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American Jewish History 87.2 (1999) 123-157

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Forgotten Godfathers: Premature Jewish Conservatives and the Rise of National Review

George H. Nash


For historians of the ideologically riven twentieth century the migration of writers and artists from Left to Right is a familiar phenomenon. But sometimes those who make it are not familiar, and sometimes their ultimate destination is a surprise.

The subject of this essay is seven American Jews who made this intellectual journey: seven men who, by the mid-1950s, found themselves "prematurely" on the political Right at a time when most intellectuals--including Jewish intellectuals--stood somewhere to the left of center. Unlike the pilgrimage of the often Jewish neoconservatives who came to prominence in the Reagan era, the trek that these seven took did not begin with the traumas of the 1960s. Instead, it took place an entire generation before the epithet "neoconservative" was coined.

Our subject is seven Jews, but in a way our story begins with a gentile. In November 1955 an adventurous young conservative named William F. Buckley, Jr., founded a magazine that was destined to alter the ideological climate of late twentieth-century America. Much has been written about Buckley's National Review. 1 But one fact has not been given as much attention as it deserves: of the 31 names which appeared on the original masthead of National Review, no fewer than five were Jewish. 2

In some respects the association of these men with the fledging venture was not surprising. Each (as we shall see) had a good reason for being there. Nor was their appearance on the masthead an act of tokenism. Each was a personal friend of Buckley's, and each contributed substantially to the insurgent journal in the years ahead. [End Page 123]

But from another perspective the conspicuous Jewish presence at National Review at its inception presents a puzzle, for in 1955 much of the American Right was not exactly attractive to American Jews. Many conservative activists of the early 1950s--including Buckley himself and Senator Robert Taft--had been isolationists before Pearl Harbor, not a position shared by many Jews. Moreover, after World War II Taft--the Mr. Conservative of his day--had angered Jews and others by his publicly expressed constitutional objections to the Nuremberg war crimes trials. 3 Another conservative hero, Senator Joseph McCarthy, seemed to many Jews a dangerous demagogue reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. Behind all this discomfiture lay the unpleasant fact that parts of the American Right were not free from anti-Semitism--a taint, as it happened, that Buckley was determined to efface.

Not surprisingly, then, few Jewish intellectuals embraced Buckley's embryonic magazine. In 1956, barely six months after National Review started publishing, the American Jewish Committee's monthly journal Commentary published a ferocious assault on it by Dwight Macdonald. His article was entitled "Scrambled Eggheads on the Right," a caption supplied by a young assistant editor named Norman Podhoretz. 4 In its first decade of existence National Review and its editor-in-chief clashed heatedly with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, particularly over what Buckley regarded as the ADL's own defamation of Dr. Frederick Schwarz and his Christian Anti-Communism Crusade. 5 For their part, Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein of the ADL, in their 1964 book Danger on the Right, labeled Buckley "one of the leading fellow travelers of the American Radical Right." 6 Not surprisingly again--given all this commotion and the negative stereotype of conservatism that Buckley had to overcome--National Review's influence on the American Jewish community was initially slight. In 1960 Buckley revealed to a friend that less than one percent of his magazine's readers were Jewish. 7 [End Page 124]

Nevertheless, the fact remains that a striking number of National Review's original luminaries were Jews. Indeed, without them the magazine might never have gotten off the ground, for if Buckley was the founding father of the journal, its unlikely godfather was an Austrian Jewish emigré journalist named William S...


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