A Short History of Warmongering at the National Review


I have entitled this piece "A Short History," because a full history of warmongering at National Review magazine would be long indeed. James J. Martin wrote two volumes in the early 1960s on the turn of The New Republic and The Nation from a critical view of US foreign policy to full-throttle interventionism in the period 1919-1939. Fortunately, there is little change with which to deal where National Review (hereafter: NR) is concerned, and while our time span (1955-2001) is longer than Martin’s, a light sampling of NR‘s warlike moments will suffice to make the point.


In August 1954, as NR waited in the wings, young William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote that foreign policy had divided the American right wing into two camps, that of the non-interventionists and that of more realistic persons like himself who understood the Communist Menace in its horrible Totality. Given such an unprecedented and cosmic threat, victory would require Americans to "think in terms of institutionalizing native despotism"1: better a near-totalitarian central state run by our fellow Americans than Soviet takeover.

At its birth, the next year, NR boasted that it stood "athwart the path of history, yelling Stop!" Given the editors’ willingness to create a bureaucratic despotism on our shores, it would have been more truthful to say that they stood in the path of the total federal state, yelling Come On Down! Such an admission would, of course, have been bad for their self-image as defenders of the free market and the two or three liberties whose suspension might not be demanded by the great emergency.


Of course the whole point of NR was to heal the division on the right by driving the non-interventionists out of respectable society. The right, no longer "divided," could now serve in the forefront of the new crusade. Through the fifties and into the sixties, there was hardly a war or intervention about which NR showed any skepticism or reluctance.2 There were, indeed, a number of wars or interventions on the editors’ wish list, which we did not, thankfully, get.

Over time, the magazine’s initial enthusiasm for European colonialism became more muted, but its enthusiasm for extensions of US power anywhere and everywhere grew and grew. NR went all out for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and when that adventure went sour, committed itself to apologizing for LBJ and the war in Indochina. The only complaint from NR was that more bombs, more troops, and more money might be needed to win the war, "contain" China, stop communism, and so on.

As for atrocities – lately popular again because of claims about Senator Kerrey’s wartime activities – NR laid down the law in no uncertain terms. Deriding Time‘s coverage of Songmy (the Mylai Massacre), the editors wrote: "During the American Civil War atrocity was not an aberration, the act of bewildered or temporarily unbalanced men, but a matter of settled military policy. ‘Until we can repopulate Georgia,’ said General Sherman, ‘it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources.’ Does Time conclude that the Union, therefore, should have been permitted to disintegrate?"3

I don’t know what Time might have replied to that, but I do wonder exactly how NR expected Southerners to react to that little sally.

Unhappy about the release of the Pentagon Papers, NR published its own "secret documents," which were quickly exposed as faked. To this, the magazine replied that such documents should exist and therefore NR‘s papers were merely "technically fictitious" not "substantively fictitious."4 Cornered by popular revulsion against the war, NR defiantly began praising the notion of "American empire."5

And so it went. The heroic cause in Vietnam ran aground, somehow, leaving NR to grumble that more firepower, atrocities, defoliation, whatever, would have led to victory, but the weak liberals had not been up to it. If NR had been running the war, it might still be going on today; that, or the place would be a flat plain of radioactive ruin. I’m afraid they never made the case, though, that the deaths of 50,000 Americans and a couple million Vietnamese had much to do with the actual defense of the liberties and property of the American people.

Deprived of their war, NR whooped it up for invasion and occupation of Libya in 1973, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Nixon had come and gone, and the poor editors had to endure the Carter years. They and their new allies, the Neo-Conservatives, stirred up a crisis atmosphere about the renewed Soviet threat – "the Present Danger" – and then got all the dandy new weapons systems they wanted during the long and profligate reign of Ronald Reagan and Bush I.


Then, with improper stealth and suddenness, the Evil Empire imploded. The intelligence agencies with their large and unaccountable budgets had somehow failed to see it coming. One might think NR would have no reason to go on. But No, NR cast about for new enemies. Having signed on for "native despotism," it would never do for them to let their guard down now.

This famously led to a renewed "division" on the right, as some conservatives acknowledged what many libertarians had said all along, namely, that under cover of waging the Cold War the United States had been transformed from a republic into an empire. The Gulf War and the humanitarian aggression against Serbia helped sort out the real commitments of members of the right.


The recent China incident may have been another defining moment for the right. The unrestrained warmongering from NR was wondrous to behold. John Derbyshire distinguished himself in the struggle.

In "America Grovels," NR online, April 11, 2001, he set everyone straight on the evils of China. China, it seems, is Communist and Leninist. But, wait, that’s not quite right either; China is "anti-democratic" and committed to "racial superiority." Therefore China is HITLER. This "fascist" China brings to mind Mussolini, not to mention Imperial Japan.

Now we come to the bottom line: "Early 20th-century Japan was not bent on world conquest, only a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere – precisely what China wishes to construct in Central Asia and the West Pacific."

Shocking, what? I’d sure go to war to prevent that.

Actually, it was a mistake for the US to get on a collision course with Japan over that nation’s attempt to create an economic sphere of influence for itself. The Japanese pointed out in the twenties and thirties that all they wanted was an arrangement similar to that which the US enjoyed in relation to Latin America. High-minded US spokesmen could see no similarity whatsoever. Myopia in high places is nothing unusual.

But why repeat the exercise of the 1940s? Any fool could see that, in the nature of things, China will be an influential power in East Asia. Carl Oglesby, of SDS fame, theorized that the war in Vietnam was really about preventing an inevitable economic relationship between China and Japan, a relationship which US neo-mercantilists opposed as too competitive with their interests.6 One would have to be very cynical to believe that…..

Short of beating China back into the sorry shape it was in around 1900, I think one has to accept that China will play a role in the future of East Asia. We can trade with China and – this is the hard part for many Americans – mind our own business as regards China’s form of government and internal affairs. That would tend to promote peace.

There are those so enamored of "the joys and sorrows" of being a Pacific Power that the appearance of any rival seems a casus belli. Mr. Derbyshire is polishing his pith helmet, even now, and dusting off his manuals on "Wog-Caning" and "Surviving on the Bamboo Shoot Diet While Securing the Sea Lanes to India." He has already announced that war with China is inevitable.

India is gone; the old reflexes live on. It seems somehow fitting that NR should recruit fresh warmongers from the Old Country to stiffen the soft Americans’ resolve (not to mention those upper lips). They did it for so much longer. It worked so well. I shall not even raise the Irish Question, or Questions. The original empire was so wonderful and so beneficial for all concerned that I’m surprised that our ancestors fought to secede from it, or that those terrible Boers suffered 26,000 civilian casualties before giving into such good government.


The British imperial connection is indeed fitting. Young Mr. Buckley consciously named his new magazine after the original National Review.

The British NR had existed for several decades when Leopold James Maxse, the son of an admiral and a committed imperialist, took over it in the late 1880s. Under Maxse, the magazine proclaimed the “inevitability” of war between Britain and Imperial Germany.7

The Colonel Blimps and Social Reformers were already going into coalition when Leopold Maxse took over the National Review. Here, truly, was a school of National Greatness, efficiency, and cold showers. The original NR did not have to wait for Neo-Cons to come on board. Beyond that, the two magazines seem rather similar.


  1. William F. Buckley, Jr., "A Dilemma of Conservatives," The Freeman, 5, 2 (August 1954), p. 52.
  2. James Burnham, ex-Trotskyite, proto-Neo-Conservative, and NR‘s reigning foreign affairs guru, did not want to crusade against Rhodesia or the Republic of South Africa ("Which Isolationism is Your Isolationism?", NR, January 16, 1968), but this pretty much exhausts NR‘s opposition to intervention.
  3. "The Great Atrocity Hunt," National Review, December 16, 1969.
  4. Editorial, National Review, August 10, 1971.
  5. Cf. James Burnham, "The Joys and Sorrows of Empire," National Review, July 13, 1971.
  6. Containment and Change (New York, 1967) pp. 127-130.
  7. Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform (New York, 1968), pp. 68-69.