The Spanish-Speaking William F. Buckley

The Spanish-Speaking William F. Buckley

Buckley’s seldom-acknowledged fluency in Spanish shaped his worldview—including his admiration for dictators from Spain to Chile and beyond.

William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, January 1988 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

“Up until age six I spoke only Spanish,” William F. Buckley, Jr. told Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, in 1993. “Then, I went to my first school in Paris, where, of course, they spoke French. Then at age seven I went to London, and that’s where I learned English for the first time. Now what I ought to sound like? You tell me.”

Buckley was irked. By this time, some four decades into his career as conservatism’s intellectual lodestar, his linguistic quirks had become such a fixture of U.S. political culture that they were being satirized in Disney movies. Early in Aladdin, released in 1992, Aladdin asks the Genie: “You’re going to grant me any three wishes I want, right?” The Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, sprouts a snowy comb-over and puts on an unmistakable smirk. “Almost,” he replies. “There are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quo.” The excessive verbiage and aristocratic English accent being mocked were none other than William F. Buckley’s.

Buckley’s manner of speaking reminds us of a time when the right valued rather than vilified intellectual pretension. Today, nothing guarantees a nosedive in popular appeal in the Republican Party more than an elitist vocabulary and an ostentatious way of showing it. Just think of Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin and George W. Bush before him, iconic figures of the post-9/11 U.S. right. Although Trump marks less an ideological break than continuity with postwar American conservatism, as Corey Robin and others have persuasively argued, his appeal to lowbrow, commonsensical, and emotional language contrasts rather dramatically with Buckley’s dispassionate, educated, and cosmopolitan diction. Buckley’s era of snobbish conservatism spanned from the Goldwater 1960s through the Nixon ’70s and the Reagan ’80s. Trump’s age of vulgar rhetoric began in the late 1990s and will continue for the foreseeable future.

But what’s in the use of one kind of language over another? And how does it shape or obscure an intellectual worldview? When it comes to Buckley, most have remarked on his “High Church,” “patrician,” or “slight English” accent, using it as a license to draw conclusions about his political beliefs or those of his supporters. But beyond his Anglo-Saxon timbre, Buckley’s fluency in Spanish may have been the more important of his linguistic influences. His lifelong engagement with the Spanish-speaking world forms a largely unacknowledged part of his intellectual biography. Mexico, Spain, Chile and other Spanish-speaking countries fascinated him, and this fascination had political consequences. While his refined English accent pointed to where he came from—a moneyed, Catholic family that had made it in the oil business—his fluency in Spanish hinted at where he wanted to go: toward a distinct, Castilian brand of shock-doctrine despotism that, through Henry Kissinger and others, he helped make a global export in the 1970s and ’80s.


Hispanophilia ran deep in the Buckley family. Buckley’s father, William F. Buckley, Sr., believed in three things: Catholicism, capitalism, and teaching his children Spanish. Buckley Sr. himself had become fluent in Spanish at a young age, having grown up in the south Texas town of San Diego, which was 90 percent Hispanic. After a stint as a Spanish-English translator in the General Land Office of Texas, he moved to Mexico in 1908. Several years later, coinciding with the beginning of the drawn-out Mexican Revolution, he arrived in Tampico—along the Mexican Gulf Coast and at the center of Mexico’s burgeoning oil industry—to open a corporate law office. The revolution didn’t hamper business, however. He left the country in 1921 a wealthy oil magnate who nevertheless loathed all of the revolution’s insurgents, from the nationalist Venustiano Carranza to the peasant-anarchist Emiliano Zapata.

Perhaps “left” isn’t entirely accurate: Buckley Sr. was deported for conspiring to overthrow President Álvaro Obregón, whose policies had curbed Porfirio Díaz’s “concessions” to American and British investors. Like many American oil barons in Mexico, Buckley Sr. especially objected to Article 27 of Mexico’s 1917 Constitution, which gave the state control over all natural resources from the country’s soil, including oil. He had founded and become the president of Pantepec Oil Company in 1913 and quickly allied his business to the short-lived military government of Victoriano Huerta. But Buckley Sr. most often made political allegiances that suited his property and power, sometimes over his perceived political ideology. This made some of his political decisions seem haphazard. In 1913, he wrote a letter Colonel Edward M. House, a close confidant of Woodrow Wilson’s, advocating for U.S. military intervention in Mexico. Months later, after Wilson occupied the port of Veracruz following a bizarre incident in Tampico, Buckley Sr. was tapped by Emilio Rabasa to counsel the Mexican delegation to a peace summit meant to resolve the brooding tensions between the two nations. He played both sides, fanning the flames of conflict whenever it suited his business plan.

Capitalism, however, was but one of Buckley Sr.’s loves. Another, which drew him close to the Spanish-speaking world, was Catholicism. The armed struggle of the Mexican Revolution had effectively ended in 1920. By 1926, the country’s Catholic activists were ready to launch a counterrevolution, known as the Cristero War. Like Buckley Sr., the Cristeros (a Spanish neologism from Cristo Rey, Christ the King) also took issue with the 1917 Constitution, specifically with Article 130, which crystallized the separation of church and state and forced all “religious groupings” to register with the government. The Buckley family had since left Mexico, and Pantepec had “lost substantial assets” following the deportation, according to historian Stephen Andes. Still, Buckley Sr.—perhaps looking to recoup the losses, perhaps following through on his religious commitments—met with Cristero leaders to find them a financial backer. By 1929, however, negotiations had broken down, and Buckley Sr. didn’t belabor his Catholic duty. The Cristero cause had lost out to the lucrative promise of South American oil.

According to Buckley Jr. biographer John Judis, Buckley Sr. saw “the demand for political democracy in countries like Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain as a cover for communism and anticlericalism.” The same might be said for his son. Though Buckley Jr. liked to distance himself from his father’s unsavory support for dictatorial regimes—his father had supported successful and aborted dictatorships in Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain—his writings on the Spanish-speaking world tell quite the opposite story.


Buckley Jr. was born in 1925 in New York City. It could have just as easily been in Mexico City. He spent most of his earliest years with his mother, his sister, and his Mexican nana, Pupita, as he affectionately called her. His father had relocated his Pantepec Oil Company to Venezuela the year before Buckley Jr. was born and after being deported from Mexico. In 1947, Buckley, then a second-year student at Yale, was hired along with a classmate to teach beginning Spanish. The university was in a pinch. It quickly needed cheap labor. Like today, professors were “overworked and underpaid,” according to one historian; the university didn’t increase the size of its faculty at the rate that it allowed recent war veterans to enroll. It was somewhere between teaching beginning Spanish and reading José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses for Willmoore Kendall’s seminar on political philosophy that the idea for God and Man at Yale germinated. Around this time, Buckley befriended Brent Bozell, a fellow debater and conservative whom he used as a sounding board for the book’s provocative lambasting of their professors’ impiety. Buckley didn’t rely on his own teaching experience in the Spanish and Italian department to make his argument, however. He focused his ire instead on other faculties: sociology, philosophy, and especially religion. Only later would he take his intellectual encounter with Spanish language and culture to heart, setting out, in 1963, to write a sequel to Ortega’s book he wishfully titled The Revolt Against the Masses. He never finished the book. But Buckley learned from Ortega the importance of what the latter called “specially qualified” minorities in checking the power of the masses and leaders. There was an intellectual elite, in other words, that needed to make sure that leaders such as Eisenhower kept in line and didn’t appeal to vulgar, middlebrow interests. Politics needed to stay above the fray.

Even as God and Man at Yale hit bookstore shelves in fall 1951, Buckley was already at work on another book project, though this time not his own. He spent that fall in Mexico City working for the CIA under E. Howard Hunt, later known for his role in engineering Watergate. Hunt assigned Buckley to work with Eudocio Ravines, a disaffected Peruvian communist who was also living in Mexico. In the 1920s, Ravines had collaborated in Paris with the poet César Vallejo, a fellow leftist and countryman, and in 1930, he had taken over the leadership of the Communist Party of Peru (which he renamed the Peruvian Socialist Party) following the death of the renowned Marxist philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui. But by the end of the Second World War, Ravines had defected from communism, and it was Buckley’s job in Mexico to help him prepare and translate The Yenan Way, an anticommunist screed that would be published first in English in late 1951. It was entry-level propaganda work. Yet the collaboration with Ravines foreshadowed Buckley’s ability to establish a common anticommunist ground with disgruntled leftists. The McCarthy era would grease the wheels for many later conversions to conservatism. His primary method consisted of attracting a significant number of disaffected radicals to write and edit for his new magazine, the National Review.

Buckley founded the National Review in 1955. Two years later, under the title “Letter from Spain,” his first and only signed homily for Francisco Franco’s fascist regime appeared in its pages. In the letter, published on October 26, 1957, he claimed that Franco had done his job and done it well. He had what it took, Buckley wrote, to “wrest Spain from the hands of the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists, and nihilists” and reverse the course of a “regime so grotesque as to do violence to the Spanish soul.” That regime was Spain’s Second Republic, a modern democracy that had elected a left-wing coalition in a landslide election in February 1936. To the delight of Germany and Italy and to the apathy of the United States and England, Franco launched a military coup that summer that did violence to much more than Spanish “souls.” The Spanish Civil War went on to claim the lives of half a million people, and sent more than another half-million into exile. The victory of Franco’s Nationalist troops in April 1939 inaugurated his thirty-six-year dictatorship.

Eighteen years in, Franco’s had become a near-model regime for Buckley. “He is not an oppressive dictator,” the 1957 letter continued. “He is only as oppressive as it is necessary to be to maintain total power, and that, it happens, is not very oppressive, for the people, by and large, are content.” After Franco’s death, in 1975, Buckley would double down on this argument in an aside from an article on Pinochet, writing that Franco “believed in just as much repression as was necessary.” For Buckley, the grotesque slaughter that gave birth to the regime and continued well into its first decade—along with the mass imprisonment and executions that were its hallmarks throughout—were an acceptable, even necessary, feature of Franco’s political project. Politics was conditional on how much one could get away with. If the argument seemed sordid, Buckley took care to infuse it with world-historical, even metaphysical, resonance. “He saved the day,” Buckley wrote of Franco, “but he did not, like Cincinnatus, thereupon return to his plow.”  Cincinnatus is the paragon of the benevolent dictator, who rules briefly and virtuously in order to accomplish a specific task, such as winning a war. In Franco, Buckley had found his contemporary analog.

Buckley was hardly the first U.S. conservative to hold Francoist sympathies. But he stuck by the aging dictator long after many of his peers had withdrawn their support—or at least hushed it up. By the mid-1950s, it was no longer in good taste in America to openly support fascism. Memories of Franco’s ties to Hitler still circulated, and Buckley wasn’t tone deaf. He knew that outright support for Franco would alienate him and the National Review. So he tempered his praise of Nacionalcatolicismo—“National Catholicism,” a common shorthand for Francoism—with criticisms of the regime’s centralized economy. Spain’s inability to spur economic productivity, Buckley complained, was rooted in the regime’s lack of capitalism.

For anyone paying attention, however, his objections were at best belated. On February 25, 1957, months before Buckley’s letter was published, Franco famously reshuffled his cabinet to include Opus Dei “technocrats,” brought in to further cut public spending, appeal to international investors, and thereby liberalize the Spanish economy. By October, Francoism was well on its way to becoming a kind of ideal regime for Buckley: a laboratory for capitalist development under a Catholic dictatorship. In Spain, Catholicism and capitalism were married at last.

For Buckley, then, behind Spain’s trajectory was a kind of roadmap to installing capitalist markets and Catholic churches simultaneously, and by way of dictatorship. Thanks to Kissinger and other postwar right-wing diplomats, it would be a roadmap that would guide U.S. imperial excursions during the second half of the twentieth century. It resulted in the likes of Pinochet’s Chile, Fujimori’s Peru, and Banzer’s Bolivia.

Buckley biographer John Judis reminds us that Buckley and Kissinger shared not only an ideological but a personal rapport. “Buckley’s most important relationship in the Nixon administration was with Kissinger,” Judis writes. Their friendship blossomed over a shared interest in international relations—Kissinger even invited Buckley to give a yearly lecture in his international-relations seminar at Harvard—and a mutual rejection of the so-called containment strategy of George Kennan. Their concern, instead, was to stem the influence of the Soviet Union by any means necessary.

Ultimately, Kissinger’s influence on Buckley may have been stronger than the other way around; Judis goes as far as to claim that “Buckley may have allowed himself to be manipulated” by Kissinger. But Buckley’s early writings in the National Review anticipated many of the ideas that Kissinger put into practice. His essay on Franco contains what one might call an early theory of shock therapy. Before the Chicago Boys returned to Chile ready to apply Milton Friedman’s latest textbook idea, Buckley already saw this process taking place in Spain thanks to Franco’s fascist regime. His formula was deceptively simple: launch a coup to win power, establish a dictatorship to stamp out communism and accelerate capitalism, and, unlike Cincinnatus, stay in power as long as possible.

Buckley also thought of his vision as a conservative third way of sorts. Somewhere between Hitler and Churchill, Franco’s conservatism was, according to Buckley, a careful balancing act. If executed well, as in Franco’s case, the new ideology would be supple enough to be able to turn its back on either dogma—Nazism or Toryism—when convenient. Buckley’s arguments enjoyed the generosity of hindsight: he claimed that dictatorship and bloodshed were necessary evils to stem the threat from the left, and that a ruler’s legitimacy should be judged by his regime’s ends, not by its means.

Franco’s government actively courted Buckley’s services in the early 1960s. It’s likely that they were searching for the precise recipe for how to better unite capitalism and Catholicism. While Buckley’s commitment to Francoism didn’t match that of his best friend and brother-in-law, Brent Bozell—who moved his family to Spain in 1965 and launched Triumph, a periodical of Catholic and Francoist apologetics, a year later—Buckley would praise the regime from afar through its collapse.* In 1974, on the eve of Franco’s death, he was asked by the right-wing publisher Devin-Adair to write a foreword to the reissuing of Arnold Lunn’s book Spanish Rehearsal. Originally published in 1937, Spanish Rehearsal had become the English-language manual for Franco’s supporters. Lunn’s book—a British travel narrative in Spain at its most myopic and ignorant—was Francoist propaganda not worth its weight in paper. But Buckley and several of his fellow conservatives hailed it as an honest, first-person account of the atrocities committed by the defenders of Spain’s democracy.

“In Spain,” Buckley wrote in the foreword, “Arnold Lunn exhibited the kind of indignation over the atrocities visited on innocent Christians which is taken for granted—I mean the indignation—when the victims are Jewish. This volume shows not the selective indignation . . . but a generic indignation, against persecution and torture of any people, in punishment for their race or their religion or their nationality.” Buckley’s own registering of persecution and torture was curiously selective. To this, we might also add other staples of conservative thought: the victimizing narrative, the universalizing of a specific religious worldview, the sweeping of ideological conflict under the rug. Distinct categories though they were, Buckley could only see race, religion, and nationality as indivisible.

After Franco’s death, Buckley’s interest in Spanish politics waned. He instead turned his attention back to Latin America, where his fascination with the Spanish-speaking world had taken root. It was in Chile—where General Augusto Pinochet had taken power thanks to the American-backed coup d’etat in 1973—that Buckley found the closest analog to Francoism, and his next muse. Buckley wrote more than a handful of essays on Pinochet. He saw the Chilean regime, like Franco’s, as a test case for instituting Catholicism and capitalism through authoritarian means. “Fine-tuning repression is a distinctly unperfected art,” Buckley wrote—an art that Pinochet, like Franco, had mastered. Chile not only enjoyed “public order,” it also boasted an “overwhelming majority of the people” who accepted the Pinochet government. Ends by way of means, legitimacy thanks to repression—these were the cornerstones of Buckley’s support for dictatorial regimes from Franco’s to Pinochet’s.

Even as he leaned on classical tropes, Buckley also began to test out a new vocabulary: perhaps surprisingly, that of human rights. Thrust into the public sphere by Cold War liberalism, human rights was—and still is—a vaguely defined term. Buckley was keen to reclaim it from progressive counterparts, as a watchword for the anti-Communist struggle. In 1977, he published a short National Review essay under the title “Pinochet and Human Rights.” The essay sticks out as much for its argument in support of Pinochet’s dictatorship as for its timing. Nineteen seventy-seven, according to Samuel Moyn and other historians, was a turning point in mainstream acceptance of human rights as a concept: it was the year Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while references to “human rights” saw a five-fold increase in the New York Times. Buckley took the opportunity to deploy the term in defense of the Chilean regime, questioning ideas about Pinochet’s total repression. Most journalistic reports, according to Buckley, had skewed the coverage, focusing too much on the regime’s systematic kidnappings and murders. He instead wanted to turn attention to the regime’s laudable proselytism of free market and Catholic deism. In other words, he wanted to pour cold water on the idea that Chile was violating human rights.

Claiming a noble strategy of momentary authority and oppression, Buckley helped make intervention fashionable again for conservatives in an American postwar era of liberal imperialism. Like many fashionable ideas in American politics, Buckley’s stood on the shoulders of money: the short-lived American-Chilean Council, which he co-created with Marvin Liebman, was a direct beneficiary of the Pinochet regime. According to Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile Documentation Project in the National Security Archive, the ACC “funnel[ed] hundreds of thousands of dollars secretly through an agent in Chile’s United Nations mission in New York to Marvin Liebman’s Madison Ave. office” from 1975–78, supporting lavish trips to Santiago for National Review writers. Cincinnatus’s noble rule, too, had its price.


Buckley was a fluent Spanish speaker through the end of his life. Reviving aspects of his childhood, Buckley had two Spanish maids, who, like the Mexican nana of his youth, were hired in part to help teach his children Spanish. He also had a close relationship with the largely unknown Spanish painter Raymond de Botton—the great-uncle of the popular philosopher Alain de Botton—whose paintings covered the walls of his Stamford home. “Much of the daily small talk in the house is in Spanish, with English almost a second language,” noted the Paris Review in its interview with Buckley.

Three decades removed from teaching Spanish, Buckley rekindled his Yale experience once more during an interview with Alan F. Westin in 1978. Westin had asked him about the success of the incipient American campaign for promoting human rights around the world. “The Spanish have a word: pujanza,” he told Westin. “It is used to define a really brave bull who keeps charging you and keeps on charging, such is his desire to get you. He has pujanza. He turns around and charges you again, and charges again,” he said. “American policy on human rights thus far lacks that quality.”

Buckley wouldn’t have to worry for very long. Thanks to his colleague in reaction, Henry Kissinger, American human rights policy in the Spanish-speaking world has not been lacking in pujanza ever since.

Bécquer Seguín is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Lawrence University, in Appleton, WI. He writes regularly for The Nation and other magazines.

* By the time he moved to Spain, Bozell had in fact become increasingly disenchanted with the National Review, not because he’d returned to the liberalism of his youth but rather because Catholicism had wedged deeper in his spirit. He thought Buckley and others around the magazine, which by then had become the most influential conservative outlet in the United States, had betrayed Catholicism. In Spain, Bozell embraced Carlism, a legitimist ideology supportive of the most conservative monarchical succession rules. Though Carlism regularly flared up in Spain from the early nineteenth century onwards, it was especially instrumental in the Spanish Civil War, where Carlists, despite some ideological differences, provided military support to Falangist forces and eventually served in Franco’s government.

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