A Conservative Manifesto

by Holly A. Case


Peter Viereck (background, right)
and student, 1958

About this time last year, the idea came to me that it was time to write a conservative manifesto. Conservatism had shown itself to be hollowed out and practically free for the taking. Fiscal conservatism, "family values," and sincere deference to Christian morality had either never truly been part of conservatism's essence, or were betrayed wholesale during the election. What remained was an empty vessel awaiting content. Drafts of the manifesto proliferated on my hard drive. In conversation with confidants its completion seemed immanent. Interlocutors wondered about practicalities: What would be the first line? And the last? How would it be disseminated? What would be the next step after the manifesto?

But it never came to be. The problem had a name: Peter Viereck. He was both the inspiration for the manifesto and the reason it was never finished or disseminated.

In April 1940, Viereck had written his own conservative manifesto in the form of an essay titled "But—I'm a Conservative!" The title had two meanings. The more obvious one was a reaction to the prompt Viereck was given by the editors of The Atlantic. Tell us "the meaning of young liberalism for the present age," they urged him. To this the twenty-three-year-old Viereck replied: "But—I'm a Conservative!"

The second meaning was personal: "But—I'm a Conservative!" Its origins were more obscure, but those in the know would have caught it. Viereck's father, Sylvester Viereck, was a fairly famous poet, and an unrepentant fellow traveler of the Nazis. The elder Viereck claimed that anti-Semitism was not essential to Nazism, and that an American version of Nazism could simply jettison the German Nazis' preoccupation with the mass expulsion and extermination of the Jews. But the young Peter was not convinced: Nazism was anti-Semitism, and "Political anti-Semitism is no isolated program," he wrote, "It is the first step in an ever-widening revolt of mob instinct against all restraints and liberties. It is the thin opening wedge for the subversion of democracy, Christianity, and tolerance in general." The son yanked hard to pull conservatism out from under his father and the Nazi Right, insisting vehemently and repeatedly that Nazism was an ideology of revolt, the very opposite of conservatism. And like Marxism's "materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," he found it revolting.

Like his father, Peter Viereck was a poet, and before the decade was out he would win a Pulitzer Prize for his work. By then his elder brother, George Sylvester, was dead, killed in action while fighting against the Nazis in Italy. Their father got the news while doing time for sedition.

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