William F. Buckley, Jr.’s greatest triumph was over Communism, that cruel system of “Liberalism in a hurry” which enslaved half the world, cowed half the rest, and thoroughly poisoned the high intellectual endeavors of man down to this very day.
In his lifetime this wicked system was overthrown, and praise God for it. The walls came tumbling down. So upon learning of the great man’s death, I thought it proper to return to his work under this head — to his work back before it was a triumph but rather an arduous struggle, demanding intellect, dexterity and perseverance. It was these, exercised by Buckley and all the great Cold warriors, which made the triumph possible.
His reputation as a hardliner was well earned. It was earned above all in the cauldron of domestic American politics, that is, against his countrymen who differed with him in their basic estimate of the Communist threat. Some examples:
In 1961, Buckley quoted a Liberal columnist, John Crosby by name: “Are we going to wipe out two and a half billion years of slow biological improvement in thermonuclear war? ... [And after all] Communism ... is not that bad, and some day we’re going to have to face up to that.” Communism is not that bad. The phrase was common on the American Left, and this should not be forgotten. Buckley answers: “Mr. Cosby appears to have substituted for the American slogan ‘give me liberty or give me death’ the slogan ‘John Crosby is too young to die.’ ”
Or consider this broadside against James Wechsler, editor of the New York Post, at a debate in the late 1950s:
I cannot think of a single word James Wechsler, a spokesman for American liberalism and a product of it, has ever uttered, or a deed he has done, that could be proved to have given comfort to the slaves behind the Iron Curtain, whose future as slaves would be as certain in a world governed by James Wechsler as the future of slaves in Atlanta would have been in an America governed by Jefferson Davis.
Or again, back to the 1961 speech: “And Mr. Kenneth Tynan, the English critic, agrees [with Cosby]. ‘Better Red than dead,” he writes, “seems an obvious doctrine for anyone not consumed by a death-wish: I wish rather to live on my knees than die on my knees.” Well [continues Buckley, one imagines with that playful twinkle in his eye], assuming it is death toward which we are headed as a result of our determination to stay free, let it be said that Mr. Tynan would not need to die on his knees. He could die standing up, like those of his ancestors who died at Runnymede, at Agincourt, at Hastings, at Dunkirk, fighting for the freedom of their descendents to exhibit their moral idiocy.”
We have here before us, in a sense, the very Verdict of History being read. Buckley was right, and the Liberals were wrong. More precisely: Buckley was right, and the Liberals who weren’t wrong, joined him. We call them neoconservatives now. The rest were wrong.
And that Buckley’s words and deeds did certainly give comfort to the slaves behind the Iron Curtain is demonstrated by his reception in Eastern Europe after the walls came down:
Eighteen years ago he and I [John O’Sullivan, former Editor of National Review] were here on a National Review Institute political tour of Eastern Europe. This was only a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the “velvet revolutions.” Because of Bill’s leadership in the anti-Communist and conservative movements, everyone wanted to meet him. New ministers, heads of new political parties, and editors of old national newspapers (with new editorial lines) told him of how they had read smuggled copies of NR during the years that the Communist regime condemned them to work as stokers and quarry-men.
It is very easy to forget how unpopular anti-Communism was with the intelligentsia of the West. It is very easy to falsify the drama of the Cold War by the pretense that there was ideological unity at home. In fact there was a whole movement of men, the primary spring of whose politics was alarm at the stridency of the adversaries of Communism. It is still true that our intellectuals wring their hands in shame at the ghastly Black List. Just last week I turned on PBS to behold some of the old moping — this time about poor Pete Seeger, banished from network television for 17 years for being a commie. O the humanity! It is still true that sympathy for Communism is no bar to laudatory celebrity or professional advancement. Lunatic tyrants like Che Guevara and Chairman Mao really are still admired by popular ignoramuses.
But there was Buckley, back when all this folly and blindness was much stronger, calling upon his countrymen to “keep kindled the hope that, God willing, the sun will shine again on quarters of the globe which are under the long shadow of the dark and dusty corner of the British Musuem where Karl Marx worked, developing his spite against humankind.”
Thank you, Mr. Buckley (were this a speech, my voice would crack), for kindling in us that hope. As with all great Conservatives, it was gratitude that moved him. A true patriot and Christian man is gone, and — in the sort of language he loved — we are bereft. Requiescat in pace.
The quotes in this post are all taken from Buckley’s collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things (pictured above), a fine introduction to him as a writer and a man. I don’t see why every American shouldn’t own this book.