The Real Irving Kristol

August 25, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: Irving KristolNeoconservativesHistory

The Real Irving Kristol

Contrary to popular belief, the founding father of American neoconservatism was a consistent adherent of realpolitik in international affairs.


IN 1990, the publisher of The National Interest wrote an essay to mark the fifth anniversary of the magazine. It was called “Defining Our National Interest.” In it, he asked, “But what about the moral dimension of American foreign policy? It has always been there and, since we are an untraditional nation founded on a liberal creed, it always will be there. Have we nothing ‘higher’ to offer the world? Perhaps we do—though, with every passing year, I become less convinced.”

But wasn’t the publisher, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, the ideology that—precisely due to its emphasis on morality in U.S. foreign policy—stands diametrically opposed to hard-nosed Nixonian realism? Not quite. If neoconservatism is to be classified, first and foremost, as a foreign-policy agenda comprised of preemption and democracy promotion, then Kristol was certainly not the “godfather.” Contrary to popular belief, he consistently subscribed to realpolitik. Throughout the Cold War, he supported détente and arms control. “Just for the record,” he told his friend Daniel Bell in 1986, “I believe American foreign policy is ideological in purpose, but should be realistic in strategy and tactics.” Kristol also resisted majestic plots to proliferate Western modes of commerce and governance abroad. “The prospect of the entire world evolving into a cheerless global Sweden, smug and unhappy, had no attraction for me,” he wrote in 1995.


For the most part, Kristol seldom commented on foreign policy and military affairs—even after inaugurating The National Interest in 1985. Indeed, the hazard of merely attempting to clarify his views pertaining to international relations is ascribing disproportionate weight to them. The vast majority of his corpus consists of essays of a philosophical disposition, mostly concerning the loci of virtue, morality and liberty. When neoconservatism became synonymous with a muscular foreign policy during George W. Bush’s administration, a small chorus arose, maintaining that Kristol was no progenitor of Middle Eastern imperial designs. “There is very little connection between those called ‘neoconservatives’ 30 years ago and neoconservatives today,” sociologist Nathan Glazer avowed in a New York Times letter to the editor in October 2003, seven months after the invasion of Iraq. Shortly after Kristol passed away in September 2009, Glazer, still trying to shield the legacy of his friend, “a realist and cautious on these matters,” declared that the term “neoconservatism” had been “hijacked” by those pushing a “vigorous and expansionist democracy-promoting military and foreign policy.” Around this time, historian Justin Vaïsse took an even bolder step in Foreign Policy, writing an article entitled “Was Irving Kristol a Neoconservative?” Like Glazer, he too lamented that “the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism started a movement that moved away from him.”

So why has the conventional wisdom remained pretty much undisturbed?


IN THE fall of 1998, João Carlos Espada, director and founder of the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal, invited Kristol to deliver a lecture on “Churchill and the Cold War” at a conference that he was organizing. Kristol, it seemed to Espada, was perfectly suited to the topic. He had launched The National Interest in 1985, been a member of both the Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger—two hawkish pressure groups—and cofounded Encounter, an eminent London-based magazine sponsored by the fervently anti-Communist Congress for Cultural Freedom. Kristol, however, declined the proposition. “Having lived through the Cold War,” he responded, “I never read anything about it, and am therefore ignorant of the literature that has collected around the subject.”

This probably left Espada scratching his head—as it will probably leave many readers of this essay reaching for their own crania. Perhaps Kristol was just too busy to traverse the Atlantic. (This appears unlikely, though, given that he was well into retirement and his wife, historian Gertrude “Bea” Himmelfarb, with whom he was inseparable, accepted a similar offer from Espada for the very same conference.) But why then did he, a prominent anti-Communist and voracious reader, go out of his way to suggest that he was ill informed of the contemporary episodes in which he was so intertwined? For two reasons, possibly.

The first is that Kristol—unlike the infamously egocentric “New York Intellectuals”—was quiet and self-effacing. He rarely wrote about himself, and when he did, he underrated his own achievements. For instance, in Joseph Dorman’s documentary-turned-book Arguing the World, he stated that he had contributed “an article” as well as “two or three book reviews” to the New Leader while serving as the English correspondent for the New York–based, liberal anti-Communist periodical from 1946 to 1947. In reality, he published eleven essays, most of which were full-page spreads. “I hope that I’m not embarrassingly prolific,” he implored editor “Sol” Levitas a month after arriving in the town of Cambridge.

The second reason that Kristol may have rebuffed Espada? He was being honest about the degree of his erudition. His reputation as a “cold warrior” may have been sealed with his Commentary essay “‘Civil Liberties,’ 1952—A Study in Confusion.” (That oft-cited polemic accused the “spokesmen for American liberalism” of treating anti-Communism as a graver threat to democracy than the Kremlin and, therefore, fomenting a perilous relativism.) Yet as a result, it is routinely forgotten that Kristol—a devotee of theology and classical philosophy—was always far more concerned with small-“c” communism and its quixotic promises than he was with big-“C” Communism and its deepwater ports. Beginning as a young adult, he grasped that the nation-state was an ephemeral phenomenon while a robust moral attraction to “progress” and “equality” was an immutable, often-treacherous feature of the human condition. For him, the bloody upheavals of 1789, 1848 and 1917 proffered stark warnings against secular and mortal ventures to pull heaven down to earth.

Accordingly, a profound regard for the consequences of human action formed the core of Kristol’s temperament. He revered tradition, historical experience and the complexity of the social fabric. Although Kristol was irritated by the “cultishness” of the “Straussians”—yes, he referred to them in the third, not in the collective first-person—he considered them allies because they had been taught to respect the limits of human nature and, thus, government. (To further disappoint the conspiracy theorists out there, he belittled the Straussians’ “simple-minded attitude toward religion [Athens vs Jerusalem],” tagging it their “Achilles heel.”) “Students who have been exposed to Straussian teachers,” he wrote to sociologist Robert Nisbet in 1979, “tend to be ‘de-utopianized’ and thoughtful in a way that most other students tend not to be.”

Well before the Public Interest debuted in 1965—an event regularly (and incorrectly) cited as the birth of neoconservatism—it was evident that ideology and social engineering were distasteful to Kristol. Opining in the April 1944 issue of Enquiry, a small, short-lived Trotskyist journal cofounded with Philip Selznick, Kristol, who wrote under the cognomen William Ferry, touted E. M. Forster’s “moral realism” as a safeguard against the Left’s unwavering confidence in the malleability of human nature. “Though dissatisfied, of course, with the ways of men,” he coolly explained, “it foresees no new virtues, but, at best, a healthier distribution of the old.” (He was twenty-four at the time.) Just over a decade later, in 1955, he branded himself a “neo-conservative”—that was eighteen years before Michael Harrington popularized the label in Dissent—amid a fiery exchange with American art critic Harold Rosenberg. His views on “liberty, the nature of American Society, the role of the intellectual, and many other things” had transported him beyond the progressive pale.

From whence did Kristol’s hostility toward utopianism spring? In distinct contrast to other so-called neoconservatives who drifted rightward, it was not only due to disillusionment with liberalism’s fallacies about the perfectibility of man and the inevitably of progress. For Kristol, it was also, if not more, because of prolonged exposure to and passion for classical liberal thought, which forthrightly addressed the fonts of those fallacies. (Plus, it did not hurt that he was raised in an observant Jewish home, was enamored with neo-orthodoxy à la Reinhold Niebuhr and spent five years from 1953 to 1958 in London at Encounter, befriending Tories.)

Above all, the enduring insights of Edmund Burke seized Kristol’s imagination. He was first introduced to the works of the eighteenth-century Irish statesman through his spouse’s scholarship. In 1942, less than a year after Gertrude Himmelfarb married Kristol and abandoned Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, she channeled Burke in her University of Chicago master’s thesis, squarely blaming the philosophes’ “rationalism” for the Reign of Terror. Her doctoral dissertation on the English Catholic historian Lord Acton and subsequent study of Victorian England further impressed upon Kristol that two disparate legacies of the Enlightenment had been vying for the soul of modernity since the fall of the Bastille: the “Continental,” devised within France and Germany, lauded progress, reason and collective equality, while the “Anglo-Saxon,” conceived in England and Scotland, acclaimed tradition, custom and individual freedom. The couple’s fidelity was to the latter. Writing in Commentary in 1960—still four years before the unveiling of the Great Society—Kristol hailed Burke for “affirming the two major propositions of the original Whig synthesis: (1) liberty is the most precious of political goods, and (2) civilization is the result of human action but not of human design.”


IF KRISTOL quickly became skeptical of utopianism, his perspective on international relations was effectively realist from the outset. Prior to his coeditorship of Encounter, he only occasionally dipped into global affairs. But after being enlisted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom—revealed in 1966 by the New York Times to have been a conduit for Central Intelligence Agency funding—it was only a matter of time before he weighed in on America’s place in the world. Though Stephen Spender, the illustrious Oxbridge-educated poet, appeared on the masthead as coeditor, Kristol was truly the architect of Encounter, arguably the most influential political and cultural review of the Cold War. Spender, besides being indecisive, was rarely around the two-room office on Haymarket; his schedule was devoured by other professional endeavors and retreats to Sweden and Spain. So Kristol took control of the reins. But he steered Encounter in a direction that almost got him fired—several times. In fact, he was nearly dismissed before the first issue hit British newsstands in October 1953. The problem? Kristol turned out to be insufficiently ideological for his flamboyant CCF supervisor in Paris, executive director and CIA information officer Michael Josselson.

Kristol had been tapped for Encounter because of the anti-Communism he exhibited as an assistant editor of Commentary and as the first executive secretary of the CCF’s American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a position he held from 1952 to 1953. Yet he had been disgusted by the dogmatism and infighting among his colleagues. Genteel in thought and demeanor, he was disturbed by their behavior. Likewise, he loathed Joseph McCarthy, whose “unpleasantness” had turned the “American mystique” into “a superstitious anxiety which sees the world as governed by nefarious conspiracies.” Kristol had concluded, as he conveyed to a philosophy professor in 1955: “It is the Party itself that creates ex-Communists not sweet persuasion from outside.” In 1993, he admitted that he had lost interest in anti-Communism as “an intellectual project” even before touching down in London. Peregrine Worsthorne, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who cavorted with the Encounter clique, affirmed that Kristol seemed to “lack doctrinal certainties.”

Josselson instantly felt “buyer’s remorse” for having enlisted Kristol. After inspecting the proofs for Encounter’s maiden issue, he dispatched a stack of letters that censured the journal’s political timidity. “Above all, have patience!” Kristol snapped back. “I have a very clear idea of what the Congress wants, and of how one should go about getting it. But I can’t operate efficiently with the Paris office breathing down my neck, sending editorial directives, etc.” Barbs akin to these were continually traded for the length of Kristol’s tenure from 1953 to 1958. Josselson incessantly advocated that Encounter adopt aggressively anti-Communist positions. Kristol trusted that the journal, in order to avoid being ridiculed as propaganda of the CCF, had to be a forum for a wide range of opinion. Before long, his judgment was rewarded with a circulation of about fifteen thousand copies.

Was Kristol aware of the CIA’s financial support for the CCF and, hence, Encounter? “We all suspected and we all thought about it,” Daniel Bell recalled of the support. “Let me put it this way; when I first came to work for the Congress in 1955, Mike Josselson said to me, ‘Dan, I want to tell you where the money comes from.’ I said, ‘Mike, I don’t want to know!’” No evidence, at least as of yet, has surfaced to prove that Kristol knew “in the raw”—to borrow an intelligence phrase—that the U.S. government covertly underwrote his journal. But if he did know, then his repeated defiance of Josselson only made his editorship that much more daring.

The point is that the CCF’s zealousness only raised more doubts in Kristol’s mind about the West’s inevitable march of liberty. Added to this apprehensive sentiment was a burgeoning admiration for convention and social continuity, bequeathed by Encounter mates like Malcolm Muggeridge, Henry Fairlie, Colin Welch and Michael Oakeshott. Not surprisingly, most of the Tories that Kristol and Himmelfarb befriended were Burkeans. “Irving was intrigued, rather touched by and liked the young people who were very keen on that side of Toryism,” Peregrine Worsthorne recollected. “It appealed to something in his character and very much also so far as Bea was concerned.” Owen Harries remembered: “I think it was something of a revelation for them—to see conservative views advanced with such confidence and style—because there was nothing comparable in the America of the 1940s that would have prepared them for it.”


WHEN KRISTOL wrote consistently about global affairs, it was in the mid-1950s in London, and it was from a markedly realist outlook forged by Burkean precepts. Formal and informal institutions, he appreciated, were the unique accumulated outcomes of generations of trials and tribulations. Only carefully measured change accompanied by an appreciation of society’s complexity and recognition of the unintended consequences of human action could result in real “progress.” Consequently, Kristol rebuked scores of Cold War initiatives, including those that sought to export Western conventions to the Third World. “It is about time we recognized that not all the peoples and nations in the world want to be free and happy, as we in America understand those terms,” he averred in Commentary in 1956. “Democracy, heaven be praised, is not indivisible, any more than peace is; we need no perfect solutions to survive in an imperfect world.”

One of Kristol’s refrains was that Western elites were ignorant of other actors’ motivations because of “self-righteousness,” a myopic belief in the innate goodness of liberal democracy. In the November 1956 issue of Encounter, he derided scholars and bureaucrats for viewing India “as a nebulous ‘underdeveloped country’ moving ineluctably towards a predetermined harmony with the West” rather than “an independent nation with its own life, its own ambitions, its own purposes.” He elaborated in the June 1957 issue of the Yale Review: “Why should they aspire to recreate themselves in the image of our particular traditions? It is understandable that Americans should regard themselves as the earth’s fixed center; it is also understandable that Asians and Arabs should look on this as an act of gross presumption.”

Kristol recommended that the West’s foreign policy toward developing countries be—as he wrote in the New Republic in 1957—“largely passive rather than active.” He cautioned that cultural diplomacy (e.g., the distribution of “glossy magazines extolling the ‘American way of life’”) would excite envy and contempt while significant aid packages would exacerbate a “sense of inferiority” and further strain existing economic and social systems. With respect to the “Asian-African bloc,” which he deemed the fulcrum of the Cold War, he advised that America, at the most, attempt to curry favor “by assisting in the liquidation of the remnants of Western European colonialism.” As for NATO, it is a little-known secret that Kristol wished that the organization would vanish. He was less bothered by the inability of America to act unilaterally than he was by America’s pledge to militarily intervene in conflicts outside its national interest due to its Article 5 commitment.

Aversion to what he dubbed in 1955 the “‘romantic’ character of American foreign policy” pulled Kristol into Henry Kissinger’s groundbreaking Harvard dissertation-turned-book, A World Restored, published in 1954. To be sure, the similarity between the writings of the two men in that period cannot be readily dismissed. “Most Europeans and Asians think that America is too narrowly-minded ‘realistic’ in its approach to foreign affairs,” Kristol told Oxford history lecturer Heinz Koeppler in 1955. “I would argue the reverse proposition, saying that we are not realistic at all.” The following year in Encounter, Kristol attacked Western international-relations theory for putting forth an incongruous union of “on the one hand, a humanist universalism that verged on the utopian; on the other, a doctrinaire liberalism that celebrated the natural right to self-determination, nationhood, sovereignty, and similar appetising things.” In 1958, he upbraided a draft of the CCF’s updated mission statement, which declared: “Every people has an inextinguishable right to equality with the other peoples of the world, without exception.” He retorted to Josselson: “What ‘right to equality’ has Abyssinia to, say England or France? Is it ‘unequal’ for ‘the great powers’ to be on the Security Council, while the smaller powers are not?”

Nowhere did Kristol’s opinions raise more ire and indignation than at Commentary, the vanguard outlet of neoconservative foreign policy. Beginning in the late 1960s, Norman Podhoretz, editor-in-chief of Commentary, employed the magazine to endorse a more bellicose U.S. foreign policy toward Communist governments and other totalitarian regimes. He asserted, alongside a troop of intellectuals in the vein of Henry “Scoop” Jackson, that America’s national-interest calculation consisted not only of missile bases and long-range bombers, but also moral considerations. The change in tack was primarily in reaction to the dramatic rise of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism among the New Left over, respectively, the Vietnam War and the Jewish state’s sweeping victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Yet to grasp the basis of the neoconservative fissure that emerged over U.S. foreign policy, one should keep in mind that Kristol’s rightward trek had been relatively organic, whereas Podhoretz’s had been rather hyperbolic.


PODHORETZ’S AND Kristol’s approaches to international affairs remained dissimilar while their postures on domestic affairs began converging in the late 1960s. Both men tepidly opposed American involvement in Vietnam—they even refrained from writing about the conflict—but events in that Southeast Asian country led them to develop, respectively, a more activist and a more reserved take on Western capabilities. Podhoretz felt that Vietnam was the “right war” but the “wrong place” and blamed America’s failure on execution of tactics. Kristol, on the other hand, felt that America’s quest was doomed from the outset because Vietnam’s soil was not ripe for democracy. “It lacks the political traditions, the educated classes, the civic spirit that makes self-government workable,” he wrote in 1963. “The most we can hope for in South Vietnam is what we have achieved in South Korea: that is, to remove this little, backward nation from the front line of the Cold War so that it can stew quietly in its own political juice.” In the early 1970s, while disdaining the “neo-isolationist impulse” that had arisen in the wake of Vietnam as “a nostalgic yearning for past simplicities,” he also blasted “interventionism” as being “more a kind of political romanticism than political theory.”

Tension between the two editors intensified during the Nixon administration. Kristol supported détente, the easing of the strained relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the April 1976 issue of Commentary, Podhoretz mocked that strategy as a “curious habit of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick” and further lampooned Henry Kissinger for sounding like Winston Churchill but acting like Neville Chamberlain. Kristol also backed arms control. In 1961, for example, three months after the botched Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, he had gone so far as to call upon the U.S. government to renounce the “first use” of nuclear weapons. Podhoretz, however, blasted arms control as a “fraud” and “one of the great superstitions of the twentieth century.” Kristol further broke with Podhoretz by knocking the Whig interpretation of history and urging military restraint abroad. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in October 1973—in the middle of the Yom Kippur War—he scolded the West for its conceited conviction “that to become modern must mean a gradual conversion to our own liberal-secular materialism.” Two months later, he appended: “There is nothing inherently immoral about intervening in some one else’s civil war, just as there is nothing inherently immoral in not intervening.”

The friction between Kristol and Podhoretz took on a new public dimension the following year. In 1974, Kristol used his Wall Street Journal column to exalt Kissinger for “legitimizing such a new way of thinking about foreign policy” that transcended “a Machiavellian policy” as well as “a moralistic policy—one that conceives the United States to be ‘a city upon a hill’ and ‘a light onto the nations.’” He also commended him for shaping a “‘Europeanization’ of American foreign policy” that sought consensus through a “lowering-of-the-sights.” Daniel Bell, for one, applauded the column for having “gone to such lengths to prove that realism and not ideology is the rationale for détente.” The column still discountenanced Midge Decter, Podhoretz’s wife, three decades after it first appeared. In a speech to the Philadelphia Society in 2004, she asked: “All the lying, cowardice, cruelty, murder, mayhem, rivers of blood and plain insanity that were let loose by the European powers in the course of the twentieth century—what in God’s name does he find so praiseworthy in the idea of Europeanization?”

In 1985, in response to the Reagan administration’s increasing embrace of democracy promotion abroad, Kristol established The National Interest, a journal dedicated to foreign affairs. (The Public Interest, which he had cofounded in 1965, was instead devoted to domestic affairs, focusing on economic and social policy.) Ten years later, he specified that The National Interest attempted to advance a “neorealist” worldview that would “steer its own course between Wilsonian internationalist utopianism and a ‘pragmatism’ that was little more than opportunism.” Kristol was not the only “neoconservative” who had been worried about America’s new path. “If one took, as an extreme view, Norman P’s vociferous conception of an ideological crusade,” Daniel Bell wrote to Kristol in 1986, “then one would justify interventionism on a large and braod [sic] scale, and confrontationism at every turn? And that might ‘entangle’ us quite a bit.”

Podhoretz was aware that his creed was under fire. “The National Interest . . . was an unspoken polemic against the position of the Commentary crowd,” he conceded in a 2010 interview at his Upper East Side apartment. He continued:

Irving’s view was actually opposed to mine. I stressed the importance of the ideological element in American foreign policy. I always argued that this was one of the—what we’d say today—“exceptional” things about the United States. Realpolitik? You can’t go to war to preserve the “balance of power” with Americans. You need some higher moral purpose whether it’s real or not—it’s something that Henry Kissinger never really understood....Irving was really celebrating a realist perspective, [an] anti-Wilsonian realist perspective.

The swift and, for most, unexpected dissolution of the Iron Curtain did little to abate the rivalry between Kristol and Podhoretz. Soon after the start of Operation Desert Shield in 1990, Kristol assured America that there was no need to agonize over the fact that there were “large parts of the world which do not share our conception of civil rights and civil liberties.” The existence of political mores and cultural norms unpleasant to the Western palette did not alone constitute sufficient cause to concoct enemies and hassle allies. Kristol further advised: “American military intervention and occupation to ‘make democracy work’ . . . is not and cannot be a serious option for American foreign policy.” Podhoretz was galled by this reluctance to capitalize on what commentator Charles Krauthammer identified as the “unipolar moment.” He admonished Kristol in Commentary for taking “refuge in the realist argument for a foreign policy based strictly on considerations of national interest.” “The American national interest,” he wrote, “can only be served properly and fully by a foreign policy that does indeed work, prudently but surely, toward the Wilsonian ideal of making the world safe for democracy.” Kristol, four years later, noted: “I regarded the ideal of a ‘world without war’ as utopian, and ‘making the world safe for democracy’ a futile enterprise.”

Without question, the activist U.S. foreign policy of the 1990s proved more in sync with Podhoretz’s vision of America’s role abroad than Kristol’s. The Clinton administration labored to demonstrate the country’s commitment to the protection of human rights through interventions in Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans. Crucially for Commentary, it also reaffirmed America’s support for Israel. According to Podhoretz, the George H. W. Bush administration’s foreign policy—led by Secretary of State James Baker—had shown “a tone” toward the Jewish state that ranged “from ordinary coldness to...outright hostility.” But Podhoretz was still irked throughout the 1990s, believing that President Bill Clinton had fallen short in heeding America’s providential calling. He was, nevertheless, pleased enough to herald the end of his ideological campaign by eulogizing the passing of neoconservatism—his neoconservatism. “For if there is a neoconservative extant who has become an isolationist,” he announced in 1996, the year after he retired from Commentary, “I do not know where to find him.”


PODHORETZ, AT the age of sixty-six, seemed to be preparing for his exit from public life. Yet as we know today, some of the fiercest intellectual bouts of his career were still to be fought. He, along with neoconservatism more generally, roared back to the fore of political debate after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. (The tenor of his George W. Bush–era punditry is exemplified by the title of his 2007 book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism.) As for Kristol, he would not return to the theater of polemics, having happily consigned himself to retirement midway through the Clinton administration. Was it an anticlimactic ending to the odyssey of the man who pioneered possibly the most influential movement in modern American politics? Or a fitting one for an individual admired for his charm and equanimity? “I keep not writing,” Kristol told his old friend Earl Raab in 1996. “I do feel that, at my age, pontificating as has been my wont, is unbecoming. Besides, I don’t really care that much about pontifical matters, all of which have receded into the distance.” What he did care about was family, spending his days strolling with his grandchildren along the tree-lined streets of McLean, Virginia. And when he did put pen to paper, his ruminations materialized in private letters, which mainly revolved around ethics, philosophy and Judaism.

Speaking of Judaism, what about the Jewish state? An exposition of Kristol’s views on U.S. foreign policy sans discussion of Israel would be complete for neither neocons nor their opponents. After all, the former cohort trusts that America’s close cooperation with Israel is essential; the latter often trusts that it is excessive. The truth is that although Kristol (a self-described “non-practicing Orthodox Jew”) supported Israel—and ardently so after the 1967 Six-Day War—he was less interested in the country itself than other members of his ethnic/religious milieu. In the postwar period, this detachment might be ascribed to misgivings about a nation-state deeply shaped by Eastern European Communists bent on secular “progress.” In a 1946 piece for Commentary, “Adam and I” (which Himmelfarb stated in 2014 was actually a work of fiction), Kristol writes that while serving in the U.S. Army in Marseille after Nazi Germany’s surrender, he was asked by an Auschwitz survivor, “Do you wish to go to Eretz?” Kristol uneasily answered, “Well, yes, vaguely, but that will have to wait.” It is true that Kristol warmed considerably to Israel in the following decades, but the country seldom figured in his writings. When it did crop up, realist valuations were in tow. “I am struck by the fact that you and Marty [Peretz] seem to think that Israel has the right to go to war only for the purposes of ‘survival,’” Kristol submitted to Nathan Glazer in 1982. “But national security is not the same thing as sheer survival and no foreign policy can simply focus on survival as a goal.”

Was Kristol a hawk, an unrepentant partisan of American strength? Certainly. He abhorred tyranny and adored liberty. He felt that patriotism was healthy and key to upholding a sense of national purpose. He believed that the constitutional republic was the form of self-governance best equipped to inculcate virtue within a diverse citizenry. He desired an international order led by America and structured according to its democratic principles. But he also harbored reservations about the way in which America demarcated and pursued its national interest. “I am not an isolationist, just a realistic unilateralist,” he explained to Earl Raab in October 1990, two months after the start of the Gulf War. It was a stance from which he never really deviated.

Jonathan Bronitsky is a commentator and historian working on a biography of Irving Kristol to be published by Oxford University Press. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge examined the postwar, transatlantic origins of neoconservatism.

Image: Rebecca M. Miller