essays

Dec 1, 1977

A Right-Wing Reunion: The 1977 Convention of the Young Americans for Freedom

Palmer “went to New York…to set up a table for the Young Libertarian Alliance, hoping to find some sparks…that might be fanned into flames.” No dice.

The 1977 national convention of the right-wing youth organization Young Americans for Freedom met recently in New York City, and in many ways it showed the direction the American right wing is taking in these days. YAF is not what it was ten years ago, yet it is still around, and occasionally manages to exert some influence on the political scene. There are presently far fewer YAFers than during the days of the Vietnam War, when thousands of students were signed up in campaigns against the violent excesses of the antiwar left, (even though their membership is up from 1975, due to the influx of new members and funds generated by the emotions of the Reagan campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination.) Now, YAF is down to the hard core; probably no more than 6,000 Americans belong to YAF—a large portion of these are non-active or adult associate members—and few states have active state organizations. Their major strength seems to lie mainly in the Northeast (particularly in New York), and in the South.

The pantheon of present YAF heroes prominently features Ronald Reagan, YAF founder and National Review editor William Buckley (though even he has strayed from the path in his endorsements of decriminalization of marijuana and the Panama Canal treaty), South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond (presently orchestrating much of the saber rattling over Panama), North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, and rabble-rousing rightist Robert K. Dornan, a rising star. The issues they like to talk about are the Panama Canal, Communist slavery, East-West trade, and “free enterprise” (to be distinguished from the “free market”). They represent a good deal of the mainstay of the American right—maintaining a dying tradition in league with the thousands of “little-old-ladies-in-tennis-shoes” who devotedly skimp on meals so they can send a part of their monthly social security check to (check one): stop the canal giveaway; fight the Reds and Pinks who are taking over the campuses; elect Ronald Reagan; alert the public to the menace of Communist invasion; stop America’s moral decline.

Approximately 450 delegates (and perhaps 150-200 other members) gathered at the Statler Hilton Hotel in New York City from August 24th to 28th to prepare resolutions, elect new officers, lay plans for the future, and party. They were sporting buttons with such slogans as “Amy Carter Sells Pink Lemonade,” “Register Commies—Not Guns,” “Don’t Ditch Our Canal,” and “Speak Softly and Build the B-1.” The turn-out was well in excess of their 1975 Chicago convention, where they were racked by internal dissension. At that convention, several state delegations were not seated and nine members of their twenty-five member national board boycotted, thus forfeiting their memberships. I went to New York with another libertarian to set up a table for the Young Libertarian Alliance, hoping to find some sparks of libertarian sentiment that might be fanned into flames. Little did I know how futile our efforts would be.

I had once, many years ago, been an active YAFer and was interested to see where they had gone and what they were like. My own YAF involvement began while a freshman in high school as chairman of the Edison-Fountain Valley High School chapter in Orange County, California. Up I climbed, to chairman of the Orange County YAF Council, vice-chairman of CAL-YAF, treasurer of USC YAF, Executive Director of CAL-YAF, chairman of a U.S. Senatorial youth campaign, and potential candidate for the national board of the nation’s largest (read only) explicitly conservative youth group. My political baptism in YAF taught me a great deal and, now that I have put a considerable distance between myself and the right, I look back on my experiences with a certain fondness. My years in the Young Americans for Freedom, before my switch to libertarianism, gave me numerous insights into the mind of the young conservative and what makes him tick.

We arrived with a busload of YAFers from Virginia Wednesday afternoon and proceeded to set up out table of pamphlets, books, banners, and the like. The next five days would certainly have to counted among the most depressing and boring of my life. Not only were most of the YAFers uninterested in the free market, but I would not count the present crop among the intellectual cream of American students, either. Granted, the meeting was held in New York (the bulk of the delegates were New Yorkers), which most of the more intelligent YAFers assured me was their intellectual “black hole.” The Southern YAFers were by and large better versed in matters involving thought, but they were far outnumbered in a sea of knee-jerking right-wing New Yorkers.

As soon as the table was up, and our flyers neatly arranged, we were accosted by the boisterous and stentorian huckster lady in the next booth. She promptly attempted to sell us Japanese made “authentic Indian jewelry”, buttons proclaiming “Only a peanut would sell our canal” and “Reagan in ’80”, and “Official red-neck” tee shirts. The lady had set the tone for the next four days. Most of the right-wingers who walked by would leaf through a flyer or two, espy a paragraph on victimless crimes or some such red flag and then shake their heads as they wandered off, leaving the flyer unread on the table. One bright looking Louisiana YAFer, in response to an invitation to help himself to any of the literature, responded that he had heard that some libertarians were anarchists and, he sputtered, “they should not be tolerated in society.” “Well,” I responded, “no one ever hurt himself by reading a flyer.” To the contrary, he replied, he “wouldn’t want to be corrupted by reading any libertarian literature.”

The openly “Neanderthal” striplings were not the worst, however. There are few things I find more irritating than the smug ideologue who volunteers that he is “basically a libertarian, but…” “But what?,” I ask. Queers recruiting our children, the Communists in (pick a country), bomb torrijos into the Stone Age, militarize (it’s the price you pay to live in a “free” society), etc, etc, ad nauseum. (Anita Bryant, who was invited to address the meeting, declined, but her supporters were there in force, many of them claiming to be “basically libertarians, but…”).

The average YAFer, grudgingly obligated by his national leaders to acknowledge support for at least some deregulation and opposition to the minimum wage, drops everything when the chance comes to support militarism. YAFers delight in heated arguments over military strategy (if only we had bombed the dikes!), the only outlet for cerebral exercise for many of them; and one was subjected to one armchair general after another in seemingly endless succession. How many times did I hear conservatives tell me shrilly that “they would be willing to die for Panama”? “But what about those of us who don’t share your fervor for things military,” I ask, “would you contradict your position on the draft and call for conscription?” There’s the rub. “Conservatives only oppose conscription during peacetime, but not in time of war” (like with Panama), they state.

The speakers were often no better. Some of the lightly attended panels covered topics like the minimum wage and governmental employment policies, but they were nothing compared to Bob Dornan describing how he and his “little woman” pummeled and bloodied a “Communist” with a “Commie” flag who dared to wave it during our nation’s celebration of freedom. Ronald Reagan then proceeded to denounce the canal “giveaway.” The right-wing attitude on this subject might be summed up in the lead quip from National Review the following week (which was bandied about the convention), “they say the neutron bomb can wipe out tinhorn dictators without damaging canals.”

I also found out to what extent the new YAFers support “freedom.” Free trade with unapproved nations was out, as that “would allow the Commies to walk right in” (how this position was arrived at beats me). A motion to bring to the floor a resolution calling for decriminalization of “private usage” of marijuana was overwhelmingly defeated. The members of Ian Smith (!) YAF proposed a resolution calling for recognition of Rhodesia and Transkei, on the grounds that recognition did not necessarily imply approval of the recognized nation’s internal policies. But (horrors!) this principle would require YAFers to call for de facto recognition of Red China and Albania. The resolution which finally passed, in addition to calling for recognition of and trade with the racist regimes, praised South Africa and Rhodesia for their “unique solutions to their own unique problems” (apartheid), “recognized that white people had settled there before any Negro tribes,” and claimed that “all of the economic and cultural progress was the result of a small minority (i.e. whites) within those nations.” Besides calling for recognition and trade (though clearly selectively applied, this is fully in accord with libertarian non-interventionism), the YAF cadets, in all their puffed-up sanctimoniousness, went on to call for aid to freedom-loving Rhodesia in fighting off Communist terrorists. Remember Ronald Reagan in 1976 not ruling out commitment of American troops to southern Africa?

YAF represents the mainstay of the American right, maintaining a dying tradition.

I am reminded by all this of the 1975 Western regional convention of YAF which, in its assembled righteousness and wisdom, called on April 12 for committing 500,000 American troops to the defense of freedom-loving South Vietnam. Viet Cong troops occupied Saigon three days later, on April 15. The main bone of contention among the Western YAFers was whether or not to unleash nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese people.

This is a theme which is echoed throughout the right. “Limited nuclear war,” one hears, should be kept open as a policy option in brushfire wars. Herein, we find, lies the source of their fervent support for right-wing social democrat James Schlesinger, noted proponent of the limited nuclear war viewpoint. Schlesinger openly opposes all of the old goals to which rightists give lip service: limited government, free enterprise, and the rest. But he does share most important views with YAF: foreign policy adventurism, support for the militarized economy of the warfare state, and a general penchant for what Harry Elmer Barnes called “globaloney”.

The convention had its better moments. One or two of the inevitable ’50s parties were enjoyable and showed a glimmer of the old YAF—while the politics haven’t changed much, certainly the members were more interesting at one time. The real high point of the week, however, was saved for Saturday night. Demonstrating that even wild-eyed war-hawks have a sense of humor, YAF sponsored a roast of William Buckley. Among the roasters were Henry Kissinger, 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace, American Conservative Union luminary Stan Evans, former YAF chairman David Keene, National Review publisher Bill Rusher, and Americans for Democratic Action leading light Allard Lowenstein. The dinner opened with a bit of in-house right-wing humor—Keene’s description of a sixty-seven year-old YAFer sporting a day-glo orange leisure suit who accosted him in the lobby with his fears about Kissinger and the CFR. This elicited peals of laughter from the group (you really have to know something of the foibles of the right to appreciate this anecdote fully), and set the stage for a hilarious tongue-in-cheek (and well-received) lampooning of the conservative movement and its Godfather, Bill Buckley.

Aside from this good-humored respite, the whole convention really drove home to me how far removed the rank-and-file of YAF is from any authentic concern with liberty. War, militarism, repression of civil liberties, and out-and-out statism are clothed, not very artfully, under a superficially attractive cover of “freedom”, “free enterprise”, and opposition to oppressive socialism. Indeed, the slogan which adorned the convention program and was draped behind the podium boldly declared “Freedom Not Socialism.” However, just what that freedom means to most YAFers is something very different from what one might expect. In effect, theirs is simply socialism under a different name—the war economy. Everything—lives, freedom, property—must be sacrificed to defeat the schemers in the Kremlin. One senses, however, that if the Kremlin were still run by Alexander Kerensky or his heirs, a new enemy would be found and a new crusade launched. In any case, Young Americans for Freedom and their fellow rightists are not simply ineffectual defenders of freedom, as they are sometimes perceived. They are, in fact, among its most outspoken opponents.