Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall
By Christopher Owen.
Lexington Books, 2021.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $105.

Reviewed by Jason Ross.

As the conservative movement is crumbling, many outside of that movement’s mainstream are tracing their way back to some of its overlooked founding fathers. Among these is Willmoore Kendall. It would be wrong to say Kendall has been forgotten; instead, his fate is to have been remembered mostly as a caricature. Many have followed the lead of Kendall’s prized student, William F. Buckley, whose volatile personal relationship with his mentor prompted him to remember Kendall with disappointment about his half-developed ideas and broken relationships. Others remember Kendall as a contrarian; students from the Straussian outpost at the University of Dallas (which Kendall launched) recall him as a “maverick,” chagrined that the wild thinker was not sufficiently tamed into the Straussian doctrine of natural rights. Most perceptively, George Nash observed that Kendall’s political teaching “looked forward to the era of the ’silent majority.’” Yet Kendall’s affection for the American people has since too readily been distorted into mere populism, radicalism, even proto-Trumpism

All these judgments, of course, have been rendered from within the conservative movement. This movement emerged at the margins of liberal America, with Buckley standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” But as Buckley sought to move conservatism more toward the center of the political establishment it had been founded to oppose, he marginalized some who had been important at its formation. This would ultimately include Kendall. Christopher Owen’s biography, Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall, begins to remove Kendall from the shadow of Buckley and his movement. Owen concedes some of the conservative movement’s judgments on Kendall. Notably, Owen accepts for Kendall the (dismissive) label of “populist,” and (unavoidably) he portrays Kendall’s legendary irascibility and intemperance, in detail that can be embarrassing, even painful, to read. Still, Owen reminds us of the Kendall who was noted by his academic peers as the most important and original political theorist to emerge in America following the Second World War, and he supplies biographical details that help us understand the man behind the caricature. Owen’s welcome treatment of Kendall’s life invites reconsideration of a man who played a greater role than is often remembered in the history of the conservative movement, and whose ideas must be reckoned with if the American political tradition is to be conserved.  

The common caricature of Kendall extends back to his origin story. Born March 5, 1909 in Konawa, Oklahoma, Willmoore Kendall, Jr. was the namesake of a blind, itinerant Methodist minister. He immediately displayed the gifts of a child prodigy, reading Hawthorne stories at age four, beginning to chauffeur his father at age ten, enrolling in college at age thirteen. Owen supplies details that humanize Kendall. Notably, he highlights the ways in which Willmoore Sr. shaped his son according to his own intellectual resentments. The father, too, was intellectually gifted and possessed impressive academic training. He was literate in Hebrew, Greek, French, and German, and had “no peer in Oklahoma as an orator.” But he felt underappreciated and underemployed in a series of small churches in backwater towns he hated. Owen relates the well-known anecdote that the father sent the barely teenaged son off to Chicago to study at his own alma mater, Northwestern. He also reveals the not so well-known fact that the boy was treated as a joke, failed, and returned home in shame before the end of his first semester. This was one of many humiliations Kendall suffered at the hands of his father which, in Owen’s telling, Kendall never forgot, forgave, or fully overcame. 

Simultaneously abandoning and seeking to prove himself to his father, Willmoore Jr. left Oklahoma in the fall of 1931 and returned to Northwestern for graduate studies. There he learned of the Rhodes Scholarship that would launch his academic career. Owen details that at Oxford, Kendall studied under R.G. Collingwood and R.B. McCallum (a member of the Inklings along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), and alongside future Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Boorstin and future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Carl Albert, two fellow Oklahomans. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois, writing a revisionist but well-regarded dissertation published as John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority-Rule. Kendall would hold professorships at Louisiana State University, University of Minnesota, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown, among others. Among his colleagues he counted Robert Dahl, whose still-influential volume A Preface to Democratic Theory was a response to Kendall’s thought. Among his friends he counted Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, acclaimed journalist George Milburn, as well as leading figures in the political science profession including Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Charles Hyneman, who would serve a term as president of the American Political Science Association. Among his students he counted future Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and Senator Russell Long, in addition to his better-known relationships with Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley. Kendall achieved the academic recognition and intellectual distinction his father never could, though the chip his father placed on his shoulder always remained. 

Kendall left for Oxford just at the time that isolated, rural America was being drawn into a global economic and political crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just given his famous “Forgotten Man” speech. Owen reports that Kendall agreed government had fallen into “the hands of folk who are not concerned about the interests of the great majority of our population.” Still Kendall rejected Roosevelt’s politics. He regarded the New Deal as “ad hoc” — dependent on executive whim rather than the democratic will of the people. Having read Marx, he appreciated that author’s concern with the plight of the working man but rejected his economic determinism. 

Kendall had proved his mettle as a reporter during a six-year stint with the Tulsa Tribune in his teenage years. His father encouraged him to model his career after the journalist Walter Lippmann; the younger Kendall professed a desire to become a “Great Socialist Publicist.” Sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause, he traveled to Spain in the summer of 1934, paving the way for a journalistic post he would take in Madrid the following year. He professed support for “bloody revolution” in Spain over no revolution at all, but when he learned of Spanish communists murdering boys who had delivered right-wing newspapers, he grew troubled. Like another great conservative convert from the left, Whittaker Chambers, Kendall began to hear screams. 

One of Owen’s most helpful contributions is to demonstrate the significance of Kendall’s journalism, and his later work in the intelligence field, to his professional career. In the twenty-seven years that Kendall lived following the completion of his graduate education at Oxford and Illinois, he spent at least ten years in intelligence. Owen shows clearly that this was not a side activity. In fact, Kendall’s work in the intelligence community may have been his first love, and it may provide a key to understanding how Kendall understood himself. Owen frames this part of Kendall’s professional and intellectual life by demonstrating that many academics followed a similar path, with “Washington insiders” smoothing transitions between campus and government service. 

Kendall took his first intelligence post in 1942. His foreign language skills (he was fluent in Spanish and French and could read German and Italian), his understanding of political institutions and actors, and his journalistic experience fitted him for the task of circulating propaganda in foreign newspapers. Owen quotes Kendall as saying it was “the most interesting job that has ever fallen into my hands,” and that he took to it “like a fish to water.” Kendall would later attribute his advancement in the intelligence community to his unmasking of communist operatives in American intelligence services. “I’m the guy who ‘busted’ the Maurice Halperin operation at OSS and State….” Halperin, Owen explains, was one of the Soviet Union’s most productive assets within American intelligence. 

Just as Kendall had been shocked at the brazenness of communists who had murdered newspaper delivery boys, he was dismayed to see the degree of their infiltration of the American intelligence agencies and intellectual class. Kendall’s intelligence work deepened his concerns about the betrayal of the American people by its ruling class and, in Owen’s account, contributed to Kendall’s conservative turn. He saw the trend toward the conduct of intelligence activity by faceless bureaucrats through covert operations as a subversion of the democratic will of the people. More fundamentally Kendall wrestled with why so many intellectual and political leaders turned their back on their nation for the communist cause. He used the occasion of translating A Communist Party in Action by Italian Communist Party apostate Angelo Rossi to argue, Owen observes, that communism appealed to those whose “nations failed ‘to infuse meaning into their members’ lives.’” 

Coinciding with his turn to conservatism was Kendall’s appointment to the faculty of Yale University in the fall of 1947. The end of this chapter of his career, with Yale buying out his tenure, has become part of Kendall’s caricature as irrepressible and insufferable. In Owen’s telling, Kendall displayed the best of himself to Yale, dazzling students with his charisma and classroom virtuosity, and seizing the opportunity to use his platform to influence the character of Yale’s political science faculty and of the profession. He plotted with junior colleagues to support the hire of scholars, including Eric Voegelin, who rejected the behavioralist approach that was then dominant in political science. The department’s senior members crushed the effort and Kendall’s co-conspirators abandoned him. Kendall pointed to this early loss as the reason for his marginalization at Yale. “From now on,” he wrote Hyneman, “I teach my classes and don’t get close enough to my senior colleagues to see the whites of their eyes.” 

Further straining Kendall’s relationship with Yale was his support for the university’s most vocal critic, the student William F. Buckley. Owen demonstrates how the student depended upon the teacher’s intellect and status to build his profile on and off campus. More, Owen holds that Kendall was responsible for shaping several key themes in Buckley’s career-defining book, God and Man at Yale. “At the heart of the book, an attentive reader will notice: (1) distrust of experts, (2) belief that freedom must have limits, (3) an argument for institutional orthodoxy, and (4) support for a more democratic style of university governance.” Owen does not attribute too much credit to Kendall for Buckley’s achievement and demonstrates that Kendall did not seek such credit. Instead, he portrays this period of their lives as marked by mutual appreciation and admiration. 

Nevertheless, Owen shows that Kendall paid a price for his support of Buckley. His faculty colleagues ostracized him for participating in Buckley’s anti-communist activities on campus, denouncing him as a “fascist” and threatening that he would never be promoted. Kendall found the situation so intolerable that he returned to intelligence work, spending at least a third of his tenure at Yale on leave conducting research in psychological warfare for the Army Operations Research Office. That arrangement seems to have suited both parties well, but Owen reports that Buckley convinced Kendall to return to Yale for the good of the conservative movement. Kendall obliged but was still treated as a pariah. As had been threatened, his promotion review was declined on the pretext of his lack of academic publications — a criticism Buckley shared. Ironically, Owen reveals that during his stint with the ORO, from 1950-1954, Kendall and his team published no fewer than 60 volumes of intelligence research.

Buckley published the first issue of National Review in November 1955. Owen points out that Willmoore Kendall’s name was on the masthead as senior editor, and on the cover as author. A tone-setting editorial bore all the hallmarks of Kendall’s writing: “‘…the nation’s opinion-makers for the most part share the Liberal point of view, try indefatigably to inculcate it in their readers’ minds, and to that end employ the techniques of propaganda.’ Therefore, ‘we may properly speak,’ [the editorial] continued, of ‘a huge propaganda machine, engaged in a major, sustained assault upon the sanity, and upon the prudence and the morality of the American people.’” 

Though National Review has long since become a mainstream publication, Owen reminds us that this was far from likely. The magazine’s strident anti-liberalism was instantly met by a heated response — liberal histrionics are nothing new. Kendall hammered away at this opposition in a weekly column that he wrote for three years that “analyzed, dissected, and lambasted the ‘liberal propaganda machine.’” Owen explains, “In this role it was he [Kendall] who launched the campaign to make ‘liberal’ a dirty word….” By 1958, when Kendall ceased writing this column, Buckley confidently asserted that the magazine had become “the voice of American conservatism.” Owen concludes that subsequent efforts to mainstream the magazine by understating its early “militancy” have served “to dim the significance of Kendall’s contributions.”

Kendall’s intellectual militancy against the “liberal propaganda machine” undoubtedly reflected his knowledge, drawn from his journalistic, academic, and intelligence experiences, that propaganda works, and that it had been successfully implemented in the public press, in higher education, and at all levels of government by what he frequently labeled the “World Communist movement.” Still, he rejected the naïve or cynical behaviorist assumption that all rhetoric is propaganda. He turned his own formidable rhetorical skill toward a defense of the unstated, inarticulable, premises of democracy. 

Kendall was at his most combative in responding to those, following John Stuart Mill, who sought to reorganize society according to the rationalist principles of liberalism. Owen addresses Kendall’s provocative essay “The People Versus Socrates Revisited,” in which he answered Mill’s claim that Plato demonstrated the evil of the Athenians’ limitation on Socrates’ pure freedom of speech and thought. Instead, Kendall concluded, Socrates deserved the hemlock. The Athenians “cannot tolerate him on the grounds that all questions are open questions because the very question at issue, whether their way of life is worth preserving, is for them a closed question, and became a closed question the moment the Athenians became a society.” Kendall knew that without boundaries – even ideological ones – no society could possibly endure. 

Though Kendall rejected the vision of the open society shared by Mill and Karl Popper, among others, neither did he believe American society could draw too heavily from the traditionalism of Burke. Thus, while expressing, in his own perverse way, admiration for the Burkean Russell Kirk — the “benevolent sage of Mecosta” — as a popularizer and moral exemplar of conservatism, Kendall pointed out that American conservatives are preserving a way of life that is not grounded in adherence to what is old and tried. Instead, we are conserving the product of transformational political ideas and acts including the Mayflower voyage and Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution it announced, and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. His most enduring academic contribution relied on these transformational moments to define the meaning of American democracy. Through a series of lectures delivered at Vanderbilt University and published posthumously (with the assistance of George Carey) as Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, Kendall crafted a luminous myth of American democracy as a government in which a virtuous people rules itself through deliberation under God. 

In light of his rich teaching about the meaning of self-government in America, Kendall also rejected the simplistic belief that conservatism should be about neutering the state that liberalism sought to expand. Taking the Federalist as the authoritative text of American conservatism, Kendall pointed out that Publius’s purpose “was to check not power but tyrannical power.” By contrast to libertarian or reactionary arguments that simply deprecate political power, Kendall pointed out that Publius called for “energetic” government. Further, Publius taught that government must ultimately be guided by what Kendall (and Carey) referred to as a “constitutional morality.” America’s Constitution is not fit for any people. 

Owen points out that Kendall drew from Rousseau in wishing to see “the laws engraved on the hearts of the people.” He also finds that Kendall’s Rousseauian goal of “empowering the people to rule democratically and to uphold a functional, just, tranquil, and cohesive polity” represents the stable core of Kendall’s political thought throughout his journey “from Trotskyist to absolute majoritarian to Madisonian.” Many within the conservative movement have been puzzled, even alarmed, by Kendall’s fascination with Rousseau. This concern may be tempered if we read Rousseau not through the rabid republicanism of the French Revolution but through the moral and political concerns Rousseau – as a citizen of Calvin’s republic of Geneva – shared with America’s Calvinist founders. 

Kendall’s career spanned the global crises of the Great Depression, world war, and protracted ideological conflict which brought about the large state that our generation has never been without. As much as Kendall came to revere Madison, though, he relied on Rousseau to raise a question about one of Madison’s most important teachings, from the famous Federalist 10, in which he counseled extending the republic over a large territory. Owen draws attention to Kendall’s translation of Rousseau’s The Government of Poland, in which Kendall observes that both Rousseau and Madison addressed the problem of “how to make possible the large republic that will avoid the despotic excesses of the large nation states” but came up with solutions that “are almost antithetical.” Ultimately, Owen notes, Kendall shared Rousseau’s concern that “in accepting the permanence of the large state we resign ourselves to perpetual bondage.” 

Buckley’s conservative movement aimed to co-opt the large modern state — and in the Reagan revolution may have come close to doing so. Today, that project has been proven futile. Dissent is demonized, ostracized, and criminalized; any remnants of Buckley’s movement that may be clinging to respectability within that national political establishment are either irrelevant to it or have been domesticated by it. Efforts by conservatives since the fall of the Soviet Union to place this state in service of abstract principles of liberty or equality, no matter how precisely those terms might have been defined, have only served to augment the state’s power. The national political establishment has turned its face against those Americans whom Kendall famously said carried their conservatism not as an ideological abstraction but “in their hips,” in their very way of life. 

Reconsideration of Kendall reminds us that Americans who seek to preserve our traditional way of life do indeed face a future of perpetual bondage under a modern state that has extended a hundred-fold beyond what Madison witnessed. The conservative movement, seeking the respectability of our national political establishment, has been helpless to stop the attack on traditional American institutions and values. This raises a question relevant to our memory of Kendall and his contributions: If Kendall is remembered by a marginal movement as a marginal man, does that reveal more about the failings of the man or of the movement? Owen’s biography invites those of us who still hope to defend the American political tradition to abandon the caricature of Kendall and to engage with him as one of the most important interpreters of the meaning and significance of America.

Jason Ross is Associate Professor and Associate Dean of the Helms School of Government at Liberty University.

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