In this letter from 1953 the poet and historian Peter Viereck writes to Louis Rubin, a former student and frequent correspondent of Viereck’s. Viereck’s political and intellectual project was to rehabilitate “conservatism” in the United States. Evidently, he captured something in the cultural consciousness: from the late 1940s into the mid-1950s there was an academic vogue for conservatism. We see part of this in his discussion of a recent “pro-conservative” article in The American Scholar.
Left: Peter Viereck to Louis D. Rubin, letter, January 26, 1953, in Louis D. Rubin Jr. Papers #3899, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Although Viereck and others—like Francis Wilson and Thomas Cook, who are mentioned in this letter—called themselves conservatives, they were part of a broader post-war political consensus that could be called Cold War liberalism. This outlook favored the social reforms enacted in the New Deal, vigorously opposed both Stalinism and fascism, advocated a policy of containing the Soviet Union, and disdained what they perceived as “ideology.” There was an element of conservatism in the Cold War liberal consensus, a result of the crises of the 1930s and 1940s and the omnipresent threat of atomic war. The consensus was also narrow, ignoring or marginalizing many people— including African Americans, leftists, and right-wing critics of the New Deal.
Given the Cold War exigencies, it is clear why many liberals embraced a “philosophically” conservative outlook. The key division between liberals and conservatives, Viereck wrote, was over human nature and tradition. He mentions two prominent figures, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr. He notes specifically that Schlesinger “takes the tragic view of man [which is] the conservative view.” However, Schlesinger called “himself ‘liberal’ because—like any decent, sensible person—he favors New Deal reforms.” Viereck did not think this followed. One need not be a liberal to embrace the New Deal, “because nothing has done more to prevent class-radicalism & communism in America.” Viereck took the implicit conservatism of the Cold War liberal view and, drawing on European sources, developed an explicitly conservative outlook, often called “New Conservatism.”
Left: Poet and historian Peter Viereck maintained close relationships with his former students, including Louis Rubin. He is pictured here with student Bryan Harrison at East Carolina Collect in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Joyner Library, East Carolina University.)
There were two complications to this project. All of the conservatives listed in the recent article voted for the liberal candidate, Adlai Stevenson, in the 1952 presidential election. Viereck writes that the so-called conservative “Old Guard” Republicans, animated by their opposition to the New Deal, were merely “conservers of the economic wealth of plutocrats.” But the widespread equation of conservatism with the Republican Old Guard led Viereck “to regret in some ways using the word ‘conservative.’” Poet and historian Peter Viereck maintained close relationships with his former students, including Louis Rubin. He is pictured here with student Bryan Harrison at East Carolina College in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Joyner Library, East Carolina University.) 209 Annotation The second complication, as Viereck points out in his opening paragraph, was that conservatism was simply unpopular: even the arch-conservative Senator Robert Taft called himself a “true liberal.”
In this letter we see how the New Conservatives were committed to the New Deal reforms and the general project of the Cold War consensus. We also see vividly the problem of terminology in American politics. “Liberals” are called “conservative,” “conservatives” call themselves “liberal.” It desperately needs untangling. We also see that, despite Viereck’s efforts for New Conservatism and its transatlantic pedigree, in the United States conservatism was already closely equated with pre-existing economic interests and small government populism.