Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

We Need 'Forceful Diplomacy,' not Military Strikes, in Syria

President Obama is asking the Senate and Congress to authorize an attack on Syria. But Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel spoke on ABC’s This Week about why she believes a diplomatic solution—and not a strike—would be the best option for the United States and for the Syrian people. “Ultimately any resolution of the human catastrophe in Syria is going to demand a political solution,” she said. “We don’t need to use military strikes.”

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Nicolas Niarchos

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No on Military Intervention in Syria

This Week in 'Nation' History: How We Can Reclaim Education Reform

The beginning of a new school year offers an opportunity to evaluate the state of American education—where we are now, how we got here and where we need to go. As last month’s release of New York City’s abysmal test scores showed, something is seriously wrong, here and in most of the country.

The bankruptcy of the corporate-style “reform” agenda—which emphasizes high-stakes testing, vilification of teachers and the further stratification of American society under the banner of “choice”—has been obvious for years to those who have cared and dared to look. For the past two decades, contributors to The Nation have consistently challenged these trends and exposed their hidden assumptions, consequences and costs.

In September 1997, the writer Phyllis Vine explored the early stirrings of the for-profit education movement and catalogued the many ways in which it was a bad development for kids, parents and teachers. The only people it would benefit, she argued, were those like the Lehman Brothers director she quotes calling education “a local industry that over time will become a global business.” That’s no way to run schools, Vine concluded:

Creaming students most likely to succeed, poor management, unionbusting, conflicts of interest and discrimination against kids who need special education (and sometimes discrimination against kids of color)—all are on display in the for-profit school system. And so is the effort to eviscerate a core American institution that has been a laboratory for citizenship. While right-wing education guru Chester Finn insists that ‘the market…can rise to the challenge of educating America’s young,’ the record suggests otherwise. ‘The schools belong to us as communities,’ says Barbara Miner, editor of Selling Out Our Schools. So why should we allow some private company to come in and make money off of our kids?

Nation contributors have not only pointed out the shortfalls of the corporate approach; they have also offered a robust counter-vision, laying out specific proposals to fix the American educational system while situating the present problems in a broader socioeconomic and cultural analysis. In “Testing, Testing: The High-Stakes Testing Mania Hurts Poor and Minority Students the Most” (June 5, 2000), Gary Orfield, then a Harvard professor of education (now at UCLA), and Johanna Wald, a researcher, cited study after study showing that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, increases drop-out rates, and may actually hurt, not improve, economic productivity.

If, as all these studies suggest, high-stakes tests both discriminate against poor and minority students and are educationally unsound, we are still left with the dilemma of how to achieve the dual goals of equity and excellence. Dozens of studies offer convincing evidence that children in poor schools make academic gains when they have access to quality early-childhood education programs, when they are taught in small classes by skilled and committed teachers, and when they are given assessments linked to appropriate and immediate responses.

The single most important factor in raising academic performance in poor schools appears to be the presence of experienced, competent and caring teachers. Disadvantaged youths currently are taught by the least prepared and most transient instructors in the system. Devising incentives for recruiting and maintaining highly qualified teachers and for retraining existing staff in high-poverty schools should be the top priority of those serious about raising standards.

Eight years of the Bush administration—and a few years of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative—only accelerated the “reform” movement’s takeover of American education. In June 2010’s “Restoring Our Schools,” former Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond argued that real reform would have to be smarter, fairer and more systemic:

We need more than a new set of national goals to mobilize a dramatically more successful educational system. We also need more than pilot projects, demonstrations, innovations and other partial solutions. We need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.

What would this require? As in high and equitably achieving nations, it would require strong investments in children’s welfare—adequate healthcare, housing and food security, so that children can come to school each day ready to learn; high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials, which are the central resources for learning; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well-prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curriculums and assessments focused on twenty-first-century learning goals; and schools organized for an in-depth students and teacher learning and equipped to address children’s social needs, as the community schools movement has done…

To meet twenty-first-century demands, the United States needs to move beyond a collection of disparate and shifting reform initiatives to a thoughtful, well-organized and well-supported set of policies that will enable young people to thrive in the new world they are entering. We must also finally make good on the American promise to make education available to all on equal terms, so that every member of this society can realize a productive life and contribute to the greater welfare.

Then, in January 2011, Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor and Nation editorial board member, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in “Beyond Silver Bullets” that far from boldly asking the difficult questions, as the “reform” movement is often celebrated for doing, it had really shirked responsibility for fixing American schools. Corporate-style reform applied Band-Aids where intensive surgery had been required.

Despite the promises, fads of the day and splashy slogans, we continue to leave millions of children behind. Rewarding a few states for agreeing to adopt measures the administration regards as essential to reform has convinced the public that we have embarked on a race to the top, when we have not. Policy-makers continue to pursue silver-bullet solutions, such as small schools, high-stakes testing and performance pay for teachers—some of which have no evidence of their effectiveness—while ignoring the more substantive issues that have much more influence over the quality of education. What we should be focused on are basic issues: How do we ensure that all teachers are well trained in content and pedagogy, and are able to develop relationships with an increasingly diverse array of students? How do we make sure that school leaders have the skills and resources to keep our schools safe and to maintain conditions for good teaching and learning? What do we do to motivate students not merely to pass tests but to become life-long learners who seek out knowledge and information long after the tests are over? How do we make sure that parents do their part to support their children and reinforce the importance of education at home?

Most tragically, Noguera and Weingarten argued, despite the rhetoric of “choice” and “opportunity,” the latest trends in education left behind precisely those students they were meant to save—the ones most in need of help.

In many of the most disadvantaged schools, the non-academic needs of poor students—for health, housing and a variety of social supports—are often unmet. Invariably, when the basic needs of children are ignored, the task of educating them is much more challenging. Acknowledging that poverty and related social issues can make the job of educating children more difficult does not mean we believe that poor children are incapable of achieving at high levels. There are many examples of excellent schools that serve poor children. There are also a number of poor children who have been able to use education to overcome obstacles related to poverty and who have accomplished great things. But to ignore the fact that the effects of poverty pose formidable obstacles to academic achievement and healthy development is worse than naïve; it shows blatant disregard for the enormous challenges that poor children and their families face.

Just as the proponents of corporatized education use their proposals for privatization and union-busting as a means towards a broad vision of a transformed American society, their critics—the true inheritors of the word “reform”—are increasingly aware that both the problems and the solutions of American public education can be found in an investigation of the structural causes of inequality. Only through that recognition can we reclaim the word “reform.”

Congress, Think Carefully Before Intervening in Syria

US President Barack Obama talks to bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington while discussing a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

President Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize any action towards Syria is both courageous and correct. He ignored the inevitable scorn he would get from the armchair patriots who believe the U.S. president can dispatch the military anywhere, at any time, for any reason. He reportedly overruled the advice of most of his national security team that wanted to strike Syria without going to Congress. After the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in the Syrian strike, Obama knew the vote in this bitterly divided and dysfunctional Congress would be “a tough sell.”

But he made the right call, responding not only to his constitutional obligation but to the more than 150 legislators from both parties who signed letters calling on the president to seek approval from Congress before taking action. According to polls, a strike on Syria, even in response to the proven use of chemical weapons, is opposed by a plurality of Americans. Neither the United States nor its allies faces any imminent threat from the Syrian regime. If the United States is a constitutional democracy, surely this is a case where the Congress, the people’s representatives, should determine whether the nation gets involved in—as the president put it—“someone else’s war.”

Now it is time for democracy to work. The administration has begun to detail its case that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. Members of Congress should probe and test the administration’s evidence, given the credibility gap created by the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war, not to mention the lies and distortions peddled by the Bush administration to sell that conflict. Congress should also arrange to receive and consider the report of the U.N. inspectors, because their report will be accepted by other members of the international community and will offer clues about those behind the attacks even if the mandate of the inspectors does not cover who was responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No to Military Intervention

Boycott Sochi? Think Again

Russian police detain a gay rights activist during a rally outside the mayor’s office in Moscow, May 25, 2013. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Kremlin is getting torched.

An international chorus of critics has assailed Vladi­mir Putin’s government for enacting a law that bans any discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) relationships, rights and issues wherever children might be present. Many protesters are calling for a global response.

In a New York Times op-ed, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein argued that a boycott of the Sochi Olympics would pressure the Russian government into reconsidering its treatment of gay men and lesbians. British actor Stephen Fry wrote an impassioned letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging an Olympic boycott as well. American author Dan Savage launched a popular #DumpRussianVodka campaign.

There is a reason that everyone from Lady Gaga to President Obama has spoken out against Russia’s new anti-gay law: it is discriminatory and inhumane, and many people are desperate to do something, anything, to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community and help get the law repealed.

Yet it’s not all that clear whether today’s clamor, however well-intentioned, will improve the lives and human rights of gay people in Russia. Unless we take the time to understand the reasons behind the ascendance of hyper-conservative traditionalist values in Russia and then develop a more strategic response, we may instead strengthen the already powerful nationalist forces in the country.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Forgotten Radicalism of the March on Washington

March on Washington. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this week’s cover story, Nation columnist Gary Younge uses the occasion of this Wednesday’s fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington as an opportunity to recall the context in which those dramatic events of the summer of 1963 actually occurred:

Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.

That quest for our nation’s founding ideals is also served when we tour The Nation’s coverage of the civil rights movement in the weeks immediately preceding and following the March. What we find bolsters Younge’s argument and shows that emphasizing both the vigor with which the movement was opposed as well as the radicalism of its more disruptive—and for that reason, eagerly forgotten—socioeconomic demands is not a revision of civil rights history, but a restoration.

In remarkable editorial dated August 10, 1963, bearing the simple headline, “The Whites,” the magazine praised the assertiveness and recent successes of the civil rights movement, but offered a pointed critique of the general population of white Americans who treated the movement with either disdain or poorly concealed condescension:

The white majority’s attitude seems to be based on apprehension, uncertainty, reluctance, false piety and a suddenly acquired determination to sin a little less than before.…

The fact is that racism, in its modern connotation, is a virus that must be ‘overcome’; no society is immune until it has experienced it. We have a chance, then, in the glare of world scrutiny, to be the first large industrial nation to overcome this damnable blight.

This is a prospect to excite emotions and stir the heart. Yet the whites continue to act as though they were being dragged into the future caterwauling, haggling, grimacing, hemming and hawing, bargaining, resisting, hedging and rolling their eyes. Their attitude is only the more curious in that the evidence is now clear that integration is good for the nation, good for business, good for the arts, for religion, for sports, for labor, for education, for government; good also for our immortal souls.

In the issue dated September 7, 1963, which would probably have been on newsstands the day of the March, the novelist and social critic Harvey Swados wrote in “Revolution on the March” about the intense preparations that went into the event, much of it focused in a small office on West 130th Street in Harlem. The piece is a fascinating read today for two reasons. First, Swados offers contemporaneous observations of Bayard Rustin, the woefully underappreciated activist who, as Ari Berman writes in this week’s issue, organized of the March but was later spurned because he was gay, and was recently awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Swados wrote that Rustin had “a driving mind ruthless as a clenched fist.” Second, the article explicitly confirms Younge’s contention that as early as 1963, the movement was about much more than equal political rights:

As events have unfolded, including the efforts of the New Frontier to embrace and envelope the marchers, their demands have simultaneously broadened and become more specific. And it began to become clear that as the logic of the situation and the fervor of the young forced it onward, the March—that is, the grand coalition—would have to call not only for the Kennedy civil-rights bill, not only for more jobs in general terms, but for total civil-rights legislation and total economic demands surpassing anything conceived of by white liberals and well-intentioned officialdom, and involving a dislocation—with incalculable consequences—of the warfare-welfare state and its present power structure.

In the next issue, The Nation reckoned with the legacy of what had occurred and, again, emphasized the expansiveness of the protesters’ demands. This week, as the country celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a symbol of all that the civil rights movement has achieved, one cannot read The Nation’s September 14, 1963, editorial without a profound sense of tragedy—and anger—over what it still has not:

The March will go down in history as a superb example of orderly, democratic self-expression. It should bring a blush of shame to the cheeks of those who tearfully voiced a variety of misgivings about the enterprise and suggested that it should not be staged. It should also mildly embarrass those who deployed troops and police as though Washington were about to be besieged by a hostile army instead of being visited by a vast number of friendly and well-disposed citizens who conducted themselves with the utmost restraint, dignity and impressive dedication to a fine public purpose. The demonstration should also establish what has been clear all along—at least to those who have had more than a nodding acquaintance with the so-called ‘Negro problem’—that the Negroes are probably the least alienated of America’s racial minorities and the least revolutionary in any ideological sense. The overwhelming drive of American Negroes, in all regions, at all levels, is for middle-class status; they want to participate, on terms of freedom and equality, in the Great American Barbecue.

But a question remains: after the civil-rights issue has been won, as it will be—that is, after all legally sanctioned forms of Jim Crow discrimination have been removed—what then? All that needs to be done to take the disturbing overtone out of this question is to grant Negroes the right to join the American middle class on terms of full freedom and equality. This is far from an intimidating prospect, it could mean greater buying power, more profits, a higher GNP. In practical terms, however, it poses some major social, economic and political problems. But civil rights is the first phase and victory in this should set the stage for the larger reforms and structural changes in the economy that must come next.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The Women Candidates We Need

Hillary Clinton. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

“Just lunch, or is it Campaign 2016 just getting started?” one pundit breathlessly asks of a meal between President Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. The New York Times does a deep dive into the Clinton Foundation, while others list “The People Already Rearranging Their Lives for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Campaign.” And every major news outlet has asked some form of this question: Is America ready for a woman president?

The media are, in fact, obsessed with whether Hillary Clinton will become the first female president. Her every move is analyzed and interpreted, like tea leaves from which we might deduce her 2016 intentions. But in their heavy breathing over Clinton, many in the media seem to be ignoring an equally important story about women and politics. Put another way, instead of setting up a beat dedicated to covering Clinton, perhaps the Times could better serve the public by using those resources to cover women and politics more broadly.

Will shattering the Oval Office’s glass ceiling and electing a madam president be an inspiring achievement for this country? Of course. Do we also need madam mayors, madam senators, madam councilwomen, madam sheriffs, madam governors and madam congresswomen all across the nation? You betcha.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

A Populist Insurgency in New York City

Bill de Blasio speaks with potential voters on July 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.


For the most part, Americans outside of New York have heard only one story about New York City’s mayoral race — the bizarre public self- immolation of former representative Anthony Weiner. But obscured beneath the flood lights of the Weiner farce is a populist insurgency that exemplifies the coming struggle to define the Democratic Party in the wake of President Obama.

The progressive champion in the race, New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is challenging the odds-on favorite, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to succeed retiring Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under pressure from de Blasio and progressives, she has begun recently to assert some independence from Bloomberg’s trickle-down technocratic politics and shown a willingness to challenge the administration on certain issues, such as the city’s harmful homelessness policies. But Quinn has too often used her influence as speaker to protect corporate and developers’ interests.

De Blasio has pitched his campaign with the most populist and ambitious agenda in memory. He does so in a city that is one of the most unequal in the country, with an extreme gulf in income and wealth. Visitors gape at Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but almost half the population lives at or near thepoverty level. In any one year, 1.5 millionsuffer hunger or food insecurity. Accelerating gentrification has made affordable housing scarce. Public schools are in crisis. Bloomberg has vetoed efforts to pass a living wage, and he is so anti-labor that all of the 152 public unions in the city now are without a contract.

De Blasio argues that New York is a “tale of two cities,” and that the central issue of this and future campaigns is “economic fairness.” “Without a dramatic change of direction,” he said in a May 30 address, “an economic policy that combats inequality and rebuilds our middle class, generations to come will see New York as little more than a playground for the rich.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in 'Nation' History: James Baldwin's Four Decades of Prophecy, Confession, Emotion and Style

James Baldwin. (AP Photo)

Last week marked what would have been the eighty-ninth birthday of the late James Baldwin—novelist, essayist and, for the last decade of his life, valued member of The Nation’s editorial board. Baldwin became internationally famous as the author of fictional works like Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and non-fiction collections like The Fire Next Time (1963), but his first-ever published piece, before moving from Greenwich Village to Paris, was a 1947 Nation review of a collection of Maxim Gorki’s short stories. In the review, one glimpses the beginnings of the qualities Saul Maloff noted in his Nation review of The Fire Next Time—“the confessional voice, the apocalyptic style, the prophetic warning, the turbulent emotion contained and disciplined by stylistic elegance, the gospel of love after the storm of hate.” One also sees a young writer beginning to construct his own identity around a set of fundamental values he cherishes in others. “Here, above all,” he writes of Gorki, though it could just as well be of himself, “is a carefully controlled rage at the lot of men and an insistence on their noble destiny.”

These qualities only became more refined in his later contributions. In a dual review in 1956 of the French writer Daniel Guérin’s Communist-inflected Negroes on the March and J.C. Furnas’ Goodbye to Uncle Tom, Baldwin criticized the orthodox Marxist analysis of American’s racial problems, saying it was both simplistic and dangerous, a point he developed later in his career as well:

Indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better. Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humility. Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over. One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called History, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.

As the times changed, so did Baldwin’s tone. Ten years later, in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (July 11, 1966), writing about the riots that had gripped New York’s streets for the past several summers, he offered a blistering attack on the deeper causes of America’s mid-1960s racial strife:

…the police are simply the hired enemies of [the black] population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more sure-fire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

Baldwin also prefigures today’s anger over the “stop and frisk” act, part of what came to be known as the Rockefeller drug laws,” when he wrote that it permitted policemen “to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him.” Baldwin recognized the inherent racism and unconstitutionality of stop-and-frisk more than four decades before it became a major issue in this year’s mayoral campaign. “Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes,” Baldwin wrote in The Nation. “They are certainly not directed against anybody else.”

This arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life—otherwise, they would not dare to claim it, would, indeed, be unable to claim it—creates a situation which is as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, is close to martial law.

Just before the 1980 presidential election, Baldwin surveyed the American political landscape in “Notes on the House of Bondage,” an attempt at answering the question posed by his nieces and nephews, “Who are you going to vote for, Uncle Jimmy?” Eventually he says he’ll vote for Carter simply as “a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.” He also explores the differences between veteran activists of his generation—those who linked arms with Marlon Brando at the March on Washington—and more impatient, post-black power activists of the present one:

Someone my age…may be pleased and proud that Carter has blacks in his Cabinet. A younger person may wonder just what their function is in such a Cabinet. They will be keenly aware, too, that blacks called upon to represent the Republic are, very often, thereby prohibited from representing blacks. A man my age, schooled in adversity and skilled in compromise, may choose not to force the issue of defense spending versus the bleak and criminal misery of the black and white populations here, but a younger man may say, out loud, that he will not fight for a country that has never fought for him and, further, that the myth and menace of global war are nothing more and nothing less than a coward’s means of distracting attention from the real crimes and concerns of this Republic. And I may have to visit him in prison, or suffer with him there—no matter. The irreducible miracle is that we have sustained each other a very long time, and come a long, long way together. We have come to the end of a language and are now about the business of forging a new one. For we have survived, children, the very last white country the world will ever see.

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In addition to his own contributions to the magazine, Baldwin’s writing has been the subject of vigorous debate by Nation critics, from Nelson Algren—who liked Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956) enough to call it “more than another report on homosexuality”—to Todd Gitlin—who wrote in 1974 that it was possibly Baldwin’s “limpid condensation” of experience “which makes him so quotable and so esteemed by a middle-class white public which is looking for ‘civilized’ access to Those People.” While Baldwin’s essays have always been treated with the utmost reverence in The Nation, his fiction did not fare as well. Randall Kenan’s 1994 review of the biography of Baldwin by David Leeming noted that this division was the fashionable story about Baldwin beginning with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. (“His insights are unremarkable and blurred,” wrote Robert Emmet Long in The Nation, June 10, 1968.) The very title of Saul Maloff’s 1962 review of Another Country—“The Two Baldwins”—emphasized that divide.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

A Debt-Free College Education

Activist dressed as the “Master of Degree,” holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Last Wednesday—almost a month after Congress failed to prevent student loan rates from doubling—Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise that will keep rates low, at least temporarily, for most graduates.

From a body with a record of procrastinating on student debt worse than students procrastinate on term papers, this was welcome news. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Indeed, the price of higher education—and how that price is paid—is still a huge problem in this country. Federal and student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion. Today, the average graduate leaves school with nearly $30,000 in debt.

And those are just the students who actually graduate. For millions of students, America’s university system is not a pathway to success but a debt trap. As of 2011, nearly half the students enrolled in four-year programs—and more than 70 percent of students in two-year programs—failed to earn their degrees within that time, with many dropping out because of the cost. They leave school far worse than they arrived: saddled with debt, but with no degree to help them land a job and pay off the debt.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Take Action: Tell Your Representatives to Follow Oregon’s Lead to End Student Debt

This Week in 'Nation' History: Hiroshima and the Roots of American Secrecy

An allied correspondent stands in a sea of rubble in Hiroshima Sept. 8, 1945, a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was dropped by the US. (AP Photo/Stanley Troutman)

There is so much to mourn when we think of Hiroshima. Most importantly, as many as 80,000 Japanese civilians evaporated when the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy sixty-eight years ago this week. Fifty thousand later succumbed to radiation poisoning and other ailments. But we also mourn the end of whatever human innocence remained intact after the atrocities of the previous six years of war, not to mention the preceding tens of thousands. “With this bomb,” President Harry Truman announced, returning from Potsdam aboard the USS Augusta, “we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction.” That, too, should be—and in the pages of The Nation since 1945, has been—mourned.

Initially, The Nation’s response to Hiroshima echoed Truman’s justification for it as a necessary, and desirable, means of ending the Pacific war—one which saved Japanese and American lives. In an editorial in the first issue after August 6, then editor-in-chief Freda Kirchwey wrote:

From the point of view of military strategy, $2,000,000,000…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.

Future Nation writers, as well as many historians, would disagree, as we’ll see below. But just days removed from the event itself, Kirchwey was understandably more concerned about planning for a drastically transformed future than doubting the official story—which would have been a difficult task anyway, given the scant information the Truman administration had provided about the decision to use the bomb. Kirchwey argued that there was only one way to safely and justly contain what Truman had called “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe”:

If we are to survive our new powers we must understand their full meaning. We shall have to move fast, both internationally and within each country. No longer can we afford a world organized to prevent aggression only if all of the great powers wish it to be prevented. No longer can we afford a social system which would permit private business, in the name of freedom, to control a source of energy capable of creating comfort and security for all the world’s people. This seems self-evident, and so it is. But it calls for changes so sweeping that only an immense effort of will and imagination can bring them about. A new conference of the nations must be assembled to set up a World Government, to which every state must surrender an important part of its sovereignty. In this World Government must be vested the final control over atomic energy. And within each nation the people must establish public ownership and social development of the revolutionary force was has thrust into their hands. This program will sound drastic only to people who have not yet grasped the meaning of the new discovery. It is not drastic. We face a choice between one world or none.

That fall, the Nation Associates—now the Nation Builders—hosted one of the first forums to discuss how atomic energy and weaponry had changed domestic and international political questions, as Sara Alpern records in her outstanding 1987 biography of Kirchwey. The British political theorist and Labor Party chairman Harold Laski, headlining the event, seconded Kirchwey’s argument, telling the crowd that only international socialism could protect humanity from destruction. “No one nation is fit to be trusted with the development of atomic energy,” Laski declared. “We must plan our civilization or we must perish.”

Several articles in the decade after 1945 explored the impact of the bomb on the ground—including a 1946 review of John Hersey’s seminal book Hiroshima and, in 1955, translations of excerpts from the recently published memoirs of several Japanese survivors. “There was a column of fire about ten yards ahead of me—a regular waterfall of fire—with terrific explosions like the sound of a thousand thunderclaps,” Yasuo Yamamoto wrote. “The screams of babies and women and the helpless calling for lost ones poured into my ears like water from a dam that has broken.”

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As the decades passed and the Cold War congealed into a seemingly perpetual state of nuclear standoff, Nation writers began to consider the ways in which so much of contemporary political thinking and behavior could be traced directly to Hiroshima. In 1981’s “Hiroshima and Modern Memory,” the Pulitzer-winning historian and current Nation editorial board member Martin Sherwin wrote:

The American public’s sense of powerless before a monster its own government created and used may be the single most important reason behind the easy acceptance of the idea—so vigorously promoted by the Reagan Administration—that only nuclear superiority can guarantee our national security. Even here, the debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is relevant, for it is of paramount importance to those who wish to rely increasingly upon nuclear weapons that these weapons not be tarnished with a sense of guilt that could inhibit their use as an instrument of diplomacy.

However, the least obvious impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be the most important: the subtle conversion of tens of millions if people over the course of thirty-six years of nuclear arms racing to the idea that nuclear war is inevitable. The button exists and someday someone will push it; nothing can prevent that. Technology has altered our confidence in free will.

Nation writers also began to reconsider whether the bombing needed to happen in the first place, and why it did. While Kirchwey saw the post-war diplomatic implications of the atomic bomb as secondary, though important, consequences, Sherwin—and many Nation writers since—have tended to view the impending power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as the primary motivation behind the bomb’s use, if not its design:

Truman inherited the basic policy that governed the atomic bomb, just as he inherited every other policy related to the war, a point that commentators on both sides of the debate often ignore. It was therefore possible to use the bomb only because Roosevelt had made preparations to do so. Truman was inclined to use the bomb because of those preparations. But he decided to use it because there seemed no good reason not to. On the contrary, the bombs were available and the Japanese fought on; the bombs were available and precedents of burned cities were numerous; the bombs were available and $2 billion had been spent to create them; the bombs were available and revenge had its claim; the bombs were available and the Soviet Union was claiming too much.

In 1995’s “The Atomic Curtain,” the psychohistorian Robert Jay Lifton and current Nation blogger Greg Mitchell, co-authors of Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, found in the ultra-secretive creation of the bomb and in the deliberations over using it the origins of the same National Security State that today identifies as a top national priority the persecution of a 29-year-old former intelligence analyst for telling the American people what they have every right to know. “Hiroshima was the mother of all cover-ups,” they wrote, “creating distortions, manipulative procedures and patterns of concealment that have affected all of American life. Secrecy has been linked with national security—and vice versa—ever since.”

Starting with Hiroshima, officials advised Americans to leave all problems surrounding the bomb to political, scientific and military leaders—the nuclear priesthood. Americans were not supposed to think critically or engage in the debate over the gravest issue of our age. Over time, we became accustomed to bowing out of that discussion, and then of debates involving other major issues. We got used to putting the greatest problems, military and social, completely in the hands of experts and political leaders who claimed to have them under control—only to recognize in painful moments that they didn’t have them in hand at all. Surrendering our right to know more about Hiroshima, and later nuclear policies, contributed to our gradual alienation from the entire political process.

The message of the official Hiroshima narrative was control: controlling the story of Hiroshima, controlling nuclear weapons, controlling history. But the official narrative also increased ordinary Americans’ sense of being out of control of their own destiny, of being out of control of the forces that determine their future.

No wonder, then, that the American people have come to feel deceived by the bomb and its caretakers. We know that ominous truths have been concealed from us—starting with Hiroshima. One reason we remain confused is that part of each of us psychologically colludes in the concealment. But our resentment at what has been concealed and falsified does not necessarily limit itself to nuclear matters but can spread, vaguely and bitterly, into just about any aspect of social and national experience.

We have to ask ourselves, then, how much of our mistrust of politicians and public officials, of the media, of our government and just about all who govern us—how much of this angry cynicism so evident in our public life in recent years—is an outcome of the Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima nuclear deceptions and concealments. To what extent do we feel ourselves a people who have been unforgivably deceived in that most fundamental of human areas—having to with how, when and by whose hand, or lethal technology, we are to die?

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The Nation has long been concerned with more than exploring historical arguments or finding in the past the roots of present predicaments, however important that is. Our remarkable peace and disarmament correspondent, Jonathan Schell, has written extensively in The Nation about the necessity of universal nuclear disarmament and the prospects for achieving it. Perhaps his magnum opus on this subject was The Gift of Time, originally published as a special issue dated February 9, 1998, and later as a book. Schell interviewed fifteen major international experts and officials—including Robert McNamara and Mikhail Gorbachev—about the possibility of nuclear disarmament in a post–Cold War age:

The task is of course immense. But history has given us the gift of time—a limited time, perhaps, but enough to proceed, without haste, to scout the obstacles in our path, to weigh carefully and thoroughly the course to be followed, and then to create the structures that will carry us to the goal and keep us there. If we use the gift properly and rid the species for good of nuclear danger, we will secure the greatest of time’s gifts, assurance of a human future.

It was reported in yesterday’s New York Times that President Obama is unsure of what to speak with Vladimir Putin about if they do indeed meet next month. He may want to reread Schell’s essay, and start there.

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In 2010, we put together a slide show of excerpts from The Nation in the nuclear age. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

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