, pushed along by the President, simply have the power to do what a man’s got to do, or at least "such things [as] are not actually prohibited."(7)
This is "big government conservatism" with a vengeance and, indeed, before that vice acquired a name. Such earnest calls to gut the Constitution and exalt the (central) state in the name of the great emergency might have driven "conservatives" to look into the advantages of a more peaceful foreign policy, before the next wave of emergency-fighters asserted federal power to do anything, including things "actually prohibited."
But of course they didn’t look into it.
There is not space here to do full justice to other bomb-brandishing crazies of the New Right. Young Mr. Buckley (forever thus, like young Mr. Grace), Frank Meyer, and a whole legion of High Cold War theoreticians held forth for decades about missile throw-weights, warhead specs, etc., always demanding, at the drop of a diplomatic slight, that the damned things be used. Bad as it was, they made it worse with a moralizing pseudo-Christian overlay of bastardized "Just War" theory and pseudo-Catholic moral "reasoning." On this, the much-abused Bishops were sounder, even if they failed to go far enough.(8)
Of the whole lot, only Murray Rothbard, Robert LeFevre, and a few others thought it worthwhile to rethink the whole Cold War business. Rothbard had noticed that the Cold War conservatives just wanted war, period. The creation of a "libertarian movement" separate from conservatism stemmed from precisely that realization. At this late date, I can’t spend much more time fighting over labels, but it is worth knowing, for the record, whose forebears are which.
What the Neo-Conservatives did do, was to finish off the Right’s lingering pretense that it cared a wee bit about domestic liberty. Big government conservatism came into its own, and the "Right" could now take up Trotsky’s permanent revolution (export version) as its overriding cause. Today’s younger "conservatives" leaving aside, for now, the pro-war "libertarians" imagine there will be no domestic consequences of imperial foreign policy. But wait! Could they, as products of Neo-Conservative training, spot a domestic consequence, even if one slapped them upside the first ten amendments? Probably not, and perhaps they don’t care.
A WORTHY LEGACY FOR PRO-WAR "LIBERTARIANS"
There it stands: the imposing hulk of Cold War conservatism, entombed in all those ancient issues of National Review and at other points east and west. Pro-war "libertarians" looking for a heritage should read this material. Admittedly, the contemporary PC "conservative," sensitized by long association with high-minded Neo-Conservatives, would have to tiptoe past a few embarrassing tulips and whistle past a few ideological graveyards involving race, gender, and other such matters, while reading his or her forefathers.
Some of the outpourings of the New Right mind in its earlier stages may seem quite repellent to some of our pro-war "libertarians." I urge them, however, to soldier on. They will find wonderful material there about atomizing foreigners and wiping whole countries off the map. I am certain they will feel right at home.
It may be time to quit worrying about who gets to steal whose label. The pro-war "libertarians" and "conservatives" will most likely get their war. I hope they enjoy it.
A few more exercises like the one now pending and there won’t be much liberty and there won’t be much to conserve. There will just be the same old welfare-warfare state, grown even fatter and more vicious. But perhaps conserving that is the point for present-day conservatives and their hangers-on.
Read more by Joseph Stromberg
- An Anti-Imperialist’s Reading List: Part Two – February 7th, 2005
- An Anti-Imperialist’s Reading List: Part One – January 24th, 2005
- Murray N. Rothbard on States, War, and Peace: Part II – January 17th, 2005
- Murray N. Rothbard on States, War, and Peace: Part I – January 10th, 2005
- Inventing Iraq Yet Again? – May 12th, 2004