Commentary Magazine


The Conscience of a Conservative and Why Not Victory?, by Barry Goldwater

Goldwater: An English View

The Conscience of a Conservative.
by Barry Goldwater.
Macfadden. 127 pp. paperback, $.50.

Why Not Victory?
by Barry Goldwater.
Macfadden. 131 pp. paperback, $.60.

Senator Goldwater's nomination as Republican Presidential candidate automatically transforms his The Conscience of a Conservative (which I see from my copy ran through no less than twenty editions between March 1960, when it was first published, and November 1963) from an ideological curiosity into a significant political document. The same sort of thing, as I well remember, happened with Mein Kampf. One was vaguely aware of its bizarre contents, and then suddenly they became not the ravings of a demented Austrian but the program of a German government.

Not, let me hasten to add, that I am one of those on this side of the Atlantic who incline toward equating the junior Senator from Arizona with the late Fuehrer. The differences between the two (apart from the fact that the Senator is partly Jewish, and well content to be so) are as striking as they are reassuring. A year or so ago I happened to wake up one bright autumn morning in Tucson, Arizona, to find myself looking out of my hotel window straight into the Goldwater emporium there. The name was not as famous then as now, but still struck a chord. I recall reflecting that there was something about the well-stocked window display, the seemly postures of the wax models, which brought comfort to a mind given to brooding on the manias and inanities of politicians. If only Hitler had inherited such a store in Munich! Then surely the world would have been spared some of the more atrocious Nazi excesses.

In any case, I have to admit that there are certain aspects of Mr. Goldwater's triumph at San Francisco which I found highly congenial. Anything which outrages Mr. Walter Lippmann is liable to please me. Whatever puts the teeth of the television pundits on edge (O Chet, where is thy sting?); which gives rise to a wailing and a lamentation in our Printing House, as in your Times Square; which induces a Reston to lift up mute hands to high heaven, and an Alsop to scamper for cover—is to that extent welcome. The late lamented President (toward whom I managed to maintain an attitude well this side of idolatry) was so assiduous in his dealings with these oracles that one could not but rejoice when a new star rose in the political firmament, however transiently, without taking any account of them at all.

Already I am in the Senator's debt for some hearty laughs. The disorder his nomination caused over here among pollsters and other expert political soothsayers was wonderful to behold. Not since General de Gaulle took over in France has there been such disquiet, if not panic, in their ranks. On that occasion there was serious talk in leftist circles, with a nostalgic glance toward the 30's and the Spanish Civil War, of raising an International Brigade to frustrate the anticipated excesses of Algerian colons and generals red in tooth and claw. No one has yet suggested, not even in the Tribune or the New Statesman, that this time an International Brigade should be raised to invade America, capture Mr. Goldwater, and insist on the Republican party nominating Governor Rockefeller or some other figure more worthy of being interviewed on BBC programs like Panorama, made the subject of an Observer profile, and otherwise incorporated in our canon of righteousness and enlightenment.

Short of this, however, reactions have been intense. The London Times's special man at the San Francisco Convention wrote about Mr. Goldwater as though he were a Seventh Day Adventist or Jehovah's Witness who had unaccountably been made an Anglican bishop. One came away from leftist cocktail parties fully expecting to find the fall-out had begun and the streets already running with Strontium B. Voices on the air and coming out of the television screen were grave indeed. If clergymen, when they besought heaven to save us from war, pestilence, and sudden death, did not add the junior Senator from Arizona, their tone of voice indicated that they might well have done so.

_____________

Mr. Goldwater's political ideas, as set forth in The Conscience of a Conservative, scarcely support these alarmist attitudes. They are as flat and banal as a dissertation by a St. Louis business executive to a convention of carbon-paper manufacturers in Atlantic City. Taxes are too high; the federal government has grabbed too much power from the states; foreign aid should be sparingly disbursed, and then only to authentically anti-Communist governments (like Chiang Kai-shek's, one might reflect); no good purpose is served by negotiating with the Soviet bloc countries, from whom American diplomatic recognition should be withdrawn; trade unions are permissible, but only for negotiations with individual managements, not on a national scale; farm subsidies should be abolished, and the laws of supply and demand allowed to operate throughout the economy; the granting of “civil rights” (whatever they may be; the Senator is by no means certain) to Negroes by Congressional legislation may conceivably be desirable, but is clearly unconstitutional, as is federal participation, financial or otherwise, in state education; “welfarism” is both practically inexpedient and morally abhorrent, and should be eschewed; with a ready and plentiful supply of tactical nuclear weapons (to procure which no expense should be spared) America would be in a position not only to maintain the international status quo but to carry the cold war into enemy territory and win it.

There is a kind of glorious audacity in thus flouting so many powerful electoral interests, like the farmers and the trade unionists, normally treated with great ostensible consideration by both parties. Only the Southern racists would seem to be in a position to derive much comfort from the Senator's proposals. They may well acclaim his assertion that he is not prepared to impose his own or any other judgments on “the people of Mississippi or South Carolina” in the knowledge that what the Senator means, in this context, by “the people” is just their own antediluvian selves, and the corrupt, undemocratic Democratic party machine they control.

What Mr. Goldwater is, in effect, proposing is to return to the pre-New Deal America; a journey which, even if he seriously intended to undertake it (as I take leave to doubt, confirmed therein by the Senator's more recent pronouncements at Hershey and elsewhere), would come to grief in the minefields and quicksands lying between now and then. Laissez-faire economics at home and isolationism in foreign policy are just not worth arguing about, for or against, today. They exist, if at all, as a cast in the eye of the beholder. The venerable Mr. Hoover himself would, I am sure, hesitate to recommend such courses.

_____________

If someone as normally astute as Mr. Goldwater has seen fit, nonetheless, to identify himself with attitudes which he must know to be neither intellectually valid nor practically expedient, it can only be because he considers that in the present American temper a Don Quixote image is more appealing than the traditional one of a glad-handing, benevolent, all-purpose politico such as Mr. Nixon adopted, so nearly with success. Here Mr. Goldwater's calculations may not be so far astray. For some years now there has been discernible among the young in America a mood of romantic conservatism, disconcerting, if not shocking, to old subversives from over the ocean like myself making our weary way from one lecture podium to another.

And not only in America. Elsewhere, too, there is a like sense of deep, and potentially turbulent, disenchantment with the assumptions of a “liberal” outlook; above all, with the concept of “progress” as something which is steadily, year by year, unfolding like a soap opera. It afflicts the British Labor party, as Mr. Harold Wilson is well aware; also Herr Willy Brandt and his Social Democrats, losing monotonously to those unpleasing West German economic miracle-makers. De Gaulle is a portent the other way. Who would ever have believed that the French, of all people, could be induced to accept with little friction the personal rule of this portentous man of destiny compared with whom, in certain respects, Mr. Goldwater is a dangerous radical? Yet they have, and the old Gauche Radicale, which governed France so long and so badly, has disappeared, probably forever.

For years conservatism has gone on existing by stealing the clothes of its progressive opponents. Now that stolen wardrobe is threadbare, and the only alternative garments which meet the eye are some old crinolines and frock coats stored away for use as fancy dress. Why not put them on? It makes a change anyway. Probably everyone has to some degree experienced the mood of irritation which fosters such an attitude. The too shrill voices of progressive women, the too thick tweeds and too heavy pipe-smoke of progressive men; the too thin beards of progressive youths and the too tight jeans of progressive girls; excessive confidence in contraceptives, psychiatry, education, Adlai Stevenson, wholewheat bread, and the United Nations. It has all become a kind of orthodoxy, to which Senator Goldwater's more antique brand can be made to seem a possible alternative. How clever of him (or his speech-writer) to proclaim his determination to offer the American electorate a choice, not an echo. I happened to mention this astute slogan to Michael Foot, one of the most agreeable and intelligent of our Labor party leftists. “If only we'd thought of it!” he murmured enviously.

Naturally, it is Mr. Goldwater's views on defense and foreign policy—elaborated in his Why Not Victory?—to which we non-Americans turn with particular concern. Here, we are not just spectators, indignant, dispassionate, or amused according to our fancy, but directly concerned. Would the Senator, if elected President, start a nuclear war? Americans might be surprised at the number of my fellow-countrymen, apparently in possession of their right minds, who are convinced that he would. They believe (sometimes literally) that there is a red switch in the White House which a President can turn on if he has a mind, and, hey, presto! the missiles begin to buzz and atomic explosions to shake the earth. There are still surprisingly few non-Americans (Americans, too, I daresay) who have any idea of how government works in the United States, and of the restrictions on a President's powers; even when he is an F.D.R., let alone a Goldwater.

Why Not Victory?, in any case, proves on examination to be a less alarming document than might have been anticipated. Though the Senator is strong for victory rather than a detente, he studiously, not to say dishonestly, avoids specifying how it can be achieved without precipitating a large-scale nuclear war. Nor is there any question of general mobilization; manpower, one gathers, is to be provided by the Chinese and other oppressed peoples, who will be happy to fight, and if necessary die, in an anti-Communist crusade. Not even to help the revolting Hungarians would the Senator have been prepared to commit a single American soldier. It is liberation by remote control that he recommends; Richard Coeur-de-Lion stays at home, sending his exhortations over the air by Radio Free Holy Land.

Otherwise, the Senator contents himself with repeating all the old Republican shibboleths about foreign aid, recognition of Red China, disarmament, and so on, so vociferously propounded at Convention time, so muted when there is a Republican administration. He lambastes Senator Fulbright for his moderation as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but might more properly have directed his reproaches against his sometime leader, Mr. Eisenhower, who in two terms of office failed to carry out any of the recommendations in Why Not Victory?, though enjoying in the Senate its author's full approbation.

My own guess would be (for what it is worth) that Mr. Gold-water, as President, would find himself irresistibly drawn toward making a so-called “realistic” deal with Mr. Khrushchev. The attainment of power almost invariably involves doing the exact opposite of what was recommended in order to attain it. Thus, de Gaulle pulls France out of Algeria, the English Conservatives disband the British Empire, international Marxism turns into pan-Slav Nationalism. Only lunatics like Hitler do what they say they are going to do, with disastrous consequences. The John Birchers, I should suppose, would get as little joy out of a Goldwater Presidency as American Communists and fellow-travelers would have gotten out of a Henry Wallace one.

The Senator and Mr. Khrushchev would assuredly get along well together. Mr. K likes reactionaries and crackpot millionaires, and cannot abide liberals like Adlai Stevenson or left-wing socialists like the late Aneurin Bevan. The Conscience of a Conservative and Why Not Victory? are much more up his street than, say, the writings of Professor Galbraith, John Strachey, or even Bertrand Russell. I see the two of them having a high old time together by the Black Sea or in the Adirondacks, but comfort myself with the reflection that, whatever mischief they might plot, Lincoln's sublime humility would apply perforce, and perhaps even of purpose, to the Arizonan:

I have been selected to fill an important office for a brief period, and am now, in your eyes, invested with an importance which will soon pass away; but should my administration prove to be a very wicked one, or what is more probable a foolish one, if you, the people, are true to yourselves and the constitution, there is but little harm I can do, thank God.

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