By Norman Birnbaum
It is puzzling that obituary notices of Irving Kristol obviously intended to be positive designate him the “Godfather” of neoconservatism. Likening this group of thinkers and writers to a gang of Mafiosi may or may not be accurate; it is certainly not flattering. In fact, the neoconservative first generation around Kristol behaved no differently than any other group in joining to promote their own careers. Selflessness can be left to the saints, if any are around.
Kristol was not an original thinker and never claimed to be one. The actual origins of neoconservatism will provide material for historians for some time to come. Distinct streams of thought, in sometimes contradictory coexistence, made it up. Jewish Democrats with roots in the New Deal concluded that the Great Society had gone too far—especially with its programs of affirmative action for women and minorities. Technocratic skeptics like the political scientist James Q. Wilson thought that much government intervention failed and was socially counterproductive. Defenders of familial and religious values, often Catholic, thought that Americans should not trade their ethnic identities for what they saw as a sterile universalism. The theme of the superior wisdom of ordinary Americans triumphing over the unrealistic notions of educated elites was prominent. It contrasted with the views of the followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss, who did not think that citizenries could, or should, rule themselves. Yet they found themselves in the same movement.
The neoconservatives were at one with much of the nation in their backing of an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. The Jewish members were strong partisans of Israel, and opposed to agreements with the Soviet Union unless it allowed Jewish emigration. A highly selective idea of “human rights” was voiced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was U.N. ambassador. The neoconservatives held that the United States was the authentic revolutionary power in the world since we had achieved our ideals, legitimating our claims to global moral leadership. George McGovern’s pathetic appeal, “Come home, America,” implied that our revolution was unfulfilled, that progress remained to be accomplished. It was derided as a symptom of inner uncertainty, indeed weakness. Later, Ronald Reagan claimed that the U.S. was “standing tall again.” Perhaps there was a double anatomical reference, in which claims of national strength were compensations for the potency anxieties bothering many American males. Kristol himself was notably free of hyper-patriotism. He treated it as he dealt with religion—something politically useful but not binding on a superior observer like himself.
To this was added, as the originally Democratic neoconservatives drew away from their party, the idea of the efficiency and justness of the market. That was a favored theme of Kristol—who appropriated the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Kristol was quite open in his appeals to American business to pay for the neoconservative advocacy of the sovereignty of the market. He warned bankers and industrialists that the money they gave to the colleges and universities was wasted—indeed, was used by academics critical of capitalism to depict the benefactors of the academy as asocial and rapacious, if not worse. Kristol taught for many years at New York University, but persisted in depicting American higher education in bitterly negative terms. He even declared that our institutions were so remote from American tradition that they ignored the Federalist Papers—an assertion falsified by a cursory glance at any college or university catalog. As for the anti-capitalism of the universities, it is singular that they produced economists who were, overwhelmingly and unthinkingly, partisans of the market.
Once, at a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute at which the universities were anathematized, I asked why Kristol (and Lynne Cheney) were so fearful of students being indoctrinated by socially critical professors. Anyone who had spent much time in a classroom, I objected, would have encountered the obdurate resistance of American students to any ideas—left, right or center. Cheney replied somewhat lamely, but Kristol enjoyed the conceit. I concluded from his grin that he wished to communicate that he did not wish to be mistaken for being overly serious: We each, in our separate ways, saw through the game.
Kristol’s detractors make much of the fact that as a student at City College on the eve of the Second World War he subscribed to the revolutionary views of Leon Trotsky. He substituted, they said, counterrevolution for revolution and so defended the existing order with the simplifying ardor with which he earlier sought to overthrow it. There, his critics are the simplifiers. Kristol’s journey is a story of the upward social mobility of an entire generation, growing up in the Depression but presented after the war with openings for social ascent they might not have previously imagined, but which they were quick to seize. Kristol was not a gangster, but an instinctively gifted retailer—with great abilities at sensing new consumer demands. Like many successful merchants, he both identified with his customers and was patronizing of them. His knowing smile and self-possession were quite unlike the missionary zeal that possessed, in contrapuntal Jewish and Irish tones, those close friends Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Kristol in his journey through American (and British) society acquired an indispensable elite trait: He learned to cool it. He had the long run very much in mind, and the decisive steps in his career were quite calculated.
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.
The great passion of the editors, however, was the integration of the Jewish community into the nation. The journal’s articles in the years 1945-52 are a record of affirmation of the nation’s new global role, accompanied by an unsentimental farewell to what was ceaselessly depicted as the illusions of socialist transformation—relentlessly, indeed obsessively, documented by accounts of the crimes of Stalin. (Cohen had been a communist and Greenberg had sympathized with Trotsky.) The enormous embarrassment of the Jewish community as the case of the Rosenbergs, the atomic spies, unfolded led to a frenetic patriotism.
It was the epoch of an anti-communism which found its supreme spokesman in that alcoholic Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The senator’s intimidation and lies brutalized our national life, but too few in public or private institutions found the decency to resist. There was some debate, of course, and any number of those attached to decency, fair play and constitutional rights objected to the occupation of the public square by an ideological lynch mob. Kristol declared that the American people knew that McCarthy was against communism, they did not know it of his liberal critics.
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.
We now think of the CIA as peopled by blunderers, liars, thugs—with a counterculture of conscience-stricken servants of the Republic in the ranks of its retired. The early CIA was more diverse. It was led, generally, by scions of the Ivy League who had returned from the war to their banks and law firms and universities to find peace boring. They were joined by Midwestern Protestants and urban Catholics and Jews: The expanding foreign policy apparatus needed their talents.
When President Richard Nixon gave his first instructions to Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser, he told him to keep an eye on “the liberals” at the CIA. One of the things some of the CIA liberals, and their more conservative allies, knew was that the Cold War had cultural and ideological dimensions. It wasn’t enough to place an occasional agent in The New York Times or at the University of Chicago, or buy a journalist in Paris and a professor in Berlin. Something much larger was needed, and a repentant segment of the former left was able to provide it. The CIA’s ideological operations included the financing and direction of the Congress for Cultural Freedom—which in much of the rest of the world recruited prestigious figures for large-scale projects: conferences, subsidies for those willing to support the Cold War, and the publication of journals in foreign capitals. The CIA’s role was kept secret, but it is difficult to believe that the luminaries of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Raymond Aron in Paris, Isaiah Berlin in Oxford and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., originally of Harvard) were so naive as not to know (or guess) where the money was coming from—whatever their protestations later.
The senior American figure in the congress was the philosopher Sidney Hook, who had in effect adopted Kristol in the years after 1945. An excellent Marxist scholar as a younger man, he undertook the long march from early Stalinism to social democracy—and, of course, reconciliation with the U.S. as it was. Hook (against some opposition) had Kristol appointed the American editor of Encounter in London. The opponents objected to the very qualities which made him a successful editor: his quite un-British openness (we would term it chutzpah and so would have the British, had they known the term), his disdain for tradition poorly masked as a respectful effort to revise it, his very un-Anglo-Saxon origins.
Great Britain in the postwar years suffered acutely from imperial exhaustion and loss of power and wealth—and for some, Kristol’s arrival as editor of what became an immensely influential journal was confirmation of national decline. The Labour governments of 1945-51 had in fact shaken and even opened British society, and an American new to status in his own country was quick to exploit the cultural fascination that social change evoked in the U.K. He combined it with a strenuous dosage of anti-communism, some of it at a reasonably high level, much of it tiresomely repetitive and no small amount of it a slightly better mannered McCarthyism.
Encounter was widely read and discussed, but living in London from the year it began to publish (1953), I had the impression that Kristol was more feared than admired. He returned the compliment, making little secret of his disdain for much of then contemporary British culture and politics—which he thought of as entirely compatible with respect for earlier British achievements. In any event, Encounter’s defense of pluralism was combined with the rigorous propagation of a Cold War party line: The U.S. could do no wrong. That is why, presumably, the magazine refused in 1958 to publish a critical article on the U.S. by Dwight Macdonald, even though Macdonald had served for some months previous as a temporary replacement for Kristol.
By then, I was active in the nascent British New Left and on the editorial board of one of our journals, Universities and Left Review. I wrote an “Open Letter to the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” criticized the refusal to publish Macdonald’s article and asked where the money came from. We placed it in ULR—and as the ensuing tumult died down, I opened a discussion which culminated in 1967 with the admission by the U.S. government of the CIA’s sponsorship of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its panoply of journals, Encounter among these. Kristol in fact returned to the U.S. in 1961, and managed to move from shameless denial of a CIA connection to unrelenting defense of it without an intervening phase. (See the excellently documented book by Frances Stonor Saunders, “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters,” New Press, 1999.)
He had had, of course, unkind words about and for me during the controversy—but after a while treated it as business. I recall visiting him and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, at their Manhattan apartment in 1961. Norman Podhoretz had just taken over the editorship of Commentary and was rapidly converting it to what it would be for a few years, a major voice of the American New Left. Gertrude and Irving greeted me with one voice. “You have come back just at the right time. The whole country is moving left: The Podhoretzes have just had a violent quarrel with the Trillings.” There is much to be said for familial values—but at times, just a bit more worldly distance would help.
Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center. His latest book is “After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century,” 2001. He is writing a memoir, “From the Bronx to Oxford—and Not Quite Back.”
AP / The Weekly Standard