History of Conservatism From the 1960’s to the Present Day

Neo-Conservatism is a relatively recent categorization of a political ideology. With its roots forming in the 1960s this type of conservatism has infiltrated the culture and was heavily embraced by the former Bush administration. Commonly thought to be synonymous with the far right-wing of the Republican Party or ultra-conservatism, the expression neo-conservatism, or ‘neo-cons,’ describes a new type of conservatism, one whose roots are embedded in the philosophy of the left-wing.

Conservatives and neo-cons are generally affiliated with the Republican Party but are often on opposing sides of an issue, the most significant example being the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to the present. The foreign policy of a U.S. government operated by this ideology has resulted in dubious, imperialistic actions. Because of its massive influence in contemporary times with effects that will last far into the future, the neo-conservative movement is the most important social movement of the 1960s.

History of the Movement

Neo-conservatives have been described as inherently evil, protectionists, and self-absorbed capitalists but also, by a growing minority, as the protectors of the American way of life. With regards to foreign policy, neo-cons advocate a strike-first mentality while conservatives promote a ‘hands-off’ policy. The ‘neo’ or ‘new’ is attached to conservatism for two primary reasons. “Most of its architects were new to any kind of right-of-center orientation, having previously identified with the political left; and second, because the formulation of ‘conservatism’ that they produced was noticeably different in content and style from the mainstream American Conservatism that had prevailed since the New Deal-World War II eras” (Atkins & Tartakovsky, 2003).

Neo-conservatism originated in the 1930s when East coast socialists rejected the totalitarian views of Stalinism. The term became publicly acknowledged during the 1970s. It described liberals who were dissatisfied with the left-wing agenda, particularly in foreign affairs. It has since been used to define those considered ‘hawkish’ regarding foreign military involvement. During the Vietnam era, the neo-conservatism movement expanded due to the political polarization occurring in the country between the anti-war, anti-American sentiments of the counterculture and neo-cons who championed blind patriotism.

Neoconservatives were not collected for the expansion or continuance of the war but they were united in their fear that communism would spread. The term ‘domino theory’ was used quite often by the neo-cons to justify America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. If Vietnam fell to the communists, they reasoned, the remainder of the region would be systematically consumed by the ‘Red Menace.’ (“National Security Strategy”)

The Vietnam War sharply divided the country but neo-cons, even the ones who were less than hawkish, were always on the defensive regarding the consequences of losing to communism. When war opponents voiced the opinion that communism wasn’t the most imperative concern, that American imperialism and expansionistic tendencies were the big issues, neo-cons were quick to rebuke what they thought was unpatriotic rhetoric.

They feared the proliferation of communism and argued this fear was not unfounded. President Jimmy Carter believed the neo-cons were overly paranoiac and suffered from an ‘inordinate fear of Communism.’ The leader of the neo-con agenda during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, won this group’s admiration by calling the former Soviet Union the “evil empire”, a nation to be feared and opposed very much in contradiction with the approach of the Carter administration.

Neo-cons of the 1980s as well as today “took the point of George Orwell’s 1984, a book that resurrected the idea of evil as a political category and they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough” (Muravchik, 2007). Reagan successfully brought the conservatives and neo-cons together which largely accounted for his popularity within the Republican Party.

A former Democrat, Reagan inserted many neo-cons including Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Bill Bennett into key foreign relations and domestic positions within his administration. This group of communist hard-liners is generally credited or credits themselves, depending on who is asked, with accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union by using strong rhetoric and without using military actions. (“National Security Strategy”)


The former President Bush spoke against the idea of ‘nation building’ during his first run for office in 2000. However, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed his view on foreign policy to one of an imperialist tendency. His closest advisors including Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove are all neo-cons who created a neo ‘red scare’ by declaring a ‘war on terror.’ The neo-conservative conservative wing of the Republican Party was successful in misleading millions of terrified Americans following 9/11.

At the time of the 2004 election, the majority of Americans believed that Iraq, somehow, was to blame for those attacks and that Saddam Hussein was hiding large quantities of weapons of mass destruction despite information from the U.N.’s weapons inspectors (Coleman, 2004). No other movement has had as much of an impact on the world as the conservatism that was born in the 1960s and matured after the 2000 Presidential election. Unfortunately, the impact was largely negative.

Cheney’s foreign affairs positions may have been obscured from the public and even the inner circle at the White House but the impacts of those opinions have been front-page news. Administration officials commented that Cheney produced the administration’s approach in the war on terrorism and toughened Bush’s determination to maintain the United State’s uncompromising stance on Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli disputes.

Cheney, the de facto leader of neo-conservatism was also influential in shaping a statement by Bush on July 12, 2003, which encouraged Iranians to dispose of their oppressive religious leadership. “I’ve never seen a vice president who enjoys the confidence of a president to this degree,” said Richard Perle, a Reagan administration defense official and chairman of the Defense Policy Board. “Normally, vice presidents tend to be less influential than the president’s staff” (Slavin & Page, 2003).

A White House official went further by saying that a Congressman, foreign diplomat, or a leader of an interest group attempting to influence the administration’s stance on foreign policy might choose to talk to Cheney or Rice. “But if you had the choice of talking to their staffs, there’s no question you would choose to talk to Cheney’s,” the official said (Slavin & Page, 2003).

Cheney’s close relationship with Pentagon intelligence is hardly a new phenomenon. It began in 1988 when he was chief over the organization as Secretary of Defense and for all intent and purposes, still is. False claims regarding the ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were initiated by the Secretary of Defense via Cheney’s desk. Cheney and his staff crafted the reasoning for going to war. Bush merely recited this justification based solely on Cheney’s advice (Monday, 2005).

Since 911, Cheney has used his influence over Bush, a depth of power unequaled by that of any vice president in contemporary times, to determine the direction of the administration’s war on terrorism. Cheney and his supporters, though that number seems to drop by day, believe his hard-line approach to foreign affairs was a positive influence on the President in the days following 911. From Cheney’s perspective, the United States has a responsibility to wage war with the intent of constructing the world in its image owing no explanation or apologies.

He strongly believes the U.S. leadership backed by U.S. military force caused the downfall of communism and subsequent acceptance of capitalism as the global economic standard. Cheney cannot comprehend the opinions of those who believe that the United States is a greater threat to peace and liberty than are its enemies. “America is again called by history to use our overwhelming power in defense of our freedom,’ Cheney said in a 2002 speech. ‘We’ve accepted that duty, certain of the justice of our cause, and confident of the victory to come” (Kessler & Slevin, 2002).

Cheney’s influence over Bush and the power he wields is comparable to having a co-presidency. One of many concerned about this unprecedented arrangement is Walter Mondale, the Vice President under Jimmy Carter. “I moved into the White House and I became a part of the internal workings of the Carter administration,” Mondale said. “That precedent has been sustained throughout all the later vice presidents, which has made the office more important” (“Cheney’s Role”, 2005). Mondale went on to say that Cheney has taken the responsibility of his office beyond what would be considered reasonable or workable. Many nations and citizens of the world along with those in the U.S. and administration officials had to cope with numerous illustrations of Cheney’s lack of sound reasoning.

Common Conservative Ideologies

Bush and the neo-con infested executive branch’s ‘war on terror included an illegal, immoral, and ill-conceived invasion of a sovereign nation which has resulted in the expansion of terrorist activities and is causing an intensified hatred of Western nations by the entire Middle Eastern region regardless of nationality or ideology and thus has been an effective recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda. The ‘war on terror’ also produced the PATRIOT Act.

A close examination of the Act, which the members of Congress did not do before voting, confirms that those that champion civil liberties as such are justifiably alarmed. Libertarian organizations such as the Civil Liberties Union claim that the Bush administration has a proclivity for secrecy and rejects the concept of transparency. The PATRIOT Act has reproved Bush’s agenda for the “outright removal of checks and balances” (Etzioni, 2004: 9). The Bush administration, the best friend of the neo-con ideology, also justifies the use of torture tactics in secretive prisons to extract information from ‘enemy combatants’ as another important tool in the war on terror.

The ultimate culmination of the rhetoric and selective legal reasoning regarding the ‘War on Terror’ was Bush’s order of the U.S. military to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan, an illegal act on many fronts. Bush has constantly maintained that these actions against sovereign countries were legal. First, he argues, because of existing language within the UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq, which is also publicly espoused by the British government, and secondly, the invasions are an act of self-defense which international law permits.

However, according to noted neo-con Richard Perle, a top official of the U.S. Defense Policy Board and advisor to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “international law… would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone” (Burkeman & Borger, 2003). Yet, this would have been “morally unacceptable” according to the Bush administration which has taken the neo-con philosophy to its extreme.

In simplistic terms, neo-cons are in favor of forcefully imposing the will of the U.S. onto other countries and, in essence, ignoring domestic issues. The neo-con take-over of the highest office in the land has cost the nation dearly on many fronts. One can only trust that the people of this country have learned a lesson from the myopic and destructive ideology of neo-conservatism. This philosophy has re-structured the real and perceived ideology of the U.S. from one of being of neutrality to one of imperialistic nation-building.

Those of a conservative ideology is against legalizing abortion. They believe it to be murder and are crusading to save babies’ lives. However, conservatives are also against funding prenatal care programs and post-natal welfare-type programs designed to feed and clothe small children. Liberals believe this logic to be contradictory. Opponents and supporters of abortion rights have become increasingly vocal since it became legal in the U.S. (Klitsch, 1990).

People opposed to legal abortions are also in the same camp that opposes programs that aid the impoverished and abused children who are the result of unwanted pregnancies. They point to ‘Christian morals’ and ‘family values’ as justification for the loss of liberty, discrimination of the poor, and the increased cases of injured women.

Ideology is a powerful motivator. Many millions of people throughout history have fought and died for one. Ideologies can be clear and distinctive or complex and vague but they are always alive though at times dormant during relatively calm political and social periods. When the ‘train runs off the tracks,’ thoughts are transformed into actions thus giving viability and life to ideologies. For the past eight years, the federal government has ignored global warming and concentrated on the ‘war on terrorism.’ The liberals and conservatives have taken sides on these most imperative of issues with both sides claiming ideological differences.

Whether a person believes that the earth evolved by accident or was created in six days, which ideology thinks it right to destroy it? What ideology can explain invading and occupying a sovereign nation that did not attack first? Some issues go well beyond simple ideological leanings. If politics were debated and decided based on competing ideologies alone without other motivating factors such as greed, power, and domination becoming the deciding factor, the world would be a much better place.

The conservative movement has been more influential and important than the feminist, civil rights, and anti-war movements. This ideology has caused great damage to the lives and liberty of persons in this country and many others throughout the world. As the Bush administration exists in shame, the ex-leader of the movement, Cheney still attempts to heal his legacy but history and public opinion trump these efforts. The Conservatism that was born in the ’60s and blossomed during the past eight years is seemingly is dying a fast death since the 2009 inauguration.

Works Cited

Atkins, Drew & Tartakovsky, Joey. 2003. Blue Traffic Lights: Neoconservatism History 101. Daily Nexus. Vol. 84, I. 47, Santa Barbara, CA: University of California, Santa Barbara. Web.

Burkeman, Oliver & Borger, Julian. 2003. War Critics Astonished as US Hawk Admits Invasion was Illegal. Manchester Guardian. Web.

“Cheney’s Role in Flux in Second Term.” January 10, 2005. MSNBC. The Associated Press. Web.

Coleman, Vernon. 2004. How George W. Bush Won the 2004 USA Presidential Election. Web.

Etzioni, Amitai. 2004. How Patriotic Is the Patriot Act? Freedom versus Security in the Age of Terrorism. New York, Routledge.

Kessler, Glenn & Slevin, Peter. 2002. Cheney Takes Leading Role in Debate on Iraq Policy. Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Web.

Marshall, Joshua Micah. 2003. Vice Grip. Washington Monthly. Web.

Monday, Daniel Benjamin. 2005. President Cheney: His Office Really Does Run National Security. Slate. Washington D.C.: Washington Post. Web.

Muravchik, Joshua. 2007. “The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism.” Commentary Magazine. Web.

Slavin, Barbara & Page, Susan. 2003. Cheney is Power Hitter in White House Lineup. USA Today. Web.

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. 2002. The White House. Web.