History Lesson

What Young Americans for Liberty can learn from Young Americans for Freedom

By: Gregory L. Schneider

One of the most interesting developments of last year’s presidential contest was the mobilization of young people on behalf of two candidates, Barack Obama, who easily won the election, and Texas congressman Ron Paul, a longshot to win the GOP nomination. An antiwar, pro-constitutional, laissez-faire physician who has served 10 terms in Congress and was the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party in 1988, Paul drew more interest on campus than any candidate save for Obama. While much of Paul’s support could be traced to his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his appeal with young people extended far beyond foreign policy. Paul is representative of a growing interest on the Right in returning to first principles after years of Republican acquiescence to the goals of liberal Washington.

One would have to go back almost 50 years to find a similar student-led revolt on the Right. Ronald Reagan produced loyalty among young Americans which translated into political support at the polls, as well as for his agenda of building up America’s military against the Soviets and revitalizing the economy. Yet his administration never produced the intensity of campus interest engendered by the Paul campaign or by the campaign of Arizona Sen. Barry Morris Goldwater for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1960.

Back then, one of the strangest developments in American politics was the awakening of American youth to principles of conservatism. Two important individuals in this awakening were Goldwater himself and William F. Buckley Jr., who founded National Review in 1955 and whose writing and celebrity served as a beacon drawing young people towards the conservative principles espoused in the early years of his journal. Buckley launched the magazine out of a desire to combat the regnant New Deal liberalism of American politics—to “stand athwart history shouting stop!”, as he famously wrote in the journal’s opening issue, Buckley was a huge attraction on college campuses which (sadly) lacked as much diversity of ideas then as they still do today.

Conservatives had organized youth groups to address the paucity of non-liberal ideas on campus. Foremost among these groups was the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), which dispensed free books to students and supported the formation of conservative clubs on campuses. Through the late 1950s several of these clubs helped set the stage for the Right’s movement into politics. A particularly galvanizing issue was an effort to remove a loyalty oath from the post-Sputnik National Defense Education Act. An odd organization with the benefit of hindsight, formed by two individuals who had interned at National Review and Human Events, the Student Committee for the Loyalty Oath mobilized conservative students on 44 campuses in the fall of 1958 to preserve the loyalty oath in the law. The argument of the two founding members, Douglas Caddy and David Franke, was principled—if students received federal money for education in defense-related coursework in science, shouldn’t they be loyal to the Constitution? Their argument convinced enough politicians to defend the act that the loyalty oath was spared.

After that victory, conservative students continued to look for ways they could make a difference in politics. They found one in the growing influence of Barry Goldwater in the Republican Party. In March 1960, Clarence Manion—radio host and former dean of the Notre Dame Law School—arranged for the publication of Goldwater’s book Conscience of a Conservativeimage, which debuted to wide acclaim. Young people devoured the book hungrily and contributed to the cause by organizing Youth for Goldwater for Vice President clubs. The drive received support from National Review, and the push was on to get Goldwater nominated for VP at the August GOP convention in Chicago. But it was not to be. Richard Nixon had already met with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and had made a deal that liberal Republican Henry Cabot Lodge would be his running mate. Conservatives booed when the name was announced, leading Goldwater, in his speech to the convention to say, “let’s grow up, conservatives.” He urged his supporters to take back the GOP. Young conservatives did just that.

Over the weekend of September 9-11, 1960, at the Buckley estate in Sharon, Connecticut, a group of around 90 young conservatives from around the country gathered to found a new national organization named Young Americans for Freedom. The students and several older conservatives present, dubbed OAFs (Old Americans for Freedom) by direct-mail impresario Marvin Liebman, approved a charter called the Sharon Statement, which was written by Indianapolis News editor M. Stanton Evans en route to the conference and which stipulated the fusionist vision of the conservatives of the 1950s—traditional references to God balanced by a commitment to free-market economics and support for the Cold War against international communism. They also elected a national board and appointed Robert Schuchman as national director and Douglas Caddy as executive director.

What is impressive about Young Americans for Liberty is how much it has followed this now half-century old script. YAL has a national committee, a statement of principles, and is publishing a national magazine (much as YAF published a periodical called The New Guard). The goals of the organization are clear and well articulated and by every measure YAL should prosper both organizationally and philosophically as it moves to combat statists of the Left, Right, and Center and defend individual liberty in American society.

Yet as with any student organization, it is imperative that the members stay away from factional politics and avoid the conflagration of competing interests and cliques that eventually made YAF a relatively ineffective organization.

Here too, history may be on YAL’s side. In the early 1960s some competition existed between YAF, which explicitly defined itself as a conservative youth organization, and groups like the Young Republicans, which were party organizations for young people. And there were other tensions plaguing YAF. In my history of the organization, Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Rightimage, I document the disputes that erupted between the national board and officers and the chapters and state boards that were much more activist and intent on fulfilling the goals of the Sharon Statement. Any student organization should avoid what befell YAF early on, the lure of a national board ensconced in comfortable offices and spending lavishly on privileges it did not need to be effective. Eventually, fundraiser Richard Viguerie was brought in to help stabilize the YAF national office, and he helped the organization dramatically, employing techniques such as direct-mail solicitation, which he had learned from YAF advisor Marvin Liebman.

Other factional fights in the early days concerned ideology and political power. Some feared that the John Birch Society was attempting to gain control of YAF through a board member named Scott Stanley. Other leading YAF members even had a dalliance with the forces of Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal New York governor who was eager to use YAF for his own ends—an improbable match that garnered laughter and derision from former YAF members when they discussed it some 30 years later. Fears of Birch or Rockefeller takeover did not hobble the organization, however, and for its first four years, working on behalf of the Goldwater campaign, YAF continued to function vitally, recruiting members, building its movement, and serving as shock troops for the conservative cause.

But as the Vietnam War escalated and the New Left focused on antiwar organizing on campus, YAF began to split. Most YAF members were anticommunist and were initially exposed to the conservative movement through Buckley, National Review, ISI, or Goldwater. So it was no surprise that the majority of YAF members remained committed to the Vietnam War. But a growing number of libertarian students, who often came to their philosophy through the writings of Ayn Rand, began to express doubts. Some even began to look into alliances with the New Left over the war. They urged an end to the draft, which in fact the great majority of YAF members, as well as YAF advisors like Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk, also supported.

The dispute between libertarian and conservative students erupted into a purge, however, at the 1969 YAF convention in St. Louis. Libertarians protested YAF’s position on the war, and one member incinerated a replica draft card on the convention floor. Conservative students heckled the libertarians, calling them “laissez-fairies,” and there was talk of fisticuffs in the hotel hallways. Libertarian students gathered at the St. Louis Arch to protest the “fascist” tactics of YAF, with speeches by former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess to rally the assembled crowd. In the end, many of the radical libertarians split from YAF, forming Students for Individual Liberty (SIL). While short-lived, SIL became the basis for the creation or revival of a variety of libertarian organizations and institutions outside of the conservative movement, including Reason and the Libertarian Party.

YAF’s internal tumult, at least over ideological differences, subsided by the early 1970s, though it remained an organization plagued by factional differences and disputes over power. By the 1980s, at the highpoint of conservative institutional power, YAF was a shadow of its former self, suffering from charges and countercharges of ethical and legal misconduct between national board members. YAF still exists, but it is hardly the organization it was in the late 1960s, when it claimed as many as 80,000 members in hundreds of chapters and had active groups in just about every state.

YAL has a chance to avoid the perils that brought YAF down. First, there will not be competing outside factions seeking to draw YAL into their orbit, as was the case for YAF in early 1960s. In those days, because YAF tried to represent almost the full spectrum of young activists on the Right, every external center of power sought to co-opt it and thereby win control over the next generation of conservative leaders. Second, YAL may not so soon face the temptations of power and politics that YAF did. YAF board members eventually bought their own national headquarters in Virginia. While it turned out to be a decent financial investment, it never was a good use of resources for a student activist organization. Third, the Internet and better communications may keep factionalism to a minimum in a group like YAL, facilitating understanding between the leadership and base of the group. Fourth, the organization is more focused on liberty and the beliefs of Ron Paul. YAF, like conservatism in general during the 1960s, was discordant, and its many mansions eventually split up once the communist threat diminished.

But YAL faces unique dangers, too. Libertarians, as Brian Doherty documents in his splendid history Radicals for Capitalism, tend to be very sectarian. YAL would do well to avoid the chronic sectarianism that beset just about every libertarian group in the 20th century. Anarchists and Objectivists and others should work together to create an effective organization, to build on the principles embodied in YAL’s mission statement. They should be ecumenical, and members should never allow one faction to dominate ideologically, or the effectiveness of YAL’s mission will be diminished accordingly. That is what happened to YAF. Absolute power and absolute ideology tend to destroy, if organizations succumb to them, absolutely. Avoid those pitfalls, learn from history, and YAL should have a bright future. I wish you well.

Gregory L. Schneider is Associate Professor of History at Emporia State University and the author, most recently, of The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution (Critical Issues in American History)image as well as Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right.