Reclaiming the American Right

Editorial note: What follows was intended as the new introduction to my first book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, originally published by the Center for Libertarian Studies in 1993 and now reissued by ISI Books. However, with a new introduction by Georgetown political scientist George W. Carey and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon, it was decided that we already had more than enough introductions, prefaces, and afterwords, and so it winds up here…

If you contribute $200 or more to our spring fundraising drive, you will get an autographed copy. If you contribute $500 or more, I will personally inscribe it for you.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, former secretary of state Alexander Haig averred that the Iraq war, which he judges to have been a disaster, was “driven by the so-called neocons that hijacked my party, the Republican Party.” Blitzer demanded that he “name names,” because ” a lot of our viewers hear the word ‘neocon’ and they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When this book was first published, in 1993, the term “neocon” had yet to enter the American political lexicon. Wielded as an epithet by a very small group of conservative intellectuals horrified by what they saw as an incursion from the Left, its use was limited largely to intramural polemics on the Right. Neoconservatism was a doctrine shrouded in obscurity.

Today, the neoconservatives are infamous: as the architects of the Iraq war, as the inner core of President George W. Bush’s circle of foreign policy advisers, as the ideologists and grand strategists of a campaign to export democracy to the Middle East – and much of the rest of the world – at gunpoint. Neoconservatism in power has led to what Gen. William E. Odom has called “the greatest strategic disaster in our history.” President Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” echoes down through the years in cruel mockery of the thousands who have died and – as of this writing – continue to die in a war that is overwhelmingly opposed by the American people.

The recriminations are already coming fast and thick, as conservatives wake up to the disaster that has befallen them – and transformed their movement into an inverted parody of itself. Once rooted in a basic distrust of coercive government and a determination to cut back its burgeoning size and cost, conservatism has been stood on its head: the faux “conservatism” of the post-9/11 era has embraced the surveillance state and presided over the wildest orgy of government spending since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

How did this happen? Some indication of the answer, I believe, is to be found in this book, which traces two divergent strands of the conservative movement as one declined and another arose – from the Left – to take its place.

The Old Right anti-New Deal coalition of the 1930s and ’40s culminated in the rise of the America First Committee, a 900,000-strong anti-interventionist movement that opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s rush to war. It was the biggest antiwar movement in American history, a coalition of Midwestern Republican businessmen, anti-interventionist liberals, and libertarians who feared that, as Rose Wilder Lane once put it, we would no sooner defeat national socialism in the trenches than witness its triumph on the home front. Today, that fear seems a bit overstated – we didn’t succumb to national socialism, after all. When the writer John T. Flynn [.pdf], the veteran Old Right polemicist whose radio program was a beacon light to the conservative movement of the ’40s, saw visions of fascism [.pdf] in the militarized command economy of the New Deal at its height, it was a premonition rather than an accurate diagnosis. After FDR, we didn’t get an American Mussolini, we got Harry Truman – and the Cold War. The republic survived. It would take another Pearl Harbor and the onset of a new world war to crack the foundations and threaten the edifice of constitutional government in America.

The Cold War, which seemed to regenerate the previously moribund conservative movement, was really the death knell of the Old Right. We were now commanded to fight the Soviet monsters who had been our noble allies: by the late 1950s, not enough conservatives remembered that to make much difference, and the movement succumbed to the blandishments of the “New” Right. Anti-communism replaced anti-statism as the leitmotif of the new conservatism. While ostensibly devoted to a “fusionist” doctrine, this new dispensation, as announced by William F. Buckley Jr., not only abandoned the “isolationism” of the Old Right, but also threw overboard its primarily domestic focus, concentrating instead on the struggle against collectivism abroad. Such Old Right stalwarts as still remained, such as Flynn, and, later, Murray N. Rothbard, were considerably ahead of their time in insisting that the main danger was in Washington, D.C., and not the Kremlin. That was decades before the passage of the Military Commissions Act and an American president’s claim that he could jail and hold anyone, even an American citizen, indefinitely, without benefit of a proper trial.

The history of the neoconservatives, in its broad outlines, is today well-known: their evolution from Trotskyism to the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, eventually winding up as the intellectual shock troops of the GOP – this family history, as it were, is not only the subject of news articles in the “mainstream” media, but has also been presented in a documentary aired on PBS, Arguing the World, and several books. However, Reclaiming the American Right was the first book to frame the neocon narrative in terms of its essential element: militant global interventionism.

Prior to 9/11, neocons had been known as “liberals who have been mugged,” on account of their opposition to certain aspects of the welfare state, as well as their questioning of affirmative action. Ever since that signal event, however, they have been identified in the public mind with the War Party, the shrillest and most extreme of those calling for massive military intervention throughout the Middle East and the world. A lust for aggression has really been the leitmotif of neoconservative thought, the one distinctive characteristic that set it apart from all other tendencies and factions on the Right. While traditional conservatives have never exactly been pacifists, their tendency to reach for their revolvers has been tempered by prudence and a realistic assessment of the national interest. The implosion of the Soviet empire in the 1990s took the wind out of the War Party’s sails, albeit only temporarily, while the Republican base and the American people in general reverted back to their default position of “isolationism,” i.e., what a 2006 Pew poll described as “minding our own business,” a position supported by 42 percent of the American people. As the Pew study shows, the relationship of these views to party allegiances has undergone a sea change since 9/11:

“Views about global engagement are deeply intertwined with partisanship, though the relationship has shifted over time. Currently, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to say the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and not worry about other countries, and Democrats also are more apt to say we should ‘concentrate more on our own national problems’ and not think so much in international terms. But this has not always been the case. Throughout the Clinton administration Republicans were just as skeptical about U.S. foreign involvements as were Democrats. Even on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks, an equal share of Republicans and Democrats favored withdrawing from world affairs. It is only in the years since that Republicans have shifted their viewpoint and supported a more engaged foreign policy. And it is only since the war in Iraq that Democrats have moved in the other direction.”

The domination of the American Right by the neoconservatives has hung the Iraq albatross around the GOP’s neck, and the party is now in danger of being strangled by the sheer weight of the burden. Even as the neocons run for cover and claim that the war effort was somehow “undermined” by a secret fifth column within the Bush administration – and some, such as Francis Fukuyama, openly recant their support of the invasion – the blowback is just beginning to be felt.

Clearly, however, the effects of this destructive adventure are opposed to traditional conservative and libertarian objectives: the preservation of both order and liberty. The former is threatened by the sheer economic drain. The latter has been unceremoniously ditched, along with the Republican commitment to smaller government and less spending.

Harvard University lecturer Linda Bilmes and Columbia University Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz have done a study showing that the true cost of the war is in the neighborhood of $3 trillion. The tremendous drain on the Treasury underscores our willingness to sell our children into debt slavery, even as we sacrifice the rest on the altar of the war god.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act, the PATRIOT Act, and the rise of the surveillance state – all these developments, which traditional conservatives as late as the 1990s would have looked upon as Orwellian horrors, are now upheld by the party of Barry Goldwater and Robert A. Taft. Under the neocons’ tutelage, the post-9/11 GOP has become the harbinger of a new authoritarianism.

The militarism that has distorted conservatism beyond recognition was evident even in Goldwater’s heyday, and we have to go all the way back to the era of Taft to recover the authentic spirit of the American Right. In writing this book, that legacy is precisely what I sought to reclaim. In excavating the lost history of conservatism in the 1930s and 1940s, I unearthed many of the forgotten heroes and heroines of a movement whose antipathy to militarism and global messianism is surely relevant to the current conservative conundrum.

This is the one aspect of Reclaiming the American Right that I am most proud of: it opened the way for the appreciation of what I call in this volume the Old Right, which was anti-statist, anti-imperialist, and eerily prescient in its diagnosis of what ails an America that, as Garet Garrett put it, “has crossed the boundary between republic and empire.” Garrett, an editor of the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and a stalwart opponent of both the New Deal and Roosevelt’s rush to war, was a major voice of the Old Right, whose career spanned the New Era of the 1920s, the New Deal, and the Fair Deal of the immediate postwar period. Later, when the cold war came, he refused to jump on the War Party’s bandwagon, musing, instead:

“How now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?

“Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.

“To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?”

This might have been written yesterday: yet it was appended to Garrett’s last published work, printed in 1955. A more prescient description of our present predicament would be hard to imagine.

The only appreciation of Garrett I had previously read was by Murray N. Rothbard, the libertarian economist, in issues of the journal Left and Right, published in the 1960s. I think it is at least some measure of this book’s influence that Garrett’s best known books have been reprinted, including a triumvirate of essays on the New Deal and the rise of an American empire, under the title Ex America, and two collections of his shorter works.

The works of another largely forgotten Old Right icon, John T. Flynn, have also been rediscovered: The Roosevelt Myth has been reprinted, along with a collection of essays garnered from various sources. He is also the subject of a (not always entirely accurate) biography by John Moser. Flynn, whose life and career is covered herein, was a major figure of the Old Right: his journey from the pages of The New Republic to the New York offices of the America First Committee is the neoconservative odyssey inverted. Other conservative-libertarian writers and activists of that era have recently garnered renewed attention, notably Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson, both the subjects of excellent biographies.

Politically, the Old Right is back. The “paleoconservatives,” whose origins and views are described in the last chapter, have grown, in numbers and boldness, with their own biweekly magazine, The American Conservative, co-founded by Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodoracopulos, and Scott McConnell, in addition to the long-standing monthly of the movement, Chronicles magazine, edited by Tom Fleming and published by the Rockford Institute. As the neoconservative project in Iraq and the Middle East collapses on the heads of its architects, the paleocon critique of the neocons’ militant internationalism as rooted in the residue of their leftist past commands increasing authority. On the foreign policy front, realism – the idea that U.S. policy must serve our national interests, rather than an abstraction like “freedom” or an ideological construct such as “democracy” – is enjoying a resurgence on the Right as well as the Left.

As the Old Right rises, the neoconservatives fall back in retreat: even as I write, they are either defecting and shouting mea culpa for their role as provocateurs in the run-up to the Iraq war, or else they’re deflecting the blame for the ensuing disaster to George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, the CIA, or some combination of all three. Their program, they say, was never really tried, and so it hasn’t been discredited – that’s their line, at any rate, and it isn’t selling very well. Joshua Muravchik, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a leading neocon, claims his confreres are being subjected to a relentless campaign of public “obloquy,” yet surely this is deserved. After all, the war that was supposed to be a model of their “global democratic revolution” – as George W. Bush once put it in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, a neocon stronghold – has turned into an absolute disaster. The intellectual authors of this debacle can hardly evade responsibility for their monstrous creation.

The measure of any book is the answer to this question: has it stood the test of time? In the case of Reclaiming the American Right, the answer is indubitably yes. In its targeting of the neoconservatives as the source that underlies the betrayal of limited government orthodoxy and its replacement by an oxymoronic “big government conservatism,” as Fred Barnes dubbed it, my book was eerily prescient. Furthermore, the Republican implosion of 2006, an election year in which the GOP lost control of both houses of Congress in a contest largely believed to have been decided by popular opposition to the Iraq war, confirmed this book’s central thesis: in identifying with the radical interventionism of The Weekly Standard and the thoroughly neoconized National Review, conservatives were marching headlong over a precipice.

Whether they can pick themselves up off the canyon floor and reassemble some version of their former self-confidence remains to be seen. An essential prerequisite of that task, however, is recapitulating the series of events that led to their fall – and determining whether they slipped or were pushed. This book offers several clues in that regard, but also points the way in charting a new path.

However, exposing the neoconservatives as the catalyst of disaster for the American Right is not the main point. My primary objective was in uncovering the hidden history of the Old Right – not as an archeological expedition, but as a means of reconstructing a conservative philosophy centered around liberty and the authentic American character, rather than a lust for power and an addiction to war. The republication of Reclaiming the American Right by ISI Books is one of many signs that we are a lot closer to that than we were in 1993.

San Francisco, California
November 13, 2006

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].