Surprisingly enough, in many ways journalist and commentator John T. Flynn was a typical progressive. Long a figure of prominence on the American right, he was not politically active in the time of Woodrow Wilson, whose domestic policies he much admired. He did, however, first gain prominence as a muckraker denouncing the financial chicanery of Wall Street. From 1930 to 1940, he contributed a weekly column for the reformist New Republic, which involved exposes of investment trusts and manipulation in securities. The very title of his column, “Other People’s Money,” came from a book by prominent Wilsonian jurist Louis Brandeis and was used with Brandeis’s permission. In the 30’s, Flynn helped staff Senate investigations of Wall Street and of the munitions industry, the latter best known as the Nye committee. Like many old progressives, Flynn quickly soured on much of the New Deal, finally accusing it of seeking to impose a corporate state upon the United States. As World War II approached, Flynn became an ardent anti-interventionist, heading the semiautonomous New York chapter of the America First Committee. Like such other old progressives as publisher William Randolph Hearst and publicist George Creel, Flynn moved sharply to the right. Indeed, during his later years, he was an ardent defender of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Flynn was a quintessential progressive not only in his political odyssey but in his distinction between appearance and reality. As noted by Richard Hofstadter in his Age of Reform (1955), to the progressive reality was “a series of unspeakable plots, personal iniquities, moral failures, which, in their totality, had come to govern American society only because the citizen had relaxed his moral vigilance.” Yet, not limiting himself to business graft and New Deal bureaucracy, Flynn thought that he had stumbled upon the major key to modern history, a “discovery” that he propounded from the late 1930’s to his death in 1964. To Flynn, the dynamics of war and revolution centered not so much on global aggrandizement, commercial domination, or the quest for power. Rather, it was the common practice of rulers to alleviate unemployment by means of massive spending, along with its accompanying debt, that made them trigger-happy. When the chips are finally called in, powers go to war, thereby creating a national emergency that gives their regimes a new lease on life and justifies even greater spending in the name of survival. The price: inevitable economic collapse once the conflict is over. Flynn combined this theory with a belief in what historian Eric F. Goldman called “The Great Conspiracy,” the belief that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors, together with assorted intellectuals, betrayed the nation by manipulating American policy to strengthen world communism.

The material in Forgotten Lessons is very much in this mold. Here the essays focus on many of Flynn’s favorite enemies: the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which he saw rooted in business’s effort to restrain competition; the massive spending policies of Harry Hopkins, New Dealer par excellence; the economic booms produced by World War II and the Cold War; those “eggheads” from Plato to Henry Wallace who advocated collectivism under the innocent guise of “social planning”; the United Nations, which Flynn saw as a device to manipulate the United States into preserving the British Empire. Compiler Gregory P. Pavlik, who also edits The Freeman, contributes a most appreciative introduction.

Occasionally in these essays, Flynn’s old-time “radicalism” comes through. The social welfare movement, he wrote in 1939, “did an immense amount of good.” Hopkins, who directed the much-criticized Work Projects Administration, was “an able administrator” who “has done a good job in a most difficult role under the most trying conditions.” In 1949, Flynn claimed that in times of depression government borrowing of idle money for public works was “a completely sound device.” Herbert Hoover himself, Flynn said in 1955, had correctly warned in the 1920’s about “the wild stock speculations, easy credit, bad banking practices, abuses of the corporate system.” At other times Flynn is the prototypical McCarthyite, his gift for innuendo symbolized by the word “strange” whenever he wants to imply conspiracy without evidence. Thus it was “strange” that key Roosevelt advisors were not informed of Henry Morgenthau’s plan to cripple Germany until after FDR had approved it at the 1944 Quebec Conference. Joe McCarthy was simply “a man who doesn’t think they [communists] should hold jobs—particularly important jobs—in the government.”

The reader is spared much of Flynn’s early “liberalism.” In 1933, he claimed the nation desperately needed a planned society “organized not for economic war, but for economic cooperation, with a national mechanism to control production and distribution, money, wages, and profit.” In the period 1933-1935, Flynn favored a battery of federal legislation: self-liquidating government loans to construct low-cost homes, a federal “security wage” law for the unemployed and aged, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1936, he endorsed Socialist Norman Thomas for President. In 1940, he called the Federal Bureau of Investigation “a Gestapo.”

Nor does the reader catch the full impact of the later Flynn. In 1945, he accused Roosevelt of seeking a back door to war by deliberately concealing vital information from American commanders in Hawaii. Though Flynn’s America First Committee was called a “Nazi transmission belt” and he himself was suddenly dropped from some prominent journals in the early 40’s, Flynn did not really express outrage over the character assassination of others. In 1949, he called the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee “a monument to their vision and their patriotism” and claimed that noted American missionary E. Stanley Jones preached “the glory of Red Christianity.” Almost all publicity given outrages against Southern blacks was due to “the propaganda agencies of the Communist trouble-makers.” In 1951, he wrote, “We launched the great enterprise of turning over more than half the world to the Communist tyranny.” The China Lobby seldom found a more ardent exponent than John T. Flynn. In short, Flynn and his politics remain more complex than the picture presented in Forgotten Lessons. Unfortunately our best work on Flynn is an excellent but long-neglected doctoral thesis, Richard Clark Frey, Jr.’s “John T. Flynn and the United States in Crisis, 1928-1950” (University of Oregon, 1969), If Pavlik’s anthology can renew interest in the entire corpus of Flynn’s work, we can understand an entire state of mind far too neglected by historians.


[Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, edited by Gregory P. Pavlik (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education) 199 pp., $14.95]