Irving Kristol: Writer and thinker known as the godfather of neo-conservatism

Public intellectuals are a far more influential breed in the United States than Britain – and of America's public intellectuals over the last 60-odd years, few were more important than Irving Kristol. He was, most famously, the so-called "godfather" of the neo-conservative movement that largely took over Washington's foreign policy under George W. Bush. Even more consequential, he was an essayist, columnist and editor who helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan and well-nigh two generations of conservative dominance of American politics.

"A liberal who has been mugged by reality," was Kristol's definition of a neo-conservative, a label with which he went happily along. But it was not conservatism in the classic pro-business sense, wary of social change – though that was part of it. The essence of neo-conservatism was scepticism: about whether big ideas would work, about the promises of unfettered liberalism and capitalism alike, about the ability of reason and noble intentions to sway America's adversaries abroad. "It requires strength of character to act upon one's ideas; it requires no less strength of character to resist being seduced by them" was one of Kristol's favourite dicta.

The philosophy, if such it may be called, was born in the 1940s. It incubated in the 1950s and 1960s and blossomed in the sour aftermath of liberalism's seemingly greatest triumph, Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society". What followed appeared to many as a period of moral, economic and military decline for America: at home, stagflation and excesses of the counterculture, abroad, defeat in Vietnam and the growing danger of a Soviet Union that seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the Cold War.

A new breed of liberal sceptics was born, mugged indeed by reality. They came to understand a core principle of neo-conservatism – the law of unintended consequences, whereby big projects often bring about the opposite of what their authors expected. Today, Kristol's protégés are seeded through the country's Republican establishment. But in earlier days, they embraced not just right-leaning academics like Norman Podhoretz and Richard Pipes, but Patrick Daniel Moynihan and other New Deal democrats grown disillusioned at how the Great Society programmes were working out in practice.

The same process took place in foreign policy, in the persons of hawkish Democrats like Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the powerful senator from Washington State, and the "Team B" of Cold Warriors set up to second-guess the CIA's more benign assessments of the Soviet threat. Participants included Paul Wolfowitz, later an architect of the 2003 Iraq war and a signatory to The Project for a New American Century, the think-tank that preached the more assertive US policies that the younger George Bush would put into practice. They were founded on the doctrine of American exceptionalism, that the country was different, somehow superior, to others.

Irving Kristol himself, however, was far less idealistic. He was born into a poor non-observant Jewish family in Brooklyn and educated at the highly politicised City College. Those formative years were shaped by the Great Depression, and the hardship and social injustices it spawned. At City College, Stalinists were a dominant faction on the hard left. But the later "godfather of neo-conservatism" was briefly a Trotskyist, before the realities of army service in the Second World War put paid to such radical optimism.

In 1942, he married the future historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, sealing a union from which neo-conservatism developed into a family business. She became an historian of Victorian England, hankering after a less permissive age. Their son William emerged as a leading neoconservative in his own right, co-founder of The Project for a New American Century and editor of The Weekly Standard, the unofficial house magazine of the movement.

In this last venture, the younger Kristol was merely following in his father's footsteps. Over almost 60 years, Irving Kristol was involved with a string of them, as founder, writer or editor. Their common characteristic was a punch out of all proportion with their modest readership. Cumulatively, they had a large role in shaping the Republican party of the second half of the 20th century. "With a circulation of a few hundred," Kristol once said, "you can change the world."

The first of them was Commentary, liberal but staunchly anti-Communist, where Kristol took an editing job in 1947 and wrote articles sympathetic to Joseph McCarthy, who might have been a "vulgar demagogue" but who understood the true extent of the Communist threat. In 1953, he briefly moved to England where he co-founded Encounter with Stephen Spender.

The most important magazine by far was the quarterly The Public Interest, that Kristol started in 1965 and which survived until 2005. Kept afloat by the donations of friends, it rarely sold more than 10,000 copies. But its influence matched that of the National Review of William Buckley, that other intellectual driving force of modern Republicanism. If Buckley was the dazzling public face of the movement, Kristol tended to operate behind the scenes. As an editor, his special strength was to find good writers with stimulating arguments and give them their head. They did not peddle slogans, they did not hew to the party line or condescend to their readers. It was a formula for influence, if not for commercial success.

Even so, Kristol's importance was enough to earn him a cover story in Esquire magazine in 1979, a year before the election of Ronald Reagan that sealed the conservatives' victory in the political battle. It was a victory won largely on Kristol's terms: a triumph for a new American self-confidence, but also an acceptance of Roosevelt's New Deal. He might by now have been a visceral anti-liberal. But sceptical to the last of blind dogma, he knew better than to tamper with liberalism's greatest achievement.

His later platforms included The National Interest, set up in 1985 and devoted to foreign policy, as well as monthly opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington think tank that remains the physical home of the neoconservative movement. In 2002, Kristol received from President George W. Bush the Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour.

Rupert Cornwell

Irving Kristol, American columnist and political writer: born Brooklyn, New York 22 January 1920; married 1942 Gertrude Himmelfarb (one son, one daughter); died Falls Church, Virginia 18 September 2009.