How Willmoore Kendall Invented Trumpism

January 2, 2022 Topic: Conservatism Region: United States Tags: ConservatismGOPTrumpismWillmoore Kendall

How Willmoore Kendall Invented Trumpism

Christopher H. Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall offers an insightful portrait of one of the Right’s leading thinkers.

Kendall had passionately opposed American entry into World War II, but in 1942 he landed a post at the new Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which was headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller. Kendall’s mandate was to oversee the production of propaganda for Latin America. He told friends that he was “spreading myself like the green bay tree,” a reference to a verse from Psalm 37:35. “Intelligence work,” Owen writes, “pushed him away from the Left, for it was as an intelligence officer that Kendall made his rightward turn.” In 1946, he was appointed chief of the Latin American Division of the Office of Reports and Estimates for the Central Intelligence Group, a precursor of the CIA. Owen explains that Kendall now “found himself near the center of the burgeoning postwar American intelligence community.”

His main task was to purge communists from that community. “I’m the guy who ‘busted’ the Maurice Halperin operation at OSS and State,” he bragged to the ex-communist Nathaniel Weyl in 1960, “and because of that was named his successor.” Kendall had more than just communists in his gunsights. He also despised liberals in the CIA and State Department, presaging the Right’s antipathy toward both outfits. Bellow captures his loathing for them in “Mosby’s Memoirs”:

He said that the Foreign Service was staffed by rejects of the power structure. Young gentleman from good Eastern colleges who couldn’t make it as Wall Street lawyers were allowed to interpret the alleged interests of their class in the State Department bureaucracy.

Kendall’s hostility toward this mandarin class created a stir in 1949 when he denounced in the journal World Politics the prominent Yale professor and CIA official Sherman Kent who had published a new book, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy. Kent argued that CIA analysts should seek to provide policymakers with objective information. Kendall would have none of this. In his view, Kent’s book was neither strategic nor intelligent. It was of paramount importance not simply to collect information but to scrutinize and interpret it in light of ruthless Soviet ideological aims. Liberals shrank from acknowledging this truth. They were blind to the true gravity of the threat facing America. As controversy swirled around his critique, Kendall told the conservative scholar Francis Graham Wilson, “We’ve had a common enemy (though of course not a common quarrel for many years)—the Liberals.”

In 1947, Yale, on the basis of his book on Locke and his government service, appointed Kendall a fellow at Pierson College. It got more than it bargained for. After he unsuccessfully battled his senior colleagues to hire Eric Voegelin and Herman Finer, Kendall became a pariah in the Government department. “From now on I teach my classes and don’t get close enough to my senior colleagues,” Kendall remarked, “to see the whites of their eyes.”

Not quite. With Buckley and Bozell as his sidekicks, he continually courted public controversy. New Haven became Kendall’s proving ground for successive assaults on liberal orthodoxies. In April 1948, in a debate with supporters of Henry Wallace’s campaign for the presidency, Kendall stated over the radio station WAVZ that they had “in effect transferred their loyalty to the Soviet Union.” There can be no doubting that Wallace, who visited a Soviet labor camp in 1944, only to praise it for its enlightened practices, was naïve about the Soviet threat, but this was putting it starkly indeed. After the broadcast, Kendall told Nathaniel S. Colley, a Black law student who had defended Wallace, that the accusation had “specific reference to and included him.” After Colley threatened a lawsuit, Kendall recanted. 

“For Kendall,” Owen rather blandly notes, “the sovereign right of the American people to protect itself from all enemies took precedence over individual liberties.” In 1950, he publicly supported the “Mundt Bill,” which called for deporting communists. They were, Kendall decreed, “incapable of participating in democratic government.” With William F. Buckley, Jr. or L. Brent Bozell serving as a partner in debates about censorship, civil liberties, and civil rights legislation, Kendall acquired an insalubrious reputation among the wider Yale faculty. In 1950, the political scientist V.O. Key told Kendall he would never receive a promotion and could either resign or stay on as an associate professor. Matters were not improved by the publication in 1954, on the eve of the Army-McCarthy hearings, of Buckley and Bozell’s book, McCarthy and His Enemies, which Kendall closely edited. Buckley and Bozell stated that McCarthy’s great challenge was “how to get by our disintegrated ruling elite, which had no stomach for battle, and get down to the business of fighting the enemy in our midst.”

It amounted to a popularization of Kendall’s teachings about majoritarian rule and social consensus. McCarthy was a formative figure for Kendall and Buckley, a populist tribune who could mobilize Americans against the threat of internal subversion that had been fostered by naïve New Deal liberals. Like Buckley, Kendall always remained a McCarthy votary. In 1963, he published an essay titled “McCarthyism: The Pons Asinorum of Contemporary Conservatism,” which pleaded for social orthodoxy and maintained that liberals were acting in a revolutionary fashion to undermine it.

At the heart of Kendall’s sallies was a sweeping claim: majority rule meant that Americans need not be squeamish about excising the social “cancer” of communism from the body politic. So wedded was Kendall to his stance about the limits of liberty, including free expression, that in one essay he declared that the Athenian Assembly had been well within its rights to execute Socrates as a public enemy. Kendall also denounced a bipartisan foreign policy as inherently elitist and alien to American traditions. Instead, foreign policy should consist of the “native good sense of the American electorate.”

WHEN NATIONAL Review first appeared in 1955, it offered Kendall a wider ambit for his strictures. The inaugural editorial warned of a vast liberal propaganda machine “engaged in a major, sustained assault upon the sanity, and upon the prudence and the morality of the American people.” But how sane and prudent and moral were the fledgling magazine’s own stands? It was a vociferous opponent of civil rights at home and a reliable apologist for nasty right-wing regimes abroad. In 1960, Kendall reviewed Nathaniel Weyl’s book The Negro in American Civilization for National Review, a racist tract that argued for the innate biological inferiority of Blacks. Kendall asked,

Could it be we shall never do justice to the Negroes in our midst, or the Negroes to themselves, save as we all recognize that as a group they may have a lesser capacity than the rest of us for civilizational achievement?” When we impose upon them equal responsibility for civilizational achievement we may be doing them not justice but injustice.

Kendall, who visited Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, wrote Leo Strauss in a 1957 letter that the military strongman had gotten a bum rap: El Jefe’s bloody and corrupt rule actually exemplified “Hobbes’ ‘public-spirited philosophy,’ in your own phrase, translated into palpitating reality; wherefore to call it, as men commonly do, a dictatorship based on something called force, is to miss all in it that is most interesting.”

As the awestruck tone of his correspondence with Strauss, which was published in 2002 in Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives, reveals, Kendall had a man-crush on him. In one letter, Kendall described himself as “always in statu pupillari with you...” The two bonded over their mutual interest in philosophy and politics as well as their contempt for the intellectual aridity of the behavioral political scientists who dominated the profession. Under Strauss’ influence, Kendall performed a volte-face on his original views about Locke’s “latent premise.” “‘Locke the liberal,’” Strauss told Kendall, “is the chief or perhaps the sole idol in the temple of liberalism and whoever questions that idol is guilty of what the liberals themselves call ‘orthodoxy.’”

Kendall echoed Strauss’ contention that Locke had deliberately concealed his true views about private property and individual rights for fear of riling up his countrymen. Kendall, who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1952, wrote that Locke’s praise for Christian morals was humbug, a smokescreen for hedonism, or what Strauss, in a memorable phrase, deemed “the joyless pursuit of joy.” Modern liberal society, Kendall averred, had gone badly astray in elevating individual rights above social duties. “The Lockeans in America,” Kendall wrote, “are the Liberals,” while “Conservatives ... must learn to understand themselves as the anti-Lockeans.” Strauss was elated. He expressed his admiration for Kendall’s “forceful and noble” work, declaring that he was “the only man who, without being my student, understood marvelously what I thought and intended.” It’s a pity that Owen never grapples with the unresolved tension between Kendall’s attraction to the elitism propounded by Strauss and his own advocacy of populism, not to mention the discrepancy between his personal life and ostentatious avowal of the need for a public morality. Like not a few conservatives over the years, he was wont to preach water and drink wine. If Kendall remained on the warpath against liberals, he also went on to battle Buckley in 1963 after he made Kendall a contributing rather than a senior editor at National Review. Kendall, who was teaching at the University of Dallas, demanded that Buckley remove his name from the masthead before going on to declare that he felt “about NR, much as I would about an ex-wife of mine who’d become a call-girl.” Kendall’s quondam protege gave as good as he got, responding that when it came to “wives and call-girls,” he could “only welcome the news that you have finally learned to distinguish between the two.” Decades later, when I met Buckley for lunch at the New York Yacht Club, he bemusedly recounted that he had instituted the change at Kendall’s own suggestion, only to be denounced by him for following through on it.