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.