Politics & Policy

How William F. Buckley Became the Gatekeeper of the Conservative Movement

The founder of National Review’s crusade against the John Birch Society helped define American conservatism.

Editor’s Note: The following is Part One of an excerpt from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. It is reprinted here with permission.

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, perhaps unintentionally, fired the opening salvo in what would become a major battle between him and Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. Buckley had been considerably moved by Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago — especially at the vivid and depressing glimpse it provided into Communist society in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He was also impressed by how CIA operatives, after the book had been published in the West, with the help of a member of the Italian Communist Party, managed to print the novel in its original language, smuggled it back into the USSR, and disseminated it throughout the country. Buckley considered this action among the CIA’s major ideological victories during the Cold War.

The Soviet government all but assured Pasternak a wide following when it exerted strong pressure on him not to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958 he had been awarded. None of this impressed Welch, who considered the book a fraud. In the February 1959 edition of American Opinion, the primary publication of the John Birch Society, Welch argued in an unsigned piece that the Soviets wanted the West to think the novel was a work of dissent, whereas it was really an anti-capitalist book the Soviets wanted to foist upon the West. Buckley, having already run a review of the book by John Chamberlain the previous September, subsequently published a review essay of it by Eugene Lyons, a former Communist who had spent years studying the Soviet system. Buckley advised Welch in advance that he would be running Lyon’s piece and suggested that “a little friendly controversy” among conservatives would not be a bad thing. Welch professed not to mind.

However, after Lyon’s piece ran, Welch let Buckley know, through others, that the head of the JBS did not view kindly National Review’s taking issue with his opinion of the book. Writer and editor Medford Evans, who appeared on National Review’s masthead and belonged to the John Birch Society, advised Buckley not to criticize what ran in other conservative periodicals except when its authors made grievous errors. In the May 1959 issue of American Opinion, Welch, in a signed letter to his readers, complained of the ingratitude a conservative to whom he had extended generosity had shown him. (Welch was clearly referring to Buckley. The JBS founder had made two $1,000 contributions to National Review, one in 1955 and one in 1957.) Welch wrote Buckley, criticizing him for having recommended that Harvard academician Henry A. Kissinger be named to a panel to assess the effectiveness of Radio Free Europe. He informed Buckley that he considered Kissinger a committed Communist and part of an establishment that had “sold the United States out.”

Controversy over Welch and the John Birch Society continued into the 1960s, eliciting a response from President John F. Kennedy. During a trip to Los Angeles in 1961, Kennedy spoke of “discordant voices of extremism.” He said the real danger to the nation came from extremist elements within rather than from foreign powers without. The President was referring to the John Birch Society, which had begun to attract considerable press attention. When asked whether he thought it dangerous to the electoral process that large financial contributions were going to “right wing extremist” entities, Kennedy responded, “The only thing we should be concerned about is that it does not represent a diversion of funds which might be taxable for non-taxable purposes. Days after this press conference, IRS Commissioner Mortimer H. Caplin launched a “test audit” of twenty-two organizations the administration considered “extremist.” The agency termed this the Ideological Organizations Audit Project.

Buckley believed the Kennedy intended through his speeches and follow-up remarks to disparage all the administration’s conservative critics, the responsible as well as the extreme. He may even have surmised that he had become one of the administration’s targets. He anticipated that the administration would seek to vilify, if not silence, its conservative opposition: “Because [John Birch Society founder] Robert Welch has written that Eisenhower was a communist, it is insinuated by the political opportunists that all who dare raise their voice in protest against the foreign policies of the President are the kind of people who think that poor old Ike is a commie.” By the time Buckley wrote those words, the charges Welch had levied against Eisenhower had become a staple in the media’s coverage of American conservatism. Welch, a believer in and propagator of conspiracy theories, suggested that the attention the media paid to his allegations was “communist inspired.”

Buckley was not alone in suspecting that liberals and Democrats would seek to paint all of Kennedy’s conservative critics as “Birchers.” New York Times columnist James Reston saw Kennedy’s speech and follow-up comments as part of a reelection strategy John Bailey, Kennedy’s recently designated pick as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had put in place. After having barely defeated Nixon in 1960, Kennedy had lost considerable support in the South because of the stand he had taken on civil rights. As Reston noted, JFK needed to offset this loss by maximizing his support from other segments of the electorate. That entailed increasing his share of the vote among independents; improving his margins among African Americans, who had given Nixon one-third of votes they cast in the previous election; and pulling moderate Republicans to his side. All could be targets of opportunity for the Democrats if they could cast the GOP as having been taken over by fanatics. Reston considered it significant that Bailey charged Republicans with taking their ideas from “extreme agitators.” Buckley termed such assertions “the hoariest in political polemics.”

Later in the decade, as Senator Barry Goldwater and Buckley were seeking to expand their influence, Welch was doing the same. Although Buckley and Welch agreed on many issues and favored advancing their cause through both intellectual debate and grassroots activism, Buckley was growing concerned about behavior patterns Welch was exhibiting. He would eventually characterize certain actions Welch took as evidence of “nuttiness.” On his retirement as editor of National Review in 1990, Buckley cited among his own greatest achievements “the absolute exclusion of anything anti-Semitic or kooky from the conservative movement.”

Of all the crusades Buckley took on in his half century on the national political stage, none did more to cement his reputation as a gatekeeper of the conservative movement—or consumed more of his time—than that which he launched against the John Birch Society. In 1961, Buckley complained to a supporter of both National Review and the JBS,“I have had more discussions about the John Birch Society in the past year than I have about the existence of God or the financial difficulties of National Review.


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