The Nation Magazine's Tainted Liberalism


posted to on March 1, 2003


This article is an attempt to get to the roots of the yearlong attack on the antiwar movement by figures associated with the Nation Magazine, both within and outside its pages. While this campaign has chiefly been directed at Ramsey Clark and the ANSWER coalition, there is little doubt that what is driving it is animosity toward the radical movement in general.


There has been a tendency, especially at the website of our friends at Counterpunch, to understand this in terms of character flaws. Whether you are dealing with Christopher Hitchen's alcoholism or Marc Cooper's creepiness, it is understandable that one might assign a disproportionate weight to such factors. While these are certainly repugnant characters, we are obligated to get at the ideological roots of this 128-year-old liberal institution, which in many ways are far creepier than any individual journalist's tics or vices.


Largely owing to the well-oiled public relations machinery of the Nation, nearly anybody who has heard of the magazine knows that abolitionists founded it in 1865. Naturally this would lead the average informant, including myself until this investigation began, to assume that the magazine was on the barricades fighting all sorts of injustice.


We get a hint of the real Nation from an article that was included in the 1990 anthology titled "The Nation 1865-1900: Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture." When my eyes first spotted editor and founder E.L. Godkin's "The Execution of the Anarchists", I assumed like any normal person that this piece was a 19th century version of "Free Mumia". In the preface, however, we learn that "Godkin wrote several pieces calling for the hanging of the Chicago anarchists; the magazine, under his editorial control, also opposed trade unions and attacked socialists." Why this was the case appeared to be of little interest to the anthologist who is content to reflect that certain pages of Godkin's Nation make for "strange reading."


In his characteristic take-no-prisoner prose, Godkin states, "The notion that we must tolerate speech the object of which is to induce people to break up the social organization and abolish property by force, is historically and politically absurd."


Since editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel states that Godkin's magazine was "claiming for itself the right of citizens in a democracy to carp, protest, condemn, revile, applaud, celebrate, prophesy and otherwise give themselves to the articulate of their circumstances," one must wonder why she omitted the qualification "except for anarchists."


Indeed, throughout the Nation Magazine's first 35 years or so, you would be hard-put to find a challenge to the gathering dark clouds of reaction against black rights, the labor movement, woman's suffrage or other causes. The magazine spoke out against women having the vote (the speeches of people like Victoria Woodhull were "shrill, incoherent, shallow and irrelevant") and warned that the eight-hour day would "diminish production."


I.F. Stone deftly sized up the editorial outlook, which can best be described as laissez faire 19th century liberalism, in an earlier anthology published in 1965 titled "One Hundred Years of the Nation."


"But to advocate laissez faire consistently and honestly, as The Nation and Godkin did, was to adopt a lonely and ineffectual attitude— hostile to the capitalist trend toward monopoly, hostile to the agrarian cry for regulation of railroads and business, hostile to the workers' attempts at collective action. In England the advocate of laissez faire marched in the triumphant ranks of the merchants and manufacturers; in America he fought a hopeless rear-guard action in the retreating forces of small business men, rentiers, and the Adams family. The Nation under Godkin attacked the Grangers, the Populists, the trade unions, the single-taxers, and the Socialists, as well as the trusts, the railroad barons, the tariff log-rollers, and the stockjobbing financiers. But the second group was to transform our economy and the first our politics until laissez faire liberalism, once a revolutionary and liberating force, became the slogan of reactionaries."


Eventually Oswald Garrison Villard (abolitionist and Nation editor William Lloyd Garrison's nephew) took over from Godkin and pushed the magazine in a progressive direction. In contrast to Godkin who complained that the Paris Commune was expelling "the literary or educated class from all places of trust and dignity," the magazine was favorably disposed to the October 1917 Revolution in Russia although refracted through the prism of native progressive roots rather than a class perspective.


Drawing from what some might consider an anti-intellectual tradition in the USA, the Nation has tended to approach the class struggle from the standpoint of morality rather than any kind of systematic methodology based on social science, Marxism or otherwise. This has often been reflected as a kind of championing of the underdog, which reached a pinnacle in Carleton Beal's travels with Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto Sandino in the 1920s. This genre, which began with John Reed's "Insurgent Mexico", is one part partisan reporting and one part National Geographic travelogue:


"On the following morning we ascended the Coco River, breakfasted at the river settlement, and then forded directly into the 'reten' of Colonel Guadelupe Rivera, a grizzled soldier and wealthy 'hacendado' who had turned his place, Santa Cruze, into a Sandino outpost.


"More jungle then—humid, reeking. A soldier plucks twenty dollars worth of purple orchids (New York quotation) and sticks them in the band of his sombrero. Troops of screaming monkeys swing past, stopping occasionally to grimace at us. From the depths of the forest, mountain lions roar. [By the time I got to Nicaragua in 1987, the lions had disappeared. Lots of goats remained, however.] Huge macaws wing across the sky, crying hoarsely and flashing crimson. We ford and reford the north-flowing tributary, for endless hours we toil across the Yali range, and finally drop down into Jinotega in another night of driving rain over a road where the horse roll pitifully, up to their bellies in mud."


("With Sandino in Nicaragua, 3/14/1928)


Unfortunately, the class struggle does not always pit a plucky guerrilla band in white hats against a villainous Uncle Sam in some kind of latter-day version of Robin Hood. Far more often you end up with a much more complex drama involving shades of gray. If your sole criteria for offering solidarity to those struggling against imperialism is morality blended with esthetics, it is very easy to lose your way as editor Lewis Lapham points out in the March 2003 Harper's:


"Reading Ignatieff [the reference is to a Jan. 5, 2003 NY Times Magazine article by Harvard professor and "human rights" expert Michael Ignatieff, where he advises that "Imperial powers do not have the luxury of timidity, for timidity is not prudence; it is a confession of weakness."] I was reminded of a dinner-table conversation in Washington in the middle 1980s at which an authoritative syndicated columnist explained that he was 'depressed' by 'the quality of the regime' in Nicaragua. Judging only by the tone of his voice, I might have guessed that he was talking about a second-rate wine or a Caribbean resort hotel gone to seed and no longer fit to welcome golf tournaments. He wasn't concerned about Nicaragua's capacity to harm the United States; the army was small and ill equipped, the mineral assets not worth the cost of a first-class embassy. Nor did the columnist think the governing junta particularly adept at exploiting 'the virus of Marxist revolution.' What troubled him was the 'indecorousness of the regime.' Nicaragua was in bad taste."


One wonders if Lewis Lapham might have been referring to Michael Massing, who wrote an article titled "Hard Questions On Nicaragua" in the April 6, 1985 Nation Magazine. It is a catalog of alleged Sandinista misdeeds ranging from press censorship to tilting toward the Soviet bloc. Showing a naiveté about the Carter administration that borders on outright maliciousness, Massing states that "Unlike Allende's Popular Unity government, the Sandinistas came to power at a time when the United States seemed prepared to live with revolution in Latin America." With such good-will coming from the grinning Georgia farmer, the ideology-driven Sandinistas had to go and spoil the whole thing by tilting toward the Kremlin.


Stunned and appalled by Massing's piece, Alexander Cockburn offered the following rejoinder in his April 20 "Beat the Devil" column:


"Standing side by side with Reagan, Massing charges that Nicaragua provoked the United States by forging military ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, as though Nicaragua had no cause to look for external support. -He proposes that 'progres­sives in this country need to develop a more nuanced analysis of the United States' role as a superpower.' What is this nu­anced analysis? Massing explains that the left should recognize that, 'however unjustly, the United States regards the Carib­bean Basin as its backyard and stands ready to enforce that claim. Accordingly, revolutionary governments would, re­nounce any military relationship with the Soviet bloc and pledge not to assist revolutionary forces in the region. In return, they would receive a pledge of nonintervention.'"


Cockburn described Massing's proposal as "among the most shameful and silly" ever to appear in The Nation.


With all due respect to Alex, whose column was shortened to one page after repeated outbursts of this kind, Massing's proposal was in line with the magazine's foreign policy punditry for most of the century. Except for those rare instances where you are dealing with sainted martyrs like Sandino, the Nation has tended to view world events far too often from the angle of State Department liberalism. (It should be pointed out however that these same movements can often lose favor with their liberal well-wishers after taking power and being forced to rule draconically under siege-like conditions produced by US economic blockade and military intervention. This in fact was what happened with the latter day followers of Sandino.)


In contrast to a figure like Augusto Sandino, who never tasted power, Juan D. Perón not only exercised power, but also had a huge impact on the daily lives of working people in Argentina. Since the US State Department had labeled the populist leader as the Adolph Hitler of Argentina, it was no surprise to discover an article in the February 26, 1946 Nation titled "Perón: South American Hitler."


Written by Stanley Ross, who was a correspondent for the AP in Buenos Aires from 1943 to 1945, the article finds Nazis under every bed. For some reason, the Hitler of Argentina seems inexplicably popular with the workers. Ross reports that, "The most recent decree, ordering all concerns to raise wages approximately 30 percent, was received with wild acclaim even by those workers who hate the Colonel." One supposes that he would have earned their love by slashing their wages in half, as was the custom in Latin American countries not groaning under fascist rule.


Meanwhile, another progressive Colonel over in Egypt was also getting on the magazine's shit-list. Now for a consistent anti-imperialist, the confrontation between Nasser and the West over control of the Suez Canal might have seemed a straightforward deal. Apparently, the Egyptian people did not pass the Nation Magazine's litmus test for in a January 5, 1957 editorial titled " The Statue Is Not For Bombing" they are censured like wayward children:


"The Egyptian mob that dynamited an eighty-foot statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps that marked the entrance to the harbor at Port Said might have been better advised to build a new and loftier monument to this imaginative adventurer. Had it not been for de Lesseps, and the backers of his daring project, the future of the Egyptian people might be less bright than it is today. The bright promise of this future can be lost, if the Egyptians and their dictator, Colonel Nasser, fail to exhibit the wisdom, self-restraint and good sense that alone can preserve the fruits of a victory which, they did not win for themselves. Victories that have been won unassisted usually command a, price that has a sobering effect on the victors; those that come cheaply often have the opposite effect. If Colonel Nasser pushes his luck too hard, too fast and too far, he will forfeit the gains the Egyptians have registered to date. Much depends, however, on the guidance and tact which the world-community can bring to bear on Cairo through the U.N. and its agencies and officials. The Egyptians are negotiating a treacherous waterway, with dangerous shoals and currents, which leads from a freedom without power to a position of responsibility based on power and achievement. Having intervened in Egypt's behalf, the world community has a special obligation to prevent the Nasser regime from succumbing to vagrant daydreams of dominion or empire."


The careful observer will of course notice that just like today's liberals the Nation is anxious that the "world-community" and the U.N. civilize the Iraqis of their time. If diplomatic pressure did not suffice, they of course could depend on old-fashioned bombing and shooting, sanctified by the blue-helmeted men who had taught the ornery North Koreans their lesson only a couple of years earlier.


It is not too hard to figure out how the Nation Magazine might have developed such an antipathy to one of the greatest anti-imperialist struggles of the 1950s. If the most important criterion is the stability of world commerce and the continuing availability of natural resources, obviously you would view Colonel Nasser and similar figures as a threat.


In 1952, shortly after Mossadegh had been voted into power in Iran, the Nation took it upon itself to persuade the secular nationalist to pay proper respect to Western powers. In the aptly titled "A New Deal for the Middle East" (the magazine was an institutional pillar of FDR's 4 term presidency), long-time editor Freda Kirchwey describes the Godfather like deal being put forward by London and Washington. The US would grant a $10 million loan and Britain would withdraw the economic sanctions imposed a year earlier in exchange for a favorable deal involving Shell and all the other gangsters. "But," Kirchwey wrote, "reports from Teheran give little reason for optimism." He might be better advised in fact to cut a deal where he gets part of the pie rather than the whole thing. Missing entirely from this equation is the right of the Iranian people to decide to do with their own resources. Within a year Mossadegh, whom the Nation would eventually dub a "dictator", would be overthrown by a young leader they characterized as "well-meaning" and "progressive." His name? Reza Shah Pahlevi.


On June 25, 1955, Sam Jaffe, their "roving correspondent" in Southeast Asia, filed a report on "Dilemma in Saigon: Which Way Democracy" that is filled with the kinds of self-flattering illusions satirized in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" as well as fulsome praise for the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem:


"In Saigon there is one man with a solution. But he admits it must be put into effect quickly or all will be lost. I am not permitted to give his name, but he is an American official who works around the clock attempting to whip the Diem government into shape. He has a deep belief in America and its great past, which, he reminds you, was the result of its success in throwing off colonial rule. He also has a deep belief in the Asians. He feels strongly that our Asian foreign policy should not be to support any one group or government but the will of the Asian peoples.


"He speaks of concrete plans now under way in Vietnam for the reconstruction of the country. These include the resettling of over 800,000 refugees. Land will be granted them and money given them to build new homes—if needed, more money can be obtained through a low-interest loan. He speaks with enthusiasm, of the work being done by TRIM, the American Training Relations and Instructions Mission under the able command of Lieutenant General John W. O'Daniel, in helping the Vietnamese build and maintain a strong military force. He hopes for much from the teams of Americans under USMO, the United States Operations Mission, who go into the Vietnamese countryside to ascertain the wants of the people. Their reports are filled with the need for schools, bridges, communications, hospitals, sanitation, and the many other necessities of life that might stem the tide of communism."


Perhaps it would be too much to expect the Nation Magazine to have simply recognized the USA had no business in Indochina whatsoever in 1955. But one would think that by 1966, when the antiwar movement had reached massive proportions, that they would have gotten out of the business of meddling in the affairs of the Vietnamese people, even under the auspices of that fabled "world-community" alluded to in the dressing down of the Egyptian masses above.


While the Nation no longer wrote puff pieces for the Vietnamese puppets, it was not above suggesting that solutions to the country's problems could be imposed from the East River of Manhattan. In Russell Leng's February 28, 1966 "Vietnam: What Role for the UN? Strategy of a Truce", we learn that peace is possible if the Security Council can get its act together. Leng is forced to admit that the cash-strapped world body may not have the authority to do the sorts of things it once did: "What was possible in Korea, and even in the Congo, will not be possible in Vietnam." Considering the fate of Lumumba and the four million Korean casualties (out of a total population north and south of 40 million), perhaps that was not such a bad thing.


And what would be the concrete aim of the United Nations? Leng suggests that a workable peace settlement might include "the successful integration of the Vietcong into the political structure of South Vietnam." In other words, the Nation Magazine was suggesting that the UN would be a better agency for accomplishing the goals of the Johnson administration, but without once considering the possibility that the goals themselves were colonial in character.


That very same year a huge anti-Communist bloodbath took place in Indonesia. For reasons unfathomable to anybody familiar with the country's sorry history subsequent to that terrible event, the Nation Magazine found a silver lining in that dark cloud. Alex Josey, a "free-lance correspondent in the Far East for the past eighteen years, filed an article in the November 28, 1966 Nation titled "Hope After Massacre." It concludes on the following Panglossian note:


"As I flew back to the efficiency, the modern comfort and the comparative security of Singapore, I tried to imagine what role Indonesia could be expected to play in Asian affairs in the foreseeable future This country of 100 million people is potentially among the richest in the world, but it is encumbered with a run-down, state-controlled economy, with between 2 million and 5 million civil servants (nobody really knows), and with more than halt a million in its armed forces It desperately seeks a domestic political formula and economic sanity. If there is to be progress in these fields, the generals and the politicians will have their hands full for some lime to come. Relations with China will probably deteriorate, those with the Soviet Union and the West, including the United States, will most likely improve, Japan will move much closer. The non-Communist world may be relieved that Indonesia has been rescued, on the brink, from communism And, by now, thanks to Radio Jakarta and the controlled papers, most Indonesians may share this view without knowing exactly why. But the truth is that the abortive coup, whatever if was, the awful massacres, Sukarno's containment and the new army regime have left Indonesia very much as it was before. With, however, one important difference: there now is hope."


Let us conclude with a brief observation. For many of us in the radical movement who were introduced to the Nation Magazine in the early 1980s as part of a search for a reliable source of information and analysis that was not tainted by dogmatism, the recent drift into red-baiting and anti-antiwar advocacy might at first seem like a departure from the Nation's anti-imperialism track record. I was prompted to look into the Nation Magazine's archives only after repeated assaults on the peace movement by figures such as David Corn, Christopher Hitchens, Marc Cooper and Eric Alterman who has stated openly that he would support a USA invasion of Iraq, even under terms dictated by Bush. This is not a magazine we can rely on. The most urgent task for the left is to develop a mass-circulation alternative to the Nation Magazine that relies on the grass roots rather than liberal millionaires. Such alternatives are taking shape right now with the Counterpunch web and print editions, but much more is needed with the survival of the human race at stake.