The Origins of the Republican Civil War
Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 368 pp., $34.95.
IN DECEMBER 1953, Henry Regnery convened a meeting in Room 2233 in New York City’s Lincoln Building. Regnery, a former Democrat and head of Regnery Publishing, had moved sharply to the Right after he became disillusioned with the New Deal. His guests included William F. Buckley Jr.; Frank Hanighen, a cofounder of Human Events; Raymond Moley, a former FDR adviser who wrote a book called After Seven Years that denounced the New Deal; and John Chamberlain, a lapsed liberal and an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. Regnery had not called these men together merely to discuss current events. He wanted to reshape them. “The side we represent controls most of the wealth in this country,” he said. “The ideas and traditions we believe in are those which most Americans instinctively believe in also.” So why was liberalism in the ascendant? Regnery explained that media bias was the problem. Anywhere you looked, the Left controlled the commanding heights—television, newspapers and universities. It was imperative, Regnery said, to establish a “counterintelligence unit” that could fight back.
In her superb Messengers of the Right, Nicole Hemmer examines the origins of conservative media. Hemmer, who is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, has performed extensive archival research to illuminate the furthest recesses of the Right, complementing earlier works like Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin. She provides much new information and penetrating observations about figures such as Clarence Manion, William Rusher and Henry Regnery. Above all, she shows that there has been a remarkable consistency to the grievances and positions, which were often one and the same, of the conservative movement over the decades.
According to Hemmer, the modern Right first took shape in the form of the America First Committee. A number of leading conservatives saw little difference between Adolf Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Regnery recollected that “both Hitler and Roosevelt—each in his own way—were masters of the art of manipulating the masses.” Indeed, in an October 1991 letter to Patrick J. Buchanan, Regnery claimed that Americans had been hornswoggled into supporting the war by “the President and those who form public opinion.” Others such as the gifted orator Clarence Manion, a former FDR acolyte, joined the America First Committee in 1941. After the war, Manion became the dean of the Notre Dame Law School and wrote a book called The Key to Peace, which argued that limited government was the key to American greatness, not a quest to “take off for the Mountains of the Moon in search of ways and means to pacify and unify mankind.” While serving in the Eisenhower administration, he also became a proponent of the Bricker Amendment, which would have subjected treaties signed by the president to ratification by the states. Eisenhower demanded his resignation. An embittered Manion, Hemmer writes, concluded that columnists such as James Reston, Marquis Childs, and Joseph and Stewart Alsop had effectively operated as a united front to ruin him.
Everywhere he looked, the media—newspapers, network radio and television news, magazines, and journals—all seemed locked in a liberal consensus. . . . If conservatives were going to claw their way back in from the outside, they were going to need to first find a way to impair and offset liberals in the media.
In 1954, the Manion Forum of Opinion, which aired on several dozen radio stations, was born. It soon became a popular venue that allowed Manion, who was cochair of a political party called For America, to inveigh against the depredations of liberalism and preach the conservative gospel.
Manion was not alone in his crusade. Hemmer ascribes much importance to the founding of the newsweekly Human Events in 1944. Its backers consisted of what she calls a “veritable reunion of America Firsters.” Three years later, Regnery created his own publishing house. One of his early offerings was a book by Mortimer Smith called And Madly Teach that appeared in 1949. It warned parents about the laxity of modern education. The book that made a real splash, however, was Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, which was published in 1951 by Regnery. Here was the first of many tracts seeking to foment a culture war by assailing what would come to be known as political correctness at America’s leading universities.
In 1954, Buckley and Brent Bozell, who married Buckley’s sister Priscilla, published with Regnery McCarthy and His Enemies, which hailed Sen. Joseph McCarthy as a savior for ferretting out Communist treason at the highest levels of government. The National Review crowd saw Dwight D. Eisenhower and his administration as dangerously soft on the Red Menace. William Rusher was thus incensed by Vice President Richard Nixon’s speech attacking McCarthy in March 1954 and dropped out of Republican party politics to become a “redhunter” in the Senate before joining National Review as publisher in 1957.
Hemmer maintains that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to America, which Buckley and others condemned, marked a
pivotal moment in the shift from conservative anti-interventionism to conservative hawkishness. While the ostensible goals of the anti-Khrushchev campaign meshed with the nationalism of the early 1940s and 1950s—the refusal to extend diplomatic ties, the focus on preserving America rather than rolling back the Soviet threat—after the Khrushchev rally the movement took a decidedly hawkish turn.