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Beneath the St. Christopher Medal and the Brooks Brothers Suit Lurked the Soul of a Sadist
Few public intellectuals infamous for defending McCarthyism and championing right-wing dictators would be popular and recurrent guests on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Few pundits who opposed civil rights for African Americans and South African blacks would be asked to host the longest-running public affairs show in public television history.
William F. Buckley, Jr. was the exception.
Though Buckley was wrong on nearly every important issue of his day—McCarthyism, civil rights, voting rights, segregation, AIDs, Apartheid, the Vietnam War, the Soviet threat to America—many conservatives and liberals look back fondly to those pre-Trumpian days when the suave Yale dandy ruled over conservatism with a mailed fist.
They shouldn’t. Buckley may have been gentlemanly, charming, erudite, urbane and a world class debater, but his ideas were vicious and cold-blooded. Beneath the St. Christopher medal and the Brooks Brothers suit lurked the soul of a sadist.
At the age of 29, Buckley and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell penned a ponderous apologia for Joe McCarthy, the paranoid US senator responsible for destroying the careers of more than 2,000 government employees. Book reviewer Dwight Macdonald called McCarthy and His Enemies “a laborious piece of special pleading which gives the effect of a brief by Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft on behalf of a pickpocket caught in the men’s room of the subway.” In McCarthy and His Enemies, Buckley suggested the ruined lives of these so-called “security risks” and “policy misfits” was a small price to pay for the increased “security” which resulted from the witch hunts (this despite the fact that no evidence of subversion was ever discovered). Besides, Buckley maintained, employment in the civil service was a privilege, not a right, therefore the burden of proof of innocence rested, not with the government, but with the accused. When it came to the noble cause of eradicating the cancer of communism, a few thousand innocent victims, and the trampling of due process, was a small price to pay.
Once McCarthy began to take on individuals his own size, the junior senator from Wisconsin was quickly exposed for the hysterical fraud that he was. Secretary of State George Marshall, McCarthy alleged, was guilty of treason, while his Marshall Plan was the brainchild of CPUSA chief Earl Browder. Worse, Marshall made “common cause with Stalin on the strategy of the war in Europe and marched side by side with him thereafter.”
Buckley happily joined McCarthy in besmirching Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to reconstruct Western Europe’s economy, and the man hailed by Winston Churchill as the “organizer of victory” for his leadership of the Allied victory in World War II.
“Marshall no longer rides as high as he once did in the esteem of his countrymen … To the extent that McCarthy, through his careful analysis of Marshall’s record, has contributed to cutting Marshall down to size he has performed a valuable service …”
Buckley’s book was a case study in bad timing. McCarthy and His Enemies came out at approximately the same time as Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now television specials and the Army–McCarthy Hearings, both of which discredited McCarthy and turned much of the nation against him. In short succession, McCarthy’s colleagues in the US Senate took the extraordinary step of condemning the senator for his “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” “vulgar and insulting” conduct “unbecoming a senator.” Within three years, McCarthy was dead of alcoholism at the age of 48.
McCarthyism was one of the few pet ideologies Buckley did not renounce. When Regnery republished McCarthy and His Enemies in 1996, Buckley suggested that “a gradual and painful process of historical rectification” would soon vindicate McCarthy’s crusade. At the time of Buckley’s death in 2008, he was still waiting for his idol’s vindication.
Buckley founded the conservative journal National Review in 1955, and soon shifted his attention from his hysterical fear of communism to mounting a passionate opposition to public school desegregation, voting rights, and the Civil Rights Act based on what he saw as the “cultural superiority of white over Negro.”
Buckley’s racism could be overt, but more often it was dressed up in the guise of states rights. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was “one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history, patently counter to the intent of the Constitution, shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid in sociology.” While “support for the Southern position rests not at all on the question of whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side, but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.”
To Buckley, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which struck down segregation laws, banned employment discrimination and prohibited discrimination in federal programs, was nothing more than useless and meddling federal legislation that sought to “instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business.” His opposition to the Civil Rights Act put him at odds with most Republicans who overwhelmingly supported the legislation (GOP congressmen voted 138-34 in favor), and squarely on the side of racist southern Dixiecrats.
“In the South in 1964,” wrote Kevin Schultz, “despite all the images of dogs attacking black children, of violence against black citizens seeking to vote, of hatred bubbling up against black students enrolling in schools, Buckley didn’t think there was much racism in the South. He saw such images as simply an effort to preserve civilization.”
As for the 1965 Voting Right Act, guaranteeing blacks the right to the ballot will result in “chaos” and “mobocratic rule,” Buckley said.
Eight years earlier, he’d laid out his objections to giving African Americans the vote in his most infamous essay, “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he declared the white race the most “advanced” and therefore most fit to govern.
The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
Buckley was careful to differentiate himself from the worst racists, who held that blacks were biologically or genetically inferior. Buckley freely admitted there were “no scientific grounds for assuming congenital Negro disabilities.” The problem was not biological, but cultural and educational. That said, he had no interest in increasing cultural and educational opportunities for blacks by segregating schools.
As matters heated up in the South, Buckley stood arm and arm with George Wallace and Bull Connor. Violence in the service of perpetuating segregation was an absolute necessity. “[R]epression is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights,” he wrote. As the civilized world watched in horror at the televised scenes of brutality from the American South, Buckley declared that the South did not need “massive infusions of northern moralism.” Besides, “[i]t is for each man’s conscience to decide in the specific case whether segregation is being practiced morally or immorally,” he said.
Finally, in 1963, National Review condemned the bombing of a black Birmingham church that killed four African American children, but only after wondering at first “whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro,” since the bombing was so harmful to the white southerners’ cause.
Buckley was unable to understand why, after so many generations in the Land of the Free, African Americans had not lifted themselves out of poverty. That they had not could only mean there was something inherently inferior with their race. Basically he’d adopted the simplistic reasoning (though not the language) of Archie Bunker. White immigrants pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Why can’t blacks? Buckley willfully ignored the long history of slavery, institutionalized racism and the countless laws and social prohibitions that so often prevented African Americans from rising up from their “backward state” and realizing their full potential. One example was the GI Bill, the government program which almost single-handedly created a thriving white middle class. The bill was “written under Southern auspices [and] deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow,” wrote Ira Katznelson, in When Affirmative Action was White. Either Buckley was ignorant of the insidious effects of slavery, racism and Jim Crow or he chose to ignore them. The more charitable view is that he was ignorant.
This dismissive attitude came back to haunt Buckley in his 1965 Cambridge University debate with James Baldwin. The resolution before the house was “Has the American Dream been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin mopped the floor with Buckley in part by showing how much of America’s wealth and greatness had come via slave and Jim Crow labor.
I picked the cotton. I carried it to the market. I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing, for nothing. The Southern oligarchy which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free, the home of the brave…I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country.
Buckley once again relied on the old bootstrap argument, ignoring the fact that it’s hard to pull oneself up by the bootstraps when the government gives boots only to whites. Buckley was routinely booed by the young men of Cambridge and Baldwin easily carried the day, by a motion of 544 to 164.
The Vietnam War
Until the undeclared war in Vietnam, the Democratic Party was America’s war party. Democrats had dragged the US into overseas conflicts in The Great War, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, while conservative anti-imperialists often objected vociferously to any and all foreign entanglements.
Buckley sought to change all that. Especially with the lost cause in Vietnam.
Despite his reputation for complex thought, Buckley’s reasons for championing US intervention in Vietnam were simplistic. “We had to,” he told Playboy. “The South Vietnamese were not prepared to defend themselves.” What’s more, the US had “a moral and legal commitment to give aid to the South Vietnamese in resisting aggression, pursuant to the protocol that extended the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) treaty to that area.” Vietnam, however, was never a SEATO member, and the US was the only nation that seemed to have any interest in the failed and insignificant treaty.
Buckley casually dismissed concerns about civilian deaths in Vietnam, and found it regrettable that, faced with overwhelming public opposition, the US halted the bombing of North Vietnam. He was highly skeptical about the events surrounding the Mai Lai massacre, asking why there weren’t more massacres if the US was so indifferent to Vietnamese civilian lives? When presented evidence of more massacres, Buckley said they were no more remarkable than the rise in murders in Manhattan, though those murders presumably were not committed on behalf of the US government.
Toward the end of the war, he bemoaned the fact that the US had not used nuclear weapons in Vietnam “in a perfectly routine way.” After all, the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam was easy to defend on the morality scale, he said.
Buckley so relished the idea of using nuclear weapons he advocated using them against China’s nuclear production facilities in 1965. If you’re keeping score, that’s Japan, China and Vietnam which would have been nuked over a twenty-five year period if Buckley had had his way.
The Women’s Movement
The 1970’s were a particularly difficult time for Buckley. The Vietnam War was lost. Nixon had resigned in disgrace. Abortion was legalized. Meanwhile, the big progressive causes of the Seventies were the Women’s Movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Buckley didn’t seem to have his heart in these fights. According to biographer Heather Hendershot, he just didn’t get feminism. Phyllis Schlafly, now there was a smart, beautiful woman. But those harridans who refused to shave their legs and take their husband’s last name and joined radical movements were as inexplicable as a David Lynch film.
Buckley maintained that the condition of women had greatly improved over decades and should continue to improve. But gradually, he said. What was the hurry? Besides, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the National Organization of Women were radical and revolutionary, filled with Marxists and free lovers and other reprehensible creatures. As for the ERA, it was unnecessary. There were adequate laws on the books in the various states that protected women from discrimination. Those gals who were fired for, say, being pregnant, would just have to suck it up for another decade to two.
Besides, what do women know? Writing about abortion rights in his book Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, Buckley maintained that “women who…procreate illegitimate births are not the best judges of right and wrong.” Rather, that is the government’s role. An odd position for a libertarian journalist, to say the least.
In 1973, Buckley returned to Cambridge University, this time to debate feminist author Germaine Greer. This time the resolution before the house was “This House supports the Women’s Liberation Movement.” As usual, Buckley decried not women’s liberation, but the movement itself, which he found to contain radical ideas. (This from a man whose solution to virtually every military conflict was to lob nuclear weapons at the enemy.) Just as Baldwin mopped the floor with Buckley eight years earlier, so did Ms. Greer, who was declared the winner by a motion of 546-156 in her favor. Buckley later wrote that [Greer] trounced [me]. … Nothing I said, and memory reproaches me for having performed miserably, made any impression or any dent in the argument. She carried the house overwhelmingly.”
There was, however, one bright spot for Buckley in the Seventies. The rise of right-wing dictatorships in Latin America.
While Buckley could be hard on socialism, he was squishy on fascism. On several occasions Buckley praised Hitler’s “soft” ally Francisco Franco Bahamonde, the fascist dictator of Spain, calling the Generalissimo “an authentic national hero.” Wrote Buckley in a 1957 letter: “[Franco] is not an oppressive dictator. He is only as oppressive as it is necessary to be to maintain total power.” Meanwhile Buckley swooned over Spain’s National Catholicism, part of the ideological identity of Francoism.
Buckley, however, saved his real admiration for the various right-wing dictatorships in the Southern Cone, in particular that of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. “He saw the Chilean regime, like Franco’s, as a test case for instituting Catholicism and capitalism through authoritarian means,” wrote the journalist Bécquer Seguín.
Pinochet came to power in 1973 following a US-backed coup which overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende (“who was defiling the Chilean constitution and waving proudly the banner of his friend and idol, Fidel Castro,” wrote Buckley). When Allende nationalized the copper industry—which had been controlled by US companies—and used the proceeds to fund education, land redistribution and health care for the poor and working class, his days were numbered. The Nixon Administration immediately set to work sabotaging Chile’s economy by instituting a crippling economic embargo guaranteed to cause misery to ordinary working class Chileans. Meantime Pinochet promised Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that he would install pure, unregulated free market capitalism.
The coup was an overwhelming success for Pinochet’s cronies, American corporations and the University of Chicago School of Economics which longed for a real-time laboratory in which to build a capitalist utopia from scratch.
While enormous wealth was created during Pinochet’s dictatorship, mostly by selling off the public sector, it came at a terrible cost. “[B]y the early 80s, Pinochet’s [Milton] Friedman-prescribed policies had caused rapid de-industrialisation, a tenfold increase in unemployment and an explosion of distinctly unstable shantytowns,” wrote author Naomi Klein. “They also led to a crisis of corruption and debt so severe that, in 1982, Pinochet was forced to fire his key Chicago Boy advisers and nationalize several of the large deregulated financial institutions.”
Not to mention the terrible cost in lives. When Chileans objected to the military coup, the massive unemployment, and their subsequent loss of civil and human rights, 40,018 of them were imprisoned and tortured. Another 3,065 were murdered. An estimated 200,000 Chileans fled into exile.
Buckley’s magazine played a vital role over many years to whitewash and obscure Pinochet’s crimes, wrote The New Republic. “[Buckley and his editors] did this during a period when they were actively in cooperation with Pinochet’s regime.”
Shortly before the coup, Buckley hired Pinochet ally, Nena Ossa, to cover Chile for National Review. Post-coup, Ossa was appointed to the junta’s Cultural Department. Ossa and Buckley’s longtime friend, public relations guru Marvin Liebman, worked hard to discredit Pinochet’s democratic critics like the Chilean politician Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated by a car bomb planted by Pinochet’s agents in Washington DC in 1976. Not surprisingly, Buckley’s magazine leapt to the dictator’s defense claiming Pinochet had nothing to do with the murder. Besides, the magazine said, Letelier was an international terrorist. A Cuban spy. Or a Soviet agent. In fact he was none of the above as Buckley was well aware. As Pinochet’s involvement became more and more clear, Buckley maintained that “there are highly reasonable, indeed compelling, grounds for doubting that Pinochet had anything to do with the assassination.”
In 1974, Buckley helped Lieberman create the American-Chilean Council (ACC) to spread pro-Pinochet propaganda. Pinochet’s government became a major contributor to ACC, which used some of that funding to fly Buckley’s staff to Chile on all-expense-paid junkets resulting in glowing puff pieces about Pinochet’s regime which, to quote Inquiry, “put a pleasant face on murder.”
In 1978, the US Justice Department found that through the ACC, the Pinochet regime engaged in a secret and illegal propaganda campaign aimed at making congressmen, journalists, academics and the American public more sympathetic to Chile’s military dictatorship, while a US federal judge ruled that ACC was an illegal, unregistered lobby for the junta.
So how did it all work out? A 2013 CERC poll found that only 18 percent of Chileans believe Pinochet saved the country from Marxism, while 63 percent think the US-backed coup destroyed democracy.
Meanwhile there were plenty other repressive regimes that could use the services of a well heeled and well connected apologist.
Buckley’s support of South Africa’s Apartheid regime mirrored his opposition to civil rights and voting rights in the US. In the 1960’s, Buckley claimed the whites were entitled to “pre-eminence in South Africa” because Dutch colonials arrived before the Xhosa and Zulu peoples. Buckley had only to crack a world history book to see that this bit of revisionist history was patently false.
Meanwhile Buckley pleaded for empathy and understanding—not for the persecuted black South Africans, but for their oppressors. “We should try at least to understand what it is [the white government is] trying to do, and deny ourselves that unearned smugness that the bigot shows,” he said.
When, by the early 70s, such overt and obvious racism proved untenable, Buckley switched tactics. South Africa’s Apartheid regime was an indispensable bulwark against the old bogeyman of communism and therefore a necessary evil. Allowing blacks basic human rights, such as the right to vote, would lead to an electoral victory for the African National Congress, which was chummy with communists. South Africa would then fall to the Marxists and anarchy and the collapse of civilization would ensue. Rather than increase sanctions, as the US was doing with Castro’s Cuba, National Review suggested constructive engagement with South Africa’s Apartheid regime. “If the outside world really wants to shake apartheid,” said the editors, “the only practical way is to sup with the devil: step up trade, increase all forms of contact . . . send out lecturers who will refrain from lecturing South Africans on how to run their own affairs.”
Apartheid officially ended in 1991. Three years later the ANC’s Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Despite this historically inevitable turn of events, the nation has remained doggedly democratic and a bastion of free market capitalism.
In the late 1980s Buckley turned his attention to bashing AIDs victims.
In an infamous 1986 op-ed piece in The New York Times, Buckley stated it was a “fact” that the AIDS epidemic is “the special curse of the homosexual.” He then proposed laws which mandated that infected individuals could marry only if they agreed to sterilization, in addition to mandatory universal testing by insurance companies. The echoes of Auschwitz were loud and clear when Buckley declared that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.” It was similar outrageous sentiments that caused Gore Vidal to call Buckley a “cryptonazi” during their infamous 1968 televised debate, to which Buckley responded with the worst slur he could think of, calling Vidal a “queer.”
Buckley continued to maintain as late as 2004 that “If the protocol had been accepted, many who caught the infection unguardedly would be alive. Probably over a million.”
Time and again Buckley deemed violence and dictatorship as necessary to combat the evils of communism or counteract uncivilized blacks’ demands for rights. And yet, no sooner would Buckley howl for blood, then he would succumb to second thoughts. Indeed, for a conservative with moral certainty, his views were oddly fluid. Some progressives, like the New Republic’s Jeet Heer, even praised his “life-long capacity to change, adapt and learn.”
Change is not a word Buckley was partial to. And yet times inevitably caught up with the conservative godfather and he was grudgingly forced to admit that he’d been wrong about most of the fundamental pillars of his political philosophy. Ultimately Buckley backtracked on the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Segregation, the Iraq War, the Drug War and, to a lesser extent, The Vietnam War and AIDs.
Sometimes it took tragic events of historic proportions to get Buckley on board with civilized opinion. His opposition to civil rights softened after white supremacists set off a bomb in a Birmingham church on Sept. 15, 1963, murdering four black girls. From calling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent,” he went on to support a national holiday honoring Dr. King.
Later, as he stared down the grim reaper, Buckley even had second thoughts on the “socialist” regimes in Latin America, toward which he felt he had been “too doctrinaire or monolithic” in his attitude, while the Vietnam War, he told a biographer, cured him of the “rollback” policy on communism he earlier supported. Buckley never mentioned sorrow or regret over the victims of the policies he propounded in his magazine, his television show and his syndicated newspaper column. He never expressed regret over the disappeared Chileans or the dead American GIs in Vietnam. Just that he might have got it slightly wrong. About the only issue on which he did not change his mind was McCarthyism.
Yet today, many people on both left and right long for Buckley’s presence, as though he were a great moderating influence on American society.
Buckley “policed the boundaries of conservatism, casting out extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites, and racists,” read a recent piece in The New York Times.
“Today, the Republican Party lacks a Buckley figure to purge these ‘kooks,’” wrote Alvin Felzenberg in Politico.
“Even if you are opposed to [the conservative] movement, it is right to praise [Buckley] for his thoughtful televisual interactions with liberals,” said MIT professor Heather Hendershot. “Sadly, this kind of reasoned political debate is sorely lacking in today’s TV landscape.”
You could say that. Or you could say that the last thing the GOP and the US need is another radical, cold-blooded ideologue like William F. Buckley, Jr.
Chris Orlet is the author of the novel In the Pines: A Small Town Noir.