From the June 1988 issue of Chronicles.
The Present Age begins with the First World War, the Great War as it is deservedly still known. No war ever began more jubilantly, among all classes and generations, the last including the young generation that had to fight it. It is said that when Viscount Grey, British Foreign Minister, uttered his epitaph of the war on the evening of August 3, 1914—”The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”—he could scarcely be heard by those sitting in his office because of the loud cheers on the street outside the building. From the beginning it was a cheering and also singing war; only after a year of devastating trench warfare did the cheers begin to subside.
In Europe the war ended, in November 1918, in somber hue. Twelve million European soldiers had been killed, 25 million wounded, and vast areas, along with their churches, halls, and houses, devastated. Every conceivable horror of war was perpetrated by both sides. “When it was all over,” wrote Churchill just after the war, “Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian States had been able to deny themselves, and they were of doubtful utility.”
An unknown German named Oswald Spengler had spent the war in his hometown writing The Decline of the West. Freshly published copies festooned bookstore windows for the edification of the defeated German soldiers straggling home. It was by no means the only grim epitaph of the Great War. Such works as The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, Desert of Love, Under Fire, The Waste Land, Goodbye to All That, and Brave New World attested to the impact of what had been fundamentally a civil war, one strongly tinctured by religious moralism that made it a war of total Good against total Evil for the duration. Possibly no war in history has ever had more striking consequences: the Seventy-Four Years War, perhaps yet to be the West’s second Hundred Years War; the novel and persistent totalitarian state; permanent, state-managed terror against the innocent; and the Third World, that part of it, at least, composed of the disjecta membra of the old European empires.
When we turn to America, as I now do for the rest of the lecture, the scene changes vastly. No nation ever had a better war than America did with the Great War. We were combatant for a little over a year. Not a shell or bomb fell on American soil. We prospered economically, our losses in battle were small. But that notwithstanding the American experience was at once shocking and joyful. For about two years it was as though some powerful demigod had amused himself turning America upside down in its government.
Prior to 1917 we were the most decentralized, dispersed, regionalized, and localized government to be found among the great nations of Western society. What with those features of our government plus the rigorous separation of powers in the Constitution and the vast number of rights and powers left to the component states, it is no wonder that European scholars and statesmen—Lord Bryce, who loved America, among them—denied that the United States had a true sovereign or, as Bryce put it, “a Theory of the State.”
Within weeks of declaration of war on Germany in early April 1917, all this was being changed, transformed. Overnight America became a highly centralized, collectivized war state, virtually a total state. In an extraordinary series of acts. Congress turned the government, and also economy and social order of the United States, over to President Wilson and his war government. The railroads, telegraph, mines, munition factories, shipping lines were all immediately nationalized. A War Industries Board was given total power over the production areas of the economy. A War Labor Policies Board was established, a Food Administration.
That was only the beginning. Believing that the hearts and minds of the people were vital to his great war design, Wilson, working through his personally chosen aide, George Creel, set up a national corps of Four-Minute Men, 75,000 strong before the war ended. Each was empowered to enter any public meeting, including church services, without invitation, and to speak for about four minutes on the purposes of the American war against the German. Beyond this, more than a million so-called Neighborhood Watchers were recruited to serve without pay, or even official identification in most cases, to serve quite literally as spies or monitors upon their own neighborhoods; this, of course, to pick up any possibly disloyal remarks from the neighbors. As Samuel Morrison writes, it “was a wonderful opportunity to bring patriotism to the aid of neighborhood feuds and personal grudges.”
In 1917, at Wilson’s request, Congress passed the Espionage Act which banned certain types of speech in the interest of military recruitment under the draft. The following year, also at Wilson’s request, Congress passed the Espionage Act under which Victor Berger, the first socialist ever elected to Congress, and the notable labor leader Eugene Debs were sent for long sentences to federal prisons for publicly questioning American entrance into the war. The Palmer Raids in 1919, raids without warrant by the Attorney General, were only extensions of invasions of offices and homes which had begun in late 1917. Prior censorship of the press was considered by Wilson and his aides but, anticipating furor from publishers, scrapped in favor of a law empowering the Postmaster General to open all second- and third-class mail and instigate charges against publishers of newspapers and magazines containing disloyal and seditious material. All over America schoolbooks were examined by local, mostly self-appointed committees for possible harboring of songs, poems, stories, and essays by German authors, no matter how far back in time they may have been or how distinguished.
To this day it is unclear why President Wilson instituted so thorough, so total, a war government and encouraged widest possible direct citizen action. He was aware of what he was doing: “It is not an army we must shape,” he declared shortly after declaration of war; “it is a nation.” But why shape an entire nation, why the manifest overkill in simply meeting war needs? The barrage of propaganda from the government was mild in World War ll compared with the First World War. Again, why? It is hard not to suppose that Wilson was engaged by intent in two wars: the first, the war against Germany; the second, a war against what were to his mind the cultural and linguistic, perhaps even genetic impurities which had entered his beloved “city as on a hill” with the vast waves of immigration from both Eastern Europe and Asia. Theodore Roosevelt had been voluble in his dislike of what he called “hyphenated Americans” and Wilson appears to have shared T.R.’s distaste and also passion to see the fabled melting pot bubbling away at high heat. The almost fanatical search for German spies in America, for ordinary pro-Germans indeed, may have covered a fear and distrust of all the newly arrived in America. This was the age par excellence in America for eugenics groups concerned with purity of American blood and also for Americanist societies equally concerned with purity of ideas and allegiance.
Congress of course settled everything beginning in early 1919 by scuttling in record time the whole apparatus of the war state. It was not long before Army-Navy Stores were, blossoming in every community and meatless Tuesdays were abandoned, and the last of the anti-Kaiser posters eroded away by weather, though a full decade would be required for the retirement of Liberty Steak and return of hamburger. All of this was theoretically what every American had been impatiently waiting for, the end of war restrictions, of Four-Minute Men with their insufferable pomposities, of Neighborhood Watchers snooping around, relaying gossip, of the ridiculous but patriotic glass bowls in every living room gathering the tinfoil from chewing-gum packages, and all that.
But within a year many Americans found themselves perversely missing the war and the Great Crusade. Peace was by no means an unqualified blessing. Inflation—or HCL as it was then popularly called, “high cost of living”—was murderous. Employment had been steady and well-paid during the war when cost-plus contracts were common. Profits had been good; several thousand millionaires were made by the war. There had been salutary economic and social reforms under the pressure of supporting the war. There had been less discrimination against minorities. Women, by virtue of taking the places of men called to service, were in the limelight as never before. That fact together with the sharply diminished role of hard liquor during the war surely helped the causes of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the 19th a year later.
Other aspects of the war on the home front were also missed: the moral crusade and all its appurtenances had been collectively fulfilling. The First World War was a singing war, in trenches and home front alike, as the Second World War was emphatically not. There were the spirited parades at home, the familiar sight of Our Boys in uniform waiting to go Over There, the bond rallies with all one’s favorite stars of Hollywood and Broadway, lots of spontaneous noise. There was one stillness, though, that almost everyone noticed and liked: the stillness of an atmosphere purged of strikes and lockouts and of the bitter acrimony of intervention versus isolation in the war. Instead there was something of what the English philosopher, L.P. Jacks, called “the spiritual peace that war brings.”
The truth, the poignant truth, was that America was feeling a sense of national unity, of cohesion, and of single-mindedness it never had felt in its history: not in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, not in the period leading up to and then following the bloody Civil War. Southerner and Northerner, Easterner and Westerner were brought together in one national army, fighting not each other but a common, hated enemy. We were engaged in the Great Crusade, and we fought, unlike some of our European Allies, for morality, for democracy made safe in the world, not for crass reasons of mere national interest. National war brought, as it so often has in modern times, the sense of war community and also national community. People liked it.
A second major collective experience for Americans in the Great War, one also the subject of frequent editorials and magazine articles, was the immense reinforcement given to the American idea of progress. Bryce had commented, in a whole chapter, on what he called the Fatalism of the Multitude in America, the ingrained conviction that America was exceptional, was the mighty creature of a fated destiny denied other countries in the world. Bryce said that it was no Tyranny of the Majority, as Tocqueville had claimed, which made for a certain uniformity of American thought, a distinct unwillingness to buck public opinion, but rather a sense that whatever was happening was a part of a great destiny that was unique to America and not to be opposed lightly.
The war gave immense impetus to this conviction. Before the war was even finished, there was a national sense that the Americans, Our Boys, Over There, were the true winners of the holy war against the Beast of Berlin. That American entrance into the war made a difference is not to be denied. But that Our Boys possessed a native Know How, Can Do, and No Fault in battle, outstandingly superior to European soldiers was, well, a little something else. Still, Mark Twain had prepared Americans for this feeling of inherent, ingrained superiority to the Europeans in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Innocents Abroad in which, with side-slapping humor, he demonstrated how American homespun had it all over monarchical valor. The American people loved it, and when a good war came along like that of 1917-1918, it was a good time for dilating once again on the native genius of Americans.
Thus the appearance of the Great American Myth in 1918: that Our Boys—with minimum training in the camps, with short notice, unfamiliarity with the topography of Flanders Fields—had nevertheless outfought man to man the German and also the Allied soldiers. I have no difficulty whatever in remembering conversations among elders which would begin as follows: “The reason Our Boys were so superior to European soldiers was …” and then would follow any one of a dozen possible reasons ranging from the fact that they fought with the strength of 10 because their hearts were pure all the way to the alleged fact that all of Our Boys grew up on farms where they not only had good fresh milk and eggs but also, from boyhood, squirrel rifles which made them expert riflemen before they were out of high school. The European fuddy-duddies just didn’t have a chance. (May I say parenthetically here, if you don’t believe me, do, as I did nostalgically some years ago, go to bound volumes of some of the most popular magazines of wartime and through the 1920’s, such as: The Literary Digest, Everybody’s, American, The Saturday Evening Post, Review of Reviews, and for the young at the time, American Boy and Youth’s Companion. But there were many others.)
It was, to repeat, a good war for America; good politically, or so it was widely felt; good economically; and good psychologically, spiritually. America was at last inside modernity; it had in effect been dragged in by the Wilson war government and by the sheer impact of the war on traditional American values. Not again would the United States be as culturally separated from the rest of the world, as intellectually parochial.
The pores of American society had been opened. A new kind of individualism was to be seen; directed not against the national government as of yore but against the moral codes of family, local community, and church. There was greater informality in public; language became less formal, less stilted. Dress for both sexes relaxed considerably in its prewar dictates. Gin flowed in the 20’s, flappers were endlessly photographed, cigarettes omnipresent, and, Freud having become popular, much discussion of repressions, complexes, and the relativity of morals.
So did the idea of progress flourish in the 20’s. It may have become moribund in Europe after the war and its devastating assault there, but not in America—neither among intellectuals nor the laity. Marxism, which, like Freudianism, was permeating intellectual life in the 20’s, had its guarantee of progress for the proletariat at least, provided a little blood was spilled at the barricades; liberals were still ringing changes on Herbert Groly’s prewar book title, The Promise of American Life; and as far as the ordinary American was concerned, plaques hung from countless walls, at office and in home with the words “Don’t Knock Progress.” To help out, the French exported, no doubt gladly, Coueism to America, and millions could be heard, privately or publicly, repeating: “Day by day in every way I am becoming better and better.”
As if to confirm the reality of progress in America, a cultural renaissance took place in the 20’s; a genuine renaissance. Some wars seem to produce cultural renaissances. There were the Persian Wars at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. in Greece, the later Punic Wars out of which came Rome’s grandeur, the Spanish war preceding and attending England’s Age of Elizabeth, and so on. There is certainly nothing automatic or foreordained about war and cultural renaissance, but the larger truth is that there has been a reasonably close relation throughout history between war and civilization just as between war and the state. The hold that war and its disciplines have upon the individual can’t help but lessen the weight of old and possibly constricting conventions and thus liberate the creative mind for at least a short period. Ever since the French Enlightenment, when so many philosophes were writing their plans for perpetual peace, war has had a bad press. Perhaps today in the nuclear age, it’s better that way. But it is indisputable in comparative history that wars and civilization’s advances—its spurts—are closely connected.
The 1920’s was technologically resplendent, of course, with the automobile and radio making immense changes in social and cultural respects. But equally notable was the eruption of genius and high talent in the arts. The 20’s was the best decade for the creative imagination since the 1850’s (when Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman produced their classics): in the novel, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Dreiser, and many others of like talent; in poetry, Wallace Stevens, Frost, Robinson, Williams, and living abroad mostly, Eliot and Pound. Mencken was at his height; so was O’Neill in the drama. And nowhere did renaissance lights shine more brilliantly than in jazz and in the film, in each of which America commenced a world influence that has only recently shown signs of waning. Finally, it was in the 20’s that America found its civil religion, in sports and in icons of the Ruths, Cobbs, Dempseys, Granges, and others—names which seem still to come trippingly off the tongue.
I turn now to another aspect of the 20’s, one that I shall stay with for the rest of the lecture. This was the decade in which the political intellectual, what the French call the politique, made his arresting entry into American culture, and with him an idea that would remain lustrous for all the years down to the present moment: the idea of the national, political community; a national community to replace what were perceived as moribund forms of community such as the family, local community, church, and so on.
It is useful to point out first, though, that the political intellectual of the 20’s had his predecessor in the war intellectual of 1917-1918. President Wilson was nothing if not a political intellectual himself, and, as I have already suggested, seeing the war as he so ardently did, as a struggle for American minds and America herself in need of afflatus, he brought to his government artists, novelists, journalists, academic scholars, and others who, without being forced to depart their accustomed places in the world of arts and letters, could yet aid the war effort by simply turning their talents to the cause of the war against Germany. Individuals of the stature of John Dewey, Isaiah Bowman, Guy Stanton Ford, Carl Becker among academics; Walter Lippmann from journalism; Samuel Hopkins Adams, novelist; and Joseph Pennell, artist; all presented arms with pen and brush.
A group of about 30 scholars and journalists and some businessmen met through much of the war secretly in the basement at nights of the old American Geographical Society building, there to help, at the President’s strong request, in preparing the government for the eventual peace table. Here drafts of the Fourteen Points were prepared, with Lippmann having a particularly influential role here.
The emergence in numbers of the political intellectual in the 1920’s was thus yet another consequence in some degree of the Great War. It was a kind of clerisy, a political clerisy, that emerged in behalf of the provident state. There were Dewey, Charles Beard, Charles Merriam (who had worked closely and confidentially with President Wilson during the war) among academics. Outside the academy, and profoundly influential, were the likes of Lippmann, Lewis Mumford, Herbert Croly, Waldo Frank, Stuart Chase, Oswald Villard of The Nation, Harold Laski—English, but closely affiliated with American interests and issues.
Few of these knew each other personally. Yet, taken together, they constituted a clerisy, a political clerisy, its sworn objective that of reforming the American political community. All of them had been connected in one way or other with the Great War; all were sensitively aware of the change that had come over Americans, however briefly, during the war, a change, as I have noted, that comprised a deep sense of war community and an equally poignant awareness of American progress, American fatalism, destiny, future fulfillment. Both the war community and the American fatalism were charged with the moral dimension.
To the political minds I am referring to, it seemed a pity for America to lose its sense of moral community and progress. Why not create, as William James had recommended, a moral equivalent of war in order to enjoy and thrive on the virtues of war? John Dewey expressed himself positively on this: much, he thought, of the Great War would hang on. It was indeed Dewey’s call to action for something larger than scholarship and philosophy in the academy.
Dewey had long been obsessed by the idea of community. A staunch Hegelian before he worked his way to pragmatism, he seems to have absorbed permanently the idea of the Hegelian national community as set forth in Philosophy of Right and other major works. He never forgot his native rural Vermont, nor did he ever return to rural America. He was a product of great nationally minded universities: Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Chicago, and finally Columbia. Dewey preceded Charles Horton Cooley by 10 years in the teaching of community at the University of Michigan. When he transferred to Chicago, he commenced a series of experiments in the construction of the ideal classroom. His constant predicate was community, and he described the school as, ideally, a “miniature community.”
In the 1920’s, by then in New York, Dewey published his Individualism Old and New. The key to the book lies in a long chapter tided “The Lost Individual.” There was also his seminal The Public and Its Problems, which became a veritable charter to the new clerisy. Democracy he defined here as “the idea of community itself” He cites Woodrow Wilson’s The New Freedom: “Everywhere . . . relationships are largely great impersonal concerns, with organizations, not with other individuals.” What must be done, Dewey asks in a long chapter titled “Search for the Great Community”: “What are the conditions under which it is possible for the Great Society to approach more closely and vitally the status of the Great Community, and thus take form in genuinely democratic societies and states?”
There we have, superbly stated, evocatively and almost thrillingly, a theme, a quest, that has remained important in the American reform canon from John Dewey and Walter Lippmann through Franklin Roosevelt down to Governor Cuomo. How, in a word, to convert society into community. Community is a loaded word. The Romans wisely placed communis (the root of Communitas) in a different declension from socius (the root of societas). Never the twain shall meet, said the wise patres conscripti, as if to warn: You can call a camel a horse, but that does not make it one. You can twist rhetorically society, the great society, into a community, but that doesn’t make it one. The fact that a national war—which has but one objective, destruction of the enemy—brings disparate groups and classes into the feeling of community, but only in respect to one purpose, the war and defeating the enemy, doesn’t mean that a multipurpose, a hydra-valued and myriad-interest society in peace can be molded, like a twist of dough in a bakery, into a community. So might the Roman Fathers have wisely said.
But not our American Fathers in the 20’s. It was to be Great Community instead of Great Society. Beginning early in the 20’s the catch-question “We Planned in War, Why Not in Peace?” was to be found in more and more books, journals, and lectures. The memory of the Great War and its venture into national community served advocates of a corporate state, a socialist state, a national community more abundantly than did the tracts and treatises from Europe on these matters.
It is interesting to see how synchronously the literary and the philosophical sections of the 20’s cultural efflorescence worked together in the quest for national community. It was almost as though an invisible conductor presided with baton over the scene. Dewey, Lippmann, and Croly offered philosophical arguments to the effect that all older forms of community were moribund, thus making national community imperative. With a wave of his baton the invisible conductor brought such mighty literary talents as Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Ellen Glasgow into action. They, in novel, short story, and poem, in Main Street, Winesburg, Ohio, and Spoon River Anthology concurred enthusiastically with the philosophical section. Yes, the American small town and its family, church, and neighborhoods were all moribund, suffocating, tyrannizing, over their Carol Kennicotts and George Babbits. Ecrasez l’infâme.
And, almost as though activated by a baton, came an answering, or conjoining, threnody of how bad things are in the city too. The city was the place of broken dreams, of frustrated pilgrims, of empty lives, of vast financial networks of power engaged in rebutting individuals of talent, sentencing the whole population to anonymity bordering on death. Dreiser, Dos Passos, Hart Crane were among those who painted the great cities in these lines and colors, but there were many others in the 20’s, and of comparable genius.
The individual was, as Dewey and others iterated and reiterated. Lost; Lost in either the stupefyingly dull and banal small town or else lost in the thoroughfares of Metropolis. Lost, alienated, estranged, in need of—and now our invisible conductor has called for the horns of the politiques which respond instantly in a timely diapason representing the answer: community, but the Great Community of the entire nation; nothing intermediate, nothing less!
One wonders whether a single reader of the best-selling literature in the 1920’s on the tyrannical, mindless village or small town, on the frightening anonymity and soullessness of the city—say, San Francisco, St. Louis, or even Chicago and New York—and the Lost Individual as well as the Lost Generation, ever stopped in his or her reading long enough to wonder whether or in what measure there was any real verisimilitude in the author’s stereotypes? Probably not. Such is the power of a plausible ideal type; and such is the power of the writing classes over the reading classes.
The political clerisy I describe was, through the 1920’s at least, remarkably free of the party ideologies which would become clamant in the 30’s and thereafter. Before the onset of the Depression, Herbert Hoover had the high respect of many who wanted to see the state, with the help of the learned and the administratively wise, become a community. Reading the Deweys, Mumfords, Chases, and Lippmanns as they wrote in the 20’s, one is not particularly struck by the ideology in the ordinary sense. The clerisy in the beginning sought to be transideological if not quite transpolitical.
The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt helped change much of that. But it also brought out in sharp relief the continuing theme of the national community and also memory of the Great War. It is generally agreed that Marxists, Keynesians, and Fabians had little if any influence on the structure and theory of the New Deal. There was, after all, never a theory of the New Deal to be influenced.
The New Deal was an exhumation of World War I structures in the first place and thereafter helter-skelter adaptations, readaptations, and patchings-up of the various structures brought into being. Nothing worked so far as the essentials of the Depression were involved. After a flicker of hope in 1937, there was a recession that put things back to almost 1932 status. In the end it was World War II that ended the Great Depression.
What did succeed, more or less, though, in a pragmatic way, was the creation by Roosevelt and his aides of a war community without armed war and sedition acts. Without loss of time, the New Deal began in the resurrection of the old War Industries Board, the Labor Board, the various agricultural and pricing commissions of World War I. Some of the principals of the Great War came back to man the New Deal boards and commissions, among them Bernard Baruch, Hugh Johnson, and Herbert Bayard Swope. Above all, the centralization that had characterized Wilson’s war government characterized FDR’s depression government. Roosevelt used the imagery of war often in his speeches and didn’t hesitate to liken himself to general and the American people to an army. Everywhere, he suggested, discipline was needed. As William Schambra of the American Enterprise Institute has noted in an illuminating paper, Roosevelt specifically likened his work to that of making the nation the substitute for the old and now archaic community of the village and the neighborhood. Said FDR: “We have been extending to our national life the old principles of the local community . . . the many are the neighbors. . . . Nationally we must think of them as a whole and not just by sections or by states.” Or, Roosevelt might have added, by families, towns, churches, cooperatives, and mutual aid groups. For in practice he disdained them too.
As the New Deal endured, it became more and more direct and unmediated in its thrust. New agencies for dealing with one or another aspect of the Depression tended not merely to bypass state governments and local communities, not to mention churches and other voluntary associations, but actually weaken these intermediate groups and governments. As in World War I, there were posters (the Blue Eagle!), parades, and evening marches through neighborhoods, all signaling at one and the same time the war against the Depression and the ever-present prospects of victory soon. FDR remained insouciant and also commanding in presence throughout, personalizing handsomely the centralization of state.
The Great Depression was Crisis No. 2 in the saga of America the Great Community. It meshed nicely with Crisis No. 3, which was the Second World War and which, at long last, ended the Great Depression. Roosevelt said just after Pearl Harbor that it was now time for Dr. New Deal to be replaced by Dr. Win the War; but in truth both doctors worked together throughout. In no appreciable respect was the crisis machinery created by the Depression dislodged by the onset of World War II. A continuity of crisis machinery is one of the more notable aspects of the story of the American welfare state and, more particularly, the dream of the Great Community in America.
Seemingly nothing disturbs the growth and momentum of the crisis machinery of the welfare state. Not economic prosperity; some say the welfare state grows as fast under boom as recession. A fourth crisis came along in the 1960’s, that of the war in Vietnam and on the campuses of major universities in America. For some reason President Johnson spurned Great Community as his landmark, preferring the Great Society. Perhaps an ex-schoolteacher was refusing to violate further the word Community. Community, with its powers of enchantment, is as dangerous a companion of politics as religion. We know the hazards of the latter.
The appeal of the idea of national community is undiminished in our time. The symbols and impedimenta are everywhere to be seen. Community threatens to become the battleground of politics, replacing the enemy in this respect. Community is more siren-like, more seductive than economic growth and the size of budget deficits. To be sure, in some minds the goal of national community includes the great corporations, as in some of the presentations of Felix Rohatyn, Robert Reich, and the New York Review. Governor Cuomo was presumably not excluding the corporate giants from the American national family he described in San Francisco before the Democratic Co