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 about to be reprinted 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
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
as the architects
of the Iraq war, as the inner core
of President George W. Bush's circle of foreign policy advisers, as
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
are already coming fast
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.
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,
books. However, Reclaiming
the American Right was the first book to frame the neocon
narrative in terms of its essential element: militant global
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
Conservative, co-founded by Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodoracopulos, and Scott
McConnell, in addition to the long-standing monthly of the
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
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
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
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
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