Transcript: Laurence Jurdem on the Conservative Media in the 1960s and 1970s
Laurence Jurdem is author of “Paving the Way for Reagan: The Conservative Press and the Forging of the Reagan Foreign policy 1964-1980.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. How did the events of the 1960s 1970s lead to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980? Here with us to discuss this today is Laurence Jurdem. Dr. Jurdem is a U.S. historian who received his Ph.D. from Fordham University with a specialty in the History of American Conservatism. His writings and commentary have been featured in a wide number of publications, including National Review, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Cold War History, and History News Network. Dr. Jurdem is also the author of a newly released book, “Paving The Way For Reagan,” “The Conservative Press,” and, “The Forging Of The Reagan Foreign Policy, 1964 to 1980.” Dr. Jordan, welcome.
Laurence Jurdem: Thanks, Jonathan. Good to be with you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, how did you come to, you know, undertake the project of writing this book?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, when you’re in a Ph.D. program, a dissertation tends to be a group effort. I had been thinking of a topic for some time. And around the time I was considering what I was gonna write about, Bill Buckley passed away. And his obituary was on the front page of the New York Times, and there’s tons written about him. A lot of TV coverage and other media coverage. And I found it fascinating that for a man who had written dozens of books, thousands of columns, had been on television for three decades or so, so little had actually been written about him. At the time I began my research, there was really one biography that had been written about him. And I thought, ‘Well, it’d be really interesting to write about Bill Buckley.” Since my area of expertise was American conservatism, I thought it would be interesting to write about Buckley and how he influenced Ronald Reagan and Reagan presidency.
As I began my research, I happened to discover that there was another book that was coming out on the early years of National Review and Bill Buckley, and so I had to shift at the suggestion of my committee. And so I happened to think of what was suggested that I think of other publications that could fit into my arguments about how these conservative publications influenced President Reagan and the Republican Party. I thought about Human Events, which was considered by President Reagan to be his favorite conservative newspaper. And then one of my advisors suggested Commentary. So in a sense, I was writing about all three intellectual areas of the American conservative movement. And that’s how the project came to be.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you go over the basic premise of the book? This is basically a foreign policy book and one about media, is that correct?
Laurence Jurdem: It is. It’s a book that talks about National Review, Human Events, and Commentary and how the ideas or rather haw the foreign policy ideas influenced Ronald Reagan before and during his presidency. And also influenced a number of members of the American conservative movement or the conservative wing of the Republican Party. I talked about a number of key events that occurred from 1964 to 1980 that were significant within the arena of foreign policy. And these included the Vietnam War, Detente, which includes President Nixon’s opening to China, his negotiations with the Soviet Union, the Panama Canal, the issue of oil and OPEC and the energy crisis. I also talk about the Iranian hostage crisis, and I talk about the United Nations and South Africa. I’m sorry, rather the United Nations and then there’s a chapter on South Africa, more specifically, Rhodesia.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned some of the publications, National Review, Human Events. Can you give our audience a brief background, who was the conservative media? Who are the main figures, and what was their general philosophy, especially about foreign policy?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, the major figures within the conservative media, certainly William F. Buckley, Jr. was really the face or the public face of American conservatism. He was the Editor in Chief of National Review magazine he founded in 1955. And essentially was a magazine that encapsulated the major strains of American conservatism. We had things like libertarianism or the arguments for free market which was encompassed by a gentleman named Frank Meyer. We had what one might call traditional conservatism or social conservatism, which was personified by the conservative philosopher, Russell Kirk. And then we had the idea that essentially binded all of American conservatism together, which was anti-communism, and that was under the auspices of James Burnham.
Human Events was essentially a newspaper. It was a tabloid newspaper. I guess, really, the closest that could be compared to Human Events today really would be Breitbart. I mean, if you recall, if you look at Breitbart, you see a newspaper with bold headlines. That’s really what Human Events was. It was a very influential and powerful publication that appealed to grassroots conservatives. And that was something that was run by two gentlemen. One was a gentleman by the name of Thomas Winter, who was a fellow who was a conservative activist who was president of the American Conservative Union, among other organizations. And there was another gentleman named Alan Ryskind who essentially day-to-day wrote the major editorial that one would see when one looked at Human Events.
Alan Ryskind’s writing was very powerful. It was very short. It was very blunt, and it was very strong. And as I said, it appealed to conservative activists, and people like Ronald Reagan and other members of the Right. Because ultimately, from week to week, Ryskind’s message would be very similar in that he might write on Detente that there might be an editorial on Detente over three consecutive weeks. The language would essentially be the same, but the message might be a little bit different, or the details might be a little bit different. And conservatives could use those for talking points when they got up to address the Congress or the Senate or go back and talk to their various constituents in their districts. It’s good ammunition for them against the Democrats.
And the third publication was Commentary, which was, as I said, the neoconservative publication. And that was run by a gentleman by the name of Norman Podhoretz, who essentially had been the Managing Editor of Commentary from really the early 1960s up until, I believe, the late or maybe just after the beginning of the 2000s or so. So those were sort of the three publications, and those were the personalities that really dominated them. And then using these publications, each one of them Buckley, Ryskind, Winner, and Podhoretz all had their own little share of influence. And one might say, political power in terms of influencing members of the Right all the way up to presidents from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan after
Jonathan Movroydis: When did they start to really become influential within the Republican Party? Are we talking the Eisenhower era? Are we talking post-Eisenhower era in the 1960s?
Laurence Jurdem: I think, really they became… I think in a way… Well, they were always influential in one way or another. I think the key point to make is these publications were not created for the general public. Certainly, they were available on newsstands and through subscription, but they were really created to reach the elites within politics, or one might call the policymakers. Buckley wanted to create National Review as an alternative to what the nation had been during the New Deal. But it was his goal to create a magazine what in his view, in a sea of liberal publications and try to create a magazine of conservative thoughtful opinion that had the ability to offer alternative ideas in foreign and domestic policy that might influence prominent politicians and other intellectuals who were in the halls of power at that particular time.
So I would say that they really were always influential. Obviously, things grew significantly once Senator Goldwater lost the election in 1964. And then really, from 1964 up through 1980, you had various issues popping up like the ones that I’ve described, where all of these different magazines were writing thoughtful, astute articles about what sort of platform the Republicans might offer their constituents and making really relevant and serious criticisms about the foreign policy of Presidents Johnson, Kennedy Johnson, obviously Carter.
But they were also very critical of President Nixon and Gerald Ford as well. And they could also be very critical of Ronald Reagan, too. All these magazines, I view, are sort of what one might call to quote a title of a Bill Buckley book “The Keeper Of The Tablets.” They were really responsible for guarding conservatism and the ideas of conservatism. And if you got too far away, if anybody got too far off the path, whether it was Republican president or even a conservative president, the magazine’s had no problem taking them to task for making what they viewed as some serious mistakes.
Jonathan Movroydis: This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1968. Let’s take a look at that for a moment. Richard Nixon is the nominee that year. Really, there’s no other rival in the Republican Party that comes close say for Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. But Nixon enters the primaries, and he wins the nomination at the convention in Miami in August of 1968. Nixon had some conservatives in his inner circle. You know, just to name a few of different strands, for example, Pat Buchanan, who’d be considered paleoconservative. Marty Anderson who would go on to serve in the Nixon administration as well. And Donald Rumsfeld obviously. How did the conservative media feel about Nixon’s nomination for president in 1968?
Laurence Jurdem: I also don’t wanna forget Richard Allen who was a foreign policy advisor of President Nixon’s and viewed himself as a mainstream conservative. Well, it’s an interesting… You know, Richard Allen, in fact, since we just mentioned him, Richard Allen said to me that Nixon had a deep fear of the conservative media. And this goes back to the question you just asked me about the conservatives that were within President Nixon’s or rather Vice President Nixon’s orbit during 1968. You know, Pat Buchanan was very instrumental in bringing members of the Right into the Nixon’s circle.
The Conservatives always had problems with Richard Nixon. They never really trusted him. They never believed that the positions that he held the fact that he often would tout conservative positions. They never believed that he really believed what he was saying. And this was something that many members of the Right, particularly those who wrote for the Conservative journals of opinion, we’re concerned with.
As I said earlier, anti-communism was really the thing that bound the three strands of American conservatism together. And of course, President Nixon at that time was one who was well known as a very staunch anti-communist going back to his days as the leader in the prosecution of Alger Hiss. And so the members of the Right who wrote for these magazines believed that Nixon would be somebody who would, at the end of the day, would at least hold up this anti-communist position.
Jonathan Movroydis: Whittaker Chambers for one who would go on to write for National Review.
Laurence Jurdem: Yes, yes. Although, you know, Whittaker Chambers, like James Burnham, both men were quite cynical. Neither one of them believed that the American people had the will to defeat communism. But the idea of, well, you know, the whole peaceful coexistence arguments and containment all of that. People thought, “Well, Nixon is well qualified. He has the staunch anti-communist voter feedings, and perhaps we can trust him.” And since the members of the Right had been out of power for quite some time, they decided to go with Nixon. Nixon Charmed Bill Buckley and a number of other figures on the Right when he had a meeting with them, which Mr. Buchanan Chronicles in his book.
And Buckley and others were really charmed by Nixon’s knowledge and his incredible ability to discuss different ideas. And in the end, they thought, “Well, we’re not thrilled with Nixon, but we’ll go with him.” And he knows like William Rusher who was the publisher of National Review, never really trusted Nixon. But Buckley was the spokesperson for the Right. And he thought, “Well, we’ll give it a try.” So they decided to go with Nixon. And obviously, they were all quite happy when he defeated Vice President Humphrey in ’68.
Jonathan Movroydis: In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam. Conservatives are generally known as more hawkish in foreign policies, you know, say for a few more, I guess, traditional conservatives, a few of them. Did they believe, given their anti-communist stance that the Vietnam War was a worthy cause, and were they… How did they feel about Johnson’s escalation and ultimately, his execution of it?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, ultimately, they believed that not enough was being done as a number of people said to me, when I…as David Keene, in fact, said to me, who was a gentleman who knew Nixon, Reagan and was essentially someone who was there with president creation so to speak of the American conservative movement said to me, “When you fight a war, you fight a war to win.” And this is something really… This was a theme or a mantra that the Right believed was not being done sufficiently by Lyndon Johnson. It was sort of this what one might call the drip, drip, drip strategy which didn’t seem to go anywhere. You were slowly be it whether you were slowly putting more troops in, whether you were slowly doing more bombing.
The Right believed not enough was being done. I mean, many and most of the members of the Right we’re very much supportive of what Barry Goldwater wanted to do. You know, the idea of mining Haiphong Harbor, invading North Vietnam, bombing North Vietnam far more heavily than then Johnson wanted do or ended up doing. So they were constantly criticizing LBJ for his tactics. And this was a very, very popular thing and frequent thing that you could read in Human Events or National Review on any given day. It was something that the Right constantly criticized Lyndon Johnson for.
And, as I said, you could read dozens of columns in Human Events, which was, as I said, was a newspaper, which was really made up of a consortium of conservative writers with military writers, you had policy writers. All of them were critical of Lyndon Johnson, and all of them believed much more could be done. And Ronald Reagan frequently when he was campaigning for Governor in ’66, all of the… most of which was covered in Human Events. He was constantly criticizing Johnson for not doing enough and not making a strong enough effort. That he was ruining American credibility by not doing as much as could be done in order to win the war. So it was a pretty… You knew where the Republican Party or rather, you knew where the conservative movement certainly stood when you picked up these magazines and read about the progress or, in their opinion, lack of progress of the war.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did they believe that there had to be at some point some kind of exit strategy. You know, when Nixon came into office in 1968 or when he came into office in 1969, he wanted to end the war, what he would call peace with honor. How did that square with conservatives?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, I think that the conservatives were much more in favor of the aggressive tactics that President Nixon took than what all he ultimately ended up doing. Obviously, we’re very much in favor of the bombing of Cambodia. The other issue that the conservative media had was about Henry Kissinger and somebody whom they never really trusted either. I think they viewed Nixon as really being intellectually dishonest in terms of what he said that he was going to do, about being extremely vocal, and really touting his anti-communist philosophy. But then essentially doing what many conservatives considered to be a great betrayal by ultimately abandoning the North Vietnamese
Jonathan Movroydis: Moving on to Nixon’s sort of grand strategy of diplomacy and how the conservative media reacted to that. He essentially wanted to… You know, a goal of his was to go to China, and he established a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China by going to Beijing in February of 1972. A couple months later, he goes to the Soviet Union and establishes a policy of Detente and signs a historic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. Nixon’s philosophy was sort of a realist approach. That in dealing with these two countries separately sometimes, he could gain leverage in the Vietnam War. He could, you know, link up issues with the Middle East, with the Soviet Union, and the Berlin issue. How did this realist…? Did the conservative see any wisdom in the realist approach to foreign policy?
Laurence Jurdem: No, no. They hated it. First of all, when Nixon announced that he was going to visit the People’s Republic of China, I actually have a scene in this in the book, Ronald Reagan was sitting in his living room with Bill Buckley and Buckley’s brother, James Buckley, who would go on to be the senator for New York, and Nixon made his speech. And after the speech, all three men just simply sat there for maybe a minute or two and didn’t say anything. Soon after that, the phone rang, and it was President Nixon calling Bill Buckley to ask him what he thought.
China was something that went far, far back with members of the Right. They had never forgiven essentially Harry Truman or the Democrats for abandoning China to the communists and the idea that a man who considered himself to be, you know, a major anti-communist figure was going to go visit the People’s Republic of China was a complete anathema to those on the Right. Combined with the fact that Nixon was willing to essentially cast Taiwan to the wolves, to remove Taiwan from the United Nations in favor of the People’s Republic of China was, I mean, inconceivable to those on the Right in terms of the Soviet Union. I mean, that was another kind of a great stunning blow to Buckley and his colleagues.
I mean, they couldn’t understand why an American President wanted to essentially give credibility to, as Ronald Reagan called it, “The center of evil in the modern world.” So it was a really stunning series of events something all clearly that members on the Right never forgave President Nixon for was clearly responsible for John Nash Brooke running, you know, as a primary challenger, the week one against Nixon in ’72. But I think that primary challenge really epitomized the anger, and disappointment, and frustration that those on the Right had towards the president, in fact, to the point that National Review and Human Events and every other conservative organization put a major editorial out where they subsequently said that they were gonna suspend support for the President’s 1972 campaign. And when Nixon heard about it, to say the least, upset him a great deal.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did they see any credence in the strategic approach behind the deployments? I mean, you’ve been looking at Ronald Reagan 10 years later dealing with the Chinese. I’m sorry 15 years later dealing with the Chinese, you know, dealing with Gorbachev, signing arms control treaties. Could they see despite the fact that they felt, you know, possibly betrayed by dealing with communists? Did they at all see any strategic wisdom behind it?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, even when Reagan went to Reykjavik… I mean, I was told a story by Pat Buchanan who said that when Reagan emerged from his meeting with Gorbachev, Buchanan happened to be there and he happened to have a, maybe the latest Human Events with him, and there was a scathing editorial in it against President Reagan and against what he was doing. So this is the thing. I mean, this is really you had this conservative ideology which granted… Well, both Nixon and Reagan were two pragmatists when it came to international affairs, when they were both in their own ways, visionaries, in being able to look far ahead of what those who wrote for the conservative journals opinion were able to do, while they both believed they were doing something that was for the greater good of the United States and the world. Those on the Right, particularly those who didn’t serve in either administration could confidently sit back and write what they thought without any political heat coming back on them.
Jonathan Movroydis: Jumping ahead in your book a little bit to the Panama Canal Treaty. Could you give us a little bit of background on this? You might recall the famous or audience might recall the famous debate between Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in 1978. Two icons in the conservative movement, you know, disagreeing on whether we should return the Panama Canal back to the country of Panama, or whether we should keep it. Despite this divide, what was the general view of the conservative media?
Laurence Jurdem: Well, Human Events was very, very passionate about the Panama Canal. They were very much on the side of President Reagan. National Review wrote about it as well. But Human Events was very passionate about the issue with the Panama Canal. They were very passionate about Reagan during the ’76 campaign. And so they wrote quite a bit about it and much more so than Human Events rather than National Review did. And it was very much an issue for those really grassroots conservatives, the idea that the United States had just been defeated in Vietnam. And here we were, again, essentially giving in. I mean, that was really the belief on members of the Right in regards to something like Vietnam, and on something like the Panama Canal. That essentially we were giving in to a third-rate power, that we were allowing these third-rate dictators or third rate countries to push the United States around. And there was something really wrong with that.
It’s kind of the same thing in regards to Detente. The fact that we were sitting down with China or rather the Soviet Union, for instance, and offering all of them, offering them technology, offering them grain, making these nuclear weapons agreements sort of those on the Right belief was favorable to the Soviet Union, and then not really a kind of coming after them or condemning them for any of the aggressive wars of liberation that they continued to do. It was just something that, I think, resonated with those on the Right. The idea that America is continuing to be knocked down and nobody is doing anything about it. And that’s really what Reagan’s argument was when he was running in ’76 about the Panama Canal. His great mantra was, “We built it, this is ours, and we’re going to keep it.”
So that was really the essence of kind of the dialogue on the part of those on the Right, and particularly at Human Events. Bill Buckley was a little interesting in regards to the Panama Canal. He had essentially changed his position. He was on Reagan’s side early on. But around 1976 or so, I may have the day completely wrong, but he decided to go down to Panama and see for himself. I mean, he kind of went down to the question of, if we let the canal go as was slated to happen, was this gonna be a complete disaster? Was the canal gonna be run badly? Was essentially this gonna be where we were gonna be giving yet another carte blanche to the Soviet Union, allow them to become involved in this very important waterway and cause problems for international commerce?
And after spending some time in Panama, Buckley concluded that none of this was the case and so he proceeded to change his mind. And this was something that began a debate not only on television but in letters, though a friendly debate, between him and Ronald Reagan. In fact, there was a great story that Buckley writes in his book, “The Reagan I Knew” where he was gonna dinner at Reagan’s house in Pacific Palisades. And as he drove up, there was, I believe, a little sign that Reagan had created where he simply said, “It’s ours. We paid for it, and we’re gonna keep it.”
So that’s sort of the… where those like Human Events stood on the Panama Canal just for your listeners, just have interest. It was the only debate the Buckley essentially believed that he lost on firing line. And the letters that came into National Review were just…there were very, very few who were on the side of Bill Buckley and a number of readers canceled their subscription because they were so stunned by Buckley’s position.
Jonathan Movroydis: Final question. I just wanna talk about some of the reverberations of today, you know, President Trump. He can be seen even liked by many conservatives for his desire to build up the US military, much like Reagan did in the 1980s. But many also dislike his approach for, you know, sitting down with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un or his desire to sit down and hash it out with the President Vladimir Putin of Russia. You also see, you know, more what you could call isolationist Republicans in the vein of Rand Paul and others who are Acolytes of the late Senator John MCcain who prefer a much more hawkish approach. I guess, moving on what influence do you see the conservative media having on the future of conservatism and the Republican Party in the area of foreign policy?
Laurence Jurdem: I think the interesting thing is that really following the departure of Ronald Reagan from the scene or even the latter parts of his presidency, you really had what one might call an embarrassment of riches in the conservative movement. And by that I mean it’s no longer just National Review and Commentary. Human Events is no longer being published. But it seems like the conservative movement has grown exponentially and the conservative media with it. I mean, as you said, you have paleoconservatives, which one could say is represented by the magazine, partially anyway by the American Conservative. We have the Weekly Standard. We have all of the digital publications townhall.com and Breitbart and all these other publications.
And so it is great for, I think, for conservatism and also the dialogue within the conservative media. I think, is very, very rich. It’s no longer everybody seem to agree with everybody else. I mean, that was never the purpose of National Review. And now, I think because of President Trump and because of the, well, one might say, the divisiveness see either directly or indirectly brings to political dialogue. You have many people in various aspects of the Right who have dramatically different opinions about the country and where it should be in foreign policy. So I think certainly in terms of interest, it’s not boring. There’s lots of opinions to go around, and perhaps even many, many more opinions than say the period in which I was writing.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today was Laurence Jurdem. His new book is “Paving The Way For Reagan, The Conservative Press And The Forging Of The Reagan Forum Policy 1964 to 1980.” Dr. Jurdem, thank you so much for joining us.
Laurence Jurdem: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s nice to speak with you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.