A Bold New Direction: Richard H. Tierney and America’s foray into politics
Upon his arrival in New York City to take up duties as an associate editor of America in July 1914, Paul Blakely, S.J., was eager to meet the newly minted third editor in chief of the five-year-old magazine, Richard H. Tierney, S.J. “My first impression was not pleasant,” Blakely later recalled. When taken to Tierney’s door, “The ‘come in’ I heard was barked, much in the manner of a drill sergeant expressing his opinion of a particularly awkward squad. I came in, and got my first view of the biggest man, mentally and morally, I have ever known.”
Blakely’s penchant for hyperbole aside, more than a few colleagues and acquaintances over the 11 years when Richard Tierney stood at the magazine’s helm described him in similar terms. He was by all accounts a physically intimidating man, tall and pugnacious in appearance, solidly built and quick in gesture, with a personality to match. His fellow editors considered him inspiring but mercurial, and sometimes lacking moderation in both personal matters and editorial opinions. A later editor called Tierney “a man of strong personal views, detesting sham and doubletalk, and shrinking from no controversy.” From 1914 to 1925, he also substantially changed America from a pacific and low-profile magazine into a controversial journal of opinion on the international political scene, bringing both new influence and unexpected notoriety to the magazine in the process.
Tierney was willing to wade into any fight, but three topics in particular were the focus of his efforts and ever-present subjects on the editorial pages in those years. World War I naturally dominated news coverage in almost every journal from 1914 to 1918, and America was no exception, offering religious and political commentary throughout the conflict. Also receiving considerable treatment in the pages of the magazine were religious persecution in Mexico and the struggle for Irish independence. Because of its treatment of each, the magazine under Tierney engaged in numerous public dust-ups with President Woodrow Wilson and officials in his administration, visits to the office and correspondence with the editors from all manner of foreign officials and dignitaries, seizures of copies of America by authorities ranging from the British government to American anti-espionage agencies, rumored death threats against Tierney and the staff, letters of commendation from two separate popes and, according to one editor, a wiretap on the office phones. While other issues were dissected and debated vigorously on the magazine’s editorial page (including Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the plight of Austria’s starving postwar population and U.S. government control over education), no subjects brought more attention to the magazine or elicited more words from Tierney and his staff than World War I and the plight of fellow Catholics in Ireland and Mexico in the 1910s and 1920s.
Born in New York City on Sept. 2, 1870, Tierney had entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1892 after graduating from St. Francis Xavier College in New York. After completing his Jesuit training and spending five years as a philosophy professor at the Jesuit seminary in Woodstock, Md., Tierney came to America in 1914 at age 43. Though he had published a book and numerous articles on education, he had no journalistic experience. It was therefore a surprise to some of the staff when, a month after his arrival, Tierney was appointed to replace Thomas J. Campbell, S.J., and became the magazine’s third editor in chief.
Editorially, Campbell’s tenure had been a staid and polite period for the magazine, remembered by one editor as “that slack period of Taft’s administration, when no great causes wrung attention, when only minor efforts seemed crying for refutation, when Europe was silently and sullenly preparing for war, and the United States was smugly plodding along between Roosevelt and Wilson.” Campbell’s careful management in the five years since the monetary crises that immediately followed the journal’s founding had brought it to solvency, but financial ruin still seemed just a day away. The magazine had been forced to give up its original quarters in Washington Square for financial reasons, and printing strikes often resulted in sporadic production and unreliable delivery. When the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the outbreak of World War I in Europe, the price of paper and other raw materials soared; printing and distribution costs for the magazine rose accordingly. The editors were forced to raise the price of a yearly subscription from three dollars to four.
A War of Words
Tierney’s most tense controversy came from an unexpected direction after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Government officials began monitoring suspected German sympathizers in the United States, and in one search of a suspected foreign agent’s home found a list of editors and writers whose assistance was thought to be useful in eliciting public sympathy for the German war effort; among the names was Joseph Husslein, S.J., a member of America’s editorial staff. The magazine had remained scrupulously neutral before the United States entered the war, even arguing against American entry into the conflict, while other journals were pushing for intervention on the side of the Allies. America soon found itself under government suspicion for pro-German sympathies. Other newspapers and journals similarly accused, including The Freeman’s Journal, had already been shut down, their editors arrested for “obstructing the war effort.”
Tierney issued an indignant denial through The New York Times of the magazine’s participation in any fifth column against the American war effort, noting that Husslein’s name appeared on the list without his knowledge or consent. After the entrance of the United States into the war, America had taken the “path of absolute loyalty to the declared policy of the Government,” he wrote. When Tierney was summoned to meet President Wilson at the White House in 1918 to discuss “Catholic matters,” he gathered the editors and asked them, “Are you all ready to be sent to Leavenworth Prison?” While the controversy proved to have short legs (and Leavenworth saw no Jesuit visitors), for the duration of the conflict America was obligated to send two copies of every issue to the solicitor general of the U.S. Post Office, where the magazine could be examined for disloyalty or sedition according to the terms of the Espionage Act of 1917.
South of the Border
After Mexico plunged into a series of coups and endless civil unrest after the Revolution of 1910, stories circulated in the United States about persecution of Mexican Catholics at the hands of anticlerical forces. By 1915, Tierney claimed to have collected a large dossier of testimonies from prominent Mexican citizens and foreign nationals in Mexico that proved the persecution was not only widespread, but was occurring with the full knowledge of the U.S. government. America’s repeated calls for the United States to protect the religious rights of the Mexican people turned the controversy into something of a cause célèbre in the second half of that decade. Loath to alienate their Mexican allies for fear of losing the valuable oil concessions controlled by American companies, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration neither intervened nor acknowledged any persecution.
When administration officials claimed in 1915 that the State Department had no record of any atrocities committed in Mexico and that Tierney had been misled by propaganda and forgeries, Tierney responded abrasively and at length in the pages of America. “Some men who seem to think they are baptized politicians, not Christians,” Tierney wrote in a signed editorial, “are declaring that they are fearful that I have not the facts. These people mistake the object of their fear. They do not fear that I have not the facts: they fear the facts. Let them not worry: splints for spines and rubber holders for knees will prevent their bodies from wobbling. Their souls. Ah, that is another question!”
At the same time, Tierney was drawing large crowds to public speaking engagements in New York to expose Mexican persecution of Catholics and to call for official American condemnation of it. In one engagement at Carnegie Hall in 1916, Tierney recounted for a crowd of 2,000 a long list of atrocities committed by Mexican troops against nuns and priests. “It is a revolution of rapine,” Tierney insisted, “and one that is carrying on its turgid waves the mangled bodies of men and the living souls of women and children, who are wailing piteously, crying hopelessly for help…. They are humanity’s problem—issues that concern man because he is a man, not a beast.”
Continued public sparring with the Wilson administration led to private hints of further intrigues, including a supposed plot against Tierney’s life by Mexican government agents and later claims by one editor of America that someone had tapped the magazine’s telephones. Tierney (and Blakely, as the primary author of editorials during the time) continued to denounce atrocities and American inactivity in the face of increasing evidence of their frequency. At the height of these tensions, Tierney received a letter from Pope Benedict XV praising his work on behalf of persecuted Catholics in Mexico.
Across the Pond
Despite the fevered pitch of editorial comment, even the Mexican controversy took a back seat on the magazine’s pages during Tierney’s editorship to the cause of Irish independence from Great Britain. The short-lived Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 had been met by stubborn British resistance to Irish independence in the following years, but the cause of the rebels drew enormous sympathy among the huge population of Irish immigrants and their descendants in the United States. When President Wilson pledged not to interfere with British policies on “the Irish Question” after World War I, America accused Wilson of violating his own principles of self-determination for all peoples.
When press reports indicated that America’s editors would host the Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera for a dinner in June 1919 after de Valera had successfully evaded British ships attempting to intercept him on his voyage to the United States, the British government forbade distribution of the magazine on Irish shores and confiscated all extant copies. (To avoid the appearance of impropriety, the editors decided to welcome de Valera for a visit to their residence, which was festooned with Irish flags for the occasion, but declined to offer him dinner.)
Tierney and his staff remained unrepentant, and continued to advance the Irish cause of independence from Great Britain throughout the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s. He and America were accused by Irish and English partisans of every political persuasion of unfair bias against their cause, and until Tierney’s dying days the Irish Question remained a focus of the magazine.
A Catholic Voice
By the fall of 1924, Tierney’s fellow editors began to worry that his health was failing, though he was just 54 years old; some thought him in despair over the failure of his editorial efforts to achieve serious results. A few months later, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Though he remained in his position for a few more months, both his memory and his speech were significantly impaired. Not until he attended a meeting of the American Jesuit provincials at Fordham University in the spring of 1925 did the extent of his disability become clear to his superiors. At that time he was replaced by Wilfred Parsons, S.J., who would serve as editor in chief of America for the next 11 years. Tierney died less than three years later, on Feb. 10, 1928. Obituaries noted letters of gratitude he had received during his career from both Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XI for his Catholic leadership through crises in the United States, Ireland and Mexico.
When Tierney first became editor in chief, Catholics in the United States had no authoritative voice to speak for them in the media. American Catholic bishops were not accustomed to meeting or communicating regularly on issues of national policy. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not exist; even its forerunner, the National Catholic War Council, was not created until 1917. Though Tierney remained frustrated with the apparent failure of his crusades to sway government policies, the magazine’s increasing prominence under Tierney inserted a distinctly Catholic perspective into national debates about foreign and domestic policy. At his death, the lay-edited Catholic journal Commonweal, then in its fifth year of publication, noted “all interested in the advance of the Catholic press in America will mourn the death of Father Richard H. Tierney, S.J…. With his advent as editor of America in March 1914, that journal began to attract wide attention and as the years passed that attention was not only augmented but riveted. Few publications of such comparatively short life have been more widely quoted than was America in the first years of Father Tierney’s editorship.”
From the archives, Richard H. Tierney, S.J., on "Religious Oppression in Mexico."