In the spring of 1951 The Nation, the octogenarian flagship of independent radical opinion, was almost on the ropes. The refusal of its doughty publisher-editor Freda Kirchwey (1937-55) to enlist the magazine in the ranks of cold war liberalism had made it the special target of media inquisitors and anticommunist intellectuals. While Joe McCarthy hunted subversion on the banks of the Potomac, Congress for Cultural Freedom types–including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Sidney Hook, Elliot Cohen and Irving Kristol–circled around The Nation like so many hungry sharks. In a typical attack, Harvard historian Schlesinger accused Kirchwey of “betraying [the magazine’s] finest traditions” by publishing “week after week, these wretched apologies for Soviet despotism.”
A mere subscription to The Nation raised suspicion of being “soft on communism,” and in at least one case, buying the magazine was enough to get you blacklisted. The magazine was banned from New York City schools, fundraising appeals brought dismal results, longtime donors refused to return Kirchwey’s phone calls, veteran contributing editors deserted the masthead and its former art critic, Clement Greenberg, viciously libeled its foreign editor, Spanish Republican exile Julio Álvarez del Vayo, as a Stalinist agent. Sensing The Nation‘s vulnerability, the magazine’s arch-foes, Commentary and Encounter (the beneficiary of covert CIA funding) moved in for the kill with sustained campaigns of innuendo and allegations of disloyalty.
Besieged and nearly bankrupt, Kirchwey asked the magazine’s West Coast contributing editor, Carey McWilliams, to come to New York for a few weeks to edit an emergency civil liberties issue and to help her with fundraising. McWilliams–who had previously urged Kirchwey to move The Nation to California, away from the toxic atmosphere of the New York intelligentsia–agreed to come for a month. He stayed for more than twenty-five years.
The Los Angeles author, lawyer and progressive activist, whose celebrated 1939 book, Factories in the Field, was the nonfiction counterpart to The Grapes of Wrath, brought a tough Western grit to the ideological battlefields of Manhattan. Although several of his closest friends, including the Marxist literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen and immigrant writer Louis Adamic, were driven to suicide by McCarthyism, McWilliams was unflinching under attack: Indeed, he relished political combat, even on the most unequal terrains. In California he had long brawled with such powerful semi- fascist groups as the Associated Farmers and the Native Sons of the Golden West. During his term (1939-42) as director of immigration and housing for the New Deal administration of Governor Culbert Olson, the big growers had labeled him as “Agricultural Pest No. 1, worse than pear blight or the boll weevil,” and Republican Earl Warren campaigned for governor in 1942 with the promise that firing McWilliams would be his first act of office (McWilliams resigned first).
In accepting Kirchwey’s invitation, he warned of his notoriety: “I consider myself a radical democrat who might better be called a socialist, with both ‘democrat’ and ‘socialist’ being written without caps.” Freda replied that she was also a “Socialist of sorts”–who hadn’t been a decade earlier?