NATIONAL REVIEW, founded in 1955, was the flagship journal of American political conservatism throughout the late twentieth century. The journal was conceived by William F. Buckley Jr., then in his late twenties and already the author of two books, one a lament at the secularization of Yale University, the other a defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He raised funds and brought together a talented group of contributors who shared his view that President Dwight Eisenhower's "modern Republicanism" was inadequate. Some were former communists, including James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Max Eastman, and Frank Meyer. They believed that communism threatened the existence of civilization itself and that "coexistence" with Soviet Russia, symbolized by Nikita Khrushchev's visit to America in 1959, was a fatal mistake. Others, like Henry Hazlitt, were free-market conservatives or "classical liberals" who believed that political manipulation of the economy, practiced on a large scale since the New Deal, was inefficient and unethical. A third group included social and educational conservatives such as Russell Kirk, who decried the decline of manners and America's widespread acceptance of progressive educational techniques under the influence of John Dewey. Buckley deftly settled internal disputes among these factions, enabling the journal to present a bitingly polemical and often entertaining critique of liberalism and communism.
Most contributors, apart from the libertarians, were religious, with Catholics predominating, though National Review's religious affairs editor Will Herberg was another former communist who had returned to the Judaism of his birth. The Catholic influence did nothing to soften their antagonism to John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960, however; neither did it restrain their criticism of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI for their peace initiatives in the era of the Second Vatican Council. National Review campaigned hard for Barry Goldwater, the unsuccessful Republican candidate in the presidential election of 1964, and supported American intervention in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, it objected not to the escalation of this intervention but to the fact that the U.S. government's war aims were too limited. The army, it argued, should be fighting to win and seizing this opportunity to "roll back" communism. At the same time, it opposed President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs and the continuous expansion of the federal government.
On racial issues, National Review could be surprising. In an early issue, for example, it said that the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama was defensible on free-market grounds. If black bus riders were dissatisfied with the service, they were entitled to withhold their custom until the provider improved the service. On the other hand, as the civil rights movement escalated, National Review provided a platform for such highbrow defenders of segregation as Donald Davidson and James J. Kilpatrick. Unenthusiastic about the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965 at the time of their passage, the magazine nevertheless cited them in later editorials against affirmative action, which it regarded as a violation of the principle of equality.
National Review was lukewarm about President Richard Nixon, just as it had been about Eisenhower. At first, nevertheless, it defended him against the Watergate allegations, assuming them to be no more than Democratic efforts to discredit the incumbent in an election year. As the evidence against Nixon mounted in 1973 and 1974, however, National Review also abandoned Nixon. Its political star in those days was Buckley's brother, James Buckley, who ran a successful campaign for the Senate from New York as a conservative. The rapid growth of neoconservatism in the 1970s and 1980s made National Review, by contrast, headquarters of the paleoconservatives, and the two groups sparred over the future of the movement. Nevertheless, from the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 onward, National Review felt that the original objective of reorienting American politics in a conservative direction had been fulfilled.
Allitt, Patrick. Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950–1985. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Diggins, John P. Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. New York: Basic Books, 1976.