Reason Interview with John Chamberlain

From picking oranges in Texas to writing reviews for the New York Times, an eminent journalist recalls his life and the birth of modern conservatism.


A quick look at the friends John Chamberlain has made in his six-decade career as literary critic, journalist, and columnist—from novelist John Dos Passos to Time-Life kingpin Henry Luce to aviator Charles Lindbergh—suggests that (a) Chamberlain has a winning personality, and (b) the guy's been around.

Yale graduate John Chamberlain came to national attention when he became the New York Times's first daily—that's right, daily, as in five days a week—book reviewer in the 1930s. A rigorous job, surely, but his crisp, concise style led Yale professor William Lyon Phelps to anoint him the "finest critic of his generation."

Like so many young literary men of his day, Chamberlain developed an interest in politics, where he displayed vaguely socialist sympathies. In 1936 he left the Times for a job at the business magazine Fortune. Associations with Life, Barron's, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, followed. During this time his politics evolved from "socialism to…a nonstatist voluntarism."He also began to abandon his prewar isolationism and, as he became increasingly involved in the nascent conservative movement, championed a more aggressive foreign policy.

After the war, Chamberlain joined with individualist writers Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne La Follette in launching The Freeman, a fortnightly intended to serve as the voice of the emergent coalition of conservatives and libertarians opposed to the reigning liberalism. The journal soon self-destructed in a series of internecine conflicts. A couple years later, William F. Buckley, Jr., launched National Review; Chamberlain served as lead book reviewer in its early years.

He has been a fixture in the conservative movement ever since. He still writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column for King Features and does monthly book reviews for a metamorphosed Freeman. His wife, Ernestine, teaches dance aesthetics and criticism at New York University.

The critic Clifton Fadiman, in a 1936 Saturday Review profile of his friend Chamberlain, ventured the guess that "like so many gently nurtured, college-bred Americans, he will never really look old." Now 83 and a bit gray around the temples, Chamberlain laughs when reminded of Fadiman's prophecy. It is a very young laugh.

John Chamberlain was interviewed in his New York City office by REASON editor Bill Kauffman.

Reason: Was newspaper life in the '20s and '30s as hard-drinking and fast as Front Page legend would have it?

Chamberlain: It depended on what paper you worked for. If you worked for the Times, which I did, you worked with some very sober people. If you worked for the Daily News it was a little bit different. The Front Page was a caricature of things. It certainly wasn't universally true for New York, where you had 17 papers. They weren't all drunks.

Reason: You were a daily book reviewer for three years with the Times?

Chamberlain: I did a five-times-a-week book review for three years, from '33 to '36. Then I left and went to work for Fortune. In '41 I left Fortune and free-lanced three times a week for the Times for three more years.

Reason: How does one do a daily book review? Do you just read the back flap and take it from there?

Chamberlain: No. You can read the whole book if you get up early enough. Read crossing Times Square. Read on the subway and on weekends. It can be done.

Reason: It doesn't leave you any time for pleasure reading, does it?

Chamberlain: I don't advise it! You don't have any fun reading. You learn to read subjects and verbs and skip the adjectives. You discover you don't remember an awful lot about what you read three or four days later.

Reason: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you at least flirted with Trotskyism in the '30s didn't you? You started out on the left…

Chamberlain: I was never a Trotskyite, no. I got roped into the Trotsky camp because I wanted him to have asylum in Mexico. I think I said I was a socialist. I didn't really believe in socialism, but I thought capitalism was going to fail.

Reason: Why do you think so many bright young people during the '20s and '30s, the '30s in particular, were attracted to socialism or even communism? The American Communist Party was pretty popular in intellectual circles.

Chamberlain: I think back to some of my friends who became Communists temporarily, like a girl I knew. She went into the voting booth one day and she'd lost her job or something and just got mad and punched the Communist lever. I don't know how sincerely Communist that was.

Reason: Did you sense in the early '30s that there was a great camaraderie among the writers and among those who came of age right after World War I—the Lost Generation?

Chamberlain: There was a great sense of adventure and discovery of Europe in those days. You can get that from Malcolm Cowley's books and The Sun Also Rises. I went to France as an undergraduate, two summers. It was marvelous, a whole new world, a lot of French novels. I became a European buff for a while.

Reason: At the same time, you've written that America seemed much freer. More wide open spaces, or…

Chamberlain: Well, I got out of school and I didn't want to go to college. My mom said, "You gotta go to work. Where you wanna go?" I said California. So I worked on my father's furniture truck for three months to get some money and went to California.

Reason: How'd you get there? Hitchhike?

Chamberlain: Part of the way. I went with another fellow I went to school with. We hitchhiked across a bit of Texas. I got a job in an orange grove packing oranges. I thought that was wonderful, outdoors and everything. One day the orange grove owner came to me and said, "I've got to let you go. My Mexican foreman says these are jobs for Mexicans." So I was a victim of reverse discrimination. I did a lot of hiking in California and climbed mountains and went to see Palm Springs. Went to the Grand Canyon. I never had any sense that America was anything but very free. You could hitchhike up in the San Joaquin Valley and nobody bothered you, you weren't mugged.

Reason: Very recently, Stalin's forced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s has come to light. One of the villains in all this is a guy named Walter Duranty, who was a New York Times reporter at the time who, for whatever reason, didn't report on this even though he knew of it. Did you know Duranty?

Chamberlain: Yeah. I had a funny run-in with him. He came back to New York for a visit and in the elevator he said something about three million people died in a famine in the Ukraine. He'd never written that. And I referred to that obliquely in a review of a book called Escape from the Soviets by someone named Tatiana Tchernavina. The New Masses, I remember, picked up on it and tried to make an issue of it. Duranty denied having said it. He had to get his visa, I think, to get back to Russia. Fortunately, Simeon Strunsky, a Times editorial writer who used to do Topics of the Times, heard him say it too. So my neck was saved.

Reason: How did your evolution from freelance socialist to individualist conservative come about? Was there some lightning-strike or…

Chamberlain: No, a lot of things happened that you couldn't like. The Moscow trials, and the Ukraine famine, and Communists trying to break up meetings in New York—socialist meetings, in the days when socialists were "social fascists." One thing after another happened, and then Hitler and Stalin signed their pact. That was the last straw for a lot of people.

Reason: All those things could convert one to anticommunism. How did your evolution to appreciation for a free market, rather than anticommunist socialism, come about?

Chamberlain: Two or three books, I think. Rose Wilder Lane's Discovery of Freedom, Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine, and Peter Drucker's The Future of Industrial Man. All of these were very convincing. Then I went to work for Fortune and did corporation stories. I discovered that corporations weren't all of a piece, and I discovered that there was competition.

Reason: Your career has spanned almost six decades, and it seems like you've known everyone who was ever born in this country. What was Charles Lindbergh like?

Chamberlain: He wasn't who he was supposed to be or what Roosevelt thought he was.

Reason: Which was pro-Nazi?

Chamberlain: Which was pro-Nazi. He was always very meticulous. He tried to exhaust a subject. It was hard talking—hard conversing—with him because he wanted to cover every last inch of territory. You could see why. He said he didn't like skiing because in the business in which he'd grown up, you could only fall once. I can see why he was so careful about everything. He didn't want to let that plane fall. Paid off for him. He never did get into serious trouble.

I thought he was politically very intelligent. He wanted to see Hitler and Stalin go at each other's throats instead of ours. He wanted to stay out of the war because he thought it would give Stalin too much of an advantage in the postwar world.

Reason: In the late '30s, early '40s, he was vilified in the press as pro-Nazi for his isolationism. How did that affect him personally? Did he become bitter?

Chamberlain: No. He actually didn't give a damn what people thought. He was perfectly willing to go his own way. I think it troubled his wife, Anne, a bit.

Reason: How about another fellow I know you were friends with and who had maybe a similar evolution to yours, John Dos Passos. He did lose a lot of friends, didn't he, when he moved from the left to the right?

Chamberlain: Oh yes, he did. He didn't want to, but he did. He was perfectly willing to get along with Hemingway even though he disagreed with him, but Hemingway wasn't willing to get along with him.

Reason: This was a disagreement over the Spanish Civil War, wasn't it, which opened Dos Passos's eyes?

Chamberlain: I think he was seeing through things before that. That trip he made to Russia: they asked him as he was leaving, "Are you one of us?" and he said, "No, I can't explain it, but I can't be quite one of you."

Reason: And then in his later life—I don't know if you'd call him a conservative as much as an individualist—his books were much less widely reviewed. I suppose that troubled him. Or was he another guy who just didn't care what people thought?

Chamberlain: Well, he would leave the country before the reviews came out—he didn't read 'em. I thought that novel, the labor-movement one [Midcentury], was just as good as anything he ever did. But he didn't get credit for it.

Reason: Did you know Ayn Rand?

Chamberlain: Yeah.

Reason: Was she as difficult to get along with as people suggest?

Chamberlain: I met her through Frances Hazlitt and Isabel Paterson. At that time she was perfectly easy to get along with. She was writing Atlas Shrugged. Later she broke with Isabel Paterson for some reason. I reviewed Atlas Shrugged for the Herald Tribune book section. It was a perfectly laudatory review, but I put as the last sentence a snapper: She should have stuck to the story instead of trying to rewrite the Sermon on the Mount. She hated that. I saw her at a party, and she cut me absolutely dead.

Reason: You wrote the foreword to F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom in '44. When they came to you and dropped this manuscript on your desk, did you have any idea that this was going to be one of the most influential political works of our time?

Chamberlain: No. I read it and thought that it was very convincing. I tried to get an editorial in Life magazine but did not succeed.

Reason: The free-market intellectuals and publicists in the late '40s—one of their first collective ventures was a fortnightly magazine called The Freeman, which you and Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne LaFollette edited. Did you have any idea at the time that 30 years later the viewpoint represented by this magazine would win the White House?

Chamberlain: Well, Frank Chodorov used to come into the office and tell us it would take 20 years for our point of view to prevail. We wanted to believe him, and it turned out he was right. It did take about 20 years. The Fabians didn't take over in England right away—they had to wait, too.

Reason: So when you launched this magazine it didn't seem at all quixotic? Did you have a plan?

Chamberlain: We thought it was needed to counteract The Nation and The New Republic. But the board of directors wouldn't raise any money for us, and we got into a bit of a Taft-Eisenhower squabble and split down the middle.

Reason: Were you on the Taft side or the Eisenhower side?

Chamberlain: The Taft side.

Reason: So you still at the time had a Taftite skepticism of foreign intervention?

Chamberlain: I thought Taft and Hoover had been right about staying out of the war and letting Stalin and Hitler fight it out.

Reason: At one time, Henry Hazlitt had disagreements with you and said he didn't want to be associated with "the kind of magazine in which Joe McCarthy is a sacred character." You had some sympathy for McCarthy, didn't you? Do you regret that?

Chamberlain: I never saw him as a villain. I just saw him as a person who didn't know how to read very well. I thought it was a great mistake to be put off by him. We asked Freda Utley to show us something she had done for Joe McCarthy. It was an analysis of Owen Lattimore's position. In one column it had Stalin saying something on such and such a date, and on the opposite column she had Lattimore saying the same thing. It was a deadly parallel sort of thing, but she didn't call Lattimore any names. She gave it to Joe McCarthy, who reduced it to "Owen Lattimore is the leader of the Communist conspiracy in America," which Freda had not said. I just think McCarthy could not read. But there were Communists in the State Department.

Reason: Yeah, well, they asked Frank Chodorov what to do about Communists in government jobs and he said, "Abolish the jobs," which maybe would have been a better way to do it. Now that the American role in the world is much different than it was before World War II, are we no longer the shining city on the hill but just another imperial bully pushing people around?

Chamberlain: No. You're getting at the root of my troubles. I'd like to be a complete libertarian, but as long as Russia exists in the world, I can't be. I think someone has to oppose the spread of the Communist empire. Is that an imperial desire, or is it common sense?

Reason: Well, I suppose it depends on how you would do it. For instance, supporting Pinochet in Chile, or the South Korean dictator Chun, maybe these things are counterproductive and inconsistent with our original values.

Chamberlain: Well, I don't like Pinochet particularly, either. But Chile would have been in worse trouble if Allende had transformed it into another Cuba.

Reason: Although is that any of our concern, what happens in Chile?

Chamberlain: It isn't just Chile. Our concern is Angola and Mozambique and Nicaragua and Cuba itself. I think if Chile had gone Communist there would have been a domino effect elsewhere.

Reason: Is that why you think we should intervene somehow in, say, Angola?

Chamberlain: I wouldn't put the American marines in Angola, no. But I don't see why we can't help Savimbi.

Reason: Well that costs money which comes from taxpayers who probably wouldn't otherwise…

Chamberlain: That's why I'm inconsistent! I'd like to do it in the cheapest possible way. Let Savimbi win in Angola and whoever win in Mozambique. That's the way the Russians play it.

Reason: In your autobiography, A Life with the Printed Word, you write of a very interesting conversation you had with Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate for president in '44 and '48, about Pearl Harbor.

Chamberlain: I went to Washington for Life. Don Levine had a party to celebrate my birthday and his wife's birthday. Someone, some colonel who was drinking very heavily, said the Republicans knew all about Pearl Harbor. He wouldn't talk for publication. I sent Luce a memo on it. Luce said, well, we can't do anything about it now, but file it away and when the war's over we'll do something. After V-J day, Luce got me on the phone in Washington and said, "Remember that memo you sent me about Republicans knowing all about Pearl Harbor? I'd like to have you go up and ask Tom Dewey about it." So I remember going up to Elmira [New York] and picking up Dewey—he was touring some state facility there—and he said, well, come along with me, I'm driving up to Geneva. So I sat in the back of the car and listened to his story about the broken Japanese code. He said he was going to make a campaign issue of it in 1944 but that Marshall had sent Colonel Carter Clarke to him, who said you can't do this because the Japanese haven't changed their code and you'd be giving something too valuable away to them. So Dewey never used it in the '44 campaign.

Reason: Did Dewey think that Roosevelt knew of the attack on Pearl Harbor beforehand?

Chamberlain: He didn't know that it would be at Pearl Harbor, but he knew that Roosevelt knew there was going to be an attack somewhere. Harry Hopkins in the White House said, well, if they're going to hit us why don't we hit them first? Roosevelt said no, we can't do that, we're a peaceful democracy.

Reason: Although it seems clear now in retrospect that they were glad for the opportunity afforded to enter World War II. This was our back door to war.

Chamberlain: Oh yeah. Stimson welcomed it I know.

Reason: What was your reaction? I mean, you were at the time very much "keep America out of war." What was your reaction on December 7, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Then you were "get America into war"?

Chamberlain: You had to be. What else could you do?

Reason: You helped give young Bill Buckley his start by writing the introduction to God and Man at Yale, his first book. Did you have a sense that this young 25-year-old would someday be one of the towering figures of American conservatism?

Chamberlain: Well, I knew he'd be heard from, but I didn't visualize what happened. We knew, on The Freeman, that Buckley and Brent Bozell were comers.

Reason: You often speak of conservatives and libertarians as very close relatives. It seems that over the last couple of years anyway, conservatives, particularly the Reagan administration, have changed their focus from free-market economics toward foreign policy and also proscribing certain types of behavior—reading dirty books or smoking marijuana or something. Does it make any sense to speak of conservatives and libertarians in the same breath?

Chamberlain: Well, I'm not in favor of dirty books.

Reason: But do you want to…

Chamberlain: These are realms that I think ought to be left to people. I don't think you can legislate morality, and the more you try, the more difficulties you encounter. A lot of things I'm for, I think ought to be done voluntarily.

Reason: Would that be your position on, say, marijuana?

Chamberlain: It all depends on how much of a poison marijuana is.

Reason: Do we have the right to poison ourselves?

Chamberlain: I'm not for a jail sentence for smoking marijuana, no.

Reason: You call yourself a voluntarist, correct?

Chamberlain: I like the word voluntarism better than privatization. I don't know why.

Reason: Do you think if we repealed all the social-welfare legislation of the last few decades, private charity would suffice?

Chamberlain: I think the human race would find some way of dealing with those problems without running to Washington. But it's so far from happening. I'm satisfied to get—in education for instance, I'm satisfied if you can have private schools alongside public schools. I don't expect public schools to be abolished any time soon.

Reason: I was struck by an article you wrote for The New Republic in 1939 that I read the other day.

Chamberlain: Oh no!

Reason: Not to bring back old writings against you or anything. You were assessing antiwar sentiment among young people. You wrote, "The boys and girls tend to distrust all slogans, all tags—even all words. They will not easily fall for any crusader unless his promises can be translated into jobs, security, prospects for the future, a chance to study and learn—and an extension of traditional American civil liberties. They will believe in the 'Fascist menace' if and when they see it striking at their freedom to argue and dissent among themselves." In reading this, it struck me that it could have been written with just a couple changes 30 years later to describe the antiwar sentiment among people in the Vietnam era. Were you sympathetic to the antiwar movement in the '60s?

Chamberlain: I didn't like the war. I thought it was a very stupid war. If you're going to get into a war, get in and win it quickly. The only thing I objected to was that the protest went to violent extremes itself. There wasn't much excuse for throwing a dean down the stairs just because he represented a university whose policies you might not approve of. Since I don't think you can draft people anyway, I think the kids had a right to object to being drafted.

Reason: So you have you always been antidraft?

Chamberlain: Yeah. I don't see how you can say a person's body belongs to the state.

Reason: Do you have any professional regrets—roads not taken, choices poorly made?

Chamberlain: I sometimes wish I would have had time to write more books. Daily journalism is too time-consuming for that.

Reason: Some people, in looking at your career, might say, "Poor Chamberlain, such a fine young critic, and then he got mixed up with that conservative crowd." How would you answer them?

Chamberlain: It wouldn't bother me particularly. I ceased to be a critic because I got interested in other things. So I would say I don't have any big regrets.