“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.