The pro‐freedom and anti‐war movement lost one of its most dedicated champions this past weekend. Jon Basil Utley was born in the Soviet Union in 1934. His British‐born mother, Freda, had gone there as a pro‐communist intellectual and writer. But after his father was spirited away to one of Stalin’s gulags (where he was executed in 1938), Freda fled with young Jon and became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, including in several bestselling books. They eventually emigrated to the United States where Freda hosted meetings of prominent anti‐communists in their home. That is where Jon met many leading intellectuals and activists of the Cold War era, connections that lasted a lifetime. He became an accomplished writer in his own right, as well as a successful businessman. He traveled extensively.
Jon was a nearly ubiquitous presence at DC gatherings and globally. He attended many events at Cato, as well as Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings at Americans for Tax Reform. He supported Reason magazine and the Reason Foundation, and many other libertarian causes. And he was proud to be associated with The American Conservative magazine, where he served on the board of directors, and as publisher.
Whenever I encountered Jon at one of these meetings, he would always greet me with a warm toothy smile and a firm handshake. He made me feel so welcomed at these gatherings – but he did the same for everyone else as well, as though he appreciated every single person in attendance.
But his warmth and affection for those around him concealed a deep and abiding hatred of America’s wars, and a related sadness at his fellow Americans’ apparent disinterest in the suffering these wars caused for innocent men, women, and children all around the world. In meetings, he would often ask questions, or make comments, in his soft, almost lyrical, voice. Most of the time, his remarks conveyed his skepticism of these wars, even as he knew that many of those around him (mostly conservatives, but also some libertarians) wished desperately that he would just sit down and shut up. But that just wasn’t his style.
Jon was a peacemaker within the often‐fractious liberty movement, too. His sadness about America’s wars was perhaps only exceeded by his disappointment that his friends in the anti‐war movement were fighting with one another. He was a natural bridgebuilder with a very wide circle of acquaintances and always on the lookout to make introductions and build alliances.
Last year, when it presented Jon a lifetime achievement award, The American Conservative prepared a fitting tribute video. I know and respect many of the people who offered their reflections on why Jon was worthy of such an award. TAC’s Executive Editor Kelly Beaucar Vlahos called him “one of the bravest people that I know in Washington.” To Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, Jon was “one of the most gentle, generous men I’ve ever met.” My friend John Henry declared, simply, “Jon is America.”
This was particularly true in the post‑9/11 era, when conservatives, in particular, really didn’t want to hear one of their own questioning the wisdom of George W. Bush’s various foreign wars—especially the war in Iraq. Jon would “be the only person to stand up and say the Iraq war made no sense,” John Henry recalled, when “everybody else was saluting, [and chanting] USA! USA!”
The Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards counted Jon’s willingness to stand “up for the truth as he sees it, regardless of what others say” as his greatest achievement.
“All of the wise men of the conservative movement,” Edwards explained, believed that the United States should be waging war in Iraq. They would listen as Jon would question why. Then he’d sit down. A few moments of awkward silence typically ensued before the meeting moved onto the next topic.
“But, after the luncheon was over,” Edwards continued, “people would come up to him and say ‘Jon, keep saying that. Keep asking those questions…I haven’t got enough guts to do it, but you have.’”
Edwards noted that when the weapons of mass destruction weren’t found in Iraq, and most Americans came to realize that the war had been a terrible mistake, Jon didn’t go around saying “I was right. I told you so” —and that, too, was to his great credit. Edwards congratulated Utley for speaking up when others were timid.
Jon was a long‐time generous donor to the Cato Institute, and for that we are all grateful. But his influence ran much deeper that that. He was a warm and wonderful friend, and an inspiration to those of us who followed in his footsteps.
During this period of COVID-19, when all public gatherings have been postponed or canceled, we have more urgent things to attend to. But, when things return to normal, and I for the first time attend one of those meetings where I would have expected to see Jon’s kind smile and reassuring presence, I fear that that is when the true depths of this loss will really be felt.
Rest in peace, my friend. Your legacy lives on.