An Anti-Intellectual Intellectual

Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea

by Irving Kristol
Free Press, 493 pp., $25.00
Irving Kristol
Irving Kristol; drawing by David Levine


Irving Kristol belongs to a remarkable generation which came of age in the City College of New York just before the Second World War. Among his friends at the time were Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, a somewhat younger Nathan Glazer, and others who have made careers of distinction and influence. They were embryonic Jewish American intellectuals, who went to City College because it was the only college that would take them in or they could afford.

Kristol’s own career has been exemplary. He was born in Brooklyn into an Orthodox Jewish family. In City College, he joined up with the Trotskyists, stayed with them for three or four years, and at their meetings met his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the more scholarly half of this formidable pair. He passes off this Trotskyist experience lightly but says that he learned a good deal from it and has “no regrets.” After he served in the army as an infantryman in Western Europe during World War II, they went to Cambridge, England, where his wife did research for her first book, on Lord Acton—an early example of how the Kristols have never been afraid to deal with almost any subject.

Then his career took off. He was hired at Commentary, where he stayed five years, ending as managing editor. It was at Commentary in 1952 that he found his own voice with a highly controversial article on Senator Joe McCarthy.1 After Commentary, thanks to the good offices of Sidney Hook, his “revered teacher,” he became executive director of the newly formed American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a job which lasted only about ten months, because the committee was too divided over several issues, including whether and how to oppose McCarthy. Kristol says that he did not fully agree with any of the factions and tried to mediate among them. In 1953, Kristol—with Stephen Spender as co-editor—was chosen to found Encounter, the new English-language magazine in London of the Europe-based Congress for Cultural Freedom. Hook again sponsored him. Kristol ran the magazine, with Spender getting contributions mainly from British authors. Kristol explains why he did not believe the rumors that the CIA was supporting Encounter and why “the idea of any secret editorial wire-pulling by the CIA was not only unthinkable, it was literally impossible.”

In London for the next five years, Kristol and Himmelfarb moved from some vestige of liberalism to more traditional conservatism. They came back to New York when Max Ascoli, the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Reporter, hired Kristol in 1958 as editor, at which he lasted about a year.2 Next, Kristol tried to write a book on “the evolution of American democracy.” This experience cured him of book writing, and he settled down thereafter to articles or essays. He spent the next ten years at a new publishing house, Basic Books, where he rose to be executive vice-president. But…

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