Political magazines have long relied on donors to ensure their continued existence. This is true of Chronicles, but it’s also been true of mainstream organs of conservatism such as the National Review. William F. Buckley, Jr., would often pen letters to donors which asserted that the magazine was “dead broke.” In one such letter from 1966, Buckley noted that it became clear every February that the magazine “failed to pay our way.” This was due not to mismanagement, he said, but rising production costs. “A magazine cannot charge a price drastically in excess of the general price level set by such as ‘Look,’ ‘Life,’ ‘Time,’ ‘Newsweek,’ etc., which absorb the extra costs by levying on their munificent benefactors,” he wrote.
I recently got a copy of this letter forwarded to me from the widow of a friend, Wes McDonald, who was an ardent Buckleyite, as I was for a while many years ago. Reading the beginning of Buckley’s plea, both Wes and I would have immediately dug out our checkbooks to support his failing enterprise. But there was something different about this 1966 letter, and if Wes and I had read on, we would have learned that the National Review editors were facing a new financial “threat.”
Buckley disclosed that a Dr. Linus Pauling was suing National Review for $1 million. The magazine’s senior editor James Burnham had gone after Pauling as a Soviet collaborator in two editorials published earlier in the decade, and the magazine was now engaged in preparation for the trial by collecting documents to substantiate its charges. These activities, explained Buckley, were costly. It was necessary to appeal to readers to help pay for “this judicial sizzler for the cause of anti-Communism.” Up until then, National Review had coughed up “an incredible fifty thousand dollars, which was dutifully done in the cause of anti-Communism but which we cannot ourselves conceivably afford.”
Reading this letter, I was struck by the repetition of certain phrases, particularly “the cause of anti-Communism” and “fellow traveler.” Accusations of “collaborationism” were laid on Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Pauling, who—one might gather from the letter and related pieces in National Review—was a major threat to America’s defense against Soviet Communism. Although there is no need to justify Pauling’s naïve call to Americans not to resume nuclear testing after the Soviets had taken that step in 1962, no proof was offered that this renowned physical chemist felt any affection for communism.
In any case I am underwhelmed by the evidence of Pauling’s “collaborationism.” When I read Buckley in the 1960s, I generally ignored his anti-communist ebullitions, starting with his eagerness to throw nuclear weapons against the commies. Although the social and constitutional conservatism expounded in National Review pleased me, I could have done happily without the anti-communist grandstanding. For example, I shared Burnham’s cynical attitude about liberal internationalists and his interest in the continuing managerial revolution in the Western world. But Burnham’s call for brinksmanship in dealing with other countries fell on mostly deaf ears in my case.
I relished most of the magazine’s other regulars, especially Russell Kirk, Will Herberg, Jeffrey Hart, and Willmoore Kendall. Still I noticed these figures managed to write on topics other than Burnham’s “protracted conflict.” Years later when I became friendly with Kirk and Herberg, it became apparent that these longtime National Review contributors read past those tirades that I found so inexpressibly tiresome.
I was relieved to learn that one could be an accredited conservative without having to vibrate to these war chants. That was my judgment even before the neoconservatives climbed to power at National Review and in the conservative movement, as advocates of a particularly aggressive form of liberal internationalism.
I was thinking about Buckley’s anti-communism after having seen a copy of his plea for funding and after having read Jack Trotter’s superlative essay about Buckley, which we’ve published in the latest Chronicles. Jack discussed, among other provocative themes, the ousting of the John Birch Society from National Review’s version of the conservative movement. Although Jack expressed misgivings about that move, he generally seemed to agree with it. My own research leads me to a different conclusion: The Bircher ouster in July 1965 had nothing to do with the accusations of anti-Semitism, racisms, and paranoid conspiracy mongering brought against them, mostly from the left. Their fate was almost entirely due to their opposition to the Vietnam War.
Please note the connections between the Birchers’ expulsion and Buckley’s plea for funds to fight an alleged communist collaborator “in the cause of anti-Communism.” The two actions took place only a few months apart and reflect the same preoccupation. Both make clear what was uppermost in Buckley’s mind at the time.
Betraying anti-communism was the leitmotif in Burnham’s attack on the Birchers, which set the tone for the other briefs in the same issue. Burnham and his fellow-excommunicators were not shy about stressing the treasonous intentions that they attributed equally to the Birchers and their enemy on the left.
It is hard for me to take seriously the charges of racism and anti-Semitism that were later raised against the Birchers, by among others Jonah Goldberg and Sam Tanenhaus. The organization had both Jewish and black members, and its star publication American Opinion had both groups publishing on its pages. A widely featured internal fight in the conservative movement in the 1960s was between Buckley and the black journalist George Schuyler, who was then championing the Birchers. Although Revilo Oliver, an anti-Semitic as well as anti-communist classical scholar, wrote for American Opinion, he quickly turned against Bircher founder Robert Welch, calling him a Jewish operative. Perhaps Oliver noticed how much of the publication that he briefly favored was filled with the opinions of the Jewish contributing editor Alan Stang.
Like the McCarthyites, the Birchers represented a post-World War II wave of the American right. It was remarkably inclusive because what united its members and defined its Americanism was a common threat, communism, and its insidious influence on key American institutions. Once the enemy was established as “un-American,” it was possible to bring together Americans of varied backgrounds to oppose this foe and to search together for its hidden presence. The enemy was not a rising tide of color or cabals of Jewish bankers but communist ideology and those who promoted it at home and abroad.
Not surprisingly, the Birchers’ enemies at National Review showed a similarly diverse composition, featuring repentant Jewish former communists and urban ethnic Catholics, who were now leading the anti-communist charge. Contrary to the argument offered by Murray Friedman in The Neoconservative Revolution (2005), the American conservative movement before the neoconservative ascent of the 1980s was not full of bigoted nativists. It was staggeringly inclusive; and anti-communism was a driving force in the creation of such a diverse right.
Mind you, this is not a defense of the Birchers’ eccentric views about a ubiquitous communist conspiracy, which supposedly involved President Eisenhower. Undoubtedly Birchers believed things that I wouldn’t care to defend. But that was not the main reason that this group became so offensive to Buckley, Burnham, and Frank Meyer. It was the Birchers’ supposed retreat from the struggle against the Soviets and Soviet proxies that led to National Review’s actions against them.
It need hardly be said that Birchers were not soft on the communists, against whom they raged night and day. They were opposed to an interventionist foreign policy, particularly when that policy resulted in military crusades from which the U.S. had trouble extricating itself. Unlike Buckley and Burnham, the Birchers decided that war in Vietnam was not worth the cost. Other people on the right came to the same conclusion, most vocally George F. Kennan and Murray Rothbard; and neither was welcome at National Review.
Image Credit: William F. Buckley, Jr. during his 1965 campaign to become mayor of New York City.