This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The first item in The Nation on September 21, 1918, was an apology: “We deeply regret that last week’s issue of The Nation is detained by the Post Office.” The problem was an article attacking the Wilson administration for sending Samuel Gompers to a conference of Labor and Socialist parties meeting in England. Previously, the magazine had opposed the labor leader’s campaign for an eight-hour workday from the right, criticizing his “forbidding” manner and describing him as having a “big head, heavy foreign features, and burly frame.” But now that Villard was turning The Nation to the left, Gompers was too tepid, too hostile to socialism, and too bound to Woodrow Wilson to be a satisfactory voice for America’s workers.
Villard, who maintained a pretense of outraged innocence, was secretly delighted by the government’s response. Suddenly everyone was talking about this subversive sheet. In a letter to the Post Office solicitor responsible for the seizure, Villard thanked him for a “splendid advertisement” he reckoned was worth at least $100,000 in free publicity. The Nation’s circulation skyrocketed during the next two years.
Another publicity coup was The Nation’s campaign against the boundaries of traditional gender roles, especially the series “These Modern Women”—anonymous essays written by “women active in professional and public life,” showcasing changing attitudes about “men, marriage, children, and jobs.” The Nation also pushed against its own editor’s comfort zone. When literary editor Mark Van Doren printed a poem by Babette Deutsch that contained the line “as dozing bitches break their dream to bark,” Villard objected to “this new poetical license,” adding that he found some of the magazine’s poetry “execrable.”
Though Frank Cobb of The World was not alone in labeling The Nation “distinctly Bolshevistic,” in reality the position of the magazine (and its editor) with regard to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was far more ambivalent. As early as 1920, The Nation featured Bertrand Russell’s growing disquiet: “I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.” While Villard himself called for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet government, and often expressed admiration for the energy of the Russian people and the vitality of the Soviet economy, he also made it clear that for liberals, a government that resorted to “the methods of a Caesar, a Cromwell…a Nicholas, and a Mussolini” could never be acceptable. Spending a month in the country did nothing to soften Villard’s views: “I can see no compromise on this question, no argument which shatters the intensity of my belief that those who take the sword shall perish by the sword.” At the same time, Villard allowed Louis Fischer, one of Stalin’s most energetic apologists, to remain as The Nation’s Moscow correspondent.
But then Villard’s Nation, unlike Godkin’s, was a venue for open, spirited debate between radicals and liberals on a whole range of issues. Where there was controversy, Villard let it run. Where there was unanimity—as, for example, the shared revulsion at the execution of the Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—The Nation spoke with great power.
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It wasn’t just the simple fact of her sex that set Freda Kirchwey, Villard’s successor, apart from her male peers. In 1919, when she took over The Nation’s new International Relations Section—an aggregation of clippings and documents from the foreign press—she was nearly nine months pregnant with her second child (her first had died in infancy). After giving birth, she was back at work within a month, and for the next nine months, every day at noon, she walked from the Nation office across the Brooklyn Bridge to her apartment on Montague Street to nurse her son. In 1922, pregnant again, she was made managing editor, partly at the urging of associate editor Norman Thomas. Writing to Villard on magazine business within thirty-six hours of the delivery, she promised: “I’m not going to let it hurt The Nation.”
From the very beginnings of the New Deal, The Nation positioned itself firmly on the president’s left. Instead of hailing the Social Security Act of 1935 as the landmark it now seems, The Nation highlighted the compromises that had occurred between the bold original proposal and the final legislation. As FDR prepared to run for re-election, The Nation, in what would become a long tradition of curbing its enthusiasm even for the most politically sympathetic elected officials, summed up his first term as “Roosevelt’s Hollow Triumph.” In love with planning, like much of the American left at the time, The Nation did salute the Tennessee Valley Authority and the president’s experiments in public power, which it labeled the “best of New Deal measures.”
On December 7, 1941, I.F. Stone, whom Kirchwey had just hired as The Nation’s Washington editor, was on his way to his office at the National Press Building when he was stopped by the elevator man. For Stone, as for Kirchwey, the news that America was at war brought “relief that a long-expected storm had finally broken…. This is really world war,” Stone told Nation readers, “and in my humble opinion it was unavoidable and is better fought now when we still have allies left.” Pearl Harbor, and American entry in the war against fascism, put the seal on something The Nation hadn’t had in a long time: respectability.
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The birth of the Jewish state was one of the few bright spots on the magazine’s postwar horizon. Kirchwey made her own trip to Palestine in May 1946; on a visit to a kibbutz founded by Americans in the north of the country, she was particularly gratified to discover “40 Nation readers!” Returning to America, Kirchwey threw herself—and The Nation—into the fight for a Jewish state, writing fierce editorials condemning any evidence of wavering by the Truman administration, making speeches for the Jewish National Fund, and publicizing a series of reports by the Nation Associates documenting the wartime collaboration between the Nazis and the mufti of Jerusalem. She also lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt, Felix Frankfurter and Bernard Baruch on behalf of the Jewish state.
Israeli independence in May 1948 was a rare victory for a magazine that had become increasingly embattled. The following month saw The Nation banned from New York City public schools following a series by Paul Blanshard critical of the Catholic Church. Though Eleanor Roosevelt, historian Henry Steele Commager, Max Lerner, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise all signed a statement opposing the ban, which The Nation also challenged in court, it would not be lifted until January 1963. A librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, lost her job in 1950 for giving shelf space to The Nation.
By then, Joseph McCarthy was in full cry in the Senate and on television; among the intelligentsia, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. piled on, accusing The Nation of “betraying its finest traditions” by printing, “week after week, these wretched apologies for Soviet despotism.” The accusation—as Schlesinger, a frequent Nation contributor, must have known—was both untrue and unfair. Yet nothing turned the tide of fear and denunciation.
As Carey McWilliams, then a Nation contributing editor, soon retorted, “This was the language of McCarthyism even if spoken with a Harvard accent.” Who better to edit a Nation special issue on civil liberties? With a cover donated by artist Ben Shahn, “How Free Is Free?” was a gesture against the times, proof that, however diminished its voice, The Nation lived to fight on.
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In retrospect, 1955 marks a turning point in the life of The Nation—and not just because the Colorado-born McWilliams was the first editor of the magazine to come, as he put it, from “west of the Bronx.” His politics were every bit as radical as Kirchwey’s; on some issues, more radical. But his priorities were different. Where her gaze was usually eastward, across the Atlantic to Europe, or Israel, he looked west—not just back to the house he and his wife Iris still owned in Los Angeles, but to the whole country in the middle.
Starting in 1961 and for the next five years, Martin Luther King Jr. contributed a yearly report on the state of the civil-rights movement. “He was very glad to do them, and we let him reprint them. They used them on money-raising campaigns; they were very useful,” McWilliams said. In February 1967—a month before leading his first march against the Vietnam War, and two months before his celebrated speech at Riverside Church in New York—King delivered his first unequivocal public condemnation of the war at a Nation conference in Los Angeles on reordering national priorities.
Opposition to the war in Vietnam dominated McWilliams’s final decade as editor. Throughout the turmoil of the late 1960s and into the Nixon era, The Nation’s role was never less than honorable. But as a new generation began to cast off the shibboleths of the Cold War, they turned increasingly to publications other than The Nation for guidance. In time, The Nation would welcome women’s liberation and gay liberation, and rediscover its role as an outspoken critic of American militarism at home and abroad. In the 1950s—in Latin America and Southeast Asia, in Detroit, Los Angeles and Mississippi—America had sown the wind; in the 1960s, it reaped the whirlwind. Once again, the magazine had been fortunate to find the right editor for the times. If McWilliams’s very unflappability rendered him increasingly out of temper with the frenzy of the 1970s, it is also true that no other editor has better expressed what the magazine means. “It is impossible,” he wrote, to own The Nation, “or possess it or bequeath it or sell it or mortgage it. If it ever ceased to be what it has always been, it would simply not exist—regardless of who ‘owned’ it…. It is an idea, a spirit, a name without an address; it is fragile, without physical assets, but it is free and so it lives.” Thanks in large measure to Carey McWilliams, it still is, and still does.