Books Reviewed

A review of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, by Alan Brinkley.

Henry R. Luce grew rich and, more important to him, prominent by founding TimeLife, and Fortune, magazines that created and then dominated new journalistic markets. A biography that appeared the year after his death said the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. "controlled access to millions of minds."

Luce's latest biographer is Alan Brinkley, a Columbia historian known for his examinations of the New Deal era. Without concealing his own liberalism, Brinkley is judiciously sympathetic to his conservative subject, never impairing the book by forcing the past to do its political duty. The Publisher, in other words, is not the book the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., would have written.

Though he grew enormously wealthy from his magazines' success, Luce would not be accurately described as a tycoon. Like the founders of other media empires—Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch—he had business, journalistic, and political ambitions too intertwined to distinguish. But it was his strongly felt calling to produce journalism that would advance great human purposes. He had some ability to realize such a vision because he remained the editorial, not only the corporate boss at his publications.

The strongest thread connecting his many projects was Americanism, mixed with a kind of social gospel. Time, founded in 1923 when radio was embryonic, offered itself as a new type of publication, a news magazine that summarized each week's events from a national perspective. Readers flocked to it, proving that a large audience was eager to go beyond the limits of daily local newspapers by reading about things important to them as Americans. Moreover, readers liked Time because Time liked its readers. The Luce magazines, which became a trio in the 1930s with the appearance of Fortune and Life, presented American society as free, decent, and religious. Even its ordinary people were smart and informed, collectively capable of self-government and international leadership. "America is already the intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world," Luce wrote shortly before our entry into World War II. "Americans—midwestern Americans—are today the least provincial people in the world. They have traveled the most and they know more about the world than the people of any other country."

His idealization of America was rooted in an unusual childhood. Born in 1898, the son of Presbyterian missionaries who spent much of their lives in China, Luce first saw the United States when he arrived for prep school at the age of 15. Many years later he said: "I probably gained a too romantic, too idealistic view of America. This was not simply because America looked better at a distance….[T]he Americans I grew up with—all of them—were good people."

Belief in the country's people and institutions was the foundation of Luce's politics, which were passionate but changeable and not rigorously presented. His early-1941 essay "The American Century" called for "a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills"—an outlook suggesting he was a "national-greatness conservative" ahead of his time. Luce's mid-century version of this philosophy tended toward vagueness, implausibility, and blank checks. America "must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world," he wrote. "For every dollar we spend on armaments, we should spend at least a dime in a gigantic effort to feed the world—and all the world should know that we have dedicated ourselves to this task." Yet the point wasn't simple humanitarianism. "It is for America and for America alone," he urged in the essay, "to determine whether a system of free economic enterprise—an economic order compatible with freedom and progress—shall or shall not prevail in this century."

While insisting on good reporting as the groundwork for his higher goals, Luce candidly required that his magazines promote "American civilization." It is a subtle concept, less familiar now than it was in World War II and afterwards. On this view, America wasn't just exceptional in the ways explained by Alexis de Tocqueville—more self-government, self-reliance, and zeal for equality. It was also—Tocqueville doubted this, but Luce did not—the heir and fulfillment of European civilization. It was the great bearer, not just the great locus, of true Christianity. It must help the world and change the world. Other nations should become more like the U.S. because it stood at the peak of human development.

Luce's career raises familiar questions for journalists. But it also raises an interesting question—mine, not Brinkley's—for conservatives. Luce always called himself a liberal, but liberals today would not welcome him. He would seem to stand, in contemporary terms, on the Right. Witness his increasing opposition to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as a statist and excessive wielder of power, Luce's enduring anti-Communism beginning in the early 1920s, and his deep empathy for Middle America and the middle class—not only for what they might become, but for what they already were. But can a conservative hold those positions yet simultaneously share the liberal belief in progress?

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In the end, progress outran him. Luce was famous during his lifetime but is almost unknown today. Brinkley's biography, though fair, is insufficient to persuade a new generation that he was important rather than merely interesting. Brinkley writes that Luce was for decades "among the most influential men in America—courted by presidents, feared by rivals, capable of raising some people to prominence and pulling others down," but that he was "almost never able to exercise as much power as he wished and as his adversaries believed he had." His opposition to much of the New Deal, for instance, "had almost no impact on Roosevelt's policies or on his political successes." Nor, later, could the publisher overcome his country's "unwillingness to challenge" the Communist regime in China, whose survival was the great sorrow of Luce's last two decades. And rarely did the presidents he was closest to—Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson—"take his advice or adjust policies to avoid his magazines' criticism." As for cultural influence, his publications were "mostly reflections of the middle-class world," according to Brinkley, "not often shapers of it." The author concludes too quickly, I think, that Luce's most important legacy is his role as a media innovator, as though his magazines' roles in shaping and strengthening mid-century Americanism were perfunctory.

Brinkley pays little attention to Luce's thoughtful, well-written speeches (see The Ideas of Henry Luce [1969], edited by John K. Jessup). He was no political theorist, to be sure. Yet it was Luce's natural conservatism, an identification with and keenness to honor one's own, that the nascent New Left had already begun repudiating and trying to demolish by the time he died in 1967. It pursued this goal, as its epigones still do, with much success not only among elites but also among average Americans. This inadequately understood dimension of the "culture wars" remains important today. Liberals have long since become dubious about the decency of the people they intend to govern, which is why so many people have become dubious about liberalism.