Conservatives were once a lonely band of freethinkers
In the early 1950s, liberal intellectuals shaped the American zeitgeist, while conservatives, to quote Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, manned “tiny outposts” over a broad front, rarely communicating with one another.
When 39 American and European conservative intellectuals, calling themselves “traditional liberals,” formed an organization in the spring of 1947, they did not meet in America but thousands of miles away in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland. Their mood was somber, for statism had permeated the governments of Western Europe while communism ruled in Eastern Europe with a little help from the Soviet Army. Led by the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek, these free-market scholars described their goal, rather grandly, as “the preservation and improvement of the free society.” Economist Milton Friedman contented himself with saying the meeting demonstrated that “we were not alone.” All too alone were conservative academics such as University of Chicago English professor Richard Weaver, Duke political scientist Ralph Hallowell, Louisiana State University political philosopher Eric Voegelin, Harvard historian William Y. Elliott, and UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Nisbet.
There were scattered conservative publications, with small circulations compared with those of established liberal journals such as The New Republic and The Nation. Human Events was a weekly eight-page political newsletter. Firmly anti–New Deal, it described the changes in American government since 1932 as “revolutionary” and called on Republicans to roll back the “iron curtain” that separated Washington from the rest of the country. But its call to action had attracted a circulation of only 5,000.
The one conservative youth group was the newly born ISI, with its paradoxical name, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). Encouraged by a $1,000 check from oil executive J. Howard Pew, ISI’s organizers argued that the push toward socialism in America had begun in the early 1900s with the formation of Socialist Clubs on college campuses. ISI’s plan was to “foment the organization of campus cells for the study and discussion of individualistic ideas.” The libertarian language reflected the ideology of its founding father, Frank Chodorov, who never met a government program he didn’t want to dismantle. With William F. Buckley Jr. as president, ISI reached 600 members in its first year and then quadrupled over the next several, revealing a campus appetite for at least some conservative ideas.
There were conservative newspaper columnists, such as George Sokolsky, and radio broadcasters, such as Fulton Lewis Jr., but liberals undercut their influence by linking them whenever they could with a “militant right wing.” CBS’s Mike Wallace, for example, invited his viewers one evening to listen to Lewis explain “the attraction the far right has for crackpot fascist groups in America.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
When The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, liberals joked that the title was an oxymoron. But they stopped laughing when they read Kirk’s synthesis of the thought of leading conservatives from the late 18th century to the 20th century, including Edmund Burke, John Adams, Daniel Webster, Benjamin Disraeli, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot. The work established convincingly that there had been a conservative tradition in America since the Founding. Kirk made conservatism intellectually respectable. In fact, as NR publisher William Rusher pointed out, he gave the conservative movement its name.
As George Nash has written in his indispensable study The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, there were three reactions to the Left in the aftermath of World War II. The first, as represented by Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, consisted of classical liberals and libertarians, resisting the threat to individual liberty posed by the collectivist state. The second was the revolt of traditionalists, such as Weaver and Kirk, who urged a return to time-honored religious and ethical beliefs and a rejection of moral relativism. The third was, in Nash’s words, “a militant evangelistic anti-Communism,” shaped by ex-communists such as Frank Meyer and Whittaker Chambers, author of the powerful autobiographical work Witness.
Bill Buckley’s special genius as a master fusionist was his ability to keep these dissimilar, disputatious intellectuals on the same masthead for years to come. Why were there so few defectors? Because of Buckley’s extraordinary skill at harmonizing the conflicting voices of the conservative choir. Because he persuaded his fractious colleagues to concentrate on their common enemy — the Soviet Union — and set aside for the time being their undoubted differences. And because he helped them realize they were part of something historic — what Buckley would call “our movement.”