John T. Flynn (1882-1964) was a pugnacious little man (John Moser reports that he stood well under six feet and that “his adult weight was around 140 pounds”), a stereotypical feisty Irishman, with the Irishman’s proverbial gift of gab and blarney (9). He “had a hot temper,” Moser tells us, and was both “quick to take umbrage at personal slights and seldom prepared to submit to authority;” Moreover, “[h]e could hold a grudge for years” (5). It was not infrequent for those observing him in argument to become “alarmed by the sight of his red face and bulging veins.” But any observer who expressed concern for Flynn’s health at such times would quickly discover that remarks about high blood pressure “served only to make him angrier” (6).
Still, there was that undeniable gift of gab and blarney. Moser acknowledges that “[t]he name of John T. Flynn might be unfamiliar today, but it would have been readily recognizable to any American who followed public affairs from the late 1920s through the 1950s. As a newspaper columnist, free-lance magazine writer, best-selling author, and widely recognized expert on economics, finance, politics, and foreign affairs, his words were read by millions” (1). Indeed, as Moser says, “Flynn was an extremely prolific author, having to his credit no fewer than nineteen books and thousands of articles. In addition to his weekly column in the New Republic [Other People’s Money], which he had for nearly ten years, he also wrote for much of his career a daily newspaper column, one that eventually appeared in all the papers of the Scripps- Howard chain. On top of that, on and off during the 1930s and early 1940s and consistently in the late 1940s and 1950s, he had a weekly radio program” (5).
That weekly 15-minute program, “Behind the Headlines,” was a big success. In the end, it “brought Flynn’S words to a much larger audience than ever before.” By “the end of 1949,” Moser tells us, “the program was being carried on fifty-six stations, including all forty-five affiliates of the Mutual Network” (174). “By the autumn of 1952, Flynn was being heard on 362 stations,” and “[h]e gleefully reported that it took I a corps of clerks’ just to go through his fan mail, one hundred to five hundred pieces of which arrived each day” (189).
And what sort of message was it that Flynn delivered with such passion to his vast audience? Opposition to the New Deal was a big part of it, certainly, followed by opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II and opposition to U.S. participation in the Cold War – these were Flynn’S major themes for 30 years. And the New Deal was a liberal program, right? And it was liberal Democrats under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and, later, Harry Truman, that involved the United States in both World War II and the Cold War, right? And the opposition to all this came from conservatives, conservative Republicans, right? So Flynn must have been a conservative, right?
Not so fast, there. “To the end of his life,” Moser writes, Flynn “never referred to himself as anything but a
Flynn was a liberal – a man of the Left – .and he remained one for his entire career. It was the American political climate that changed, not he.
liberal – but in the words of Michele Flynn Stenehjem, he was a ‘liberal betrayed.’ Flynn claimed that it was the American political climate that changed during his lifetime, not he. Indeed, he believed that the very term liberal had been hijacked;. as he wrote. to New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank in 1940, ‘I see the standard of liberalism that I have followed all my life flying over a group of causes which, as a liberal along with all liberals, I have abhorred all my life'” (3).
In his view of this issue, Flynn was entirely correct. He was a liberal – a man of the Left – and he remained one for his entire career. It was “the American political climate that changed,” not he. Specifically, what changed was the way most people used certain words to describe political positions and stances – words like liberal and .conservative and Left and. Right. And the result was that Flynn, who had been known far and wide as a liberal and a man of the Left in the ’20s and early ’30s, ended his career as an important opinion leader on what most contemporary observers of American politics considered the far-Right – and all without having changed any of his opinions.
Or, at least, so Flynn claimed. Moser raises some legitimate objections to Flynn’s contention that his political opinions remained fully consistent throughout his career, and I intend to return to these objections in due time.
For now, though, consider. another datum – the striking number of parallel cases it is possible to find in the cultural and intellectual world of the ’30s, 40s, and ’50s. For Flynn was far from the only journalist with a national audience who began as a “liberal” and ended as a “conservative” without the need of changing any opinions. There were others.
There was H.L. Mencken, syndicated newspaper columnist and editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. There was Albert· Jay Nock, editor of The Freeman and regular contributor to The American Mercury, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. There was Garet Garrett of the· Saturday Evening Post. There was Isabel Paterson of the New York Herald Tribune.. There was Henry. Hazlitt of The American Mercury, the New York Times, and Newsweek. There was Felix Morley of the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. There was Rose Wilder· Lane, a very prolific freelancer, with articles in Harper’s,the Ladies Home Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, and Woman’s Day, and a steady stream of books, including the individualist classic “The Discovery of Freedom,” in the nation’s bookstores. All these writers were accepted members of the “Left” before 1933. Yet, without changing any of their fundamental views, all of them, over the next decade, came to be thought of as exemplars of the political “Right.”
Today, in fact, for some of the intellectual historians and journalists who write about them, they are members of something called the “Old Right.” “The Old Right,” declares Internet pundit Justin Raimondo in his 1993 book “Reclaiming the American Right,” “was that loose grouping of intellectuals, writers, publicists, and politicians who vocally opposed the New Deal and bitterly resisted U.S. entry into World War 11.” Raimondo regards John T. Flynn as the “master polemicist of the Old Right” and lists Garrett, Mencken, Nock, Lane, Paterson, Frank Chodorov, Louis Bromfield, Colonel Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, and Senator Robert Taft among its other leading lights (52/ 98).
“The intellectual leaders of this old Right of World War II and the immediate aftermath,” Murray Rothbard wrote in 1964/ “were then and remain today almost unknown among the larger body of American intellectuals: Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett.” Eight years later, Rothbard supplied a somewhat longer list: Nock, H.L. Mencken, Oswald Garrison Villard of the Nation, Francis Neilson of The Freeman, historian and Scripps Howard newspaper columnist Harry Elmer Barnes, and John T. Flynn. “It almost takes a great effort of the will,” Rothbard wrote in 1964, “to recall the. principles and. Objectives of the old Right, so different is the current Right-wing today. The stress, as we have noted, was on individual liberty in all its aspects as against state power: on. freedom of speech and action, on economic liberty, on voluntary relations as· opposed to coercion, on a peaceful foreign·· policy. The great threat to that liberty was state power, in its invasion of personal freedom and private property and in its burgeoning military despotism. Philosophically, the major emphasis was on the natural rights of man, arrived at by an investigation through reason of the laws of
At first, American liberals hewed closely enough to their individualist values to·shake off any temptation they might have felt to adopt the socialist line.
man’s nature. Historically, the intellectual heroes of the old Right were such libertarians as John Locke, the Levellers, Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Cobden, Spencer, and Bastiat.” In essence, “this libertarian Right based itself on eighteenth and nineteenth-century liberalism, and began systematically to extend that doctrine even further.
But if the leaders of this “Old Right” were extending the doctrine of liberalism even further, they must have been liberals, right? That’s what Flynn thought. Moser summarizes one of his mid-1934 New Republic columns as follows: “Liberals, he wrote, had to face facts – the president had posed as one of them, but all they could really expect from him were I sweet words with no meaning behind them'” (47). Four years later, when the “United States had taken the first steps on the path to war,” the thing that”amazed Flynn the most,” he acknowledged in another piece for the New Republic, “was that this was all taking place under I a Democratic administration supposedly in the possession of its liberal wing'” (61). Two years after that, in the late summer of 1940, in a bewildered lament to Bruce Bliven, his editor at The New Republic, Flynn plaintively characterized himself as “a liberal writer who is saying now the same thing he said five years ago and ten years ago, who is opposed to third terms for presidents, to war-mongering and militarism and conscription and corrupt political machines and vast public debt. . . . I held these views before Roosevelt was president and I have now lost my liberal credentials because I do not agree with the New York Times, the Herald-Tribune, [Secretary of War] Mr. Harry Stimson, Mr. Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie about the war” (107-108).
Flynn’S dismay is easy to understand. Opposition to state power had originally defined liberalism, while maintenance of established systems of power had long been associated with conservatism.
Eighteenth-century liberals, as Rothbard contended, managed to achieve “at least partial victories for individual liberty, laissez-faire, separation of church and state, and international peace,” through”a series of cataclysmic revolutions . . . the English Revolutions of the 17th century, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution.”4 It was, in fact, during the French Revolution, in the Legislative Assembly in the fall of 1791, that the terms Right and Left were first used in a political sense. As Will and Ariel Durant tell the story in “The Age of Napoleon,” when the assembly convened, the “substantial minority dedicated to preserving the monarchy . . . occupied the right section of the hall, and thereby gave a name to conservatives everywhere.” The liberals “sat at the left on an elevated section called the Mountain; soon they were named Montagnards.
The French Revolution also introduced a new wrinkle into liberalism, one that had extraordinarily serious implications some years down the line. The famous slogan of the French revolution – Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! – holds the key to this important new wrinkle. The idea of equality had figured in the earlier American Revolution as well, of course – didn’t Thomas Jefferson write in the Declaration of Independence that “all
During the 1932 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt tried to portray himself as a man who stood for small government and fiscal responsibility.
men are created equal”? But to Jefferson and the other American liberals, “equality” meant equality of rights, equality before the law. In France, by contrast, to more than a few of the revolutionaries, it meant much, much more than that. In the eyes of these French liberals, it was, as Ludwig von Mises summarized their view more than a hundred years later, in his book “Liberalism,” “not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them really equal, one must also allow them the same income. It is not enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property. Only then will the liberal program be completely realized, and a consistent liberalism thus leads ultimately to socialism, to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production” (29).
A good many liberals came to believe, as Lavoie says, “that a planning bureau could rationally and democratically control the cultural and economic development of society for the benefit of all”; as a result, “the ambition of the Left came to be not just the complete equality of rights, as important as that was still thought to be, but the more grandiose ideal of equality of wealth” (218).
The liberals who became ensnared by this vision of a totally egalitarian society did exactly as Mises predicted: they adopted socialism as their new ideal, and what Rothbard called “collectivistic, conservative means” of attaining it. They proposed to create conditions of freedom by the use of the hierarchical and coercive state.
The socialist apostasy, however partial, proved more popular in Europe than in America – at first. At first, American liberals hewed closely enough to their individualist values to shake off any temptation they might have felt to adopt the socialist line. Even so, as the late Arthur Ekirch contends in his classic work “The Decline of American Liberalism,” “[s]ince the time of the American Revolution, the major trend in our history has been in the direction of an ever-greater centralization and concentration of control – politically, economically, and socially. As a part of this drift toward I state capitalism’ or I socialism,’ the liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment – and especially that of individual freedom – have slowly lost their primary importance in American life and thought” (ix).
Alexander Hamilton’s program called for a national bank which, after having “received a monopoly of government business,” would “provide new capital for the business expansion that Hamilton deemed vital to United
States prosperity,” that business expansion to be protected from foreign competition by a high tariff wall (46–47). Hamilton – need it be said? – was the first great conservative in American politics. His party, the Federalist party, was the first conservative party, the first right-wing party, in American political history. As Ekirch reminds us, “the Federalists . . . pursued a constantly illiberal course during their twelve years of power” (53).
If the Federalists were the first American conservatives, the Jeffersonians were the first American liber-
Since the time of Lincoln, the Republican party had always stood for top-heavy bureaucracy, strong central government, and hefty handouts to big business.
also In his first inaugural address, Gore Vidal points out, Jefferson called for “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government . . . ” “In other words,” as Vidal puts it, “no taxes beyond a minimal levy in order to pay for a few judges, a postal service, small executive and legislative bodies.” 6 In other words, the policy prescription of a c1assicalliberal.
The twelve years of Federalist rule – the Washington and Adams administrations – were followed by 40 years of rule by Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, later the Democrats. Not a few were born, grew to maturity, and produced children of their own without ever knowing of a president or vice president who represented a different party. By the time the Democrats finally fell from power in the election of 1840, their opposition, the Federalists, had long since withered away and died.
Nineteenth-century American politics was characterized by this conflict between liberal and conservative political principles, embodied, in contests between Jeffersonian democrats, on the one hand, and, on the other, Hamiltonian federalists and their successors, the Whigs and Republicans. As historian Clyde Wilson puts it, “Apparently millions continue to harbor the strange delusion that the Republican party is the, party of free enterprise. . . . In fact, the party is and always has been the party of state capitalism. That, along with the powers and perks it provides its leaders, is the whole reason for its creation and continued existence. By state capitalism I mean a regime of highly concentrated private ownership, subsidized and protected by government. The Republican party has never, ever opposed any government interference in the free market or any government expenditure except those that might favour labour unions or threaten Big Business.”
Rothbard agrees with Clyde Wilson’s contention that the GOP was never a liberal party. “The classical liberal party throughout the nineteenth century was not the Republican, but the Democratic party,” he wrote in 1980, “which fought for minimal government, free trade, and no special privileges for business.”S Steven R.. Weisman of The New York Times sees much the same thing when he examines the historical’ record for the mid- 19th century. In’ his 2002 book “The Great Tax Wars: Lincoln to Wilson “‘- The Fierce Battles over Money and Power that Transformed the Nation,” Weisman writes that under Lincoln and the Republican party “the North’s economy rested on a kind of state capitalism of trade barriers, government-sponsored railroads, coddling of trusts, suppression of labor and public investment in canals, roads and other infastructures.”
Even as late as the 1920s, the Republican party remained the friend of interventionist government, of which the much-maligned Herbert Hoover was known as a leading exponent. During the 1932 campaign, Franklin Roosevelt tried, for purposes of public relations, to distance himself from this approach to politics. He portrayed himself as a man who stood for small government and fiscal responsibility. His platform called for “[a]n immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolish- ing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of Federal government.” It called also for “[m]aintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced” and for “[a] sound currency to be maintained at all hazards.”
Nor was this platform meant to be taken as empty rhetoric of the sort people today tend to assume is characteristic of virtually all public statements by politicians. No. As Garet Garrett of the Saturday Evening Post pointed out in 1938, “Mr. Roosevelt pledged himself to be bound by this platform as no President had ever before been bound by a party document. All during the campaign he supported it with words that could not possibly be misunderstood. He said: ‘I accuse the present
After the coming of the New Deal, both major parties were conservative parties. For the New Deal variety of “liberalism” was not liberalism at all, but conservatism.
Administration of being the greatest spending Administration in peacetime in. all American history – one which piled bureau on bureau, commission on Commission, and has failed to anticipate the dire needs or reduced earning power of the people. Bureaus and bureaucrats have been retained at the expense of the taxpayer. . . . We are spending altogether too much money for government services which are neither practical nor necessary. In addition to this, we are attempting too many functions and we need a simplification of what the Federal government is giving to the people'” (27).
Roosevelt was particularly adamant on the subject of government borrowing. As Flynn recalled years later, in his classic book “The Roosevelt Myth,” “Toward the end of the campaign he [Roosevelt] cried: ‘Stop the deficits! Stop the deficits!’ Then to impress his listeners with his inflexible purpose to deal with this prodigal monster, he said: ‘Before any man enters my cabinet he must give me a twofold pledge: Absolute loyalty to the Democratic platform and especially to its economy plank. And complete cooperation with me in looking to economy and reorganization in his department.'”
True, this new Roosevelt’s political track record was somewhat worrisome, for, as Flynn noted, “as governor [of New York] he took New York State from the hands of Al Smith with a surplus of $15,000,000 and left it with a deficit of $90,000,000” (37). On. the other hand, Flynn argued, “[t]here was nothing revolutionary in” what FDR told the voters in the election of 1932. “It was,” Flynn wrote, “actually an old-time Democratic platform based upon fairly well-accepted principles of the traditional Democratic party. That party had always denounced the tendency to strong central government, the creation of new bureaus. It had always denounced deficit financing. Its central principle of action was a minimum of government in business” (36).
By contrast, since the time of Lincoln, the Republican party had always stood for strong central government, top-heavy bureaucracy, and hefty handouts to big business. The fact that the voters had evicted a Republican from the White House and elected a Democrat surely meant that American public opinion was leaning in a more liberal direction. Or so many, including John T. Flynn, believed at the time. Of course, Franklin Roosevelt dashed all such liberal hopes within the first hundred days of his administration. Once elected, he tossed the Democratic platform of 1932 into the trash can and proceeded to show the electorate that he could play the conservative game better than any Republican. First he took Herbert Hoover’s Hamiltonian policies and enormously expanded them; then, astonishingly, he had the effrontery to describe himself and his stolen program as “liberal.”
The New Deal was, as John T. Flynn insisted while it was happening, “a form of conservatism dressed up as liberalism” (Moser 113). The “liberals” who pushed it were actually conservatives. And the members of the “Old Right” who opposed it were actually liberals. In his brief history of “the ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians,” Sheldon Richman acknowledges this. “That the [‘Old Right’] movement was placed on the right or called ‘c9nservative’ has to be regarded a qUjtk of political semantics,” he writes~.lJlna superficial sense it qualified as right-wing because it seemed to be defending the status quo from the state-sponsored egalitarian change of the New Deal. But in a deeper sense, the New Deal actually was a defense of the corporativist status quo threatened by the Great Depression. Thus the Old Right was not truly right-wing, and since that is so, it should not be bothersome that some palpable left-wingers, such as Norman Thomas and Robert La Follette, Jr., seemed at home in the Old Right.”g
Nor was the political opposition to the New Deal primarily a Republican phenomenon. Many Democratic senators and other luminaries were involved in it.lOIn fact, it was members of the Democratic party, not the Republican party, who mounted the first organized offensive against the New Deal. The first national organization opposed to the New Deal, the American Liberty League, was founded in 1934 by a group of prominent Democrats, including John W. Davis, the 1924 Democratic presidential candidate and a J.P. Morgan & Company attorney, and Al Smith, former governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate.
There were serious opponents of the New Deal in the GOP, too. But, despite Rothbard’s preposterous claim
The “Old Right” was a coalition, in which the libertarians and individualists – the true liberals – were not dominant. Any many individualists or libertarians forgot their link with liberalism.
that they were “the soul of the [Republican] party,” and represented “majority sentiment in the party,” the reality was far otherwise. Rothbard seems actually to have believed that the only reason the so-called “Old Right Republicans” perennially “managed to lose the presidential nomination,” is that said nomination was “perpetually stolen from them by the Eastern Establishment-Big Banker-Rockefeller wing of the party,” which relied on “media clout, as well as hardball banker threats to call in the delegates’ loans.” He seems actually to have believed that “Senator [Robert A.] Taft [of Ohio] was robbed of the Republican nomination in 1952” in precisely this way – “by a Rockefeller-Morgan Eastern banker cabal, using their control of respectable ‘Republican’ media.” 11 But if the “Eastern Establishment-Big Banker- Rockefeller wing of the party” was so powerful, why was it never able to put its own man, Nelson Rockefeller, in the White House – or even win him the GOP nomination? The fact is that, as Clyde Wilson puts it, the “Old Right”
Life and the passage of time taught Flynn that the use of such conservative means as planning, regulation, and welfare could not achieve the ends he had always desired.
members of the Republican party simply “never had sufficient strength” within the party “to nominate a presidential candidate or prevent very many evils.”
The fact is that the coming of the New Deal ended a long era in American political history – an era that had endured for more than a hundred years, an era in which every national election was a contest between a liberal party and a conservative party, both substantial in size and influence. After the coming of the New Deal, both major parties were conservative parties. For the New Deal variety of “liberalism” was not liberalism at all, but conservatism.
Flynn’s analysis was correct. The writers and intellectuals who made up the most visible contingent of the “Old Right” were in no meaningful sense on the Right at all. They were on the Left, where they had always been. They were liberals. The term liberal had been hijacked. The problem was that a great many of the liberals who had been left in the lurch by the Democratic party’s sudden more or less official adoption of conservatism in liberal clothing had made the mistake of joining (or, at any rate, supporting) the RepUblican party – presumably in the belief that the opposition party, whatever its fundamental character, was where they now belonged.
As even Rothbard acknowledges, however, the “Old Right” was a coalition, in which the libertarians and individualists – the true liberals – were not dominant. And as he suggests, many individualists or libertarians forgot their link with liberalism.
Flynn never made this dubious journey. However, as Moser notes, the nature of his liberalism did undergo some alteration over time, despite his claims that his views had never changed in any significant way. In 1932, according to Moser, Flynn wrote that “the doctrine of laissez-faire is now the gospel of the reactionary” (204). In 1934, Flynn called for a national minimum wage law, “a ‘vast program’ of public spending – mainly on construction projects – to relieve unemployment,” and “a government-run system of unemployment and old-age insurance” (46). In 1936, Flynn “called for three constitutional amendments: one that would give to the government ‘the police power overall economic matters of national importance,’ and two others that would free Congress and state legislatures from ‘the inhibitions of the due process clause” (90).
Then, in 1948, Flynn “wrote an article in the conservative American Mercury entitled ‘What Liberalism Means to Me,’ in which he seemed to associate himself, not with the reformist progressivism of his youth but with the very laissez-faire doctrine that he had rejected sixteen years earlier. Liberalism, he claimed, once had as its primary purpose the reduction of the power of the state, but in present times, he lamented, the word had been ‘captured by certain aggressor philosophers, carried off as so much loot and offered for acceptance to a wholly different clientele.’ He praised capitalism for producing ‘beyond a doubt the greatest freedom in the world and the greatest abundance.’ The ‘planned economy,’ he concluded, apparently forgetting that he had embraced economic planning in the 1930s, ‘has produced before our eyes the most appall- ing consequences'” (204).
Moser writes that “[i]t is clear that Flynn’s views, both on liberalism in general and on specific issues, had changed,” despite his claims to the contrary. And this does, indeed seem to be the case. Moser argues that one reason for this change lay in the gradual death of Flynn’s faith in what today we would call technocracy. The young Flynn, Moser points out, considered philosophy “empty and futile.” More important, in his judgment, was social science, for “experts trained in the social sciences” could identify the “basic facts” of any troublesome social situation. After all, “[e]vils … were as easy to identify as any scientific phenomenon,” and, once having identified them, experts trained in the social sciences would know precisely what reforms to recommend to solve social problems in a scientific way.
As Flynn grew older, he came more and more to realize that the path to utopia was by no means as simple as he had once believed. Collecting facts scientifically was not sufficient to guarantee the good judgment of the experts who collected them. Moreover, there was the problem that “intellectuals – whom by this time  he had taken to calling ‘Eggheads’ – were irresistibly drawn to power.” In short, Flynn started his career as one of those misguided liberals (the socialists, the progressives) who had come to believe that liberal ends could be achieved by conservative means. Gradually, life and the passage of time taught him that the use of such conservative means as planning, regulation, and welfare could not achieve the ends he had always desired. Over time, he, therefore, evolved in a steadily more liberal, steadily more individualist, direction.
Flynn’s views on foreign policy never underwent the changes that reshaped his views on domestic policy. As a liberal, he had always favored free trade and peace. As a liberal, he had always opposed war. For, as Arthur Ekirch reminds us, “any war, even one fought over some great moral principle, involves the use of methods essentially illiberal; for the very substance of liberalism – its emphasis on reason, on toleration and respect for individual and minority rights, and on progress by evolution instead of revolution – is bound to suffer in wartime” (116).
Moser devotes three of his 14 chapters to a detailed discussion of Flynn’s role in the America First Committee (AFC), the largest and most powerful antiwar organization in America in the 1930s and early 40s. As chairman of the New York City chapter of the AFC, Flynn oversaw the largest and most powerful chapter of the organization. As Moser reminds us, the New York City chapter “would ultimately have nearly two hundred thousand members, roughly one-quarter of the
national organization’s total membership. The chapter eventually employed sixty paid staff members and hundreds of regular volunteers. It sponsored subsidiary chapters in each of the five boroughs, with numerous subchapters under each. There was a Women’s Division, a Wall Street Division, a Veterans’ Division, and a Labor Division, each with its own office. The chapter also employed a team of writers, directed and supervised personally by Flynn, so that it published more original literature than any other in the nation. It had its own weekly newspaper (the America First Bulletin) and a daily column (the ‘Battle Page’) that appeared both in the Chicago Tribune and in the New York Daily News, reaching a readership of approximately 2 million” (121).
And all this frenetic activity took place within a very, very narrow time frame. “The New York City chapter formally opened for business,” Moser reports, “on January 25, 1941” (120). Within less than a year, its mission was a dead letter. It formally dissolved on July 2, 1942, less than 18 months after its formal opening (149). During the time it was open for business, the New
York City chapter of America First took up a substantial fraction of Flynn’s time. Indeed, “[f]rom June through December 1941,” Moser writes, “the committee’s work absorbed, by his [Flynn’s] own admission, ‘every minute of my time.’ His output as a writer dropped off to almost nothing, not counting AFC press releases.” Moreover, “in the eyes of nearly every- one,” the AFC “was a right-wing organization.” By maintaining such a high profile in the group, Flynn had “finally destroyed whatever reputation he still had as a liberal” (149-150).
And that was precious little. Several months before he decided to become active in the AFC, he had lost his weekly column, “Other People’s Money,” which had run for nearly eight years in The New Republic and was the main venue in which he had originally become famous in the 1930s. His firing from The New Republic is an especially interesting incident, both in his life and in the life of American ideas and policies. Moser portrays Flynn’s firing as “a turning point of sorts in the writer’s career,” and tells us that “the impetus” for it “likely came . . . from the magazine’s chief financial backer, Dorothy Straight. In 1925, Straight had married a wealthy Englishman named Leonard Elmhirst, and’ while the couple had generally let the editors formulate their own policy, by 1940 they had begun to pressure [Bruce] Bliven [editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1930 to 1953] about the magazine’s anti-interventionist slant. Thanks to this pressure Bliven also hired Dorothy’s son Willard as chief Washington editor and fired film and music critic Otis Ferguson, ‘TRB’ columnist Jonathan Mitchell (who, like Flynn, was a critic of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and even Edmund Wilson, who had been literary editor since the 1920s. In short, there is considerable substance to Flynn’S claim that it was the New Republic, and not he, that had changed” (110).
It is interesting to contrast this rather bloodless account with the one written in the early 1950s by Edmund Wilson and published in his book “A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty.” “When our editor-in-chief [Herbert Croly (1869-1930)] died,” he wrote, “the paper [The New Republic] was run by a group composed of the other editors. The weekly had been handsomely subsidized, first by an idealistic millionaire, then, after his death, by his widow – both personal friends of the editor [Croly]. But this lady now married an Englishman, went permanently to live in England and became a British subject. She had, however, arranged, in New York, a foundation which was to function in her absence, automatically supplying such money as was needed to make up our deficits; and we were given to understand that we were just as free as our late chief had been to publish whatever we pleased. This went well until the second war with Germany, in regard to which the paper’s policy was completely isolationist. In the autumn of 1940, the husband of our Anglicized patroness suddenly descended on us, and indignantly denounced this policy.”
In short order, “[h]e dissolved the old staff of the paper, though the members – to diminish the scandal – were allowed still to haunt the office and to continue in a small way to write till they were able to find other work. The managing editor [Bliven] was kept, at
the price of his reversing his position and writing strongly interventionist leaders [editorials] instead of isolationist ones. Our English patron-in-law took over the direction of the paper and published anonymous leaders, entirely composed by himself, which would have been intensely comic if the situation had not been humiliating – since they purported to express the opinions of the well-known American editors but were actually exclusively occupied with plugging, in British cliches, the official British point of view” (41-42).
This is a policy of which Flynn would have very quickly run afoul. As Moser notes, “Flynn claimed that the British had a mysterious hold not on the minds of ordinary Americans ‘but over certain persons who have access to the press, the pulpit and other agencies of propaganda.’ He believed that his ‘pro-Anglican virus’ was strongest in the State Department, which was filled with men who were ‘horrified at the thought of America’s not helping England in a war.’ This was a theme to which Flynn would turn again and again in the next few years, and indeed through the rest of his career” (59).
Little wonder, then, that as Edmund Wilson tells the story, the new “English patron-in-law” put a stop “at once to our criticisms of the Roosevelt administration, and a regular political commentator who had frequently disagreed with its policies [Flynn] was summarily dismissed. It was proposed, in an issue of December, 1940, that ‘the United States and Great Britain assume responsibility and leadership for the whole world, except for that part of it at present under the heel of the totalitarians. Let these two great repositories of democracy pool their leadership in brains, vision and courage…. It is clear that we should extend the utmost aid to Great Britain even if it involves a considerable danger of going to war'” (42- 43).
The new English patron-in-law made only one serious mistake in his takeover, according to Wilson. He did not “take account of the shock to the regular readers of the paper, who saw it turn its coat overnight and knew there was something wrong” (43). As for Flynn, Moser notes, “[a]t the end of 1940 he still had a daily newspaper column and articles regularly appearing in Colliers and other national magazines, in addition to frequent lecture and radio appearances” (110). Liberal or conservative, Flynn managed to keep busy, right up to two years before his death in 1964 at the age of 81. To the end, he called himself a liberal – and he was right.