The Gospel According to Luce

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BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 23, 2010

The Gospel According to Luce

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

By Alan Brinkley

(Knopf, 531 pp., $35)

I.

Sometimes human beings bring sociological theory to life. Consider the career of Henry Luce. A child of Presbyterian missionaries in China, he pursued wealth and power with unremitting zeal, creating the media empire that dominated American journalism for much of the twentieth century: Time, Inc. Yet Luce never lost touch with his didactic origins, never abandoned the conviction that his magazines should teach Americans the right way of thinking about the world. Few men have more fully embodied the tense alliance between the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

When Max Weber coined those terms, he never meant to equate them. Rather he argued that Protestant morality provided the psychological sanctions for systematic striving—for conduct that, in a more secular social context, could serve the needs of capitalism. Accumulated capital was an unsought by-product of diligent labor in a calling. The successful Protestant (if he remained a Protestant) could not rest content with mere money. However much he may have wanted wealth and even (fitfully) enjoyed it, he remained ill at ease in Zion, focusing his desires on more exalted aims. Accumulation and display—the world of outward appearances—meant less than nothing; what mattered was the inner piety that animated a life of service to the community.

Luce was nothing if not a successful Protestant, as Alan Brinkley shows in his superb biography. Using years of research from archives and interviews, Brinkley steers a careful course between sympathy and critique. He disdains hagiography and transcends hostility. For the most part this strategy works beautifully: Brinkley tells a gripping story, painting a fully rounded portrait of a difficult, complex, and powerful man, as well as providing an extraordinarily illuminating account of the interplay between politics and culture in America during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. His cinematic tale is crowded with dictators and demagogues, with society dames patrolling social boundaries and half-drunk writers straining to meet deadlines. It should be shot in black and white—the clean no-colors of a Life documentary, but also the way the mature Luce came to view the world.

Yet Brinkley’s Luce comes across not only as a rigid moralist and a status seeker, but also (at various times) as a critic of irresponsible capital, a supporter of labor unions, and a racial liberal. At least fitfully tolerant and humane even in his later years, Luce in many ways epitomized that nearly extinct species, the moderate Republican. He merged Protestant and capitalist versions of noblesse oblige; he would redeem private gain, he hoped, through public service. He preached a new gospel for a new society dominated by mass-marketed surfaces. Luce flourished in the world of mere appearances that traditional Protestants scorned, a world that was now inescapable thanks to the pervasive presence of photography and film.

Luce’s media empire pioneered techniques appropriate to its Fordist moment, the mid-twentieth-century apex of mass production—in particular the modernist documentary photography that was the stock-in-trade of Life. Margaret Bourke-White, David Douglas Duncan, and other photographers snapped heroic scenes of private and public struggle, disaster, hilarity, and fulfillment: these were the images (along with those in Hollywood movies) that helped to create a visually based national community out of the anomie of the Depression. They accompanied, and in some ways constituted, Luce’s gospel of the American Way of Life—a life that he imagined could be homogeneous, classless, economically secure, and racially tolerant. He preached a civil religion for an emerging affluent society.

While Luce’s magazines manufactured the cultural consensus (or the belief in it) that characterized the mid-century decades, his desire to bring ideas to a mass audience attracted intellectuals impatient with literary coteries. For a while his stable at Fortune included Dwight Macdonald, Archibald MacLeish, James Agee, and Walker Evans. (Their struggles with Luce and with one another are deftly evoked by Robert Vanderlan in Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce’s Media Empire, a fine companion volume to Brinkley’s book.) Through much of the Great Depression, Luce remained remarkably open to provocative and even heretical ideas.

By the late 1930s, however, as the world grew darker and Luce’s attention turned to foreign affairs, his moral commitments intensified and his openness yielded to dogmatic certainty. The result was “The American Century,” a Life essay in February 1941 that urged Americans to take on the burdens of world leadership—not only in the necessary fight against fascism but also in a much grander and more diffuse struggle “to promote, encourage, and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.” “The American Century” harnessed Luce’s missionary impulses to an exceptionalist and interventionist foreign policy: it assumed that the United States had a divine mission to organize the world, and it redefined the national interest as global and virtually limitless. As Brinkley writes, by the time he first read Luce’s essay “in the grim, antiwar climate of the 1970s, the essay seemed to me an obsolete relic of an earlier, more muscular, and now repudiated American age. Little did I know how soon its sentiments would be popular again.” Or, he might have added, how disastrous the effects of its revival would be.

Brinkley devotes less critical attention to Luce’s overarching American Century theme than to the publisher’s more controversial concerns, such as his obsession with the “loss” of China. So Brinkley never tries to demonstrate how “popular” Luce’s vision of American exceptionalism was (or was not). Nor does he explore the ways that vague phrases such as “the burden of leadership” could substitute for more precise idioms of empire, then and now—clouding clear definitions of national interest and preventing the possibility of genuine debate. Lofty sentiments always deserve careful scrutiny, but especially when they are uttered by a preacher’s son whose main commitments (as he said) were to “God, the Republican Party, and free enterprise.” Luce looks statesmanlike in comparison with contemporary Republicans (and more than a few Democrats); but his vision of an American Century still incites bipartisan arrogance. The ambiguities of interventionism—above all the difficulty of distinguishing it from imperialism-remain his most enduring legacy.

II.

Luce’s father, Henry Winters Luce, was the son of a wholesale grocer in Scranton, Pennsylvania-a member of the “commercial gentry” with great expectations for his son. Propelled by his own and his father’s ambition, Henry found himself at Yale in the 1880s, where he fell in with a religious crowd. Soon he had decided to witness for God in “the uttermost parts of the earth.” Preparing for missionary work, he took his ministerial degree at Union Theological Seminary and married Elisabeth Root of Scranton, a pious girl from a broken home. By September 1897 they were on their way to China, three months after their wedding, having already conceived their first child.

Henry Robinson Luce was born in April 1898 in Tengchow, on the Shantung coast. (“Robinson” was homage to a beloved pastor in Scranton.) His mother kept the house “wickedly clean” with the help of a staff of servants, including an amah for the young Harry. This Chinese woman taught him his first words, which were Chinese. When the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (the “Boxers”) threatened to purge the locality of “foreign devils,” Harry’s amah helped the Luces to escape to Korea. They did not return until the Boxer Rebellion was crushed by a combined force of European, American, and Japanese troops in the summer of 1900. The pattern was already in place: missionaries seeking souls in the shadow of imperial struggles.

Like other missionary families, the Luces lived a middle-class Victorian life. Two sisters and a brother joined Harry during the next several years. Outside their homogenous and insulated compound, all was harsh and chaotic; inside all was ordered harmony, governed by Presbyterian Christianity, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Montgomery Ward catalogue. Harry explored the countryside but never the cities, and he never learned much Chinese despite his lifelong passion for China. Early on he modeled himself on the men around him—ministers all. By the time he was four he was delivering impromptu sermons on a barrel in front of his house. Soon he could no longer be schooled at home, and he was off to a British boarding school at Chefoo. The loneliness and the loathsome food did nothing to dampen his ambition; he kept obsessive track of his grades and class ranking, while he strained for success in tennis and debating. (The last posed a special challenge to a boy with a stammer.)

Meanwhile the Chinese empire was collapsing. In 1912, the emperor abdicated, and Sun Yat-sen became president. “It may turn out to be the ... most stupendous Reformation in all history,” Harry wrote to his parents. The choice of words was significant: Reformation was superior to revolution, and suggested that China was on the civilizing track to Western modernity, via Protestantism and democracy. This was Reverend Luce’s point of view as well. China, he believed, must raise itself to Western levels of education and civilization, at which point the Chinese would be ready to choose Christianity, rather than have it thrust upon them. He pursued his civilizing mission by promoting a Christian university in Shantung and seeking funds for it in the United States.

His son watched, often from afar, profoundly impressed by his father’s determination to do good. By the time Harry left Chefoo for Hotchkiss School in Connecticut (one of his father’s former teachers had arranged a scholarship), he and his father had established what Brinkley calls “a pattern of long-distance intimacy” that they would maintain for decades. Harry absorbed his father’s energy and ambition and seriousness, but not his otherworldly goodness—and this lack tormented him. As Brinkley writes, “Harry learned from his father to think of life as a great mission, to be judged by its contribution to the betterment of the world. But unlike his father, he also developed a considerable appetite for wealth, power, and worldly success.” The conflict between his father’s Protestant ethic and his own spirit of Capitalism spurred young Harry to heroic exertions.

The interior strain showed up in his stammer. As he later recalled, “nothing in the world could possibly be more painful.” Before he went to Hotchkiss his parents sent him to St. Albans School in England, where a tutor who was supposedly a specialist in such matters declared that Harry’s “evil habit” was “absolutely imaginary,” and set about to break it. His father urged the boy on: “The whole question, of course, is of your getting control of your speech again.” Harry’s quest for control proved arduous—the tutor was no help—but gradually he got a grip on his stammer.

Then he was off to Hotchkiss, a sluiceway to Yale and one of the many institutions (prep schools, country clubs, exclusive suburbs) created around the turn of the century to confirm the credentials of an emerging upper class. Luce was painfully aware of his inferior status as a scholarship boy, cleaning the chapel every day and waiting on the other lads at table. He never identified with the other scholarship boys and always imagined he belonged on the other side of the class divide. Determined not to be an outsider, he schooled himself in football rules and other elements of American popular culture, most of which were new to him. He never resented hazing rituals but only looked forward to the time when he would be their initiator rather than their victim.

That time was not far off. “Always calculating, always striving,” as Brinkley remarks, Luce managed to excel at public speaking, debating, and academic work. Yet even his triumphs contained a dose of frustration. To his bitter disappointment he finished second in his class, “behind a terrible greasy grind,” and he became editor of the second most prestigious literary magazine. The top publication was headed by Brit Hadden, a charismatic boy from a wealthy Brooklyn banking family whom Brinkley inexplicably calls “middle class.” Hadden and Luce became rivals and friends; eventually they would found Time together. They were an odd couple: Hadden a Dodgers fan with conventional Anglo-Saxon prejudices and a wise-ass mouth, Luce a serious and socially awkward scholar, more cosmopolitan than Hadden but also less critical of American culture, where he still felt an interloper.

At Yale their friendship and their rivalry deepened. Social status was everything there, and the “big men” acquired it by election to the Yale Daily News or to the Skull and Bones society—not by academic achievement. Connections always helped, and the smell of money was in the air. Unlike Hadden, Luce was still on a tight budget. But he no longer carried the stigma of a scholarship boy, thanks to his summer earnings as well as help from his parents and the farm-implement heiress Nettie McCormick (who had taken a shine to him years before, when the family visited her in Chicago on one of Reverend Luce’s fundraising trips). He often stayed with Nettie on vacations, when she introduced him to a rarefied world of boating parties and debutante balls. His pulse quickened in the presence of money and power; his longings for social ascent intensified.

Soon he was satisfied, at least temporarily. After a frantic year of “heeling” at the Daily News, he was one of four freshmen elected to the staff of the paper. The two who came in ahead of him were Hadden and another Hotchkiss boy. Harry Luce was becoming an insider. A month later, in April 1917, the United States entered World War I. There was no question about Luce’s views: Theodore Roosevelt had been his boyhood hero, and now, he wrote to his father, “another form of strenuous life is forced upon me”—stoking war fever in the Daily News. Soon he joined Army ROTC, and spent a few months in South Carolina training raw recruits who had never seen a toothbrush. When he returned to Yale in January 1919, it was time to embark on the quest to “go Bones.” Tap day was anxiety, then ecstasy. He and Brit both made Bones. They were big men.

Senior year was a satisfying anticlimax. He wrote a thesis on Theodore Roosevelt and public opinion under the supervision of the British political scientist Harold Laski and overcame his stammer to win the DeForest Prize in public speaking. His Wilsonian speech, “When We Say ‘America,’” urged the nation to “be the great comrade of all nations that struggle to rise to higher planes of social and political organization, and withal the implacable and immediate foe of whatever nation shall offer to disturb the peace of the world.” There was a Christian and a familial brotherliness here (appropriate for the minister’s eldest son): America would uplift and protect its vulnerable siblings. The speech was a portent.

III.

After Yale, Luce continued his systematic cultivation of connections. Supported in part by Nettie McCormick, he spent a postgraduate year at Oxford, postponing career choices, sharpening up his bridge and tennis, fitfully overcoming his social awkwardness as he squired rich girls around London and (whenever he could arrange it) Paris and Rome as well. His family feared he was absorbing the prejudices of the idle rich. He denied it. Yet his dismissal of the “backward” cultures that he encountered on the Continent suggested that his inherited tolerance was hardening into something more conventional. Earnest uplift was increasingly mixed with disdainful superiority.

One of the rich girls in Rome was the aptly named Lila Hotz. The daughter of a prominent Chicago family, she was spending the obligatory year abroad after finishing at Spence School. Well read and intelligent, though not as serious as Luce, she was also a dark-haired, dark-eyed knockout. Harry was smitten, and soon determined to marry her. He had to persuade her parents that his earnings would meet their standards. Pursuing her back to Chicago, he took a job with the Chicago News, but it did not last long. Desperate to get some financial traction, he was considering a management job in a New York machine manufacturing firm when word came from Hadden that they both had job offers from the Baltimore News—courtesy of Walter Millis, a Bonesman who worked there. Luce and Hadden snapped it up. They shared rooms in a tumbledown mansion, where in the evenings they plotted the project they had been talking about since their days on the Yale Daily News.

At first they called it Facts. It would be a weekly “news-magazine”—an alternative to the numbing detail of The New York Times and to the stuffy gentility of the respectable monthlies; a magazine for young businessmen like themselves, in a hurry, who needed a quick digest of the news. Hadden pressed the cautious Luce to keep “the gamble of our lives” moving forward, to seek powerful and influential investors through their Bones connections. Sometimes the quest for money was humiliating. (“Of course, any loose change I have is yours,” a rich Yale classmate told them.) Luce envied and resented his contemporaries who had inherited great wealth. Still, by October 1922, he and Hadden had raised enough money to launch the magazine that they had re-named Time.

The early numbers of the magazine were characterized by rigid organization, concise news summaries, lively language, whimsical diversions, and sophomoric opinions. The first issue lamented the high literary reputation of “The Waste Land” and the high percentage of “Orientals” in the population of Hawaii. Such views were predictable enough for a staff composed of white male Protestants from elite universities. Luce and Hadden were not out to uplift the masses, at least not yet. To satisfy their investors, they needed a magazine that would sell.

Haltingly but inexorably, Time’s circulation climbed. It made a hit among the young managerial classes in the urban Northeast, but also in places such as Cincinnati and Denver. Its founders had tapped into precisely the national market that they had hoped to reach. As Time’s fortunes improved, so did Luce’s chances with Lila. She was the spur that pricked the sides of his intent. He was desperate: “The main thing is to win and nothing is justified except in that perspective,” he wrote her in the fall of 1923. In December, they were married.

The relationship was a lifeline to Luce, despite their differences. Lila loved small talk and gossip; Harry was no good at these things. But he, like her, loved accumulating possessions, and he was still drawn to the worldview of the very rich: their sense of entitlement and superiority to the common herd, their contempt (especially among their men) for sentimentality toward the poor. Still Luce could not entirely escape his Protestant past. His sister Emmavail sensed his embrace of wealth and status, and rebuked him for it. And Luce may have rebuked himself, at least inwardly.

But in the 1920s, earnestness was out of fashion: a cynical pose was de rigueur among affluent young blades. Luce soft-pedaled his missionary impulse and let Hadden lead the way. In an atmosphere dominated by H.L. Mencken, the Menckenesque Hadden directed the editorial policies of the magazine while Luce handled the business side. Hadden was largely responsible for Timestyle—a rash of inversions, hyphenations, portmanteau words (“eccentrician”), banal truisms, pedantry, and neologisms. Sometimes, as Brinkley notes, this linguistic mishmash might actually work, “drawing readers into subjects they might otherwise have overlooked, and making people and events more vivid than a conventional story could have done.” This was the sort of accomplishment that melded the magazine’s financial needs with Luce’s didactic heritage—the successful packaging of news for a busy managerial class.

But the seamless merging of news and opinion also raised difficult issues, which Brinkley does not address directly. Most involved the vexed question of objectivity. Luce (and Hadden) defined it as impartiality, and disdained it as unattainable and undesirable. The quest for objectivity was what made serious newspapers so boring: there was no voice, no point of view. Time, by contrast, would never try to hide its point of view. The problem was that Time was also claiming to present a comprehensive (if abbreviated) version of the news—a factual account of world events. The editors’ opinions never announced themselves as such, but rather served to shape the presentation of the facts. Without embracing a naïve “view from nowhere,” one can still feel the beginnings of a slippery slope here. As Vanderlan points out in Intellectuals Incorporated, Time’s melding of opinion and reporting created a “hidden structure for managing the news” that readers often did not recognize. The deeper difficulty was not disdain for impartiality but the disregard of a broader, more defensible definition of objectivity: honesty to the evidence.

Yet Time’s willingness to distort or ignore inconvenient evidence did not surface clearly until Luce had been at the editorial helm on his own for some time. During the late 1920s, the volatile Hadden was still running the show, but he was behaving erratically, disappearing for days at a time on benders. He seemed determined to drink himself to death. When he died of an infection in 1929, Luce lost a friend but found a portal of possibility. As Brinkley says, he became the “proud imperious leader” of an emergent publishing empire, with full editorial control. The tone of flippant cynicism began to disappear from the magazine.

IV.

Meanwhile Luce was expanding his range. For years he had been dissatisfied with the American business press. It was little more than high-priced boosterism, he believed. Big business was too powerful to be left unexamined, and the separation between ownership and management in the modern corporation meant that managers could play multiple roles in society, and become public figures—even public servants—in a way that the robber barons of old had never been. So in 1930 Luce founded Fortune, based on a capacious vision of corporate social responsibility, according to which business leaders had an obligation to the larger society as well as to their stockholders—or (as is more common these days) merely to themselves. That was the kind of Republican he was. Autre temps, autre moeurs.

The collapse of capitalism in the early 1930s gave Fortune ample opportunity to promote critical reflection among the managerial class. The magazine was beautiful, expensive, and (sometimes) intellectually challenging. Unlike Time, it made no attempt to ensure stylistic homogeneity. To be sure, many of the articles were merely celebrations of corporate modernity: the verbal accompaniment to Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs, which presented sanitized factories and other monuments of the machine age, devoid of dirt or people. An early piece on the Swift Meatpacking Company, for example, demonstrated that Upton Sinclair’s jungle had become a model of clean, smooth efficiency. But as the Depression deepened and the New Deal dawned, the magazine became more interesting.

Luce hired Ralph Ingersoll away from The New Yorker to become associate and later managing editor, and Ingersoll attracted literary talent, promising MacLeish, Macdonald, and other writers more autonomy and more money than they would likely see anywhere else anytime soon. Before long, the magazine was publishing such fare as Eric Hodgins’s “Arms and the Men,” an exposé of European arms manufacturers that led to the Nye Committee’s inquiry into munitions makers’ role in World War I; Archibald MacLeish’s “Jews in America,” which explored the common virus animating Nazi atrocities and American anti-Semitism; and even a sympathetic (if skeptical) account of the American Communist Party by Dwight Macdonald.

Fortune celebrated enlightened capitalists and deplored those who were not maintaining decent labor conditions. The magazine’s “crusading point,” Luce later recalled, was this: “God damn you, Mrs. Richbitch, we won’t have you chattering archly and snobbishly about Bethlehem Common [stock] unless you damn well have a look at the open hearths and slag piles—yes, and the workers’ houses of Bethlehem, Pa.” The insistence that the comfortable should “damn well have a look” at the workingman’s life recalled the Progressive muckrakers’ faith in the importance of making poverty visible, but the reference to “Mrs. Richbitch” was more suggestive. One can only speculate what gender conflicts lay behind it: Luce and his family had depended on a number of “Richbitches,” and Luce in particular on Nettie McCormick. But she had left him out of her will (to his bitter disappointment), and besides he no longer needed her kind. He was a big man.

After 1936, Fortune began to steer rightward. Macdonald, Agee, and eventually MacLeish departed, partly in disgust over Luce’s refusal to back the Spanish Loyalists. Meanwhile Luce decided that he needed to consolidate the support of his business audience. As Brinkley observes, Fortune became the tribune of an emerging “corporate liberalism,” expounded in Luce’s “Business Roundtable” column. To exorcise the collectivist specter, he argued, business leaders must reform private enterprise from within. Yet he also urged public spending “to counterbalance the business cycle.” Keynesianism was beginning to seem the alternative to collectivism. Compared to laissez-faire dogma, this was indeed enlightened capitalism—and prescient, as it was only the deficit financing of the war that would bring an end to the Depression.

 

The 1930s were a time of upheaval in Luce’s private life as well. His marriage to Lila had settled into an agreeable but unexciting routine. In December 1934 they were invited to a “Turkish ball” at the Waldorf-Astoria, and there Luce fell into a prolonged, animated conversation with Clare Boothe Brokaw. She was blonde, glamorous, and rich. She was also ambitious, one of the few women who had achieved prominence in publishing at that time. Since her divorce from a polo-playing airhead, she had been managing editor of Vanity Fair and had become an aspiring playwright. An hour or two into their encounter Luce was in love again, for the first time since his courtship of Lila. According to Clare, who was not above embellishment, on that first night Luce told her: “I’ve read about it happening. But it has just happened to me. The French call it a coup de foudre. I think I must tell you—you are the one woman in my life.” Within a year, Lila agreed to a divorce.

On November 21, 1935, Clare’s first play opened on Broadway, to the universal catcalls of critics; two days later she and Luce were married. This was not, as Brinkley observes, a propitious combination of events. The relationship was difficult from the start. Henry and Clare Booth Luce were two ambitious, self-absorbed people who competed constantly with each other. For whatever reason, Henry found himself experiencing periodic and prolonged bouts of impotence with Clare. Mutually frustrated and annoyed with each other, they soon found excuses to stay apart. Clare had many affairs, Henry a few sustained ones (apparently unafflicted by impotence). But they remained formally married, maintaining outwardly cordial relations, meeting each other’s public needs. Clare brought Henry into the limelight of celebrity; Henry gave Clare cultural legitimacy and proximity to power.

Amid all his emotional turmoil, Luce was starting what Brinkley calls “a magazine for everyone.” Luce’s prospectus for Life, in June 1936, outlined its aims: “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things ... to see things thousands of miles away ... things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in the seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed. Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind.” This was the sort of inflated faux-populist idiom that advertising copywriters were increasingly employing in the 1930s: it could have been lifted from the pages of the J. Walter Thompson Company playbook. Yet it was not entirely reducible to ad talk. The ambiguity of the phrase “to be shown” was suggestive: most people were watching the spectacle, but others were part of the spectacle themselves.

This was the dialectic of display that would come to dominate celebrity culture. The audience was not merely gaping at the spectacle (as Dwight Macdonald and other critics of mass entertainment would later charge), but actively putting themselves into the picture, imagining that they too could be famous, however briefly. Before the notion of universal momentary fame became a cliché, it filled the pages of Life with paunchy men presiding over backyard barbecues in Bermuda shorts and polio victims surviving gamely in “iron lungs.” Celebrity culture did not simply arise from the orphic utterances of Andy Warhol; it also stemmed from the fertile brain of Henry Luce.

Yet Luce was emphatically not a postmodernist avant la lettre. While he often succumbed to the shallowness of the spectacle that he created, he always aspired to be more than just another clever vendor of shiny surfaces. Unlike his contemporaries in advertising, Luce was not just trying to please a client or move a product: he was trying to shape the worldview of a nation. He really did want Life to amaze and instruct the American masses.

The medium that he chose, at a fine modernist moment, was photography: intrepid photographers on Anzio Beach or on top of the Chrysler Building, creating an apparently transparent record of life. For Luce, the modernist devotion to “straight photography” (clean lines, no tricks) may have resonated with the old Protestant dream of perfect sincerity and social transparency. Of course, even in Life, Luce could not resist the didactic possibilities of the printed word: the magazine published many serious ruminations, including his own “American Century.” But what really drew Life’s huge audience were the extraordinary pictures. Where else could one see Roosevelt and Stalin cheek by jowl with Betty Grable’s million-dollar legs, the step-by-step delivery of a newborn baby, and dead soldiers on the beach at Papua New Guinea? Like the Hollywood movies of the era, Life created a visual vocabulary that enveloped an entire nation at a historical moment—the Great Depression and World War II—when Americans were beset by longings for security but also by the desire (as Luce’s ad copy argued) to see.

 

The magazine was a smash hit from the beginning. The first issue, with Bourke-White’s monumental Fort Peck dam on the cover and a “portrait of a New Deal frontier town” to accompany it inside, created more demand than Luce could profitably supply. But that was the kind of risk Luce was used to taking. “Never in our history,” a colleague reminded him, “have we come out of any tight spot by a choice of conservatism or economy in the usual sense of those words; but always expenditure of more money and more effort to gain greater income at greater expense.” That was the Luce business model, and it worked—partly because he had such a perceptive sense of what a particular audience wanted at a particular historical moment.

In the case of Life, the audience was nothing less than the broad American middle class, emerging out of the Depression, through war, into a suburban civilization. Luce had picked precisely the right time to found a magazine that would chronicle as well as create the mid-century American consensus, with a breadth and intensity that no other magazine could match. However bitterly divided Americans may have been in their everyday lives, in Luce’s Life they were one nation. So it was appropriate that Life became the venue for Luce’s 1941 essay, “The American Century,” an exceptionalist sermon outlining the nation’s God-given duty to remake the world in its image. This vision obsessed Luce for much of the rest of his life.

Throughout the 1930s Luce paid increasing attention to foreign affairs, but moved only haltingly toward the unfettered interventionism of “The American Century.” His missionary perspective on Asia led his magazines to sentimentalize China as a force for progress against Japanese barbarism; his default-setting capitalism shaped their representations of the Soviet Union as a mystery beyond the pale of civilization. But the Luce empire was not all of a piece. The leftist writers at Fortune were counterbalanced at Time by the powerful influence of Laird Goldsborough, a crypto-fascist who swooned over Mussolini and shrugged off Hitler. Time called the Nuremberg rallies “the greatest show and heartiest picnic on earth” and applauded the settlement at Munich. Yet The March of Time, the movie newsreel that Luce launched in the late 1930s, presented Nazi Germany as a menace to the world. Not everyone was reading the same memos.

Still, Life left no doubt where Luce’s thought was tending. In June 1939, the magazine published Walter Lippmann’s “The American Destiny”—a rallying cry to empire. “What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow,” Lippmann wrote. “When the destiny of a nation is revealed to it, there is no choice but to accept that destiny, and to make ready in order to be equal to it.” This mystical nationalism was entirely out of character for Lippmann, and he would decisively repudiate it in his later writings. But for Luce it became the emotional core of his worldview.

Luce had been on record as an interventionist since his Wilsonian Class Day oration of 1920. But the grim news from Europe crystallized his belief that America must lead the world. One can hardly fault his sense of alarm. It was February 1941: Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939, then overrun continental Europe; his disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union was still months away. Dictators held half the globe, from Paris to Vladivostok. The problem, in “The American Century,” was not Luce’s urgency but his grandiosity. The “cure” for Americans’ failure “to play their part as a world power,” he wrote, was “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” This would involve ensuring that the “freeenterprise system” prevailed internationally, sending American technicians and artists of all kinds out into the world to inspire and educate its people, feeding the world’s hungry millions, and spreading “American ideals ... a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation.”

These were fine sentiments, but they involved giving a blank check to American power abroad. This may have been a good wartime strategy, but for the postwar world it was more problematic. And Luce was not alone in the extravagance of his vision. Vice President Henry Wallace presented a softer leftish response to “The American Century” in the speech that became known as “The Century of the Common Man.” Wallace was less imperial in his tone, but he still assumed that it was America’s duty to spread democracy everywhere. Luce and Wallace were “unwitting partners,” Brinkley observes, in launching “an idea that could not accurately be described as imperialism,” but that did put the United States on the high road to dominating the postwar world, endowed with a missionary purpose.

Whether this was the road to empire depended on one’s point of view. Americans did not occupy land and claim possession of it, as European imperialists had done. Instead they sought access to foreign markets, resources, and investment opportunities by installing client states and propping up pliable regimes. This was the classic strategy of the “Open Door Policy,” dating back to the turn of the century; but Luce was inflating it into the same kind of universal, endless mission that his father had undertaken decades before. And like his clerical predecessors, Luce was convinced that Americans’ “sincerity and good will” would be enough to ensure that their “leadership ... will be eagerly welcomed” by grateful natives of backward lands. This, of course, is another cinematic image—the durable fantasy of American soldiers distributing candy to adorable brown children in exotic places, a fantasy that haunts our foreign policy to this day.

For Luce, the word “leadership” described “the mysterious work” of American ideals in “lifting the life of mankind from the life of the beasts to what the psalmist called a little lower than the angels.” Luce’s religious language obscured the fundamental narcissism of this mission, the possibility that mankind might not want to be uplifted in the American way. One did not have to be an isolationist to respond skeptically to Luce’s mission. Reinhold Niebuhr was nothing if not an interventionist in 1941, but he recoiled from Luce’s resurrection of “the new white man’s burden.” As Niebuhr wrote, Luce “does not show the slightest indication that our salvation can only be worked out in fear and trembling.” Niebuhr himself became an apologist for blank-check interventionism after the war—his “fear and trembling” often seemed little more than a rhetorical gesture—but still he recognized that America was threatened as much by its own moral hubris as by any foreign foe. That kind of Protestant insight was beyond Luce’s range.

V.

At first, as Luce wrote in Time, “the war came as a great relief, like a reverse earthquake, that in one terrible jerk shook everything disjointed, distorted, askew back into place. Japanese bombs had finally brought national unity to the United States.” The war was good to Luce’s media empire: it gave Life’s photographers the chance to create a stunning visual record of armed conflict, and it gave Luce the opportunity—he hoped—to promote the remaking of America, and in turn, of the world. Out of touch with the everyday operations of his magazines, he increasingly sought to assert his centrality to their editorial practice—peppering the editors with advice, seeking to turn the publications into “ideologically reliable vehicles,” as Brinkley writes. This became apparent in 1940, when he elevated Whittaker Chambers, the Communist Party hack turned anti-Communist ideologue, to an influential position at Time. To the consternation of his colleagues, Chambers repeatedly found ways to twist articles on just about anything into anti-Communist rants.

But what really excited Luce’s missionary impulse was the war in Asia. On a visit to China in 1941, he and Clare met with the Nationalist Chinese leader, General Chiang Kai-shek, and with Madame Chiang. For Luce, the wife was as important as the husband. “What instantly convinced me of her greatness was her delivery of the most direct and unrestrained compliment to my wife’s beauty I have ever heard,” he wrote. After a one-hour conversation, the Americans left “knowing that we had made the acquaintance of two people, a man and a woman, who out of all the millions living, will be remembered for centuries and centuries.” That extraordinary statement suggests just how thoroughly Luce had become one with the world of surface sensation that his magazines reflected and sustained. Throughout the 1940s, General and Madame Chiang would appear repeatedly on the cover of Time.

Luce’s devotion to the Chinese Nationalists led him to overlook the inadequacy of their army as well as the corruption, incompetence, and stupidity of their governing elite, the Kuomintang. It also led him to muzzle his own reporters, notably Theodore White, a young Time correspondent who had studied Chinese history with John Fairbank at Harvard. White shared Luce’s love for China, but when he told the truth about Chiang’s regime, Luce assigned Chambers to sanitize White’s reports, then moved White away from Chinese politics to local color, and finally forced him to quit.

Luce’s concern for Nationalist China shaped virtually all his wartime views. In 1942, he wanted to win the war in Asia first; in 1945, he opposed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings because they ended the war too soon to give the Nationalist Chinese a chance to demonstrate their worth in battle. Whenever Luce visited China, he ignored the growing strength of the Communists and saw “America and the twentieth century” everywhere he looked. His outlook combined willful blindness with hallucination.

After the Japanese defeat, the Kuomintang shriveled before the advance of the Communists. As Chiang’s soldiers surrendered by the thousands, in eerie anticipation of the South Vietnamese army twenty years later, Luce looked the other way, remaining convinced of the Generalissimo’s greatness. By 1949, when Chiang fled and the Communists declared victory, Luce had become isolated within his own company. He began consorting with the “Who lost China?” crowd and dipping a toe in the murky waters of their conspiracy theories—particularly the notion that State Department officials had conspired to encourage a sanguine view of the Communists and to undermine American support for the Kuomintang.

 

Luce’s rigidity on China betokened a larger shift to the right. He still believed in the American Century, and still wanted to use Life to teach Americans how to rule the world—publishing Churchill’s memoirs in 1948, Luce thought, was one way to do this. But his intensifying anti-Communism led him toward a more aggressive militarism. He accepted elements of George Kennan’s idea of containment but rejected its refusal to roll back Communist advances in Eastern Europe and Asia. In January 1951, as the Korean war threatened to engulf East Asia, Luce waxed “grimly ebullient,” in Brinkley’s words. A wider war would mean open conflict with Red China and a chance to return the Nationalists to the mainland. It might also mean confrontation with the Soviet Union: at one point Luce imagined “plastering the Russians with 500 (or 1,000) A-bombs.” Rebuking the Truman administration for its realpolitik, he insisted that “the struggle between Freedom and Communism is at bottom a moral issue ... a religious issue.”

Like his fellow Presbyterian John Foster Dulles and others on the right, Luce believed that in a struggle with “prodigious evil” there was no substitute for victory. When General Douglas MacArthur publicly protested Truman’s refusal to let him invade China, Truman relieved him of command and the general became a national hero. Luce was among the worshippers. After visiting MacArthur at his New York hotel, Luce confided in a private memorandum that the old soldier “looked healthy ... handsome ... and more vigorous than any public man I know.” (One is reminded of the ABC reporter Frank Reynolds’s outburst the night of Ronald Reagan’s election: “He looks great! He always looks great!”) In Luce’s media hall of mirrors, appearance underwrote authority. But Truman, in Luce’s view, had tied the vigorous general’s hands behind his back.

A Republican administration brought some relief. Luce was welcome at the Eisenhower White House, and Clare was appointed ambassador to Italy, and Dulles was made secretary of state. But the atmosphere of constant Cold War crisis continued. Dulles announced his policy of nuclear brinksmanship in Life, and Time applauded it. Luce was convinced that “the climactic crisis of the twentieth century” was at hand: the global struggle with Communism. He urged greater American backing for the French in Indochina. In 1953, he placed the photographer David Douglas Duncan on the “inactive list” after Duncan observed in Life that the French had already lost the war. Duncan was right, but no matter. Ideology trumped observation in Luce’s moral universe.

Gradually, as Cold War tensions temporarily eased in the latter part of the 1950s, Luce began to relax (insofar as he was able) and to take more pleasure in his proximity to power. Clare’s post in Rome allowed him regular access to the foreign policy elite. The Italians believed that the couple were on intimate terms with Eisenhower, and Luce was in his element. “He fancies he is molding the destiny of the U.S. in the world,” a disgruntled deputy noted.

In fact, he was sinking into a sadness. In 1956 he began a furtive affair with a much younger woman, Jeanne Campbell, the daughter of Lord Beaverbrook. But his halfhearted efforts to obtain a divorce from Clare came to nothing. In spite of their estrangement, they still somehow depended on each other. Jeanne broke things off with Luce a few years later by taking up with Norman Mailer. Luce had lost his last chance for romance. Meanwhile his health was failing. In 1958 he suffered his first heart attack. As he neared sixty, he seemed distracted and depressed, and he looked much older than his years. He had always lacked humor and social grace, but now, a friend said, he seemed “the loneliest man I’ve ever known.”

The last hurrah for Luce’s American Century came in his attempt to promote a debate about “The National Purpose.” For years he had been concerned that Americans were sinking into a swamp of comfortable complacency, a society where “Nobody Is Mad at Nobody,” as Life put it in 1955. (This may be hard to imagine in our America of rage and invective.) The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 brought other critics around to his view. In 1959, Walter Lippmann observed that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War because it was a “purposeful society,” while the United States was behaving as if its purposes had already been accomplished.

This argument spoke directly to Luce the moralist: it was time, he decided, to rededicate ourselves to our providential mission as a nation. In 1960, he convened a number of prominent Americans—including Adlai Stevenson, Billy Graham, Archibald MacLeish, James Reston, and Walter Lippmann—to write a series of essays for Life about how to revive the flagging national purpose. Most tried to embed Luce’s lodestar, “freedom,” in a more robust communal or social context. None succeeded in producing anything memorable, except for the occasional alliterative phrase: MacLeish complained about the “flatulence and fat of an overfed people.” The contributors’ only common commitment, in the end, was to the idea of commitment.

Still, the “national purpose” project was well-timed. The candidacy of John F. Kennedy addressed many of the same concerns, with similarly vague results in the realm of rhetoric, and catastrophically specific results in the precincts of policy. Luce was not opposed to Nixon, but he liked Kennedy’s dynamism, his zeal for “action” and for “getting the country moving again.” He also liked Kennedy’s apparent commitment to racial equality. But most of all he liked Kennedy’s call for a more flexible and aggressive foreign policy.

As the consequences of this policy began to unfold in Vietnam, Time’s correspondent Charles Mohr reported that the South Vietnamese army was not holding its own against the Communist insurgency, the Viet Cong. Like Chambers re-writing White’s reports from China, Time’s managing editor Otto Fuerbringer transformed Mohr’s dark dispatches into optimistic accounts of an emerging joint venture between the United States and South Vietnam. Assigned to report on Madame Ngo Dinh Diem, the wife of the South Vietnamese president’s brother, Mohr revealed the powerful Ngo family’s corruption, incompetence, and insulation from the Vietnamese people. But what appeared in Time was a puff piece announcing that “the bravest woman in South Vietnam ... is Mme. Ngo Dinh Diem.”

By this time Luce was far from the daily workings of his magazines and on the verge of retirement. But Time’s distortions of the news from Vietnam were consistent with Luce’s established editorial policies as well as with his deepest moral commitments—to military confrontation with a Communist enemy that he deemed monolithic and diabolical; to the spread of American values abroad, by force if necessary. He embraced journalistic practices that would slant the news to promote his mission, that would elevate ideology over experience and observation. Whatever his many publishing achievements, when it came to presenting the news, the preacher’s son was little more than a propagandist. In an interview with Luce in 1966, a year before he died, the historian Eric Goldman wondered whether the publisher’s interventionist sermons had promoted “a kind of modern day American imperialism.” We may wonder, too.

It would be tempting, but mistaken, to see Luce as a figure whose time has passed. To be sure, the mass audience that he courted has fragmented into a hundred niche markets, and the patriarchal editorial voice that he cultivated so carefully has been transformed, for good and ill, into a million twitters. But the world of celebrity journalism that Luce helped to create survives and flourishes: surface sensations remain the coin of the realm, and the successful manipulation of appearances is still the path to cultural and political power. The most important continuity is in foreign policy, where Luce’s missionary rhetoric has returned to sanctify military adventure and to cloud debate. The big man’s ghost still haunts us. Whether we can ever completely exorcise it remains an open question. 

Jackson Lears is editor of Raritan and author, most recently, of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (Harper).

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