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Profile: Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol was a participant or observer in the following events:

The philosophy that becomes known as “neoconservativism” traces its roots to leftist ideologues in New York City who, before World War II, begin sorting themselves into two camps: those who support Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic “New Deal” policies, and more radical individuals who consider themselves followers of Soviet communism. Many of these radical leftists are Jews who, staunchly opposed to Nazi-style fascism, find themselves finding more and more fault with Stalinist Russia. In their eyes, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has betrayed the ideals of the original Russian Revolution, and has instead created a monstrous regime that is as bad towards Jews and other ethnic and cultural minorities as Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. The betrayal they feel towards the Soviet Union, author J. Peter Scoblic will later write, cannot be overestimated. Seminal movement figures such as Irving Kristol (see 1965) lead a small cadre of academics and intellectuals far away from their former leftist-Communist ideology, instead embracing what Scoblic will call “an ardent nationalism” that they see as “the only feasible counterweight to the Soviet monster.” The USSR is as evil as Nazi Germany, they believe, and as committed to world domination as the Nazis. Therefore, the USSR cannot be negotiated with in any form or fashion, only opposed, and, hopefully, destroyed. During the 1950s, Scoblic will write, “these intellectuals adopted a strict good-versus-evil outlook—and a scorn for radical elements of the American Left—that was not unlike that of the ex-communists… who were defining modern conservatism.” But unlike their conservative counterparts, Kristol’s neoconservatives either espouse a more liberal social construct similar to Roosevelt’s New Deal, or care little one way or the other about the entire skein of issues surrounding economic and social policy. The neoconservatives will drive themselves even farther right during the social upheaval of the 1960s, and, according to Scoblic, will hold leftist leaders in contempt in part because they remind the neoconservatives of their Stalinist compatriots of thirty years ago, colleagues whom they have long since abandoned and held in scorn. The fact that some antiwar New Left figures will support Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese communism will further enrage the neoconservatives. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 83-85)

Albert Wohlstetter in 1969.Albert Wohlstetter in 1969. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Albert Wohlstetter, a professor at the University of Chicago, gathers a cadre of fiery young intellectuals around him, many of whom are working and associating with the magazine publisher Irving Kristol (see 1965). Wohlstetter’s group includes Richard Perle, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter, himself a protege of the Machiavellian academic Leo Strauss, is often considered the “intellectual godfather” of modern neoconservatism. Formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, Wohlstetter wielded a powerful influence on the US’s foreign policy during the heyday of the Cold War. Wohlstetter, who is believed to be one of several analysts who became a model for director Stanley Kubrick’s title character in the 1968 film Dr. Strangelove, added dramatic phrases like “fail-safe” and “second strike” capability to the US nuclear lexicon, and pushed to increase the US’s military might over what he saw as the imminent and lethal threat of Soviet nuclear strikes and the Soviet Union’s plans for global hegemony. He was such a powerful figure in his hundreds of briefings that he projected far more certainty than his facts actually supported. Though his facts and statistics were often completely wrong, he was so relentless and strident that his ideas gained more credence than they may have warranted. By 1965, he is known in some circles as a “mad genius” who is now collecting and molding young minds to follow in his footsteps. Author Craig Unger writes in 2007, “To join Team Wohlstetter, apparently, one had to embrace unquestioningly his worldviews, which eschewed old-fashioned intelligence as a basis for assessing the enemy’s intentions and military capabilities in favor of elaborate statistical models, probabilities, reasoning, systems analysis, and game theory developed at RAND.” An analyst with the Federation of Atomic Scientists will write in November 2003: “This methodology exploited to the hilt the iron law of zero margin for error.… Even a small probability of vulnerability, or a potential future vulnerability, could be presented as a virtual state of emergency.” Or as one-time Wohlstetter acolyte Jude Wanninski will later put it, “[I]f you look down the road and see a war with, say, China, twenty years off, go to war now.” Unger will observe, “It was a principle his acolytes would pursue for decades to come—with disastrous results.” (Unger 2007, pp. 42-46)

Irving Kristol’s 1995 book, ‘Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea’Irving Kristol’s 1995 book, ‘Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea’ [Source: Yurica Report]Academic Irving Kristol founds a magazine, “The Public Interest,” and fills it with political and social commentary by himself and his increasingly conservative followers. Kristol will later describe himself and his comrades as “liberals mugged by reality.” He leads a nascent ideological movement—later turned “neoconservativism”—marked by attacks on President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” economic policies and “New Left” thinkers. Early shapers and proponents of this new, aggressive conservatism include Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, Diana Trilling, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Midge Decter. The more unpopular their views become with their friends and academic colleagues, the more insular and withdrawn they become. Author Craig Unger will write in 2007, “In part, their apostasy could be attributed to angst about their careers and social standing” along with their shifting political beliefs. Kristol’s group tends to live, work, and socialize with one another, in an increasingly exclusive and insular group. Much of their attacks on their former liberal and counterculture friends are rooted as much in personal antipathy and a desire to avenge social slights as in ideological differences, and their attacks tend to veer away from criticism of positions and into personal invective. (Interestingly, Podhoretz once tries to convince his former friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, to join his neoconservative group, an effort which Ginsberg harshly repudiates. The poet later recalls Podhoretz’s conversion attempt as “an epiphanous moment in my relation with Podhoretz and what he was part of—a large, right-wing, protopolice surveillance movement.”) At this point, most neoconservatives still identify themselves, however reluctantly, with the Democratic Party. (Unger 2007, pp. 35-36)

Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson.Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. [Source: US Congress]The recently formed neoconservatives, bound together by magazine publisher Irving Kristol (see 1965), react with horror to the ascendancy of the “McGovern liberals” in the Democratic Party, and turn to conservative senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) for leadership. Jackson calls himself a “muscular Democrat”; others call him “the Senator from Boeing” for his strong support of the US defense industry. Jackson merges a strong support of labor and civil rights groups with a harsh Cold War opposition to the Soviet Union. Jackson assembles a staff of bright, young, ideologically homogeneous staffers who will later become some of the most influential and powerful neoconservatives of their generation, including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, Abram Shulsky, and Paul Wolfowitz. Jackson’s office—“the bunker,” to staffers—becomes a home for disaffected, ambitious young conservative ideologues with a missionary zeal for change. Jackson presides over the cadre in an almost fatherly fashion.
History of Two Dictators - Many of Jackson’s neoconservative disciples came of age either fighting two foreign dictators—Stalin and/or Hitler—or growing up with family members who fought against them. (Unger 2007, pp. 35-41) Wolfowitz’s father’s family perished in the Holocaust; he will later say that what happened to European Jews during World War II “shaped a lot of my views.” (Schmitt 4/22/2002) Feith will tell the New Yorker in 2005, “[My] family got wiped out by Hitler, and… all this stuff about working things out—well, talking to Hitler to resolve the problem didn’t make any sense.” Most neoconservatives like Feith and Wolfowitz tend to look to military solutions as a first, not a last, resort. To them, compromise means appeasement, just as Britain’s Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler. Stefan Halper, a White House and State Department official in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, will say of the neoconservatives, “It is use force first and diplomacy down the line.”
Former Trotskyites - On the other hand, many neoconservatives come to the movement from the hardline, socialist left, often from organizations that supported Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky (see Late 1930s - 1950s). Trotskyites accused Stalin of betraying the purity of the Communist vision as declaimed by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. “I can see psychologically why it would not be difficult for them to become [conservative] hard-liners,” says Harvard Sovietologist Richard Pipes, himself a hardliner whose son, Daniel Pipes, will become an influential neoconservative. “It was in reaction to the betrayal.” Many neoconservatives like Stephen Schwartz, a writer for the Weekly Standard, still consider themselves to be loyal disciples of Trotsky. Richard Perle is a Trotskyite socialist when he joins Jackson’s staff, and will always practice what author Craig Unger calls “an insistent, uncompromising, hard-line Bolshevik style” of policy and politics. Like Trotsky, Unger writes, the neoconservatives pride themselves on being skilled bureaucratic infighters, and on trusting no one except a small cadre of like-minded believers. Disagreement is betrayal, and political struggles are always a matter of life and death. (Unger 2007, pp. 35-41)

Neoconservatives see Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s floundering campaign and eventual landslide defeat (see November 7, 1972) as emblematic of, in author Craig Unger’s words, everything that is wrong with the “defeatist, isolationist policies of the liberals who had captured the Democratic Party.” If the neoconservatives had had their way, their favorite senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson (see Early 1970s), would have won the nomination. But the Vietnam War has put hawkish Cold Warriors like Jackson in disfavor in the party, and Jackson was set aside for the disastrous McGovern candidacy. The Republicans offer little interest themselves for the neoconservatives. Richard Nixon is enamored of one of their most hated nemeses, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, whose “realpolitik” did nothing to excite their ideological impulses. And under Nixon, the icy Cold War is slowly thawing, with summit meetings, bilateral commissions, and arms limitations agreements continually bridging the gap between the US and the neoconservatives’ implacable foe, the Soviet Union. In Nixon’s second term, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM)—populated by Democratic neoconservatives like Jackson, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Nixon’s domestic adviser), Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ben Wattenberg, and James Woolsey, and joined by 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, will pressure Nixon to adopt a tough “peace through strength” policy towards the Soviet Union. Although it will take time, and the formation of countless other organizations with similar memberships and goals, this group of neoconservatives and hawkish hardliners will succeed in marginalizing Congress, demonizing their enemies, and taking over the entire foreign policy apparatus of the US government. (Unger 2007, pp. 47-48)

Because neoconservatives have so little influence in the Clinton administration, two founding fathers of the movement, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, begin advocating for the forging of an alliance with the Christian Right, no matter how undemocratic some fundamentalists can be. In his book Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (see 1965), Kristol wrote: “[C]onservatives and the Republican Party must embrace the religious if they are to survive.… Religious people always create problems since their ardor tends to outrun the limits of politics in a constitutional democracy. But, if the Republican Party is to survive, it must work on accommodating those people.” Following Kristol’s lead, Podhoretz writes that Jews should ignore the direct anti-Semitism of televangelist Pat Robertson because “Robertson’s support for Israel trumps the anti-Semitic pedigree of his ideas.” Neoconservative academic and intelligence figure Michael Ledeen makes numerous appearances on Robertson’s televised 700 Club to promote the strategy of revamping the Middle East to suit Israel and the US, reaching millions of fundamentalist viewers. (Unger 2007, pp. 150)


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