The Nation Magazine's tainted liberalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Mar 1 12:00:14 MST 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 are 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 

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 thenhumid, 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 "well0-meaning" and "progressive." His name? Reza Shah 

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 
homesif 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 

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.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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