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The Remnant

William F. Buckley, counter-revolutionary.

In the last years of his life, William F. Buckley Jr., who died on February 27 at the age of 82, broke with many of his fellow conservatives by pronouncing the Iraq war a failure and calling for an end to the embargo on Cuba. He even expressed doubt as to whether George W. Bush is really a conservative—and he asked the same about neoconservatives. To Buckley's liberal admirers, these sentiments suggested that the godfather of the Right had, like Barry Goldwater, crept toward the center in his old age. But, in truth, something quite different had happened.

Buckley's success as a movement-builder and founder and editor of National Review required him to accommodate many different kinds of conservatives—from libertarians like Frank Chodorov to traditionalists like Russell Kirk to militant anti-communists like James Burnham—but his own views were, to use a Buckleyism, sui generis. They were not a product of reading Friedrich von Hayek or Leo Strauss, but rather of growing up under the tutelage of his eccentric and domineering father, William Frank (Will) Buckley. Will was, at heart, a counter-revolutionary, battling the forces of atheistic communism, and young Bill's conservatism came from following in his footsteps. He, too, could best be understood as a counter-revolutionary. And, when the revolution came to an end, so too did Buckley's peculiar brand of conservatism.  

WILL BUCKLEY WAS A second-generation Irish Catholic who was born in 1881 and raised in San Diego, Texas, a small border town populated primarily by Mexicans. Will's mother, a devout Catholic, put his education in the hands of the local Basque-born priest. After he earned a law degree from the University of Texas, Will moved across the border to make his fortune as an oilman. He initially stayed out of Mexican politics, taking no position when Victoriano Huerta overthrew and murdered the country's democratically elected president in 1913. But, when rebel generals and peasant leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata took the field against Huerta, threatening to expropriate foreign oil holdings and exact revenge on Mexico's pro-Huerta Catholic hierarchy, Buckley became alarmed. In 1914, when Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to oust Huerta and restore Mexico's fledgling democracy, Buckley sided with Huerta. And, when the rebels ousted Huerta, Buckley funded coups against the new government, aided fleeing priests, and lobbied Washington to intervene against the revolutionaries. In 1921, when one of his agents was caught smuggling guns into Mexico to aid anti- government forces, Buckley was kicked out of the country and his properties were confiscated. Will took his family back to the United States, where he bought an estate in Sharon, Connecticut, and began rebuilding his oil business. Always elegantly attired and squinting through pince-nez, Will Buckley was a reserved parent who was feared as well as loved by his ten children. He was often away on business—he would eventually strike oil again in Venezuela—but, when he was at home, he took a special interest in their education. The Buckley children were home-schooled when they were young and taught by governesses to speak Spanish and French fluently. Will Buckley would recommend books to them in notes he sent home, and he would convey his political views via dinnertime inquisitions.

Will Buckley's experience in Mexico had indelibly shaped his worldview. He saw the Mexican revolutionaries as part of worldwide Bolshevism, and he equated that Bolshevism with anti-Catholicism and opposition to Christianity more broadly. In other words, he saw himself as an opponent of a worldwide movement against capitalism and Christianity.

Outside the United States and Great Britain, he generally preferred the stability of authoritarian rule to democracy, and he thought Wilson's crusade to make the world safe for democracy was deluded. During the Spanish Civil War, he enthusiastically backed authoritarian Catholic Francisco Franco. In the late '30s, he was a fervent isolationist and supporter of America First. Buckley not only opposed entangling America in another European war, but he also wanted the United States to stand aside and allow Hitler to defeat the Soviet Union, which, according to a visitor to the Buckley home, he saw as "an infinitely greater threat than Nazi Germany."

Will Buckley's views resembled those of European or Latin American Catholic conservatives. But he was also a Texan and a successful buccaneer capitalist who disdained government regulation and celebrated individualism. A favorite American writer was Albert Jay Nock, the author of Our Enemy the State and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, whom he periodically invited to his Sharon estate. Although Nock was a libertine and a foe of organized religion, Buckley treasured him for his views of government and the individual. The highbrow Nock saw the state as a creature of the "mass-man" and himself and people like Will Buckley as members of a small and select "remnant" (a term from the Book of Isaiah) who possessed "the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the human life." Nock affirmed, and vindicated, Buckley's sense of himself as an outsider—a Texas Catholic in Yankee Protestant Sharon, a proponent of free markets during the New Deal '30s—and a rebel. When the Buckley children grew up, they retained their father's view of a global contest between Christian individualism and atheistic communism and of themselves as members of a Nockian counter-revolutionary remnant. That would be particularly true of Bill.

WILL BUCKLEY DIDN'T RAISE HIS children to be oilmen. Instead, he conveyed to them the higher value he placed upon spiritual, moral, and intellectual pursuits. Bill, the sixth of the ten children, showed from a very early age that he was determined to be exactly the child his father wanted. When Bill was born, he was named William Francis Buckley Jr., because there was no saint named Frank. But, when he was five, he announced that he would henceforward be called "William Frank Buckley Jr." exactly like his father. In 1938, his father sent the younger children, including Bill, to English boarding schools so that, he told them, they could learn to speak more clearly. Alone among the Buckley children, Bill returned to Sharon a year later with an English accent. Bill also adopted many of his father's mannerisms, including his hauteur, leading his oldest sister to dub him "the young mahster."

And, of course, Bill took on his father's political views. He and the other Buckley children published their own local newspaper, The Spectator, in which they championed America First in Anglophile, pro-intervention Sharon. He called his small sailboat "Sweet Isolation." When Bill was 17 and a senior at the Millbrook School, he read Memoirs of a Superfluous Man and declared it his favorite book. Like Nock and his father, he became a right-wing anti-statist who blamed modern liberalism for inducing an artificial and ruinous equality. And, like them, he began to think of himself as an outsider and as a member of the remnant.

Buckley repeatedly reverted to the metaphor of the remnant in describing the difficulties that he and his fellow conservatives faced. In the first issue of National Review, which appeared in November 1955, he wrote that the magazine "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Buckley saw himself and his editors as "non-licensed nonconformists"—a term usually reserved for left-wing Bohemians. And, in a December 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, he described himself not as a status quo conservative but as "a revolutionary against the present liberal order" advocating a "counterrevolution [that] would aim at overturning the revised view of society pretty well brought in by FDR."

Like his father, Buckley saw Christianity and individualism arrayed against atheism and international socialism in a contest of good against evil. In his first book, God and Man at Yale, which appeared in 1951, he wrote, "I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level." The next year, Buckley discovered in Witness, the autobiography of former communist Whittaker Chambers, the same understanding of the struggle against communism as "a great war of faith."

After his father, Chambers had perhaps the greatest influence on Buckley's political views. Buckley learned from Chambers to balance his own deepest moral convictions against the exigencies of practical politics, but those convictions remained intact over the years. In 1983, Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter, Tony Dolan, a protege whom Buckley had recommended for the position, sent him a letter complaining of criticisms being leveled against Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." Buckley replied that "the question really is whether a vocabulary that does not take into account the anti-Christ is suitable to define such convolutions as we are engaged in. There is no more difficult a point to communicate in a world essentially secular which simply thinks of the Soviet Union as another society given to occasional spasms of barbarism." A week later, Dolan, buoyed by Buckley's response, would have Reagan call the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the modern world."  

AS CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGED, however, Buckley lost the basis for his counter- revolutionary agenda. In 1955, Buckley could understandably feel himself part of a small, embattled political minority. He could also envisage the United States losing its battle with the Soviet Union. But, when Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Buckley could no longer conceive of himself as part of a beleaguered remnant. Instead, his views of government and the individual now commanded the support of a large minority, or even a majority, of Americans. Similarly, when the Soviet Union fell in the early '90s, Buckley could no longer imagine himself engaged in "a great war of faith." To Buckley's credit, he clearly acknowledged these changes. In an interview last year with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he said: We've accomplished an enormous amount historically in the last 50 years. We emerged from the Second World War gravely threatened at many levels; threatened by a kind of an attitudinal socialism, which I think we have fought through successfully. ... There is no Soviet threat. ... A lot of problems continue. ... But the fact of the matter is that what we have accomplished is signal, important, and enduring, and under those circumstances, conservatives can legitimately take some pride in what has happened. Buckley chided conservatives or neoconservatives who refused to recognize that circumstances had changed—who invoked the old bogeymen or invented new ones. And, like his father, he rejected new foreign interventions in the name of a revived Wilsonian crusade for democracy. After visiting Cuba, Buckley wrote in 1998: Many senior members of the antiCommunist community have been ... affected by the inertial pull of yesteryear's anti-Communism. We were right, back then, to oppose Castro as a regional agent of the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he is merely: one more evil dictator. As despicable as Papa Doc, as obnoxious as Trujillo. But we aren't any longer in the business of sending in Marines to go after local tyrants. John Quincy Adams reminded us that though we are friends of liberty everywhere, we are custodians only of our own.

Buckley initially backed George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq because he believed Dick Cheney's warnings about a nuclear-armed Saddam. But he saw the "Wilsonian aspect" of the invasion as "misguided."

Buckley had not ceased, however, to be a conservative. He retained his Nockian anti-statism and his dislike for egalitarianism. "Anything that seeks to propound the theory of equality other than in the eyes of God is, in my judgment, unnatural," he declared. He told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Nock would have regarded the "excesses" of government power and spending as "major, major mistakes." In one of his last newspaper columns, Buckley warned Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of the perils of "omnipotent government." What changed over the last two decades is that Buckley ceased to be a counter- revolutionary. He finally abandoned the conservatism of his father for the more conventional conservatism of the free market and the avoidance of ambitious foreign entanglements. As he lost his earlier fervor, he gradually withdrew from politics. Even when he wrote of politics, as he did of the recent debates between Obama and Clinton, he did so from a distant and dispassionate perch. He gave up the editorship of National Review and ended "Firing Line." While spending a few hours on his column each week, he devoted himself primarily to writing spy stories and memoirs and to listening to and playing music. That change didn't diminish Buckley's earlier achievements. It was simply a recognition that, as far as the project that his father had undertaken after 1914, and that he had continued as his own, his job had been done. John B. Judis, a tnr senior editor, is the author of William F. Buckley, Jr. : Patron Saint of the Conservatives, which is available in paperback.

John B. Judis, a TNR senior editor, is the author of William F. Buckley, JR.: Patron Saint of Conservatives, which is available in paperback. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.