The essay is adapted from "M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom," by Steven F. Hayward (Encounter, 400 pages, $33.99).

M. Stanton Evans,
Prophet of Our Moment

Although M. Stanton Evans passed on only seven years ago, he is already being forgotten by the current generation of conservatives and is wholly unknown to a rising generation of young conservatives. This is a shame, not only because he deserves to be remembered on his merits alone, but because in many ways he anticipated both the conservative populism that finally expressed itself with the arrival of Donald Trump, and a deep antipathy toward our foreign and defense policy elites that is also a highly salient conservative disposition of today. Stan perceived both things more than 50 years ago, and can be said to have anticipated—and approved of—national conservatism before anyone else.

Evans was a remarkable figure who was in the middle of key moments of the conservative movement since shortly after he graduated from Yale in 1955. A working journalist for more than 40 years, he also found time to be the principal author of the Sharon Statement that marked the founding of the Young Americans for Freedom. He wrote the statement of the “Manhattan 12” that declared a “suspension” of conservative support for President Nixon in 1971. As chairman of the American Conservative Union in the mid-1970s, he founded the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that is now the veritable Woodstock for any ambitious conservative politician. His work with the American Conservative Union extended to organizing independent expenditures on behalf of Reagan’s campaign against Gerald Ford in 1976, which arguably rescued the campaign when it was on the brink of collapse. Jameson Campaigne, Jr. commented, “Without Stan Evans, it is quite likely there would have been no Ronald Reagan in 1980.” His personal fondness for Reagan, however, didn’t restrain him from bracing criticism of the Reagan Administration in his column, and it was Evans who was called upon in 1982 to write a collective statement of conservative leaders expressing dismay at compromises and shortcomings of the Reagan White House.

In addition to his own journalism, his founding of the National Journalism Center in 1978 to train young journalists in the craft was a launching point for numerous conservative journalists familiar to everyone today, including Greg Gutfeld, Ann Coulter, John Fund, Mark Tapscott, Bill McGurn—and this author. And he left behind a body of enduring work, both theoretical (The Theme Is Freedom) and historical (Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy). 

And then there is his legendary deadpan wit, which only came out in person. His usual style was to take a liberal cliché and turn it on its head. “I’ve discovered there is no absurdity that you can invent that a liberal will not state seriously,” he explained. Among his most famous jibes was “I didn’t approve of what Joe McCarthy was trying to do, but I admired his methods.” That’s the kind of line that does the work of 10 op-ed articles explaining the insincerity and weakness of liberal professions of anti-Communism. Likewise, another bon mot derived from a favorite liberal editorial trope of the 1960s: “Any country that can land a man on the moon, can abolish the income tax.” Or: “We need to repeal Obamacare, so we can find out what’s not in it.” Everyone has their list of favorites. Mine is: “Conservatives had to overcome the Goldwater defeat without grief counselors.”

He liked junk food, rock and roll music—especially Elvis Presley—and somehow kept up with pop culture. His hilarious reflections about Lady Gaga cannot be expressed adequately on the printed page, but his general drift can be discerned from one of his favorite refrains: “Whenever there is a pressing public policy issue, I want to know what celebrities think. It is important for our lawmakers to hear from Bono.” As far back as the late 1960s, he was on to the potential of conservative candidates to appeal to working-class Democrats. He welcomed, but was guardedly suspicious of, the rise of the neoconservatives in the 1970s. He seldom had a cross public word to say about any fellow conservative, except one: George Will.

While Evans was a central figure in the postwar conservative movement, a closer look reveals him to be heterodox in some important ways. The most important for us was his skeptical view of foreign and defense policy. Although an ardent Cold Warrior and fierce anticommunist, he early on perceived defects in our foreign and defense elites that anticipate Angelo Codevilla’s later critique (and indeed Evans and Codevilla were well acquainted with each other). And late in life, he started sounding notes on immigration that fully anticipated Trump.

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Start with his first bylined article for National Review in December 1956: “The Liberal Against Himself” was a critique of the godfather of anticommunist “containment,” George Kennan. Widely revered as a supreme intellect, and even something of a conservative, Evans was having none of it. He detected not only the subtle weaknesses of Kennan’s superficial anticommunism, but moreover how his seemingly careful hedges about the Eastern bloc revealed an underlying ignorance that belied his reputation as our leading “expert” on the Soviet Union. His skillful arraying of Kennan’s many contradictions, vague generalizations, and outright errors in prediction was less an attack on Kennan as it was an indirect shaming of the foreign policy establishment and journalists who endlessly lauded Kennan for his supposed brilliance. If Kennan was the prime example of intellectual leadership in the Cold War, we were in deeper trouble than we thought.

More interesting still was his skepticism about Soviet military and industrial prowess. Our foreign policy establishment always accepted Soviet boasts at face value which, Evans believed, paradoxically made it less likely the United States and the West would stand up to the Soviets. He sniffed out John F. Kennedy’s famous “missile gap” claim in the 1960 election as a fraud right from the start. It was an extraordinary contrarian perspective coming amidst the aroused state of public opinion that became known as our “Sputnik moment,” in which the nation was in a near-panic that we were falling behind the Soviets in science and technology. In a rare step, Evans wrote several front-page straight news stories about reasons to doubt Soviet claims in their announced breakthroughs in rocketry, based on original reporting from several expert sources. A September 18, 1959, front-page news story was headlined, “Radio Fake in Red Moon Hit Hinted.” “The Soviet lunar rocket that shook the world this week could have been faked by bouncing radio waves off the moon, creating one of the most spectacular hoaxes in history.” He cited several experts who laid out detailed grounds for this skepticism. 

A follow-up story four days later (September 22) was headlined, “2 Scientists Take ‘Show Me’ Attitude on Luniks”: “Two top American scientists said today Russia’s Lunik II has yet to be proved or disproved. But both made unexpected comments suggesting that the first Soviet Lunik, announced in January and ‘confirmed’ by the American government, was never authenticated.” Although the Lunik launches were later authenticated as our monitoring technology (and some direct CIA spying inside the Soviet Union) improved, Evans was not alone in suggesting Soviet claims about this or other matters should be treated with suspicion. If Soviet grain harvest announcements were always wrong and deliberately deceptive (along with their frequent boasts to have invented the radio and the airplane), why not their announcements about rocketry, too? Congress actually appointed a subcommittee to hold hearings about Soviet rocketry claims in the spring of 1959, taking testimony from several of the same scientists Evans interviewed for his news stories. 

In 1961 Evans in his columns and unsigned editorials regarded the Soviet manned space program as a likely hoax, referring to Yuri Gagarin’s “alleged spaceflight.” Although Gagarin’s flight was genuine, many of Evans’ doubts were subsequently vindicated, as over the years details gradually emerged of deceptions and coverups in the Soviet space launches and landings. At the time Evans noticed numerous anomalies and implausible claims in the Soviet announcements and photographs (why was Gagarin photographed exiting the landed capsule wearing different headgear than appeared in his launch photos?), providing another instance of the uncritical acceptance of “news” from the Soviet Union by both the media and government. He persisted in his skepticism of Soviet “breakthroughs” in space, asking as late as 1965 “Did the Soviets Fake Their Walk in Space?”

Not surprisingly the bylined opinion column Evans started while he was editor of the Indianapolis News was called “Skeptic’s Corner,” and the subject of our misprision of both Soviet prowess and our neglect of Soviet espionage were frequent topics. One early “Skeptic’s Corner” column took aim at Soviet displays of advanced submarines, aircraft, and missiles: “It is known that the Reds have a penchant for tossing together creaky prototypes—like the delta-winged planes that wobbled over Moscow, never to be seen again—to throw a scare into the West.” Another column took direct aim at the CIA’s analytical biases that placed too much credulity in Soviet claims and the passive groupthink of too many American observers. “As was suggested in this space some weeks ago, U.S. ‘intelligence’ has practically no idea of what is going on in Moscow, and has to mix double helpings of the Kremlin’s own say-so into its planning estimates.” This column went on to assemble independent estimates that, among other things, showed—correctly as it turned out—that the Soviet economy was actually falling further behind the United States “[F]actual support for Kremlin tall talk is practically nonexistent,” Evans wrote in still another column. He devoted at least seven columns and two news stories to this topic between 1959 and 1961, and ran op-ed columns by other authors pursuing the same skeptical line.

On the surface, his suspicions about Soviet capabilities seem surprising, as they resemble the Left’s frequent critique of America’s defense and intelligence estimates over the decades as being too hawkish, or overestimating the Soviet threat to the West for the sole purpose of pumping up military spending. Indeed, one of Evans’ sentences—“there is no necessary connection between increased production of military hardware and winning the cold war”—could almost have come from the pen of a leftist like Gabriel Kolko or I.F. Stone. But his independent skepticism provides an important clue to how his mind worked, and why his journalism stands out. It is not so much that he was a natural contrarian; rather, he regarded most of what today we call “mainstream” journalism to be superficial, and thought it always paid to probe deeper into the facts and reject groupthink, whether in a newsroom or government agency.

Beyond a more thorough practice of journalism, we can see that Evans had a more profound grasp of the Cold War scene. Evans took dead aim at the consensus view that “we ought to accept Red assertions at face value anyway, in order to be on the ‘safe’ side.” He discerned that Soviet disinformation served an obvious strategic purpose that escaped the grasp of the conventional foreign and defense policy establishment (and still does to this day in many ways): it deterred the West from acting more forcefully to defend against communist expansion, and it demoralized the West. “If we simply ‘assume’ the Soviets to have everything they claim, we are yielding them the object of the deterrence game at the outset.” The dynamic of the Cold War at this time, he thought, “more closely resembles a clinch in a prizefight, in which a boxer adept at infighting punishes an opponent who can hit with nothing but a long punch from the outside.”

This theme is found repeatedly in his work in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years. “The image of Soviet power has many uses,” he wrote after Kennedy took office; “For the Communists, it is a handy way of intimidating the West, impressing the wobbly sovereigns of Asia and Africa, and building internal morale. For American liberals, it is a powerful argument for appeasement, federal spending to ‘catch up’ with Moscow, and vast foreign aid projects to purchase the affections of the ‘uncommitted.’” (Needless to say, foreign aid was another frequent target of the Indianapolis News editorial page.) Above all, Evans pounded away at the failure to perceive that actual Soviet advances depended upon Western trade and aid (when it didn’t involve outright theft and espionage), and thus the folly of continuing to think the Soviet Union would “mellow” through expanded economic ties with the West. Over the next two decades, Evans took frequent aim at technology transfers and other vital economic assistance to the Soviet bloc that he thought were propping up our enemy. It was a view that was embraced and vindicated two decades later under President Reagan.

Evans discerned the germ of the liberal strategic vision that unfolded rapidly in the 1960s, in which the doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) led to the acceptance of “co-existence” with the Soviet Union, the wishful thinking of “convergence” between East and West as the Soviet Union inevitably “mellowed,” and the folly of arms control on the assumption that our fundamental differences could be bridged by reducing them to technical differences, which could be neatly split through diplomacy. Only someone who took seriously the ideological dimension of the Cold War, recognizing that the ideological competition was more important than the competition in armaments, could perceive how disinformation served to reinforce the false assumption that the Cold War was a stalemate. The inverted presumptions of Western grand strategy ceded the initiative to the communists. “By granting every claim that Moscow makes,” Evans wrote in another column on the topic, “by ‘assuming’ something we do not know in fact, we are playing into the Kremlin’s hands. The Soviets are conducting a successful campaign to terrorize the globe, and our own officials are helping construct the image of power with which they do it.” In another column taking dead aim at Kennedy at the climax of the 1960 campaign, he wrote: “The argument about Soviet growth is an intellectual farce. Yet it is Senator Kennedy’s principal claim to ‘greatness,’ and the chief issue on which he has staked his campaign. . . It uses the resulting confusion as a pretext for statism.”

As early as July 1960, as JFK’s presidential campaign claim of the “missile gap” was just heating up, Evans argued in his column that the “missile gap” claim was “one of Russia’s greatest propaganda weapons,” which made it less likely that a Democratic administration would contest the Soviet Union vigorously. An unsigned editorial the same day—which Evans likely wrote—argued that “there is little if any evidence that Soviet performance is even remotely comparable to our own.”

Thus Evans perceived that, as he put it in a 1961 column, “The principal danger of the United States today is not Communism, but a strange amalgamation of confusions known as the ‘liberal’ mind. . . I say it because the record demonstrates that Communism, in and of itself, is not powerful. Under its own steam, it has made very little headway anywhere in the world. But it has made vast strides where it has confronted ‘liberalism’ as its adversary, or when ‘liberalism’ managed to give it a helping hand.” Liberalism, in other words, was a creed of self-defeatism. This became the central theme of several Evans books in the 1960s and 1970s.

Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

All of Evans’ criticisms and doubts about JFK’s foreign policy acumen were confirmed by the multiple disasters of 1961, starting with the humiliation of the botched Bay of Pigs expedition in April and the simultaneous surrender in Laos that marked a turning point toward the terminal confusions of our Vietnam strategy, the disastrous Vienna summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June, and culminating in the erection of the Berlin Wall in August. The News used scare quotes in its scornful copy about the Vienna meeting (“summit”), and concluded that “the summit exchange must be chalked up as a net loss for the cause of freedom.” The editorial page paid close attention to the Kennedy Administration’s vacillation over Laos. Although the Kennedy Administration initially talked tough about keeping Laos out of Communist control, it was evident to the News that the momentum toward a supposedly “neutral” Laos with a “coalition” government would end up being a strategic defeat for the West. For Evans, it was a simple case of what social scientists call “pattern recognition.”

Evans and the News editorial page had long deplored the course of the Cuban revolution from well before Kennedy took office, attacking the accommodationist rhetoric of liberals taken in by Castro’s deceptions alongside the limp response of the Eisenhower Administration. Even before the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the News had called for a military blockade of arms shipments to Cuba and was properly appalled at Kennedy’s flinch in the April 1960 expedition. “As a case study of Liberal foreign policy,” Evans wrote later, “it would be difficult to improve on Cuba.” He saw our naïvete about Cuba’s revolution as a continuation of our misprision of China’s revolution of 1949, and he would see this pattern repeated in the next two decades in Africa and Latin America (especially Nicaragua during the Carter Administration). The News called for a more vigorous American intervention in both Cuba and Laos, and yet there is a slight hint of restraint, or an inclination toward the disposition of the Old Right from the Taft era against direct military involvement, that reflected both the heartland attitudes about foreign affairs as well as the residue of Frank Chodorov’s influence on Evans:

We believe that the United States should ‘intervene’ in both of these crises, immediately, to insure victory for the forces of freedom. But we do not believe it is either desirable or necessary for that intervention to take the form of American troops. 

We should emulate the Soviet Union, Evans thought, and use proxy forces. Friends and associates of Evans say he held sympathies for the Old Right view of foreign intervention, but if he seldom expressed this view directly it was likely out of prudent calculation that public counsels of restraint would only aid the inclination of liberals toward capitulation and appeasement. 

Evans’ initial reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was muted in part because it appeared JFK was finally stiffening up (and we finally got the blockade the News had advocated for two years), and also because it was not known until much later that JFK had made a secret side deal with the Soviets to remove NATO missiles from Turkey, which made the Cuban settlement a significant strategic defeat for the United States. But even lacking knowledge of that later element, Evans was suspicious of the immediate follow-up, pointing to credible reports that Soviet arms were being hidden in underground bunkers in Cuba, and even the possibility that some of the missiles were never removed at all. (The News had been warning for at least a year before the Missile Crisis that the Soviets were likely to ship larger weapons systems to Cuba in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs capitulation.) The main point of Evans’ skeptical inquiries was not to stoke conspiracy theories or paranoia, but rather to point out the unseriousness and credulity of America’s defense and intelligence establishment. “By unveiling the confusion and disagreement which racked the administration,” Evans wrote in a column on “The Real Lessons of Cuba” a few weeks after the dust had settled, “it showed how totally unprepared our leaders are to cope with the exigencies of the Cold War.” In a chapter reviewing our Cuba policy in his 1966 book The Politics of Surrender, Evans cites extensively from CIA assessments of potential Soviet-Cuban deception that our foreign policy establishment simply denied could be possible, along with abandoning any serious policy aimed at curbing or liberating Cuba. The public steps of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations were “designed to show the American people that something was ‘being done’ about Cuba; in fact, nothing was being done at all.”

Hence Evans expected that the unfolding American involvement in Vietnam would feature the same confusion, self-delusion, and weak-mindedness combined with a presumption of omnipotence. He noted that all of the same clichés from the loss of China and Cuba showed up for duty, including hand wringing over the problem of corruption and human rights violations by the South Vietnamese government, the need for American-style “reform,” and hope for “negotiations” that would surely follow the Laos model of disguised surrender. With his tacit reluctance about committing American armed forces abroad, Evans admitted that a vigorous strategy regarding Vietnam was “a difficult proposition,” but he could see the “strange policy ambivalence” that emerged after the Gulf of Tonkin episode in 1964 was certain to be unsuccessful. (Lost to history, incidentally, is the fact that the John Birch Society thought early on that the Vietnam War was a mistake, a communist trap for America to dissipate its military power.) 

Evans thought from the beginning that the Kennedy Administration’s tentative steps in Vietnam were wrongheaded, and immediately judged the JFK-approved overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 was “the worst single blow struck by our government against the anti-Communist Vietnamese we were supposed to be supporting.” But he seemed to have some hope President Johnson would be better, writing in 1966 that “despite nagging questions,” Johnson “represented an improvement over the performance of the Kennedy regime.” Evans offered editorial praise for Johnson’s statements on the war at various times, writing in July of 1965 about Johnson’s first war speech following a major deployment of troops: “Johnson delivered a proper rebuke to those voices of appeasement who would have us lay down our arms and retreat before the Communist adversary . . . They sum up, as concisely as it has ever been, the essence of a correct foreign policy in a world beset by Communist aggression . . .  a masterful statement on the realities of the Cold War.” Evans also defended LBJ from his critics on the left from time to time. He devoted one column to dishing on Walter Lippmann’s criticism of Johnson, pointing out Lippmann’s own past inconsistencies: “If President Johnson is to be criticized for reversing himself on the subject of Vietnam, Lippmann is hardly the man to take on the job.”

At the same time Evans detected the ambiguity or soft-headedness of Johnson’s conduct of the war, while noting that the bad faith criticism of the war from the Left prevented a worthy debate about the conduct of the war from taking place:

The Johnson Administration has been taking a commendably strong line in Vietnam. . .  But what, ultimately, is our objective of our stand in Vietnam? Are we there to win, to seek stalemate, or to negotiate some kind of ‘neutralist’ settlement? These were the unanswered questions which hung so forbiddingly over our involvement in the Korean War. They are questions which badly need to be asked now.

As the war escalated from 1966 to 1968 with no clear end in sight Evans grew more exasperated with the confusions of the Johnson Administration, though he took out his criticism more often on the senior figures behind the war such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (who he said in 1967 should be fired) and Johnson aide Walt Rostow. By 1968 he was disillusioned with the failure of Johnson and his team to recognize that the Vietnamese communists were not going to reciprocate the repeated bombing halts and entreaties to negotiate. “Communist hostility to the West cannot be disposed of by peace missions, ‘pauses,’ or the remonstrances of conversation,” he editorialized as early as 1966, repeating this point several more times through to the end of the Johnson Administration. After LBJ’s final bombing pause days before the 1968 election, Evans commented on “this sad but familiar story: Once more the Communists have met conciliation with aggression.” Evans pointed out that even after the Tet Offensive and Johnson’s shock withdrawal from seeking re-election, public opinion polls showed majority support for taking a tougher line in Vietnam, such that challenger Eugene McCarthy derived some of his support in the Democratic primaries from voters who wanted to express their frustration with Johnson’s lack of a strategy for winning the Vietnam War. 

If Evans didn’t seem as antagonistic toward Johnson as he was to Kennedy, or as jingoistic as the “win-or-get-out” point of view popular on the Right, it is because Vietnam was a mere symptom of a much deeper and longer-lasting problem with liberal foreign and defense policy as it unfolded rapidly in the 1960s. While many of columns and editorials were written under the tight deadlines of an evening daily paper and were necessarily short, his extended treatment of these issues in his books, especially The Politics of Surrender (1966), show Evans at his best, with memorable turns of phrase and incisive summaries of the problems. (It would be fair to say that Evans’ editorials and columns for the News were the first drafts for his books.) He paid attention to detail, especially the ideas of certain influential liberal intellectuals that the mainstream media overlooked, but whose ideas were by degrees determining what Evans thought was an ominous turn in America’s strategic outlook. His assessment in the mid-1960s foresaw how the debate over the Cold War would harden into the flabby détente of the 1970s and 1980s.

It will sound shocking to summarize Evans’ position by saying that he was less afraid of Soviet Communists than he was of American liberals. As he put it starkly in The Politics of Surrender

The radical disjunction between Liberal ideology and the shape of the world we live in is the most serious problem confronting the United States today . . . We have been surrendering the globe to an enemy whose true character Liberalism refuses to acknowledge . . . The Communists have not in fact been winning the Cold War so much as we have been losing it.

The fundamental error of liberalism was that “The Liberal believes Communists are at bottom not too different from ourselves, and that the Cold War is the result of misunderstanding.” From this core intellectual error flowed a number of disastrous policies, in particular the idea that stability would be best obtained by an equality of strategic power between the United States and the USSR. In other words, accepting the idea that peace would be best secured through the acceptance of the “mutual assured destruction” doctrine meant deliberately surrendering American strategic superiority. Our deliberate embrace of MAD and military equality, along with expanded trade with the Soviet bloc, would lead to a “convergence” of interests in which the Soviets would “mellow.” Ultimately, the most deluded liberals thought, the embrace of mutual terror and population-hostage taking would lead to disarmament.

Evans naturally discerned the connection between Vietnam and the arms race, and why the liberal establishment was failing on both. There is throughout his writing on Vietnam a subtle reservation about the soundness of our intervention, a residue of his mentor Frank Chodorov along with sympathy for the old Right non-interventionism of Robert Taft and others. (Keep in mind that Human Events had been founded partly as a voice for non-interventionist foreign policy, and Indiana was always sympathetic to heartland isolationist sentiments.) 

At the same time he discerned mistakes and fundamental weaknesses of our war policy, derived from the wishful thinking of establishment liberals and technocrats like Robert McNamara who thought force could be “calibrated” to send “messages,” thinking that the conflict could be resolved through good-faith diplomacy. And naturally Evans had no sympathy at all for the anti-war Left, whose opposition to the Vietnam War he knew was just a species of anti-anticommunism (if not open sympathy for our enemies), and as such any criticism of the war effort might have required walking a fine line so as not to lend aid and comfort to the Left. 

Whatever his private views about the heavy American military commitment in Vietnam, he was clear and direct about how American attempts at conciliation would only lead to more aggression from North Vietnam, and how a feckless military strategy would not just lead to defeat in the field, but contribute to a weakening of American resolve in the world. Evans anticipated the “Vietnam Syndrome” long before anyone thought of the name.

He didn’t let up on the issue when Richard Nixon became president and launched “détente.” He once remarked that he only met Henry Kissinger three times, and each time Kissinger lied to him. Evans had a blunt confrontation with Kissinger in the White House in 1971. Kissinger’s case, he wrote after, was “unconvincing.” 

Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

When the first major conflict after the Cold War erupted, the Gulf War of 1990-91, Evans did not automatically jump on the pro-war bandwagon. While voicing support for Israel, he wondered whether American policy in the Middle East was actually helpful to Israel or was in America’s interest at all. Evans wrote that some of the region’s troubles owed to our own “myopic interference.” In radio commentaries for Voice of America in the late 1980s, Evans wondered “why we were kowtowing so endlessly to Saddam Hussein, and hearing little or nothing by way of an intelligible answer.” When President George H.W. Bush began assembling a war coalition in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Evans noted that it wasn’t clear the coming war was necessarily a vital interest of the United States (while also rejecting the idea that we were intervening at the behest of Israel), and moreover questioned the sudden “neo-interventionism” of the Left: Where were the usual indignant cries of “no more Vietnams,” against backing foreign autocrats, and concerns about the “imperial presidency”? This skepticism of Middle Eastern policy should not be regarded as “isolationism” of the old Robert Taft variety, he argued, but rather flowed from his long-running contempt for our hubristic foreign policy establishment. 

In another column Evans came close to repudiating the Vietnam War: our Middle East blunders that had helped strengthen the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria reminded him of “the grim effects of early Vietnam syndrome, which might best be described as creating such a mess through mistaken intervention that U.S. troops are sent in to set the situation right.” In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Evans thought his skepticism was fully vindicated, arguing that the ambiguous post-conflict conditions in Iraq proved that U.S. strategy and messaging had been “incoherent.”

Evans returned to this problem in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. He had given up his column by that point and was only writing intermittently about current issues, but Human Events reporter John Gizzi caught up with Evans in December 2001 to ask him about the wider war strategy then being contemplated in Washington. In particular, Gizzi wanted Evans’ reaction to a comment from William Kristol in the Washington Post: “Whether we take on Iraq has huge implications for the U.S. role in the world and, fundamentally, it’s whether we’re going to take it upon ourselves to shape a new world order.” Evans was not enthusiastic about the idea, telling Gizzi:

I don’t know where the idea came from that conservatives favor a ‘new world order’ or any variant of that notion. That sounds more like the globalism of Woodrow Wilson and FDR than the limited constitutional government U.S. conservatives have historically favored. As to conservative doctrine on such issues, my personal view is that the proper role of the U.S. government is to defend our country against attack or imminent security damage. I’m no military expert, but judging by results to date, the president and his team have done a superlative job of responding to the attacks of September 11th. I would specifically include in this their reluctance to expand the fighting in all directions.

That reluctance didn’t hold, of course. But it is easy to make out here the sympathy Evans would likely have today toward the disposition of national conservatives about restraining American military commitment abroad.

Evans was also early to the problem that we know today as the “administrative state” or the “deep state.” A column in September 1960, “Who Really Runs America’s State Department?” notes that it is not really the Secretary of State who determines foreign policy, but the “unknown policy planners and memo-makers” on the fourth floor at State “who fill the Secretary’s in-basket.” While many (though not all) of the issues he confronted in the 1960s are dated, his general description in The Liberal Establishment is just as applicable today:

An establishment is, then, guided by a kind of informal junta by which a community is guided in all those things that matter. It is defined by large areas of agreement among its members on key social and political questions, and the remarkable adhesion they display in action when their views are tested by political resistance or the friction of ideas . . . Members of the Establishment know where they stand on major issues before the issues come up, because the Liberal ideology supplies them with a whole agenda of set answers to political problems . . . [There is] a common idiom and portfolio of tactics.

Sounds just like Angelo Codevilla, 40 years ahead of time.

It is always worthy to celebrate the lives and legacies of our heroes and mentors, but in the case of Stan Evans, there is much more of this capacious man that we can learn from today. 

About Steven F. Hayward

Steven F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and a senior fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He writes daily at that niche website, Power Line.

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