Of all the great science-fiction writers of the 20th century, Robert A. Heinlein (1907–88) was the most conservative. The recent release of the second volume of William H. Patterson Jr.’s authorized biography gives us a chance to assess Heinlein’s place in the conservative movement.
Anyone thinking about Heinlein has to deal with the somewhat contradictory messages of two of his greatest novels. In 1959, he published Starship Troopers, the story of a young man who enlists and becomes a competent soldier in a war to the death against the alien Bugs. The book won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1960 and has become an important military-science-fiction novel. It has been taught in classes sponsored by the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force.
Two years later came Heinlein’s next novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, which would attract a far different set of admirers. This story of communal love and endless sex won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1962. Every hippie owned a copy and put it in his apple-crate bookcase, usually next to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. The sales of Stranger made Heinlein wealthy.
It’s not a coincidence that the publishers of this biography, wanting to reach out to both soldiers and hedonists, solicited blurbs from both Tom Clancy (the late author of bestselling military-themed novels) and Samuel R. Delany (celebrated by many for his novels of sexual adventurism). In a 2007 piece about Heinlein’s centennial, Reason’s Brian Doherty noted that, when Heinlein died in 1988, he was “mourned by millions of readers who saw him more as a father or a guru than merely as a spinner of captivating tales.”
So where does Heinlein fit in the conservative movement? Libertarians claim him as one of their own, and biographer Patterson identifies Heinlein as a disciple of Max Stirner, a thinker who urged his readers to be egomaniacal. Heinlein called himself a libertarian many times, and his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1967, has proven a continual source of inspiration for free-market types. But Heinlein was also a strong defender of national security, and nearly all of his organized political activity after 1950 was on the anti-Communist Right. Some libertarians view their movement as being in tension with a strong commitment to national security.
Heinlein wanted a naval career but left the Navy in 1932 because of tuberculosis. He then worked as an editor and as an organizer for radical Upton Sinclair in his failed campaign for governor of California in 1934. Heinlein ran for the California state assembly in 1938 as a Democrat and lost in the primary. He wanted to return to duty during World War II but was blocked — owing to his medical history, and to his writing of letters to the editor supporting liberal political positions while identifying himself as a retired naval officer.
In 1948, he married Virginia Gerstenfeld, who was more conservative than he was. By Patterson’s account, Heinlein broke with the Democrats in 1954. In 1958, the Heinleins created the Patrick Henry League, an organization devoted to fighting Communism. In a full-page ad he purchased in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, Heinlein dissected an advertisement from the anti-nuclear group SANE. The advertisement followed “the pattern of a much-used and highly refined Communist tactic,” he wrote: “Plan ahead to soften up the free world on some major point, package the propaganda to appeal to Americans with warm hearts and soft heads. Time the release carefully, then let the suckers carry the ball while the known Communists stay under cover.”
The Patrick Henry League fizzled, in part because Heinlein could not take enough time away from his novels to create a national organization. But Heinlein returned to politics in 1964, writing radio commercials for Barry Goldwater (which were never used) and doing fundraising for Goldwater in Colorado.
Heinlein’s third period of political activity came after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. After being recruited by fellow science-fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Heinlein served on the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, which prepared briefing papers on outer-space issues for the Reagan transition team and informally advised the administration on defense policy. Through this committee, he came into contact with General Daniel Graham. Heinlein wrote the introduction for Graham’s 1983 book High Frontier and appeared in videos supporting Graham’s pro-SDI High Frontier organization. He dedicated his 1985 novel The Cat Who Walks through Walls to members of the Citizens Advisory Council, including Graham. Heinlein also donated at least $40,000 to High Frontier during his lifetime.
Heinlein’s last political activity came in 1988, when he tried to persuade Jeane Kirkpatrick to run for the Republican presidential nomination. (Kirkpatrick declined to run because of her husband’s poor health.)
Heinlein’s advocacy of a strong national defense led him to a confrontation late in 1984 with the great British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, a man of the Left, had testified against Reagan’s strategic-defense plan on several occasions, on one of them appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clarke then visited the Citizens Advisory Committee, where Heinlein confronted him and said that, as a British citizen, Clarke had no right to express opinions about American foreign policy. “Heinlein was always big on freedom and the balance with responsibility,” author Gregory Benford, who was present at the meeting, recalled. “I mean that’s what Starship Troopers is all about. . . . You don’t get an opinion unless your skin is personally risked.” Shortly after his confrontation with Heinlein, Clarke stopped commenting about American defense policy.
That emphasis on personal responsibility also extended to Heinlein’s more hedonistic side. Patterson quotes a letter Heinlein wrote in 1972 to Tim Zell, who created the Church of All Worlds, a neopagan organization based on some of the ideas in Stranger in a Strange Land. Zell compared Heinlein to Ayn Rand and Robert Rimmer, novelists whose books included instructions on how their disciples should live. Heinlein explained to Zell that he was not writing propaganda. “I was asking questions,” Heinlein said about his purpose in writing Stranger. “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconception and induce him to think for himself, along new or fresh lines. In consequence each reader gets something different out of the book because he himself supplies the answers.
“Anyone who takes that book as answers is deluding himself,” Heinlein concluded. “It is an invitation to think — not to believe.”
Like many great writers, Robert A. Heinlein does not fit easily into ready-made categories. But his patriotism and his desire to have his readers endlessly question liberal conventional wisdom make him one of the 20th century’s most important conservative authors.
–– Mr. Wooster, a former editor of The Wilson Quarterly and The American Enterprise, frequently reviews science fiction and fantasy.