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Conservatism’s unwavering opposition to communism.

Hitler’s conquest of continental Europe and the barbarity of the death camps was a profound shock to anyone who remembers that Germany was land of Goethe and Beethoven; the German language was the tongue of Kant and Schiller; and German universities were home to scientific giants like Einstein and Heisenberg. How could Germany sink so low? What makes this all the more shocking is that in Germany, Nazism was embraced by the intellectuals of the day. Hitler’s popularity soared in German Universities – among both students and faculties – before the electoral success. The rise of Nazism was no accident. To this day intellectuals still haven’t fully faced the role of German culture in the descent to totalitarian barbarity.
The euphoria of our military victory was tempered by gruesome and sobering evidence of the nature of the Nazism. The liberation of the concentration camps unearthed the soul of totalitarianism. The second shock was even greater: another strain of totalitarianism engulfed Eastern Europe and half of Asia. Despite the verbal obfuscation, banal sociological theories and hair-splitting distinctions, the common man knew in their gut that these ideological twins were of common stock. But they lacked an explicit explanation for what was before their eyes. It seemed so sudden and spread so quickly. What was happening to the world?
The few intellectuals who saw this coming, argued that the roots of this illness were deep and that the disease was spreading to the Anglo-American world. In the early 1940s while we were blind to the collectivist horrors these few fired the first warning shots. F. A. Hayek, in the “Road to Serfdom,” argued we were heading down the same path as continental Europe. Ayn Rand portrayed the individualist hero fighting against the collectivist onslaught. And there were others – Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Albert Jay Nock, Henry Hazlet and most of all Ludwig von Mises. These were advocates of what was once called liberalism – a liberalism that embraced the sovereignty of the individual in thought and action – but which most people think of as conservatism, today. These individuals, however, were the exceptions.8
The pro-collectivist apologists worked quickly to salvage what they could creating what we today call spin: the problem wasn’t collectivism, government domination, or economic central planning but just the nationalism in National Socialism. International socialism, i.e. communism, shouldn’t be lumped with that perversion created by an evil one, Hitler. Uncle Joe, was on our side, remember? Forget that Hitler was following Mussolini’s example and, Benito was an old comrade of Lenin before they had a falling out. Forget the fact that both systems were totalitarian; because fascism never completed the transformation of state ownership – leaving the old guard in place to carry out the orders of the new state. Don’t be prejudiced against that noble experiment to create a worker’s paradise. Communism, after all, means community and sharing. Or so the intellectuals of the day told us.
Yet, the common man wasn’t fooled, at least not for long. The collectivist threat was swiftly expanding over Europe and Asia. Trapped behind the Iron Curtin, denied the liberties we’ve associated with civilization, communism sadly chained a large fraction of once proud peoples. The 20th century manifested the prevalence of evil and the precariousness of civilization. But what about the stable democracies of England and the United States? Why didn’t it happen here? While continental Europe descended into dictatorships, totalitarian horrors, and the Gulag, the Anglo-American tradition upheld the rule of law, parliamentary proceedings, and the individual liberties of speech, thought, and religion. Clearly, we realized, there is something right about the American way; something that we must hold unto and cherish.
It is under such conditions that American conservatism was born.
Conservatism was a marriage of two overlapping orientations: individualism and traditionalism. Individualists, or Classical Liberals, championed the rights of the individual. To that end they favored a minimal government and limited engagements in foreign military adventures. A liberal stood for free speech, freedom of religion, and a free press. A liberal economy is the free market based on property rights and free association. Thus, liberalism was primarily a political and economic doctrine. Traditionalism was not a doctrine at all – it was a disposition. To the extent that individual liberty was part of our history, it was prized but not without limits. Religion, family, community, nation, and duty were additional competing goals. Both the traditionalist and the individualist abhorred the onslaught of 20th century collectivism and its dehumanizing barbarity. In this they were united.
Some of the most influential classical liberals maintained the liberal label: F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and the early Frank S. Meyer. Ayn Rand preferred the appellation “radical for capitalism.” The liberal economists’ influence had the widest effect among scholars in the last quarter of the 20th century. And it was during that time Rand’s novels and philosophy enthralled and inspired many a young idealist. But it was Frank S. Meyer, a senior editor at National Review, who forcefully advocated a fusion, as it became known, of classical liberalism and traditionalism that was to become the American conservatism that dominated popular politics. The new movement had a ready contrast and an urgent threat: communism.
If conservatism was to oppose the danger suddenly apparent to all, it had to do so in a charged atmosphere of abandonment and betrayal by the intellectual elites. This void is fertile grounds for demagogues and rabble rousers, paranoids and racists, cynics and fear mongers. There existed a need for a clear comprehensive grasp of the nature of the enemy and, if not more importantly, the nature of the alternative. In such a short time perhaps the best that one could hope for was a disposition or sentiment. In that case conservatism was made for the job. It provided a sustained opposition to communism while never wavering or doubting the moral stature of America.
George H. Nash, in his definitive history of American conservatism, captures the conservative anti-communist resolve. “In this struggle, there were, according to [Frank S.] Meyer and other conservative cold warriors only two choices: ‘the destruction of Communism or the destruction of the United States and of Western civilization.’” 9 “Liberals might prefer to hope – serenely, pathetically, endlessly, futilely – that maybe now, maybe this time, maybe soon, the Communists would change their spots, cease to be committed revolutionaries, and settle down. Perhaps we could then have peaceful coexistence at last. Meanwhile let us negotiate, “build bridges,’ engage in cultural exchanges, climb to the summit. Come let us reason together.” “The Communist system is a conflict system; its ideology is an ideology of conflict and war …” says Robert Strausz-Hupe 10 Frank S. Meyer argued, the Communist “’is different. He thinks differently.’ He is not ‘a mirror image of ourselves’ Communism is a ‘secular and messianic quasi-religion’ which ceaselessly conditions its converts until they become new men totally dedicated to one mission: ‘the conquest of the world for Communism.’” Gerhart Niemeyer writes, “It was totally unrealistic to expect that Americans could ’communicate’ with a Communist mind that ‘shares neither truth nor logic nor morality with the rest of mankind.’” 11
With minor changes could not the same be said about Jihadists? Yet we do not see anything remotely hard hitting and uncompromising from conservatives today. Instead they are more like the social democrats, who, during the Cold War, had difficulty condemning collectivism at the root. Conservatives today show “understanding” of Islam and are forever hopeful that Islam can and will reform. They are eager to be helpful with aid, advice, encouragement, and military protection. But most of all they are gentle with criticism and dismissive of those who are outspoken critics of the Islamic religion at its root. We will explore the conservatives’ vastly new kind and gentle disposition shortly.
The conservative movement evolved from those early years as an establishment opposition. Eventually, the neo-conservatives – ex-socialists but ardent anti-Communists – joined the fold. This synthesis triumphed in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Conservatism had persevered; communism is buried in the graveyard of failed utopias (and minds of tenured professors, but that is a part of the story of the left) while America has continue to grow and prosper.
But something interesting happened on the way to the victory party: conservatism became just that – a reticence to change the status quo. As a sentiment, opposed on principle to systems of abstract principles, it could never achieve the clarity and soundness of a well-grounded body of knowledge supported and established by evidence and rational argumentation. Frank S. Meyer initially understood the problem well in 1955 before his “fusion” with traditionalism. Conservatism “carries with it, however, no built-in defense against the acceptance, grudging though it may be, of institutions which reason and prudence would otherwise reject, if only those institutions are sufficiently firmly established. … the mantle of the conservative tone can well befit the established order of the welfare society.” 12 In the end, the traditionalists won control of the conservative movement and Republican Party. To understand the implications to the current crisis we must understand the limitations of traditionalist conservatism.