Observer of the Century


A Life with the Printed Word, by John Chamberlain, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1982, 191 pp., $12.95

After spending a life at the typewriter, John Chamberlain has not lost his touch. He was born in 1903, "the year in which the Ford Motor Company was first incorporated and the Wright brothers flew the first airplane." As reporter, book reviewer, editor, and columnist, he has witnessed and chronicled in his simple, lucid prose the history of political and economic ideas in the United States during the 20th century. This book relives Chamberlain's pleasant journey all the way into the decade of the '80s.

Despite the surrounding tumult and shouting, the trip is pleasant because the author is so unusually kind. Fully aware of the evil in humankind and no Pollyanna, Chamberlain is invariably tolerant in his judgments of his contemporaries, even of those with whom he completely disagrees.

He began as a columnist for the Yale Daily News. As soon as he graduated, he landed—without the certificates, degrees, and long résumés now required—a job as reporter for the New York Times. It was the golden age; New York had 17 newspapers. Inside, the World presented F.P.A. (the byline for the "Conning Tower" column), Lawrence Stallings, Heywood Broun, Frank Sullivan, Alexander Woolcott, Walter Lippmann, and Charles Merz and, on the front page, its star reporters Oliver H.P. Garrett and Dudley Nichols. In contrast, the Times was prolix and somewhat dull. But the World foundered, while the Times proved to be the ultimate survivor.

With his review of Gilbert Chesterton's novel The Return of Don Quixote, Chamberlain earned a byline in the Sunday Times Book Review. Since then his reviews have been countless. Starting in the '30s, Irita Van Doren had him do her lead reviews for the New York Tribune, including Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. There was a stint on the Saturday Review and on many other journals, including his reviews in the Freeman to this day. But it was writing a review five times a week for the daily New York Times that piled up the volume.

All Chamberlain's jobs as editor, writer, and columnist (including long employment on the Henry Luce publications Fortune, Life, and Time), plus his observation of public figures at close hand, contribute to the reader's rarely equaled opportunity to observe with the author the United States in the 20th century. Still, it is the life of Chamberlain as a book reviewer that makes him a master of 20th-century political and economic ideas, nourished by the best fiction of his century and reinforced by living among the creators of thought.

"Innocence is a better word than apathy to describe" the political attitude of the young during the '20s. "We could be roused on local issues.…We had a bias…toward freedom.…The class war…was limited to fraternity rushes.…The favorite indoor sport was debunking.…It was the age of the F. Scott Fitzgerald look, with the flappers more in evidence than the philosophers." This description of the "roaring" '20s, while accurate, omits an essential clue to the decade: the advent of Sigmund Freud with the negation of the sense of personal responsibility.

In the '30s, Chamberlain rightly gauged the pervasive influence of communism among the intellectuals. "Eugene Lyons, with special reference to New York City and Hollywood, has called the '30s the 'Red Decade.'" It is probable, he says, that "the Communist Party in America never had more than 75,000 members," but "there must have been ten 'state-of-mind Communists' for every Party card holder." Chamberlain himself became a member of the radical literary left, but never a fellow traveler.

This became evident in the Duranty episode. Walter Duranty, the Times's Moscow correspondent, casually mentioned in the elevator that 3 million people had died in Russia in what amounted to a man-made famine, but Duranty failed to report it. When in a book review, Chamberlain adverted to the fact and was challenged by the New Masses, he revealed his source and was denounced by the communists. Even then, however, he was willing to cooperate with the American brethren.

In 1936 he voted for Roosevelt; "no 'liberal' of the mid-'30s could conceivably be Republican." What swung Chamberlain to the right was his experience with the businessmen he wrote about for Luce; they were the protagonists of America's production.

Although he voted for Roosevelt against Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Chamberlain believed the United States should stay out of the war. Pearl Harbor answered that question. By 1944, when he wrote the foreword to the "superlatively good" The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, Chamberlain had completed his conversion to a conservative libertarian position. From then on, he has been a steady and productive laborer in the vineyard, while dominant thought in the United States has been to the contrary.

"Fundamental change depends on the grassroots for corroboration, but it does not start at the grassroots.…Before there could be a Labour Party absorption of a majority of the old-fashioned Liberal Party, there had to be a Fabian Society.…If the Nation and the New Republic had not sold the intellectuals on the virtues of the planned economy in the '20s and early '30s, there would have been no Roosevelt Revolution." With that conviction, Chamberlain has helped to nurture conservative and libertarian journals, among them National Review and the Freeman, not to mention his discovery and encouragement of new libertarian-conservative writers. He notes that "Reason magazine, one of our better libertarian journals, has adapted…defense of voluntarism…to a whole program of 'cutting back city hall.'"

It is a tribute to the author's journalistic training in the art of space that he has been able to cram so much into 191 pages. The mixture of anecdote, narration, and theory easily conveyed makes for delightful reading.

Scattered through the book are numerous fascinating vignettes of the actors on the scene. That of Whittaker Chambers, with whom Chamberlain worked closely on the Luce publications, is perhaps the best, but a strong rival is the appreciation of Will Clayton, "the real formulator of the Marshall Plan, which he regarded as a stop-gap." Clayton was a cotton broker who had disapproved of Franklin D. Roosevelt's NRA price-fixing and AAA cotton-planting restrictions. Clayton, who had built his Anderson, Clayton and Co. cotton factoring firm into a $43 million giant without asking or giving quarter in a fiercely competitive market, had come to Washington for patriotic reasons just before Pearl Harbor. He had remained after the war to take on the job of Economic Under Secretary of State, hoping to help rid the world of such things as tariffs, quotas, and exchange restrictions.

"The 'social democratic' planned economies of Western Europe,…hung grimly to such things as quotas, exchange controls, subsidized exports and trading by government boards. Despite the obstacles to freeing up world trade, Clayton felt he had the future on his side."

So does Chamberlain. After all, he concludes, "We did not unsettle the Old World merely to reestablish its repressive ways in the New."

Laurence Beilenson, a contemporary of John Chamberlain's, is a lawyer. Some years ago he gave up a successful law practice to devote himself to research and writing. His books include Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age and The Treaty Trap.