Oswald Garrison Villard

Victor Navasky


In 1881, when the railroad magnate Henry Villard purchased the New York Evening Post and offered him a job, Godkin built an editorially independent Nation into the deal. Villard, by the account of his son Oswald Garrison Villard, "gave his majority stockholding to my mother [a daughter of Lloyd Garrison] and then trusteed it, giving complete power to three trustees" in order that no one should say that the Post or The Nation "was dominated by a Wall Street man and also to assure to the editors their complete independence." Godkin turned over The Nation's daily editorial chores to Wendell Phillips Garrison, Villard's brother-in-law. Oswald Garrison Villard, who had begun writing for The Nation in 1894, became a Nation editorial writer and president of The Nation Company in 1908, and took over as editor in 1918.

From 1881 to 1918, The Nation was an insert in or a weekly supplement to the New York Evening Post, and like Rip Van Winkle, it went to sleep. While the arrangement guaranteed the magazine's survival and Henry Villard's trust protected its editorial independence, it snoozed in the shadow of the daily paper. It reprinted Godkin's Post editorials, and became more a book review than anything else. Its subscriber circulation shrank to a few thousand, and after the retirement of Wendell Phillips Garrison it had a quick succession of editors.

When Garrison was ready to retire, his idea was that The Nation should die because he could think of nobody "fit to carry it on who would respect it and its traditions." When Villard mentioned the name of Hammond Lamont, Garrison changed his mind -- but, alas, the talented Lamont died, during what had been expected to be a minor operation on his jaw, less than three years after becoming The Nation's editor. His successor, beginning in May 1909, was Paul Elmer More. Under More (1909-1914), a Sanskrit scholar, The Nation described itself as an "organ of thinking people, the exponent of sane progress, of wise conservatism." But even in these years of confused political identity, the editors cherished the magazine's high standards. Paul Elmer More's biographer, Arthur Dakin, wrote that "his intellectual conscience was as formidable a thing as were the religious consciences of his New England ancestors." He seemed, however, more interested in his own literary essays than in the magazine -- but not so much that he didn't find time to write a trusted friend, "I am very much afraid (this, of course, is entirely entre nous) that Villard's influence will cheapen The Nation and deprive it of its unique quality."

After More came Harold deWolf Fuller, whom Oswald Garrison Villard considered a "very dull person . . . stubbornly narrow [and] utterly unyielding in his prejudices." H.L. Mencken captured this interlude in the magazine's history best when he wrote in the Baltimore Sun that "The Nation, since the passing of Godkin, had been gradually dying. It was, perhaps, the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world. Its content consisted on the one hand, of long editorials reprinted from the Evening Post, and on the other hand, of appalling literary essays by such pundits as Paul Elmer More. Villard, when he took it over, threw out the garbage and started printing the truth. The effect was instantaneous. His circulation increased four or five-fold in a few months." Actually, circulation jumped from 7,200 in 1918 to 38,087 by 1920. As editor, of course, Villard was able to finesse any potential editor-owner tension by inheriting the thing. As he wrote some years later in 1937, "if the ownership and editorship of a journal can be combined it is by all odds the best arrangement. That was my fortunate situation from 1918 to 1932. Indeed, I have been favored beyond most journalists in that in all my forty years in newspapers I have never had to take orders from anybody. . . . "

Even Villard had to buttress his financial resources, diminished by the post-World War I depression, so he created a Nation Foundation, asking influential friends to help underwrite expenses, hoping the magazine would break even in three years -- the perpetual optimist. Actually, life for Villard the editor-publisher wasn't all that tranquil. One scholar observed that had Villard -- one part patrician, one part social reformer, by conviction a pacifist, by temperament a fighter -- been less divided against himself, "The Nation from 1918 to 1933 might have been more consistent; but it is difficult to believe that it would have been equally interesting." As the irrepressible Heywood Broun put it in his weekly column, "Oswald Garrison Villard is the product of an interesting experiment. His grandfather was an abolitionist and his father a railroad magnate.

As far as the researches of science have gone, the rule seems to be that when you cross abolitionist blood and railroad stock you get a liberal." But Villard was no ordinary liberal. If Godkin's legacy was the politics of mugwumpery and the journalism of social and moral responsibility, Villard's was the politics of lost causes and the journalism of the crusader. Villard was a believer in non-violence, but was the sort of militant pacifist who could write that "President McKinley ought to have been shot with his entire cabinet for putting us into an unnecessary war with Spain." He was a founder of the anti-imperialist league and a friend of civil rights; his Nation fought for the formation of the N.A.A.C.P. in the summer of 1905, the release of conscientious objectors after World War I, an executive pardon for the unjustly jailed labor organizer, Tom Mooney, and a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti; and his 1927 editorial ("A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind") helped radicalize a young Bostonian named James Storrow Jr. who thirty-eight years later became publisher of The Nation.

Under Villard The Nation was staunch in its attack on the extension of the Monroe Doctrine to justify U.S. imperialism in Latin America, opposed the "theft" of the Panama Canal and the plan to annex Hawaii, and supported independence for the Philippines and self-determination for the Irish. It was against conscription on the eve of World War I, which Villard regarded as a war between rival imperial powers, and "The Madness at Versailles" in the war's aftermath. The thousands of cancellations which came in the wake of The Nation's anti-war stance were recouped only when the postmaster seized as seditious the September 14, 1918 issue of the magazine because he objected to an editorial by Albert J. Nock criticizing the government's choice of American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers -- who had "held labor in line" in deference to wartime patriotism -- to report on labor conditions abroad. (Villard put the advertising value of the seizure at over $100,000.)

One of Villard's most successful innovations was a fortnightly sixteen-page "International Relations Section," which would print original documents. As Managing Editor Lewis Gannett recalled, "the [New York] Times and the other papers were killing off Lenin and Trotsky and crushing the Russian revolution three times a week," but The Nation had its own reports. It was, for example, the first to print the new Soviet Constitution, among other scoops. Of the Bolsheviks, however, Villard had few illusions, writing that "with all their desire for peace, justice, liberty, and equality for a nation of workers, [they] offer side by side with tremendous benefits, the methods of a Caesar, a Cromwell, a Franz Joseph, a Nicholas, a Mussolini." He came to regard Stalin and Hitler as rival dictators and thought we should butt out.

Villard's improvisory style and willingness to back up his editorial instincts with his pocketbook -- albeit in the non-extravagant style that has become The Nation's trademark -- may be gathered from his January 5, 1928 wire to Carleton Beals:


The exclusive interview with Sandino, leader of the revolt against U.S. domination in that small country, and the series which grew out of it was reprinted worldwide (although not in Nicaragua). And reviewing The Nation's lonely battle for justice in Haiti from 1915 on, Villard wrote: "I look back upon these crusades on behalf of our Caribbean neighbors with unbounded satisfaction. They also seem to me to have justified all the time and money I put into The Nation." As we have already seen, in the peculiar economics of The Nation, even owners have backers, and since these backers are not in it for the money, they will periodically erupt over a matter of social policy. Thus it was that Francis Neilson -- a former Canadian M.P., the husband of a meat-packing heiress, and a longtime patron of The Nation -- came to feel that he had a call on its economics editorials.

In addition to putting up $30,000 a year, Neilson was paying the salary of one of the magazine's more creative editors, Albert J. Nock. Not coincidentally, both of them were single-taxers. When Villard declined to endorse the single-tax -- a formula aimed at eliminating land speculation and promoting economic equality -- as the solution to the country's economic woes, Neilson withdrew his support and founded a new magazine, The Freeman, with Nock as its editor. The first issue appeared in the spring of 1920 and Villard welcomed it to the ranks of liberal journalism in an editorial, to which Nock quickly replied, "You make your appeal to the liberals; we make ours to the radicals."

In 1932, after nearly fifteen years, Villard retired as editor and put a committee of four (including Freda Kirchwey, thirty-nine years old) in charge, although he stayed on as majority owner and publisher. Meanwhile, the forces behind the rise of Hitler in Germany and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the U.S. had lent strength to The Nation as circulation hit 36,000. "Ironically, this brief and unwonted solvency almost wrecked the new set-up," Kirchwey later wrote in an unpublished memoir. "For Mr. Villard, who retained ownership, came within an ace of selling The Nation -- with no warning to the board -- to Raymond Moley who was looking for a political organ. The result was the resignation of two key editors . . . who concluded that if the penalty of success was the probable loss of one's job, it would be better to leave under one's own steam."

In 1934 Maurice Wertheim, an investment banker and longtime generous and non-interfering patron of the magazine, offered to buy it for $50,000, and Villard said no thanks. A year later, he was faced with a deficit, sons who had no interest in taking over, and estrangement from his editors over such matters as the extent of America's neutrality. When Wertheim again offered to buy the magazine -- this time for $25,000 -- Villard accepted, with the understanding that Kirchwey would become the new editor and Villard would continue to write his weekly column, "Issues and Men." Freda Kirchwey had spent virtually her entire working life at The Nation. She was a recent Barnard graduate (who had been voted "Most Famous in Future," "Best Looking" and "Most Militant") when she heard from a friend that there was an opening in the new International Relations Section, and wrote to her old economics professor Henry Raymond Mussey, a Nation editor, "If you think I'm the man for the job, will you put in a word for me?" She went on to become managing editor, literary editor, editor and, ultimately, publisher. She took a leadership role on issues such as sexual freedom, birth control, democracy vs. Fascism and Nazism, the Spanish civil war, pacifism and collective security, refugees, McCarthyism and censorship, the peaceful employment of atomic energy, and Zionism. (After the war she went to Palestine as The Nation's correspondent and her visit to Ein Hashofed, a kibbutz founded by Americans, turned up forty Nation readers.)

... "I have never been able to work happily with men or women who are incapable of hot indignation at something or other," Villard wrote in his memoir. "To minimize every evil is to my mind to condone it and in time to destroy one's influence." Villard, ever faithful to his credo, did not go gently. On June 13, 1940, he wrote a letter to Freda Kirchwey: After reading your last two issues and particularly your coming out for universal military service, I want to notify you at once that I cannot continue to write for The Nation and I will wind up my connection of 46 years with a valedictory next week. It is, as you know, a complete and absolute break with all the traditions of The Nation, of which there is nothing left now but the name. Some day perhaps I shall have some explanation as to how Freda Kirchwey, a pacifist in the last war, keen to see through shams and hypocrisies, militant for the rights of minorities and the downtrodden, has now struck hands with all the forces of reaction against which The Nation has battled so strongly.

There is now, of course, no reason for buying The Nation when one can read Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, The New York Times or The New York Herald Tribune. . . . You have, according to my beliefs, prostituted The Nation, and I hope honestly that it will die very soon or fall into other hands. After Villard's departure, Freda Kirchwey's Nation was deeply involved in the effort to rescue refugees, believed that a Jewish "homeland" was the best hope for democracy in the Middle East, and saw Jewish emigration to Palestine as a mater of "elementary Justice." It sided with the Loyalists in the Spanish civil war, supported the Free French against the U.S. pro-Vichy policy, opposed the China lobby and the backers of Chiang Kai-shek's mainland recovery schemes, and came to see the issue of collective security as critical. On the eve of World War II, Kirchwey saw the battle as between democracy and fascism. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed she called it "menacing," and correctly predicted that "the long range ambitions of Stalin and Hitler were bound to clash." Although she published criticism of the purge trails in the Soviet Union, the Spanish Loyalists' conduct of their cause, and the brutal Soviet invasion of Finland, and wrote, "To my mind the effort to promote unity on the left will fail if it is predicated on a categorical declaration of faith in the virtues of the Soviet Union," her biographer, Sara Alpern, concludes that she was a "moralist against fascism," but a relativist where the Soviet Union was concerned -- probably a fair judgment. Her fierce anti-fascism, further fueled by the exigencies of war, even led her to suspend The Nation's traditional preference for the First Amendment absolutism when she demanded within months of our entry into World War II that the government "Curb the Fascist Press!" It was, she wrote, "a menace to freedom and an obstacle to winning the war." She resigned her membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet after the war, as Carey McWilliams has written, "Nothing in its history does The Nation more credit than its resolute refusal, under Freda Kirchwey's editorship, to join the cold war or to chorus in on the domestic witch hunt." She was an unrelenting critic of McCarthyism. Because of its anti-cold war stance, the magazine's financial problems became more acute.

As a publisher without independent resources, Kirchwey depended on fundraising to make up the annual deficit. In 1943 she had transferred title of ownership of The Nation to a non-profit entity, the Nation Associates, in which subscribers were asked to enroll as members at from ten to one hundred dollars a year. The Nation Associates supported the magazine through fundraising but also ran conferences and conducted research. (For example, it commissioned twelve studies on the Middle East, some documenting collaboration between the Nazis and the Mufti of Jerusalem.) Now, because of the cold war atmosphere, traditional-cause fundraising became almost impossible. In the late forties and early fifties, two serious rounds of merger negotiations actually took place with the magazine's friendly competitor, The New Republic -- but they bogged down over the question of where the merged publication would be located, and who would be in charge of what. Kirchwey described The Nation during her tenure as a "propaganda journal" -- not in the sense that it omitted the inconvenient fact to make its point, but rather that it openly espoused many causes. Unlike Villard, she was not a particular champion of lost causes. Indeed, when the magazine described Henry Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party campaign as "Quixotic," J.W. Gitt, the publisher of the York Pennsylvania Gazette and Daily, wrote, "My God, woman, all my life I have been engaged in what some people have called 'Quixotic endeavors,' and if I may be pardoned for saying so, I fear that you have been too. At least I thought so." Anti-fascism was her overarching cause to the end and it undoubtedly contributed to the mindset which led her to sue The New Leader magazine when it published former Nation art critic Clement Greenberg's letter accusing her friend and Nation political editor J. Alvarez Del Vayo, former foreign minister of the Spanish Republic from 1936 to 1939, of being an instrument of Stalin. Declining to publish Greenberg's attack in The Nation, she had written him that "if the letter is published or circulated anywhere, we will immediately bring suit for libel against you . . . [a periodical] has a public as well as a private duty not to spread untrue and malicious statements." Kirchwey obviously didn't subscribe to The Nation's current view that such suits constitute an infringement on political speech, contribute to a general chilling effect, and set a dangerous precedent.

More pressing in her mind was Del Vayo's refugee status, which rendered him vulnerable to deportation. She also calculated -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that the lawsuit would stop the endless debate about whether The Nation should have printed Greenberg's letter in the first place, which she considered a diversion from more urgent matters. On advice of counsel, other letters in the case (including one from the embattled young historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., accusing the magazine of printing "wretched apologies for Soviet despotism") also went unpublished; Robert Bendiner and Reinhold Niebuhr asked to have their names removed from the magazine's masthead; and the dispute festered for four years. The lawsuit was not dropped until Carey McWilliams -- whom Kirchwey had recruited to come east and edit a special civil liberties issue ("How Free is Free?") -- agreed to replace Freda as editor only on condition that the case be abandoned. He had arrived in New York in 1951 and by 1955, in debt and exhausted and confident that McWilliams was "the right man for the job," Kirchwey retired. McWilliams recruited his own publisher before he took the job -- George Kirstein, a recently retired health insurance executive with Nation politics, a modest family inheritance, and few illusions about Nation economics.

"Without exception," McWilliams would later write, "every publisher has regarded the responsibility as a public trust. Any publisher who thought of the magazine as a possible profit-making venture could not have been familiar with its history." McWilliams had been privy to The Nation's financial problems ever since late 1950, when Kirchwey had summoned him to New York for an emergency conference. The overheated political atmosphere of the cold war had suddenly made it virtually impossible to raise funds through the sort of public functions that Lillie Shultz, who directed the activities of the Nation Associates, had made something of an art. One of the most prominent of these had been a 1946 conference in Los Angeles on "The Challenge of the Postwar World to the Liberal Movement." (Among other speakers was a young actor, Ronald Reagan.) But by 1948-49, many left liberals and radicals were upset with The Nation for not having supported the independent candidacy of Henry Wallace, and anti-Communist cold war intellectuals, some of them former Communists themselves, had targeted The Nation as un-American and pro-Soviet for its criticism of cold war policies (which, as McWilliams would later point out, led directly to the Vietnam disaster). This, of course, was not the first time The Nation was in the eye of the political storm. ...

Victor Navasky (Editor, 1978 - 1994)
New York City April, 1990