The Nation , an American weekly magazine, was first published on 6th July, 1865 by Joseph H. Richards. It claimed that it intended to: "(1) To discuss current affairs, especially in their legal, economic, and constitutional phases, with more moderation than the party press; (2) to maintain true democratic principles; (3) to work for the equality of the labouring classes at the South; (4) to enforce the doctrine that the whole country has the strongest interest in the elevation of the Negro; (5) to fix attention on the importance of popular education; (6) to inform the country of conditions in the southern states; (7) to criticize books and works of art soundly and impartially." Its original sponsors were concerned with securing full rights for the newly freed slaves. The first editor was Edwin L. Godkin (1865-81) but much of the writing was done by William Dean Howells.
The Nation was sold to Henry Villard in June, 1881. After Villard's became owner of the magazine, editors have included Wendell Phillips Garrison (1881-1906), Hammond Lamont (1906-09), Paul Elmer More (1909-14) and Harold De Wolf Fuller (1914-18).
Oswald Garrison Villard became editor of The Nation in 1918. His friend, Carl Schurz, also became a regular contributor to the magazine. Villard held radical political opinions and gave his support to women's suffrage, trade union law reform and equal rights for African Americans, and was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
A pacifist, Villard opposed America's participation in the First World War. This upset his patriotic readers and advertisers and Villard was forced to sell the New York Evening Post. However, he retained The Nation and continued to use this as the personal organ of his views. He recruited several radical journalists including Norman Thomas, Freda Kirchway and Emily Balch.
In May, 1921, Villard appointed Ernest Gruening as managing editor of the journal. He employed a wide-range of contributors including Mary Heaton Vorse, Henry Nevinson, Henry L. Mencken, John A. Hobson, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, William DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Herrick, Anatole France, Lewis Stiles Gannett, Arthur Gleason, Irita Bradford, Carl Van Doren and Mark Van Doren. Gruening also recruited Art Young: "Another new feature was the cartoons of Art Young, a pink-faced, rolypoly cherub with a delicious and irreverent sense of humor. Along with Max Eastman and other editors of The Masses, he had been a target of Postmaster General Burleson and was tried for dissent from America's participation in the war."
Gruening employed several Europeans to write about foreign affairs. He wrote in Many Battles (1973): "The Nation also made a continuing effort to establish understanding with the new regime in Soviet Russia. A brilliant, two-part article by Bertrand Russell, based upon his own first-hand experience, was as fine and balanced a guide to the truth about Russia as could be found in any American publication, at a time when misrepresentation and distortion prevailed."
Ernest Gruening was also involved in the struggle over the right of Margaret Sanger to distribute birth-control literature. When Patrick Hayes, the Archbishop of New York, condemned Sanger's attempts to hold a meeting in the city on the subject, he commented that "I am confident that in this great city of ours the majority of the women are too pure, clear-minded and self-respecting to want to attend or hear a discussion of such a revolting subject." In the next edition of The Nation Gruening argued: "The Archbishop has furnished the birth control movement with advertising worth thousands of dollars. He has given all anti-clericals definite and specific evidence of clerical interference in government and hostility to the fundamental American rights of free speech which will be used in those anti-Catholic campaigns which The Nation has deplored."
Gruening invited William R. Inge, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London, to write an article on birth-control, which began: "The control of parenthood is perhaps the most important movement in our time. It is not only universal in the civilized world, but the degree to which it is practiced is a very fair gauge of the position of that country in the scale of civilization." Gruening added: "I continued my own activities in behalf of the birth-control movement which for the next third of a century continued to be opposed by the same forces against which Margaret Sanger had battled so indomitably."
The Nation faithfully supported radical causes. Although it only had a circulation of around 25,000 but it had a tremendous influence in political and intellectual circles. The journal generally supported left-wing presidential candidates including Eugene V. Debs (1920), Robert LaFollette, (1924) and Norman Thomas (1928). In 1932 Oswald Garrison Villard favoured Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal proposals.
Oswald Garrison Villard resigned as editor of The Nation in 1933 and was replaced by Freda Kirchway. Villard remained the publisher, but Kirchwey now had complete control over the content of the journal. Although she had campaigned for Norman Thomas for president, she supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programme.
Raymond Gram Swing, who also worked for The Nation , later wrote: "Of Miss Kirchwey, on whom the chief responsibility for conducting the magazine rested, I wish to say that she was one of the best and most likable journalists with whom I ever worked. I am tempted to call her the best woman journalist I ever encountered, but hesitate to rank her ahead of Dorothy Thompson, who was a better writer. But she was among the superior women journalists of her time."
Over the next few years she used her power to campaign against the fascist regimes in Europe. When Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 she wrote that he represented "the abolition of personal liberty, for prejudice, for reaction, for race hatred and persecution, for terror and murder." Kirchwey argued that the United States should abandon its policy of isolationism and urged the government to impose economic boycotts on Germany and Italy.
Freda Kirchway also advocated a close alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In August 1935 she warned "that the basic conflict of the next ten years will not be between capitalism and revolution but between fascism and democracy - a struggle in which the forces of revolution must support." However, Kirchwey's views on the soviet government were dramatically shaken by the Great Purge when some of her political friends were executed by Joseph Stalin.
The Nation also wanted the United States administration to aid republicans in Spain against General Francisco Franco. In an article she wrote entitled Spain is the Key in February 1937 she made the forecast that "Franco's success would encourage the Nazis to go and do likewise in Czechoslovakia, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, or anywhere else. Defeated in Spain, Hitler would be sobered and checked. He would also be weakened by the expenditure on Franco of several hundred million dollars. If the fascists are beaten in Spain, they are weakened everywhere. The supreme test of an anti-fascist is not what he says but what he does for Spain."
Kirchwey supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in his campaign against the Supreme Court. In an editorial in The Nation she wrote "The soil of economic chaos out of which fascism grows has been amply supplied by the court's refusal to allow national action for economic control." This upset her publisher, Oswald Garrison Villard, who believed that the president was wrong to try and control the decisions of the court. Kirchwey refused to change her stance on this issue and to maintain her independence she decided to try and buy the journal. In June 1937, Kirchwey and her husband purchased it for $20,000.
In 1938 Congress established the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate people suspected of unpatriotic behaviour. Kirchwey believed that the setting up of the HUAC was an attempt to restrict the freedom of the press and she accused Martin Dies, its chairman, as a "one-man Gestapo from Texas." She added that "Dies isn't after sedition; he is after you and me and the President."
After the outbreak of the Second World War The Nation campaigned for the United States to give more help to Jews trying to escape from persecution in Germany and the occupied territories. She wrote in January 1940 that "thousands of European Jews will die, unnecessarily, if we do not reach them with our life-giving dollars."
Kirchwey also called for universal military training in the United States. This upset Oswald Garrison Villard who severed all ties with the journal and stopped writing his weekly column, Personal and Private. Kirchwey's articles in favour of American support for the Allies against Nazi Germany lost the journal a large number of readers. She refused to compromise her views and in August 1941 wrote: "Before its total, uncompromising demands are laid upon them, the people of America must learn that this war is their war; that they cannot dodge it or buy their way out of it; that they must fight it because fighting is the only alternative to surrender.
By January 1942 over half a million Jews had been exterminated in Europe. This received little coverage in newspapers in the United States. This was not true of The Nation and the journal published a series of articles by Philip S. Bernstein detailing what was happening in the concentration camps being run by the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Freda Kirchway upset many liberals in March 1942 by arguing in favour of the fascist being suppressed. Her long time friend Norman Thomas wrote to her pointing out: " In ten years or less it won't be the people you want to suppress now who will be suppressed and stay suppressed by your theory; it will be yourselves along with many others, unless, indeed, you want to go farther than I think you do in support of a Roosevelt totalitarianism. Don't forget that neither Roosevelt nor anybody else is immortal. The principles once established are apt to outlive men."
When the American Civil Rights Union (ACLU) decided to defend the freedom of the fascist press she resigned her membership. John Haynes Holmes wrote to her explaining the decision of the ACLU: "I would fight to the death to maintain their (fascists) liberties, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a democracy which disappears when such liberties are withdrawn. Indeed, it is no longer a democracy, but to the extent at least that civil liberties are denied, has already itself become a fascist state.
The Nation continued to lose money and was in danger of closing. In 1943 Kirchwey made an appeal for $25,000 to keep it in business. The readers raised $36,000 and the money was used to establish Nation Associates. This new organization published the journal and arranged political conferences.
After the war Kirchwey was criticized for of her support of the Soviet Union. When long time staff member Louis Fischer resigned over this issue, Kirchwey wrote in the journal: "We believe Russian policy is primarily a security policy, not an imperialist one; it can become dangerous to the world, therefore, only if Russia decides that the other major powers are plotting against it."
Kirchwey was one of America's strongest critics of McCarthyism. In one article written in June 1950 she defined McCarthyism as "the means by which a handful of men, disguised as hunters of subversion, cynically subvert the instruments of justice and hold up to contempt the government itself in order to help their own political fortunes."
In September 1955 Freda Kirchway retired as editor of The Nation and was replaced by Carey McWilliams. He instituted investigative reports on domestic issues. This included a series on Jim Crow Laws and articles on consumer issues by Ralph Nader. In November 1960 McWilliams was the first American reporter to reveal that the CIA was training a group of Cuban exiles in Guatemala for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
McWilliams upset a large number of people on the left with his views on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of those was his friend Mark Lane who tried to find a magazine to publish his article of the assassination. “The obvious choice, I thought, was the Nation. Its editor, Carey McWilliams, was an acquaintance. He had often asked me to write a piece for him… McWilliams seemed pleased to hear from me and delighted when I told him I had written something I wished to give to the Nation. When he learned of the subject matter, however, his manner approached panic.” McWilliams told Lane: “We cannot take it. We don’t want it. I am sorry but we have decided not to touch that subject.”
McWilliams also gave his support to the Warren Commission Report. It has been suggested that the critics of the lone-gunman theory were particularly hurt by his support. In a debate that took place at Beverly Hills High School on 4th December, 1964, Abraham L. Wirin, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in California and a man who had been closely associated in the past with the American Communist Party, told the audience that he tried to make up his own mind on important issues, but in the case of the Warren Commission he relied on the opinions of people who he could trust: "I consider Carey McWilliams and The Nation , as an individual and a newspaper, respectively, whose judgment I respect. I do not consider Carey McWilliams or The Nation, a person or a newspaper, which would participate in a fraud, or would condone it." Wirin pointed out The Nation had carried an article in support of the Warren Report and added: "now, that carries a lot of weight with me."