Where Neo-Conservatism Was Born

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Mr. Abrams, Ph.D., is Lecturer in American History at University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Journal of Significant Thought and Opinion: Commentary Magazine 1945-1959 (2005).

The roots of much of the now-discredited policies of the Bush administration can be found in Commentary magazine over fifty years ago. Commentary was the vehicle (or ‘soapbox’ as the New York Times called it) for the conception, gestation, birth, and transformation of neoconservatism from a small movement to a philosophy at the very center of government.

Launched in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the oldest and most conservative Jewish defense organization in the United States Commentary was designed ‘to meet the need for a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues.’

Commentary’s first editor, Elliot E. Cohen, was a Southern-born Jew who had gone to Yale and had previously edited the celebrated Menorah Journal. Under Cohen, Commentary was a general and authoritative journal of the highest quality that was lively and relevant to the basic and most pressing issues on the national and the world scene and which reached a wide, if numerically small, audience. It covered matters of both universal interest but also of specifically Jewish concern, in a non-Zionist intellectual, broad-based Reform Jewish contemporary tone.

Cohen guided Commentary from a small, unknown periodical in 1945 into a significant journal of opinion and influence that Norman Podhoretz took over in 1960. He established its main concerns and set the precedent of an intellectual and Jewish magazine that spoke to power for the first time. But Cohen only hinted at the possibilities of an influential policy magazine; it was Podhoretz who took the hint and turned it into a full-blown reality.

Uniquely for an institutionally-funded Jewish journal in the 1940s, Cohen was granted editorial freedom. Although the philosophy of the Committee was to be implicit in the magazine’s contents, it was not intended to be a house organ. Rather it was to be nonpartisan with regard to the Jewish community politics and neither factional or parochial in its approach, but broad and far-ranging.

‘With a perspicacity rare in voluntary organizations, Jewish or otherwise,’ wrote Podhoretz, ‘the AJC understood that unless the editor of the new magazine were given a free hand and protected from any pressures to conform to the Committee’s own line, the result would be a pretentious house organ and nothing more.’ And which no one would read. The AJC had no intention of ‘doing anything that would parochialize the journal,’ or limit its appeal. It never explicitly intended the magazine to function as a public relations journal, or as a forum for its philosophies.

According to Podhoretz, this editorial independence ‘consisted simply in this: no person except the editor or anyone he might voluntarily wish to consult could read articles in advance of publication or could dictate what should or should not appear in the magazine.’ It meant that the AJC concerned itself only with Commentary’s budget, but did not interfere with the contents of the magazine. The journal has been seen as an exceptional enterprise in this respect: no other organization has so generously sponsored a publication and then left it to operate independently.

Taking full advantage of their editorial independence, Commentary’s editors turned Commentary into extensions of themselves, and by doing so it became an indispensable journal, a crucible in which neocon arguments, especially on foreign policy, were annealed and honed. Commentary was the womb in which neoconservatism was conceived and gestated.

Commentary was also the intellectual teat on which neoconservatism was suckled. Its bedrock formed the basis of that movement: staunch anti-Stalinism and liberal anti-Communism, pro-Americanism, pro-New Dealism, pluralism and secularism, iconoclasm, anti-Jewish Establishmentism, and, perhaps above all, confidence, because Commentary exemplified confidence. These provided the props for the neoconservative model.

In many of the current stories about neoconservatism, Commentary has been overlooked. But the magazine has played a vital part in both neoconservatism and the molding of Bush’s agenda. It was in Commentary that the props of Bush’s neocon foreign policy were refined. Once it had become clear that Saddam and Iraq would not be permanent enemies after the first Gulf War, the magazine filled the vacated space by eagerly evoking a new category of threats: radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, as well as their sponsors like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria.

It focused on the need to confront the new transnational enemy from the East, what Charles Krauthammer called the ‘global intifada.’ As far back as 1989, Commentary argued that the terrorist threat posed by a radical, vengeful interpretation of Islam was the most urgent and ominous security threat and called for an immediate, intensified, and global confrontation of it. It warned of the threat Islamic militant fundamentalists posed to Western values, as signaled by the Salman Rushdie affair. It pointed out that Mohammed Aidid’s successful defiance of the United States in Somalia in 1993 might be only one small taste of things to come.

And following the bombing of the World Trade Center in February of 1993, it characterized Islamic fundamentalism as the clearest present danger and ominously predicted that, the fundamentalist struggle’s systemic preaching of hatred would eventually produce violence. Even more darkly prophetic was its observation: ‘Manhattan’s own nightmare could recur…’ for the ‘World Trade Center bombing suggests, the conduct even of those fundamentalists who were once American allies and clients cannot be predicted.’

The Wilsonian ideal of making the world safe for democracy found much support and space in Commentary, which revived a Wilsonian streak long before it became currently fashionable. Both during and after the Cold War, Commentary sought to ensure that the United States continued to play the part of a world power and remain involved overseas.

It was part of a group of academics, intellectuals, and commentators who styled themselves as ‘democratic internationalists,’ who emphasized the necessity of American leadership in a newly unipolar world to create the conditions for peace and security through the defense and advance of democracy, and who were skeptical of international organizations and institutions. They saw the post-Cold War task of the United States was to defend democratic allies and resist aggression by fanatical states, promoting democratic transitions where possible, and supporting democratic consolidation elsewhere. After the first Gulf War, in particular, Commentary pushed the United States to encourage liberalization and democratization in the Middle East in order to prevent the rise of another Saddam. It called for a refashioned American crusade for world democracy in which America would be globally active.

Thus, only by looking back to the past, to the magazine that Elliot Cohen created and which Norman Podhoretz inherited can we really come to a true understanding of the development of neoconservatism and the roots of the current malaise.

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N. Friedman - 12/16/2006


Strike the sentence that reads: "But, there are lots of potential outcomes and Israel, unlike Jews in Europe or among Muslims, has considerable influence since they have a large army and the ability to cooperate or not in ways that could help or harm US influence."


But, there are lots of potential outcomes and Israel, unlike Jews in Europe or among Muslims, has considerable influence since Israel has a large army and the ability to cooperate or not in ways that could help or harm US influence and since the Muslim Arabs have a funny habit of sticking their collective feet in their own mouths.

N. Friedman - 12/16/2006

It sounds as if we agree on this point.

N. Friedman - 12/16/2006


There are always dangers on the horizon. So, yours may be one of them.

Then again, the Republican faithful - literally faithful - have made support of Israel into religious dogma. People drunk on religion have a funny way of standing by their causes. And, such people really are drunk on religion.

The issue in the Middle East is, as I see it, one where Israel, among other things, plays the role of proximity fight between the Muslim Arab regions and the US. The Europeans also use Israel to fight for dominance over the US. To far Left wingers, Israel is the outpost of American imperialism, denying rights to the Muslims whom such Leftists champion. To far right wingers, Israel is the home of people who should be forced to wander the Earth forever. To people like Baker, Israel could serve as sacrificial lamb according to the formula espoused by the British government (e.g. at Munich) before WWII.

Israel would be best, if it could, to find a way to remove itself from other people's morality and power politic plays. A thousand years of history, however, informs anyone who can read that Jews and, by extension, Israel will not escape playing a role in someone else's drama or power politics.

But, there are lots of potential outcomes and Israel, unlike Jews in Europe or among Muslims, has considerable influence since they have a large army and the ability to cooperate or not in ways that could help or harm US influence.

And Israel has important friends in the US, not only among people drunk on religion but among the mainstream in both major political parties. And, Jews, to note what Mr. Williams rants, have a lot of money that has at least some influence - albeit not the commanding influence Williams asserts - over US policy, as it should have. That, after all, is the American way, meaning, we all have the right to lobby for our pet causes.

Yehudi Amitz - 12/16/2006

The American idea of "liberal" is a little troublesome because it lumps together a lot of leftist nuances. The extreme left principle is "who isn't with us is against us". For sure the closer to the center liberalism (I consider myself one of this kind) is the tolerant one.

Yehudi Amitz - 12/16/2006

The American public opinion can be easily manipulated. The same Americans were against the Jews till the middle of 1950s and maybe after. Do you remember about two years ago when a lot of people went to see the anal fantasies of Gibson named "the passion of christ" putting a lot of money in his pockets and showing again that "blame the Jews" is still a money making machine is the USA. What do you think is going to happen if the Arabs will have a proposition like "we cut the price of oil in half if you give us the Jews" ? I hope that alternative energy could solve the problem, but what if it doesn't? Actually the Baker - Hamilton report expresses the same idea from the USA point of view "dear Arab friends we may give you the Jews if you don't give us problems with the oil"

N. Friedman - 12/16/2006


The Israelis ought to be up front on this matter, as Sharon was, saying that Israel will not play the part of Czechoslovakia. That would serve to counter whatever might be thrown but, please note, it is not at all clear that Congress or the President would back a hard line akin to what Carter or Baker has in mind. I am rather certain that such would be suicidal for Republicans or Democrats. While there may, for Democrats, be some benefit to bashing Israel among some of the faithful, voters at election time see the matter in a quite different manner.

N. Friedman - 12/16/2006


At one time, such was not the case. Which is to say, at one time, liberalism included tolerance for other views. That position, at least in some circles, has faded.

Yehudi Amitz - 12/16/2006

The old "to be or not to be" question. :)

Yehudi Amitz - 12/16/2006

That's, actually, the neocon idea, former liberals frustrated by liberalism (of course the American idea of liberalism) moved to the right. Of course they are free to do it, but I believe Jews shouldn't get so involved because it is going to haunt them. It happened with the communists who purged Jews after using them in the initial faze. Also the Jimmy Carter pig who writes shameless books about Jews. It happens today when pigs like Jim Baker (and maybe Robert Gates) get back to the Jews proposing them as scapegoats to the Arabs.

N. Friedman - 12/14/2006


Indeed it has changed, although it was liberal more in the sense of allowing a multitude of views than in the fact that it was liberal in outlook (which it, of course, generally was). The magazine was better in the old days. Then it became ideological.

Norman Miller - 12/11/2006

Commentary may well have been the neocon nursery but before that and for many years it was a liberal magazine. And as a former subscriber I might add that its best days were pre-1968.