National Reviewhas been the flagship of the conservative movement for almost 30 years. From the very beginning, its editors set the agenda for American conservatism. NR’s peculiar mixture of capitalist anticommunism with the concerns of traditional Catholicism defined the movement. Even before being cursed with the name “fusionism,” it was a potent combination. Where else in the 1950’s could you find Richard Weaver in company with Joe McCarthy? In fact, for good or ill, Senator McCarthy was to become the cause to which the new magazine dedicated itself.
In the third issue (December 1955) NR hailed McCarthy as “the only national figure to warn … of the pitfalls of top-level negotiations with the Kremlin” and applauded his demands for more congressional investigations. The tribute is all the more touching, since it came seven months after the senator’s embarrassments at the Army hearings and just five days after the Senate’s censure. It was said of Kentucky that she joined the Confederacy only after the war was over, and National Review was to become the journal of McCarthyism only after the senator had effectively ended his career.
By the end of 1955, McCarthy was already history in the eyes of many Americans, but he could still write in NR a review of Dean Acheson’s A Democrat Looks at His Party. McCarthy ridiculed “Brains” Acheson for his foreign policy — “a complete and disastrous failure” — and described the book as “a pathetic gesture by a discredited statesman who wants to prove he is still around, and still using those brains of his.” The Senator was actually rather witty, but the war was over. Still, NR kept up a guerrilla campaign against the senator’s enemies and published elaborate flowcharts demonstrating the links between the antiMcCarthy subversives. To some it was Hamlet without the prince, but Mr. Buckley and his allies were nothing if not loyal.
All this took courage. The intellectual community was dead set against McCarthy. The Freeman, founded in 1950 by John Chamberlain, Henry Hazlitt, and Suzanne LaFollette, fell apart over the issue of McCarthyism. The journal was founded as an organ of “true liberalism” of common law and limited government and managed to attract contributors like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and a young William F. Buckley Jr.; but quarrels over collaboration with the McCarthy hearings soon helped put an end to an ambitious project. As Chamberlain recently put it, “We had muffed the chance … to fight the Leftist intellectual weeklies … on their own ground.”
It was not just the Freeman that came to grief. McCarthy became a kind of test case. Conservative intellectuals like James Burnham were told — sometimes in so many words — either denounce the senator or forfeit any hopes of pursuing a career. All in all, the omens were not auspicious at the birth of a serious magazine which identified itself as McCarthyite. Even many conservatives were less than enthusiastic. T. S. Eliot wrote Russell Kirk to express his dismay over a journal that so obviously had made up its mind on everything-McCarthy’s re view of Acheson he saw as a sign of intellectual bad faith on the part of the editors.
It may be an irrelevant fact that the senator was right, that American institutions were riddled with subversion and rot. (The maddening thing about the hard left is the way they continue to put on airs of moral superiority even while engaged in the dirtiest sorts of business. Even Alger Hiss is still around protesting his innocence.) Irrelevant, because McCarthyism was one of those populist outbreaks that always alarm the intellectual classes: whatever they may say, intellectuals as a class support their own interests, whether they are kissing the ground a prince walks on or fawning on a Marxist dean or editor. It was a terrifying prospect: ordinary Americans determined to throw the Reds out of the government, taxpayers and voters worried about what was taught in the state university. You didn’t have to be a Communist to be alarmed.
In fact, the ranks did close against National Review and its contributors. Even so, NR was able to give a start to writers, some of whom abandoned them for greener pastures — Joan Didion and the renegade Gary Wills; and they did succeed in enlisting a regiment of serious scholars and able writers — Hugh Kenner, Russell Kirk, D. Keith Mano, Thomas Molnar, and M. E. Bradford, among others. But the depressing fact is that a great number of serious thinkers and writers have been scared off, not just from NR, but from nearly every publication that is identifiably conservative.
We do have our stars, it is true — clever and forceful journalists like Joe Sobran and Tom Bethell. But where are the novelists? Where are the poets, the scientists, the scholars? Oh, in any field we can come up with a few names to conjure with, especially in recent years: Robert Jastrow in astronomy; Robert Conquest, a poet as well as a Soviet scholar; historian Joho Lukacs; George Gilder, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Lytle. But the list does thin out rapidly. In any discussion of conservative intellectuals, someone is bound to point to writers like Walter Percy, Saul Bellow, and Alisdair MacIntyre, all of whom have what can only be described as a conservative view of life; and yet I do not remember reading any one of them in the pages of NR or the American Spectator or seeing their names on the membership lists of conservative oaaarganizations.
The isolation of the intellectual right has had profound consequences for serious journals like Modern Age, Continuity, and Intercollegiate Review, which are, to a great extent, shunned by all except the committed right. In its great days, Modern Age held out a great deal of promise as an organ of conservative opinion in which ideas could be taken seriously, and there is hope for its revival under George Panichas, the new editor. But — and this is painful to admit — much of conservative academic journalism is less than first-rate. There are splendid pieces like William McGum’s essay on Whittaker Chambers in MA or Clyde Wilson’s essay on American historiography in Continuity, but they often look more like exceptions than the rule.
Conservatives frequently complain about discrimination: their articles are turned down, their books rejected or given bad reviews out of ideological spite. There is a good deal of truth in the contention. The left continues to pretend that there is no scholarship on the right and to ignore even neoconservative journals like Public Interest, which any responsible intellectual has to regard as a major force. On the other hand, many conservative scholars simply do not work hard enough to be taken seriously outside the movement. An article on natural rights published recently in a conservative journal included footnotes to Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, but of the wealth of serious scholarship on Plato and Aristotle, no mention: silence supreme. There are, to be sure, real scholars — Peter Stanlis, Forrest McDonald, and Paul Gottfried, for example — who do their homework, but they stand out. In some fields, like economics, however, conservatives were on the cutting edge. While the left continued to intone their Marxist and Keynesian platitudes, our economists and social critics — Milton Friedman, Tom Sowell, Michael Novak, and Edward Banfield — revolutionized our approach to social problems. As a reward, they were routinely excommunicated from the academic civil religion. (Banfield was actually driven out of Penn by a sustained campaign of vilification.)
There is little evidence to suggest that the embargo on conservative — read McCarthyist — writers and journals is going to be lifted any time in the near future. Many of the best scholars on the right — Conquest and Nisbet, for example — continue to be taken seriously by the mainstream, but there have been casualties, writers who became too closely identified with the right and somehow turned into unpersons: James Burnham, for example. Perhaps the most unfortunate victim is Russell Kirk. A scholar, man of letters, and writer of tales, Kirk was well on his way, in the l950’s, to becoming one of America’s great literary celebrities. When Eliot and His Age appeared in the 1960’s, it was hailed as a masterpiece by The Nation. Now, in the 1980’s, it would be unusual to find him mentioned in The New Republic, much less The Nation.
It is not just the right that has suffered. Until recently, liberal and left-wing intellectuals found themselves forced to keep company with Stalinists and to swallow their indignation when, as in the 1960’s, they saw every ideal of fairness and civility dragged into the mud. Increasingly, they were alienated from the wholesome values which had come to be identified with conservatism-regard for the family, love of country, and respect for (if not always actual belief in) our religious traditions. Conservative scholars might have had inadequate bibliographies, but on the main points-the points on which our survival depends — they were right.
For all his crudeness, Tail-Gunner Joe did a great deal of good in the world, and it would be unfair to blame him for the isolation and alienation of the intellectual right. Perhaps the main trouble with McCarthyism is that the senator, like most people who believe in conspiracies, was an incorrigible optimist. He really believed that once we got rid of the Communists and Fellow Travelers, we could all breathe easy. The truth is, actual subversion was only a very small part of the problem. The fact that we were willing to tolerate it, that Alger Hiss could be defended in responsible journals of opinion, was a symptom of a much more disturbing disorder that afflicted all our cultural institutions. Call it liberalism or modernism or utopian social visions, what it boiled down to is a violent hatred for every thing American. The betrayal went too deep for a junior senator from Wisconsin to fathom. (TJF) cc