In tracing the pedigree of the American conservative movement we must note that from, say, 1935 to 1955 (from the rise of Father Coughlin to the demise of Joseph McCarthy), the emergence of a powerful radical “right” in America was a possibility. This followed a development in Europe, though with the usual time lag. There, 1920 to 1945 was a quarter-century during which radicalism was no longer the monopoly of the left; when neither Communism nor capitalism but what is—inadequately and imprecisely—called “fascism” was the rising and dynamic political phenomenon, eventually leading to the Second World War, when men such as Hitler and Mussolini proved to be the dynamic world statesmen once Wilson and Lenin were gone. In the United States, too, the Depression was followed by the rise of the popular appeal of radical nationalists. When in 1941 Senator Robert A. Taft said that the danger to America was not Hitlerism but Communism—for fascism appeals but to a few, and Communism to the many—his diagnosis was entirely wrong; yet less than a decade later most Americans agreed, having convinced themselves that Communism was a far greater danger than fascism had ever been.
It was then, shortly after 1950, that the American conservative movement made its appearance, and the great majority of its early proponents and supporters shared these ideological sentiments. In 1950, the designation “conservative” was still shunned by every American politician. Yet by 1950 the opposition to liberalism and to the Democratic Party and even to the philosophy of the New Deal was not restricted to wealthy Republicans. The development of the Cold War and the successive revelations about domestic Communists seemed to have vindicated Franklin Roosevelt’s nationalist opponents in the minds of many people. The consequent opinion that the American alliance with Britain and Russia against Germany may have been a mistake altogether was held by a minority among that majority, mostly by German Americans and Midwestern populists, but the realignment of American politics that took shape twenty-five years later was already in the making.
The first national magazine of the conscious conservative movement, William F. Buckley’s National Review, appeared in 1955, a few months after McCarthy’s meteoric fall from political grace had begun. Many of its subscribers were isolationists, resentful of the American participation in the Second World War. When in November 1956 National Review approved of the Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt at Suez (only because Egypt seemed to have had the support of the Soviet Union), the magazine lost thousands of (presumably anti-Jewish) subscribers. But thereafter a dual development took place.
On the one hand, most of the isolationism, a fair amount of the Anglophobe nationalism, and a considerable portion of the religious conservatism among Irish Americans and many other American Catholics melted away. On the other, the American conservative movement was widening. Its ranks were no longer composed mainly of the isolationist remnant but of all kinds: disillusioned old radicals, ex-liberals, individualist libertarians, and ideological anti-Communists—the latter being the common denominator of the conservative movement to this day. As late as 1950, the isolationist Taft—Eisenhower’s opponent within the Republican Party—refused the label “conservative.” By 1960, Eisenhower, the broad-smiling democratic soldier handpicked by Roosevelt for the command of the crusade against fascism, said that he was a conservative. In 1941, Charles A. Lindbergh, the leading figure of American isolationism, said that among his principal opponents were intellectuals, Anglophiles, and Jews. Less than thirty-five years later a fair number of American intellectuals and American Jews had opted for neoconservatism. This was a revolution in American political and intellectual history that still awaits its judicious historian.
From “The American Conservatives,” which appeared in the January 1984 issue of Harper’s Magazine.