[This is Chapter 5 of Murphey's book Liberalism in Contemporary America.]
The Nation and The New Republic
The Nation and The New Republic have been preeminent among the liberal journals of opinion. Their pages have conveyed the views of such a wide variety of authors over such a long period of time that anyone who wants to be familiar with the development of liberal thought will need to be conversant with the history of these journals.
The Nation existed as a classical liberal journal for almost a half-century before The New Republic was founded in 1914. Because it was first in chronological order, it is natural to discuss it first.
Edwin Lawrence Godkin was the commanding figure on The Nation from its founding in 1865 until shortly before his death in 1902. Born in Ireland to English parents, he served as a correspondent in the Crimean War before coming to the United States from England in 1856. He was considered a follower of John Stuart Mill, although he possessed none of Mill’s eventual affinity for socialism. The Nation itself contains conflicting information about who, as between Godkin and Wendell Phillips Garrison, was formally the first editor. It is clear, though, that Godkin was at least the de facto editor until as late as 1899. Godkin’s name is thus synonymous with the early Nation.1
Wendell Phillips Garrison worked closely with Godkin from the beginning, and after Godkin stepped down in 1899 continued the journal until his own death in 1907. He was the son of William Lloyd Garrison, whose The Liberator had been a fiery Abolitionist weekly in Boston for the thirty years preceding the Civil War.
Under both Godkin and Garrison, The Nation was independent, reformist – and steadfastly classical liberal. (It is, however, significant that its pages do not reflect the existence at that time of a coherent, self-conscious classical liberal movement.) The journal was at first associated with liberal Republicanism, but threw its support to Grover Cleveland in 1884. It broke with Cleveland a year later, considering him too jingoistic. As it looked back later, however, it gave him high praise.
The Nation’s classical liberalism was apparent in the many positions it took on the issues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: It was strongly for free trade and against the protectionism that the Republican Party had imposed since the Civil War. It believed that free trade could solve the problem of business concentration, and so it did not favor anti-trust legislation against bigness. It did, however, favor legislation against specific abuses such as price discrimination.
The Nation’s free trade, freedom-of-contract rationale caused it to oppose not only the protectionist tariff, but also such interventions as were proposed for the 8-hour-day, minimum wages, the nationalization of coal (which Bellamy demanded), the municipal ownership of utilities, and usury laws. It favored collective bargaining, but not the closed shop. On the money question, it stood for the gold standard against bimetallism and the various inflationary schemes that were so much in the air.
Under Godkin and Garrison, The Nation supported the trend toward greater democracy and the struggle for cleaner government. They accordingly favored the proposal for the direct election of senators, encouraged the revolt against political bossism, opposed the spoils system, and urged every city to have a league for good government.
Although they blamed the tariff most especially for the “venality of politics,” they were acutely aware of a serious erosion of American values and classical liberal perspectives during the decades following the Civil War. They commented upon how “money-making eminence” had superseded “intellectual eminence,” and how a “belief in paternalism” had grown out of the activities of government during and after the Civil War. They saw “the eclipse of Liberalism” both in the United States and Europe. In the United States, they said “nationalism in the sense of national greed has supplanted Liberalism.”2
During those years, The Nation was strongly opposed to socialism. “Human nature,” an editorial thundered in 1890, “will never agree to pass its life in a huge boarding house with a lot of ranting orators regulating the diet and hours of sleep of the inmates.” It gave respectful but critical attention to the writings of such socialists as Rodbertus and the Webbs, and concluded that “real Liberalism can never be socialistic.”3
In foreign affairs, it favored a non-belligerent policy. When the Spanish-American War was about to break out, it condemned the hysteria over the sinking of the Maine, arguing perceptively that is was not known whether Spain had done the sinking. It opposed an American colonialism, and urged the government to set up a self-governing system in Cuba and then to get out. The editors protested the brutality of the subjugation of the Philippines, and opposed any effort to “raise the Philippines to a higher level of civilization.” They compared Theodore Roosevelt to French militarists for what they considered his glorification of the army. And they called upon other nations to join with the United States in a confederation for the prevention of war.
The Nation was always interested in the well-being of blacks, although it is not surprising that the editors, consistently with their overall classical liberal orientation, agreed with Booker T. Washington’s position that the situation of blacks would best improve if they devoted themselves to gaining education and property. An editorial in 1890 criticized the notion that laws can correct the effects of discrimination. The editors continually drew attention to the barbarity of lynching, and argued that in part the lynching came from an exaggeration of the number of black rapes of white women. They pointed out that the best way to stop a lynch mob would be for the authorities to shoot the first person to act. And they opposed the South’s move into segregation, such as when a proposed statute in Kentucky threatened to abolish Berea College by prohibiting the coeducation of whites and negroes.4
When the Muckraking movement began, The Nation welcomed the illumination of actual abuses, but opposed a nihilistic exaggeration. In 1894 the editors called Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth “the wildest rant,” but in 1905 they were sympathetic to the early Muckraking articles and joined in a call for an investigation of the Equitable Life Assurance Society’s affairs. By 1906, however, they were fed up, and said that Muckraking “runs unceasingly through the daily and periodical press, spreading dark suspicion abroad without suggesting remedies.” They pointed out that “the idea of reforming is quite subordinate to…creating a hatred.”5
Their comments on an income tax were perceptive. They reasoned that such a tax is just, but that because its collection would depend upon a self-reporting system “its burden [would] fall chiefly on those who are too honest to shirk it.”6
And finally, the editors took a dim view of the “scientific pretensions” of the German-trained academics pouring in from the Historical School. Of the new sociologists, they said that “the great thing is to get their work called scientific, no matter whether it is useful or reasonable.” “Scholarship,” they added later, “suffers from an overproduction of monographs…stretching a thin substance to the cracking point.”7
It was a fascinating period. Article after article presaged the issues of the twentieth century, which were by that time far more than negligible clouds on the horizon. The Nation under Godkin and Garrison met those issues head on, speaking for classical liberal values that even then were sinking into the status of a gigantic underlay. There was no broad classical liberal movement it could champion, and intellectually the journal left much untouched that is vital to a sound classical liberalism. Just the same, the dust-covered volumes of The Nation for that period stand as monuments to American values.
Within eleven years after Garrison’s death, The Nation passed through the hands of three editors, Hammond Lamont, Paul Elmer More and Harold deWolf Fuller. All three were described in the 100-year-centennary issue in 1965 as “conservatives.” Both More and Fuller were said to have been breaking away from the laissez-faire liberalism of Godkin and Garrison. Despite these descriptions, my own reading shows The Nation’s content to have remained remarkably consistent with the earlier views until at least 1913. Only then do we begin to see legislation favored, and rationales expressed, that were at odds with the earlier philosophy. Just the same, no sharp break occurred. In 1914 and 1915, criticisms appeared of socialism and of Croly’s book on industrial democracy.
All that I have traced so far has been looked upon later as “the ‘pre-modern’ Nation.” The ideological watershed was in 1918 when Oswald Garrison Villard, a nephew of Wendell Phillips Garrison, became owner and editor. Villard remained editor until 1933, and then stayed with the journal as a columnist until 1940 when he broke with it over his conviction that the United States should stay out of war in Europe.
Under Villard, The Nation during the late ‘teens and 1920s was virtually a twin of The New Republic, except for a few specifics. Garrison had considered closing down The Nation for want of an appropriate successor as editor, but had been persuaded to allow it to continue under Hammond Lamont. No doubt he would have let it die if he had foreseen the editorial in 1919 that said that “out of the soviet experiment, and out of the ideas of the Guild Socialists in England, is evolving what some sanguine optimists hope will prove to be the State-norm of the immediate future.” The editorial spoke of “the freedom to prey upon others, which was really the essence of the old individualism.…”8
The “modern” Nation threw itself wholeheartedly behind “industrial democracy,” which it said “courageously undertakes to substitute service for profits as the motive force in industry.” It published a speech by the French socialist Anatole France in which he said that “I wish with all my heart that a delegation of the teachers of all nations might soon join the Workers’ Internationale…We shall see fulfilled the great socialist prophecy: “The union of the workers will be the peace of the world.” Louis Fischer was the journal’s main correspondent in Soviet Russia – and sent glowing reports. Villard himself made a trip to Russia in 1929 and told the readers that “it is all so new, so genuinely thrilling.”9
Villard did not parallel Croly’s mystical withdrawal in the ‘20s, but much else was the same. There were calls for the extensive organization of cooperatives, for the public ownership of power, for the nationalization of the mines. The Nation joined in the impassioned defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1932, it endorsed Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate, for president.
Editorial control was under a board of editors between 1933 and 1936, with Freda Kirchwey a major figure. Under this leadership, The Nation considered the N.R.A. insufficient and called for “a socialist approach to the economic crisis,” according to Richard Clark Sterne in the centenary issue. It published an article by Norman Thomas calling for the nationalization of banking. The editors showed some sympathy for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but they considered the New Deal itself “a half-baked capitalism with so-called liberal trimmings.”10
Between 1936 and 1938, Kirchwey and Max Lerner shared the editorship. Kirchwey then served as the editor for the long period between 1938 and 1955. The Nation enthusiastically supported the Left in the Spanish Civil War, again sending Louis Fischer as its correspondent. In 1937, there was lavish praise for the Soviet Union on the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and elaborate justifications were made for Stalin’s purges. The collectivization of agriculture was praised – with no mention of the mass starvation.
During this period there was at least one major difference between The Nation and The New Republic. Over Villard’s objections, The Nation supported the idea of collective security against Hitler. The New Republic took a pacifist position until 1940.
The Nation softened its attitude toward the New Deal somewhat earlier than The New Republic. It was basically favorable to Roosevelt in 1936, while still being careful to maintain its connections with the far Left. (Villard, however, used his column to endorse Norman Thomas in 1936.) The Nation endorsed Roosevelt for third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact and the aggressions that followed it were shocks to those associated with The Nation just as they were to those connected with The New Republic, but after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union it wasn’t long before The Nation was filled with adulatory articles about the Soviet Union by Anna Louise Strong. The Nation joined, too, in the growing drumbeat of criticism of Chiang Kai-shek and of praise for Mao.
As Europe faced the post-war period, The Nation under Kirchwey called for the creation of a socialist “third force” in Britain and on the continent. She criticized the Marshall Plan, thinking it bad that it was being used to stop Communism in Western Europe rather than to create such a third force. She considered the Truman Doctrine in Greece a “failure” for having defeated the Communist insurgency by keeping a “cruel, corrupt oligarchy” in power. In the meantime, Alexander Werth, the journal’s Moscow correspondent, wrote still more glowing reports about the Soviet Union. (We should remember that this was the period during which the Gulags described by Solzhenitsyn were at their worst.) The attacks on Chiang Kai-shek were continued until mainland China fell to the Communists in 1949. Mao had no sooner won than The Nation began urging the United States to recognize his government.11
A 1948 editorial held back from endorsing Henry Wallaces’s Progressive Party candidacy. It argued that the Progressive Party could not become a viable labor party without organized labor’s support, which it did not have, and that a large third-party vote would elect the Republicans. The Nation thus adopted a stance very similar to that taken by The New Republic after Wallace ceased being its editor. In 1952, The Nation endorsed Adlai Stevenson despite its criticism of him as “exaggerating the dangers of Communism.”
Carey McWilliams became editor in 1955 and by continuing in that capacity until 1976 established most of the post-World War II posture of The Nation. During his tenure, The Nation shared The New Republic’s malaise about domestic policy. Its position was nondescript, with one foot placed tenuously in domestic liberal politics, the other in socialist yearnings. These yearnings did not take form as a detailed program; they were evidenced primarily by the presence within The Nation’s pages of such socialist authors as Christopher Lasch, Theodore Roszak, Erich Fromm, Theodore Lowi and Michael Harrington. The journal was never in close proximity with either the New Frontier or the Great Society.
The clearest direction was on foreign policy. Under McWilliams, The Nation continued to criticize the United States for a “Cold War” posture based on an “anti-Communist obsession” toward the Soviet Union. Alexander Werth traveled to the Soviet Union again in 1960 to write still another favorable report. Castro’s bloodbath after gaining power was justified as unfortunate but necessary. The American role in the Vietnam War was denounced as “a dirty, shameful war in which we are trying to put down an indigenous revolutionary movement whose aim is to free the country from foreign domination.” 12
As the New Left heated up in the second half of the 1960’s, The Nation reported its activities and, with scatter-gun ambivalence, served as something of a platform for it. Mainly, though, it held to a more orthodox line on the “moderate Left.” Examples of this would include Richard F. Hamilton’s call in 1965 for the formation of “a socialist or labor party in this country” and Michael Harrington’s 1972 “Call to American Socialists.” In 1972, there were many editorials mildly favoring George McGovern’s candidacy against Richard Nixon, but there was no ringing endorsement.13
Blair Clark was editor for the brief period between 1976 and 1978, and then Victor Navasky held the position through the end of my reading in early 1985. The Nation remained to the left of the Democratic Party. It was severely critical of Walter Mondale as the candidate in 1984, and did not associate itself with the mercantilist “neo-liberalism” that was receiving so much attention. In an article in February 1985, entitled “Up From the Ashes: Getting Our Act Together,” David Gordon called for long, patient work to create “permanent networks” that would link labor, women, minorities, small farmers, church activists, homosexuals, environmentalists, middle class liberals, and senior citizens in a “broader and stronger coalition.”14
The New Republic
It would be redundant for me to give a detailed chronological history of The New Republic, since my many references to that journal in the chapters on “the phases of liberalism” have in effect already done that. It will be enough to add any significant details that have not already been covered.
Off and on during my reading of the almost-200 volumes of The New Republic for the period between 1914 and 1985, I have been surprised when liberal associates in the academic community have asked me querulously, “Why The New Republic?” They have not considered it sufficiently to the left to be truly representative of liberalism. When I have asked them to explain, they have made it clear that this is their impression based on the last few years rather than on the first sixty or so years of the journal’s history. It is interesting that even thought The New Republic made no sharp swing to the right prior to 1985, they consider themselves sufficiently to the left of it that it is no longer representative of their thinking.
Their observation obscures the main truth that The New Republic has since 1914 served as a vast sounding-board for quite literally hundreds upon hundreds of authors, many of them famous as the intellectual and literary leaders of liberalism.
I have already quoted many of these authors, seeking to give the feel and texture of the thinking they represented. The reader should be aware, of course, that it would be possible to distort a history by such a process; the ocean of material is so vast that differing emphases can easily be supported by quotation. The author of such a history as this must immerse himself so deeply in the reading that he can know what is representative and what is not. As I have selected my quotations, I have sought to be representative.
Nevertheless, the attempt to describe accurately the main thrust of liberal thought has had a certain distorting effect, since the main thrust is not the only thing that has appeared in The New Republic. I have been impressed from the beginning by the diversity of authors and views. The journal has served a broad literary and intellectual purpose and has at no time been narrowly sectarian, even during the Red Decade. The views have been within the range of the American Left, of course, and there has been no recognition of a conservative intellectual position of any respectability, but the views have not been restricted generally to any given slice of the Left. It is valid to say this even though there have no doubt been many instances in which some exclusion has been exercised.
I have already commented upon the distinction that I have come to feel between the intellectualized liberalism of The New Republic and the “pop-liberalism” of current fads generated primarily by the media.
The identity of the chief editor of The New Republic was not made entirely clear from the masthead of the journal until the mid-1940’s. Herbert Croly was simply listed among several editors, but liberal literature is unanimous in designating him the first editor. He served as such from the opening issue of November 7, 1914, until his death in 1930. For the next several years, a committee of editors was listed without differentiation. The literature does not point nearly so strongly to one individual as dominant. It seems justifiable to say, though, that Bruce Bliven, who joined The New Republic as one of its editors in 1923 and remained as chairman of the editorial board even during the 1950’s while Michael Straight was editor, can be considered to have been “first among equals” on the editorial staff during those years.
Henry Wallace was made editor with much fanfare on December 16, 1946. Michael Straight commented years later, however, that Wallace was so preoccupied with other things that he paid little attention to his editorial duties. Certainly Wallace’s tenure as editor was brief. He served only until January 12, 1948, although he retained a column for a short time thereafter. He was the Progressive Party candidate for president that year, but did not receive the endorsement of The New Republic under its new editor, Michael Straight, despite Straight’s continued liking for him personally. In part, Wallace’s leaving reflected the division that was becoming bitter within the American Left. The split between those, such as Wallace, who were “willing to work with Communists” and those, such as the A.D.A. who were not was being fought out in 1948.
Michael Straight was editor from 1948 until May 1956. It was a period marked by the deepest hypocrisy. The public face of The New Republic was one thing; the secret harbored through all those years by its editor was something very different.
By far the most heated national issue during his editorship had to do with Communism. Although Straight liked Herbert Philbrick’s book I Led Three Lives about Philbrick’s years as an undercover agent within the Communist Party and there was a review critical of a book defending Alger Hiss, the main emphasis of The New Republic during these years was on of the vehement denunciation of virtually all efforts by anti-Communists.
Congressman Thomas, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was denounced by Daniel Gillmor as “a master of loading a phrase, at ripping a quotation out of context and at implying guilt without leveling an outright accusation.” An editorial argued that Attorney General Tom Clark was arbitrary in listing certain organizations as “subversive.” Jack Winocour wrote that the French were “obsessed with anti-Communist hysteria.” An editorial denounced the New York City Board of Education as bigoted and hysterical for “attempting to bar from the teaching profession know Communists or suspected Communists.” TRB wrote that Harry Dexter White was being “smeared by Miss Bentley.” An editorial defended Owen Lattimore against the McCarran Committee’s charge that he had been “a conscious articulate instrument” of Communism in his writing about China. Another editorial acknowledged the guilt of the Rosenbergs, but called for a reduction of their sentence to life imprisonment. And, most emphatically, the journal joined in liberalism’s scathing denunciations of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against suspected Communists in government.15
Many years later, in 1981, it became publicly known that Straight had joined a Communist cell at Cambridge in 1935 and had for several years been a part of the espionage ring that included Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Straight has told the story of those years in his 1983 book After Long Silence. His book tells of his Communist activities and meetings with both Burgess and another agent, Donald Maclean, of whom Straight says he had no knowledge, fled to the Soviet Union. If Straight’s book can be taken at face value, he was always a reluctant, peripheral member of the espionage cell, and never sought or conveyed information other than his own impressions of the American political scene. He says that he faked a break with Communism when he became part of the espionage cell, but held mixed feelings and was for several years plagued with fear and guilt.
These years included a time when he had easy access to President and Mrs. Roosevelt. He even worked with Eleanor Roosevelt “as she struggled to maintain the ties between the administration and the radicals in America.” They included all of the years he was editor of The New Republic. He finally went to the F.B.I. and then to British intelligence in 1963 when President Kennedy’s offer to appoint him chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts made an F.B.I. check of his background imminent. The public did not know the story until the London Daily Mail broke it in 1981.
The hypocrisy has been summarized by Straight himself: “My fear and sense of guilt were secret, shared by no one. At the same time, as editor of The New Republic, I had to share my thoughts and my feelings week after week on the allegations of espionage that were surfacing and on the larger issues that they raised.” 16
Debts incurred during the effort to build The New Republic’s circulation at the time of the Wallace editorship finally forced Straight to sell the journal in 1956. This ended many years of financial association by the Straight family with The New Republic. Michael Straight’s parents, Willard and Dorothy Straight, had been the first owners and financial benefactors, establishing the journal in 1914 with Herbert Croly as editor after they read this book The Promise of American Life. Willard Straight died of influenza at the end of World War I. It tells us a lot about Mrs. Straight, and provides some explanation of her son Michael’s role, that she continued her financial support throughout the journal’s most radical phase in the 1930s.
Gilbert A. Harrison became the editor after Michael Straight, serving during the tempestuous years from 1956 to early 1975. Martin Peretz purchased The New Republic in 1974 and took Harrison’s place as editor the next year. This remained the situation when I completed my reading in preparation for this book in early 1985.
During most of The New Republic’s existence, the column by “T.R.B.” has been something of an institution. It was begun in 1925 with Frank Kent as the first of several anonymous authors. Kenneth Crawford and Jonathan Mitchell have also been mentioned as having contributed to it before Richard Stout began his 40-odd year tenure in March 1943.
The New Republic has itself given varying explanations of what the initials mean. In 1946, an editorial broke silence, saying that “the idea of ‘T.R.B’ was born during a ride on the old Brooklyn Rapid Transit subway…” The initials were simply reversed, and thus came to stand for “Transit R. Brooklyn.” The explanation was disputed, however, by an editorial in 1983, which said that “there’s no such line as the BRT.” The editorial told of competing explanations. One was that the initials stand for the typeface Times Roman Bold. Another, offered by John Midgley of the Economist, “is a variation of the subway theory: the editor took the initials IRT (for Interboro Rapid Transit) and BMT (for Brooklyn Manhattan Transit), and crunched them together.”17
Fortunately, we can say about the T.R.B. mystery that it is as harmless as it is amusing.
1During the “pre-modern” era, The Nation’s editorial masthead did not indicate who the editors were. The conflicting commentary about the editorship appears in the issues of July 13, 1905, p. 30, where Garrison is said to have been editor since the beginning, and of July 8, 1915, p. 68, where Godkin is referred to as “the founder and first editor.” The 100-year-anniversary article by Richard Clark Sterne on September 20, 1965, is obscure on the point.
2The Nation, August 9, 1900, p. 105.
3The Nation, May 8, 1890, p. 367; The Nation, December 5, 1897, p. 442.
4The Nation, January 23, 1890, p. 61.
5The Nation, November 8, 1894, p. 348; The Nation, March 22, 1906, p. 234.
6The Nation, November 30, 1893, p. 404.
7The Nation, May 24, 1894, p. 382: The Nation, October 11, 1894, p. 264; The Nation, April 25, 1901, p. 332.
8The Nation, August 2, 1919, p. 137.
9The Nation, September 16, 1919, pp. 327, 353; The Nation, Vol. 129, p. 515.
10The Nation, October 31, 1934, p. 493.
11The Nation, Vol. 166, pp. 117, 341.
12The Nation, Vol. 190, p. 63; The Nation, Vol. 201, pp. 149, 317.
13The Nation, Vol. 201, p. 384.
14The Nation, February 9, 1985.
15New Republic, May 31, 1948, p. 17; New Republic, June 7, 1948, p. 13; New Republic, June 28, 1948, p. 3; New Republic, July 12, 1948, p. 7; New Republic, December 6, 1948, p. 3; New Republic, July 14, 1952, p. 7; New Republic, January 19, 1953, p. 7.
16Michael Straight, After Long Silence (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1983), p. 231.
17New Republic, March 18, 1946, p. 390; New Republic, April 18, 1983, p. 11.