In Memoriam

With the death of Ernest van den Haag on March 21, 2002, the
conservative movement lost one of its most redoubtable intellectual
warriors in the decades after World War II. And the University
lost one of its longtime friends and supporters.

Like so many of conservatism’s postwar “founding
fathers,” van den Haag was a former radical and refugee
from totalitarian Europe. Born in Holland and raised in Italy,
he was a twenty-three-year-old Communist and law student at the
University of Florence when Mussolini’s Fascist government
imprisoned him in 1937. He spent most of the next two years in
solitary confinement. Upon his release, he made his way to France,
where he briefly studied psychiatry at the Sorbonne, only to
be arrested by the French as an “enemy alien” in
the early months of World War II. In 1940, as the French regime
collapsed before the Nazi onslaught, van den Haag escaped from
his French concentration camp and crossed into Spain—literally
dodging bullets along the way. From there he traveled to Portugal
and thence, by ship, to the United States. It was an adventure
reminiscent of the movie Casablanca.

When van den Haag reached America, his speaking knowledge of
English was nonexistent. His first jobs were as a busboy and
vegetable seller in New York City. Somehow he gained admission
to the graduate school of the University of Iowa, from which
he earned a master’s degree in economics in 1942. Returning
to New York, he met Sidney Hock, whom he credited with converting
him from Communism. “I was a youthful fool,” van
den Haag remarked years later about his student days in Europe.
After encountering Hook (who seems to have become something of
a mentor) the immigrant from Italy abandoned Marxist radicalism

After serving in the U.S. Office of War Information during World
War II, van den Haag settled down to an academic career in New
York City, including teaching positions at New York University,
the New School for Social Research, and Fordham University. Although
he earned his doctorate in economics at NYU, the fields of sociology,
psychology, and social philosophy interested him more. During
the 1950s and 1960s he was a rara avis in academia—a
credentialed social scientist and unabashed conservative. Even
more improbably, after being psychoanalysed he became a psychoanalyst
himself—a profession that he practiced on the side for
nearly threedecades.

In 1957, while having lunch with Sidney Hook, van den Haag chanced
to meet William F. Buckley, Jr., who sent him a copy of National
Before long, the learned professor was contributing
articles to Buckley’s magazine, an association that endured
for the next forty-five years. As his reputation grew among conservatives,
so did his ties to the conservative insurgency. In 1960, he contributed
to the inaugural issue of the University Bookman and
remained associated with its work for many years. He was also
an active trustee of the University Bookman’s sponsor,
the Educational Reviewer. He belonged to the Philadelphia Society
and served as its president in 1978–1979. In the 1980s,
he was affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. At Fordham University
he was the John M. Olin Professor of Jurisprudence and Public
Policy for six years.

As a disciplined academic, van den Haag authored several provocative
books, including such gems as The Jewish Mystique (1969), Political
Violence and Civil Disobedience
(1972), and Punishing
Criminals: Concerning a Very Old and Painful Question

The latter volume established him instantly as a leading authority
on American criminology. In the next two decades he acquired
a reputation as one of the most formidable scholarly advocates
of the death penalty for the crime of murder.

The emigré social scientist also published more than
200 articles. The short essay, in fact, was the perfect vehicle
for his potent mix of fearless iconoclasm, relentless logic,
and erudition. And fearless he was, challenging liberal and leftist
sacred cows down the line: from the United Nations to the minimum
wage, from sex education to pornography, from feminism to foreign
policy, from Brown v. Board of Education to the handling
of urban riots. At times, his defiance of conventional thinking
bordered on the outrageous, at least to liberal sensibilities.
Asked, in 1972, why he preferred Richard Nixon to George McGovern
for the presidency, he replied briskly, “I would rather
be governed by a knave than by a fool.”

As on the printed page, so on the public platform, van den Haag
combined analytic trenchancy with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir
of pertinent expertise. The one-time law student loved disputation.
He was willing, he said, to debate anybody about anything. In
the 1980s he often did so under the auspices of the Heritage
Foundation. Time and again, his opponents were both appalled
and confounded by what one of them called his “irreverent
unorthodoxy.” Like the Roadrunner in the cartoon, he always
seemed to be a step ahead of his adversaries. By the time they
had grasped the subtleties of his argument, he had sped on to
another point.

William F. Buckley, Jr. once described van den Haag as a “tuning
fork of reason in the cacophonous world of social science.” But
not everyone on the Right liked the sound that his “tuning
fork” made. In 1960 he startled readers of National
with a defense of Keynesian economics. In 1979, again
in National Review, he published a scathing critique
of libertarianism. Idiosyncratic on the issue of abortion, he
asserted that a human embryo was only potentially human during
its first three months of existence. Hence he would allow abortions
until a recognizably human fetus was formed. On these, and other,
issues he was unafraid to be a deviationist.

Most troublingly for many conservatives, van den Haag throughout
his career seemed impervious to the truth claims of religion.
In 1950, he asserted publicly that religion could not be “logically
justified,” although he granted that religion was a “useful” and “necessary” “opiate,” essential
for the stability of a free society. This was a strictly pragmatic
argument that he apparently never disavowed. He also strenuously
rejected the idea of natural law. Nature does not tell us how
to live, he countered; it merely gives us choices. “I do
not know where nature got the authority to tell me what to do,” he
declared. Asked a few years ago why he felt that murder was bad,
he replied simply, “I feel it.” His intuition told
him so. He added that he had not found a better answer.

Not surprisingly, in his later years, van den Haag—ever
the contrarian—asserted (contra Christianity)
that people own their lives and are therefore free to end their
lives if they so choose. Although by no means a libertarian,
he nevertheless contended in the late 1990s that people should
have the “right to die” without governmental interference.

In essence, van den Haag’s was a deeply skeptical and
secular brand of conservatism, grounded not in religious faith
but upon a recognition of the limits of reason in the pursuit
of social betterment. Perhaps, having nearly lost his life as
a young man in thrall to an orthodoxy, he could never again commit
himself to another one.

Or did he? Toward the end, his intimate friend William F. Buckley,
Jr. discerned signs that the irreverently unorthodox émigré was
mellowing on the subject of religion. In a letter to Buckley
in the mid-1990s, van den Haag announced that he was a “convert” to
Roman Catholicism “in substance but not in form.” “I
stayed away for a long time from the Church,” he added, “except
in the most formal sense, and I am only now making my way back.” How
he reconciled this turn with his public positions on natural
law and suicide, he evidently did not say. But in 2002, just
a few weeks before his death, he requested a Catholic funeral,
which in due course he received. In the end, this urbane and
worldly scholar apparently saw—and at last transcended—the
limits of his own agnosticism.

With his heavy European accent, trademark cigars, and aura of
the bon vivant, van den Haag was an unforgettable figure
on the conservative scene. But those who knew his writings will
remember him most for his withering dissection of the pretentious
political orthodoxies of our age. At a time when conservatism
was out of fashion among the intelligentsia, he gave conservatives
a bracing example of mental rigor, forensic tenacity, and the
courage of unconventional conviction.

George H. Nash is author of The Conservative Intellectual
Movement in America
and a multi-volume biography of Herbert

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