Book Write-Up: The Gravediggers, by Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly and Chester Ward. The Gravediggers. Pere Marquette, 1964.

This book was published in 1964, the year of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the Presidency. Phyllis Schlafly considered it to be a companion to her landmark A Choice Not an Echo, also released in 1964, which has been credited with helping Goldwater to secure the GOP nomination. The Gravediggers was also Schlafly’s first collaborative project with Rear Admiral Chester Ward. It is the first of other books they wrote that criticize nuclear disarmament on the part of the U.S. The villains of this book include LBJ’s Defense Secretary Robert Strange MacNamara, Paul Nitze, and the liberal Pugwash Conference. For Schlafly and Ward, nuclear disarmament on the part of the U.S. is what makes the U.S. vulnerable to nuclear war, for the Soviets are eager to attack the U.S.

There are aspects of this book that are understandable and sensible. Removing U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for a non-binding commitment from the U.S.S.R. to remove missiles from Cuba sounds like a bad strategy for the U.S. Would the U.S.S.R. act against the U.S. with U.S. missiles at Turkey pointed right at it? That is doubtful, so why remove them? Schlafly and Ward also do well to question the U.S. being part of a nuclear test-ban treaty in which the Soviets cheat. Their defense of Douglas MacArthur’s plan to bomb the Yalu river, across which the Chinese were sending military supplies to North Korea, is likewise sensible.

But there were parts of the book that were rather hairy. Schlafly and Ward defend MacArthur’s desire to use the atomic bomb in the Korean War and praise JFK’s openness to employing nuclear weapons to defend West Berlin against the Soviets.

Schlafly and Ward also argue against the view that nuclear testing creates health defects: “a lifetime dose of fallout from the testing of the nuclear weapons is not as dangerous as smoking one cigarette a month, having a chest X-ray once a year, or wearing a luminous dial wrist watch” (page 39).

The book’s ambivalence about JFK is surprising, since one would expect them to be critical. On the one hand, JFK expressed a desire for nuclear disarmament, of the sort promulgated in State Department document 7277, which advocates the world powers turning over their nuclear weapons to the UN. JFK betrayed the anti-Communist rebels in Cuba, made a disastrous agreement with Krushschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and encouraged Laos to fall to the Communists. On the other hand, JFK admitted some regret when he learned that the Soviets cheated at the test ban treaty, saying it is his fault if they fool him twice. And, as noted above, JFK was open to using nuclear weapons to safeguard West Berlin from Soviet attack. Schlafly and Ward blame some of JFK’s soft stance towards Communism on Lyndon Johnson, who opposed blockading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Schlafly was sort of a bridge between the Old Right and the Goldwater right. The Old Right was rather critical of U.S. interventionism in foreign conflicts, whereas the Goldwater right advocated a tough U.S. stance against Communism on the international front. In A Choice Not an Echo, the kingmakers whom Schlafly criticizes, at least in 1940 and 1944, were internationalists, whereas the heroes were Republican isolationists, who opposed U.S. intervention in World War II. The kingmakers wanted interventionism because that increased their profits, Schlafly argued. In The Gravediggers, however, Schlafly appeals to World War II as an example of why the U.S. should be tough on the global front. We do not want to be like Neville Chamberlain, who naively trusted Hitler, in our approach to the Soviets! And we want to surround the Soviets with our strength rather than retreating, as the Allies surrounded Hitler in World War II. Do these sentiments express Schlafly’s real views on World War II, or are they merely rhetoric?

The book is a lot of policy critique, albeit on a down-to-earth level. Schlafly said that Ward was the source for the technical information, whereas her task was to explain it in easy-to-understand language. The last chapter is an appeal. Schlafly makes the historical observation that George Washington was not the most intelligent man of his age, but he was a leader. She expresses similar hopes about Barry Goldwater. Whether that is a compliment or an insult is a good question, but it is an astute observation about history: the one who has an effect may not be the smartest but the one who steps forward and leads.

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.
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