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.



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.