America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators by Jacob Heilbrunn - review by Alan Ryan

Alan Ryan

Hail to the Generalissimo

America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators


W W Norton 264pp £22

Among the many curious features of American conservatism, one of the oddest is the enthusiasm for European autocrats and strongmen, up to and including Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. Putin’s fan club includes ex-president Donald Trump, while Orbán is much admired by Ron DeSantis, whose avowed ambition is to turn Florida, of which he is governor, into a version of Hungary. Jacob Heilbrunn thinks that this is not so odd: such admiration has a long pedigree and is indeed a standing feature of American conservatism. The title America Last is a play on ‘America First’, a slogan associated with interwar isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh.

In Heilbrunn’s account of things, the taste for European autocrats goes all the way back to an enthusiasm for the German emperor Wilhelm II, whose imperialist ambitions did much to provoke the First World War. There was a ready market for pro-German propaganda in early 20th-century America, since there had been a great influx of German immigrants in the previous half-century and several hundred German-language magazines appeared each month. Many, if not most, were firmly left wing, but support for Germany was a common characteristic.

Among the anti-heroes of America Last, none was more vociferous than George Sylvester Viereck, whose passion for German autocracy led him to be mocked as ‘George Swastika Viereck’ by the 1930s. His great ally was H L Mencken, who was a fierce opponent of America’s participation in the First World War, but was not, unlike Viereck, directly in the pay of the German government. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Right was spoiled for choice when it came to European autocrats to admire. Mussolini was the first object of their affection. His March on Rome and subsequent establishment of himself as Il Duce were much admired as the actions of a strongman untrammelled by the niceties of liberal democracy. 

Almost equal enthusiasm was lavished on Francisco Franco. That he was leading an armed insurrection against a legitimately elected government cut no ice with his admirers. That he was an anti-liberal Catholic nationalist was good enough to gain Franco support on the Right. Even Heilbrunn seems surprised by the extravagance of Mencken’s praise for him. ‘Franco’, Mencken declared, ‘was no more an agent of Mussolini and Hitler than Washington was agent of Louis XVI. If he takes whatever help he can get from the non-democratic Italians, then Washington took whatever help he could get from the still less democratic French.’ Franco’s greatest admirer was a New York corporate lawyer named Merwin K Hart, whose postwar career would include Holocaust denial and chairmanship of the New York chapter of the John Birch Society up to his death in 1962. 

One might have thought that Hitler would prove to be indigestible, but not a bit of it. Visitors to Germany were charmed by his oratorical prowess. Henry Ford and Lindbergh were presented with silver medals by the Führer in recognition of their services to the Third Reich by way of stoking isolationist and anti-Semitic feeling in the USA. Harold L Ickes, Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, was surely right when he denounced them as having forfeited their American heritage. None of Hitler’s admirers flinched at Hitler’s assurance that he would solve the ‘Jewish problem’ by removing the Jews. But then his admirers spent the postwar years denying that the Holocaust had happened, so there was not much chance of that.

The greater part of the book, however, is devoted to the postwar years. Some of the dramatis personae may be familiar to British readers. Others may not be, among them academics like Willmoore Kendall, who was one of several figures who were communists or Trotskyites in the 1930s, only to head to the opposite extreme after the war. Another was James Burnham, who was a philosopher by training (at Princeton and Balliol College, Oxford), but whose 1941 book The Managerial Revolution was a much-admired work of industrial sociology. In the 1930s, he was a friend of Trotsky, but after the war he became a ferocious anti-communist who deplored the American policy of containment of the Soviet Union and advocated a much more aggressive, and dangerous, approach.

The anti-hero of the final third of the book, however, is William F Buckley Jr, whose creation the National Review became in effect the house journal of the far right. Among its enthusiasts at the time of its founding in 1955 was Joseph McCarthy. When McCarthy drank himself to death in 1957, Buckley and others wrote lachrymose eulogies for their departed hero. Buckley and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell saw McCarthy as the kind of anti-liberal strongman they admired.

But foreign strongmen were almost equally popular. Franco, of course, was a long-standing object of admiration. It perhaps added to his charm with Buckley, an ardent Catholic, that he had handed the Catholic Church such a large role in maintaining his repressive regime. But the National Review also chummed up with Franco’s fellow dictator in neighbouring Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, who was praised as another Catholic anti-communist. His brutality, indeed murderous brutality, was airbrushed out of the picture. It did him no harm that he was engaged in colonialist repression in Angola and Mozambique, since Buckley and his friends deplored the white man’s retreat from Africa, which meant, of course, that they supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and regarded Nelson Mandela as a communist terrorist who was rightly in jail.

It was and is easy to underestimate Buckley. Because he was a wonderfully witty critic, it was possible to think of him as merely an entertaining commentator and TV host and author of fifty books on everything from politics to sailing. In fact, he was adept at shoehorning kindred spirits into influential positions, from where they could promote the causes of such unlovely figures as Augusto Pinochet and the Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri. His protégée Jeane Kirkpatrick, who became Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, did her best to undermine support for British efforts to hang on to the Falkland Islands after their seizure by the Argentinians.

While there is no public intellectual on the Right of the stature of Buckley today, the alarming thing for liberals is how far his ideas have penetrated the Republican Party, and especially the so-called Trumpist faction (though ‘faction’ is hardly the word for a majority of the party’s active members). The taste for strong leaders persists in their liking for Putin and Orbán. Looking for intellectual coherence here may be a difficult task, but the unifying factor is a hatred of liberalism, however defined. Heilbrunn doesn’t give much in the way of analysis of why anti-liberalism is so strong in the USA, but as something like a political horror story, America Last is an admirable piece of work.

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