I am not sure that the United States can claim full credit for having invented the weekly newsmagazine, but certainly that staple of modern middlebrow world culture was brought to full maturity by two Americans, Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden, co-founders of Time magazine, the first issue of which they produced in March 1923. Hadden died in 1929, but Luce remained Editor in Chief of Time until 1964, by which time he presided over a considerable magazine- and book-publishing empire. That empire was, though, much more than a mere commercial enterprise. By the mid-1950s, asserts the author of this book, “Time Inc. was an arm of U.S. foreign policy.” Robert E. Herzstein has set out to tell us how this extraordinary state of affairs came about — how a mere magazine, one that neither had nor claimed to have any intellectual depth, but was largely a collection of wire-service reports “interpreted” by anonymous editors, played a part in our country’s struggle with Asian communism through the middle decades of the last century.
The first phase of that struggle was the effort to assist Chiang Kai-shek’s war against China’s communists from 1945 onwards. Henry R. Luce had been born in China, in 1898, to missionary parents, and spent the first fourteen years of his life there. The precise psychological nature of his attachment to China is a mystery upon which Mr. Herzstein’s book sheds no light. Herzstein does not, for example, tell us (and I do not know) how well Luce understood the Chinese language. Luce himself admitted that: “I know nothing of their [Chinese] social life aside from the formal feasts and holidays.” I have seen no evidence that Luce was acquainted with Chinese literature or high culture at all. After leaving China in 1912, he did not return for twenty years, and then only for a visit. The springs of his China enthusiasm, whatever they were, lay sealed up inside the personality of this man described by colleagues as cold, aloof, charmless, and lonely.
Herzstein makes it plain, at any rate, that Luce was a great American internationalist, who believed that, in his own words: “If ever a nation had a mission, that nation is America.” His vision of an “American century,” which he laid out in detail in a 1941 essay, foresaw the winning of WW2 by a U.S.-led alliance, followed by a worldwide missionary endeavor to bring Christianity and the rule of law to all humanity. For a writer of our own time, the temptation to draw parallels with the present administration’s campaign to convert the Muslim Middle East to liberal democracy is hard to resist. Mr. Herzstein does not resist it. At the very end of his book he says:
As for American nation-making, it appears that Luce’s formula works only when a shattered society … commits to rebuild and renew structures swept aside by fascism, militarism, and dictatorship. Until a repressive society has faced trauma and defeat, and unless it can draw upon earlier capitalist, technical, and liberal models, the American century is an export doomed to failure.
Aside from this closing admonition, however, (and a similar, briefer remark in the Preface) Herzstein does not preach. Everything else in his book is straightforward narrative, describing in great detail the part played by Luce and Time in the great mid-century Asian conflicts: WW2, the Chinese civil war, Korea, and Vietnam.
The main thing a reader of Mr. Herzstein’s book will want to know is the degree to which Luce was able to influence American policy-makers, and the American public, towards his view of the U.S. as an evangelizing force, especially in Asia. The answer seems to be: Nothing like as much as Luce wished, or, probably, believed. The wily and cautious Eisenhower, for example, cultivated Luce, whose magazines then dominated the market. Ike did not, however, follow any of Luce’s advice, and on one occasion studiously practiced his golf swing while Luce pleaded with him for a more forward policy in Asia. Says the author: “[Ike] smiled at the China lobby — but warded off its embrace.”
Luce had somewhat better luck with Kennedy, whose book Why England Slept he had helped to promote, and with whose father he had already been friendly before WW2. The Luce-Kennedy connection was an odd one, as Luce was a firm Republican (a thing JFK liked to tease him about), and Joe Kennedy’s isolationism sat oddly with Luce’s internationalism. The relationship flourished during the Kennedy presidency none the less, and Luce was instrumental in scotching an early initiative to allow Beijing to take the China seat at the U.N. His efforts to promote large-scale intervention in Vietnam went less well; but the scale of the crisis brewing there did not become apparent to the administration until the very end of JFK’s presidency.
Time‘s influence on the large American public is more difficult to judge. I think Mr. Herzstein sums it up pretty well: “Only when an issue gripped the public’s imagination, and the politicians failed to act, could the Luce network influence great political debates.” I was a bit surprised to learn that Time, for all its reputation as a voice of the fiercest anti-Communism, was no fan of Joe McCarthy, nor he of it. This followed, though, from the first commandment of journalism: Know Thy Readers, and from Time‘s position as the middle-class, middlebrow American’s magazine of choice. McCarthy was a populist, appealing to a base of ethnics, Catholics, and working-class folk. He was, in short, not a Time sort of person at all, and Luce negotiated his magazine very skillfully through the shoals and reefs of that period, keeping its anti-Communist credentials intact but the boorish senator at arm’s length. Herzstein calls Time‘s coverage of McCarthy and his doings “slippery” and “opportunistic,” which seems about right.
Mr. Herzstein tells the story he has to tell without much in the way of wit or color. I laughed only twice: at Clare Boothe Luce’s joke at the start of Chapter 14 (she suggested that Henry marry his young mistress and she the mistress’s grandfather, Lord Beaverbrook, thus making herself Henry’s grandmother), and at Time‘s inability to decide, in 1962, whether South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu was Joan of Arc or Lucrezia Borgia. (She proved to be the latter.) For sheer density of material, though, and for insights into the relationship between journalism and high policy, this book is very informative, and I recommend it to anyone interested in U.S.-Asian relations during the early Cold War years.