George Nash: Interviewed about his history of conservatismHistorians in the News
MG: Why did you choose to begin your history of American conservatism in 1945?
GN: My book was originally a doctoral dissertation in History at Harvard University. While searching for a dissertation topic I had become interested in the role of intellectuals in American politics in the twentieth century. For a short time I worked on a dissertation about the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), which was founded in 1947. I soon abandoned that topic and, with the encouragement of my adviser, decided to examine what was happening on the"right" side of the intellectual/political spectrum in that same period: the years immediately after World War II.
It soon became apparent that the year 1945 was an appropriate point of departure for my investigation. There was no organized conservative intellectual presence in the United States at the end of World War II. Conservative voices here and there -- yes, but not what historians would consider a movement. I now had a story to research and tell: the story of the emergence of this movement or community from weakness and obscurity to power and influence in the new era known as the Cold War.
MG: Your book traces the development of three camps, three strands of thought, that coalesced into the post-war conservative movement: libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists. At first glance, these groups seem to have little in common. Can you say a bit about what brought them together?
GN: You are quite right: in the beginning (the 1940s) there was not one right- wing renaissance in America but three, each reacting in diverse ways to a perceived challenge from the Left. No rigid barriers separated these groups, but they tended to act independently of one another. What gradually brought the three emerging components of the conservative revival together was a shared antipathy to twentieth century liberalism as well as a deepening sense of being under siege from the forces of leftism and liberal modernity.
As these three independent wings of the conservative revolt against the Left became more self-conscious in the 1950s, many among them felt the need for greater intellectual coherence and for what we might call better networking. Here an event of enormous importance was the founding of National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr. Apart from his extraordinary talents as a writer and polemicist, Buckley personified each impulse in the nascent coalition. He was at once a defender of the free market, a traditional Roman Catholic, and a staunch anticommunist (a source of his ecumenical appeal to conservatives). His magazine provided an indispensable forum for the multiplying voices of protest from the Right against liberal orthodoxy. Here was a place where conservatives of many stripes could seek and often common ground. ...
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