Dec 4, 2013
Reflections on the ‘Godfather’ of Neoconservatism
Posted on Sep 25, 2009
I had a different path than my neoconservative contemporaries. My father was a high school teacher and already quite assimilated into as much of American culture as was available to us in the Jewish Bronx. He had gone to City College in the early 1920s, and I went to the City College high school, spent a term at City itself in the spring of 1942, and then left for a very different place, Williams College [in Massachusetts]. Kristol’s family was in the lower rungs of the garment business. The student body at City College (attended by Moynihan too) was if not almost entirely Jewish predominantly so, and I was able to experience the milieu at first hand in my term there. It was intellectually and politically intense—but so were Berkeley, Minnesota and Harvard. What made City different was the direct connection of these immigrant offspring with the European experience, often the Ghetto experience, of their parents. They hoped, but could not be sure, that City would be a way station on their journey into the larger society—much of it, despite the New Deal, at the end of the ’30s on economic and ethnic grounds closed to them. It is not surprising that they were fascinated by the varieties of revolutionary rhetoric. They knew of the torments of Nazi and fascist Europe and had even heard of the Chinese Communists, and their debates about the Soviet Union and the nature of American exceptionalism were parts of a desperate effort to find a positive connection with history before it overwhelmed them.
Many first learned of the rest of the nation when they joined the armed forces. Kristol has described the experience as curing him of belief in an American socialism: He did not find his fellow soldiers promising material for a cooperative commonwealth. Some, he said, were anti-Semitic—but this did not induce in Kristol the extremely acute Jewish self-consciousness of some of the neoconservatives. He shrugged his shoulders, hoped that it would pass, and accepted it as part of the price for living in what was, after all, an exceptionally open society. That, at any rate, seemed to be his attitude when I first knew him (slightly) as an editor at Commentary in the ’40s.
Commentary was founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945. Its founding editor, Elliot Cohen, did have an acute Jewish self-consciousness but he was also immersed in the mixed culture of New York. Commentary set about chronicling the situation of American Jewry just as many of the prewar barriers were bending and breaking, in the academy, business and the professions, government and politics. The editors did not confine themselves to discussions of the struggles in Palestine, or within the Jewish community. They chronicled much of what was happening in the city and the country, and somewhat to their own surprise found themselves publishing a national magazine. In the period, I had returned to Williams College from wartime work in New York at the Office of War Information, and from 1947 to 1952 I was at graduate school in Harvard. I did not yet write for Commentary, but I read it. I knew one of the editors, Clement Greenberg, and he introduced me to Kristol. I did not see much of Kristol but had the impression of someone, like all the rest of us, very determined about his career—and in strenuous pursuit of the spirit of the times.
He, like Cohen and many of their contributors, found it in the new American empire. Much of Commentary was given to film and novel, to the dramas of urban and suburban living, to a running ethnography of postwar America.
He endured the ensuing outrage of the liberals, whose own party under President Harry Truman (and with the eager collaboration of much of the leadership of the unions) had embraced strident anti-communism. However, the not entirely uncynical or uncalculated realism of the declaration was followed by a great leap forward in Kristol’s career.
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