An Intellectual History of the Neoconservative Movement

Title: They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons
Author: Jacob Heilbrunn
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2008
Pages: 320 including nine pages of notes and twenty for the index

Jacob Heilbrunn says his book is "an attempt to look at the mental world the neoconservatives have inhabited for decades." A writer for the conservative New Republic magazine, he admits he was once attracted to neoconservatism. Now, after the disastrous neocon-driven foreign policy of George W. Bush, he seems disillusioned.

They Knew They Were Right is an intellectual history of a movement that began as a group of Marxist, anti-Stalinist political agitators. It evolved over eighty years into its present day incarnation as a collection of think-tank ideologues, pundits and propagandists who earn their bread exaggerating the nuclear threat Americans face from Muslims living on the other side of the earth. Their names are familiar to readers of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Washington Post: William Kristol, Max Boot, Robert Kagan, David Brooks, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer and many others. In an earlier life the neoconservative movement exaggerated the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union with an unrelenting fearmongering campaign. That campaign had the effect of frustrating international nonproliferation and arms-limitation agreements. When the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight in the 1990s, the neocon exaggerations were exposed for all to see.

Heilbrunn, son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, acknowledges that neoconservatism is an almost exclusively Jewish movement. To his credit, he does not dismiss opposition to neoconservatism with the smear of anti-Semitism.

The Trotskyist Beginnings

The origins of neoconservatism are found in the Jewish immigrant community of New York in the 1920s and 1930s. To understand these origins we need to understand the mindset of those immigrants, nearly all of whom had fled social, political and economic turmoil of eastern Europe and Russia. All were eager and ambitious to make a new life in America. Many were highly educated and skilled. Many had families that had been profoundly affected by the Russian revolution and felt strongly about political developments there. Many were appalled that Stalin, rather than Trotsky, had seized power after the death of Lenin in 1924.[1]

Heilbrunn's narrative begins with the organizer Max Schachtman, a Polish emigre who had been mentored into US radicalism by James P. Cannon, founder of the American Communist Party. However, because of their Trotskyist heresy, Schachtman and Cannon were expelled from that organization and formed their own, the Communist League of America. Schachtman brought a number of New York intellectuals into the movement including Irving Howe, the literary critic, and Irving Kristol, who would later be known as a "godfather" of neoconservatism. Other New York intellectuals sympathetic to the Trotskyist cause at the time were Gertrude Himmelfarb, Melvin Lasky, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling and Daniel Bell. The City College of New York was prime recruiting ground for both Trotskyists and Stalinists. Intellectual combat took place between the two groups over tables in the CCNY cafeteria.

Schachtman split with Cannon over the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland and formed his own organization. Heilbrunn writes:

[Schachtman] developed a theory of Stalinism as the ideology of a parasitic bureaucratic class that had corrupted pure socialism. This theory would later be transmuted by Irving Kristol into the idea of a "new class" of intellectuals that emerged in the 1960s and that contributed nothing productive to society. Indeed Kristol's argument would form the basis for neoconservative theory.

WWII threw the movement into confusion and discord. Some opposed US entry into a war represented by Roosevelt, regarded as the savior of capitalism. Some opposed entering the war on the side of Stalin. Others believed FDR should act on behalf of persecuted European Jews. Schachtman and Kristol opposed entering the war; Melvin Lasky supported it.

Heilbrunn explains what developed after the war.

For the Jewish intellectuals it was America, not Israel, that remained central. The neocons (though they did not yet own the name) had spent most of their lives in the wilderness. With prophetic austerity they had opposed capitalism and were equally contemptuous of both major political parties. Now they were confronted with a profoundly transformed situation--the United States had won the war. Socialism was defeated. The American economy was thriving. Harry Truman, against the almost unanimous advice of the foreign policy establishment, recognized a Jewish state. Except among the diehards, the socialist dream had already expired. Now the Jewish intellectuals made their spiritual way back from Moscow or Barcelona to New York. They had always been anti-Stalinists. Now, somewhat to their own surprise, they became anticommunists....

Neocons In the Cold War Years

Starting slowly in the 1950s, neoconservatism developed on two fronts: one based in New York and the other in Chicago. On the New York front the voice of the movement became Commentary magazine, founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945 and edited by Norman Podhoretz from 1960 to 1995. Podhoretz, who was mentored by Lionel Trilling of Columbia University, is known as the second "godfather" of neoconservatism. Other neocon magazines that came later were The New Republic, bought by Martin Peretz in 1974, and The Weekly Standard, started up in 1995 by William Kristol, son of Irving Kristol. The New York front was highly ethnocentric, strongly favoring Jewish interests worldwide and supporting Zionism and strong ties between the US and Israel.

Prominent at the other front were two quite different professors at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter. Strauss (d. 1974) was a professor of political philosophy and interpreter of ancient political texts written by Plato, Maimonides, Machiavelli and others. He taught a number of graduate students who became prominent members of the neoconservative movement as well as influential government officials.

Heilbrunn tells us that what Strauss actually believed is hard to discern, but that he was "skeptical of the abilities of the majority of citizens to rise above the intellectual idols of their time and commune with the greatest philosophers."

Here's what Heilbrunn doesn't tell us. Strauss's name is frequently associated with the Platonic concept of the "noble lie" and the belief that society is best ruled by an elite of well-meaning figures who control the masses with well-intentioned lies that facilitate social well-being and harmony. The historian Arthur Schlesinger says that

[Strauss] taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions. He approved of Plato's "noble lies," disliked much of modern life, and believed that a Straussian elite in government would in time overcome feelings of persecution.

People who subscribe to this sort of thinking are sometimes called "Straussians." Obviously a Straussian society would be non-democratic: authoritarian at best and possibly totalitarian. Many of Strauss's disciples (and their disciples) seem to be Straussians, but it's not clear whether Strauss himself was a Straussian.

Notable students of Strauss include:

Allan Bloom, who wrote a 1987 best-selling book entitled The Closing of the American Mind, which deplored the state of American higher education and blamed it on a relativist culture of the masses and liberal influences from the 1960s;

Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration and architect of the Iraq War; and,

Abram Shulsky, a member of George W. Bush's Office of Special Plans, which prepared intentionally misleading intelligence reports suggesting Iraq was building nuclear weapons and had connections to Al Qaeda.[2]

The other neocon luminary at U. Chicago was Albert Wohlstetter (d. 1997), a Strangelovean figure who almost single-handedly defined US Cold War nuclear weapons strategy. He opposed nonproliferation and arms-limitation treaties, preferring that the US build a massive deterrent and retaliation capability instead. With his protege Richard Perle he exercised unparalleled influence over US defense policy through his position at the RAND Corporation and his association with Senator Henry Jackson. Not surprisingly, the military-industrial lobbies welcomed his advocacy for more, bigger and better nuclear weapons. Wohlstetter and Perle grew rich as a result.

It was the connection with Henry Jackson that gave the neocons their first hold onto real political power and influence in the 1950s. Jackson was a Democrat from the state of Washington and the Senate's leading cold warrior. He opposed all efforts to negotiate weapons reductions with the Soviets and favored a (nuclear-based) missile defense system known as ABM. (Heilbrunn doesn't mention it, but Jackson represented the home state of the Boeing Corporation, a major military contractor that stood to benefit from massive government spending on nuclear weapons delivery systems.) Jackson's main staff adviser on foreign policy was Dorothy Fosdick, daughter of a minister. Fosdick's views on the Soviet Union had been shaped to a large extent by anti-Soviet (and Islamophobic) academics such as Bernard Lewis and Richard Pipes. Also, Fosdick and Jackson were both passionate about maintaining a strong Israel to perpetuate the greatness of Jewish traditions. So it is not surprising that two gentiles, Jackson and Fosdick, hit it off so well with Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Perle and other neocons of that era. Heilbrunn says that it was Fosdick's influence, rather than ethnocentrism, that caused Perle to become such an intrepid champion of Israel.

Jackson used his considerable influence to put Perle and Wohlstetter on the front lines of his fight to build an aggressive US military policy towards the Soviet Union. Their opponents in this fight were the arms controllers and "realists." Kissinger and Nixon were at the top of their enemies list. Jackson called attention to the difficulty that Jews had in emigrating from the Soviet Union and in 1973 introduced the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which required the Soviets to ease their emigration restrictions for Jews in return for getting most-favored-nation trade status. Kissinger was furious because it frustrated his attempts to reach arms control agreements with the Soviets.

Jackson-Vanik had the effect of uniting the Perle-Wohlstetter branch of neocons with the Kristol-Podhoretz-Commentary branch and of bringing the power of AIPAC, the Israel Lobby, into the game on the side of the neocons.

The war between the neocons and the foreign policy realists raged through he 1970s and 1980s. On one side were Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (for a while), Donald Rumsfeld, and Ronald Reagan (for a while). On the other side were Nixon, Kissinger, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

While these political battles were going on, Irving Kristol was leading the neocons out of the Democrat Party and into the GOP. Heilbrunn says Kristol maintained a sort of neocon employment service, placing young neocons in important government and think-tank positions. He cultivated the extreme right wing billionaires and their foundations and think tanks in order to influence policy. He got the director of the American Enterprise Institute fired for entertaining criticism of Israel. He also advanced the careers of his own son, William Kristol, who became chief-of-staff to VP Dan Quayle, and the son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz, Elliot Abrams, who advised Ronald Reagan (and was convicted of lying to Congress). Heilbrunn writes:

For Irving Kristol, the Reagan revolution was the culmination of a war against liberalism that he had been waging for decades, and it marked the first moment that the neoconservatives enjoyed a real entree to power. Kristol had helped popularize the idea of supply-side (or trickle-down) economics, which maintained that the more government lowered taxes, the greater entrepeneurialism and investment it would trigger, thereby increasing general wealth (and government revenues). Later Kristol acknowledged that he was uncertain about the economic merits of the idea, but quite sure of its political utility. He also championed the alliance brokered by Reagan between mainstream conservatives and the religious right, which he said was the staunchest friend of Israel.

In his pandering to the religious right, Kristol wrote in the New York Times that Darwinism was simply a "theory," a "hypothesis" and far "from an established scientific scientific fact." (Such a statement, in my view, says more about Kristol than it does about evolution. It says that Kristol was not a member of the reality-based community and that he was lying about his own beliefs. Kristol, an educated, brilliant man, always surrounded by similar individuals, knew that evolution was established scientific fact and that those who believed otherwise were ignoramuses, likely swayed by Christian fundamentalism.)

Neocons got a foothold early in the Reagan administration with the appointments of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliot Abrams, Max Kampelmann, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. They supported Reagan's SDI and hard-line negotiating positions relative to the Soviets, but lost influence and fell out of favor as soon as Reagan actually began to negotiate disarmament with Gorbachev.

When George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan, the neocons were dismayed that foreign policy was turned over to realists such as James Baker. The neocons loved Gulf War I, but criticized GHWB for not removing Saddam Hussein from power. They also protested vociferously when the president balked at giving Israel loan guarantees for building illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

During the Clinton years the neocons held few policy positions so they spent their energy purging the GOP of isolationist sentiment. They worked assiduously to undo the Oslo Accords, signed by Rabin and Arafat in 1993. They welcomed US involvement in the Yugoslavian war. Richard Perle and Douglas Feith served as advisers to the Bosnian government.

George W. Bush came as a godsend to the neocons. Bush's VP, Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, were well acquainted and in full agreement with neocon precepts. Paul Wolfowitz became Undersecretary of Defense; Douglas Feith became his deputy; Richard Perle got the chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board and Elliot Abrams (pardoned by Bush Sr.) was made a special assistant to the president. Lewis Libby got the job of chief-of-staff to the vice president. (It is notable that none of these five warmongers ever spent a day in a uniform of the US military. Heilbrunn doesn't mention this fact.)

Neocons in the Iraq War

The GWB administration got off to a running start in preparing for a pre-emptive war against Iraq, a country already paralyzed by a siege that had been in effect since Gulf War I. Neocons in and out of the administration went into overdrive manufacturing a political case for expanding US military presence in the Middle East. Less than a year into Bush's term, the 9/11 incident and the anthrax mailings put the country into a state of hysterical fear. The neocon advisers capitalized on that hysteria by claiming that Saddam Hussein had connections to Islamic terrorism and the 9/11 attack. Also, they claimed he was developing nuclear and biological weapons for attacking the US and its allies. The only way to end the terrorist threat, the Bush administration said, was war against Saddam.

It is now known that a cabal of neocons, operating in the "Office of Special Plans" under the direction of Douglas Feith, had fabricated intelligence for consumption by Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush. The intelligence they fabricated was completely wrong. Saddam had no nuclear weapons, no biological weapons, no uranium from Niger, no connection to al Qaeda and no connection with the terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11. Neocons with hands-on involvement in the cooking of intelligence included William Luti, Abram Shulsky and David Schenker. Karen Kwiatkowski, a non-neocon who was inadvertently thrown in with these characters, has written a first hand account of her association with the OSP. Heilbrunn dismisses Kwiatkowski as something of a crackpot and links her to Lyndon Larouche. This treatment diminishes Heilbrunn's credibility, not Kwiatkowski's.[3]

As everyone knows, the Iraq occupation turned into a bloody and costly disaster for everyone involved except the military-industrial contractors. Wolfowitz, Feith and Rumsfeld were fired. The pre-war intelligence was revealed to be phony. Ahmed Chalabi, our intended puppet leader of Iraq, turned out to be a neocon imposter and gave his former handlers the finger once he'd begun his new life in Iraq. Lewis Libby was convicted of lying to a grand jury in trying to hide Cheney's skulduggery, and to everybody's surprise, was not pardoned when Bush left office.

One might think that, as of 2008, the neoconservative movement was dead, but Heilbrunn thinks otherwise. He points out that Robert Kagan is a columnist at the Washington Post, William Kristol is at the New York Times and that neocon mouthpiece The Weekly Standard is still thriving. Eliot Cohen, a neocon who wrote a vituperative Washington Post article excoriating the Walt/Mearsheimer Israel Lobby book, was appointed as counselor to Condoleeza Rice. More importantly, he notes that Bush chose to go with the neocon idea for a "surge" in Iraq rather than with the "realist" plan of James Baker and Lee Hamilton. The surge plan was written by neocons Frederick (brother of Robert) Kagan, Michael Rubin, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Danielle Pletka.

Comments on They Knew They Were Right

Except for problems with the OSP, They Knew They Were Right is a generally honest and fair account of the eighty-year evolution of the neoconservative ideology.[3] But today US domestic and foreign polices are not driven by ideologies. Maybe policy was driven by ideologies in the days when Trotskyists were debating Stalinists in the CCNY cafeteria. But in those days the neocons (or rather, their precursors) had no significant influence, so they were merely talking to each other about ideas. They were not effecting change in society or the world. Likewise, when Leo Strauss held court at the University of Chicago, he and his students analyzed thousand-year-old philosophical texts and discussed them among themselves. But who cared?

It was not until the New York Trotskyists and the Chicago Straussians found financial sponsors that they got influence and power. Their first sponsor was the nuclear weapons industry, which profited from stable and growing business enterprises manufacturing H-bombs, ballistic missiles, surveillance satellites, tactical nukes and radar-evading bombers. Albert Wohlstetter and Richard Perle gave them the arguments they needed--the talking points--to get funding. Their talking points emphasized the implacability and dishonesty of the Soviets, the need for a massive deterrence capability and the inadvisability of disarmament or even negotiations. The nuclear weapons industry, as well as Wohlstetter and Perle, grew rich by exaggerating the Soviet threat.

The neoconservatives' second sponsor was the Israel Lobby, which became a significant political force after the 1967 Six Day War. The neoconservative movement, dominated by Jews, was perfectly suited to do for the Israel Lobby what it had done for nuclear weapons lobbies. They gave the Israel Lobby the talking points it needed to get the US taxpayer to finance Israel's military buildup and to protect Israel's aggression diplomatically at the UN and elsewhere. Neoconservative talking points emphasized the implacability and dishonesty of the Arabs and Persians, the need for a massive Israeli deterrence capability and the inadvisability of any concessions to Palestinian demands for civil rights or human rights. The neocons found good jobs and job training at the numerous Israel Lobby think tanks and front groups. They used these jobs as stepping-stones to careers in government and the media.

US foreign policy and US domestic legislation are determined by the power of monied special interests, not ideology. A deficiency of They Knew They Were Right is its failure to follow the money. If it had, it might be able to tell us how much the neocons adjusted their ideology in order to gain power and wealth.

A second deficiency is the failure to acknowledge the extreme Islamophobia of leading neocons. Let's get real here. The hatred that Norman Podhoretz expresses toward Palestinians and Iranians is worse than any hatred I ever heard expressed for African-Americans when I was growing up white in the segregated South. Likewise, the Islamophobia of academics Bernard Lewis, Richard Pipes and Daniel Pipes is never mentioned. What is troubling is that the neocons, in their pandering to the GOP and Christian fundamentalists, encourage anti-Arab bigotry to deflect criticism of US and Israeli policy in the ongoing Middle East wars. It seems that the neocons, in their cynical view of white southerners (who make up the bulk of dependable GOP voters), assume that since southerners are bigots already, their bigotry can easily be redirected toward the swarthy enemies of Israel.

A third deficiency is extremely minor; maybe so minor it isn't a deficiency. I think Heilbrunn should answer this question to satisfy the curiosity of his readers. Why do so many neocons come to us as whole families rather than as individuals? I mention here the Wohlstetters: Irving and Roberta; the Kristols: Irving, William and Gertrude Himmelfarb; the Kagans: Donald, Robert, Frederick and Kimberly; and of course the Podhoretzes: Norman, John, Midge Decter and Elliot Abrams. Maybe there's an obvious explanation, but I don't see it.


[1] In 1917 Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, resigned and his authority was replaced by a somewhat democratic government headed by Alexander Kerensky. In 1918 the Bolsheviks, led by the charismatic Vladimir Lenin, overthrew Kerensky in what is known as the October Revolution. Their first act was to withdraw Russian armies from the WWI fighting. (They also murdered the former Czar and his family.) A bloody civil war ensued and the Bolsheviks put down a rebellion by opposition groups known collectively as the Whites. By 1920 Lenin had consolidated Bolshevik control over what became known as the Soviet Union.

Lenin was disabled by a stroke in 1922 and died in 1924. During Lenin's reign, Leon Trotsky, a Jew, served as the Bolshevik foreign minister and later as founder and organizer of the Red Army. In the power struggle following Lenin's death, Trotsky lost out to Joseph Stalin, who expelled him from the Soviet Union in 1929. Trotsky eventually settled in Mexico, where he campaigned internationally for overthrow of the Stalinist regime. Stalin's agent Ramon Mercador assassinated Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940.

[2] For a long list of Strauss's students who've held influential government positions, see Ann Norton's book Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire, Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 16-20.

[3] Heilbrunn skirts around the issue of whether the OSP faked the intelligence. What they did, obviously, was to prepare talking points for higher ups justifying a pre-emptive war against Iraq. They must have been explicitly or implicitly told to do this. So they reviewed raw intelligence reports. If a raw item suggested Saddam had nukes, they included it, ignoring any mention of the unreliability of the source or implausibility of the source's claims. They did not include any items that suggested Saddam did not have nukes. This practice was called "cherry picking" in the media. Cherry picking is a form of lying. Heilbrunn goes into a long discussion of whether Leo Strauss preached deception and whether Strauss's student, OSP leader Abram Shulsky, was following the Straussian philosophy. This is all unknowable and relatively unimportant.

In his Acknowledgments, Heilbrunn says Douglas J. Feith was "most generous" with his time, "even while serving in the Defense Department." Feith, no doubt, would be livid at the mention of Karen Kwiatkowski and would do everything in his power to impugn her credibility. Nowhere does Heilbrunn mention communicating with Kwiatkowski. It seems safe to assume Heilbrunn only heard Feith's version of this story. Big mistake.