Dorothy Straight and her husband, Willard Straight, were both deeply influenced by The Promise of American Life, a book written by the journalist, Herbert Croly. In 1914 Croly was invited to meet Dorothy and Willard at their Long Island home. While there, Croly commented that Norman Hapgood, the recently appointed editor of Harper's Weekly, had failed to turn it into the liberal journal that America needed. Dorothy suggested that the three of them should start their own journal.
The first edition of the New Republic appeared on 7th November, 1914. Willard Straight supplied the money and Herbert Croly became its first editor. The magazine was run by a small editorial board that included Croly's friend, Walter Lippmann. All outside contributions were submitted to the editorial board and had to be accepted by all members before it could appear in the magazine. Early contributors included Walter Weyl, Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Amy Lowell, Henry Brailsford and H. G. Wells.
When it was first published, the New Republic had 32 pages, including self-cover, and contained no illustrations. Its first edition sold 875 copies but after a year the circulation reached 15,000. The New Republic became a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Herbert Croly argued for American neutrality. The New Republic published articles by British critics of the war such as Norman Angell and Harold Laski. However, after the sinking of the Lusitania, Croly urged American entry into war. After Congress declared war on Germany, the New Republic gave Woodrow Wilson its full support. This upset those that still believed in neutrality and Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, complained that the New Republic had become a mouthpiece of President Wilson.
After the war Herbert Croly became much more critical of Woodrow Wilson and described the Versailles Treaty as "a peace of annihilation". He also disliked the League of Nations, an organisation that "would perpetuate rather than correct the evils of the treaty." Sales of the New Republic reached 43,000 during the First World War but declined during the 1920s.
Willard Straight died during the influenza epidemic in 1918 but Dorothy Straight continued to fund what had now become a loss-making venture. Herbert Croly continued to persuade some of the most prominent literary figures in the United States and Britain to write for the journal. This included Edmund Wilson, Waldo Frank, Jane Addams, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes.
Bruce Bliven replaced Herbert Croly as editor of the New Republic in 1930. Bliven continued the tradition of the New Republic to argue for left of centre solutions to America's problems and in 1932 supported the socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, for president. Four years later, Bliven switched to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Writers who wrote for the New Republic between the wars included H. L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather and Michael Gold. In 1946 Henry A. Wallace became editor and under his leadership circulation reached a all-time high of nearly 100,000. Wallace resigned in December, 1947, when he decided to run for the presidency. He was replaced by Michael Whitney Straight, the son of the magazine's founders. Circulation of the New Republic fell to 30,000 in the 1950s and one commentator described it as "that faint voice of the left"..
(1) Norman Thomas, New Republic (26th May 1917)
As conscientious objectors we turn to your journal because, more powerfully than any other, it has expressed in subtle analyses our abiding faith in humane wisdom. You have never countenanced the evil doctrine of the brute coercion of the human will. You have preached and practised the virtue of tolerance, the kind of tolerance for the lack of which the state grows mechanized and conscienceless.
You know something of the machinery of unfair play. You understand the tyranny of sham shibboleths. You appreciate the menace of military psychology. We appeal to you, strategically situated as you are, to assist the cause of the conscientious objectors. We beg you to note the following facts:
In the evolution of the human mind we discover a gradually widening hiatus between physical competence and intellectual moral competence. So deeply imbedded in our life values is this distinction that we feel rather ashamed of being too expert physically. The man of blood and iron does not appeal to our finer perceptions as a being altogether worthy of our worshipful attention. (The God whom we worship is neither a jingo nor a militarist.) But Voltaire - he of the skinny shanks and the anemic face - what exuberant pride wells up in the greatest and in the least of us at the sound of that marvelous name! And soft-spoken Jesus - what fitting tribute can the reeling world lay at the feet of him who died that goodwill and loving kindness might assuage the hearts of inimical men.
The complexity and richness of life have permitted, and increasingly so, the more or less free play of all modes of energy. There are many men best adapted by training and temperament to the performance of physical acts of heroism; there are some men more naturally suited to the performance of intellectual deeds of courage, while yet some others shine in deeds of moral bravery.
Why sanction the inhuman device of forcing all manner of men into the narrowly specific kind of devotion for which so many of them are hopelessly unfit? Tolerance arises from the existence of varying types of doers, all willing to respect one another's special competence. It is not too extreme to assert that in wartime (as in peacetime) some of the most heroic deeds are performed by those who do not (and, if called upon, would not) take up arms in defense of the cause. There are other forms of bravery than the purely military one. Let us be reasonable.
The one ineradicable fact which noamount of official intimidation can pulverize out of existence is that there is a type of man to whom (military) participation in war is tantamount to committing murder. He cannot, he will not commit murder. There is no human power on God's earth that can coerce him into committing (what he knows to be) the act of murder. You may call him sentimentalist, fool, slacker, mollycoddle, woman - anything "disreputable" you please. But there he is, a tremendous fact. Shall he be maltreated for his scruples? Or shall he be respected (as his denders are) for his conscientiousness? We cannot leave so momentous an issue to chance or to the cold machinery of administration. Men of sensitive insight must help prepare a social setting within America sufficiently hospitable to all conscientious objectors.
It is good to remind ourselves of our in- stinctive respect for conscientious objectors. When a man is called to serve on a jury empaneled in a murder case, he may be honorably excused from duty if he has conscientious objections to the death penalty. When we think sanely we are not averse to honoring the man of conscience provided he be an active friend of mankind and not a mere ease-taker. The test of manhood lies in service; not in one particular kind of service (suitable to one particular type of mind and body) but genuine service genuinely rendered to humanity.
Hence the philosophic value of tolerance. To keep alive genuine tolerance in wartime is the greatest single achievement to which rationalists can dedicate themselves. America is caught in this insidious entanglement; obsessed with the tradition - the mere outward form and symbol - of liberty of conscience, she has failed to realize the living need of a real grant and a substantial practice of our vaunted freedom of conscience. It is not the tradition we lack; only a vital belief in that tradition.
In times of precarious peace, when the social classes wage an almost relentless warfare and the daily grind of poverty and distress lays armies of the proletariat low, life for the disadvantaged groups is made more or less livable only by the thought that between them and their official superiors certain constitutional and humane guarantees of tolerance exist as safeguards of mutual understanding. There is room for difference of opinion. There is a breathing space for discussion.
How desperate must the social situation have become if large numbers of conscientious and law-abiding citizens have begun to feel an appalling sense of uneasiness in the presence of huge inscrutable forces, far beyond their power of control or sympathetic understanding. Why this amazing disquietude? The answer is simple and straightforward. There is no longer the sense - so natural and dear to free men - of being able to appeal from manifestly unfair decisions. Too many subordinate officials are being vested with a tremendous authority over impotent human beings.
(2) Walter Lippmann, Notes for a Biography (1930)
The New Republic was founded to explore and develop and apply the ideas which had been advertised by Theodore Roosevelt when he was leader of the Progressive Party.
(3) Max Eastman, writing about the New Republic in The Masses (29th May, 1915)
They still live in a world in which fundamental democratic progress comes by telling, and persuading, and showing how, and propagating reasonable opinions, and better social feeling. The real world is a world in which privilege can only uprooted by power.