The Nation , an American weekly magazine, was first published on 6th July, 1865 by Joseph H. Richards. It claimed that it intended to: "(1) To discuss current affairs, especially in their legal, economic, and constitutional phases, with more moderation than the party press; (2) to maintain true democratic principles; (3) to work for the equality of the labouring classes at the South; (4) to enforce the doctrine that the whole country has the strongest interest in the elevation of the Negro; (5) to fix attention on the importance of popular education; (6) to inform the country of conditions in the southern states; (7) to criticize books and works of art soundly and impartially." Its original sponsors were concerned with securing full rights for the newly freed slaves. The first editor was Edwin L. Godkin (1865-81) but much of the writing was done by William Dean Howells.
The Nation was sold to Henry Villard in June, 1881. After Villard's became owner of the magazine, editors have included Wendell Phillips Garrison (1881-1906), Hammond Lamont (1906-09), Paul Elmer More (1909-14) and Harold De Wolf Fuller (1914-18).
Oswald Garrison Villard became editor of The Nation in 1918. His friend, Carl Schurz, also became a regular contributor to the magazine. Villard held radical political opinions and gave his support to women's suffrage, trade union law reform and equal rights for African Americans, and was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
A pacifist, Villard opposed America's participation in the First World War. This upset his patriotic readers and advertisers and Villard was forced to sell the New York Evening Post. However, he retained The Nation and continued to use this as the personal organ of his views. He recruited several radical journalists including Norman Thomas, Freda Kirchway and Emily Balch.
In May, 1921, Villard appointed Ernest Gruening as managing editor of the journal. He employed a wide-range of contributors including Mary Heaton Vorse, Henry Nevinson, Henry L. Mencken, John A. Hobson, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, William DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Herrick, Anatole France, Lewis Stiles Gannett, Arthur Gleason, Irita Bradford, Carl Van Doren and Mark Van Doren. Gruening also recruited Art Young: "Another new feature was the cartoons of Art Young, a pink-faced, rolypoly cherub with a delicious and irreverent sense of humor. Along with Max Eastman and other editors of The Masses, he had been a target of Postmaster General Burleson and was tried for dissent from America's participation in the war."
Gruening employed several Europeans to write about foreign affairs. He wrote in Many Battles (1973): "The Nation also made a continuing effort to establish understanding with the new regime in Soviet Russia. A brilliant, two-part article by Bertrand Russell, based upon his own first-hand experience, was as fine and balanced a guide to the truth about Russia as could be found in any American publication, at a time when misrepresentation and distortion prevailed."
Ernest Gruening was also involved in the struggle over the right of Margaret Sanger to distribute birth-control literature. When Patrick Hayes, the Archbishop of New York, condemned Sanger's attempts to hold a meeting in the city on the subject, he commented that "I am confident that in this great city of ours the majority of the women are too pure, clear-minded and self-respecting to want to attend or hear a discussion of such a revolting subject." In the next edition of The Nation Gruening argued: "The Archbishop has furnished the birth control movement with advertising worth thousands of dollars. He has given all anti-clericals definite and specific evidence of clerical interference in government and hostility to the fundamental American rights of free speech which will be used in those anti-Catholic campaigns which The Nation has deplored."
Gruening invited William R. Inge, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London, to write an article on birth-control, which began: "The control of parenthood is perhaps the most important movement in our time. It is not only universal in the civilized world, but the degree to which it is practiced is a very fair gauge of the position of that country in the scale of civilization." Gruening added: "I continued my own activities in behalf of the birth-control movement which for the next third of a century continued to be opposed by the same forces against which Margaret Sanger had battled so indomitably."
The Nation faithfully supported radical causes. Although it only had a circulation of around 25,000 but it had a tremendous influence in political and intellectual circles. The journal generally supported left-wing presidential candidates including Eugene V. Debs (1920), Robert LaFollette, (1924) and Norman Thomas (1928). In 1932 Oswald Garrison Villard favoured Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal proposals.
Oswald Garrison Villard resigned as editor of The Nation in 1933 and was replaced by Freda Kirchway. Villard remained the publisher, but Kirchwey now had complete control over the content of the journal. Although she had campaigned for Norman Thomas for president, she supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programme.
Raymond Gram Swing, who also worked for The Nation , later wrote: "Of Miss Kirchwey, on whom the chief responsibility for conducting the magazine rested, I wish to say that she was one of the best and most likable journalists with whom I ever worked. I am tempted to call her the best woman journalist I ever encountered, but hesitate to rank her ahead of Dorothy Thompson, who was a better writer. But she was among the superior women journalists of her time."
Over the next few years she used her power to campaign against the fascist regimes in Europe. When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 she wrote that he represented "the abolition of personal liberty, for prejudice, for reaction, for race hatred and persecution, for terror and murder." Kirchwey argued that the United States should abandon its policy of isolationism and urged the government to impose economic boycotts on Germany and Italy.
Freda Kirchway also advocated a close alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In August 1935 she warned "that the basic conflict of the next ten years will not be between capitalism and revolution but between fascism and democracy - a struggle in which the forces of revolution must support." However, Kirchwey's views on the soviet government were dramatically shaken by the Great Purge when some of her political friends were executed by Joseph Stalin.
The Nation also wanted the United States administration to aid republicans in Spain against General Francisco Franco. In an article she wrote entitled Spain is the Key in February 1937 she made the forecast that "Franco's success would encourage the Nazis to go and do likewise in Czechoslovakia, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, or anywhere else. Defeated in Spain, Hitler would be sobered and checked. He would also be weakened by the expenditure on Franco of several hundred million dollars. If the fascists are beaten in Spain, they are weakened everywhere. The supreme test of an anti-fascist is not what he says but what he does for Spain."
Kirchwey supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in his campaign against the Supreme Court. In an editorial in The Nation she wrote "The soil of economic chaos out of which fascism grows has been amply supplied by the court's refusal to allow national action for economic control." This upset her publisher, Oswald Garrison Villard, who believed that the president was wrong to try and control the decisions of the court. Kirchwey refused to change her stance on this issue and to maintain her independence she decided to try and buy the journal. In June 1937, Kirchwey and her husband purchased it for $20,000.
In 1938 Congress established the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate people suspected of unpatriotic behaviour. Kirchwey believed that the setting up of the HUAC was an attempt to restrict the freedom of the press and she accused Martin Dies, its chairman, as a "one-man Gestapo from Texas." She added that "Dies isn't after sedition; he is after you and me and the President."
After the outbreak of the Second World War The Nation campaigned for the United States to give more help to Jews trying to escape from persecution in Germany and the occupied territories. She wrote in January 1940 that "thousands of European Jews will die, unnecessarily, if we do not reach them with our life-giving dollars."
Kirchwey also called for universal military training in the United States. This upset Oswald Garrison Villard who severed all ties with the journal and stopped writing his weekly column, Personal and Private. Kirchwey's articles in favour of American support for the Allies against Nazi Germany lost the journal a large number of readers. She refused to compromise her views and in August 1941 wrote: "Before its total, uncompromising demands are laid upon them, the people of America must learn that this war is their war; that they cannot dodge it or buy their way out of it; that they must fight it because fighting is the only alternative to surrender.
By January 1942 over half a million Jews had been exterminated in Europe. This received little coverage in newspapers in the United States. This was not true of The Nation and the journal published a series of articles by Philip S. Bernstein detailing what was happening in the concentration camps being run by the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Freda Kirchway upset many liberals in March 1942 by arguing in favour of the fascist being suppressed. Her long time friend Norman Thomas wrote to her pointing out: " In ten years or less it won't be the people you want to suppress now who will be suppressed and stay suppressed by your theory; it will be yourselves along with many others, unless, indeed, you want to go farther than I think you do in support of a Roosevelt totalitarianism. Don't forget that neither Roosevelt nor anybody else is immortal. The principles once established are apt to outlive men."
When the American Civil Rights Union (ACLU) decided to defend the freedom of the fascist press she resigned her membership. John Haynes Holmes wrote to her explaining the decision of the ACLU: "I would fight to the death to maintain their (fascists) liberties, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a democracy which disappears when such liberties are withdrawn. Indeed, it is no longer a democracy, but to the extent at least that civil liberties are denied, has already itself become a fascist state.
The Nation continued to lose money and was in danger of closing. In 1943 Kirchwey made an appeal for $25,000 to keep it in business. The readers raised $36,000 and the money was used to establish Nation Associates. This new organization published the journal and arranged political conferences.
After the war Kirchwey was criticized for of her support of the Soviet Union. When long time staff member Louis Fischer resigned over this issue, Kirchwey wrote in the journal: "We believe Russian policy is primarily a security policy, not an imperialist one; it can become dangerous to the world, therefore, only if Russia decides that the other major powers are plotting against it."
Kirchwey was one of America's strongest critics of McCarthyism. In one article written in June 1950 she defined McCarthyism as "the means by which a handful of men, disguised as hunters of subversion, cynically subvert the instruments of justice and hold up to contempt the government itself in order to help their own political fortunes."
In September 1955 Freda Kirchway retired as editor of The Nation and was replaced by Carey McWilliams. He instituted investigative reports on domestic issues. This included a series on Jim Crow Laws and articles on consumer issues by Ralph Nader. In November 1960 McWilliams was the first American reporter to reveal that the CIA was training a group of Cuban exiles in Guatemala for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
McWilliams upset a large number of people on the left with his views on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of those was his friend Mark Lane who tried to find a magazine to publish his article of the assassination. “The obvious choice, I thought, was the Nation. Its editor, Carey McWilliams, was an acquaintance. He had often asked me to write a piece for him… McWilliams seemed pleased to hear from me and delighted when I told him I had written something I wished to give to the Nation. When he learned of the subject matter, however, his manner approached panic.” McWilliams told Lane: “We cannot take it. We don’t want it. I am sorry but we have decided not to touch that subject.”
McWilliams also gave his support to the Warren Commission Report. It has been suggested that the critics of the lone-gunman theory were particularly hurt by his support. In a debate that took place at Beverly Hills High School on 4th December, 1964, Abraham L. Wirin, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in California and a man who had been closely associated in the past with the American Communist Party, told the audience that he tried to make up his own mind on important issues, but in the case of the Warren Commission he relied on the opinions of people who he could trust: “I consider Carey McWilliams and The Nation , as an individual and a newspaper, respectively, whose judgment I respect. I do not consider Carey McWilliams or The Nation, a person or a newspaper, which would participate in a fraud, or would condone it.” Wirin pointed out The Nation had carried an article in support of the Warren Report and added: “now, that carries a lot of weight with me.”.
(1) Prospectus of the Nation (June, 1865)
(1) To discuss current affairs, especially in their legal, economic, and constitutional phases, with more moderation than the party press; (2) to maintain true democratic principles; (3) to work for the equality of "the labouring classes at the South"; (4) to enforce the doctrine that the whole country has the "strongest interest" in the elevation of the Negro; (5) to fix attention on the importance of popular education; (6) to inform the country of conditions in the southern states; (7) to criticize books and works of art soundly and impartially.
(2) Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation (31st August, 1927)
Massachusetts has triumphantly killed an Italian fishmonger and an Italian cobbler, but she has blackened the name of the United States across all the seas.
(3) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (1933)
Although the Nation has questioned the probability that in the long run it would be possible to save an industrial system by the incentive of profits, it has regarded the Roosevelt program in general as the most intelligent means that could be taken toward the end.
(4) Raymond Gram Swing, The Nation (20th March, 1933)
Their programs (Huey P. Long and Charles Coughlin), for all their glamorous radical sound, are capitalist radicalism. For fascism is the reorganization of society by undemocratic means to maintain the capitalist system. It is a movement, first of all, of passion and prejudice, growing out of the despair of disillusioned. Impoverished people. Then comes the collusion between demagogue and big business.
(5) W. A. White, letter to Oswald Garrison Villard, complaining about Freda Kirchwey's support for Franklin D. Roosevelt in his struggle with the Supreme Court (20th March, 1933)
It is unthinkable that a progressive and liberal journal should actually advocate any plan by which new judges are placed on our supreme tribunal who will decide cases on instructions, or who will be believed to have decided them on this basis.
(6) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (August, 1935)
It may well be that the basic conflict of the next ten years will not be between capitalism and revolution but between fascism and democracy - a struggle in which the forces of revolution must support and win the support of all the friends of democracy, while the forces of capitalism will gradually, and often unwillingly, form an alliance with the cohorts of fascism.
(7) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (February, 1937)
Franco's success would encourage the Nazis to go and do likewise in Czechoslovakia, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, or anywhere else. Defeated in Spain, Hitler would be sobered and checked. He would also be weakened by the expenditure on Franco of several hundred million dollars. If the fascists are beaten in Spain, they are weakened everywhere. The supreme test of an antifascist is not what he says but what he does for Spain.
(8) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (March, 1938)
The trial of Bukharin and his fellow oppositionists has broken about the ears of the world like the detonation of a bomb. One can hear the cracking of liberal hopes; of the dream of antifascist unity; of a whole system of revolutionary philosophy wherever democracy is threatened, the significance of the trial will be anxiously weighed.
In spite of the trials, I believe Russia is dependable; that it wants peace, and will join in any joint effort to check Hitler and Mussolini, and will also fight if necessary. Russia is still the strongest reason for hope.
(9) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (April, 1939)
We surrendered our chance to mind our business in Spain; we were too intent on keeping out of trouble and minding Chamberlain's business. We allowed democracy to be slaughtered in Spain. Today the United States is the grand arsenal for triumphant fascism. It is our business to stop providing these three aggressors with arms and the goods necessary to the manufacture of arms and the conduct of war.
(10) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (October, 1939)
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of democracy. We have not gone to war, and no excuse exists for wartime hysteria. Neither Communists nor even (German-American) Bundists are enemy agents. They deserve to be watched but not to be persecuted. The real danger is that general detestation of Communists and Bundists will lead to acts of outright repression supported not only by reactionaries but by disgusted liberals. Democracy was not invented as a luxury to be indulged in only in times of calm and stability. It is a pliable, tough-fibered technique especially useful when times are hard. Only a weak and distrustful American could today advocate measures of repression and coercion, or encourage a mood of panic. Now is the time to demonstrate the resilience of our institutions. Now is the time to deal with dissent calmly and with full respect for its rights.
(11) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (April, 1940)
At what moment does it become necessary to limit the freedom of everyone in order to suppress the danger lurking in a disloyal handful. The moment for drastic repression has not arrived, and the task of liberals in America is difficult but clear. They must fight to preserve the democratic safeguards contained in the Bill of Rights, while applying to Nazis and their supporters the equally democratic methods of exposure, counter-propaganda, and justified legal attack. Otherwise the Nazi invasion of Norway is likely to end in a victory for Martin Dies in America.
(12) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (August, 1941)
Before its total, uncompromising demands are laid upon them, the people of America must learn that this war is their war; that they cannot dodge it or buy their way out of it; that they must fight it because fighting is the only alternative to surrender.
(13) In March 1942 Freda Kirchwey argued in The Nation that the fascist press should be banned in the United States. In a letter to Kirchwey, Norman Thomas objected to this point of view (3rd April, 1942)
It is a rather terrible thing that liberals should now be the spokesmen for a jittery program which, if it means anything, can only be interpreted to mean no criticism of the Administration except from us. In ten years or less it won't be the people you want to suppress now who will be suppressed and stay suppressed by your theory; it will be yourselves along with many others, unless, indeed, you want to go farther than I think you do in support of a Roosevelt totalitarianism. Don't forget that neither Roosevelt nor anybody else is immortal. The principles once established are apt to outlive men.
(14) Statement published by the staff of The Nation in October 1944.
It is one thing to expound high principles in print week by week. It is another to put them into practice day by day. And we who work with Freda Kirchwey think it relevant to depose and say that her liberalism begins at home. As editor-in-chief she has had the wisdom and courage to establish a genuine working democracy of which the tone and temper are set by her own respect for other individuals and their opinions, her humor, and her sense of fair play. As employer her sympathy and understanding for every human problem have won for her the freely given loyalty and friendship of every worker in the shop. In The Nation world liberty, equality, and fraternity, the four freedoms, collective security, and the union shop prevail. We who work in it find it good. We recommend it to the larger world, and on this, the twenty-fifth anniversary of her connection with The Nation we salute Freda Kirchwey as editor and as human being.
(15) Louis Fischer resigned from The Nation after a dispute with Freda Kirchwey, over the reporting of the situation in the Soviet Union. Kirchwey replied to this charge in the journal published on 2nd June 1945.
We assume that he is charging The Nation with a bias in favor of Russia and of communism. We suppose he considers that to be our "line." We suppose he is charging us with ignoring, out of "expediency," the bad behavior of the Soviet Union; of failing out of policy to denounce the Soviet power for suppressing "small, weak states". We can only answer quite flatly that he is wrong. We say what we believe. What we believe is very different from what Mr. Fischer believes.
We believe Russian policy is primarily a security policy, not an imperialist one; it can become dangerous to the world, therefore, only if Russia decides that the other major powers are plotting against it. It would be dishonest to pretend that we think Russia's foreign policy is as great a threat to the basic purpose of destroying fascism and its political and economic roots as is the foreign policy of Britain and the United States.
(16) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (18th August, 1945)
The bomb that hurried Russia into Far Eastern war a week ahead of schedule and drove Japan to surrender has accomplished the specific job for which it was created. From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000 (the cost of the bomb and the cost of nine days of war) was never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success; Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting. There is no answer to this argument. The danger is that it will encourage those in power to assume that, once accepted as valid, the argument can be applied equally well in the future. If that assumption should be permitted, the chance of saving civilization - perhaps the world itself - from destruction is a remote one.
(17) Freda Kirchway, The Nation (18th August, 1945)
The Nation celebrates its Eighty-fifth Anniversary in a sober mood. Today only one subject is important - the possibility of averting a general war which would wipe out, impartially, the institutions of civilized life and the forces that threaten them this symposium is presented as a positive contribution to the broadening of the discussion of peace or war in the knowledge that for all nations the issue is survival.
(18) Raymond Gram Swing, Good Evening (1964)
The Nation, through its history, had been a periodical of dissent, and as such fed the arteries of American political vigor. It was a magazine of limited circulation, less than 40,000 at this time, but with an effectiveness of much greater dimensions. Oswald Garrison Villard, who had inherited the paper and a considerable fortune from his father, the railroad magnate Henry Villard, had conducted it in the creditable tradition of liberal dissent, and by this time had turned over the management of the paper to his editorial board, with Freda Kirchwey as managing editor. He became contributing editor and wrote regular articles under his own signature....
Of Miss Kirchwey, on whom the chief responsibility for conducting the magazine rested, I wish to say that she was one of the best and most likable journalists with whom I ever worked. I am tempted to call her the best woman journalist I ever encountered, but hesitate to rank her ahead of Dorothy Thompson, who was a better writer. But she was among the superior women journalists of her time.
(19) The Nation (25th September, 2002)
Soon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. Its passage, we read on all sides, is a foregone conclusion, as if what the country now faces is not a decision but the disclosure of a fate. The nation marches as if in a trance to war. In the House, twenty of your number, led by Dennis Kucinich, have announced their opposition to the war. In the Senate, Robert Byrd has mounted a campaign against the version of the resolution already proposed by the Bush Administration. He has said that the resolution's unconstitutionality will prevent him from voting for it. "But I am finding," he adds, "that the Constitution is irrelevant to people of this Administration." The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Washington Post, oppose the war. Telephone calls and the mail to your offices run strongly against it. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral questions, such as the timing of the vote, or the resolution's precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate. You are representatives, but you do not represent.
The silence of those of you in the Democratic Party is especially troubling. You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose. Raising the subject of the war, your political advisers tell you, will distract from the domestic issues that favor the party's chances in the forthcoming Congressional election. In the face of the Administration's pre-emptive war, your leaders have resorted to pre-emptive surrender. For the sake of staying in power, you are told, you must not exercise the power you have in the matter of the war. What, then, is the purpose of your re-election? If you succeed, you will already have thrown away the power you supposedly have won. You will be members of Congress, but Congress will not be Congress. Even the fortunes of the domestic causes you favor will depend far more on the decision on the war than on the outcome of the election.
On April 4, 1967, as the war in Vietnam was reaching its full fury, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." And he said, "Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."
© John Simkin, March 2013