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World War II: The Nadir of the Old Right

[This article is chapter 6 of The Betrayal of the American Right.]

The advent of World War II brought the Old Right to its darkest days. Harassed, reviled, persecuted, the intellectuals and agitators of the Old Right, the libertarians and the isolationists, folded their tents and disappeared from view. While it is true that the isolationist Republicans experienced a resurgence in the 1942 elections, they were no longer supported by an ideological vanguard. The America First Committee quickly dissolved after Pearl Harbor and went to war — despite the pleas of the bulk of its militants to continue being a focus of opposition to the nation’s course. Charles Lindbergh totally abandoned the ideological and political arena and joined the war effort.

Among the intellectuals, there was, amidst the monolith of wartime propaganda, no room or hearing for libertarian or antiwar views. The veteran leaders of libertarianism were deprived of a voice. H.L. Mencken had retired from politics to write his charming and nostalgic autobiography. Albert Jay Nock found all the journals and magazines closed to his pen. Nock’s leading disciple, Frank Chodorov, had been ousted from his post as head of the Henry George School of New York for his opposition to the war. Oswald Garrison Villard was virtually shut out of the magazines and was forced to confine himself to letters to his friends; in one of them he prophesied bitterly that “when you and I have passed off the scene the country will be called upon by some cheap poor white like Harry Truman to save the world from bolshevism and preserve the Christian religion.” For the Old Right these were gloomy times indeed, and Villard was ready to select his epitaph:

He grew old in an age he condemned

Felt the dissolving throes

Of a Social order he loved

And like the Theban seer

Died in his enemies’ day.1

For the Old Left, in contrast, World War II was a glorious age, the fulfillment and the promise of a New Dawn. Everywhere, in the United States and in Western Europe, the liberal ideals of central planning, of a new planned order staffed by Brain Trusters and liberal intellectuals, seemed to be the wave of the future as well as the present.

In the colleges and among the opinion molders, any conservative views seemed as dead and outmoded as the dodo, confined to the dustbin of history. And no one was more pleased at this burgeoning New Deal collectivism than the Communist Party. Its new Popular Front line of the late 1930s, a line that had replaced its old harsh revolutionary views, seemed more than vindicated by the glorious New Order a-borning. In foreign affairs, the United States was marching hand in hand with the Soviet Union in a glorious war to defeat fascism and expand democracy.

Domestically, the Communists, under Earl Browder as their leader, exulted in their newfound respectability; the Browderite line of arriving at socialism through ever greater and more centralizing New Deal reforms seemed to be working in glorious fashion. The Communists trumpeted that “Communism was Twentieth-century Americanism,” and they were in the forefront of the new patriotism — and of a superidentification with the American Leviathan, foreign and domestic.

Communists played an exhilarating, if subordinate, role in the war effort, in planning war production, in giving orientation lectures in the armed forces, and in calling for persecution of all possible opponents of the war. Earl Browder even seemed to find a willing ear at the White House. In their role as leaders in the CIO the Communists sternly put down any attempt at strikes or civil rights agitation that might deflect any energy from the glorious war. Indeed, so heady were the Communists’ dreams that they took the lead in advocating a permanent no-strike pledge even after the war. As Earl Browder put it:

[W]e frankly declare that we are ready to cooperate in making capitalism work effectively in the postwar period…. We Communists are opposed to permitting an explosion of class conflict in our country when the war ends… we are now extending the perspective of national unity for many years into the future.2

An eloquent cry against this wartime atmosphere arose, in a brilliant anti–New Deal novel published after the war by John Dos Passos, a lifelong radical and individualist who had been pushed from “extreme Left” to “extreme Right” by the march of war and corporate statism in America. Dos Passos wrote:

At home we organized bloodbanks and civilian defense and imitated the rest of the world by setting up concentration camps (only we called them relocation centers) and stuffing into them American citizens of Japanese ancestry (Pearl Harbor the date that will live in infamy) without benefit of habeas corpus….

The President of the United States talked the sincere democrat and so did the members of Congress. In the Administration there were devout believers in civil liberty. “Now we’re busy fighting a war; we’ll deploy all four freedoms later on,” they said…

War is a time of Caesars.

The President of the United States was a man of great personal courage and supreme confidence in his powers of persuasion. He never spared himself a moment, flew to Brazil and Casablanca, Cairo to negotiate at the level of the leaders; at Teheran the triumvirate without asking anybody’s leave got to meddling with history; without consulting their constituents, revamped geography, divided up the bloody globe and left the freedoms out.

And the American People were supposed to say thank you for the century of the Common Man turned over for relocation behind barbed wire so help him God.

We learned. There were things we learned to do but we have not learned, in spite of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the great debates at Richmond and Philadelphia, how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man and to make him use it wisely.3

It was in this stifling political and ideological atmosphere that I grew to political consciousness. Economically, I had been a conservative since the eighth grade, and exclusive contact with liberals and leftists in high school and college only served to sharpen and intensify this commitment.

During World War II, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, and it seemed to my developing conservative and libertarian spirit that there was no hope and no ideological allies anywhere in the country. At Columbia, in New York generally, and in the intellectual press there was only the Center-Left monolith trumpeting the New Order. Opinion on campus ranged from Social Democratic liberals to Communists and their allies, and there seemed to be little to choose between them. Apart from the fraternity boys and the jocks who may have been instinctively conservative but had no interest in politics or ideology, I seemed to be totally alone. It was rumored that there was, indeed, one other “Republican” on campus; but he was an English major interested solely in literary matters, and so we never came into contact.

All around me, the Lib-Left was echoing the same horror:

“We are the government, so why are you so negative about government action?”

“We must learn from Hitler, learn about planning the economy.”

And my uncle, a long-time member of the Communist Party, condescendingly told my conservative father that he would be safe in the postwar world, “provided that he kept quiet about politics.” The New Order indeed seemed close at hand.

But just when the days were darkest, and just when despair seemed the order of the day for opponents of statism and despotism, individuals and little groups were stirring, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, deep in the catacombs, thinking and writing to keep alive the feeble flame of liberty. The veteran libertarians found themselves forced to find an obscure home among conservative publicists of the “extreme Right.” The aging Albert Jay Nock, now in his 70s, found a home at the National Economic Council of the veteran right-wing isolationist Merwin K. Hart; in the spring of 1943, several wealthy friends induced Hart to set up a monthly Economic Council Review of Books, which Nock wrote and edited for the duration of the war. Frank Chodorov, ousted from the Henry George School, eked out a precarious living by founding a superbly written, one-man monthly broadsheet analysis in 1944, published from a dingy loft in lower Manhattan. There, Chodorov began to apply and expand the Nockian analysis of the State, and worked on a theoretical economic complement to Nock’s historical Our Enemy, the State, a work which Chodorov issued in bound mimeographed form shortly after the end of the war.4

John T. Flynn found a home with the long-standing right-wing outfit, the Committee for Constitutional Government, and its offshoot, America’s Future, Inc. The veteran publicist Garet Garrett, ousted in the shakeup at the Saturday Evening Post, was able to found an obscure one-man quarterly, American Affairs, issued as a minor part of the operations of the statistical organization of American business, the National Industrial Conference Board. In the Los Angeles area, Leonard F. Read, general manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, was converted to the laissez-faire libertarian creed by William C. Mullendore, head of the Commonwealth Edison Company, while Raymond Cyrus Hoiles, anarcho-capitalist publisher of the daily Santa Ana Register (and later to be publisher of a string of “Freedom Newspapers”), reprinted the works of the 19th-century libertarian French economist. And, on the Left, former Trotskyist turned anarcho-pacifist Dwight Macdonald founded his virtually one-man monthly Politics, which tirelessly lambasted the war and its attendant statism.

What was destined to be the longest-lasting “right-wing” journalistic venture launched during the war was the Washington weekly Human Events, founded in 1944 as a four-page newsletter with a periodically appended four-page article of analysis. Human Events was founded by three veteran isolationists and conservative libertarians: Frank Hanighen, coauthor of the most famous antimilitarist muckraking book of the 1930s, The Merchants of Death; Felix Morley, distinguished writer and former president of the Quaker Haverford College; and Chicago businessman Henry Regnery.

But undoubtedly most important for the postwar resurgence of libertarianism were several books published during the war, books that were largely ignored and forgotten at the time, but which helped build a groundwork for a postwar renaissance. Three of the books, all published in 1943, were written by singularly independent, tough-minded, and individualistic women. Screenwriter Ayn Rand produced the novel The Fountainhead, a paean to individualism that had been turned down by a host of publishers and finally published by Bobbs-Merrill. Largely ignored at the time, The Fountainhead became a steady, “underground” bestseller over the years, spreading largely by word of mouth among its readers. (The novel had been turned down by publishers on the grounds that its theme was too “controversial,” its content too intellectual, and its tough-minded hero too unsympathetic to have commercial possibilities.5 )

 From semi-isolation in her home in Danbury, Connecticut, Rose Wilder Lane, who had been a Communist party member in the 1920s, published The Discovery of Freedom, an eloquent, singing prose-poem in celebration of the history of freedom and free-market capitalism.

The third important wartime libertarian book by a woman was written by Isabel Paterson, who had made her mark as author of several flapper-type novels in the 1920s and who had been a long-time regular columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune Review of Books. Her non-fiction The God of the Machine was an eccentric but important event in libertarian thought. The book was a series of essays, some turgid and marked by the intrusive use of electrical engineering analogies in social affairs; but these essays were marked by flashes of brilliant insight and analysis. Particularly important were her chapters on the State promotion of monopoly after the Civil War, her demonstration of the impossibility of “public” ownership, and her defense of the gold standard. The two chapters with the greatest impact among libertarians were “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine,” a brilliant critique of do-gooding and its consequence, the welfarist ethic; and “Our Japanized Educational System,” in which Mrs. Paterson delivered a blistering philosophical critique of progressive education, a critique that was to help ignite the reaction against progressivism in the postwar era. Thus, Mrs. Paterson eloquently explained the interconnection of welfarism, parasitism, and coercion as follows:

What can one human being actually do for another? He can give from his own funds and his own time whatever he can spare. But he cannot bestow faculties which nature has denied nor give away his own subsistence without becoming dependent himself. If he earns what he gives away, he must earn it first…. But supposing he has no means of his own, and still imagines that he can make “helping others” at once his primary purpose and the normal way of life, which is the central doctrine of the humanitarian creed, how is he to go about it?…

If the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. If he wishes to help “Humanity,” the whole of humanity must be in need. The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God.

But he is confronted by two awkward facts; first, that the competent do not need his assistance; and second, that the majority of people … positively do not want to be “done good” by the humanitarian…. Of course what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine.

What kind of world does the humanitarian contemplate as affording him full scope? It could only be a world filled with breadlines and hospitals, in which nobody retained the natural power of a human being to help himself or to resist having things done to him. And that is precisely the world that the humanitarian arranges when he gets his way…. There is only one way, and that is by the use of the political power in its fullest extension. Hence the humanitarian feels the utmost gratification when he visits or hears of a country in which everyone is restricted to ration cards. Where subsistence is doled out, the desideratum has been achieved, of general want and a superior power to “relieve” it. The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.6

Equally important, and equally obscure at the time, was the publication of Albert Nock’s last great work, his intellectual autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. In the Memoirs, Nock expanded and wove together the themes of his previous books on history, theory, culture, and the State, and throughout all was an intensified pessimism about the prospects for a widespread adoption of libertarianism that was all too understandable for the times in which he wrote. Gresham’s Law — the bad driving out the good — worked inevitably, he felt, in the field of culture and ideas as it did in the field of coinage and money. As we marched into the new barbarism, nature would have to take its course.7

Meanwhile, in the field of economics, it seemed that the Keynesians and the economic planners were sweeping all before them. The most distinguished of laissez-faire economists, Ludwig von Mises, who had been in the front rank of the economic world on the Continent during the teens and twenties, had been largely forgotten in the wake of the “Keynesian Revolution” of the late 1930s. And this neglect came even though Mises had won fame among English-speaking economists during the early 1930s, precisely on the basis of his business-cycle theory that attributed the Great Depression to government intervention.

A refugee from the Nazis, Mises had published a giant laissez-faire treatise on economics in Geneva in 1940, a book which got lost amidst the twin storms of the march toward collectivism in economic thought and the holocaust of World War II. Emigrating to New York in 1940, Mises, devoid of an academic post, managed to write and publish two books during the war. Both were highly important works which, again, made little or no dent in the academic world. Mises’s brief Bureaucracy is still one of the best treatments of the nature of bureaucracy, and of the inherent sharp divergence between profit-seeking management and non-profit, or bureaucratic, management. Mises’s Omnipotent Government won some academic recognition as the most important statement of the anti-Marxian position that the essence of Nazi Germany was not the reflection of big business but was a variant of socialism and collectivism. (At Columbia, in those days, Omnipotent Government was being read as the antipode to Franz Neumann’s very popular Marxian work on Nazism, Behemoth.)

But the wartime libertarian work that was destined to have by far the greatest immediate impact was not that of Mises, but of his most prominent Austrian free-market follower, Friedrich A. Hayek. Hayek had emigrated to England in the early 1930s, to teach at the London School of Economics, and there had considerable impact on younger economists as well as achieving prominence in English intellectual circles and among such distinguished émigré philosophers in England as Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi. It was perhaps this prominence in England that helps to account for the smashing popular and academic success of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. For it was certainly not Hayek’s style, heavily Germanic rather than sparkling, and far less readable than Mises, who had pursued a similar theme. Perhaps intellectuals, surfeited with years of pro-statist and pro-planning propaganda, were ripe for a statement of the other side of the coin.

Whatever the reason, The Road to Serfdom hit the intellectual circles of the United States and Britain like a blockbuster. Its major thesis was that socialism and central planning were incompatible with freedom, the rule of law, or democracy. The Nazi and Fascist regimes were considered one aspect of this modern collectivism, and Hayek tellingly outlined the great similarities between the statist planning of the Weimar Republic and the later economic program of Hitler. The highly touted social democracy of the Weimar Republic was but fascism in embryo.8

The Road to Serfdom made its impact on all levels of opinion. The Hearst papers serialized the book, hailing its attack on socialism. It became mandatory in virtually every college course, as the case for the “other side” (although, in fact, it was scarcely consistent in its laissez-faire views).

English intellectuals were so perturbed that two attempted refutations of Hayek by social democrats were rushed into print: Hermann Finer’s vituperative Road to Reaction and Barbara Wootton’s Plan or No Plan (to which Mises would retort that free-market economists favored each man’s planning for himself).

And Hayek’s work had incalculable effect in converting or helping to convert many socialist intellectuals to the individualist, capitalist ranks. John Chamberlain, one of the leading Left writers and critics of the 1930s and author of the noted Farewell to Reform, found his conversion to conservative-individualism greatly accelerated by the book, and Chamberlain contributed the preface to the Road to Serfdom. F.A. Harper, a free-market professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, found his dedication to libertarian views redoubled. And Frank S. Meyer, one of the leading theoreticians of the Communist Party, member of its national committee and head of its Workers’ School in Chicago, found disturbingly convincing Hayek’s portrayal of the incompatibility of socialism and freedom.

It is an ironic and fascinating footnote to the ideological history of our time that the Road to Serfdom had one of its most sympathetic reviews in the Communist New Masses — a review that constituted one of Frank Meyer’s last contributions to the Communist movement. And surely these were but a few instances of the vital impact of Hayek’s work.

But this impact, and indeed the quieter ripples made by the other libertarian works during the war, was visible only as a success of the day. There did not seem to be any lasting result, any sort of movement to emerge out of the black days on which the libertarian creed had fallen. On the surface, as the war came to an end, there seemed to be as little hope as ever for the individualist, free-market cause as there had been during the war.

  • 1Michael Wreszin, Oswald Garrison Villard (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1965), p. 271.
  • 2Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1964), p. 221.
  • 3John Dos Passos, The Grand Design (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949), pp. 416–18.
  • 4Frank Chodorov, The Economics of Society, Government, and State (New York: Analysis Associates, 1946).
  • 5See the worshipful biographical sketch by Barbara Branden in Nathaniel Branden, Who Is Ayn Rand? (New York: Paperback Library, 1964), pp. 158ff.
  • 6Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943), pp. 240–42.
  • 7For the reception of the Memoirs, see Crunden, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock, pp. 189–91; for Nock’s appreciative views of the books of Lane and Paterson, see F.J. Nock, ed., Selected Letters of Albert Jay Nock (Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers, 1962), pp. 145–51.
  • 8It is intriguing that Hayek’s analysis of social democracy as totalitarianism and fascism in embryo was very similar, though of course with very different rhetoric, to the critique of the English Marxist R. Palme Dutt — in the radical days before the advent of the Popular Front line, of course. Cf. R. Palme Dutt, Fascism and Social Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1934).
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