The Second Thoughts of William F Buckley


An image of the Right peddled by liberals–gaining even more traction in the age of Trump–is that conservatives never entertain second thoughts about their positions (“sticking to one’s guns” is some conservative’s riposte to this image); never adjust, and are locked into fixed positions. By turns, liberals congratulate themselves on entertaining the idea that they may be wrong.

But the late founder of the post-war conservative movement defied this image,

In his lifetime, William F Buckley, founder of National Review, was stereotyped by such uber-leftists as Norman Mailer who called him a “gentlemanly” version of Goebbels and by Dwight McDonald who likened Buckley’s rigid support of Joseph McCarthy to mirror the 30s’ leftist cheerleading of Stalin.

Certainly, his early life certainly fit the liberal stereotype. His father was an arch-conservative Texas oil man, who had Buckley home-schooled until the 8th grade. As a child, he and his siblings vandalized a local Jewish merchant’s store with anti-Semitic graffiti. Like his father, he hated FDR, and became, like many on the Right, a passionate supporter of American First, a hodge-podge collection of socialists, communists, and actual Nazi Bundists opposed to American involvement in World War II. Like George H.W Bush, he became a member of the Skull and Bones Society at Yale. After graduation, he worked for the CIA at its Mexico station under future Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. In 1951, he authored the flip side of what we today call political correctness, God and Man At Yale, in which he asserted that the university should only teach Christianity and capitalism. He was a supporter of Joseph McCarthy, even going so far as to devote an entire book about the validity of the senator’s anticommunist crusade (“McCarthyism … is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks”). His editorial proclamation in the first issue of his magazine National Review was the very definition of a reactionary: to “stand athwart history yelling stop.” His Catholicism and anti-communism moved him toward supporting Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, whose “victory” in 1939 had been militarily aided by Adolf Hitler’s air force; nevertheless Buckley lauded him as “an authentic national hero,” who had triumphed over “visionaries, ideologues, Marxists and nihilists”—a creepy echo of Hitler’s description of the legally-elected Spanish government.

He supported the doomed Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater and attacked the Civil Rights Act of 1965, even calling white supremacy in the South “a good idea” because Negroes were not developed enough for self-rule. He defended America’s stockpile of nuclear arms and at times wished aloud they would be used in Vietnam. He defended the CIA and its “coups” in Iran and Guatemala which unseated Soviet-leaning but legally elected rulers. He advocated for “repressive tolerance” which would have restricted the civil liberties of leftists and defended the use of wiretaps and surveillance on them.

And so it goes.

But there was a yin to this yang. This backer of Goldwater and Ronald Reagan also on occasion supported liberal candidates for the US Congress such as activist Allard K. Lowenstein. This cheerleader for capitalism attempted to out Ayn Rand from the conservative movement because of her dogmatic, atheistic capitalism. A former graffiti artist of anti-Semitic slogans, Buckley purged from the movement such anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers as Gerald L.K Smith and refused to hire those who held such views from working at National Review. This proponent of a communist conspiracy within the United States nevertheless disassociated himself from the John Birch Society, who attacked President Dwight Eisenhower as a Soviet agent. This fervent Catholic supported the legalization of marijuana and the overall decriminalization of drugs. A supporter of President Richard Nixon, he was nevertheless horrified by Watergate and repudiated it in print. An initial supporter of white rule in the still-segregated South, he nevertheless shed these earlier views. Late in life, he listed as one of his biggest regrets that National Review had opposed the Civil Rights legislation of 1964-65. In the late sixties, he opposed the Presidential candidacies of the segregationist George Wallace. This libertarian proponent –he opposed the draft–nevertheless formulated a federal government project that could be labeled social engineering. He proposed that the government cancel out student loans if graduates worked for charities and religious organizations, the purpose of which was to install character.

These departures from the conservative ranks extended into the 21st century. He refused to label President George W. Bush a “conservative.” Of his performance in office, Buckley stated: “If you have a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign.” He eventually opposed the War in Iraq calling it “a disaster” and that conservative support of it was a form of “intellectual suicide.”

Buckley, however, never completely left the views of his hot youth. In 1999, he devoted an entire novel to championing Joseph McCarthy. He never regretted his support of the necessary “big government” measures to combat the Soviet Union. Still, as shown, he was capable of “second thoughts”, and fit F.Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a “first-rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Buckley’s opposed ideas were libertarianism, anti-communism, and Catholicism, and they often clashed. He was never really able to reconcile the three.

Nevertheless, he never stopped trying, and as a result ventured into complexity. As such he was never, unlike his nemesis Gore Vidal, who preached the same Military-Industrial complex running the country for fifty years, entirely predictable.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.


  1. Buckley’s deranged attacks on the John Birch Society nearly killed the conservative movement. Fortunately with the success of Trumpism the JBS seems to have emerged on top and Buckley’s National Review seems to have faded into irrelevance. Maybe it’s time for NRO to apologize to JBS and Ayn Rand supporters so the American right, united, can at least put a stop to the march of the destructive left. We can settle our internal differences after the lunatic left is brought under control. My 2 cents anyway.

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