William Rusher Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Conservative Movement: Conversation with William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review; 4/25/90 by Harry Kreisler

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Origins of the Conservative Movement

I got the sense from your book that the issue of anti-communism was key during the Eisenhower period in pushing you further into the conservative movement.

That's right. The conservative movement really got started in the early 1950s, and it had three components. There were the libertarians and the Austrian School of economics, derived from Von Mises and Hayek; that was one. And then there were the Burkean traditionalists, descended intellectually from Russell Kirk in this country. And while I read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and read Kirk's books, you're quite right: my own introduction to the subject was from the anti-communist side. What might be called an "operational" anti-communism was the third main tributary of the conservative movement. Those were the people who not only were opposed to the Soviet Union, but took the whole controversy seriously on the philosophical level and believed that the [Communist] Party represented a problem domestically as well as internationally.

Let's talk a minute about these three strands. The libertarian strand first: why do you think it resonated, or did it resonate, with American political culture?

It resonated with a part of it, no question about that. Hayek's book got well noticed. It certainly was not in the mainstream at the time; it was resolutely swimming against the current and knew it.

State for us the major tenet there. What was most important about it?

Hayek in general opposed the proposition that government planning was the way to construct an economy, and with it, a society. He did not believe in that. He thought that it led to all the wrong results. In a very short but very cogently and tersely argued book, he demonstrated that. I remember one chapter was, "Why the Worst Get on Top," and he just plain explained why that was the case. Incidentally, the libertarians and the traditionalists had not all that much in common. They disagreed with each other on a great many things. The traditionalists, as the name implies, took as their intellectual father Edmund Burke and believed in the value of established tradition and order in a society. Their roots tended to be Catholic and Continental and hierarchical, whereas the libertarians were individualists and, perhaps, around the Atlantic Rim, a bit more. So, there were real disagreements. Interestingly enough, when Young Americans for Freedom came along in the 1960s, they immediately split up into two blocs, the "Trads," and the "Libs." I would go to speak at one of their conventions and there was a caucus for the "Trads" over there, and the caucus for the "Libs" would be over here.

What about the anti-communist strain? These other two were imported from abroad, would that be fair to say?

Yes, they were really separate responses to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, intellectual developments.

But the anti-communist component was indigenous? Would that be a fair statement or not?

No; well, at least a great many of the most noted anti-communists were East European refugees of one sort or another, although many of them, also, were American. And many, if not most, were former communists themselves, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer. James Burnham, although he was never a communist, was a Trotskyist and a very prominent one. So, the anti-communists came along much later, intellectually, because they were a response to the communist revolution and the communist world enterprise as they saw it. And, they believed that it had to be taken seriously, and fought à outrance, with everything they had.

You said that you were attracted by an "operational" anti-communism. That refers the fact that you actually served as a Senate investigator?

That's not why I use the word "operational." I was reaching for something to qualify the concept of anti-communism as rather more than just ordinary anti-communism. In other words, we took it as a specialty. You're quite right in my case. I became fascinated by the Communist Party, and got to know many ex-communists, and became a good friend of Robert Morris, who was chief counsel to the Internal Security subcommittee. He eventually asked me to be his associate counsel. So I did get into it operationally, in a quite literal sense of the word. Yes, I did become active in that sense -- in the battle.

Next page: The Eisenhower Presidency

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