Politics & Policy

Veering Off Course

The New Yorker tries to revive Peter Viereck.

Did you know that America’s “first conservative” was an anti-capitalist poet who wanted Adlai Stevenson to become president?

That’s what The New Yorker claimed last week in a long profile of Peter Viereck, a man who is said to have “inspired” the conservative movement–before William F. Buckley Jr. and other ne’er-do-wells came along and caused us all to lose our way. (The article isn’t available online, but you can read this.)

The occasion of a major liberal magazine devoting nine pages to a figure from the early days of modern conservatism ought to be the cause of much rejoicing. Maybe in future issues we’ll get to read about the legacies of Frank Chodorov, Willmoore Kendall, and Albert Jay Nock.

But don’t count on it. The New Yorker’s interest in Viereck does not arise from a sincere desire to explore the roots of the Right. Instead, the article by Tom Reiss is a transparent attempt to attack “the radicalism of the George W. Bush Presidency” by suggesting that the conservative movement, in its infancy, betrayed its founding father. The true story is that Viereck was on stage during the creation of modern conservatism, but only in the opening scene. Then he walked away, never to be heard from again, except occasionally as a heckler.

Born in 1916, Viereck was raised by a father who supported the Kaiser during the First World War, defended Hitler during the Second World War, and did time in federal prison for conspiring with the Nazis. These sentiments repulsed the son; for years, Peter and his father were estranged. The younger Viereck attended Harvard and Oxford, served in the Army, and started writing books. The most important of these appeared in 1949; it was called Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt. Much of it was about the Austrian diplomat Metternich. Yet that is not why anybody remembers it today. “This was the book which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force,” wrote George H. Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. “It was this book which boldly used the word ‘conservatism’ in its title–the first such book after 1945. At least as much as any of his contemporaries, Peter Viereck popularized the term ‘conservative’ and gave the nascent movement its label.”

And so conservatism’s naming rights arguably belong to him. Viereck never actually joined the movement, however. When conservatives rallied around Robert A. Taft for president in 1952, in a kind of proto-Goldwater endeavor, Viereck opposed them. He even compared Taft to Robespierre. Two years later, he condemned Joe McCarthy. Then he supported Adlai Stevenson for president. He bought into the liberal academic view espoused by Richard Hofstadter and others that political conservatism was a neurotic form of status anxiety. He spoke of “Midwest hick-Protestant revenge against [the] condescending East” with “the resentment of lower-middle-class Celtic South Boston against Harvard.” In 1956, Frank S. Meyer had this to say in National Review: “Viereck is not the first, nor will he be the last, to succeed in passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism.”

In truth, Viereck didn’t have much taste for the rough and tumble of politics. In a 1953 book, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, he confessed to being “far more interested in art than politics.” He was in fact an accomplished poet, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. He wrote that he wanted to pursue his vision of conservatism “in the world of literature, arts and sciences, intellectual history, the universities, [and] the humanities.” This was not a bad impulse, and much of modern conservatism’s early efforts were chiefly intellectual. Yet Viereck’s preferred stomping grounds are precisely the areas in which conservatism seems to have had the least influence over the last half century. Just look at the recent winners of the Nobel Prize in literature, or the makeup of your local English department.

The fundamental weakness of Viereck’s conservatism, however, was its disdain of capitalism. In this sense, his brand of conservatism was more aristocratically European than dynamically American. Although Viereck was a strong critic of Communism, he personally preferred a mixed economy to free markets. He once equated “anti-statism” with “plutocracy,” and believed the New Deal was worth preserving. Although the early conservatives were an eclectic bunch, their views on capitalism were broadly libertarian and specifically opposed to the New Deal. Viereck may have given conservatism its name, but his achievement was largely semantic. The job of actually defining conservatism fell to the likes of Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer, who quickly eclipsed Viereck.

Another prominent eclipser, of course, was Buckley. It is on this point that The New Yorker article is most revealing. After a long digression into Viereck’s (fascinating) family history, and then a quick (and predictable) review of McCarthy’s abuses, which Viereck criticized, Reiss invites his subject to summarize his legacy. Viereck responds by saying that he “opened people’s minds to the idea that to be conservative is not to be satanic.” But he adds mournfully, “once their minds were opened, Buckley came in.”

The notion that Buckley ruined conservatism at the moment of its birth is almost too silly to rebut. It’s like saying that George Washington messed up the American Revolution. Are we really supposed to take this seriously? Viereck certainly does, and so does The New Yorker. For them, the core problem is McCarthy. Says Viereck:

He corrupted the ethics of American conservatives, and that corruption leads to the situation we have now. It gave the conservatives the habit of appeasing the forces of the hysterical right and to looking to these forces–and appeasing them knowingly, expediently. I think that was the original sin of the conservative movement, and we are all suffering from it.

Oh dear. While Viereck and his liberal pals in academia were diagnosing conservatives as neurotics, Buckley was busy discrediting the John Birch Society and other assorted wackos. This was one of Buckley’s most significant accomplishments: running “the forces of the hysterical right” out of the conservative movement. McCarthy does present a problem, of course, but it is wrong to suggest that Buckley and other conservative leaders had anything but a complex relationship with the senator. My own view of McCarthy is that he was like a kid who takes a math test, gets his proofs wrong, but somehow arrives at the correct answer when none of his classmates can do the same. Maybe he doesn’t deserve to pass the exam, but he deserves credit for something, and in McCarthy’s case the he deserves credit for recognizing Communism as a domestic threat. Instead of saying that McCarthyism is conservatism’s original sin, it would be more accurate to say that anti-anti-Communism was liberalism’s unforgivable crime. Let’s not forget who spent decades giving aid and comfort to Alger Hiss. McCarthy was a blowhard; Hiss was a spy.

Yet such messy details might get in the way of The New Yorker’s primary agenda, which after all isn’t to revive Viereck’s legacy so much as it is to tear down President Bush’s. That’s why, early on, Reiss informs his readers that Viereck “anticipated the radicalism of the George W. Bush Presidency before Bush had graduated from college.” By this, Reiss means that Viereck (in 1962) depicted conservatism as “a movement infiltrated by religious fundamentalists, paranoid patriotic groups, and big business leaders, united in their loathing of the cosmopolitan elites on the nation’s coasts.” From Manhattan, of course, that’s who populates the red states right now: snake-handling evangelists, gun-toting militias, and Halliburton executives.

Viereck eventually dropped from sight–he continued teaching at Mount Holyoke, specializing in Russian history and writing his poetry. “He’s a natural contrarian who consciously distances himself from political factions,” says Nash, who happens to live near Viereck in Massachusetts and used to bump into him at the Post Office. In the case of the conservative movement, Viereck wound up distancing himself from it without ever really joining it.

The New Yorker puts the matter differently. “To say that he has been forgotten by conservatives is not quite right,” writes Reiss. “He has practically been erased from the picture, like an early Bolshevik fallen out of favor.” That’s a ridiculously inapt metaphor, and its main point is spectacularly wrong. Today, Viereck is remembered almost exclusively by conservatives, in books such as Nash’s and by figures such as Claes G. Ryn of Catholic University (who recently wrote a foreword to a republished edition of Conservatism Revisited). They have accorded the man his proper place. It is liberals at The New Yorker who want to yank him out of history for their present purposes–a crude tactic that would do any Bolshevik proud.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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