Peter Viereck died last Saturday. Viereck is an interesting figure and one that I haven’t had a chance to study. You can get a sense of his uniqueness by the first paragraph of the NYT obit:
Peter Viereck, a noted historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a founder of the mid-20th-century American conservative movement who later denounced what he saw as its late-20th-century excesses, died on Saturday at his home in South Hadley, Mass. He was 89.
National Review’s John J. Miller, responding to a long New Yorker profile of Viereck, gets to the motivation behind the Times’ fondness for “conservatives” like Viereck:
The New Yorker’s interest in Viereck does not arise from a sincere desire to explore the roots of the Right. Instead, the article by Tom Reiss is a transparent attempt to attack “the radicalism of the George W. Bush Presidency” by suggesting that the conservative movement, in its infancy, betrayed its founding father. The true story is that Viereck was on stage during the creation of modern conservatism, but only in the opening scene. Then he walked away, never to be heard from again, except occasionally as a heckler.
Miller also gives a good brief run down of Viereck’s role in the conservative movement:
Born in 1916, Viereck was raised by a father who supported the Kaiser during the First World War, defended Hitler during the Second World War, and did time in federal prison for conspiring with the Nazis. These sentiments repulsed the son; for years, Peter and his father were estranged. The younger Viereck attended Harvard and Oxford, served in the Army, and started writing books. The most important of these appeared in 1949; it was called Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt. Much of it was about the Austrian diplomat Metternich. Yet that is not why anybody remembers it today. “This was the book which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force,” wrote George H. Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. “It was this book which boldly used the word ‘conservatism’ in its title â€” the first such book after 1945. At least as much as any of his contemporaries, Peter Viereck popularized the term ‘conservative’ and gave the nascent movement its label.”
And so conservatism’s naming rights arguably belong to him. Viereck never actually joined the movement, however. When conservatives rallied around Robert A. Taft for president in 1952, in a kind of proto-Goldwater endeavor, Viereck opposed them. He even compared Taft to Robespierre. Two years later, he condemned Joe McCarthy. Then he supported Adlai Stevenson for president. He bought into the liberal academic view espoused by Richard Hofstadter and others that political conservatism was a neurotic form of status anxiety. He spoke of “Midwest hick-Protestant revenge against [the] condescending East” with “the resentment of lower-middle-class Celtic South Boston against Harvard.” In 1956, Frank S. Meyer had this to say in National Review: “Viereck is not the first, nor will he be the last, to succeed in passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism.”
In truth, Viereck didn’t have much taste for the rough and tumble of politics. In a 1953 book, Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, he confessed to being “far more interested in art than politics.” He was in fact an accomplished poet, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. He wrote that he wanted to pursue his vision of conservatism “in the world of literature, arts and sciences, intellectual history, the universities, [and] the humanities.” This was not a bad impulse, and much of modern conservatism’s early efforts were chiefly intellectual. Yet Viereck’s preferred stomping grounds are precisely the areas in which conservatism seems to have had the least influence over the last half century. Just look at the recent winners of the Nobel Prize in literature, or the makeup of your local English department.
The fundamental weakness of Viereck’s conservatism, however, was its disdain of capitalism. In this sense, his brand of conservatism was more aristocratically European than dynamically American. Although Viereck was a strong critic of Communism, he personally preferred a mixed economy to free markets. He once equated “anti-statism” with “plutocracy,” and believed the New Deal was worth preserving. Although the early conservatives were an eclectic bunch, their views on capitalism were broadly libertarian and specifically opposed to the New Deal. Viereck may have given conservatism its name, but his achievement was largely semantic. The job of actually defining conservatism fell to the likes of Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer, who quickly eclipsed Viereck.
In case anyone is feeling generous out there (my birthday is next Thursday) I Have both Viereck’s Conervatism Revisited and Conservative Thinkers : From John Adams to Winston Churchill on my wish list.