The First 50 Years: The emergence of a Catholic voice
When I was invited last summer by James Martin, S.J., to write a retrospective piece for the magazine’s centennial issue, I accepted right away. My plan was to spend a couple of days in the archives, skimming through issues to pick out what was attracting the editors’ attention decade by decade, and build the piece around that. I duly showed up one day in December, and as soon as I saw the archive, realized I had not done the arithmetic. One hundred years, it turned out, is 4,851 issues; and the early issues were very thick—90 pages or more! Worse, they were interesting. After spending nearly a whole day, I was just starting on 1911. Rapid-fire mental calculations suggested I would still be there in April…or maybe June. Necessity spurs invention, though, and I finally devised a system involving a digital camera and my laptop, so that I could store lots of page impressions and work on the text at any spare moment in early mornings or late evenings, in airports or dull meetings.
The summaries below are by no means a statistically valid sample. But I did have a distinct impression that there were clusters of issues in each decade, and sometimes tonal changes. That is what I have tried to capture.
Decade One: 1909-18
From the start, the breadth of America’s foreign coverage was remarkable, if a bit random, for it was mostly a collection of dispatches from the far-flung network of Jesuit correspondents. But for the broadly curious reader, the unpredictability of the topics would have been part of the appeal. So readers were treated to disquisitions on tensions between Egypt and Sudan, a report on the French labor movement, a Jewish pogrom in Russia, British coal strikes and hookworm in Puerto Rico. There was special attention, of course, to events in Rome, but also, as for most of America’s first 50 years, to Ireland.
The intellectual tone was high, roughly that of, say, The North American Review. There was an appreciation of the greatness of the 18th-century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler and essays on Darwinism and on ancient measurements of the size and sphericity of the earth. Occasionally, “high-toned” drifted into snobbishness. One article worried about the new “heartiness” in family life, all this “Dad” and “Sis,” all the “coming and going, banging the door.”
The dominant early themes, however, persisted for most of the magazine’s life—concerns for labor, for child welfare, the abominations of the factory system and “Taylorism,” or the efficiency craze. America deplored Catholic indifference to Negroes and the anti-Semitic opposition to Louis Brandeis’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. The editors worried about rising divorce rates and were skeptical about economists as the new “oracles” and about the “self-realization” movement. Social reform experts at the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations evoked particular wariness, along with the suggestion that they get “in more intimate touch with the many-sided wretchedness that preys upon mankind.” The (now-famous) Carnegie-sponsored Flexner Report on upgrading medical education was viewed as a first step toward regimenting higher education.
America was consistently antiwar. In 1912, the editors viewed signs of German armament with foreboding. A leftist takeover in Mexico in 1913 was a foretaste of the much bloodier Spanish Civil War a quarter-century later. The new Carranza government was despoiling church properties and reportedly committing atrocities against priests and nuns; but to America’s despair it was also being recognized by the Wilson administration.
On the European front, America railed at what it regarded as the pro-British tilt in the U.S. press and its “maliciously wrong” reports on Germany and German intentions. It countered with positive reports on German social conditions (which were quite good by the day’s standard). Wilson’s declaration of war in 1917 was reported flatly but paired with a Reichstag declaration of intent to democratize German colonies. (Suspicion of America’s German sympathies was such that after the U.S. entered the war, each week’s issue had to be pre-cleared with American security authorities.)
War reporting, although obviously compiled from news services, was crisp and coherent; unusually for an American journal, the weekly war wrap-up was a rounded summary of events, without special emphasis on American troops. The editors gave considerable attention to Pope Benedict XV’s seven-point Papal Peace proposal, attempting to counter the impression that the pope was pro-German.
Matters of religion and church affairs were in every issue but were not especially prominent: a visit to Lourdes, anticlericalism in Italy, the question of Mass attendance in Paris. In contrast to more recent times, these tended to be reports of external events rather than analyses of doctrine or points of internal controversy.
Decade Two: 1919-28
The Versailles conference dominated America’s foreign coverage in the first part of the decade, but with a special, if futile, plea to include the Irish question in the settlement process. Eamon de Valera’s denunciation of the British presence in Northern Ireland was reproduced at length—“torturing prisoners, assassinating men and boys in the streets and the prisons, murdering women, children and clergymen, and outraging Irish women and girls.”
The magazine’s eclectic foreign coverage included a long report on Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest in Bombay that prompted violent riots and also editorial skepticism about his commitment to nonviolence. Other reports included the striking fall in French fertility rates and a detailed review of the findings of a self-appointed “American Commission” to investigate conditions in Ireland.
The postwar “Red scare” swept the country with the full approval of America. The peace conference had covered up the “horror” in Russia, the editors said, and they warned of Communist influence in the Industrial Workers of the World, and the growing Bolshevik influence in Jugo-Slavia.
On economics and social questions, the magazine continued its generally populist line. Readers were offered a detailed examination of the housing shortage in New York City and a strong critique of the use of I.Q. tests as a “sieve” to filter the brightest students. America lamented the continued rejection of child labor legislation, the plague of injuries to industrial workers, thuggery in labor unions and the corrupt big-business establishment exposed by the Teapot Dome scandal.
The editors’ attitude toward government was decidedly ambivalent. The magazine advocated strong protective social legislation and tough penalties for business malefactors, but at the same time it feared the expansion of government power. So America opposed the nationalization of the railroads at the close of the war and ridiculed Prohibition—the “plutocrat” could do as he pleased, while the government attacks “the worker’s…right to drink his glass of beer.” The worker’s right to educate his children will be next, the editors grumbled, and they continued to warn of the Carnegie Foundation’s drive to standardize education. While the magazine deplored the indecency of the movies, it never called for government regulation. The Catholic “Clean pictures by clean actors” campaign was a private affair.
The secularist assault on traditional morals, and the consequent “rampant” divorce rates, were a constant theme, and a long essay on the new psychiatry worried that “psychoneurosis” was dissolving concepts of sin. America stuck to its strong antidiscrimination line. It was not demanding the integration of Negroes “in the social or profane sense,” it insisted, but religion was their “God-given heritage.” Accomplish integration in worship, they argued, “and the other tangled threads…will unravel themselves”—conceding, however, that such a message was “not welcome” in white Catholic communities. The magazine was a consistent opponent of immigration restraints and was greatly worried by signs of a Ku Klux Klan revival.
The decade concluded with a prescient reflection on “Our Growing Prosperity.” Amid “falling employment and falling wages,” the editors wrote, the press should cease trumpeting “the automobiles, the bank accounts, and the unexampled prosperity of the working classes.”
Decade Three: 1929-38
The editors were gape-jawed at the “economic blizzard” that struck the world in 1929, an ill wind that seemed “nasty, capricious, [and] self-appointed,” for interviews with experts suggested no consensus on its causes. America also noted that fewer than 10 Catholics were studying for Ph.D.’s in economics. (The “economics” then taught in most Catholic colleges focused on distributional ethics.)
Depression and looming war dominated the decade’s pages. America was decidedly impatient with Herbert Hoover at the end of his term and was welcoming of Franklin Roosevelt, cheering the introduction of unemployment insurance and calling for utility-rate regulation. But the magazine also noted the Depression’s efficacy in slowing the arms race. The Rev. Charles Coughlin received a great deal of space in the mid-1930s, most of it critical but focused on his nationalization proposals. Anti-Coughlin pieces drew huge volumes of reader mail, overwhelmingly pro-Coughlin. Even after Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitism had become blatant, the editors protested the government shutdown of his radio broadcasts on free-speech grounds, objecting to censorship “exercised by one of our smallest and yet most powerful minorities.”
Dorothy Day made her America debut in 1933 with pieces on the Washington Hunger March and the allure of Communism for intellectuals. A piece by John LaFarge, S.J., blamed the Harlem riots of 1935 on white Communist radicals stirring up youth gangs, but offered a detailed analysis of Harlemites’ annual spending versus the lack of any black employees at the major companies taking their money. The editors praised the 1932 Supreme Court decision reversing the conviction of the “Scottsboro boys” and deplored the persistence of lynching in the South. Worries about Communists in the labor movement persisted, but the editors suggested in 1938 that joining a union was “nearly” a duty for Catholics.
America’s view of Adolf Hitler turned negative early in his chancellorship, since the Nazi program was fundamentally “inconsistent with decent ethics.” By 1935, the editors wrote, amid “fresh outrages against Catholics and Jews…official Germany resembles nothing so much as a madhouse.” From then on, there was a steady drumbeat of pieces on the Nazi “orgy of Teutonic paganism,” their depredations against Catholic hospitals and asylums, interference with Catholic schools and dioceses, arrests of priests and nuns. The reports implied, however, that Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy presented a solid front of opposition to the regime.
On the Spanish Civil War, by contrast, America had no qualms. Regardless of the abuses of the Nationalists, and notwithstanding their Nazi and Fascist support, it was a Catholic party and, the editors wrote, one cannot be “anti-God,” as the Soviet-backed Republicans surely were. Efforts were being made to lift the embargo on international arms shipments to the combatants, but this would have benefited the Republicans. Catholic opposition appears to have been decisive, and the embargo remained. America contrasted liberal revulsion at the atrocities against Jews in Germany, which they fully shared, with the “ominous silence regarding persecutions far more bloody, protracted and extended” against religious and Catholic lay people in Spain (see sidebar).
America stuck with its antiwar position during the run-up to World War II. The magazine had published a military expert’s analysis of the possible course of an American war with Japan and how “very deadly” it would be. The editors were very pleased with the 1938 (“peace in our time”) Munich Agreement. A featured article argued that the administration’s assistance to China in its war with Japan was a dangerous violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Neutrality Act and risked involving the United States in the war.
Decade Four: 1939-48
The gentlemanly intellectualism that marked the first couple of decades of America was completely gone by the 1940s. Instead, the magazine was a fully engaged journal of advocacy—pro-union, anti-Communist, pro-civil rights and social welfare and generally, but not absolutely, pacifist.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 elicited much justified jeering among Catholic critics of American Communists and fellow travelers. Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen’s America piece was titled, “When Stalin Kissed Hitler the Communists Blushed Red.” John LaFarge, S.J., examined the Catholic antiwar position to show that it did not bar all wars, implying that a war against totalitarianism might well pass muster. (There was also a strange, and possibly anti-Semitic, article by Ezra Pound, fulminating against gold.)
At the same time, America rued the nation’s steady march toward war and worried that U.S. “Military Muscles Are Beginning to Bulge.” The conscription bill, the editors argued, was a preparation for war, not the advertised safeguard for peace, and they deplored how “mind after mind was smoothly persuaded” toward war by Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Oddly, an article on the British victory over the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee, romanticized the chivalrous behavior of both sides.
At home, Catholics were on the cusp of a great surge of political power, in both unions and government. America, like the labor priests who were regulars at union meetings, was an intellectual resource for a fledgling Catholic lay leadership. Some articles read almost like textbook chapters—how the National Labor Relations Act works, what is wrong with Communist-run unions, how to wrest local union leadership away from Communists. There was close tracking of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ progress against Communist infiltration.
By mid-decade, America finally had a real economist as a contributor—Mary Thomasine, O.P., a professor of economics at Rosary College in Illinois—who set about explaining arcana like the government’s tools for preventing a postwar depression and how the new international monetary arrangements would work. True to its principles, America insisted that civil liberties trumped anti-Communism, denouncing a House committee’s fishing-expedition subpoena of all the records of a local Communist party. A Communist’s civil rights, the editors insisted, were not a “grace,” but are his “not because he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Communist, but because he is a citizen.”
The dawning recognition in the spring of 1945 that democratic powers would win the wars in Europe and Asia brought fresh worries about the postwar objectives of Stalin and the Soviet Union, especially after the Yalta concession to the Sovietization of Poland. Just weeks later, America was nervously welcoming Harry Truman as the new president.
The response to the atomic bombing of Japan was oddly muted. “[The bomb] promises to exterminate completely Japan and the Japanese. In view of this Japan is expected to reconsider her refusal to surrender unconditionally.” That was followed by a long essay by John LaFarge, S.J., on the necessity of international control of atomic power.
When the war finally ended, America plumped for a quick return to normalcy. The magazine excoriated the proposals circulated by Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau for “pastoralizing” Germany, since the United States would need Germany as a critical bulwark against Soviet incursions. The editors also voiced considerable skepticism about the probabilities of the Soviets becoming reliable partners for American businesses.
With some relief, the magazine returned to more traditional concerns—the dearth of low- and middle-income housing in major cities, civil rights and a pleasant surprise in the form of a far-reaching New York anti-bias law.
Decade Five: 1949-58
America’s fifth decade was dominated by issues of labor and Communism: Communism abroad, Communism at home and Communism in the labor movement.
American companies had fattened on war profits, unions wanted their share, and the country was racked by strikes. America mocked Big Steel’s claim in 1950 that fully paid benefits were “revolutionary…socialistic,” lauded the more labor-friendly policies at General Motors and cheered the C.I.O.’s steady progress in expelling Communists.
America kept a nervous eye on the Sovietization of Eastern Europe and worried that the 1950 Korean incursion was a steppingstone to Japan. But they sharply called Harry Truman to task for suggesting the use of “nukes” in Korea. While the editors bowed to no one in their concern about internal subversion, they cheered Truman’s veto of the draconian McCarran Act; sacrificing civil liberties for anti-Communism, they argued, would be a victory for Communism. America was cautious on Senator Joseph McCarthy almost from the start and grew increasingly skeptical of his methods. Its 1954 review of the Army-McCarthy hearings was distinctly hostile to the senator.
Readers received a neutral parsing of the case against J. Robert Oppenheimer. In their report of its disposition, the editors noted that the review board might well have found for Oppenheimer had they been “free to exercise mature political judgment” outside the web of security rules.
America stayed true to its antidiscrimination principles. The editors deplored the resurgence of anti-Jewish vandals in Germany, a country that so recently “murdered five million Jews.” It foresaw a “long, hard” struggle in the South, noting that Louisiana had thumbed its nose at the 1954 Brown decision. Equal rights did not quite extend to women, however. Instead of “separate but equal,” they were “equal but different.”
Paul Blanshard was the editors’ favorite bête noir in the 1950s. His American Freedom and Catholic Power ran as a series in The Nation in 1949-50 and became a best-selling book. In truth, it was a backhanded compliment to the true political power that Catholics were steadily accumulating, especially in their big-city strongholds. America also worried about the overseas perception of the United States as depicted in Hollywood movies and about the spread of “value-free” social science in the colleges. A long literary article advised that even distasteful realism was appropriate in literature, if it was capturing social truths.
The launching of Sputnik prompted the same alarm in America as in the secular press, and the same worries that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and military technology.
The editors remained decisively on the left-liberal political spectrum on most social-policy questions. A full issue explored questions of housing, race and affordability. (Housing was quite constrained for at least a decade after the war.) Mental health was noted as the nation’s “Number One Medical Problem.” America endorsed the principle of national unemployment insurance, albeit cautiously, and complained that the poor could not get equal justice without a fully functioning system of public defenders. Specifically religious articles devoted great attention to Mary—the Rosary, the doctrine of the Assumption and her role as intercessor.
As it happened, the midpoint of America’s first century may have been the high point of what some writers have called the Catholic moment in the United States. America’s editorial policy was correspondingly outward-looking, pronouncing confidently on a wide range of political and social issues. The next half-century saw a gradual but very pronounced shift of focus toward issues within the church. The summary of those next 50 years will appear in a subsequent issue.