“Pressure from the southern Slavs is bound to increase,” the essayist Simeon Strunsky casually observed in an essay on the Austro-Hungarian empire, published in the June 4, 1914, issue of The Nation. It was an understatement, to say the least.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, and his wife, Sophie, were shot and killed when their car—in which they had just survived an assassination attempt by grenade—made a wrong turn down Franz Josef Street in Sarajevo and happened to run into an armed Gavrilo Princip. By early August, most of Europe was at war and the world was changed forever.
The Nation was already almost a half-century old by the time the war began. Founded by abolitionists just after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the magazine had by the eve of the war become a bastion of free-trade orthodoxy, establishment opinion and elite academic debate. The Nation of early 1914 was as likely to editorialize on “Shakespeare at the Springtime” or “The Surgical Congress” as it was on “The Changed Mexican Policy” (all from the issue dated April 23). The editor at the time, Sanskrit scholar Paul Elmer More, described the magazine as the “organ of thinking people, the exponent of sane progress, of wise conservatism.”
But by the end of the war, The Nation had undergone changes that can only be described as radical, and in every sense of the word. Its publisher, Oswald Garrison Villard—who inherited the magazine from his father, Henry, a Bavarian-immigrant railroad tycoon who had purchased the New York Evening-Post and The Nation in 1881—was a fierce pacifist moving slowly but surely to the left on social and economic issues as well. Once a close adviser to Woodrow Wilson, Villard turned against the president because of his insufficient enthusiasm for civil rights (Villard helped found the NAACP, first headquartered at The Nation’s Vesey Street office) and also over the issue of “preparedness” for American entry into the European war. In an effort to exert greater influence on the peace settlement, Villard seized editorial control of the magazine and steered it in a sharply liberal, even radical, direction. H.L. Mencken commented that in his takeover of the magazine Villard “threw out the garbage and started printing the truth.”
The first modern war, then, created the modern Nation.
Today we inaugurate here at Back Issues what will become a recurring feature of the blog: “Great War” will follow—in real time, one hundred years later—the political and military maneuvering both before the outbreak of fighting and once the war got under way. We will pay special attention, as The Nation did at the time, to the developing debate in the United States about whether and how to involve itself for the first time in a great European war and also to how the magazine’s position changed—or did not—as the international and domestic situation changed. It will offer, we hope, a unique approach to the experience of history—a curated “real-time” introduction to the war for those who don’t know much about it and a fresh perspective for those who do.
What is most shocking about reading through the pages of The Nation from June 1914, before the world went to pieces, is the alarming ignorance of the apocalyptic conflict just over the horizon. Though the magazine had closely watched the table-setting Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, there was little except for Strunsky’s nine words that might have augured any serious unpleasantness to come.
The issue published June 25, 1914, the last before the assassination, is especially poignant in its ignorance of the events about to unfold. The lead editorial notes are devoted, as they had been for weeks, to developments in Niagara Falls, Canada, where a peace conference had convened to sort out issues between the US and Mexican governments. In April, amid the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the United States had seized the port at Veracruz to protect the lives and property of Americans involved in the nascent oil industry. The dramatic series of events would later feature in John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel. The parties came to an agreement and war—that war at least—was avoided.
Elsewhere in the issue, an editorial paragraph reports that “the first congress for the countrywide promotion of mental hygiene…has adjourned after attracting little attention.” A special correspondent weighs the advantages and disadvantages of various Parisian restaurants. In the second installment of a report on polo, one W.G. Tinckom-Fernandez dryly comments that “warfare has been waged” over the newly introduced off-side rule. An Austrian linguist named Eduard Prokosch, then resident in Mayville, Wisconsin, writes in a letter to the editor: “Forgive me for once more—for the last time—referring to Prof. Leo Wiener’s recent article on the Gothic Bible. He ridicules my remarks as unintelligible, inconsistent, and ignorant. Let me briefly state a few facts…”
The final article of the issue—the last the magazine would publish before the Sarajevo assassination—concerns an interview conducted in The Nation’s parent publication, the New York Evening-Post, with former Senator George Edmunds of Vermont—“a survivor, in full intellectual vigor, of the celebrated group of statesmen who guided the country’s political destinies from the ending of the Civil War to the beginning of the Spanish-American conflict,” the magazine’s regular finance columnist, Alexander Dana Noyes, remarked. (Edmunds was elected to the Vermont legislature in 1854 and appointed to the US Senate in 1866; he died in 1919.) Noyes quoted from Edmunds’s comments in the Post interview about recent economic difficulties:
It will all come out right. The troubles are not political, but social. Human history and experience teach that things go around in circles. We are now in a part of the circle which I shall not endeavor to classify. We are troubled with an epidemic of emotion among people who don’t stop to reflect. Radical doctrines are merely a sign of the times. Some day there will be a further swing around the circle and then you will see a change.
Noyes concluded his article, and The Nation issue of June 25, 1914, with this meditation, linking the year 1914 with other world-historical fulcrums of the past:
1789 did not introduce a permanent regime of sans-culottes, guillotines, Jacobin clubs, and a calendar in which Year One was the date of the French Convention. The settling down of affairs after 1848 did not establish a world-wide institution of State Socialism. Neither will the aftermath of the present furious emotion upheaval leave the courts or the marriage ceremony abolished, or the banks and the stock exchanges managed by legislative committees. Mr. Edmunds was wise, however, in declining to commit himself as to exactly what part of the circle we are in to-day. That is something which every one would like to know, and which it is not at all probable any one will know until we are considerably further along on the periphery.
Three days later, Franz Ferdinand was dead and matters were considerably “further along.”
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