Book Write-Up: Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, Kissinger on the Couch

Donald T. Critchlow. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Phyllis Schlafly and Chester Ward. Kissinger on the Couch. Arlington, 1975.

Here are some thoughts and observations about these two books.

A. How did Phyllis Schlafly become a conservative? Critchlow’s answer is rather ambiguous. Phyllis’s parents were anti-New Deal and devoutly religious, but Phyllis does not remember them as particularly political; her sister, however, recalls that they ranted against the New Deal, which Phyllis does not remember. Phyllis went to college and then got a master’s in political science from Harvard, but she was not overly conservative then. She wrote essays in favor of the UN. In Washington, D.C., she worked as a researcher for the American Enterprise Institute, and that, according to Critchlow, is when her conservative beliefs deepened.

B. Critchlow’s book is excellent in some areas but a little thin in others. On where it is thin, Critchlow does not really explain why Phyllis and her parents were opposed to the New Deal. Critchlow does imply, though, that Phyllis got from her parents a religious piety, and that led her to stress the importance of religion in fostering a moral and stable society. That would influence her socially conservative positions.

C. While Phyllis was a conservative, she was not a thorough economic libertarian in her runs for Congress. Among the items of her platform were an increase in Social Security and veterans’ benefits, as well as greater federal funding for roads. According to Critchlow, this was common for conservatives in the 1940’s and 1950’s: they opposed dramatic economic and political transformation, as evidenced in the New Deal, but they favored increases in government programs, here and there. Phyllis still campaigned as a conservative, attacking her opponents for their appeasements of Communist countries, yet she also campaigned on bread and butter issues. She managed to combine the two: she would attack her opponent for neglecting roads in his district while supporting foreign aid for roads in Communist countries.

D. Critchlow is especially strong in his discussion of nuclear disarmament. Schlafly and Admiral Chester Ward were critical of the disarmament policies under McNamara and Kissinger, as the Soviets increased their military. Critchlow tries to explain the rationale of those Schlafly and Ward criticize, as do Schlafly and Ward in Kissinger on the Couch. First, in McNamara’s eyes, he was making the American military more efficient, effective, and accurate in its ability to attack, even though he was reducing the bulk of American missiles. Schlafly and Ward dispute that McNamara’s policies accomplished this. Second, McNamara and Kissinger sought to scale back the arms race, and some of the people in the Kennedy Administration wanted to show the Soviet Union that the U.S. had peaceful intentions. The U.S.S.R. feared American belligerence, so the U.S. allowed the Soviets to retain a superior military to appease their fear and their pride. Third, according to Schlafly and Ward, Kissinger hoped that economic cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would discourage the Soviets from attacking the United States. Schlafly and Ward are slightly unclear in their rebuttal of this. On the one hand, they doubt that the Soviets desire nuclear war, but, on the other hand, they can envision the Soviets attacking the U.S. and taking its resources for itself. But what good would the resources be to them, if the resources and the infrastructure and people supporting them have been nuked? Fourth, Schlafly and Ward observe in Kissinger a hopelessness: Kissinger wants to negotiate for the U.S. a secure second-place behind the Soviets because he doubts that the U.S. can catch up with the Soviets militarily. Schlafly and Ward trace this hopelessness to Kissinger’s experience in the Holocaust, when Nazi tyranny triumphed over him and his family. Schlafly and Ward do not see the situation as hopeless, for they think that the U.S. can catch up to the Soviets. At the same time, they acknowledge that the Soviets have advantages that the U.S. lacks: authoritarian coordination, plus the Soviets are willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of their economy to military spending, whereas the U.S. is not. Fifth, Critchlow highlights nuance within the Kennedy Administration. They were not all appeasers, and they were uncomfortable about some of the same things that troubled Schlafly and Ward. Paul Nitze, and even Kissinger himself, became critics of SALT II. Critchlow states that Schlafly and Ward fail to explain this. They do, however, on some level: they say that Nitze has sour grapes because he was passed over for Kissinger, and that he is seeking to appease conservatives to position himself as a replacement for Kissinger.

E. For Schlafly and Ward, MAD (mutually-assured destruction) is misguided. MAD assumes that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would be discouraged from attacking each other, if they realize that the other side will attack back. Schlafly and Ward support the U.S. possessing anti-ballistic missiles, which can stop Soviet missiles from attacking the U.S. after their launch; that thwarts MAD in that it stops a country from being able to retaliate after being attacked. The Soviets can respond to U.S. attack, but what good is their response if a U.S. ABM can stop their missiles from even attacking? MAD, for Schlafly and Ward, is misguided for three reasons. First, the Soviets have superior first-strike capability. They are able to attack the U.S. and to decimate its ability to retaliate. Second, even if the U.S. were to retaliate, the Soviets would be able to survive an attack far better than the U.S. would, due to its land mass and passive defense. Third, the Soviets doubt that the U.S. has the stomach to attack back. Schlafly and Ward are open to a retaliatory attack on the part of the U.S. being automatic—-guided by technology rather than an actual person—-but that is trusting a lot in machines. Hopefully, there is no gliche that will set the nukes off!

F. Schlafly and Ward argue that the U2 incident on the part of the Soviets was designed to hamper the U.S. from monitoring and verifying Soviet compliance with disarmament treaties. Schlafly and Ward think that U2s are needed to verify Soviet compliance. Yet, they also express skepticism that Soviet compliance can even be monitored. The Soviets have so much land for testing their weapons, and the U.S. cannot monitor everywhere.

G. Critchlow says that Admiral Ward saw the Sino-Soviet split as a ruse. In Kissinger on the Couch, however, the split is presumed as genuine. Critchlow acknowledges that Ward made compromises in his contribution to the books: he supported Wallace for President, whereas, under Schlafly’s influence, their book The Betrayers endorsed Nixon in 1968.

H. Ward was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which is considered in right-wing circles to be a conspiracy to create a one-world government. Ward writes as one with privy knowledge, in contrast with many right-wing critics of the CFR. For Ward, the upper echelons of the CFR desire a one-world government, even though there are differences within it on how to get there, along with political strife over turf. McNamara supports the Vietnam War as a way to divert the U.S. from building up its military against the Soviets, whereas Daniel Ellsberg opposed the Vietnam War. I have some doubts about the CFR being monolithic in supporting disarmament, for people who supported a nuclear arms race attained high positions in the Ford and Carter administrations. Ward and Schlafly talk as if Kissinger has as influential a voice in the Ford Administration as he did under Nixon, but one can argue that Cheney and Rumsfeld marginalized Kissinger. Ward does well to highlight, though, how the CFR helps people to advance in government. It is an elite group, with elitist ends, but I wonder if there is a way to conceptualize those ends, other than the typical Birch spiel.

I. According to Critchlow, Phyllis was a long-time opponent and critic of the military draft. In Kissinger on the Couch, though, Schlafly and Ward appear to support the draft. This is understandable, for the ability of a country to draft its citizens gives it military strength.

J. Back to Critchlow, Critchlow traces Schlafly’s political involvement to her belief about the role of women, whereas most critics accuse Schlafly of being hypocritical on this. Civic involvement (i.e., being in the DAR) is something women do, and Schlafly saw her political career as part of that.

K. Reading the text of the ERA itself, it is hard to see how it necessarily mandates a totally gender-neutral society. It simply says that equality of rights shall not be infringed on account of sex. That does not say that men and women always have to be treated the same way, but that men and women have equal rights. The question would then be what those rights are. This is not to suggest that Schlafly’s criticisms were unfounded. Watching her debates with feminists on YouTube, even feminists conceded some of her points: yes, if there is a draft, women under the ERA would be drafted. And, as Critchlow documents, Schlafly’s criticisms of the ERA were not new. As early as the 1940’s, conservative women feared that ERA would take away the protections that women already had under the law, and legislators tried to add modifiers to the ERA to assuage their fears. This occurred again in the 1970’s, but the modifiers were voted down by huge margins. Why, that is a good question. Maybe it would look stylistically bad for an amendment to have twenty-or-so caveats.

L. One reason I like Critchlow’s book is that it is a good underdog story. In one passage, Critchlow quotes an anti-ERA housewife who, due to Schlafly’s tutelage, was able to answer academics and professors point-by-point in debates on the ERA. Yet, how much were the anti-ERA people the underdogs? As Critchlow argues, the anti-ERA women made a better impression on legislators than the radical and rambunctious feminists. The feminists were divided on how radical their agenda should be: should they push for homosexual and abortion rights, which were controversial at the time? The anti-ERA women had culture and tradition on their side, even though, as Critchlow points out, there were some differences among them over whether women should have careers or should stay home. And the anti-ERA women had grassroots political talent, for they had connections with their communities and speaking abilities due to their church and civic involvement. ERA activists, by contrast, tended to trust in rallies to get their point across.

M. Critchlow argues against the idea that the right-wing is rooted in racism. The segregationists were merely one part of the anti-Communist coalition of the 1950’s-1960’s. The Republican platforms in 1960 and 1964 endorsed Civil Rights, albeit differently from liberal Democrats. Schlafly wrote against racism in her younger years, and there were African-American pastors and women who participated in the anti-ERA movement. Schlafly’s Republican Senator, Everett Dirksen, with whom she and her husband were close, supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Schlafly never objected to that. Segregationists were Democrats, whereas Schlafly was a Republican. Critchlow raises valid points, but, of course, scholars can find reasons to disagree with him. Opposition to civil rights legislation was part of the conservative belief in states’ rights. Regarding Schlafly’s views on race, I wrestle with that here and here, in posts I wrote while I was going through her Power of the Positive Woman. On the one hand, she speaks favorably of racial equality and sees civil rights legislation as positive. On the other hand, she opposes a court integration decision, criticizes the government forcing people to associate with each other, and speaks contemptuously of civil rights lawyers and minority-crowded neighborhoods.

N. Back to Kissinger on the Couch, Schlafly and Ward criticize Kissinger for choosing as an advisor someone who let Oswald back into the U.S. That interested me because the movie JFK sees Oswald as an American intelligence agent because why else would the U.S. allow someone who defected to Russia to return to the U.S.? Schlafly and Ward go into some of that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.