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The Forgotten Conservative

September 22, 2009

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The Forgotten Conservative

A once prominent name has been erased from the history of the American Right after World War II. Readers of National Review in the late 1950s and early ‘60s would have found it difficult to miss the contributions of Revilo P. Oliver, among the most frequent book reviewers for the magazine. Oliver, who taught at the University of Illinois and read 11 languages, including Sanskrit, was a classical philologist of great distinction, and his articles for the magazine displayed his remarkable erudition.

Oliver was a close friend of the founder and editor of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley went sailing with him and described him in Cruising Speed as “without exception the single most erudite man” he had ever met. But their friendship faced a difficulty that could not be overcome. Oliver joined the John Birch Society at its inception in 1958 and served on its National Council. After an initial period of wariness, Buckley repudiated the Birch Society, in particular the claim by its founder Robert Welch that President Eisenhower was an agent of the Communist conspiracy.

Oliver after this falling out made American Opinion, a monthly journal sponsored by Welch, his principal outlet for political writing. He continued to review books, on an even more extensive scale than he had done for Buckley. His articles there included learned discussions of Oswald Spengler and Eric Voegelin. He wrote a special issue of the magazine, An Introduction to the Contemporary History of Latin America, which made clear that he had the history of every nation of that region at his command. He also bore primary responsibility for the annual Scoreboard issue, which estimated the extent of Communist influence for each nation in the world. Often, these estimates struck skeptics as absurdly high; the United States, for example, regularly scored over 60 percent!

Oliver was thus a presence, if a controversial one, among American conservatives. But one would never know this if one consults most standard accounts of the period. George Nash, the author of the best known survey, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, makes no mention of Oliver, and the just published book of Patrick Allitt, The Conservatives, also omits him. (Honorable exceptions include Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming, The Conservative Movement, and Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind.)

Why has Oliver been dropped from the picture? The answer is not far to seek. Oliver became more and more controversial, and after the mid-1960s proved too extreme even for Welch. In February 1964, he wrote “Marxmanship in Dallas” that advanced as one hypothesis for the Kennedy assassination that the Communists killed Kennedy “because he was planning to turn American.” Though this was in fact the view that Oliver considered the least likely of the three hypotheses he considered, it understandably provoked a widespread angry reaction. It was too soon after the assassination for such mordantly negative opinions of Kennedy. Matters did not improve when Oliver acquitted himself poorly in testimony before the Warren Commission. It transpired that he could not support the more extreme allegations of his assassination articles; often, he had relied on dubious inferences from unreliable newspaper sources. Perhaps, though, he was reluctant to go into details before a hostile audience.

Oliver and the John Birch Society came to a final parting in July 1966, after a speech by Oliver, “Conspiracy or Degeneracy?” which he delivered at the New England rally for God, Family, and Country. In this talk, Oliver asked whether the failure adequately to confront Western decline stemmed more from biological degeneracy or conspiracies that aim at our destruction. Suggesting that the former was more likely, he asked his audience to imagine that the Jews, a group he held in the forefront of the anti-Western conspiracy, “were vaporized at dawn tomorrow.” Would not the problems that had led to the present crisis, Oliver thought, soon recur? He was taken by hostile critics to have called for the extermination of the Jews, though this was not what he had said. Nevertheless, his position in the Society became untenable, and, after a bitter break with Welch, he resigned.

In the years after that, until his death in 1994, he became more strident, reveling in coarse terms of ethnic abuse that comported oddly with his eminence as a classical scholar. The Jews had become for him the chief enemy, and in his posthumous work The Jewish Strategy, he claimed that we are now in the “third stage” of the Jewish onslaught, which has as its goal the killing of all Gentiles. He became, as he had not been in earlier times, a fervent supporter of Adolf Hitler and praised the “clear-sighted realism” of Reinhard Heydrich.

Given the record of his later years, it is small wonder that contemporary conservatives prefer to ignore Oliver. To do so, though, is a serious mistake; his thought continues to raise issues of vital concern to the Right. Particularly worthy of study is his article, “Conservatism and Reality,” which appeared in Modern Age (Fall 1961). Telling us that “politics is the art of the possible,” Oliver opposes attempts to plan an ideal society that, necessarily, cannot command a consensus. Plato, “the greatest of all political theorists” had been careful to state the “precisely delimited scope” of his political writings, but later philosophers often ignored Plato’s wisdom, seeking to bring about a society in full conformity with their ideals.

For Oliver, this striving for the ideal cannot succeed.

I do not deprecate metaphysical thought, of which I am the first to vindicate the necessity, but I do suggest that when conservatives undertake to formulate a political doctrine, they will do well to give priority to thought about problems within the very narrow range of what is now possible.

Attempts to base conservatism on Christianity, Oliver argues, fail this test. Christians dispute among themselves the doctrines of their faith, and no version of Christianity commands consensus. If there is to be an Established Church, what would be its doctrines?  (In fact, as his later writings made evident, Oliver bitterly opposed Christianity; for him, the Bible was “the Jew-book.” He did not disclose this aspect of his thought until his later period.)

If a viable American conservatism cannot be based on Christianity, what is the alternative? One possibility would be to say that, because of the severity of the threats to Western survival, we need a dictator to assume extraordinary powers. Oliver is tempted by such an appeal to the “centripetal power,” and he elsewhere mentioned Amaury de Riencourt, The Coming Caesars, as an example of this view.

But to rely on a dictator is dangerous; why assume that the centripetal power will be exercised in a way favorable to the Right? Instead, Oliver suggests, conservatives should rally round the Constitution as the embodiment of our traditional way of life against alien assaults. “A majority of the American people, despite the best efforts of our educators and publicists, retain a deep respect and an emotional attachment for the Constitution.” The task of contemporary American conservatives is “to devise strategy and to formulate, on the only available basis, the principles of our Constitution, a realistic and rational patriotism.  .  . Our task is to defend Rome.” (Incidentally, at one point the legendary Oliver erudition lapses: he wrongly refers to Thaddeus Stevens as a senator.)

Another aspect of Oliver’s thought is among his most valuable contributions. He criticized American entry into both world wars, and the mendacity of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt in embroiling us in fratricidal wars is a topic that often occupied him. In a notable review for American Opinion, he called attention to Philip Dru, Administrator (1912), a novel by Wilson’s advisor Edward Mandell House that favored presidential dictatorship and war to enact “progressive” reforms. He strongly supported Pearl Harbor revisionism and claimed, on the basis of his work in an intelligence agency of the government during World War II, inside knowledge of Roosevelt’s mendacity in provoking the Japanese attack.

An underlying theme in “Conservatism and Reality” came to the fore in his later work, and this again raises a fundamental issue. If, as Oliver does, one rejects religion as a guide to life, what is to replace it? For Oliver, the answer is clear: race is fundamental. In “History and Biology,” American Opinion (1963), Oliver highly recommends Lothrop Stoddard’s “The Revolt Against Civilization” Stoddard, “one of the most brilliant of American writers,” argued that the colored races pose a threat to the white race, and Oliver enthusiastically agrees. For him, racial struggle is primary, and he regards ethical obligations as limited to one’s own race. For him, this view was unquestionable. In response to a correspondent to National Review who asked why one should give primary emphasis to the needs of one’s own race, Oliver was puzzled. Was this not how everyone in fact acted?

Skeptical readers may think Oliver has played rather fast and loose with the foundations of ethics. Further, do the racial views he supported have behind them the consensus that he urged was necessary for political action? When Americans did not act in the racially motivated way he thought self-evidently true, he ascribed this to conspiracy and propaganda. The notion that his own opinions were merely that—opinions—rather than the expression of a primordial racial consciousness seems not to have occurred to him. Whether Oliver’s stress on racial struggle is an example of the sectarianism he effectively warns against is a question his readers must confront. But, agree with him or not, Oliver poses basic questions that all too many other writers choose to ignore.

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