Philosopher, Populist, and Prophet: A Review of Christopher H. Owen’s “Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall”
Christopher H. Owen, Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021.   In this age of resurgent populism on the right, a biography of Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967) is just the kind of book that provides the necessary context to help us understand this phenomenon. Christopher Owen, a professor of… The post Philosopher, Populist, and Prophet: A Review of Christopher H. Owen’s “Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Christopher H. Owen, Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021.

 

In this age of resurgent populism on the right, a biography of Willmoore Kendall (1909-1967) is just the kind of book that provides the necessary context to help us understand this phenomenon. Christopher Owen, a professor of history at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, has written this biography, one that more than adequately fulfills this purpose. Kendall, the preeminent philosophical defender of “the sovereignty of the people” in the American tradition, deserves this study. As Owen observes, Kendall’s “ideas, more than those of any other American thinker, provide an intellectual framework for conservative populism.”  Moreover, a biography is perhaps more relevant than a study of his political thought precisely because the visceral and conflicted nature of populism often mirrors the tensions and passions that characterize the life of its most famous intellectual champion in America. The great success of Owen’s biography lies in the subtle way that it puts flesh and blood on populism, a phenomenon that is never intelligible in the abstract.
Why exactly, though, does Kendall stand out as a figure on the American Right? Owen offers this explanation at the outset of his study:
To admirers Kendall was a maverick or an iconoclast, to foes mad, indecent, even a “murderer.” One contemporary writer has called Kendall the Fanon of conservatives, the “Ur-Democrat.” Anyone who challenged the sovereignty of the people risked his learned and ferocious wrath…When the world blackened the name of Joseph McCarthy, Kendall stood almost alone among American academics to defend him. Yet Willmoore Kendall was also one of the most effective and sensitive teachers of his age. As an American official, his ideas shaped Cold War practices of intelligence analysis and psychological warfare. As a political activist and writer, he helped start the conservative movement which toppled the post-World War II liberal consensus. Most important was his political theory—worked out over decades of deep reading and obsessive cogitation—in which he refined the nuances of American democracy.
The exotic twists and turns that Kendall’s life took (how many political philosophers have ever worked for the CIA?) fully justify fictional treatments of his life.[1] Most tellingly, Owen skillfully shows how “prophet” can be added to journalist, spy, teacher, and the eternal iconoclast in Kendall’s repertoire of roles. More than anyone else on the post-World War II American right, Kendall predicted the coming clash between the “elites” and the American people.
This self-styled “Appalachians-to-the Rockies” conservative was born on March 5, 1909, in Konowa, Oklahoma. Willmoore Bohnert Kendall was the first son of Willmoore Kendall Sr. and Pearl Anna Kendall (née Garlick). The elder Kendall was a blind itinerant Methodist pastor who was most famous for his powerful intellect, fiery sermons, and progressivist understanding of Christianity. Kendall Sr. also turned out to have a mesmerizing influence on his son, pushing him to develop his talents that were already evident as a toddler. By age four, Kendall was already reading Hawthorne’s short stories, an achievement that encouraged the father to enroll him in elementary school. Young Kendall also grew up at a time when Oklahoma was experiencing some of the most violent racial strife that has ever occurred in the history of the state. In 1921, angry white mobs had burned down the African American district of Greenwood in Tulsa, killing dozens of black residents in the process. After denouncing the Ku Klux Klan from the pulpit the following year, Kendall’s father received several threats from the KKK, including a letter vowing “to maintain forever the God-given supremacy of the white race in all things.” Although the fourteen-year-old Kendall toyed with the idea of reviving a state chapter of the Junior KKK, perhaps in an act of adolescent defiance of his father, his growing up in the Sooner State “gave him an up close and personal view of the divisive power of race-based politics.” Polarizing divisions among Americans, as Kendall liked to remind his students decades later, are fatal to politics in the republic. Heaven can indeed fall.
One of the fascinating ironies that Owen’s meticulously documented biography makes clear to the reader is that Kendall, a man who struggled with his own passions and contradictions, often warned against the danger of introducing destabilizing ideas or ideologies into the American political order. This recurrent threat would open the real “civil war potential” within the republic. As Owen shows in copious detail, Kendall never hesitated to show his fiery disagreement with anyone, whether it was his father, his spouses (he was married three times), his fellow academics, or his comrades in the conservative movement. Although I am reluctant to reduce his political philosophy to the tumults of his personal life, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his search for a stable consensus within the American regime was perhaps driven by the lack of stability that so often marked his relationships with friends, colleagues, students, and relatives. Kendall’s recurrent struggles with alcoholism often ended any temporary period of stability in the bargain.
Although Kendall changed his political opinions many times, he never changed his mind about the good sense of Americans, who lived out their traditions “in their hips,” as he put it. During the Great Depression, Kendall’s views shifted leftward. The Depression, Kendall commented in 1931, might “prove an excellent thing for the country” if it transformed “the execrable financial system under which the country has writhed for so many years.” At first, none of these sentiments inspired Kendall to do work in political theory. One of the happiest periods of his life included a stint as a teacher of Spanish at the University of Illinois in the early 1930s. Kendall later received a Rhodes Scholarship which took him to Pembroke College at Oxford, where he studied political theory under R. G. Collingwood. Despite this formative experience, Kendall was mostly interested in journalism, a career path that his overbearing father also insisted on. While working as a reporter for UPI in Spain in the mid-1930s, his “political convictions had been shaken in Madrid by acts of terrorism committed by communists (assassinating delivery boys of right-wing newspapers).”
Despite this traumatic experience, Kendall remained a man of the radical left, even leaning towards Marxism. As a young teacher at Louisiana State University in the late 1930s, Kendall published his first scholarly article, “On the Preservation of Democracy for America.”[2] As Owen notes, “Kendall adopted a progressive rubric to suggest that the American Constitution was a Machiavellian mechanism designed to thwart the people’s ability to rule.” His emerging interest in majority-rule democracy coincided with a “lifelong fascination” with Rousseau, whose ideas provided Kendall with a “rubric for understanding contemporary democracy.” Although the older, conservative Kendall disavowed the Machiavellian approach to politics, he never relinquished his love for majority-rule or the philosopher who most ably defended this principle in the eighteenth century. Although he completed his doctoral dissertation on Locke’s defense of majority-rule at the University of Illinois in 1940, his admiration for Rousseau always trumped his respect for Locke.
Another irony that Owen reveals in spades is that Kendall’s later embrace of a conservative politics did not reflect a particularly conservative or gentlemanly temperament. He lost his job at Louisiana State University in 1940 because of his “uncooperative” attitude and “endless arguing” with his colleagues. Kendall’s drinking problem, by his own account, began when he served as an interpreter for the Inter-American Defense Board in 1944, which required him to travel throughout Latin America. It also “required him to drink, make small talk, interpret for ‘fat Latin American generals,’ and push their wives ‘around the dance floor.’” His separation from his first wife Katherine Tuach Kendall around this time encouraged his “penchant for extramarital sexual relationships” with married women. As a contributor to National Review in the mid-1950s, his second marriage, to Anne Brunsdale Kendall, broke up “amid accusations of his drunkenness and philandering, and even domestic violence.” In short, Kendall the person often dramatically contradicts Kendall the defender of tradition and good sense. Owen does not pull any punches in his rigorous portrayal of the character flaws within his subject.
Ultimately, the reason that Kendall moved to the right had more to do with his relentless tracking of Soviet espionage and subversion during the Cold War era than any intellectual epiphany. As an intelligence analyst in the Central Intelligence Group (the precursor to the CIA), Kendall’s exposed disloyal and treasonous elements in the agency. He was particularly proud of having “busted” Maurice Halperin as a Soviet agent who had infiltrated the OSS during World War Two.  This experience also explains why Kendall turned into a visceral opponent of liberals, who often dismissed the need for loyalty oaths as well as crackdowns on the civil liberties of spies. As he told his friend Francis Wilson in 1947: “We’ve had a common enemy (though not a common quarrel) for many years—the Liberals.” From this point on, Kendall waged unceasing intellectual war against all liberals whom he suspected of aiding, whether consciously or not, the cause of communism.
After Yale University hired Kendall as an associate professor of political science in 1947, he sensed that this battle of ideas would continue. As Owen notes, Yale “even in 1947 was no conservative bastion.” (The fact that Kendall’s bid to have Yale hire Eric Voegelin ended in failure testifies to this.) One of the most fateful moments in Kendall’s life occurred at Yale when he met a senior by the name of William F. Buckley Jr. in 1950. Buckley, who was enrolled in Kendall’s political theory class, was impressed with his teacher’s robust defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to find officials in the government who were “loyalty risks” because of suspected communist sympathies. Kendall clearly stood out as a heterodox figure among Yale’s faculty, who despised McCarthy and still “fumed” over the accusations leveled at Alger Hiss. Buckley was so impressed with Kendall’s iconoclasm that he later offered his teacher the positions of fellow editor and columnist in his fledgling magazine National Review in 1955. A year later, Buckley also sponsored Kendall when he joined the Catholic Church.
As Owen wisely cautions, no one should assume that Kendall and his famous student saw eye to eye on everything, even before their friendship ended in the 1960s. “Nor should one subsume Kendall’s teaching under the umbrella of conservatism as later delimited by Buckley and National Review.” For his part, Buckley attributed to his teacher a “baffling optimism” over the enduring future of conservatism in America.[3] Not only did Kendall continue to defend traditionally unconservative ideas such as majority-rule democracy and Rousseau’s populism, he also exhibited considerable sympathy with the social democratic idea that “the people, using democratic processes, controlled the economy.” Owen quotes a colleague who attributed to Kendall the pragmatic position “that if capitalism worked in a society, O.K., but if it didn’t work in a society, he had no objections whatsoever to a planned economy.” This was not an aberrant moment. After delivering a speech in Los Angeles in 1961 in which Kendall praised Keynesian economics, “Buckley received a cascade of letters criticizing his editorial ‘left hand man.’” These criticisms included accusations that Kendall “sounded like a ‘Fabian socialist, perhaps a new frontiersman,” and that “he championed the ‘commie-line’ of farm subsidies, the Marshall Plan, and the minimum wage.”
If there is an essential core to Kendall’s conservatism, it is the belief that most Americans would remain conservatives, stalwartly opposed to communism abroad and egalitarian social engineering at home. Owen portrays Kendall as a true prophet, warning as far back as the 1950s that the left would be intolerant of any limits to the goal of achieving perfect equality. Although he supported equality before the law and even wound up celebrating the passage of civil rights legislation as proof that the American system worked, he “saw even further into the future of liberalism when he suggested that the American left had come to treasure equality above all other values.” Moreover, liberals “would never give up this quest for equality until ‘the last molehill of privilege shall be steamrollered level with the plain.’ Few people in the 1950s could foresee the rise of gender fluidity as part of the liberal agenda, but Kendall did grasp this tendency.”
Although Kendall saw Congress as the most effective representative of America’s traditions and diversity, liberal presidents and Supreme Court justices that sought to bypass Congress provoked his suspicion. In true populist style, he insisted that the majority, not an elite, should call the shots on all political matters. Kendall’s interpretation of Madison and Hamilton on congressional power led to his conclusion that “the sky has always been the limit” as to this authority. Owen provides a quote from F. Reid Buckley, Bill’s younger brother, who usefully describes Kendall’s philosophy. “The majority would set limits on toleration and—within these limits—provide ‘ample room for minority agitation.’” More dramatically, the majority had every right to practice “the true American tradition…of riding somebody out of town on a rail” if necessary.[4]
Yet many Americans did not always understand this principle. As Kendall once told Voegelin, he was “no great admirer” of the popular assumptions that free speech should be unlimited or that “no standard of orthodoxy” existed to judge ideas that were “beyond the pale.” (106) Consistent with this logic, Kendall even went so far as to defend the right of Athens to execute Socrates for questioning its orthodoxy.[5] Moreover, there was nothing wrong with the government cracking down on communists for having subversive beliefs. Liberals who condemned Kendall’s attitude provoked his wrathful (and uncannily relevant) response that they were all too willing to use state power against suspected fascists.
As a populist, Kendall targeted the elites in both parties who opposed real democratic debate on matters of great urgency. Kendall made few friends at Yale when he attacked the “bipartisan” drift in American foreign policy. When Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican, dismissed any questioning of Truman’s handling of the Berlin Crisis as “treason,” Kendall countered that “this elitist vision championed by experts was alien to American tradition.” Real “dialogue would channel into American foreign policy the native good sense of the American electorate.”
How exactly would this “native good sense” push back against the deceptions and confusions sponsored by the elites? Kendall saw the struggle with these elites as a cosmic war of ideas, a struggle that pitted good ideas against bad ones. Much to the irritation of his colleagues at Yale and beyond, he called for a “political science that can speak to it (the community) with the authority of true learning about the predictable consequences of its political acts.”
This strategy, of course, assumed that most Americans were still committed to the preservation of conservative tradition in the republic. If they were not so committed, that was attributable to the power of the liberal elites to mystify the people. Although Kendall emphasized in a 1956 speech to a conference of conservative intellectuals in the Poconos that these elites dominated the universities, media, and the federal bureaucracy, the answer was not the creation of new institutions. Instead, the awakening of the people’s consciousness of the true ideas within the American tradition was the real imperative. “Kendall then argued that the American people often acquiesced to such dominance because much of it was hidden and because they overprized elite claims to expertise.” Not all was lost, however, given Kendall’s expectation that “the people of a democracy—once properly informed—should decide what course to pursue to promote their own welfare.” Although Kendall was perhaps channeling his erstwhile Marxist assumption that the people suffered from “false consciousness” regarding their own interests, he advocated the un-Marxist solution that a revolution of ideas, not movements, would take back America from the liberal mandarins.
Of course, the people needed the right leadership. As Owen consistently shows, Kendall was always on the lookout for any destructive leadership class that would mislead Americans. His years at Yale, the CIA, and at National Review reveal a Kendall who was preoccupied with the twin menaces of liberalism and elitism. After returning to the intelligence community in the early 1950s, Kendall had made so many enemies there because of his defense of McCarthy that he lost his bid for a job that he desired at the State Department and, unhappily, returned to Yale. In his early years at National Review, he wrote a regular column for the magazine, entitled “The Liberal Line,” which exposed the “wheel-spinning operation” of liberals and leftists.
Kendall’s stormy departure from Yale in 1961 hardly put an end to this war of ideas. Instead, his relation to his fellow conservatives at National Review became just as conflicted, once Kendall made clear his opinion that the political right in America was often as damaging as the left was to the political well-being of Americans. In 1961, he confessed to Francis Wilson that National Review “’was a menace to US conservatism in its present form.’” Like any conflict in Kendall’s life, personal factors in part explain these disputes. Kendall felt that Buckley had shunted him aside in favor of other editors and contributors. Additionally, “Kendall came to resent Buckley’s advice about his drinking, and in April 1962, he told his former student he had stopped taking Antabuse.” By 1963, Kendall’s relationship with Buckley had deteriorated so badly that Buckley suggested to his ex-teacher that he be listed as a contributor and no longer as a senior editor at National Review. The magazine had also refused to run a pro bono ad for the University of Dallas, Kendall’s new academic home. In a letter to Buckley, Kendall angrily denounced National Review as “the Right-wing organ of the establishment.” Still, amidst these intensely personal conflicts, Kendall was already sensing that Buckley’s version of conservatism was more amenable to the liberal elites, not the people of the heartland.
Kendall’s early misgivings about the state of the American right were prophetic for another reason. Although he deeply admired the scholarship of Leo Strauss, he did not find his students quite so intellectually amenable. Despite his friendship with Strauss’s student Harry Jaffa, Kendall detested the famous acceptance speech that Jaffa had written for Barry Goldwater at the Republican national convention in 1964. Any conservative appeal to cautious deliberation or consensus was glaringly absent. Responding to the famous line “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue,” Kendall offered this acerbic observation: “There’s nothing wrong with that statement that couldn’t be put right by a hundred thousand well-chosen words.”
The fact that Jaffa, in his scholarship on the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln, forcefully presented equality as the true founding principle of America further troubled Kendall, who taught that the six goods enumerated in the preamble to the Constitution did not include equality. In The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, Kendall and his co-author George W. Carey took square aim at this focus on equality. In their view, this interpretation opened the door to civil war and utopian dreams of remaking the world. With an astute nod to the post-Kendall right, Owen writes:
Kendall (and Carey) shunned notions of the United States as an exceptional nation divinely chosen to remake the world. (Even in his intelligence career Kendall had opposed requiring allies to fulfill American political ideals.) This stance—profoundly skeptical of rapid and radical change—had long aggravated liberals. It soon exasperated the emerging neoconservative movement, including Jaffa.
Yet Kendall himself at times leaned towards the liberal side of the political spectrum. Shortly before his death in 1967, Kendall wrote a letter to his friend Carl Albert, then House Majority Leader, calling Lyndon Johnson “the toughest anti-communist president of my lifetime,” and expressing interest in serving in the president’s administration. The fact that LBJ had “sent most of those liberal professors from Yale and Harvard back to the classroom” clearly delighted him. Kendall also praised LBJ for “building highways through Appalachia for ‘middle class’ people to use.” In short, Kendall never had a problem with liberal statism if it served the majority of Americans, not the elites. As if to press this point, Owen devotes his concluding chapter to Albert, a traditional New Deal Democrat, and later Speaker of the House, who “embodied the ideal of democratic leadership” that Kendall always thought was crucial to Congress. Albert shared Kendall’s distaste for ideological polarization as well as his belief that congressional majorities were “more representative of the desires of the American people—and more stable—than were fleeting presidential majorities.”
In the decades following Kendall’s death in 1967, the task of making sense of his influence on the conservative movement is both challenging and rewarding. It is challenging because, as Owen clearly shows, not all of Kendall’s views have stood the test of time. In the 1960s, it was reasonable for Kendall to believe that Congress still represented a conservative majority, one based on a coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans. This coalition has not existed since the 1980s, when most congressional Democrats decided to act as a unified left-liberal voting bloc and most congressional Republicans moved to the right.[6]
At the same time, it is far from evident today that most Americans in their hips oppose all of the radical initiatives that increasingly emanate from the left wing of the Democratic Party. To be sure, Kendall’s defenders have a point when they place the blame for this leftward drift on the Supreme Court and the federal bureaucracy instead of the American people.[7] Still, the “virtuous” people that Kendall and Carey celebrated in Basic Symbols, namely one that cherishes the Constitution, adheres to a strict biblical morality, and remains suspicious of “equality” talk, bears little resemblance to most American voters in 2022.[8]
Nevertheless, Kendall accurately predicted that the danger of civil war persists as a distinct possibility in America as long as endless struggles over the meaning of equality (now “equity”) dominate the political landscape. As Owen explains, the pursuit of “justice at all costs could collapse a thriving political system, could cause ‘heaven’ to fall and leave wreckage in its place.” It’s also a safe bet that Kendall would be unhappy with the establishment right, which usually embraces a more traditionally leftist version of equality to placate the radical left. As Owen’s splendid biography shows, Kendall’s populist message rests on the fragile yet necessary hope that the American people still have the power to ride the elites out of town on a rail.

NOTES:

[1] Saul Bellow, Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 157-84.
[2] See Willmoore Kendall, Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, edited by Nellie D. Kendall (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), 103-17.
[3] Quoted in George H. Nash, “The Place of Willmoore Kendall in American Conservatism,” in Willmoore Kendall: Maverick of American Conservatives, edited by John A. Murley and John E. Alvis, with a foreword by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 11.
[4] Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation in America (Chicago: Gateway Regnery, 1985), 82.
[5] Willmoore Kendall, “The People Versus Socrates Revisited,” in Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, 149-67.
[6] Raymond Tatalovich and Steven E. Schier, with Thomas S. Engeman, The Presidency and Political Science: Paradigms of Presidential Power From The Founding to the Present, with a foreword by Theodore J. Lowi, 2nd edition (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2014), 14.
[7] Samuel Francis, “Prophet of the Heartland,” in Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 85-87.
[8] Paul Gottfried, “The Declaration and Its Iconoclasts,” Chronicles, Sept.1, 2021 <https://chroniclesmagazine.org/reviews/the-declaration-and-its-iconoclasts/>

The post Philosopher, Populist, and Prophet: A Review of Christopher H. Owen’s “Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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