“Liberalism is too often merely a way of speaking.”
—Oscar I. Janowsky
Until the day he died in April 1964, John T. Flynn insisted that he was a liberal. Once, that self-designation had not been controversial. This was a man who, as a member of the New York City Board of Higher Education in the 1930’s, had fought the conservative president of City University for the rights of student radicals. So closely had Flynn been identified with mainstream liberalism in that era that he was awarded a weekly column in the New Republic. By the time Flynn retired from journalism in 1960, however, he had become a pariah to his erstwhile friends on the left and a hero to the John Birch Society. To the end, he maintained that his principles had not changed: It was the political landscape of the entire country that had shifted under his feet. He was right.
For that reason, Ashland University history professor John E. Moser subtitles his new book John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism. Hard as it may be to believe today, there was a time when 20th-century American liberalism was not sympathetic to communism, beholden to executive power, or committed to the export of democracy by force of arms. And now that soi-disant conservatives have themselves taken up these causes (or at least two of the three), reexamining the life and work of John T. Flynn is more important than ever, if only as a reminder that America’s turn toward monocracy and world hegemony was neither inevitable nor unchallenged.
Moser has diligently mined the archives of libraries across the country in his effort to reconstruct Flynn’s life. But where his subject’s earliest years are concerned, only the most fragmentary evidence survives.
Flynn was born in Bladensburg, Maryland, in 1882. He attended Georgetown Law School in the early 1900’s. In 1910, he married Alice Bell; he became a journalist sometime before 1912, when he moved to California in search of work. Finding little, he returned East and took a position with the New Haven Register. The first inkling we get of Flynn’s politics comes from this period: He attempted to unionize all the newspapermen in New Haven, and, after a strike he led got him fired, Flynn launched a newspaper of his own, the Reporter. It soon failed, and he left Connecticut to work for the New York Globe.
There he made his reputation as a reporter with a knack for economic analysis and for explaining the economic underpinnings of everyday news in a way readers could understand. His career as muckraker blossomed as he exposed scams, real and imagined, in real estate, horse racing, and the stock market. His belief that stock prices were wildly inflated led him to predict the crash of 1929. Having been one of a few popular journalists to do so, Flynn found his own stock, so to speak, soaring afterward.
He had achieved the status of a prophet and was much in demand in the liberal press and before congressional committees, where progressive lawmakers found him an eager advocate for federal regulation of business and banking. But he was no socialist, nor even a foe of large corporations. “I very seldom deliver any strictures on big business as I am a profound believer in it,” he wrote to a member of the New York Stock Exchange in 1930, but “[o]nce in a while I think a few big business men—who must not always be confused with big business—need a little touch of the stick.” He welcomed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 on the back of promises to save capitalism from itself.
Before long, however, his view of Roosevelt darkened. Flynn favored some form of federal unemployment insurance, and he was all for government spending to fight unemployment and spur recovery. He embraced the Tennessee Valley Authority. But he believed Roosevelt’s methods of financing these programs were sheer fraud: The Social Security Trust Fund was nothing but a stack of IOUs, with the money brought in by Social Security taxes treated as general revenue. Even that was not enough to pay for FDR’s projects, so the President resorted to deficit spending—which Flynn considered a dangerously inflationary gambit. As for other New Deal initiatives, Flynn recognized in the National Recovery Administration the seeds of economic fascism. The “self-rule in industry” promoted by the NRA would amount to cartelization, giving big business the means to stifle smaller competitors while offering no benefits to consumers or workers. When Roosevelt responded to the Supreme Court’s voiding of the Nation- al Industrial Recovery Act by trying to pack the court with more compliant justices, Flynn saw the move as further evidence of the country’s descent into one- man rule.
Throughout the 30’s, he continued to criticize the Roosevelt administration from the left, using the pages of the New Republic and a syndicated column with the Scripps-Howard newspapers to do it. He declared the New Deal a failure and predicted the President’s next move: He would take to defense spending to pull the economy out of its rut. And to make the case for bigger military budgets, Roosevelt would lead the country toward involvement in the war brewing in Europe.
Flynn had been interested in the relationship between war and industry since 1934, when he assisted Sen. Gerald P. Nye’s committee investigating the role of munitions manufacturers in World War I. Flynn offered the committee a plan to take the profit out of fighting. His proposals included, in Moser’s description, “a 50 percent tax on the first 6 percent of corporate profits with a 100 percent tax on all corporate profits beyond that” to go into effect the moment war was declared. To columnist Arthur Crock, the bill that came of Flynn’s plan seemed designed not merely to limit profiteering but “to discourage war by providing the certainty that the well-to-do would be ruined when war was declared.” The House of Representatives killed the bill.
Such radical suggestions did not salvage Flynn’s reputation as a liberal, which declined as his attacks on Roosevelt intensified and progressives came around to supporting war. Those liberals who remained opposed formed the Keep America Out of War Congress in 1938, eventually electing Flynn as their national chairman. But the organs of advanced opinion had already chosen the side of intervention, and a purge of antiwar liberals commenced. Oswald Garrison Villard was dismissed from the Nation. Harry El- mer Barnes lost his column with Scripps- Howard. And Roosevelt himself acted to deprive Flynn of at least one outlet, the Yale Review. “John T. Flynn should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine or national quarterly, such as the Yale Review,” he wrote to the journal’s editor. In November 1940, the New Republic axed Flynn’s column, “Other People’s Money,” on the pretext that he had exceeded its original mandate. That fall, Flynn published a full-length treatment of Roosevelt’s rule so far, Country Squire in the White House.
The Keep America Out of War Congress proved feckless, and Flynn perceived the need for a more populist, ecumenical antiwar organization that could appeal to “dissatisfied or disgruntled conservatives” as well as to noninterventionists on the left. Just such an organization contacted him in August 1940, when Flynn was asked to join the America First Committee. The group sorely needed prominent liberals, lest it seem “too much like a Willkie club,” in the words of one of its organizers. Flynn was eager to help, and, when no suitable chairman for America First’s New York City chapter could be found, Flynn became its leader. In that city, a redoubt of pro-war interests, Flynn built an America First chapter that at its height counted some 200,000 members, with a publishing arm that reached two million readers.
Despite his best efforts to preserve his liberal credentials, Flynn increasingly found himself labeled a right- winger. But he had more to worry about with America First’s reputation. He took pains to distance the organization from fascist sympathizers, keeping his membership rolls free of Coughlinites and denouncing the “American Führer” Joe McWilliams from the platform at Madison Square Garden when McWilliams crashed an America First rally in search of publicity. But the pro-war press, what Flynn called the Smear Bund, took every opportunity to tar America First by association, no matter how tenuous the links between the group and such individuals as McWilliams. When, in September 1941, Charles Lindbergh gave a speech that listed Jews among the forces pushing America toward war, Flynn was furious. Just then, Flynn had been working with a congressional investigation to expose Hollywood’s interventionist bias. Lindbergh’s speech scuttled that campaign and drove a wedge into America First’s leadership, which split over disputes about how to minimize the damage. But the question was moot once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Flynn gave the order to disband the New York chapter of America First.
He did not stop challenging the Roosevelt administration, however. Indeed, he was skeptical of official accounts of what happened at Pearl Harbor and wrote two extended articles on the subject for Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. Left-wing periodicals were, by this point, long closed to Flynn, but he found a new readership through right-leaning publications and became a roving correspondent for Reader’s Digest. In 1944, he published a second Roosevelt book, As We Go Marching. As Moser writes,
the book was more than a simple rehash of his earlier columns. In some ways it was remarkably learned, drawing on sources as diverse as Oswald Spengler, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Thorstein Veblen. Moreover, it laid out in great detail the course of fascism in both Italy and Germany, with an eye to showing the similarity of the path the New Deal had taken thus far.
The few old liberals who remained hailed the work, Villard calling it “the most important book which has appeared since the war began.” Conservatives such as industrialist William Henry Regnery also praised it. To the interventionist press, however, it was, as one reviewer put it, the “Most Malignant Book of 1944.”
The Smear Bund kept up its work, most notably in a 1943 book, Under Cover, by one John Roy Carlson, a pseudonym of Avedis Derounian. Under Cover depicted America First as having been full of women whose “family life was disrupted in a crusade for peace at any sell-out price” and men who were “fascist party-liners.” Flynn took a keen interest in the forces behind the book and its follow- up, The Plotters—he suspected the hands of both the Anti-Defamation League and the Communist Party. This led Flynn to look more closely at the influence com- munists and communist sympathizers wielded on American culture and government.
After the war, Flynn became one of the country’s most vociferous anti-communists, though he maintained all along that the greater threat came not from card-carrying Reds but from the fellow travelers who had hijacked American liberalism. By the early 1950’s, reputable publishers wanted nothing to do with him, so Flynn brought out his books through smaller presses, such as the conservative Catholic house Devin Adair. Some of his books, well attuned to the McCarthy-era Zeitgeist, sold very well, including The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution (1949) and The Lattimore Story (1953). He took to the airwaves as well, and his program “Behind the Headlines” was, for a time, heard from coast to coast. One new medium he stayed clear of, however, was television, where men had “no conception whatever . . . of the rules of civilized argument or discussion.”
Flynn’s journalism now appeared in such conservative periodicals as the Freeman and the American Mercury—but not National Review. Therein lies a story. William F. Buckley, Jr., admired Flynn and invited him to write for his new magazine, which he did, turning in a review of Arthur Larson’s A Republican Looks at His Party. Buckley spiked it, returning the piece with a generous kill fee and telling Flynn that his broadsides against the Eisenhower administration’s militarism were “difficult to defend in the absence of any discussion whatever of the objective threat of the Soviet Union.” So much is clear and ably related by Moser. What is a matter of some dispute is just how significant this episode was in Flynn’s life and in the history of the postwar right.
Moser takes issue with libertarian writer Justin Raimondo and the John Birch Society’s John F. McManus for suggesting that Flynn was purged from the nascent Buckleyite right. “If Buckley’s intent were to purge him from his new version of conservatism,” Moser asks, “why would he have solicited an article from him in the first place?” Moser means the question rhetorically, but a reply comes readily to mind: Without the contributions of men like Flynn, the early writers for National Review would have consisted almost exclusively of ex-communists and ex-CIA agents. Through Flynn, the magazine stood to gain a connection to the earlier anti-Roosevelt movement. As well, there is no reason to doubt Buckley’s sincerity when he calls Flynn “an old friend and mentor.” But all that would not suffice to get him into the magazine: Whatever esteem the editor might have had for Flynn and whatever National Review might have gained from his work, the new conservatism could not tolerate any critique of militarism. Just as the New Republic had earlier ejected antiwar sentiment from the respectable left, so National Review now sought to eliminate it from the right.
This goes a long way toward account- ing for John T. Flynn’s latter-day obscurity. He represents a set of beliefs about executive power and the military role of the United States in the world that is wholly unwelcome on either the left or the right. Moser is surely correct when he finds in Flynn a culture warrior avant la lettre, whose McCarthy-era attacks on the leftist tilt of the press and higher education fore- shadowed much of the present conservative program. “Although his name is forgotten by most today,” Moser writes, “the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Spectator, Rush Limbaugh, and countless other institutions on the right owe a debt of gratitude to a liberal
writer named John T. Flynn.” But if all this is true, why has such a seminal figure been so thoroughly forgotten? Flynn himself may not have been the victim of damnatio memoriae, but what he stood for has indeed been blotted out of conservatism’s consciousness.
The chief weakness of Right Turn is that Moser never argues a forceful case, not even with respect to what he tells the reader is his central thesis: namely, that Flynn held consistently to the values of middle-class progressivism. The evidence Moser presents suggests other- wise: By the end of his life, Flynn’s opposition to war and the imperial presidency had converted him into something more like a classical liberal—a man who called his enemy “the socialist welfare state.” Similarly, connecting Flynn’s early middle-class progressivism and faith in expert social science to his later sympathy for McCarthy presents some difficulty. Moser gives us a compelling narrative of Flynn’s development, but he leaves too much of his analysis unsaid.
Right Turn is nonetheless an impressive contribution to the study of 20th-century political thought. Moser’s chapters on America First and the Smear Bund are a valuable supplement to the work of Justus Doenecke, and these pages contain much vital material on the intellectual tumult of modern liberalism and conservatism in their formative years. Most of all, though, John T. Flynn is a subject richly deserving of a scholarly and readable biography, and, thanks to John E. Moser, he now has one.
[Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism, by John E. Moser (New York: New York University Press) 277 pp., $45.00]
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