Luce et Veritas
IN THE END THIS BOOK gets around to quite notable exaggeration, distortion and omission of fact. But it begins, as it probably ought to, in China.
The time is 1945. The war is over.
Henry Luce, aged 47, is busy consulting with generals, visiting with correspondents, dining with his old friend Chiang Kaishek. He is full of hopes for the country where he was born, though history was soon to deal those hopes and Luce's judgment of the situation an overwhelming blow.
W.A. Swanberg (Citizen Hearst; Pulitzer) handles these early chapters with only hints of polemics to come. The existence of the invading Japanese, for example, who were, after all, the first cause for American aid to China, is barely mentioned because Swanberg wants to suggest that U.S. aid to China was all Luce's fault. Still, one has a sense of Luce as a human being, of issues thoughtfully considered, and of the practical details of running a large collection of magazines. The threat of Mao and the Communist takeover is just over the horizon. Closer at hand is trouble with a correspondent—Theodore H. White—who saw that Chiang was no longer (if he ever had been) a reliable leader, told Luce about it in many files but was not much listened to.
Piety. Flashbacks to a pious childhood as a missionary's son in Shantung province follow, along with some overdone conjecture about the psychological effect on Luce of the Boxer Rebellion, which forced his family to flee China temporarily when the boy was two. Then come a series of stories of Luce's rivalry at Hotchkiss and Yale with Briton Hadden, the eventual co-founder of TIME. It was Hadden who first laid on the early TIMEstyle back-to-front sentence structure and extravagant use of Homeric epithet. He also provided biographers with an indispensable, all-purpose anecdote, shouting at the preoccupied and serious young Luce in New Haven: "Look out, Harry, you'll drop the college!" Their amazing success is a familiar story. TIME is founded in 1923 on capital of $86,000 scrounged mainly from the parents of college friends. FORTUNE follows, at $1 per copy in the first year of the Depression, the March of Time and LIFE, not to mention Wolcott Gibbs' still funny parody in The New Yorker: "Where it all will end, knows God!"
Marriages, children, friends, slices of moderately high life are scattered through the book, along with references to Luce's indifference to food and small talk, and his yearning to win at tennis and golf. Once, as Luce teed off against the Rev. John Courtney Murray and Emmet John Hughes, Murray remarked to Hughes: "You are looking at the only man I know who can will a golf ball 200 yards."
But Luce's life was mainly professional. He spent most of his time working, traveling, bombarding his editors with ideas, engaging in the political affairs of his time. Swanberg's book is less a biography than an ideological assessment, and it soon becomes an all-out political assault on Luce—for his muscular Christianity, his anti-Communist internationalism, and his notion that divine providence helped in the origin of the American experiment and gave America a special mission to help make the world safe for democracy.
These beliefs—once regarded as virtues—are now looked upon as darkest vices by, among others, Swanberg and revisionist historians who blame the U.S. for the cold war. In a domino theory of guilt, they blame the cold war for McCarthyism, a divided republic, disorder in the streets, and finally those delusions and official repressions of truth which have led us to the agony of Viet Nam.
Luce's internationalism was partly responsible for turning the country around just before World War II and urging help for European democracies. America's later cold war effort was effective in Europe, where there were democratic institutions to preserve and modern economies to shore up. But where no nucleus of parliamentary tradition existed—especially amid the cultural complexities of Asia—doctrinaire anti-Communism has often proved futile or baneful. There is no reason why Swanberg, as a hostile biographer of Henry Luce, should not call the man and his publications into account for notable contributions to policies that have gone wrong.
But Swanberg's book suffers from the notion that any stigma will do to beat a dogma. He largely ignores historical context. He clearly regards religion as a menace, and Luce's faith as prima-facie evidence of simplemindedness. He takes any anti-Communist statement as a sign of villainy. He will not rest until he has made Luce into a monstrous caricature, the evil genius of everything that he objects to in U.S. policy and character for the past 40 years. Luce was the lackey of big business and the arch-architect of the cold war. Luce was a power-mad Yaleman, indifferent alike to people and poverty. Luce was a not so cryptofascist who had no faith in democratic institutions. Swanberg brushes aside Luce's long and evident concern for constitutional rights and the law as mere window dressing for the new American imperialism. No detail seems beyond use. Luce's influence is blamed for the bloodthirstiness of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who describes the joys of shooting "Commies." In four juxtaposed sentences, Swanberg even links Luce's cold war exhortations with the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas.
When it comes to the magazines, the author is not content with citing serious "Lucepress" distortions, mainly from the 1952 and 1956 political campaigns and the Eisenhower presidential years, as well as getting splendid mileage out of those upbeat adjectives often overused in past TIME cover stories about generals and tycoons ("lean, greying six-footer," "strapping," "homespun," "tireless"). He implies that the cover of TIME was simply a plum handed out by Luce personally, quite apart from the news value of the subject. As Swanberg sees it, there was no news in TIME on politics, science, the law, education, etc. It was all just propaganda to manipulate 50 million readers who have, he suggests, all become dupes of Luce's damnable Christian anti Communism.
Conspiracy. In other circumstances, Swanberg's implication that no other publications influenced people and policies might be a compliment—but is still false. A certain confusion is evident too. Luce leads the U.S. into World War II, the cold war and Viet Nam, ruthlessly shaping public opinion. But when Swanberg needs other ways to discredit him, he has Luce acting from fear of public opinion. TIME'S attacks on Joe McCarthy, Swanberg regards as an example.
The conspiracy theory of history customarily obscures such lessons as can be learned from the past. Swanberg correctly deplores the "20 years of treason" label which Republicans used to blame Democrats for the fact that the post-World War II decade did not swiftly flower into the American century. But Swanberg has done the same kind of thing himself.
Like most countries, the U.S. has a weakness for panaceas, a fondness for recrimination after failure. But history and human nature dash many widely held hopes and apparently reasonable judgments. For a long time, Luce could not admit to himself Chiang's fatal weaknesses. Similarly, men who called Luce a fascist in the 1930s could not face the fact of Stalin's purges. Today liberals regard the American labor movement as warmongering, reactionary and materialist; 40 years ago, they assumed that the rise of strong unions would make egalitarian America awake and sing. The sense of One Worldly responsibility that Luce and others followed to stir the U.S. out of isolationism in 1937-1940, and so help preserve Europe from Adolf Hitler, has now become a rhetorical excuse for bombing Viet Nam. That is, among other things, an American tragedy, which might have been profitably explored through the life and times of Henry R. Luce. Swanberg, alas, was too angry to be serious.