Man of the World

By the time of Luce’s fortieth birthday in April 1938, he had been a wealthy and powerful man for nearly a decade. He was no longer the anxious striver, the brash young man who, against all odds, had—with Brit Hadden—created the brilliant and precocious success of Time. He now more often appeared to be a reserved, aloof figure, fully aware of his importance and unafraid to assert it. His relationships within his company were becoming increasingly distant. His colleagues noted that he socialized with them far less than he once had; that he even began to ride up to his office in an otherwise empty elevator—not something he ever ordered or acknowledged but a kind of isolation that everyone in the company understood and observed. His contact with his staff consisted largely of sudden and often unwelcome interventions in their work and long, abstract memos about the purpose of his magazines. “He is no longer the shy simple fellow I first knew,” Billings observed. He had become “the great philosopher…. My complaint is that Luce is so busy being a Great Personage that he has forgotten the source of his greatness—the magazines we put out for him.” Luce had not forgotten about his magazines, as Billings soon learned. But they were no longer the only, and sometimes not even the principal, focus of his attention.1

The change in Luce—his gradual transformation from hardworking editor to self-conscious “great man”—was the subject of much speculation among his colleagues and friends. Some argued that it was a result of the enormous success of Life magazine, which had pushed him clearly into the forefront of the publishing world. Others were certain that it was his marriage to Clare, whose thirst for fame and glamour (not to mention her competitive relationship with her husband) drove Harry to adopt a new persona compatible with her sense of entitlement and power. But by far the biggest influence on Luce in the late 1930s and 1940s was the advent of World War II, which drew him into the world of politics and statesmanship and significantly transformed his sense of his own importance. He was no longer just a successful editor and publisher. He was a man of the world, a person of influence and, perhaps most of all, a person of ideas—ideas that he believed were important to the future.

Prior to 1939 Luce’s interest in politics and world affairs had been generally fleeting. He seldom made overt political statements in public, and he was reticent about expressing his own views openly in his magazines. In fact he tolerated, at times almost encouraged, views that he himself did not share. For years he permitted Time’s foreign editor, Laird Goldsborough, to cover the European crises of the 1930s by lionizing Mussolini and shrugging off the threat of Hitler. Goldsborough was a good writer and an efficient editor, and that was enough for Luce. Similarly, for several years, he had not much interfered with the Popular Front sensibilities that Ralph Ingersoll and others helped bring to Fortune. The approach of war, however, strengthened and redirected the powerful sense of mission that had defined his life since childhood. Never fully content with personal and professional success alone, he saw in the great world conflict a defining moment in history—and also in his own life.2

Luce was not immediately committed to American participation in the war in Europe when it began in September 1939, but he was wholly committed to the destruction of the Axis and to an important American role in achieving that goal. “The American refusal to be ‘drawn in,’” he wrote to a friend in Paris, “is a kind of failure to realize how deeply we are in, whatever we say or do.” The Sino-Japanese War, the threat to France and Britain, the looming enigma of the Soviet Union—all pushed him for the first time into an active role in trying to shape American foreign policy. Gone was his laissez-faire attitude toward the contents of his magazines. They, like him, were now soldiers in a cause, and Luce set out to train them in the proper presentation of the crisis. That required regaining control of his magazines.3

The departure of Ralph Ingersoll in 1939 was one step in that effort. Ingersoll, who had acquired considerable authority over the editorial policies of the company, left of his own accord to start the newspaper P.M., but he must have been aware of his deteriorating position within Time Inc., a position confirmed by the relief with which Luce, and many of his colleagues, greeted his decision to leave. The disillusionment with Ingersoll was partly because his arrogance and abrasiveness had made him unpopular with virtually all his colleagues. (“What a conceited egoist!” Billings noted after a farewell conversation with Ingersoll. “He’s been a snake-in-the-grass in the organization for years.”) But to Luce and Billings both, the main problem was that Ingersoll’s politics were too often at odds with their own. “The old Time is now gone forever,” Billings had lamented shortly before the shake-up. “Ingersoll has revolutionized and sovietized things.”4

More significant than Ingersoll’s departure was the fall of Goldsborough. Throughout the 1930s he had written about European fascism as if it were at worst a minor irritant that did not much threaten the United States. (In 1935, in the midst of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Goldsborough wrote about a modest Mussolini overture to improve relations with France, and insisted it made him a “prime candidate” for the Nobel Peace Prize.) Where once Luce had tolerated Goldsborough’s essentially isolationist views, he now found them unacceptable. Goldsborough “has just has not grown up with the times,” he confided to Billings, “and he sees Europe as it was in 1930.” By mid-1939 Luce had begun to marginalize Goldsborough, sending him on long trips overseas and assigning the editorship of Foreign Affairs to others. By late 1940 Goldsborough was gone—exiled briefly to a new and meaningless job as “assistant” to Luce before a forced if lucrative retirement in 1941. “His fall will be a hard one,” Billings accurately predicted. (After ten years of lonely obscurity Goldsborough jumped to his death in 1950—carrying his omnipresent gold-headed cane with him—from a window in the Rockefeller Center offices where he had once been a titan.)5

The weakness of Time Inc.’s global vision in the 1930s had been a product of both attitude and uncertainty. The magazines’ cultural and literary style had remained rooted in Time’s early, slightly cynical brashness and its tendency to take nothing too seriously. These traits were increasingly incompatible with the serious and ominous state of the world of the late 1930s. Luce and his colleagues were also, for a time, uncertain about their position on the rise of dictatorships and the advent of war. Torn between the extremes of Goldsborough’s quasi-fascist leanings and the Popular Front inclinations of others, the magazines struggled, and generally failed, to produce a coherent position on the looming crisis. But by the end of 1939, with Ingersoll gone and Goldsborough shunted aside, and with fighting under way in Europe and widening in China, Time Inc. had begun to recast itself as the chronicler of the great global catastrophe—a recasting launched through a series of dinners Luce held with his senior editors in 1939 in an effort to “reintroduce” himself to his own staff. The Fortune writer Charles Wertenbaker later described those dinners in his novel The Death of Kings, which included a thinly disguised profile of Luce. His employees sat mesmerized, Wertenbaker wrote of the only slightly fictionalized publisher portrayed in the book, awed by “the purity of his belief.” Others who attended the dinners noticed a new tone of authoritativeness, rooted in Luce’s increasing certainty about his own positions. “Is TIME utterly unbiased, impartial, objective?” he asked. “No, TIME is prejudiced” in favor of “individual liberty” and American leadership in the world. At the dinners and elsewhere he laid out his new vision for the magazines: “Time cannot escape the fact that it is the bellwether of the most successful journalistic group in the world,” he wrote in one of several memos outlining the company’s future course. “At last it is clear to me what FORTUNE’s No. 1 Job in this crisis is,” he announced a few months later. “The No. 1 Job is to straighten out U. S. Businessmen (and “Liberals”) on the great matter of appeasement.” He had similar conversations with his colleagues on Time and Life, advocating a new goal: a “journalism of information with a purpose.” Having thought about the “great changes in the world,” he wrote in November 1939, he had acquired “a deeper conviction that … in our execution of The Newsmagazine Idea we shall indeed ‘justify journalism’ in our time.”6

Luce’s sudden and deep conviction in 1939 was a departure from his and his magazine’s outlook even a year before. Through much of the 1930s, the Time Inc. editors and writers eagerly covered the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish civil war, the growing arsenal of the German military, and the halting American steps toward rearmament. But covering war was not the same as taking a position in the emerging global conflict. During most of the decade, Luce and his magazines were largely indifferent to who was winning or losing the conflicts in Europe and Asia. Time Inc.’s coverage was clinical and detached, expressing little sense that the conflicts had very much to do with the United States.7

Time, for example, chronicled the Japanese invasion of China through much of the 1930s as a dispute between two tyrannies: Japanese warlords fighting Chinese dictators. The magazine routinely referred to Chiang Kai-shek, later one of Luce’s—and thus Time’s—great heroes, as “Dictator Chiang,” and even treated the brief kidnapping of Chiang by a militant Chinese nationalist in 1937 not as a crime or a tragedy, but as an example of China’s disarray. The magazine took a similarly detached view of Mussolini. “The years have dignified and tempered Benito Mussolini,” the magazine declared in 1936 in the aftermath of Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia, “and he has dignified and tempered the Italian people” while speaking with “Augustan calm.” Even Hitler, whom the magazines generally scorned, received gentle treatment on occasion. Time described the 1936 Nuremberg rallies benignly as “the greatest show and heartiest picnic on earth,” admired Hitler’s “magnetism,” and uncritically reported the good news about Germany’s economy that the führer had touted in his speeches. In August 1938 Time greeted Hitler’s mobilization of a million soldiers with sunny indifference: “Last week Europe was in a mood to let Adolf Hitler exercise his boys and put on a show.” And a few weeks later the magazine responded to the September 1938 Munich accord in which Britain and France ceded part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, as a welcome example of settling a major conflict “by talking instead of shooting first.” Indeed, the enforced surrender of Czechoslovakia, Time claimed, may have “set a precedent which might flower into a great influence for peace.”8

In Life a story on a 1938 Hitler visit to Rome noted that “democratic observers relaxed” in the face of evidence that neither Germany nor Italy were likely to cooperate in any future wars. The magazine’s grim 1938 reports of the Spanish civil war and the Sino-Japanese war made no judgments about the justice of anyone’s cause and instead cited the fighting as a reason for the United States to insulate itself from the global crisis. “The love of peace has no meaning or no stamina unless it is based on a knowledge of war’s terrors,” Life wrote in a caption below a Robert Capa picture of corpses on a plain near Teruel in Spain. Fortune, in the meantime, treated the growing crisis only glancingly and with exceptional detachment—worrying about the impact of global instability on business, expressing more contempt for Britain’s democratic weakness than for German tyranny, and displaying a cheerful confidence that war would be averted. In its September 1939 issue, published only days before the beginning of World War II, Fortune’s only mention of international news was a brief upbeat story about the improvement in France’s finances.9

The events of 1939 abruptly changed the attitude of Luce himself and of his magazines. The once-benign interpretation of Munich quickly turned into a savage attack on appeasement. Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, which Time had largely shrugged off in September 1938, now became the conclusive evidence of Hitler’s incorrigible ambitions. “The treaty-breaking, lie-telling German Dictator … threw away all pretence of being anything but a Conqueror,” the magazine noted in March 1939. A month later, when Mussolini invaded Albania, the editors responded furiously both to the Italian aggression and to the spinelessness of Britain and France: “There are in Europe two madmen who are disturbing the entire world—Hitler and Mussolini. There are in Europe two damn fools who sleep—Chamberlain and Daladier.” At about the same time the magazines began their (and Luce’s) long love affair with Winston Churchill, who became “a symbol of British democracy … of the kind that totalitarian governments cannot endure.” One of the decisive moments in Luce’s full commitment to war was the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, a “nightmare” that created “a mighty cordon of non-democracy stretching one-third around the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific” and that united the world’s two leading “revolutionary tyrannies.” By the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, formally beginning what Time had already labeled World War II (thus cementing the conflict’s enduring name), the magazines were already mobilizing themselves for a full-throated defense of democracy and a determination to defeat tyranny.10

Nowhere was the new attitude more visible than in Life—as Longwell had predicted in 1935 and as Luce now mandated in 1939—which became one of the nation’s most important chroniclers of war and the great champion of the Allied cause. A special issue of Life shortly after the invasion of Poland was devoted entirely to the war and not only portrayed the anguish of the Polish people as “German bombers rain death and destruction on Warsaw” but outlined in terrifying detail the ominous power and terrible ambitions of the Nazi empire. Among its many warnings were the first of many hypothetical scenarios showing the catastrophic possibilities of a German victory, including the total destruction of British and French industry through airpower. But it also began what would become an earnest celebration of the courage and resourcefulness of Britain. (The issue included the results of a new Fortune survey that showed 83 percent of Americans in favor of the Western Allies’ winning the war—and only 1 percent hoping for a German victory.)11

For the next two years Life was the adoring chronicler of the British war effort and of the plucky courage of the British people. “The R. A. F. Fliers Are Young and Brave,” the magazine announced as it presented portraits of “smiling, keen, and confident” British “heroes.” Stories about the German bombing of London were accompanied by photographs of beaming, “unruffled” “Thumbs Up” young women singing, “We’re going to show the world who’s who.” Despite the blitz, Life assured its readers, “the life of London continues with calm, incongruous persistence.” The devastating British retreat from France at Dunkirk was an opportunity to salute the “unshaken, unbroken, unbeaten” British military.

Time and Life both became as well the indomitable foes of America’s “appeasers” and isolationists. “Rather than risk involving U.S. troops in the War,” Life wrote contemptuously (and not wholly inaccurately), the “appeasers” were “prepared to see Great Britain defeated and Hitler’s power extended to the very sea gates of America.” Unflattering photographs of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, U.S. ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy, and U.S. senator Burton K. Wheeler accompanied a portrait of Lawrence Dennis, “America’s No. 1 intellectual Fascist.” Time was particularly hard on Lindbergh, “who to many Americans represents the narrowest isolationism, the broadest appeasement.” Uncharacteristically dense essays explained to Life readers the great dangers of a German victory—among them a five-page article by Walter Lippmann describing the terrifying economic consequences of Axis control of Europe and the likelihood that Germany would then dominate and devastate the United States. “The small American businessman has long complained about how difficult it is for him to survive in the competition with the large American corporation,” Lippmann warned. “What will he do when he has to face the competition of totalitarian monopoly organized on a continental scale?” At the same time a newly energized March of Time issued one of its most ambitious films: “The Ramparts We Watched,” an unapologetic call for American military preparedness. And Fortune began to mobilize its readership for the struggle as well. “The people of the U.S. must now choose among retreat, isolation, and international leadership,” the magazine wrote late in 1939.12

The rapid and dramatic movement of the Time Inc. magazines from ironic detachment to committed advocates of the Allied cause did not escape the notice of the editors of The New Yorker, Luce’s most persistently biting (and wittiest) satirists. Harold Ross, always eager to tweak what he considered the pomposity of Luce and his magazines, took note of Life’s simultaneous fascination with “pretty women” and its doomsday fantasies as it attempted to prepare its readers for war. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, The New Yorker ran a satirical cartoon version of Life Goes to a Party titled “Life Goes to the Collapse of Western Civilization.” It was most likely based on a trivial 1941 Life story about “twin sisters from Flint,” Lois and Lucille, arriving in New York hoping to break into show business and meet “successful, cultured and refined people.” The New Yorkerparody told the story of two “pretty New York models”—Meenie and Babs—who move smiling and wide-eyed through a war-torn New York, always dressed in the latest and most provocative outfits. In one frame the girls dress in “scanty sport clothes for the task of lugging $3,450,000 in inflated United States currency to famed Elizabeth Arden’s to buy a tube of vanishing cream.” In another Babs and Meenie “buoyantly participate in a bread riot for a lark.” “Goodness gracious,” Babs exclaims, “if I ate even one slice of bread I’d have to stop wearing tailored suits.”13

Luce had reacted to The New Yorker’s satirical 1936 profile of him with almost violent fury. But by 1941 he was so deeply immersed in the cause of the Allies that he gave The New Yorker, and his other critics, virtually no notice at all. His newly powerful sense of mission kept his gaze squarely on the global crisis, and on the important role he believed he must play in it. His frustration with America’s slow path to intervention grew steadily, but no more than his frustration with his own inability to change the nation’s course. Roosevelt, he charged, was guilty of “apelike fumbling;” but in fact, he somewhat narcissistically insisted, “it is all, all our fault … that all this monkey-business happens when we are ‘the most potent editorial force’ in America.” The intensity of his commitment even led him to propose transforming Fortune from a magazine of business to the “Magazine of America as a World Power.” His staff talked him out of this radical notion, but not out of the sentiments that it reflected.14

Luce’s view of the impending war, and of America’s role in the global crisis, was not as clear or consistent as he later liked to claim. He had repudiated isolationism and had aligned himself with the growing circle of influential Americans who insisted that the United States must lead the world. But like many internationalists of the late 1930s, he had moved erratically from one strategy to another—wavering on how likely he believed the outbreak of war to be and wondering how deeply engaged with the conflict the United States should become. At some moments he was convinced that American military engagement was inevitable; at others he continued to argue that preparedness and aid to Britain would be enough. He sometimes admired Franklin Roosevelt’s halting, cagey movement away from isolationism. (“How to express one’s admiration and gratitude,” he wrote the president in mid-1940. “I’d like to say it this way—that your speech at Charlottesville is the most important human utterance since Lincoln’s at Gettysburg.”) He sometimes railed against what he considered the president’s timidity and fecklessness. (The administration, he wrote a few months later, “has contributed, blunderingly and unwittingly, to the conditions which have led to war.”) In the last months before the outbreak of war in Europe, he became an excited advocate of a quixotic proposal by the journalist Clarence Streit for a federation of the Atlantic democracies—a new form of global governance that would strengthen the ability of anti-fascist nations to resist aggression. Streit promoted this idea in a briefly influential 1939 book, Union Now:

I believe there is a way through these dangers, and out of the dilemma, a way to do what we all want, to keep both peace and freedom, and keep them securely and be done with this nightmare…. The way through is Union now of the democracies that the North Atlantic and a thousand other things already unite … a great federal republic built on and for the thing they share most, their common democratic principle of government for the sake of individual freedom.

In later years Luce would look with something close to contempt on such notions of global governance—a plan that would have brought the United States into a federation that would reduce its sovereignty and embed it into something like the European Union of a half century later. But at the time he was looking for any answer he could find; and in the ominous summer of 1939 he saw “Union Now” as “the only way to begin the re-liberation of human energy and imagination and hope and will.”15

Luce was excited, frightened, hopeful, angry. The war brought out the best of his missionary temperament—commitment, energy, moral inquiry, and high purpose; and it brought out the worst as well—arrogance, impatience, didacticism, and occasional dogmatism. His restlessness was visible in his almost obsessive writing in the early months of the war, memo after memo, outlining more and more ideas and beliefs. “Danger,” he wrote in July 1940 in a message to his staff. “The country is in Danger. Danger. Danger. The country is in Danger…. Alas you have only to look about you to know that the country does not feel as we do.” As he often did when restless and frustrated, he turned to travel, which brought him into direct contact with the reality of the crisis and helped clarify his own views of how to respond to it.16

For more than a year before the outbreak of war, Luce traveled periodically through Europe, meeting with important people, conveying his impressions to his staff, and supervising stories reflecting his views. If he had not already been convinced of the unsavoriness of the Nazi regime, he made his disillusionment clear during a visit in spring 1938. Just as Luce’s impression of the Soviet Union had been profoundly shaped by the physical discomforts he had experienced while traveling across Russiain 1932, he was struck as well by what he considered the general shabbiness of life in Nazi Germany—the terrible food, the shortage of toilet paper, “the worst [conditions] I have encountered in years…. There is no luxury in Germany.” But he was even more appalled by the “intensity” of anti-Semitism, a “brand of hatred” about which, he said, “there has been no exaggeration.” And yet he remained optimistic about the prospects for peace and continued to hope that the Nazi regime might still evolve into a responsible state. A few days later he met President Edvard Beneš during a visit to Czechoslovakia, and described him as “an able idealist, great leader of a brave people” likely to defend his country successfully against Hitler’s threats. It was characteristic of Luce that he became absorbed with whatever country he had most recently visited, and he often pressured the magazines to pay attention to anything that had struck his interest there. His excitement about Beneš led to an admiring cover story on him, only months before the nation’s demise at the hands of Germany.17

A year later, in the spring of 1939, the writer John Gunther encountered Luce on a ship en route to Europe. The two men, who barely knew each other, struck up a shipboard friendship. Gunther later wrote to his wife about Luce’s revealing account of himself. “He’s aloof and sensitive at first, then bursts out in long, semi-articulate, highly intelligent talk.” Gunther took note as well of Luce’s apparent frustration and uncertainty. Luce was “ashamed to say I’m 41,” an age at which he felt he should know more than he did and wanted to “go to school again.” Luce spoke ruefully as well of how much of his life had become defined by his wealth and power, how too often he found himself in the company of rich reactionaries (“French semi-Fascists and ‘Après nous le déluge—let them eat cake millionaires,’” Gunther described some of their shipboard companions, whom Luce chose to avoid). But Luce expressed as well his continuing uncertainty about the crisis that he knew would soon define his life and that of the world. “If he had to choose between Fascism & Communism,” Gunther wrote, “(awful choice) he would choose communism because it meant more for ‘the people as a whole.’” Despite Luce’s great power, Gunther noted, “one almost senses a feeling of inferiority, or at least disatisfication [sic] with himself in spite of all he has accomplished.”18

Once in Europe, Luce quickly abandoned his plans for “a very good rest” and plunged instead into frantic travel and interviewing. During a trip to Poland in late July (a month before Germany invaded), he continued to believe that “the chances of war this year are rather less than 50–50” in part because of his admiration for “the strength of Polish policy vis-à-vis Germany.” After the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August he described the agreement as evidence of German weakness—and of Hitler’s fear of the strength of the Allied front. “The Allies are winning,” he wrote. “Americans have not realized how strong was the resistance-determination in England and France.” And yet only days later, at lunch in Paris with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, he spoke animatedly about the likelihood of catastrophic war. He returned to New York and wrote of a “war of words and nerves,” of “rolling barrages of slander timed to the minute … whispering campaigns, mystification, currency raids, posters, mass meetings, blackouts—weapons against which military men can only point their guns in vain.” In early September, with German tanks rolling into Poland, he was reproaching himself for not seeing the danger more clearly and not having advocated more effectively for preparedness and defense. “It is my fault for not having insisted harder,” he lamented, and he promptly told his editors “that we didn’t blame Hitler enough for starting the war, that we were too hard on Britain.” Billings—an isolationist at heart—complained in his diary: “They want Life to go overboard for the Allies. ‘I had tried to keep the issue fair and objective.’” But always the good soldier, he quickly fell into line.19

In the spring of 1940 Clare began an extended tour of Europe, this time to assess for Life the impact of the still relatively quiet war. (A year later she published her observations in a successful book, Europe in the Spring.) In April, as German forces began their great offensive, Luce raced to Paris to join her and to assess the changing situation for himself. (It was a classic example of Luce’s practice of journalism—serial visits with heads of state and other dignitaries.) After a whirlwind round of interviews with French officials and a short visit to London, he wrote back perceptively to his editors that the “stand-out fact” of the war was “plain and simple aviation.” England, France, and the United States, he argued, were in many ways better prepared for a long war than was Germany. But in a short war they were in great danger because of the enormous German advantage in airpower. If the “Allies had two or three thousand additional airplanes,” he insisted, “the war would be shortened … the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men on both sides would be saved.” The United States should not only increase airplane production but should also release to the Allies “every single airplane which they are willing to pay cash for.” His editors accused him of oversimplification and kept the intensity of his feeling on this issue out of the magazines, but Luce did not back down. “Airplanes, airplanes, is the cry you hear from the land and … from the sea,” he replied. The course of the war in the following months proved him to be mostly right.20

A few days later, on May 8, he and Clare were in Holland, which, like most of Europe, was awaiting the beginning of the German blitzkrieg that everyone by now knew was imminent. “Where will [Hitler] strike?” Luce wrote. “Anywhere”—except the already obsolete Maginot Line in western France. In fact German troops began flowing across the Dutch border almost as soon as the Luces arrived, and they quickly decamped to the American Embassy in Brussels. Early the next morning, a maid woke them with the news that “The Germans are coming again.” They rushed to the window and looked out across the square, “when we heard a tremendous explosion…. The house across the street collapsed. The sirens began to blow … Red Cross ambulances appeared.” Everyone in the embassy was frightened, particularly as the sound of German artillery began to be heard to the north. “But after that,” Luce observed, “they got used to the war and were very mad.” With the building vibrating from the noise of bombing, shelling, and air-raid sirens, the embassy staff made breakfast “because not eating would not keep the Germans away.” Clare ignored the warnings of the embassy staff and strolled across downtown Brussels, watching Belgians read the grim news in their papers, noting women and children on their normal shopping rounds, and observing soldiers assembling with “great calm.” Failing to find a taxi (they had all been commandeered by the army), she uncharacteristically rode a streetcar back to the embassy. Because the city was “in a state of siege,” she and Harry stayed in the embassy and had “a very good luncheon in the mirrored gallery … the Ambassador served his best wine.” Clare noted that they heard “three more alarms between the eggs mornay and the dessert course.” As darkness fell “on the first day of the big show,” Harry and Clare looked from the embassy balcony again to see “the green square where the glass from the bombhouse lies like jagged hail” and where two children had died. The next morning, shortly after Clare cabled to Life her own “eyewitness account of the first day of the Germans’ grand attack on the western world,” they were driven back to Paris in a car provided by the embassy. As always his thoughts turned immediately to what these events meant for the United States. “Don’t ever doubt Hitler keeps a close eye on American opinion,” Luce wrote as he departed from Brussels. Concern about the American reaction, he claimed, was the reason the German bombing of Belgium was relatively restrained. Hitler is “well pleased with the impotence of American opinion up to date, but the possibility of engaging America is the only thing which would really scare him.” A few weeks later, back in New York, Luce responded to a friend’s request for a conversation “when your desk is clear” with a blunt retort: “Desk won’t be clear until Hitler either gives or receives the peace of death.”21

“Our great job from now on is not to create power but to use it,” Luce wrote Larsen from Europe in the spring of 1940. On his return to New York he gave two national radio addresses warning Americans that their way of life was threatened by “mighty and ruthless nations…. What can we do now?” he asked. “We can strip off the false cloak of neutrality and announce to the world—that we stand for … democracy.” Luce was in effect announcing a new phase of his career in which he would use his magazines, and his personal influence, to shape public policy and national opinion. His first step in doing so was to become deeply engaged, for the first time in his life, with a presidential campaign.22

Luce had confronted earlier campaigns with relative indifference. He had cast a hopeful vote for Al Smith in 1928; and he had supported Hoover in 1932, only because he thought there was no difference between the two candidates and that continuity was preferable to change. He voted for Alf Landon in 1936, but with no enthusiasm, and he approached the 1940 political season without a strong preference. Through much of 1939 he spoke generally favorably of Robert Taft, the acknowledged front-runner for the Republican nomination. But by mid-1940 Taft’s continuing isolationism had turned Luce away not only from the candidate but from the party. “The remarks of Roosevelt … sound wonderful here,” he wrote from Europe in May. “I am practically prepared to become … a Third Termer unless the opposition offers some small degree of competition.” The only ray of hope for the Republicans, he predicted, was “Davenport’s man.”23

“Davenport’s man” was Wendell Willkie, a prominent utilities executive who had left his company early in 1939 after reaching a lucrative settlement with the government in a legal dispute with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Once a Democrat and a Roosevelt supporter, he turned against both the president and the party in the aftermath of his lawsuit, became a Republican, and began to emerge as a public figurethrough his frequent speeches and writings. In the summer of 1939 he agreed to participate in a Fortuneround table, where he met Russell Davenport, the magazine’s managing editor. Davenport returned home that evening and reported to his family, “I’ve just met the man who ought to be President of the United States.” For the next several months the two men—soon close friends—met often, first at Davenport’s weekend home on Long Island, later in Davenport’s Manhattan apartment. (Willkie, too, lived in New York with his family in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, although by 1940 he was spending much of his time—onlymoderately discreetly—with Irita Van Doren, the book editor of the New York Herald Tribune.) Together Willkie and Davenport (with helpfrom Van Doren) produced a “manifesto,” published under Willkie’s name and titled “We the People.” It appeared in Fortune in April 1940 with an effusive preface by Davenport introducing Willkie: “The principles he stands for are American principles…. They are progressive, liberal and expansive. One cannot dare to doubt that they will eventually prevail…. For taking up this position … Mr. Willkie certainly deserves the respect and attention of his countrymen.” In the document that followed, Willkie lashed out at Roosevelt: “You have usurped our sovereign power by curtailing the Bill of Rights … and by placing in the hands of a few men in executive commissions all the powers requisite to tyranny…. You have muddled our foreign affairs with politics … with wild fears and inconsistent acts…. We do not want a New Deal any more. We want a New World.” But Willkie was actually less interested in attacking Roosevelt than in standing up against the isolationist right and steering the Republican Party toward a responsibly internationalist position on the war. When congressional Republicans tried to block proposed loans to threatened countries in Europe, he wrote: “There can be no question which is right and which is wrong…. We are opposed to war. But we do not intend to relinquish our right to sell whatever we want to those defending themselves from aggression.”24

Davenport was not the first person to imagine Willkie as a presidential candidate. Low-level speculation about his political future had begun early in 1939 and had continued through the year. By the beginning of 1940, however, he remained the darkest of dark horses, with so little support (or even recognition) in the polls that almost no one had yet taken him seriously. But the publication of “We the People” in Fortune intersected with a growing popular boom—launched by Oren Root, a young lawyer (and relative of former secretary of state Elihu Root). Root, almost alone, implausibly but effectively organized a grassroots mail and advertising campaign that produced a remarkable response. Hundreds of “Willkie Clubs” sprang up around the country, and more than three million people signed petitions supporting his candidacy. To Root and Davenport both, what made Willkie so attractive was that he did not appear to be a conventional politician. He seemed to them an honest, uncalculating “clear thinker” whose views were not his party’s or his handlers’ but his own. Both men were also ardent internationalists and admired Willkie’s opposition to the isolationist sentiments of many of their fellow Republicans. By early May the boom had grown so promising that Davenport resigned from Fortune to become one of Willkie’s campaign managers. “I believe,” he explained to Larsen, “that the principles that he has been expressing have a national, indeed an historical significance.”25

Prior to his return from Europe, Luce had only a relatively vague notion of who Willkie was and what he represented. But the combination of Davenport’s enthusiasm and Luce’s own strengthened commitment to a major American role in the war drew him quickly into Willkie’s orbit. Willkie and Luce began to meet frequently in Luce’s office in Rockefeller Center, talking and drinking with their feet up on Luce’s desk, sometimes until late into the night. A pragmatic friendship emerged, and with it Luce’s deepening commitment to Willkie’s candidacy. Indeed, for the first time in his life, Luce felt truly passionate about a political figure. For the next several months he seemed almost entirely to abandon any detachment from politics and became an open and unapologetic champion of (and frequent campaign adviser to) Willkie. “I know of no one in public life in our time who had greater magnetism than Wendell Willkie,” Nicholas Roosevelt, the president’s cousin, once wrote. Luce, consciously or not, seemed to have come to the same conclusion.26

Although Luce’s commitment to Willkie was rooted in an extraordinary personal attraction that he never explained and perhaps never fully understood, he was also drawn to Willkie because of two growing convictions: that Franklin Roosevelt was incapable of leading the nation through the world crisis, and that Willkie was a bulwark against a dangerous Right, which in the absence of credible leadership might so obstruct support for the Allies that the great crusade for democracy could be lost. The two impulses—the passion for Willkie and the growing despair about the alternatives—reinforced each other.

Luce’s intensifying hatred for Roosevelt was only partly a result of his frustration with the president’s halting course toward support for the Allies. He had, after all, actually supported the administration’s foreign policy only a few months before. He seemed more afraid of what he considered Roosevelt’s autocratic leadership and his apparent radicalism, and the likelihood that they would destabilize the nation. “Franklin Roosevelt has done more than any President in the history of our Republic to destroy and undermine the spirit of American enterprise” and “the spirit of cooperation between all the various groups of which our society is composed.” The administration, he charged, “has failed in its domestic objectives … and brought America to the verge of bankruptcy.” It has created “vast and corrupt political machines.” “If people want state socialism,” he wrote Willkie in October, “let them vote for it with their eyes open. Indeed let there be summoned a constitutional convention to scrap the present dear old Constitution.”27

But Luce was at least equally concerned about the Republican Right, and he saw in Willkie the only protection against what he saw as the bigotry and isolationism of much of the party. “I urge that Willkie make a speech specifically giving hell to the Tories and Reactionaries in his camp,” he wrote Davenport in the summer of 1940. “Willkie has disavowed anti-Semitism, he has shown himself to be a true economic and social liberal. But … he has not specially disavowed the stupid, idle-rich, backward-looking economic royalists—all the people whom I really hate worse than Roosevelt.” He was as persistent in pressing these concerns as he was in pressing any others. “Please reconsider desirability of repudiation of reactionaries, tories, snots, old dealers, and idle rich in your camp,” he wrote again after his earlier entreaties went unanswered. “Reaffirm true progressive liberalism in contrast and treat all old dealers as pitiful anachronisms.” The hatred of Roosevelt and the hatred of the Right combined to drive him to a third concern: an embrace of the rumored and already discredited notion—originally circulated by New Dealers themselves—that business leaders were planning a “capital strike” against the New Deal. His colleague C. D. Jackson warned that corporate leaders would “go on a much more dangerous sit-down strike than after the ’36 election…. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that within the next twelve months these people as a class may very well fall for some Fascistic putsch, simply for the sake of throwing a monkey-wrench into Roosevelt.” Luce agreed, and warned that the uprising might be “infinitely vaster than Wall Street or La Salle Street [the banking center of Chicago] or all such streets.” That was yet another reason, he insisted, for the importance of a Willkie victory.28

Time and Life had been touting Willkie even before Luce began to pressure his editors to do so. Life ran a glowing portrait of the candidate in mid-May 1940, while Luce was still in Europe, calling Willkie “by far the ablest man the Republicans could nominate for President at Philadelphia next month.” Time consistently debunked the other leading Republican candidates—Robert Taft, Thomas E. Dewey, Arthur Vandenberg—while noting every sign that Willkie, still a long shot, was gaining ground. “Up and coming Willkie,” the magazine wrote in early May, “upped himself several notches” in a speech to newspaper publishers, who went home “wondering if there was still time to convince his public that Mr. Willkie would make a top-notch Republican nominee.” Once Luce returned from Europe and began making his support for Willkie clear, the magazines increased their efforts on his behalf, and gradually crossed the line separating analysis from advocacy. His followers had “a hopeful gleam in their eyes,” Time noted in early June. His nomination, “which was believed impossible a few weeks ago, is decidedly within the realm of a possibility today.” By mid-June, with Willkie still trailing all his major opponents, Time was ebulliently describing him as “the most rambunctious dark horse, getting more rambunctious daily.” And little more than a week before the Republican convention convened, Time ran a cover piece (“The Story of Wendell Willkie”) that could only be described, given its timing, as a campaign document. It included a heroic account of the grassroots effort to build support for Willkie, a mocking description of the bloated campaign efforts of his opponents compared with Willkie’s humble simplicity, and a lengthy pro-Willkie statement by the columnist Raymond Clapper, unchallenged by any other voices. The only issue in the campaign, Clapper wrote, “is whether Mr. Roosevelt or a Republican could do a faster, better job of obtaining the industrial production for defense…. They must look ahead and offer a man who can make the country believe he would do a better job…. On that point Mr. Willkie is the only man the Republicans have who stands a chance of making an effective case.”29

By the time Willkie won the Republican nomination in dramatic fashion on the sixth ballot in Philadelphia, the Luce publications were in full cry. The convention, Life claimed, was the site of “a political drama unique in [the party’s] history.” The other candidates “looked and sounded pretty much as they had at any political convention in the last 20 or 40 years—except more confused and dispirited…. The familiar pattern was broken only in six small rooms on the top floor of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, where delegates, reporters, and visitors were crowding in … to see and hear a new kind of leader.” “Dreary,” “dull,” “depressing,” “desperate,” “hopeless” were the adjectives describing Willkie’s opponents. But the nomination itself was “the happy and inspiring ending,” the result of “a tidal wave of popular demand” that “crumbled the opposition” and “swept the old bosses out.” Time described Willkie’s gallant supporters in Philadelphia: “Unbossed, unled … Willkiemen and Willkiewomen surged around Philadelphia … carrying the torches of their faith.” Willkie himself, Time insisted, was “not a leader in any sense that was politically recognizable.” In the end “the people had won…. For the first time since Teddy Roosevelt, the Republicans had a man they could yell for and mean it.”30

Willkie’s remarkable rise, and his stunning victory in Philadelphia, only deepened Luce’s commitment to his candidacy. In the four months between the convention and the election he worked ceaselessly and almost obsessively to promote Willkie’s election. The magazines continued to give Willkie warm treatment, but there remained some resistance from pro-Roosevelt editors, who complained bitterly about the bias in coverage and tried occasionally to balance it. Luce reacted with fury to this suggestion of evenhandedness. “I am deeply disappointed,” he wrote to his editors in September. “Here we come to a Presidential election which I think is vitally important. And Time evidently doesn’t think so…. Anyone who does not think this campaign is important should have nothing to do with the reporting and editing of the campaign—and should report to me accordingly now.” And what made the campaign so important? Luce listed the issues that he considered “critical to the nation’s future,” all of them favorable to Willkie: the third term, Roosevelt’s disgraceful record on foreign policy, the New Deal’s corrupt appointees. “If an Administration was a failure,” he asked his editors bitterly, “should it be excused its failure and given new power because the threat of War arises?” Most important was the bold alternative that Willkie provided and the growing endorsements he was receiving. “Last week a lot of people came out for Willkie,” Luce snapped. “You mentioned none of them.”31

But Luce could be critical of Willkie, too. The more emotionally committed he became, the more impatient he was with the campaign’s shortcomings. After the convention Willkie relocated to Indiana, his onetime home state, and spent several weeks sitting on the front porch of a rented house talking with reporters (a reference to an earlier, simpler era of presidential campaigns and an effort to emphasize his own small-town background). Luce was furious. Willkie should stop “this cracker-barrel dawdling,” he barked to Davenport. “Running for President might be fun for Mr. Willkie…. But it’s a God damn serious thing for 130,000,000 Americans and maybe for the world.” Willkie was “fast becoming just another Daily Columnist” at a moment when he needed “to begin to govern now.” But it was one thing for Luce to criticize Willkie privately; it was another for such concerns to become public. Luce was deeply pained when concerns about Willkie’s “lassitude” and disorganization started to appear in the press. Raymond Clapper wrote that “seldom has there been more chaos in a presidential campaign.” Criticism even appeared in Luce’s own magazines. Time reported in September that Republicans were beginning to believe that “the holy-rolling campaign of Wendell Willkie has gone sour,” that “Amateur Willkie” had lost control of his own organization. Luce was torn between fury with the reporters and despair that the charges were largely true.32

For the two months of the formal fall campaign, Luce veered from periods of elation at evidence of Willkie’s rising fortunes to something close to panic when his chances seemed to ebb. But whatever his mood, he never let up his effort to insert his views into the campaign and to persuade others of the importance of a Willkie victory. Almost every day, often several times a day, he deluged Davenport with letters, memos, telegrams, and telephone calls offering ideas and information, and frequently drafts of full speeches (a few of which Willkie actually gave). He agonized over the wording of what he believed Willkie should say, as if a turn of phrase might transform the race. “Let your indictment be completed before you turn to statement of positive principles. Or, if you like, group principles under negatives and positives … ‘I will not do this … I will do this.’” “Continue to be specific,” he wrote Willkie in late September. “Attack the New Deal, rather than Roosevelt.” The president “is somewhat akin to our flag,” but the New Deal as a concept is more vulnerable.33

In advising Willkie, Luce was also struggling to articulate his own rapidly changing views of the state of the nation and the world. He was searching for a philosophy that would shape his—and, he hoped, America’s—future course. More and more he focused that search on a definition of individual freedom. “The error of the New Deal is its effort to take all the responsibility for fixing everything. It has undermined individual responsibility.” Americans should extend their aid to “peoples who are striving … toward the attainment and fulfillment of the democratic and Christian ideals.” Willkie should emphasize “Democracy as a concept … the religion of democracy,” a “renewed commitment to human freedom.” And, repeatedly, “The campaign must be a Crusade for Free Men in a Free Land.” To others these phrases must have seemed purely rhetorical, even platitudinous. To Luce, however, they were filled with meanings, even if he could not yet fully articulate them.34

As time went on and Willkie’s poll numbers began to decline,* Luce became harsher and more partisan than ever. When Willkie spoke in or around New York, Luce was almost always in the audience (although he retained just enough awareness of his supposed impartiality as a journalist to decline invitations to sit on the podium with the candidate). Ten days before the election, Luce spewed out to Davenport a shorthand list of Roosevelt’s crimes: “communist influence,” “recession,” “Japanese aggression largely financed by the United States,” “partisan appointments to the Supreme Court,” “Munich,” “Scandal,” “All Members of the Roosevelt family continue to make money!” By then it was clear to him that Willkie would not use this kind of invective in his campaign. Luce was just venting his own frustration, but he was also looking ahead. As the end of the campaign approached and the inevitability of a Roosevelt victory began to become apparent, he mounted an effort—which extended well beyond election day—to create a case for the importance of Willkie’s candidacy despite his defeat. “If the story then is a story of repudiation, it is a story of one of the great repudiations of American history,” he implausibly claimed to his editors (having already called the 1940 contest “the most important election since 1860”), “and we should land on it with both feet.” In late October he wrote Manfred Gottfried (now managing editor of Time), “the day after Mr. Roosevelt’s election the psychological face of this country will be strange and not very happy.”

In early November, after Roosevelt was easily elected to his third term (albeit by a significantly smaller margin than in his previous two elections), Luce rationalized that “the real news … is the size of the minority vote…. Comments should show what tiny fraction changes in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and what other few states would have elected Willkie.” And “the chief thing to speculate about,” he added, “is the future of Willkie. This is really much more interesting than whether Whoosis is going to get what job in Washington…. Willkie is as unprecedented as the Third Term.” In a letter sent out to many correspondents a few days after the voting, he still had nothing good to say about Roosevelt and argued instead that “the man you ought to thank God for more than for any other American … is a fellow you don’t know anything about: Wendell Willkie. Any candidate could have, and perhaps any other candidate unwittingly might have, torn this country apart instead of uniting it in a passionate fervor pro-democracy.”35

Luce’s ardor for Willkie began to fade almost as soon as the election was over, but it did not vanish altogether. Willkie visited Luce at Mepkin in December en route to a Florida vacation, and they continued to correspond, to meet, and to work together on shared causes—although at a less intensive pace—over the following years. His admiration for Willkie survived, but his enthusiasm did not, especially once Willkie began cooperating openly with Roosevelt.36

At the same time that Luce was immersed in the Willkie campaign, he was also working quietly to persuade Roosevelt to take a more aggressive stance toward the war. The awkwardness of this situation was not lost on either man. While Luce was excoriating the president in his magazines, working actively against his reelection, and accusing Roosevelt of incompetence and something close to tyranny, Roosevelt was privately condemning Luce’s “bias” and “propaganda” and making vague threats (rarely implemented) to challenge Luce’s power. “There are some things in life that one should not let certain people get away with,” Roosevelt wrote in 1940 after a petty dispute with Time about some inconsequential reporting errors. Luce, he complained, was “slippery.” George Washington “had the courage to admit a lie,” he wrote (crossing out the word “lie” and replacing it with “sin”), but “Henry Luce lacks that ability.” And yet both men were pragmatic enough to know when to put their mutual dislike aside, and both sought ways to use each other to advance their own ends, which in reality had more in common than either was willing to admit.37

In the summer of 1940, as the military situation in Europe deterioriated and as Luce immersed himself in the Willkie campaign, he joined a nonpartisan group of influential men who were trying to pave the way for more active American support for Britain. The renowned Kansas editor William Allen White had just created the highly public Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which worked actively to combat isolationism through public exhortation. The group Luce joined, by contrast, relied on quiet and mostly secret diplomacy. They first convened in July 1940 at the midtown Columbia University Club and agreed to create a formal organization, which they later named the Century Group, after the elite New York men’s club in which they held most of their subsequent meetings. Its director was Francis Pickens Miller, a Virginia congressman with ties both to the Council on Foreign Relations and to the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies; and its members included other political figures (Lewis Douglas, Roosevelt’s former budget director, now a Willkie Republican; Robert E. Sherwood, a playwright and Roosevelt speechwriter; Will Clayton, an official in the State Department); theologians (Henry Sloane Coffin, the renowned president of Union Theological Seminary and Henry Van Dusen, who later succeeded him); academics (among them Ernest Hopkins, the president of Dartmouth College); and the publishers of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the New York Herald Tribune. But there was probably no one in the thirty-member group more influential than Luce; and although he at times expressed discomfort at being a member of what was essentially a lobbying organization (a discomfort that rarely inhibited his participation in the Willkie campaign), he gradually became one of its most active members. He helped pay for the office and staff that the group opened on Forty-second Street, and he made himself increasingly central to their efforts to change American policy.38

The group often disagreed about tactics, but they were united from the start on one large issue: “that the survival of the British Commonwealth … is an important factor in the preservation of the American way of life,” and that “the survival of the British Fleet … is a factor of critical importance in the defense of the United States.” Very quickly these concerns coalesced around a specific proposal: sending some recently decommissioned American destroyers to the Royal Navy, an action that “would probably make the difference between defeat, and victory.” But the committee was stymied at first by the legal and political obstacles that they knew would stand in the way. America’s neutrality laws required that any nation receiving military supplies from the United States must pay for them, and Britain had no capacity to finance a purchase of this magnitude. And because the issue was arising in the year of a presidential campaign, everyone realized as well that Roosevelt would need political cover for anything he might do. “If saving western civilization hinges on these boats,” Miller wrote Luce, “then a way through the technicalities must be found.” Luce consulted the columnist Joseph Alsop for advice on how to influence Roosevelt, and he took to heart Alsop’s blunt advice: “Suppress Lew Douglas’s name … a red flag to the Presidential bull…. If possible, a courtier-like approach…. The President is very tired, and when tired is seemingly best dealt with from the position of the kow-tow.” At the next meeting Luce argued that Roosevelt would need a “quid pro quo” from the British to justify the transfer of the ships, and he proposed that “these destroyers should be offered to Britain in exchange for immediate naval and air concessions in British possessions in the Western Hemisphere.” Luce had not been the first person to embrace this idea. It had been circulating in elite conversations, and even in the press, for at least several weeks. But Luce was largely responsible for directing the Century Group toward the proposal.39

Having agreed on strategy, the group quickly turned to tactics. Who should see whom? they asked themselves. What should be “the method to cut through the technicalities”? How was the country “to be aroused”? The members responded in the way that powerful people usually do—by contacting other powerful people. Luce and Coffin visited Secretary of State Cordell Hull. They were pleased by Hull’s approval of their idea, Luce wrote, but discouraged by his demeanor, “bordering on fatalistic despair…. The noble old soldier has been working so long in an atmosphere of frustration and defeat that he has perhaps lost the necessary faith in the possible victory of his cause.” A few days later he called first on Frank Knox, the former Republican newspaper editor (and 1936 Republican vice presidential candidate) whom Roosevelt had recently named secretary of the navy; and then Lord Lothian, the British ambassador. He urged them both to support the destroyers-for-bases plan. Knox and Lothian surprised him with welcome but unexplained optimism—an optimism Luce did not at that moment share, because the day before he and Clare had spent the night at the White House.40

It was ostensibly a social event, organized around a screening for the president of the new March of Time film, “The Ramparts We Watch.” On their arrival the Luces were shown to a White House bedroom—“utterly without charm,” Harry wrote—and then proceeded to the president’s private study on the second floor. Roosevelt was sitting behind his desk gleefully mixing what Luce considered “excellent martinis.” (The president drank two.) The party included some of Luce’s colleagues—Roy Larsen and Louis de Rochemont and their wives—as well as such usual companions of the president as Missy LeHand, his secretary, and Harry Hopkins, his most trusted aide. After dinner the group convened in the “stifling hot” upstairs corridor to watch the film, which the president seemed to like; and shortly after that Luce met privately with the president in his study.41

Luce found the conversation disappointing. He moved immediately to what he later called “my big question … has he or has he not made up his mind about sending destroyers to Great Britain.” Roosevelt equivocated, dismissing the idea as politically impossible at one moment, then describing the congressional lobbying he would have to do to enhance the proposal’s chances. He was struck by the president’s “air of great confidence…. He feels a sort of reincarnation.” Years later, after Harry’s death, Clare described the evening and claimed that Roosevelt had pressured Harry to support the destroyers-for-bases deal in his magazines, that only with such backing could he hope to persuade Congress to agree to the plan. Harry’s own contemporary memoir of the event mentions no such proposal, but he did indeed begin immediately to promote the idea in Time, with a lengthy essay pointing out the importance to the United States of bases in the Caribbean, “the first outpost of U.S.’s maritime frontier.” What had once been an afterthought—using the acquisition of bases in the Caribbean to facilitate the much more important need to send destroyers to Britain—now cleverly became, in public at least, Time’s principal goal. It was exactly the kind of support Roosevelt needed to give him the cover to pursue the deal. At the same time Luce, along with others, worked to persuade Willkie not to oppose the destroyers-for-bases deal in the campaign. Willkie agreed, even though he must certainly have known that such a decision could strengthen Roosevelt’s chances for reelection. On September 3, after a month of intricate negotiations with the British government, Roosevelt announced that he was issuing an executive order (not reviewable by Congress) to acquire British bases in the Caribbean “in exchange for fifty of our over-age destroyers”—a deal almost identical to the one Luce had proposed to him in July. The president’s “bold stroke,” Time exultantly if slightly grudgingly reported, “was received with cheers that drowned out criticism of the secret and questionable method by which it was carried out.”42

In November, only days after the presidential election, Luce quietly resigned from the Century Group, explaining that “happily, we are well embarked on armament and military production; we are pretty generally agreed on aid-to-Britain, etc.” The committee’s job was far from over, he conceded, but its task had shifted from influencing the president to influencing the public. “I think that as an editor I should not be an active member of a policy promoting group…. I doubt whether I should be in a position of being busily engaged in trying to influence myself!” Coming so soon after the end of the campaign, it is likely that Luce was also aware of the danger he had created for himself and his company by becoming such an obvious and partisan supporter of Willkie. It was time, he seemed to be signaling, for him to stop being a political activist and to focus again on his company and his magazines.43

But Luce could not contain himself for long. In December 1940 he found himself embroiled in a secret effort, spearheaded by a shadowy pacifist, Malcolm Lovell, to explore the possibility of a settlement of the war. Lovell arranged a meeting with an attaché in the German consulate in New York, Hans Thomsen; and Luce, perhaps out of curiosity and perhaps out of his continuing hope that he would somehow transform the course of world events, unwisely agreed to attend. Nothing came of the flirtation except to create another reason for the White House, which learned of the meeting, to distrust him. In the meantime, he continued an active correspondence with the members of the Century Group, who continued to fear that “our present scale of help will only achieve that miserable result … of just keeping England going until we get strong enough not to care.” Luce warned them of allying with the “extreme Anglophiles” but agreed that the government’s policy remained inadequate. Early in the new year he briefly involved himself in an Illinois Senate race, in an effort to ensure that a “non-isolationist candidate” would be nominated by the state Republicans. And by late January he was back in the thick of the effort—again orchestrated by many of the same establishment leaders with whom he had collaborated in 1940—to promote what became Lend-Lease, the much more expansive system of aid to Britain (and later other Allies, including the Soviet Union) that Roosevelt proposed and Congress approved in March 1941. Luce wrote an editorial for Life in January, “We Americans,” which advocated the bill, but he sullenly backed away from it when confronted with objections from his editors to running an explicit editorial. He embarked instead on a speaking tour, in which he actively promoted Lend-Lease, and he began to speak more openly than ever before about direct American participation in the war. “I say that we are already in the war,” he pronounced dramatically to an audience in Pittsburgh. “The irony is that Hitler knows it—and most of the American people don’t.” But he was also exploring larger themes: the nature of America’s power and wealth, its capacity to reshape the world, its moral obligations. “Ours is the power, ours is the opportunity,” he proclaimed to a group of oilmen in Tulsa, “and ours will be the responsibility whether we like it or not.” On his return to New York he began contemplating a more systematic statement of his ideas on the war, a manifesto that would, he hoped, both confront the momentous issues facing the nation and thrust Luce himself into the center of the great debate.44

Luce never underestimated his own intelligence. Billings uncharitably called him a “thinking machine,” lost in “the clouds of theory.” Harry himself once said to Clare—according to her own perhaps apocryphal but not wholly implausible later account—that he could think of no one who was his intellectual superior. What about Einstein? Clare asked. Einstein, Harry replied, was a “specialist,” without his own range. But despite his formidable intelligence he rarely took a strong public position without borrowing from the ideas of others and without validating his work through people he admired. And so, as he set out to write an important statement about his own dangerous times, he searched widely for inspiration and advice.45

He turned first to Walter Lippmann and Archibald MacLeish, both of whom had often influenced him in the past. Lippmann had been a regular contributor to Life for months, publishing articles that were more aggressively interventionist than anything Luce had yet written. Through the second half of 1940 Lippmann called consistently for Americans to recognize their responsibility as world leaders. “Either we shall fulfill that destiny or the world we have lived in will perish beyond hope of an early or an easy resurrection,” he wrote in June. If totalitarian states came to control the great industrial capacity of Europe and Russia, he warned, the American economy would face “unprecedented difficulties…. A free economy, such as Americans have known, cannot survive in a world that is elsewhere a regime of military socialism.” The defeat of democratic powers in Europe, he warned in October, would mean that “we and our children would stand on the unending defensive waiting for the blow to fall.” But to Luce, Lippmann’s most persuasive argument came even before the European war began, in an essay titled “The American Destiny,” published in Life in June 1939. In it Lippmann talked less of the external threats to the nation than of its internal doubt and confusion. “In the generation to which we belong,” Lippmann had argued, “unlike any that went before, the American people have no vision of their own future.” They were fearful of their own wealth and power, convinced somehow that “their incomparable assets are in fact their most dangerous liability.” The American failure, in short, was its unwillingness to accept its own greatness and its responsibilities to the world. “What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow,” he proclaimed. “When the destiny of a nation is revealed to it, there is no choice but to accept that destiny and to make ready in order to be equal to it.”46

If Lippmann helped Luce embrace the idea of an American destiny, MacLeish helped him express at least a part of the moral underpinning with which he would justify the nation’s mission in the world. MacLeish wrote a series of drafts for him of a “Statement of Belief” that would, he hoped, capture the urgent mission of his time. It was an argument for the importance of freedom, and for the special role the United States had always played in exemplifying and defending freedom. “Freedom is still the greatest of human causes,” MacLeish wrote, and “it is in the United States that the cause of freedom has its highest hope.” If freedom was to become the normal condition of humanity in the world, he insisted, then

the people of the United States, with their tradition of political responsibility, their mastery of the skills of industry and agriculture, their ownership of the wealth of the richest of all lands, have a better right to hope for its realization than any other nation has ever had.

Luce, as always, admired MacLeish’s literary power (so much so that he borrowed passages from MacLeish in his own later essay), but he also worried that the statements were too narrow. “Why is it so hard?” he wrote in response to an early draft. “Not because we lack faith, but because what is included in our faith is such a multitude of things seen and unseen.” His hope was to combine something of Lippmann’s muscularity of purpose with MacLeish’s moral temper. But he also sought to reshape some of his own earlier ideas and statements, which he had been developing throughout his adult life.47

His effort to articulate the meaning of America had begun in China, when, as a young boy, he attempted to construct an image of a nation he had passionately embraced but had never seen, a nation he associated with the good that he believed his own father was doing in the world. It continued in his first years in America as a student, nowhere more clearly than in his senior-year oration at Yale in 1920:

When we say “America” twenty years from now, may it be that that great name will signify throughout the world … that America may be counted upon to do her share in the solution of every international difficulty, that she will be the great comrade of all nations that struggle to rise to higher planes of social and political organization, and withal the implacable and the immediate foe of whatever nation shall offer to disturb the peace of the world.48

In the crowded years during which he had worked tirelessly to create first a magazine and then a publishing empire, he spent relatively little time thinking or writing about the great missions he had embraced in his youth. But after the enormous success of his company, and in the face of the great world crisis of the late 1930s, he turned again to the task of articulating an “idea worth fighting for.” His impassioned, sometimes reckless, and often frustrating involvement with the Willkie campaign was a first step. After the 1940 election, freed of his efforts to speak through Willkie, he began to express his own views, in the aborted article, “We Americans;” in his speeches across the country in 1941; and finally in a new essay for Life—this time urged on by his editors, who advocated a “modern Federalist Papers for this world A.D. 1941.” The essay would become the most influential article he would ever publish.49

It appeared in the February 17, 1941, issue of Life under the title “The American Century,” a phrase first used decades earlier by H. G. Wells, but one that Luce now made a part of American, and global, language. To a large degree it was a commentary on the current “confused” state of American life and the nation’s uncertain relationship with the war. “We Americans are unhappy,” he began (echoing Lippman in 1939). “We are nervous—or gloomy—or apathetic…. We are filled with foreboding.” Luce then set out to explain, and dispel, the pessimism and confusion that he saw around him. Most of the essay consisted of a careful, guarded, and often prosaic analysis of the steps America had taken so far toward greater engagement in the war. “America is in the war,” he wrote, “but are we in it? … We say we don’t want to be in the war. We also say we want England to win. We want Hitler stopped—more than we want to stay out of the war. So at the moment, we’re in.” But being “in” was not enough. Wanting to be “in” is what Luce asked of the American people. And why should Americans want to be fully engaged in what promised to be the most terrible of all wars? Partly because staying out of the war, he argued (in a reflection of his continuing dislike and distrust of Roosevelt), could lead to tyranny at home:

The President of the United States has continually reached for more and more power, and he owes his continuation in office to the coming of the war. Thus, the fear that the United States will be driven to national socialism, as a result of cataclysmic circumstances and contrary to the free will of the American people, is an entirely justifiable fear.

But also because Britain could not possibly win the war without American help. The United States was “the most powerful and the most vital nation in the world,” and Americans were failing “to play their part as a world power—a failure which has had disastrous consequences for themselves and for all mankind.” America had squandered “an opportunity unprecedented in all history, to assume the leadership of the world” in 1919. It had failed again in the 1920s, and again in the 1930s. It could not do so again. The twentieth century, he insisted, must at last become what it should have been a generation earlier: “an American Century.”

“What can we say and foresee about an American Century?” he asked. His answer was bold, ambitious, idealistic—and filled with the missionary zeal that had shaped his life. “It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people, and for the people.” America was already the “intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world,” he claimed, and Americans were “the least provincial people in the world.” But more important than that the United States now had “that indefinable unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige. And unlike the prestige of Rome or Genghis Khan or 19th Century England, American prestige throughout the world is faith in the good intentions as well as the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the whole of the American people.” The creation of an American century would require great vision. It would mean a commitment to “an economic order compatible with freedom and progress.” It would mean a willingness to “send out through the world [America’s] technical and artistic skills. Engineers, scientists, doctors, movie men, makers of entertainment, developers of airlines, builders of roads, teachers, educators.” It would mean becoming “the Good Samaritan of the entire world,” with a duty “to feed all the people of the world who … are hungry and destitute.”

Most of all, the American Century as Luce envisioned it would require:

a passionate devotion to great American ideals … a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation….[W]e are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization—above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity…. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.

From these elements, he concluded, “surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm…. It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.”50

It should not be surprising that this strangely powerful essay—which never explicitly advocated an American declaration of war but called instead for an almost evangelical commitment to righting the wrongs of the world—evoked a set of highly disparate responses. The thousands of letters sent to Life in response to “The American Century”—far more than the magazine normally received for other articles—contained a predictable number of protests from people still strongly opposed to entering the war. “Let America be the ‘Good Samaritan’ to United States Citizens,” a woman from Toledo wrote. “You are turning your magazine … into a war monger’s tool,” wrote a Pennsylvania woman. “You privileged entrenched cowards rant and rave to stir up this gory, godless thing called WAR,” a Maryland man charged, “and then drink champagne in safety and ease while the sons of the common people are slain and their children cry for bread.” Others, however, expressed great enthusiasm for Luce’s vision: “BIG STUFF! And I like it!,” one reader wrote. “Henry R. Luce is showing the way to the American people towards their future,” said another. “GRAND WRITING GRANDER THINKING,” a New York man declared. “I hope this morning one BEAM of its GLORIOUS VISION will REACH the MYOPIC FRINGE of what was once the GRAND OLD PARTY!” More than one writer referred to him as “the Tom Paine of this generation.”51

While most readers focused on what they interpreted as a call to war, many journalists and critics responded more energetically to Luce’s vision of America’s future role in the world. Walter Lippmann—whose own writings had helped shape Luce’s views—was unsurprisingly enthusiastic, as was Robert Sherwood, the former Roosevelt speechwriter, who called it “magnificent,” and the columnist Dorothy Thompson, who wrote (in a more aggressively imperialist tone than had Luce himself), “To Americanize enough of the world so that we shall have a climate favorable to our growth is indeed a call to destiny.” Other less charitable critics, mostly on the Left, took a far more hostile view of what they considered Luce’s imperialist ambitions. “A new brand of imperialism is fast gaining favor in this country,” Freda Kirchwey, the editor of the Nation, wrote disdainfully. “Mr. Luce in a very large advertisement in his magazine Life calls it ‘the American Century.’” The columnist Max Lerner, who shared Luce’s belief that the United States should enter the war, nevertheless sneered at what he considered his proposals “to establish … hegemony in the world, control the world sea lanes and world,” a vision that represented “a new capitalist-conscious group … who do not fear war but regard it as an opportunity.” Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader, criticized Luce’s “nakedness of imperial ambition.”52

The wide range of responses to “The American Century” was in part a result of the bitter divisions over the war in early 1941. But it was also a result of the character of the essay itself. Luce’s purpose in writing the essay, he later claimed, was “to help clear away the fogs of ambiguity” around the issue of the war “so that we could get on more vigorously.” But in fact there was considerable ambiguity in the way Luce addressed his central issues. (Should America enter the war? What role should the United States play in the remainder of the twentieth century?) Luce had written elliptically about both these issues, leaving it largely to his readers to decide what concrete steps he was recommending. His language was most forceful and unguarded in the final, climactic passages, in which he presented an almost evangelical portrait of America’s virtues and destiny, language so florid that it invited interpretations well beyond what Luce may have intended. He was surprised by the accusations of imperialism, and surprised too when critics lambasted him for suggesting that (as Senator Robert Taft of Ohio charged) he was proposing “that a victorious all-powerful United States dominate the 20th Century world as England did the 19th.” Luce’s essay was not incompatible with such a view, but it did not embrace it either. “My basic premise,” he wrote defensively in 1943, “was simply that America ought to assume in world affairs a responsibility corresponding to its strength. That surely is axiomatic—isn’t it?” Indeed, for much of the rest of his life he continued to try to explain to curious readers, both hostile and friendly, what he had really meant.53

And yet, despite the lack of precision and despite the many misconceptions it helped to create, “The American Century” did have something significant to say about both the present and the future. For the world of 1941 the essay was a powerful work of propaganda, published first in the most popular magazine in America, and then republished and circulated widely throughout the United States, and the world, over the following months. It was designed to rouse Americans out of what Luce considered their slothful indifference and inspire them to undertake a great mission on behalf of what he considered the nation’s core values. Despite Luce’s demurral on the crucial question of military intervention in the war, the essay made a powerful case in accessible (and in some ways populist) language for the enormous stake the United States had in the outcome of the conflict. No one reading “the American Century” could miss Luce’s warning that a totalitarian world would doom the nation’s hopes for the future. And for those looking beyond the war, the essay was unequivocal in its belief in the extraordinary role the United States could and must play in the world, and the extraordinary power and virtue America would bring to its tasks, despite Luce’s strenuous insistence that “you can’t extract imperialism from the American Century.”54

A little more than a year after Luce’s essay appeared in Life, in the first months of America’s formal entry into the war, Vice President Henry A. Wallace wrote what was in some respects the most important response to “The American Century”—a speech delivered on May 8, 1942, widely known as “The Century of the Common Man” (although its actual title was “The Price of Free World Victory”). Wallace would later become a controversial, even reviled, figure for his leadership of dissenting leftists in the early years of the Cold War, his bitter criticisms of what he considered America’s excessive militarism and aggression, and for his perhaps unwitting alliance with communists in his 1948 presidential campaign as the candidate of the short-lived Progressive Party. But he gave his 1942 speech at a high-water mark in his political career. A little over a year into his vice presidency, he had a reputation—soon to be shattered—as the second most important figure in government, as the “assistant president,” as Roosevelt’s likely heir. He spoke in 1942 as a prominent, mainstream Democrat—an important and influential figure in the Roosevelt administration—attempting to rouse the public to more fervent support of a war that the nation was not yet clearly winning.55

Wallace was implicitly critical of what he, like others, considered the imperialistic rhetoric of Luce’s 1941 essay, and he was careful to distance himself from any notion that the United States could, or should, unilaterally impose its values and institutions on the world. But he too presented a vision of the future that included a central role for the United States in both inspiring and shaping a new age of democracy. “This is a fight between a slave world and a free world,” he said. “Just as the United States in 1862 could not remain half slave and half free, so in 1942 the world must make its decision for a complete victory one way or the other.” Naturally Wallace expected all “freedom-loving people”—who were not Americans alone but among whom Americans stood preeminent—to answer that question and to shape the postwar world. Their answer, he said, was embodied in the Four Freedoms Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed in January 1941, freedoms that “are at the very core of the revolution for which the United Nations have taken their stand.” And just as Luce’s vision of an American century included a vision of exporting Western industrial abundance to the world, so Wallace insisted that “the peace must mean a better standard of living for the common man, not merely in the United States and England, but also in India, Russia, China, and Latin America—not merely in the United Nations [as the Western Alliance then called itself], but also in Germany and Italy and Japan.”56

“Some have spoken of the ‘American Century,’” Wallace added, in an obvious effort to differentiate himself from Luce. “I say the century on which we are entering … can be and must be the century of the common man.” In the years to come, as Wallace’s own vision (and political fortunes) changed, he came increasingly to see his speech as a full-throated rejoinder to what he considered Luce’s more imperialist vision. At the time, however, both Wallace and Luce spoke warmly about each other’s remarks and seemed to agree that they were on the whole fighting the same battle. (“I do not happen to remember anything that you have written descriptive of your concepts of ‘the American Century’ of which I disapprove,” Wallace wrote Luce shortly after he delivered his speech. Luce’s essay, he added, “is almost precisely parallel to what I was trying to say in my talk.” Luce in turn congratulated Wallace on the speech and even argued later that he was, if anything, overreaching. “Not every mission is appropriate to the political state,” he said pointedly in a 1943 speech. “To claim for it an unlimited mission to do good is to invite infinite confusion, ugly strife, and ultimately disaster.”)57

But whatever differences Wallace may have had with Luce, his vision of a world modeled on American notions of freedom, his commitment to spreading the fruits of economic growth to the world, his insistence that “older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization,” and perhaps most of all the extravagant rhetoric with which he presented these ideas—all made his speech less an alternative to Luce’s essay than a variation on it. “There are no half measures,” Wallace concluded (with language no less evangelical than the language Luce had used to end his own essay). “No compromise with Satan is possible…. We shall fight for a complete peace and a complete victory. The people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it. They cannot prevail for on the side of the people is the Lord.”58

“The American Century” and “The Price of Free World Victory” were important documents of their time, but not because their influence on the contemporary public conversation was profound. They were significant primarily because they were highly visible symbols of a growing movement among American leaders, and eventually among many others, to redefine the nation’s relationship to the world and, in the process, to redefine America’s sense of itself. Luce and Wallace were unlikely, and perhaps to some degree unwitting, partners, but together they helped launch an idea that survived well beyond the dark days in which they wrote—an idea that could not accurately be described as imperialism but that did outline a mission for the United States in the world that would when implemented (as it largely was) profoundly change the shape of the nation and the globe.

Given the intensity of Luce’s engagement with the global crisis, it is surprising that until mid-1941 he had focused relatively little attention on China. He had visited Asia only once since his departure from his parents’ home in 1914; and even that 1932 visit only briefly renewed his active interest in Asia. Nor had his magazines in the 1930s given more than ordinary coverage of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the expansion of the war into other regions of China. Through the first months of 1941, Luce was principally concerned with Europe, and with the survival of Britain in the face of the German threat. But in the spring of that year he accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to visit Chungking, an event that helped renew a passion for China that would continue for the rest of his life.

Luce’s wartime involvement with China began modestly in the late 1930s with a philanthropic project—an effort initiated by Ida Pruitt, a teacher at Peking University and the daughter of Chinese missionaries, and the writer Edgar Snow, who had already become famous for his reportage on the Chinese Communist Party and his celebrated book Red Star Over China. Together Pruitt and Snow began promoting an effort to produce industrial cooperatives to help poor Chinese villagers manufacture modest goods for sale. Luce was responsive to their appeal, and in 1939 he began mobilizing wealthy friends and acquaintances to help support it. But he soon turned to a larger effort. Early in 1941 a group of eminent public figures—among them John D. Rockefeller III, Paul Hoffman (the president of the Studebaker car company), Thomas W. Lamont of the Morgan bank, David Selznick, Wendell Willkie, and Luce himself—began to coalesce around a much more ambitious goal: the creation of a broad effort to raise private money “for the relief of the Chinese—both soldiers and civilians,” which became known as United China Relief (UCR). Luce had strongly encouraged the formation of the organization, but he declined invitations to chair it and for a time expressed considerable pessimism about its likely success. (In its first two months it raised only forty thousand dollars, not enough even to cover its expenses.) Nevertheless he allied himself with the effort and actively assisted it. “This is probably the most important letter I have ever tried to write,” he began a letter to wealthy friends requesting support. “We have now undertaken to raise $5,000,000…. If we are successful in this effort, it will help to confirm, perhaps for years to come, the wide-spread belief in China that America feels kindly toward China.” To help advance the project, he said, he would himself travel to China to provide “a first-hand report on the situation” and to try to enlist Mme. Chiang Kai-shek to support the initiative.59

Harry and Clare flew together on the still relatively new Pan Am Clipper service to Hong Kong and arrived at the end of April 1941 in a nation at war. By then China and Japan had been fighting for more than a decade, beginning with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1931, and escalating sharply in 1937 when the Japanese army swept through eastern China. Chiang Kai-shek, China’s leader since 1928, moved with his army far inland to Chungking, where the government regrouped. The war with Japan was not the only conflict Chiang faced. Civil strife had plagued China since the early twentieth century—conflicts between warlords and the Kuomintang (the Nationalist revolutionary party Sun Yat-sen had created in 1912), and later a conflict within the Kuomintang itself, between Communists and Chiang’s Nationalists. In 1928 the Communists—under the leadership of Mao Zedong—left the Kuomintang and formed a government and an army of their own, which Chiang considered as dangerous an enemy as the Japanese invaders. Despite appeals from many sides that the factions unite to fight Japan together, Chiang was never able (and perhaps never willing) to cooperate with the Communists, a failure that would have momentous consequences throughout the war and beyond.

After arriving in Hong Kong, the Luces flew in the dead of night to Chungking on what Harry called “the most dangerous [airline] in the world”—a five-hour journey in a darkened plane, most of it over Japanese-occupied territory. They landed in a dry riverbed outside the city, and the passengers were carried up the steep bank in sedan chairs. That same day Luce watched a Japanese air raid from the terrace of the American Embassy and was struck less by the violence than by the efficiency with which the residents took cover. A similar optimism colored virtually everything he encountered during his weeks in China, finding silver linings in almost every cloud. The government’s desperate escape to Chungking, he wrote, “has now brought modern ideas and methods to the vast agricultural hinterland … and has also served to give all the Chinese people an idea of what their total nation is…. The Chinese are discovering, in these years of bitter suffering, their own potentialities.” Shortly after his arrival he observed that while “China is seething with political factions,” it was also “accomplishing miracles in their defense of the country.” The Nationalist army, he wrote, “is the best thing in China, morale is magnificent against appalling difficulties.”60

But nothing contributed more to his optimism than his first encounter with Chiang Kai-shek, whom he was already describing as “the greatest ruler Asia has seen since Emperor Kyan Hsi [Kangxi] 200 years ago.” He and Clare had received an invitation to visit Madame Chiang to discuss United China Relief. She was, Harry wrote, “an even more exciting personality than all the glamorous descriptions of her…. What instantly convinced me of her greatness was her delivery of the most direct and unrestrained compliment to my wife’s beauty I have ever heard.” Sometime during their conversation, Luce sensed a door opening, and moments later he saw “a slim wraith-like figure in khaki [moving] through the shadow”: the Generalissimo joining him for tea. Harry presented him with “a portfolio of photographs of himself and Madame,” and Chiang “grinned from ear to ear … as pleased as a boy.” They left after an hour of conversation “knowing that we had made the acquaintance of two people, a man and a woman, who, out of all the millions living, will be remembered for centuries and centuries.”61

A few days later the Luces boarded a tiny Beechcraft and flew to the headquarters of a Chinese army division on the northern front, across the Yellow River from a Japanese encampment. It was a harrowing flight, traversing three steep mountain ranges while buffeted by high winds. There was no active combat under way during their brief visit, but they trekked through the encampments and entrenchments to the riverbank and looked across at the Japanese forces. Despite the terrible damage inflicted on the towns and villages near the front, Luce was again impressed by what he considered “as fine a morale, as strict discipline and as intent an expression as ever characterized any army in history.” Clare took pictures to illustrate a story on the war she would later publish in Life. Harry took notes to send back to his editors. And even in the midst of the disarray of an active front, Chinese officers managed to organize teas and dinners to cement their relationship with a man they knew only as a powerful American in a position to help their cause.62

Luce’s trip to China had a profound effect on his view of the war—and of the world. It renewed and intensified his love of the country and his faith in its ability to join the family of successful nations. Every place he went, no matter how damaged or desperate the surroundings, he took note of signs of progress: bankers demonstrating knowledge and sophistication in the management of the currency; soldiers in trenches working on primers as they tried to learn to read; officers helping them study “the doctrine of democracy with the teaching of Sun Yatsen and the American constitution as text books;” generals reading Clausewitz and other Western classics of military strategy; and many members of the Kuomintang elite—including Chiang Kai-shek and Mme. Chiang—converting to Christianity. “What strikes me about these far inland cities,” he wrote of a brief stop in Sian, a large provincial capital, “is how modernized they have become … I see America and the 20th century stamped all over them.” On his return to New York he began working furiously to raise money for United China Relief, which very rapidly met and exceeded its initial goals. UCR raised over four million dollars in 1941, most of it in the last four months of the year, the beginning of an impressive multiyear total of nearly fifty million dollars. But his most important task, he now believed, was to heighten American consciousness about the crisis in China and make the war in the Pacific as important to Americans as the war in Europe. “As long as the Army of the Republic of China remains in being,” he said in one of a series of speeches he made shortly after his return to the United States, “Japan is doomed to defeat and disaster no matter what policy she tries.” It was “absolutely certain that without China we cannot achieve a victory.” In his discussions with his colleagues at Time Inc. he was even blunter: “I’m still convinced as I always have been that we must win the war in Asia first…. I wonder whether we have taken China seriously enough…. What about a full-out consideration of full-out aid to China? … When is the time to put Chiang Kai-shek on the cover again?”63

Luce’s 1941 visit to China launched another important relationship. Waiting for him as he descended from his plane to the dry Chungking riverbed was a young man wearing khaki shorts and a sun helmet: Theodore H. White, known to everyone as “Teddy.”

Only relatively recently had Time abandoned its tradition of simply rewriting news borrowed from other organizations. But by the late 1930s the magazine was posting correspondents in numerous areas of the United States and the world. The war rapidly expanded that effort. By the time World War II had begun, the staff of correspondents was already large and growing rapidly. White, then Time’s principal China correspondent, was someone about whom Luce was already curious. White was then twenty-six, short, wiry haired, round faced with oversize glasses and an infectious smile. He had grown up in what he later called the “Jewish ghetto” in the Dorchester area of Boston and had graduated from the famed Boston Latin School, open to the brightest of the city’s children and an avenue of social mobility for the lower middle class. In the fall of 1934 he entered Harvard on a scholarship and almost by chance took up the study of Chinese, which soon led him to John King Fairbank, a faculty member only three years White’s senior and soon to be the most influential historian of Chinese-American relations of the twentieth century. He became White’s longtime mentor and friend. White graduated summa cum laude and was awarded two Harvard traveling fellowships, which he used to finance a trip to China. Shortly after he arrived he accepted a position in the China Information Office, the Kuomintang’s propaganda agency in Chungking. A few months later he encountered John Hersey, then a Time editor visiting the city in search of correspondents. He hired White more or less on the spot, offered him ten dollars a dispatch, and allowed him to continue his work for the Chinese government at the same time. White’s lengthy, copious memos quickly attracted attention in New York, and soon he was on the Time Inc. payroll full-time.64

White was Luce’s kind of correspondent, despite the great social differences between them. Like Luce, White loved China with an almost romantic passion. Also like Luce, he loved to talk, to argue, and to push the intellectual boundaries of conversation. Perhaps even more important, he had no qualms about using his dispatches to convey his own opinions and sentiments. “The chief fault that you are liable to find with my production is a pro-Chinese bias and a Chinese enthusiasm,” he wrote to his editor in New York. As if to prove his point he wrote in one of his first dispatches, published in Time almost unaltered, that the “present Chinese Army has spirit. It glows. The men are willing to die. They mix and tangle with the Japanese with a burning hate that is good.” He was for a time an ardent admirer of Chiang Kai-shek and his government. Chiang’s “personal record,” he wrote, “is one of the most positive and virile of any government leader today.” Under Chiang’s leadership, he observed, “China made such magic strides toward self-consciousness.” And while White was observant enough to see the many flaws in Chiang and the Kuomintang regime, he kept his reservations mostly to himself. He had an obligation, he believed, “to say nothing at all that might help the Japanese … and to say nothing that might hurt the cause of China in American eyes,” a position that he conceded “made impossible the telling of the rank corruption, inefficiency and stupidity that exists in high places in Chungking today.” Little wonder that Luce found him so appealing. The two men spent much time together and formed an unusual friendship. White showed little of the timid deference that characterized Luce’s relations with most Time Inc. employees. They were “Harry” and “Teddy,” a mismatched pair who interacted—at least in Chungking—almost as equals. When it came time for Luce to return to New York, he brought White with him and appointed him the Far East editor of Time, a post he held for only a few months before returning to China to cover the war. Luce viewed him as an indispensable asset in the effort to generate support for the Chinese government, someone who shared his own view that, as White wrote shortly after his return to America, “If the United States must face the Axis on two fronts, it can do so for just one reason: that a Free China is fighting the Battle of the Pacific.”65

Luce’s publication of “The American Century” and his reengagement with China greatly increased his commitment to driving public debate over intervention in the war. His magazines attacked the “isolationists” and “appeasers” with almost gleeful vigor, and they continued to lambaste the Roosevelt administration for what Luce considered its timid and erratic path to war. Time even criticized the legendary Henry Stimson, Roosevelt’s secretary of war, for being too old and feeble to run the military. “The whole civilian defense machinery,” the magazine wrote, was “running without any responsible head” and was pursuing “uncertain policies … fresh confusions piled on stale confusions.” Time referred so often to the “fog” in Washington that the Harvard Lampoon ran a parody: “Fog settled down over Washington last week. Coming by way of Chesapeake Bay at a mean rate of 10 m.p.h.”66

Luce’s simmering feud with Roosevelt burst into the open once again in November 1941 over what was, in fact, a trivial issue. Time had run a short notice about Chilean president Pedro Aguirre Cerda, who was encountering political troubles. “While the Popular Front swayed,” Timewrote, “bushy-mustached President Aguirre felt more and more like a man who does not govern but merely presides. He spent more and more time with the red wine he cultivates.” A few days later Aguirre died. The Chilean consul general in New York protested, and Roosevelt seized on the issue to do something he had long talked about but had never done: go after Luce. “The Government of the United States has been forced to apologize to the Government of Chile for an article written in Timemagazine,—a disgusting lie,” he wrote. “This article was a notable illustration of how some American papers and writers are stocking the arsenals of propaganda of the Nazis to be used against us.” Luce seemed mildly shell-shocked by the ferocity of the attack and responded meekly and defensively that “no one had [previously] said anything in Time’s report was untrue.”67

By the beginning of December, after a series of failed American efforts to thwart Japanese expansion, Luce—and many others—came to believe that war in the Pacific was imminent, perhaps inevitable. “Everything was ready,” Time proclaimed in the December 8 issue (published on December 1):

From Rangoon to Honolulu, every man was at battle stations…. A vast array of armies, of navies, of air fleets were stretched now in the position of track runners, in the tension of the moment before the starter’s gun…. A bare chance of peace remained. This bare chance was that the Japanese would remain immobile on all fronts but the Chinese. Very few men who were in a position to know thought much of this chance.68

On December 7 the Luces hosted a luncheon for twenty-two people at their home in Greenwich—an event typical of their lives ever since Harry’s marriage to Clare. Among the guests were diplomats, theologians, business leaders, and some of Luce’s colleagues from Time Inc. It was a crisp, clear day, and the guests were in good spirits, avoiding too much talk of war and enjoying the meal, the august company, and the lavish surroundings. Shortly after dessert was served, the butler—violating a strict rule never to interrupt a meal—handed Clare a folded piece of paper on a small tray. She glanced at it, tapped her glass, and said, with a tone of mockery perhaps unsuited for the occasion, “All isolationists and appeasers, please listen. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” Most of the guests rushed to the radio or the telephone. Harry raced to his car and within an hour was back in his office in Manhattan. Both Time and Life were already in production for the following week. Luce interrupted the press runs and helped remake the issues. For Time, he created a new department on the spot: The U.S. at War, and oversaw a lead story that called the attack “premeditated murder with a toothy smile.” He added that “the war came as a great relief, like a reverse earthquake, that in one terrible jerk shook everything disjointed, distorted, askew back into place. Japanese bombs had finally brought national unity to the U.S.” Luce and Billings completely remade Life as well, with a new lead cover story on Pearl Harbor—although forced to use photographs taken well before the attack. Louis de Rochemont and his staff hurried to recut the December March of Time.69

Sometime late that day Luce called his father in Pennsylvania to talk about their shared relief that the war had finally begun. “We will now all see what we mean to China and China means to us,” Rev. Luce told his son. After hanging up, Harry, Sr., told his wife how reassuring it had been to hear from their son. Not long after the conversation he retired for the evening and died quietly in the course of the night. Harry left no record of how he viewed the symbolism of these two enormous events—one global and one personal—occurring on the same day. “My father was profoundly shocked by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor,” he later wrote a friend. To others he noted only that “it was wonderful that he lived long enough to see America and China as allies.”70

A few days later Luce wrote to Roosevelt, offering something short of an apology for his earlier criticisms but a modest effort at conciliation. “We wished to do every last thing in our power, to strain every nerve, to assist our country to face the ordeal and triumph of it,” he wrote of the months preceding Pearl Harbor. “We have made mistakes and fallen short of our best intentions. But … no company of men and women … have ever worked harder … to do their duty as they saw it.” Time Inc. would, he promised, not only comply with wartime regulations but would “think of no greater happiness than to be of service…. For the dearest wish of all of us is to tell the story of absolute victory under your leadership.” In a handwritten note attached to the letter, he was more frank. Referring to the president’s attack on Time’s recent coverage of Chile, he wrote: “The drubbing you handed out to TIME—before December 7—was as tough a wallop as I ever had to take. If it will help you any to win the war I can take worse ones. Go to it! And God bless you.” Roosevelt wrote back that he liked the letter, that it “combines honest patriotism with genuine sportsmanship…. The waters of Pearl Harbor have closed over many differences which formerly bulked big.” But this warm truce in their long and sometimes bitter feud did not last for very long.71

*The 1940 election was the first in which scientific polling played a significant role in a presidential race, and the first in which the public (and Luce) took them seriously.

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