For some 73 years, since November 1914, The New Republic has been the self-constructed soapbox for the best ideas and insights proffered by the liberal intellectual community (which may explain why the magazine is always so thin). Some of the most important names in American liberalism have graced the magazine’s pages as it has laid out its plan for a new America.

What exactly has been that plan? In his new book examining the first 25 years of TNR, David Seideman, who worked at TNR from 1979 to 1986 and edited the magazine’s special 70th anniversary issue in 1984, explains in the Preface:

In the first half of the 20th century, the forward momentum of U.S. history seemed stalled. The previous century’s scattered and diffused economic and political institutions proved ill-equipped to master the complexities of the modern industrial age. The traditional liberal principles of individual rights and natural freedom impeded national progress. During both active and dormant areas, TNR guided the United States away from self-reliance and laissez-faire and toward collective identity through the active intervention of the state.

So far from expressing any remorse for the abridgment of liberties, Seideman continues, “No cause was ever as tirelessly and faithfully championed as social justice, a keystone for reform and civilized societies in the modern age. TNR‘s editors believed a stronger central government was the means by which social justice could exist.” Seideman makes it clear that for the early editors of TNR, the Soviet Union under Lenin and the younger Stalin would be the paradigm for those “civilized societies in the modern age.”

As much as anything. The New Republic is an examination of the personalities and ideas that helped create the magazine. The magazine’s financial backers were Dorothy and Willard Straight. The daughter of the very wealthy William C. Whitney, who made a bundle in streetcar lines and investments in Standard Oil, heiress Dorothy had more humanitarian concerns. Willard had a personal apprenticeship with Teddy Roosevelt before joining the J.P. Morgan firm.

With their vast accumulation of wealth, the Straights decided to back a magazine which would promote the distribution of wealth (everybody else’s wealth) to the less fortunate or less productive members of society. (It’s a pattern that would appear again and again in 20th-century America.) Herbert Croly was to be the editor of the weekly magazine while Walter Weyl, Walter Lippmann, and others would be added later. Eventually, it would sport Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Bruce Bliven, and economist George Soule.

In its first issue, the editors proclaimed that “TNR is frankly an experiment, it is an attempt to find a national audience for a journal of opinion.” While not entirely new, issues and ideas journalism was to have a major impact on the publishing industry.

In an attempt to stress independence, the various editors were permitted to express their opinions freely, an action which sometimes led to clashes. In an effort to draw national attention, they called on the biggest names they could find. A partial but revealing list of the contributors includes John Dewey, Charles Beard (the historian who saw the U.S. Constitution as a huge money-making scam), and the indefatigable John Reed (the only American buried in the Kremlin wall).

When this “progressive” hodgepodge of a magazine began appearing in print, it was received with mixed emotions. The magazine was not quite leftish enough for the real radicals, and, in the opinion of Willard Straight, it was a little too high-brow for almost everyone else. The magazine, he complained, was filled with too much opinion and not enough fact. ‘Tighten up the tone of the paper and give it a sugar-coating to get it across even with the semi-intelligent reader.” It is tempting to suggest that the editors took Straight’s advice by appealing to the “semi-intelligent” progressives who constitute the major part of the magazine’s readership. In looking back over the early issues, it is interesting to compare the editorial wisdom with the actual course of events. TNR had been appearing for three years when the October Revolution of 1917 occurred. Many of the stated goals of the Communists were in harmony with American progressives and liberals. For over 20 years, TNR would be a defender of the revolution, and despite its close connections with Teddy Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson and even later FDR (after first denouncing him as too conservative), the magazine would also recommend Communist candidate Earl Browder for President in 1936.

The author recognizes this close ideological affinity, and, though he contends that the Communist Party never directly influenced the magazine’s editorial position, he admits that “its unabashed romance with the Soviet Union attached it firmly to the party line in the international sphere.” One of the less savory episodes in the romance came during Stalin’s show trials. (You can find the back issues in any good library, and microfilm will preserve their infamy down to the last days.) TNR managing editor Bruce Bliven was a little concerned about the political impact Stalin’s actions were having on the Communist cause worldwide. In “A Letter to Stalin” published in TNR on March 30, 1938, Bliven makes several suggestions.

“Soviet court procedure in most types of trials is admirable,” Bliven states, but he suggests that Stalin use a style more compatible with the Anglo- Saxon and Roman tradition. “It may be unjust of the Americans, for example, to suspect that torture is used in these eases; but in the United States there is a nationwide and long continued tradition of police brutality, of extorting confessions by torture in every sort of case from petty larceny to murder. It is inevitable that this country should look with suspicion upon confessions obtained in secret hearings, however plausible these confessions may be on their face.” Bliven also suggests that Stalin “publish every scrap of documentary evidence” in order to vindicate his integrity, that he abolish the death penalty (that’s some suggestion for one of the world’s greatest mass murderers), and that he create a “legal Opposition.”

Bliven concludes with a revealing statement. “I am profoundly convinced that nothing you could do for the USSR by remaining in office for a length of time could be as great a service as the demonstration that among 190,000,000 comrades no one is indispensable, that those foreign critics who lump together ‘Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini’ have been altogether wrong.”

Fortunately, the magazine would come to lament its former position on the Soviet government. It would have to do some more lamenting in the future. In the 80’s, of course. The New Republic moved a tad to the right, by its own admission. If it did not learn from Stalin, and it did not learn from Mao, the magazine finally learned something from Ho. In an issue dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, some of the editors regretted that they took the wrong side on the Vietnam problem.

It’s a little late, now that freedom is gone, and millions have been reeducated to their graves. As a leading journal of opinion opposing the war and a supporter of McGovern, TNR must bear a good deal of the moral responsibility.

In repentance, perhaps, the magazine did a long and well-reasoned piece on the foolishness of our agricultural policy, and Fred Barnes wrote a scathing article on National Public Radio’s news program All Things Considered, entitled “All Things Distorted.”

Experience keeps a dear school, as Poor Richard advised, and the “fools” at TNR have learned a few hard lessons. But instead of saying “I’m sorry” and shutting up (and shutting down), they continue to advise Americans on everything under the sun. The President’s recent misadventures over Iran and the contras—about which TNR is sputtering in uncontrollable indignation—proceeded according to a script which might have been written by the magazine’s global democrats. On most social and ethical questions, the present magazine is worse than its com-symp predecessors. Gay rights, pornography, and stuffy avant-garde novelists were not exactly Herbert Croly’s cup of tea. TNR may have moved to the right on some issues, but on most questions it is as wrong as it ever was.


[The New Republic: A Voice of Modem Liberalism, by David Seideman (New York: Praeger Publishers) $32.95]