ASoldier Died Today,” Time announced solemnly in its first issue after Franklin Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. “Everywhere, to almost everyone, the news came with the force of a personal shock. The realization was expressed in the message of the eminent; it was expressed in the stammering and wordlessness of the humble.” Roosevelt was “history’s man … no public figure had ever seemed so close to so many citizens.” In Time, in Life, in Fortune, the coverage of the president’s death was reverent, emotional, and—as one editor wrote—“awe-struck.” “In his time, no abler politician lived,” Time noted. Roosevelt had displayed the “greatness” that his era demanded, and he had brought his nation “triumphantly through a great war and started it on the road to peace.”1
Although Luce remained uncharacteristically aloof from the coverage of the president’s death, he passively supported his editors’ decision to provide admiring and respectful tributes. He himself wrote a gracious letter to Eleanor Roosevelt praising her husband’s leadership. But privately he remained obdurate in his hatred. He described the fallen president bitterly as the man who “kept me, wholly without moral justification, physically isolated from the global war.” It was his “duty,” Luce once remarked, “to go on hating him.” As for Harry Truman, Luce was initially hopeful, if only because the new president was not Roosevelt. “I know of no better way to communicate to you my profound good wishes for your Presidency,” he wrote, “than to tell you of the confidence which, among themselves, a great number of your fellow citizens already feel in your character and ability.” Even more gratifying than Truman’s demeanor was the new president’s decision to allow Luce to travel into the war zones, at last revoking Roosevelt’s spiteful suspension of his passport. Barely a month after Roosevelt’s death, Luce was en route to the Pacific.2
As excited as he was finally to be in a war zone, his trip was on the whole unremarkable. He spent most of his time on the aircraft carrier Yorktown, from which planes were bombing Japanese targets almost with impunity now that the Japanese air defenses had been almost completely destroyed. He saw little action, other than the multiple and occasionally fatal accidents committed by American sailors themselves. He spent much of his time sitting on the flight deck with a taciturn gunner’s mate, watching the planes come and go. “A Quiet Cruise of a Task Force Group,” he titled his notes on the trip for his editors, only half ironically; but he was energized nevertheless by his first experience with an American war front. As he gazed out upon vast stretches of ocean he envisioned a new “American frontier” between Okinawa and Manila that “will never be moved back from there. All this is extraordinarily in line with the genius of the American people.”3
As always, Luce tried to arrange to see the most important figures he could find. (A much-sought-after meeting with Douglas MacArthur did not materialize, although Luce did manage a brief visit with his twenty-year-old son Hank, serving on a destroyer near the Yorktown.) As for men of power, he had to settle for the fleet commander, Adm. Arthur Radford. At one point Radford whispered privately: “Luce, don’t you think the war is over?” Luce replied that Radford would know better than he did. But on his return to the United States he went immediately to Washington to report to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that the end of the war was in sight. Forrestal sent him to the State Department, where he told Undersecretary Joseph Grew—with considerable certainty but with no solid evidence—“that Japanese surrender could be obtained almost immediately—on one condition, which was that Japan should be allowed to retain the emperor, an idea he had heard often during his Pacific trip.”4
Luce had high hopes for a meeting he managed to arrange with Truman, but the president either misunderstood the purpose of his visit or chose not to discuss the war with him. They had a cordial, perfunctory conversation that ended before Luce had a chance to make any recommendations. He heard later that Truman did not want to discuss an end of the Pacific war until after his meeting with Churchill and Stalin in Potsdam in July—a meeting that turned out to be especially notable because it coincided with a momentous event in New Mexico: the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb. Luce apparently had no knowledge of the successful outcome of the Manhattan Project and very likely had known nothing of the project at all. Through the remainder of the summer he continued to promote a negotiated peace with Tokyo: retaining the emperor in exchange for ending the war.5
His argument became largely moot on August 6, 1945, when the United States detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. But Luce did not give up the fight. He and Joseph Kennedy called on Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and implored him to urge the president to delay further bombings—arguing again that Japan could be made to surrender without more destruction. Nothing came of this effort. The second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9, and the Japanese government surrendered less than a week later, but not before getting an agreement from the United States that Japan could retain its emperor. Most Americans celebrated the end of the war with little concern about the unleashing of this terrible new weapon. But Luce was deeply troubled both by the moral and the geopolitical implications of the atomic bomb. “The greatest and most terrible of wars ended this week, in the echoes of an enormous event,” James Agee wrote in the August 20 Time, at Luce’s behest, “—an event so much more enormous that, relative to it, the war itself shrank to minor significance…. In an instant, without warning, the present had become the unthinkable future.”6
Luce’s opposition to the use of atomic weapons was based on a complex, and never clearly articulated, set of concerns. He had religious qualms: Would this new capacity for destruction make faith obsolete? “In the atomic world,” he wrote, “who shall rule and how?” What would happen to “the proposition of the Christian faith that there is ultimate sovereignty in the universe and that this sovereignty was uniquely revealed to man in Christ”? He was concerned as well about how the existence of the bomb might threaten America’s ability to shape the postwar world once other nations—most notably the Soviet Union—acquired the weapon. “The idea of ‘sharing’ the atomic bomb with the Russians is crazy,” he insisted in response to hopeful suggestions from scientists that peace could be ensured by providing nuclear technology to other great nations. The atomic scientists, he wrote contemptuously, “feel a sudden profound evangelical and wholly unnatural concern of conscience about their business.” He was concerned as well about how the use of the bomb would allow the Japanese to redefine themselves as victims rather than aggressors. “I don’t think the atomic bomb was handled right,” he wrote to Billings in late August. “If the Japs have any good ‘alibi,’ it’s the bomb.”7
Solicitousness for the fate of the Japanese people had certainly not been evident in his magazines’ coverage of the Pacific war. Time had expressed no concern about the Japanese-American relocation in 1942 and had reported sunnily on the “decent treatment” that these interned American citizens received. Time, Life, and even Fortune had joined eagerly in the extraordinarily racist depictions of the Japanese that pervaded most of the American media throughout the war—depictions that many contemporaries and some scholars have argued were significant factors in justifying the use of the bomb. Portraying the Japanese as savage, even barely human, made it easier to authorize unusually harsh assaults. One of Time’s first covers after the attack on Pearl Harbor had presented an almost simian portrait of Admiral Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Pacific fleet, in which both the background and the admiral’s face were colored entirely in a vivid and lurid yellow. Another cover in early 1942, at the time the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese, had portrayed a Dutch naval officer, with a small picture behind him of a monkey wearing a Japanese helmet and carrying a gun swinging by his tail from a tree. “What would the [American] people say in response to Pearl Harbor?” Time asked shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. “What they said was … ‘Why the yellow bastards!’” Life light-heartedly captioned a photograph of American soldiers in a Pacific jungle: “Like many of their comrades they were hunting for Japs, just as they used to go after small game in the woods back home.” There is no evidence that Luce personally encouraged these racist stereotypes, but—like almost all American editors during the war—he did little to stop them (although he did publish an anguished letter to Time from Pearl Buck reminding him that using “yellow” pejoratively would offend many non-Japanese Asians). Nor had Luce raised objections to the horrendous firebombings of Tokyo and other cities, which had produced more carnage than either of the atomic bombs.8
Whatever his views at the time, Luce’s ultimate concern about the atomic bombings had less to do with Japan than with China. The demonization of the Japanese in the Time Inc. magazines was, in part, an effort to distinguish them from their portrayal of America’s valiant Chinese allies. Life once ran a notorious photo essay, “How to Tell Japs from Chinese,” concluding that the Japanese—“squat … massively boned head [had] aboriginal antecedents,” as compared to the more refined and cultured features of the Chinese. But most of all, the atomic bomb contributed to what Luce considered the “massive failure” of the United States to stabilize China. “If the bomb had not been dropped,” he wrote years later in an unfinished memoir, “and if the well-laid plans for the MacArthur invasion had been carried out—then, almost certainly, … there would have been a major Chinese offensive, with American-trained Chinese divisions…. It would have been successful…. Chiang Kai-shek would have been in a position to move armies up to Peking and Manchuria.” As a result “Chiang would have had a chance.” But the abrupt end of the war against Japan led instead to the introduction of Soviet troops into Manchuria, the rapid disengagement of American troops in China, and the ability of Mao’s Communist forces to conserve their strength for the battle against the Nationalists. His views in 1945 never changed. Even in the year before his death, Luce continued to insist that sustained American support would have provided China with the “great chance” to create a democratic nation.9
In October 1945 Luce was able to visit China for the first time in more than four years. Now that the war with Japan was over, he was eager to see how the Chiang regime was faring against the remaining challenges from its internal Communist enemies. In part Luce saw the trip as an antidote to his long, bitter conflict with Teddy White, whom Luce had come to believe was “an ardent sympathizer with the Chinese Communists.” He would be able to counter White’s gloomy predictions and offer a more reassuring image of postwar China. He made sure to bring with him sympathetic editorial colleagues from Time Inc., among them Roy Alexander and Charles V. Murphy, firm anti-Communists and, like Luce, strongly committed to Chiang. He would hear no discordant voices from his traveling companions, and, almost needless to say, none as well from his Kuomintang hosts. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was again encouraged by almost everything he saw.10
As usual Luce kept up a grueling pace during his visit, moving from city to city and province to province gathering impressions that he eagerly and voluminously recorded and sent back to New York. Everywhere he went he found reasons for optimism. “Chiang Kai-shek, by a dramatically successful show of superior force, completed the political conquest of the vast hinterland of west China,” he wrote triumphantly from Yunnan early in his trip. When told by an American general that Chiang had unwisely ousted a provincial governor, Luce insisted that, on the contrary, the “Gissimo did an important job very neatly.” Arriving in Chungking, he was showered with invitations from Kuomintang leaders, culminating in a dinner with Chiang and “a wonderful conversation … of a philosophical nature.” Late in the evening, after Chiang retired, Mme. Chiang continued the conversation, assuring Luce that “the Government now has a terrible responsibility not to disappoint the hopes of the people.” In Shanghai, later in the month, he wrote enthusiastically of the Kuomintang’s successes in restoring government authority. “This week,” he said, “the historically unparalleled drama of the reoccupation of East, South, and North China moved toward its climax.” He told Western journalists that he was “happily impressed,” and he praised Chiang’s “invincible effort.” The great question he had brought with him, Luce said, “was whether it would be reasonable to be optimistic about the future of China. So far it seems to me that the answer is definitely in the affirmative.”11
He was equally positive about the role U.S. forces were playing in China in helping the country recover from Japanese occupation. “American troops here have behaved excellently,” he wrote, and “should continue to be a credit to their country…. The Chinese … welcome the Americans as a sign of a new day and examples of a better way to live.” Other journalists wrote emphatically about the impatience of American soldiers to return home and the G.I.s’ lack of respect for or confidence in the Chinese forces. One of the American soldiers who traveled with Luce, he wrote, recited “facts unflattering to China.” Another “loudmouthed wise-cracker,” while passing a battalion of Chinese soldiers, shouted “the war’s over; so now you’re going to fight?” But Luce mostly ignored these comments. He continued to praise the high morale of the American troops and their commanders. “The desire of local Chinese officials to show their appreciation of Americans and to … make a good impression on them cannot be exaggerated,” he wrote from Tientsin.12
It seemed at times that Luce was almost willfully blind to the power of the Communist insurgency around him. Virtually none of his cables back to New York took notice of the growing strength of Mao’s forces in Manchuria and northern China; nor was there any significant mention of the corruption and bureaucratic incompetence of the Kuomintang that White had tried so adamantly to convey. And yet the Communists were far from invisible, even in Chungking. Luce attended a banquet there at which Mao himself was the guest of honor. The two men had a brief private conversation afterward. Luce wrote that Mao “was surprised to see me there and gazed at me with an intense but not unfriendly curiosity. His remarks: polite grunts.” A few days later, after walking through “many a back-ally,” he met briefly with Zhou Enlai. “We had a nice talk—and completely frank.” But he drew no other conclusions from the meeting, and he expressed little interest in the hopeful but ultimately futile negotiations that were attempting to create a coalition government in which the Communists could participate. Nor did Luce express any doubts about the ability of Chiang and his government to prevail alone. “The biggest surprise, and the happiest,” he wrote to Mme. Chiang as he prepared to return to America, “was to find that the spirit of the people in North and East China is so strong and healthy. The people do not seem to be cowed or corrupted by eight years of life under enemy and puppet patrol. Their sense of patriotism is high and is closely related to their admiration for the Generalissimo.”13
Early in November, at a dinner Clare organized for his return to New York, Luce gave a long, rambling talk about his visit. He spoke hopefully about a new “understanding between the ‘West’ … and the ‘East,’” and about a strengthened relationship between the United States and China. He urged a “restoration of business activity,” and he spoke optimistically about the Kuomintang’s ability to fend off the challenge from the Communists. But to many in his audience, some of them followers of the much different assessments of the plight of China that were coming from the New York Times (and that had come recently from Time itself in Theodore White’s last dispatches), Luce’s optimism seemed unrealistic. “He seemed to be spending his time modifying his sentences to make sure that all of them contributed to the utmost to make the Generalissimo a hero,” Henry Wallace, one of the guests, recorded in his diary. Luce remained undeterred by the skeptics around him. He continued busily to press policy recommendations on officials in Washington. After a meeting with Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, he wrote smugly of the praise he had received from McCloy for a recent Life editorial lauding the progress of Chiang and his regime and encouraging continued American aid. China, he insisted, was now the test of the Truman administration’s ability to prove its strength and competence, “the opportunity for clear, forthright policy … and … for effective leadership at home.”14
The first years after the war were dark ones for Luce—and not just because of the great issues facing the world. It was also a time of turmoil in his marriage. In the aftermath of Ann Brokaw’s death, it was impossible for either Harry or Clare to live their once blithely separate lives, maintaining a public relationship when useful while enjoying romantic escapes with others during their long periods apart. But Harry, who had never wholly reconciled himself to the end of his first marriage, also now found it difficult to end his second, despite its bleakness and despite his continuing relationship with Jean Dalrymple. Clare tried to bury herself in work—her reelection to Congress in 1944 and her busy life in Washington. But politics no longer interested her very much, and she found herself spending more and more time away from it, including an ill-fated stint as an actress in summer stock in Connecticut. Her aide, Albert Morano, took over the running of the office. (A local newspaper, noting Clare’s frequent absences from Washington, ran an acid story under a picture of Morano with a headline “Our Real Congressman,” which he eventually became.) Well before the expiration of her second term, she made it clear that she would not be a candidate again. But her departure from politics, combined with her continuing estrangement from Harry, drove her deeper into depression, what she described as a sense of worthlessness, mixed with a yearning for death. Twice, according to Harry, she attempted suicide—although he did not consider the attempts serious. As always, he was incapable of responding effectively to her obvious calls for attention and comfort. On some days she simply sat alone in a darkened room. On others she tried to resume her once-active social life, but never for very long. She referred to her depression as “Mr. Screwtape” (a demonic figure in a C. S. Lewis novel) with whom she was in continuous struggle.15
Clare’s depression and restlessness led her to a search for spiritual comfort—something else she realized she could not expect from Harry. Having tried and failed to right herself through intensive psychoanalysis, she turned instead to the Catholic Church and, at first unknown to her husband, began considering conversion. (She had previously been religiously inactive, although as a child she had occasionally been thrust into Episcopalian institutions.) She quickly attracted the attention of Monsignor Fulton Sheen, who had a renowned (and militantly conservative) radio program and who later became the archbishop of Rochester, New York. Sheen spent more time teaching Clare the precepts of the church than he had ever spent on any other convert, he later said. He stayed with her in part because she was an intelligent and inquisitive student, but also because he knew that capturing so eminent a woman for the church would enhance his own reputation. On February 16, 1946, before a handful of people (Harry not among them) at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, she was baptized a Catholic. The editors at Time struggled to find a way to record the event—which was receiving wide attention across the country—and finally settled on a small political notice: “Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce’s ‘good and sufficient reason’ for deciding not to run for re-election in Connecticut suddenly became clear: she was received into the Roman Catholic Church.” Billings, who managed the sensitive story, wrote privately that the conversion was “logical for a half-crazy woman who must always be doing the bizarre to attract notice.” Harry, however, did not discourage her (despite his own lifelong commitment to the Presbyterian Church and despite his mother’s appalled reaction to Clare’s repudiation of the “glorious faith which is life to me”). On the contrary, he provided what Clare called the essential “aid and sympathy” that gave her the courage to take this step, and that “in the end … has saved my reason—and probably my life.”16
Clare’s conversion may have reduced her despair and what she called her intermittent “death wish.” But it did not bring her real peace. Looking back over her marriage, she began to see herself as the victim of Harry’s inability to express or even feel genuine love. “I have been cheated of my womanly inheritance, thru no fault of mine,” she wrote Harry in 1947. “The cheaters appear to me as a crew of selfish, cruel … usurpers, of whom you are seen to be the callous leader…. For it is not your desire to love any woman—least of all now, me, with your body, mind, and soul.” But Clare was less concerned about their shared past than about their cloudy future. She came to believe that Harry had supported her conversion because it would allow him to divorce her so that he could marry Jean Dalrymple. Clare wrote him: “You realized (I know now) that [the conversion] meant the end of any real husband and wife relationship…. You believed my conversion would mean your legal freedom…. You assumed a divorce would certainly follow … in a manner which left you on high moral grounds (‘Ah! The Catholic Church broke up our marriage!’).” Jean Dalrymple later recounted Harry’s claim to her that “in [Clare’s] religion, we are no longer married, because in her religion I’m still married to Lila. She cannot live with me as my wife.” But Clare’s lawyers, and the Catholic Church, argued otherwise—and Clare’s friends (most notably Bernard Baruch) urged her to fight Harry on the ground of what he cared about most, Time Inc. She demanded 51 percent of the company’s stock and $4 million. Harry unsurprisingly refused, and the prospect of a divorce—and remarriage—rapidly dimmed. The relationship with Jean sputtered along for a short while longer and then ended.17
For someone as remote and aloof as Harry, he was often surprisingly open about his marital problems in conversations with members of his senior staff, several of whom—eager to reveal their intimacy with Luce—promptly began circulating rumors about his private life, many of them false. Harry, they whispered, was considering suicide. He was being blackmailed by a woman. C. D. Jackson (the principal source of the rumors) claimed to have experienced a scene of “Clare on knees, holding Harry’s legs, big melodramatic tears and crying ‘It’s all because I couldn’t give you a baby that you don’t love me any more.’” (In reality it had been Harry who had not wanted her to have a baby.) Despite the falsehood of most of these rumors, Harry was almost as miserable as Clare. According to Billings, Luce wondered “why he doesn’t get any sympathy from his friends!” Billings was ready with his own answer:
I was pretty depressed, just by the vague outlines of Luce’s mess, and yet I wasn’t really sorry for him because he is so cross and bad mannered and inconsiderate that I like to see him suffer. Yet I hope his private dirt doesn’t splatter on the company and therefore on me…. I’m just tired of being disappointed in people—of having them collapse morally right before me.
And yet Billings also retained a shred of sympathy for his colleague of decades. “Poor lonely soul,” he wrote. “Unable to get any normal wholesome fun out of life and when he does try, it all goes rotten…. A tragic spectacle!”18
It was not just the legal and financial obstacles that kept Luce in his marriage. His bond with Clare—tattered and bruised as it was—remained significant even in the midst of some of their bitterest battles. Clare, at the end of a long, morose, and angry letter, nevertheless wrote that “I would with the utmost joy die for you this or any other night. For I never loved another, except my Ann, so deeply.” And Harry replied with, for him, remarkable warmth:
I suppose what you are trying to make out … is what my heart says 1) about you and 2) about me…. Well, I can tell you quite simply about the first. You are the incomparable person in my life. I loved you without reservation in the dearest hope of happiness for us both. I failed in my love before and yet I deeply believe I would not fail again, because if there is an “again,” it would be a most precious gift.
But these warm and loving sentiments seemed to be possible only in writing, and when they were apart. Harry was usually reserved and inarticulate in his actual conversations with his wife. And Clare wrote him that “I shall fail miserably, within a week if I permit myself any discussions with you on personal matters…. It is better, then, for quite a while … to confine ourselves to only such matters as interest you or me [except] our … ruined relations.” Their marriage continued—but for the most part because of a chilly loyalty, with occasional clumsy efforts at reconciliation, and with little warmth or intimacy. “With Clare no longer in Washington,” Billings wondered, “what does their private life together here become?” The answer was that they continued to remain apart more often than not; and that when they were together the only real passion came from Clare’s occasional eruptions of anger and misery. “Grover came in,” Billings wrote in the fall of 1947, “to confide that Clare was again on the rampage, and giving Harry hellish trouble.”19
Shortly before the end of World War II, Harry sent Clare a long, sprawling, handwritten letter outlining his hopes for his own future. He wrote of a vague hope to be secretary of state, but dismissed it as unrealistic. Instead “I would like to be and be recognized as a great and good Editor,” and “I would like to achieve that degree of personal integrity which I believe it is possible for me to achieve, but which to date I am far from having achieved.” He said almost nothing in his letter about his relationship with his wife, but the specter of his failed marriages certainly loomed large in his sense that he had not yet achieved a position of real integrity. “I have too much fragmentation in my life. I am not all in one place—or, as it seems all in one piece.” Since childhood he had dreamed of being both a great man and a good man. Now, and not for the first time, he was questioning both. Was his publishing empire helping to better the world as much as he had hoped? Was he conducting his personal life with the integrity and honesty he expected of himself? The answer to both questions, he feared, was no. The magazines, he believed, had yet to reach the importance and influence that Luce believed they could. They had not yet focused clearly enough on the great “human questions” that would define the next generation. And his personal life was, by almost any standard, in ruins: without love, without real friends, without the ability to experience what he called “enjoyment”—a lonely man whose only solace was work, but a man struggling still with the missionary fervor that had shaped his life. Unlike Clare however he could live stoically with his disappointments. His life was not what he had imagined it would be, but it had rewards enough—his fame, his power, and most of all his company and his magazines, always his indispensable refuge from other, less controllable, aspects of his life. “I am happy,” he wrote Clare during a vacation in New Hampshire, “… because of all that life has given me,” and perhaps most of all because of what he considered the opportunity to “be of service to the world,” to help shape “the first global era in history.”20
The magazines, and the company that contained them, had always been his first priority, more important to him than anything else in his adult life, including his marriages. When he began to tire of his life with Lila, he compensated by spending more time at the office. When things were going badly with Clare, which was much of the time, he often became especially engaged in his work. This was nowhere more true than in the dark days of his crisis with Clare and his thwarted romance. The end of the war was, for him, not a period of triumph but a call to new goals. Even before Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Luce was launching what he called a “rethinking” of his magazines—all of them. For Luce, whose day-to-day connection with the magazines had long been intermittent, a major editorial rethinking was a way to reacquaint himself with his publications. To his editors, who were frantically working to publish their magazines every week or month, it was a considerable additional burden—but one they had no choice but to shoulder. As always when Luce tried to reassert his control, he kept everyone busy. He called frequent meetings, sometimes over dinner at his home or in restaurants, sometimes during working hours in the office, and sometimes through telephone calls at any time of the day or night. But most of all, as always, he wrote memos—long, rambling meditations that, as one of his editors later recalled, “landed on the desk with an unwelcome thud.”21
T. S. Matthews, the managing editor of Time, responded to Luce’s invitation to rethink by claiming that the magazine was becoming stale, was running too smoothly, was losing some of its best writers, and was in short “not as good as it should be … [not] as dull as the N.Y. Times; but … dull in a way all its own.” He proposed making the magazine smaller, consolidating its sections, streamlining the staff, and ridding the magazine of “our flinty, our malicious but not altogether insane tone.” Luce, even while pushing the rethinking, was at the same time defensive, especially of Time. “TIME is good enough!” he wrote in response to Matthews. It “needed no deep changes, just some polishing.” Uninterested in Matthews’s large, structural suggestions, he offered instead a list of small tweaks—better headlines, more coverage of Congress and the Supreme Court, and more attention to religion and business. (He also hotly denied that Time’s prose was still “flinty” or “malicious.”) Matthews pointed to the many criticisms of Time as “opinion disguised as fact.” But Luce dismissed such comments. He considered them attacks on the whole “newsmagazine idea.” Time was supposed to be opinionated, he always insisted.22
Even so the self-criticisms continued. Henry A. Grunwald, then a rising editor on the magazine (and years later editor in chief), also wrote a long memo in 1949 on “the things that disturb me about TIME.” They included “the magazine’s weekly sameness,” “signs of threatening shallowness,” “morale (its weakness) and enthusiasm (its lack).” But Luce still continued to defend Time, even three years after he had launched the “rethinking” project, while at the same time pushing (and thus confusing) his editors to make it “more interesting.” Just as Luce had rejected the suggestions of his editors, the editors strongly resisted many of his proposed changes. At one point he suggested a new section to be called “Punditry & Prophesy,” an idea that Billings considered “pretty trashy” and that Luce soon abandoned. Mostly he simply evaluated the existing departments and nudged them to be “better.” His work on Time after the war was, in short, less an effort truly to reshape the magazine than to assert his continued authority, which he often felt he was losing. At one point he wrote Matthews a snide memo about the leftist labor leader Harry Bridges, who Luce insisted was planning
to conquer Hawaii…. He pretty nearly did it in November 1946 and you will recall that Time endeavored to be of the greatest possible assistance to him. This is to state as a matter of policy that, for the purposes of the 1947–48 battle, Time Inc. is 100% in favor of the property owners, capitalists and corporations of Hawaii and 100% against Harry Bridges and anyone who is in any way allied with him…. I hope—but without real hope—that Time Inc. led by Time will give some dynamic reflection on the above stated policy. I realize that is unlikely—if for no other reason than that I have laid it down as categorical policy.
Billings reproached him for his “wild exaggeration” and “bitter sarcasm,” and Luce grudgingly apologized to Matthews. But he remained aggrieved and irritable, continued to argue with Matthews, and finally ordered him to take a year’s leave to think about how to improve the magazine—the penultimate step in Matthews’s movement out of the job, and the company. Matthews was a victim of his assertion of independence, not of poor editing.23
Luce was less happy with, and far less protective of, Fortune in the late 1940s. That was in part because Fortune was, for the first time in years, losing money. He spent months conferring quietly with a few senior colleagues on Fortune’s finances and on what could be done to strengthen them, and he pressured its managing editor, Ralph Paine, to explain why things were going so poorly. Luce dispatched Billings to investigate, and Billings came back with a blunt report, which he summarized: “the edit budget $10,000 over; Paine’s memo on why he needs 25 writers; 17 people in art dept … the high-priced writers, my doubts as to the value of the Survey, a lack of ‘liveliness’ which may be due to sound but aging and unlively writers and editors.” Planning for the future was, Billings noted after a meeting with Luce, “pretty discouraging because the editorial people were so mediocre…. [Luce] held his head in his hands in deep despair…. ‘What’s the use of my giving orders for a new Fortune if there isn’t anybody to carry them out?’” 24
But despite his discouragement, Luce announced in February 1948 that he was “‘rethinking FORTUNE’ … ‘radical thinking’ … that takes little for granted, re-examines suppositions and habits.” A month later he produced a twenty-five-page memo describing the “new” Fortune—a memo hastily written and only slightly affected by the many suggestions he received from Billings and others. (“An irritating document,” Billings wrote in his diary after sneaking a look at a late draft, “philosophically involved, dark and murky, as Luce groped for new ideas. Why does he have to overcomplicate everything?”) Fortune, Luce grandiosely announced, would become “a magazine with a mission. That mission is to assist in the successful development of American Business Enterprise at home and abroad.” Although Fortune had long ago abandoned its reputation as a magazine that wrote from many different political and ideological perspectives, it had never openly committed itself to taking the side of business as an editorial policy. What Luce was proposing was a magazine devoted to highlighting the success stories of American capitalism—“great stories” providing “wonderful accounts of vitally interesting segments of the whole business scene.”25
At the center of the “new Fortune” would be a long report in each issue on “Thirty Days of American Business Enterprise … a story full of active verbs … written by a super-journalist.” Despite Luce’s ebullience about his proposed innovations, the message to Fortune was at bottom a harsh and censorious one. “Fortune [would] no longer [be] concerned, uniquely, with Civilization-as-a-whole…. Fortune will not be making itself responsible for everything everywhere.” (Or as Billings put it in his own recommendations to Luce, “El Greco ain’t business.”) Instead Fortunewould focus almost entirely and almost always positively on “American Business Enterprise,” aided by advisory boards composed of prominent business leaders. (Paine opposed the advisory-board proposal and threatened to resign until Luce backed away from it.) An unstated but critical part of this plan was that the new Fortune would have a smaller and less expensive staff. It was, Billings wrote, “a notice of dismissal” for most of the Fortune writers and editors.26
Within a year Fortune was a fundamentally different magazine—narrower in focus, more strongly committed ideologically to what some called the “March of Business,” much reduced in personnel, and considerably more successful in attracting advertising and new subscribers from the business world. But despite Luce’s directives, it did not become a business mouthpiece, in part because his eagerness to attract talent and celebrity to his magazines was as strong as his desire to promote his own views. Over the next decade Fortune welcomed serious and not always affirmative commentary on capitalism from major intellectuals: Daniel Bell, John Kenneth Galbraith, Lawrence Lessing, William H. Whyte, and other eminent social scientists with academic backgrounds and, in some cases, academic futures. They continued to publish articles in Fortune that represented some of the most challenging and often contrarian views of capitalism to be found in journalism.27
The overhaul of Fortune was the most radical change to come out of the “rethinking” project, but to Luce the most important target was Life. He had many concerns. The magazine was still immensely profitable, but there were signs of softening in both circulation and advertising. The most obvious explanation for these problems was the unstable economy of the postwar years. But Luce chose to blame the content of the magazine itself—and not entirely without reason. Daniel Longwell, the pioneering creative force behind the founding of Life, had at long last succeeded Billings as editor of the magazine. Longwell himself had insisted long ago that he would not be a good managing editor, and his actual job performance proved him right. More than once he told Luce he felt he should step down. For all his talent, he was weak and insecure as a leader and frightened of almost everyone. His always-visible tendency to stammer and mutter became much more frequent once he was promoted. Luce, despite his own history of stammering, ungenerously called it “the way a deaf man does to avoid unpleasant topics.”28
But Luce was not just concerned about Longwell, or even about the quality of the editing. He had a larger goal in mind. He wanted Life to become less a picture magazine and more a vehicle for confronting what he considered the great challenges facing the world. Life had often contained serious material in the past, both textual and visual, especially during the war; but it had always considered itself at least as much entertainment as journalism. That was one of the secrets of its great success, even though Luce never conceded that point, and his colleagues rarely dared to raise it. Just as Fortune was now to be the voice of American business, Life was to be the voice of the new postwar world—and to a large degree, the postwar world as Luce hoped the United States would reshape it. “My mind is literally overpowered, paralyzed, by the nightmare of a tidal wave of knowledge by which, it seems, Life can and will engulf me,” Luce wrote in 1948. But he did not wish to turn back that tide. Instead he intruded more and more into the editing of the magazine to ensure that readers were exposed to the great ideas that Luce believed they must absorb. Robert Elson, a long-serving Time Inc. editor, wrote in his in-house history of the company (after Luce’s death) that “what had once been a young, ebullient, free-wheeling staff seemed bowed down by responsibility for the education of its vast audience while too frequently forgetting that Life was also supposed to be entertaining.”29
The rethinking of Life had actually begun not with Luce but with Longwell, who in 1944 wrote a memo complaining that the magazine had lost its youth—not just the youth of the magazine but of the people who ran it. Life, he argued, “should be a young man’s magazine…. We’ve reached a high but dead level of competence…. Our first and primary duty as editors is to make the magazine reflect its title.” This was in Longwell’s first year as editor. By 1946, however, he had begun to bow out and turn the weekly editing over to his talented colleagues Joseph Thorndike and Ed Thompson, both of whom understood that they were in a competition to succeed him. By then the number of people trying to rethink Life was growing almost exponentially. The magazine had what Billings called “a jittery uncertainty” and lacked “a smooth even flow of purpose.” But equally troubling to him was the parade of intruders trying to “fix” the magazine, people who were “directly, or indirectly, pulling and hauling at the … editor—Larsen, Heiskell, Longwell, Billings, Luce…. If one man were editing straightaway for the next couple of years, there would be less feeling of fuzzy command.” But that was not to be. In October 1946, Luce made Thorndike the editor. Three years later Thorndike resigned, frustrated by Luce’s continual intrusion and what he considered the undermining of his authority. He was succeeded by Ed Thompson, who also encountered frequent interventions by Luce and others but nevertheless remained in the job until 1961.30
In the fall of 1948 Luce sent a memo to the Life editors that was, among his many such memos, distinctive for its elaborate metaphors. He referred to an English film about the love affair between British bird lovers and a small bird known as the tawny pipit. That love affair—that elevation of an ordinary, unimportant bird into an object of extraordinary fascination—was, Luce argued, the key to a successful magazine. “As long as the English were on top of the world, their imaginations were on top of themselves…. Everything they saw, everything they learned, was absorbed in their imaginations.” The moral of this strangely contrived parable was that “if you want to make … anything … interesting, it must be loved by the writer and the editor.” In other, more conventional memos, he made his views much clearer—that the magazine should express its love of what Luce believed was America’s great moment, its unprecedented opportunity to be the new Britain, to reshape the world. In 1948, in response to a proposal for a “Western Culture” project, Luce grandiosely insisted that the series should aspire “to add up to a coherent interpretation of history…. The drama of Western Culture culminates in the creation of the United States of America. And this interpretation invites all Americans to take stock of American civilization at the moment of history when the U.S. has become the heir and chief guardian against the whole body of Western Civilization against the forces of reactionary neo-barbarism.”31
But Luce did not stop with Western civilization. Life, he soon argued, must become something like a textbook for men and women in need of instruction (whether they knew it or not). They should be presented with “convictions as to the nature of man and the purpose of human life.” To support that goal, he proposed “a combination of an introduction to, and summary of, Freshman Psychology A.” Life should also, he argued, take on the social sciences “and show, by encyclopedic selection, what is the basic material and method of each of the disciplines.” It should develop a concern “for the Non-European world … getting Americans acquainted with the many, many, many different peoples and customs and politics.” And the magazine would, he insisted, develop a higher level of taste: “There is in picture journalism a special peril of bad taste; we will have no bad taste in Life.”32
Above all he had decided that the most important element of the kind of journalism he was advocating was “faith.” Faith, Luce said, was “what a man does actually believe in as shown by what he does and how he lives…. Like democracy itself, and inescapably with democracy, journalism must fight its way through to a better and brighter world—or at least perish honorably in the attempt.” Life—which had begun to show people interesting photographs, to revel in the curious and the entertaining, and to attract eager readers to such trivial but entertaining features as Life Goes to a Party—that lively, inventive, and never-too-serious magazine was now to become a chronicle of the West’s (and America’s) march to democratic greatness.33
As was usually the case, Luce did not entirely get his way. Life continued to publish photographs and essays that were pure entertainment, and the magazine moved through the late 1940s and 1950s with continued popularity and success. But if Luce did not transform Life, he did alter it. Life was increasingly devoted to more serious material—often long, sometimes tedious, always worthy. Luce could rarely resist contributions from major world figures, no matter how dull their writing. His editors shuddered when he returned from trips abroad, fearful that he had brought with him yet another ponderous article from a king or minister or celebrity.
The most famous example of Life’s new role—and almost certainly its most prominent—was its publication of excerpts from the writings of Winston Churchill. This was a large and important innovation for Life, which had rarely before published material from books and certainly never so massive a series of texts as Luce wanted from Churchill. The courtship was long and complicated. Churchill’s chief, and perhaps only, interest in the relationship was financial. No longer prime minister, he had to maintain his lavish lifestyle on his own. The combination of his own modest fortune and high British taxes left him feeling insecure and impoverished. Life, to Churchill, was a great revenue stream. Luce’s interest, by contrast, was only indirectly financial. His principal motive was his belief that capturing the work of such a great figure would elevate Life to an even higher level of eminence in American publishing. Churchill was one of the great figures of his time and, Luce, as always with great figures he admired, wanted to be associated with him.
The relationship between Churchill and Luce began in 1945, when Walter Graebner, the London bureau chief for Time Inc., heard from Randolph Churchill that his father was interested in having some of his paintings reproduced in Life. Longwell and Thorndike were not enthusiastic about the idea, but Luce saw an opportunity to draw Churchill into a deeper association with the magazine. He paid Churchill twenty thousand dollars to reproduce sixteen pictures in the magazine—pictures that were more pleasant curiosities than significant art. A few months later Graebner accepted an invitation to Churchill’s home and was read a series of secret speeches Churchill had made to Parliament during the war. Perhaps, he suggested, Life would like to publish several of them—for seventy-five thousand dollars. Luce paid fifty thousand dollars, even though he was bored by the speeches. Churchill accepted the fee. “Let’s hope a wide public feels differently,” he confided to Billings of the speeches. “It can be worth the space plus the money if, in some sense, Churchill becomes ‘our author.’” What Luce really wanted was to publish excerpts from Churchill’s promised but still unwritten memoirs. And he spared no effort or expense to acquire them.34
Over the next several years Life showered favors and money on Churchill. When Churchill complained that he could not afford a vacation because he could not take British currency out of the country, Life paid for long visits to Morocco, Florida, and other warm climates where he could paint and, Luce hoped, write. Luce gave lavish and fawning dinners for Churchill when he was in New York, and he traveled to England periodically to flatter and encourage him. It did not take long for Churchill to sign a contract. In the spring of 1947 Luce agreed to allow Life and the New York Times to share publication of the memoirs for the then-staggering sum of $1.15 million—$750,000 from Life and $400,000 from the Times. “But,” Billings wondered, “will Churchill really buckle down and write top-notch stuff or will he just string a lot of murky official papers together?”35
Luce assured his colleagues that he would not interfere with the delicate task of editing Churchill’s work, but he could not help himself. He began bombarding Churchill with suggestions on how to tell the history of the war. In particular he tried to persuade Churchill to share and write about Luce’s own contempt for Roosevelt. “He played a most two-faced and ineffective part in the efforts to prevent the so-unneccesary [sic] war,” Luce wrote, and thus betrayed his country and the world. He also prodded Churchill about what he called the failure at Yalta, which he also blamed on Roosevelt. Churchill read Luce’s letters but never replied.36
Churchill ultimately did write the book, and more quickly than he had once predicted, even if in a way that made Graebner and Luce nervous. “Churchill does most of his work in bed,” Graebner reported. “He keeps six secretaries busy…. One secretary drives with him to and from the country, as Mr. Churchill uses this time to dictate. ‘I can do about 1,000 words while motoring to Chartwell—never less than 800,’ says Churchill.” Longwell and a young Life editor, Jay Gold, were dispatched to help edit the first volume, which dealt with the prewar years. It was voluminous, sprawling, and often turgid. Luce himself jumped into the editing process and wrote Churchill about problems of the “architectural structure” of the book. Churchill insisted that the incoherence of the manuscript reflected the incoherence of the policies pursued by nations in those years. But he was not a stubborn writer, and he gradually allowed the two editors to reshape his material to fit the magazine.
Publication of the excerpts began in the spring of 1948. They were not popular with Life’s readers and had what Andrew Heiskell called “a devastating effect on newsstand sales.” Churchill wrote at great length, occasionally brilliantly, often tediously, and sometimes almost incoherently. Even the most rigorous editing could not make the material consistently interesting. He also padded the memoirs with official documents and produced six volumes, not just the five promised in the contract. (He asked for more money, and Luce—after scaling down his extravagant demands—augmented his fee.) But despite the many ways in which the publication of the memoirs proved disappointing, Luce was not deterred. Not only did he continue to publish excerpts from the memoirs into the mid-1950s, but he also bought the serial rights to Churchill’s next major work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He published as well a multipart memoir by the Duke of Windsor (the former king), which was even less interesting to the editors and to most readers than the Churchill materials. But if Life was going to be the serious and influential magazine he wanted it to be, Luce reasoned, how could he fail to publish the work, however dull, of such eminent figures in history?37
The serialization of Churchill’s work was in many ways the launching point for making magazine journalism a vehicle for book promotion. Not long after Life published Churchill’s books, other magazines began working to excerpt books from many other prominent figures from the war years: generals, monarchs, politicians, diplomats. Rarely did any magazine attract large readerships for these pedigreed texts, but the prestige of being able to boast of such distinguished authors soon became as irresistible to other editors as it was to Luce—and an increasingly competitive venture.
• • •
Because the rethinking project stopped well short of Luce’s hopes, he began to think of new vehicles to help him tackle the great ideas he yearned to express. Luce had long dreamed of publishing a magazine of opinion. Time Inc.’s decision to end its brief association with the Saturday Reviewin the 1920s had long been a source of regret to him. Almost thirty years later he was still in search of a way to be a more important player in the battle for ideas. The most influential opinion magazines in the 1940s—the New Republic, the Nation, and others—were mostly liberal periodicals dominated by people committed to the New Deal. Luce never said so, but it was clear that he hoped to create a magazine that would offer a different and more conservative view of the world. The most important force in driving the project, however, was a new figure in Luce’s life—Willi Schlamm, an Austrian émigré and a disillusioned Communist moving rapidly to the Right. (He would eventually end up as a mainstay of The National Review.)38
The relationship between Luce and Schlamm baffled many of their colleagues. For a relatively new and quite junior member of the Fortune editorial board, he seemed to have unusual access to Luce and was often the influence behind some of Luce’s raging explosions about questionable taste in the magazines. In the summer of 1947 the two men vacationed together in the White Mountains, behavior so uncharacteristic that it threw Luce’s longtime and deeply loyal secretary into a “tizzy,” worrying aloud that “There’s something terribly wrong with Mr. Luce.” Schlamm began to be invited to dinners and events that others considered inappropriate for a junior editor. Luce’s influential deputy Allen Grover referred to Schlamm’s “evil and disruptive influence over Harry—this little nobody who had inserted himself into the very heart of a domestic crisis in the life of America’s most effective publishing enemy of communism.” Billings referred to “Schlamm’s Svengali influence over Luce.” Early in the planning of the new magazine Luce asked Tom Matthews to lead the development of the project, with Schlamm as his deputy. But within weeks Schlamm had persuaded Luce that he should be co-editor. Matthews disliked Schlamm, was furious to be asked to share authority with him, and ultimately withdrew from the project altogether. But Schlamm continued to promote the project, and Luce continued to support it.
Schlamm’s original prospectus for the magazine was both cocky and indistinct. He wrote at length about the competition and cited the “cumulative dissatisfaction with most of the existing magazines” as a reason to create a new one. But his vision of an alternative was self-righteously vague and fussily conservative The magazine would reflect “a civilized respect for fundamentals, and mellowing experience.” It would have a “sense of urgency and an understanding of the ‘new.’” It would be “constructive and readable.” And like other Luce magazines, all of which claimed to have “convictions” at their heart, Schlamm offered ideas that he suspected Luce would find attractive: “Man has a choice between Right and Wrong…. The standards we have inherited from the Scriptures and the Declaration of Independence are pretty good guesses of what decent people will accept as self-evident truths.” This would not be “a magazine where ‘everything goes.’ If we have an opinion on any subject we mean it, and we shall stick to it.” It would not be a magazine for the many, not “caviar for the masses,” but a publication that would appeal to the “never-dying community of individuals who manage to combine esthetic sensitivity with intellectual curiosity and moral concern.” It would “not promote avant garde,” but it would embrace “a desire for religious reorientation … what some people already call ‘an American Church-in-Progress.’” Many of Luce’s colleagues found both the tone and the content of the prospectus almost insufferable in its arrogance. Others compared it to some of the more pretentious claims Luce and Hadden had made when promoting Time in the early 1920s. There was little support for the project from anyone but Luce himself.
Work on the new magazine, which at times was called Measure and at other moments called Quest, continued for three years. Schlamm solicited articles, produced crude dummies, and recruited possible contributors from Europe and America. But the opposition within the company was too great, and Luce’s commitment, in the end, too faint. Early in 1948 he pulled the plug. With a stilted formality that reflected his discomfort, he made clear that not only would Time Inc. not publish the magazine, but that Schlamm was not free to take it elsewhere. He left a faint hope that the company might return to the project in a year or so and try again. (It never did.) And he encouraged Schlamm to propose another role for himself at Time Inc., which Schlamm interpreted correctly as an offer of no job at all. After a few token assignments, he left the company for good in 1949. He was, Billings noted in his diary, one of Luce’s “private problem children—‘pieces of his conscience.’ … [Schlamm] should have gone years ago.”39
The failure of the opinion magazine did not, however, dampen Luce’s enthusiasm for using his publishing influence to shape the thinking of the nation. Luce rejected the new magazine not only because his colleagues opposed it, but also because he was uncertain that it would reach a large enough audience to have the influence he felt he needed. He was left with relying on his existing magazines, with their large circulation and great popularity. But he was also left with their entrenched editors who did not always welcome his ideas.
Luce continued to believe in the enormous importance to the world, and to the United States, of a free and democratic China. The failure of that goal—the ultimate defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, and the establishment of Communist China—was the greatest disappointment of Luce’s life. But for nearly two years after the end of World War II, he remained optimistic about the future—confident that the Chinese people, now liberated from the Japanese invasion, would not support a revolution but would instead yearn for peace, comfort, and prosperity under the government they knew. “People are sick to death of war, profiteering, exile, bloodshed and malnutrition,” Time declared in a 1945 story titled “Bright with Hope.” It began with an uncharacteristically rapturous cable from Teddy White: “China’s hopes of peace are brighter than they have been for 20 years.” Time predicted, implausibly, that the Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific war in the summer of 1945, and its alliance of convenience with China against Japan in the last days of the war, would ensure Russian support for the established government of Chiang against the Communists; and that Stalin was “morally bound to withdraw his Red Army from conquered Jap forces.” The Soviet army, the magazine reported, “gave the back of its hand to Manchurian communists, forbade them to attempt any organization…. This is an extraordinary and encouraging sign.”40
In Washington confidence in the future of the Chiang Kai-shek regime was a great deal weaker than it was in the Time Inc. Building in New York. The new Truman administration was unwilling to allow American forces to become engaged in a civil war in China. But it nevertheless hoped to stabilize China by providing American aid and by promoting negotiations between the Nationalists and Communists that it hoped would lead to the creation of a coalition government. To advance this vision Truman appointed the former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, as his “personal representative” in December 1945. (Marshall replaced the truculently anti-Communist brigadier general Patrick Hurley, whom Roosevelt had sent to China in 1944 in the aftermath of Stilwell’s bitter departure. Hurley had blamed the problems of the Chiang regime on “traitors” in the State Department.)41
The “Marshall Mission,” as the general’s efforts in China came to be called, took place against a backdrop of considerable division in Washington between the military and the State Department. Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Army Assistant Secretary John McCloy, the recently dismissed Patrick Hurley, and others believed with Luce that true peace and reform could not come through negotiation but only through the defeat of the Communists; and that the Chiang regime needed substantial American military and economic support. Secretary of State James Byrnes, John Carter Vincent, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, and others were skeptical of Chiang’s ability to withstand the Communist challenge, with or without American support, and wanted most of all to prevent the United States from becoming ensnared in a new war in Asia only months after the old one had come to a close. Marshall at first avoided siding with either camp, but little by little he became convinced that the State Department view was correct.42
Luce wrote Marshall warmly in support of his mission and offered his help. Marshall politely ignored the offer, but Luce set out to influence the general nevertheless. He was particularly eager to mobilize the community of American missionaries and other clergy who had served in China, men Luce believed would have both the knowledge and the moral stature to influence policy. He urged Marshall to invite Leighton Stuart—the former president of Yenching University in Beijing, a staunch supporter of Chiang, and a former colleague and friend of Luce’s father—to consult with the general in China. Marshall declined the request, but Stuart made his way to China anyway, called on Marshall himself, and soon became a close confidant of the general. At Marshall’s request, and to Luce’s great delight, Stuart became the first postwar American ambassador to China in 1946 (and its last until the 1980s). Luce showered him with letters and wires urging more vigorous help to China and more pressure on Marshall to stand up to the Communists. “Washington has given too little attention to the problem,” he warned. Aware that the consensus in Washington was that Americans had no heart for a commitment to China, he wrote that “General Marshall and yourself may underestimate the willingness of the American public opinion to support a program of vigorous assistance to China through a constitutional national government.” And he worked hard to counter what he considered a growing chorus of destructive voices: “Teddy White’s Thunder Out of China, Henry Wallace, The New Republic, The Nation … [and] a recent speech by John Carter Vincent [that] seemed to me … to be a shocking disservice to the best interests of the United States and China.”43
Luce also reached out to Henry Van Dusen, the new president of Union Theological Seminary (which Luce’s father had attended) and a recent visitor to China. In an article Luce solicited for Life, Van Dusen flattered Marshall as a man of “integrity … and wisdom,” but challenged his approach to the China problem. The “intractable bar to peace,” he insisted, “lies in the fundamentally irreconcilable character of the conflict between China’s two factions…. May it not be the part of far-visioned statesmanship to face that inescapable issue now, before Communist strength can be mobilized at its fullest potential and while the Nationalist forces are still organized and equipped?” In short, better a conflict with the Communists now than a false truce that would certainly fail later. “China in Communist hands,” he warned, “would be the most probable … prelude to World War III…. Consequently the U.S. must lend every practicable support to the constituted government of China.”44
Luce soon began a broader campaign of support for Chiang, a campaign aimed at both the officials he believed would be the most important decision makers—Marshall above all—and at the American public. It began with his own trip to China in the fall of 1946, a year after his previous visit. Luce was, as always, eager for a reason to go to China; and in the spring of 1946 he had instructed one of his reporters there to organize a summer vacation for him on Iltus Huk in Tsingtao, the resort community in which he had spent summers as a child and which he had visited again in the early 1930s. “I have no desire to be paltry,” Luce wrote. “Three or four bedrooms, living room, dining room and something to serve as library or study. Plumbing must, of course, be in order. I presume there will be no difficulty in getting servants.” In the end Luce never took the vacation. But he continued to look for another opportunity to visit China, and he seized on a presumed “invitation” from Chiang.45
In fact there was no formal invitation. Luce had mentioned casually and unspecifically to Chinese officials in America that he hoped to visit China soon. But because he said it in the presence of Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, and T. V. Soong, the Kuomintang finance minister, word of this vague exchange found its way to Chiang Kai-shek. He then mentioned that Luce would be welcome should he decide to come. Chiang’s own unspecific welcome quickly became, in Luce’s mind, and soon in the minds of U.S. government officials, a formal invitation. By the time Luce left for China, Stuart Symington, an assistant secretary of war, provided him with a luxurious U.S. Air Force plane for the trip at government expense. Luce arrived in Shanghai on October 26, greeted by the mayor and the city’s ranking American military officials. As usual he was lavishly entertained by the Kuomintang elite. “Luce dominated the conversation after dinner as he has at all these Chinese functions I have attended with him,” Marshall’s aide John Beal (a former Time editor) wrote in his diary after one such event. Not surprisingly Luce heard what he wanted to hear. He asked why the press had not paid more attention to the government’s military successes. He asked for confirmation of his own belief that the course of war had “changed things” and that it had essentially ensured the victory of the Nationalists. He heard few arguments against his views.46
He had dinner with his old friend Leighton Stuart, by now the American ambassador, where conversation focused, to Luce’s dismay, on the success of Teddy White’s Thunder Out of China. He spent an afternoon on a houseboat near Nanking with Chiang Kai-shek, Mme. Chiang, and General and Mrs. Marshall, celebrating the Generalissimo’s birthday—“a beautiful and memorable day,” he later recalled. When they returned to shore the entire population of the village (which had ignored the group on its arrival) had been mobilized as a belated welcoming party. A private meeting with Marshall did little to change Luce’s view that the general was badly in error on America’s policy toward China. Marshall continued to believe that the solution to the Chinese crisis was to “get the Communists and the government together.” He resisted Luce’s proposal that the United States dramatically increase aid to the Chiang regime; Marshall argued that doing so would only confirm Chiang’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the Communists. Even Stuart, who had less confidence than Marshall in the possibility of a coalition government, believed that aid to Chiang should be conditioned on reforms within the Nationalist government, a requirement Luce opposed.47
Despite Marshall’s public optimism, Luce’s visit coincided with the failing negotiations between the Nationalists and the Communists, the cornerstone of the Marshall mission. Luce managed to arrange a meeting with Zhou Enlai, the Communist representative at the talks. Fred Gruin, one of Time’s correspondents, drove Luce to the gray-brick compound where the Communist delegation was staying. “In a small sitting room, a charcoal brazier lit against the season’s chill and the inevitable steaming cups of tea at hand,” Gruin recalled, Luce and Zhou sat down for a conversation, conducted entirely in English. “All the Chinese Communists now wanted,” Gruin wrote, “was a genuine cease-fire in the civil war.” Only later, after Luce had rushed to inform Stuart of the offer, did he discover that Zhou’s proposal included a pull-back of Nationalist forces from the areas in which they were fighting successfully. “I must record,” Luce wrote years later, “the utter confidence as well as the good humor with which Chou En-lai spoke to me. While he didn’t say so in so many words, I had the chilling feeling that he expected soon to be in control of all China.” (Years later Luce wrote: “At the end of my stay, I figured he was right.” Nothing suggests that he actually believed that at the time.)48
Luce ended his trip convinced that “the Marshall Mission had failed.” But since he had long ago come to disagree with its central aim—a negotiated settlement with the Communists—he was not entirely discouraged. Marshall’s failure, he believed, would give new momentum to providing military aid to the Kuomintang. Luce left China, he said, “hopeful and with good prospect.”49
Back in New York, Luce encouraged his reliably loyal editor, Charles Murphy, to complete a massive four-part profile for Life of Chiang Kai-shek, which Murphy had begun several months earlier, undeterred by the fact that Chiang was already perhaps the most frequently profiled person ever to appear in his magazines. But Luce encountered staunch resistance from Billings and other senior editors to the gushing, uncritical article. They persuaded him first to reduce it to a two-part piece and then, after a year of indecision, to kill it altogether. Luce acquiesced, in part for fear of seeming too partisan in his treatment of Chiang, a decision he later regretted. But as if to make up for this failure, he aggressively recruited the former diplomat William Bullitt in 1947 to travel as a “special correspondent” to China to report on the state of the civil war. There was little enthusiasm for this project among Luce’s senior editors, who considered Bullitt an ambitious blowhard. “We all deplore Bullitt’s mission to China and expect nothing from it,” Billings wrote in his diary. “If only Luce could resist such arrant rascals!” But Luce’s eagerness for articles from this controversial figure, a newly ardent anti-Communist, was unstoppable—as was clearly evident in the almost unprecedented fee of thirteen thousand dollars Time Inc. paid for the effort, despite Bullitt’s lack of experience in or expertise on Asia. When Bullitt submitted his manuscript, Billings called it “superficial and mediocre,” but did not dare to kill it. C. D. Jackson bridled at running a summary of the piece in Time. The Life editors balked at its length (and eventually persuaded Luce, over Bullitt’s “violent objection,” to cut it down from two parts to one). Luce conceded that “some people think [Bullitt’s] a shit,” but he remained committed to the piece, which ran both in Life and (as excerpts) in Time in October 1947. Unsurprisingly Bullitt echoed Luce’s own conviction that the loss of China to Communism was an unacceptable outcome to the conflict, no matter what the cost to the United States. Like Luce, he believed that virtually all of Chiang’s problems—the corruption, the bureaucratic incompetence, the brutality—were products of the pressures of war, that it was unrealistic to expect improvement until the Communists were defeated. He recommended sending Douglas MacArthur to advise Chiang on the conduct of the war (an oftfloated proposal that MacArthur had consistently refused to consider). “They would work together as brothers for their common cause,” Bullitt rapturously predicted. “The whole Far Eastern horizon would brighten with hope.” But if China were to fall “into the hands of Stalin,” his alarmist conclusion warned, “all Asia, including Japan, sooner or later will fall into his hands…. The independence of the U.S. will not live a generation longer than the independence of China.” Luce was delighted with the piece and helped arrange radio addresses and an exhausting speaking tour for Bullitt shortly after the article appeared.50
Luce was growing increasingly impatient with his own writers and editors, who were not, he complained, “observing the Editor-in-Chief’s China policy.” (Evidence of the problem, he believed, was the sandbagging of Murphy’s Chiang profile, even though Luce himself had been complicit in the killing of the piece.) He set out again to express his own views of the situation in China, which should, he insisted, become part of Time Inc.’s “policy.” He spent part of his trip home from China writing by hand an outline of his central precepts. What were the “fundamental motivations of Chiang Kai-shek?” Luce asked. Chiang aspired to “establish a China which shall be 1) united, 2) free of foreign domination, 3) progressively modern, hence a) strong, b) democratic.” What stood mostly in the way of this “double purpose,” he concluded, was a single problem: the Communists. Hence the principal goal of the United States must be to stop them so as to give Chiang the opportunity to achieve his “life purpose—the ‘unity’ of China.”51
Back in New York he continued to bombard his editors with the urgency of the task. “Luce came to my M. E. [managing editor] lunch and talked steadily about China—almost a repeat of yesterday’s lunch,” Billings wrote. Matthews also received a memo from Luce complaining that Time-Life International was “not paying enough attention to China…. Nearly all the correspondents in China are doing a poor job.” Hardly a day went by without a chiding memo to his senior editors: “It seems to me Time has paid awful little attention to [Wellington] Koo,” he complained on one day. On another he wrote that “we need to focus again … on the prospects for success or failure, progress or chaos in China.” Editors frequently found Luce “in a huffy unhappy mood about some Lifetext on China,” or “suffering visibly over China.” So harried did the editorial staff feel under Luce’s pressure that they began to compile evidence that they were in fact reflecting his own strong views. The Time editors sent Luce groveling proof of their loyalty in April 1947 by listing the ways in which they had followed the editor in chief’s line:
The former U.S. policy of mediation had been invalidated by Chiang’s “brilliant military victories,” the increased stubbornness of the Communists…. Adoption of the new Constitution proved Chiang’s democratic intention and justified increased U.S. support…. China would find it difficult to solve her currency problem without U.S. Aid…. The crisis … has been brought on by the lack of a positive U.S. Policy and by Marshall’s “stiff-necked insistence that the Nationalist Government must be purified before the U.S. would give it decisive help in putting down a Communist revolution.”52
A little more than two months after Luce’s return from China, Marshall moved from Nanking to Washington and became secretary of state. President Truman, members of Congress, and the majority of the public gave Marshall credit for attempting what turned out to be an impossible task, and most Americans slowly began to prepare themselves for the likely defeat of the Chiang regime and the triumph of the Communists. But to Luce, and to other strong supporters of the Nationalist cause, Marshall’s failed effort was part of a great and tragic betrayal—the willful abandonment of China to Communism through incompetence at best and a traitorous conspiracy at worst. Even before China fell, the recriminations began—and continued for a generation. The last years before the fall of Nationalist China produced stores of ammunition for those who were coming to constitute what became known as the “China Lobby.”
Luce was never as fevered a member of the China Lobby as were many others. He continued to admire George Marshall, despite his great disappointment with the general’s actions in China. He did not often accuse those he opposed of traitorous motives, and he seldom associated himself with the more hysterical press lords of the pro-Chiang right—William Randolph Hearst, Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, and others. But beginning in the last years of Nationalist government on the mainland, and continuing for many years after, his bitterness toward those whom he believed had failed China in the greatest crisis of its history steadily increased. The folly of allowing China to fall, Luce believed, was so self-evident that only weakness, stupidity, or—worse—disloyalty could explain America’s course. “The measure of degradation of American policy in the Pacific,” he wrote bitterly in early 1948,
is the fact that a few guys like [Minnesota representative Walter Judd] and me have to go about peddling a vital interest of the United States and a historic article of U. S. Foreign policy as if it were some sort of bottled chop suey that we were trying to sneak through the Pure Food Laws…. [T]oday an American Government, attempting to “lead” the world—seems not to be in the slightest degree embarrassed by its total neglect of Asia.53
Like many critics of the Truman administration far to Luce’s right, he began to characterize his opponents not as people with legitimate disagreements but as dupes of the Communists or worse. “Where’s the agrarian democracy in mainland China that ‘experts’ … attributed to the … Communists?” he said contemptuously in the early 1950s. “On what basis,” he asked, did “… so many people on the left, and so many people in the State Department, come to believe that Mao and his allies were potential allies of the United States?”—repeating the longstanding canard that admiration for Mao was a principal cause of America’s abandonment of Chiang. In the heat of his despair he at times lost his ability to express disagreement—even with the people he most admired—in a restrained and respectful way. “I cannot think of any utterance which ever hurt me so much as your recent statement about Chiang Kai-shek and China,” he angrily wrote Henry Stimson, who had, like Marshall, expressed a lack of confidence in the Nationalist regime. “I would like to think that you found it painful to write what you did. But perhaps you only wrote carelessly and irresponsibly.” Increasingly he built on his already intense hatred of Franklin Roosevelt by joining the escalating right-wing criticism of the Yalta accords. “Suspicious as I was of Yalta,” he wrote in reference to what he considered the secret betrayal of China, “I couldn’t imagine that it was such a new high in Rooseveltian deceit…. I wonder if Time has yet become as indignant about Yalta as perhaps it ought to be.” And even while he continued trying to persuade the leaders of government, he also began to reach out to people who shared his views on China, including some with whom he had little else in common—socially or intellectually.54
Luce’s slow, cautious, but steady movement into the world of conspiracy theories was reflected by, among other things, his souring relationship with an organization he had helped to create: the Institute for Pacific Relations (IPR), a quasi-academic foundation in New York dedicated to helping Americans understand Asia and the Pacific. Luce had been a founding member in 1930 and had considered it an organization that “always strove for objectivity and the presentation of different sides of a problem, [which] were useful as references to Time and Fortune.” He had attended occasional conferences, offered modest financial support, and maintained a cordial and supportive relationship with the institute’s director, Edward Carter. In the early 1940s Luce joined an effort to construct an imposing new building for the institution, Pacific House, which would give the IPR a more important public face and would draw more attention to issues relating to China. Luce organized a dinner in 1943 to promote the idea. He recruited Juan Trippe, the president of Pan American World Airways, to head the fund-raising drive. And he assigned one of Time Inc.’s staff to assist with the effort. Despite his help, the project failed. But his supportive relationship with the IPR, even if somewhat strained, continued.55
In the spring of 1946 Alfred Kohlberg, a wealthy textile manufacturer who had significant investments in Asia and now feared that they were in danger, began a campaign to discredit the people he believed were participating in a vast conspiracy to undermine the Kuomintang and ensure the victory of the Communists. Among his principal targets was the IPR, of which he was a longtime but seldom-seen member. Kohlberg was an aggressive ideologue, and to him the IPR’s openness to multiple views, which included some sympathetic depictions of the Chinese Communists, seemed tantamount to treason. He began spending long days in the New York Public Library uncovering IPR documents that supported his view. The people who managed the IPR’s publications and research, he charged, “showed their bias by affiliation with a host of Communist and Communist front organizations.” In August, Carter invited Kohlberg to a meeting to “clear the air.” It only increased the animosity between them.56
Kohlberg had not been the first to warn Luce about Communist influence in the IPR. In 1943 his Fortune colleague Eliot Janeway had claimed to have discovered that the institution was “really manipulated by a group of dubious Communists and near-Communists who are intriguing madly behind a good front of respectable research men.” Carter, he said, was “a stooge for these gentry.” Luce, who usually respected Janeway’s opinions, had ignored him. Kohlberg, by contrast, was the kind of man—brash, crude, vindictive, impassioned almost to the point of fanaticism—with whom Luce under ordinary circumstances would never have associated. Kohlberg had once even implied that Luce himself was a Communist dupe. But by late 1946 Luce had become largely intolerant of divergent views on China and was thus more credulous of Kohlberg’s accusations. A Time Inc. colleague prepared a report for Luce on the activities of the IPR and concluded that the organization did not take a “communist line” and was, at worst, not wholly vigilant in keeping Communists and fellow travelers from publishing left-leaning material.
But Luce took no comfort from this mild and qualified defense. When Carter asked him for help in discrediting Kohlberg, Luce replied coolly that Kohlberg was “not ‘discredited’ in my opinion…. I am afraid, I would find that the Institute of Pacific Relations output had been of very little help in informing us on those aspects of Soviet or Communist behavior which present real challenges both to American ideals and American interests.” A shaken Carter quickly assembled evidence of the IPR’s substantial studies of the dangers of Communism, but Luce brushed it aside. “The main trouble with this letter is that it should have been written several years ago … the so-called Kohlberg charges are perhaps far from being judicial, nevertheless I am convinced that the question he raises with regard to I.P.R. cannot be brushed off with easy strokes of whitewash. In so far as I.P.R. has taken a ‘line,’ it is a line with which I disagree considerably.” He was, he concluded, resigning from the organization and cutting off his financial support.
Carter unwisely replied by warning him of “the loss that would accrue more to you than to IPR if you became identified in the public mind with such [far-right] critics of the IPR as Kohlberg, [the writer] Upton Close, and Hearst.” Luce did not communicate with him again, and Carter’s plaintive letters were thereafter answered by surrogates. Less than two years later Carter resigned from the IPR. “The sad story of the Institute of Pacific publications,” Luce wrote ruefully in 1949, “is one that I know all too much about—but I learned it too late!” Luce’s own repudiation of IPR was certainly part of what led Carter to resign.57 As the situation in China deteriorated, both Harry and Clare developed an unlikely friendship with Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, who had served for a time as Chiang Kai-shek’s military chief of staff and had then succeeded Stilwell as commander of American forces in China. Wedemeyer was a talented and respected officer of highly conservative views. He shared Luce’s conviction that a Communist victory in China would be an unacceptable danger to America. One of the few high-ranking American officers with significant experience in China, he was repeatedly proposed for new missions there. But time and again, he believed, his hopes were thwarted by officials in Washington who found him too hostile to the Communists (with whom Marshall was continuing to negotiate) and too committed as well to the increasingly discredited Chiang regime. Out of Wedemeyer’s experiences (and out of Luce’s characterizations of them) emerged some of the foundations of the conspiracy theory of the Nationalists’ fall.
In the spring of 1946 Secretary of State James Byrnes proposed Wedemeyer as ambassador to China, a position that had remained unfilled since 1941. To prepare himself the general began communicating with Luce, over dinners when he was in New York, through correspondence when he was away. “When I take over,” he wrote Luce,
I predict that the Communists will seize upon this opportunity to abrogate agreements and of course in the minds of the public, both in China and abroad, they will attribute dissensions and confusions to me…. Of course the degree of wholehearted and straightforward cooperation I receive from the State Department will strongly influence my ability to accomplish our objectives.
Months later Wedemeyer learned that he would not receive the ambassadorship, which would go instead to Leighton Stuart. Wedemeyer himself was “disappointed but not angry,” one of Luce’s deputies reported. But he did show some bitterness, and he claimed that John Carter Vincent and others in the State Department had fought his appointment “to the bitter end.” Luce himself, of course, had been to a large degree responsible for Stuart’s appointment as ambassador. But that did not stop him from being drawn into the group who saw Wedemeyer as a martyr to the cause of China.58
A year later, at about the same time that Bullitt went to China for Life, Luce learned from Wedemeyer that Marshall had asked him to return to China and prepare a report on how “to salvage the rapidly deteriorating situation.” It is difficult to understand why Marshall decided to entrust such a sensitive assignment to Wedemeyer, whose views were very different from his own. But the decision likely reflected Marshall’s respect for Wedemeyer’s military prowess. “It is obvious to you,” Wedemeyer wrote to Luce, “that although our government has committed itself openly and firmly to counter the spread of communism through the Balkans and in Western Europe, paradoxically we are refusing to apply a similar policy in the Far East.” He was, he said, “determined to submit recommendations [to Marshall] … that will embody ideas that have been evolved as the result of years of study of history.”59 On his return from China Wedemeyer offered Luce a summary of his findings. Much of it, to Luce’s dismay, was harshly critical of Chiang and his government: terrible relationships between officers and enlisted men in the Kuomintang army; “widespread corruption and incompetence” in the government; the blindness of Chiang and other Nationalist leaders to the dire condition of his regime. “I doubt seriously that [Chiang] realized the true conditions that prevail,” he wrote. But Wedemeyer nevertheless strongly recommended the provision of up to ten thousand military “advisors” to the Chinese army, a United Nations guardianship of northeastern China (a stronghold of the Soviets and the Chinese Communists), and significant additional American aid to the Chiang regime unconnected to reforms in his government. The report—which Luce and others eagerly awaited as a last chance for moving American policy toward a stronger defense of Nationalist China—did not appear, despite Luce’s strenuous efforts to persuade Marshall to release it. “Pressure from every facet is being placed upon me,” Wedemeyer told Luce. His efforts, he said, were being “stultified by vacillatory or European-conscious State Department officials…. I have pointed out to [Marshall] the implications of delay concerning the implementation of my recommendations, but so far nothing has happened.” Luce directed his editors to insert an ominous and incendiary note into Time:
A fortnight ago, Lieut General Albert C. Wedemeyer returned from his mission to China as a factfinder for the U.S. To the State Department he submitted a report of China’s political, military and economic situation. On this report, presumably would be based one of the most important lines of U.S. foreign policy—what to do about China. Lieut. General Wedemeyer has always been anti-Communist…. His report on the Chinese could not be anything but anti-Communist, and probably favored U.S. aid to China. If so, it was big news to both countries. What (or who), Americans wondered last week, was holding up its publication?
The answer, as Luce obviously suspected, was the State Department. Unhappy with Wedemeyer’s aggressive recommendations and, particularly, with his proposal to deploy American military advisers in China, Marshall and his colleagues first asked the general to amend his report, and then, when he refused, buried it.60
Not until two years later did the Wedemeyer report become public, deep in the annexes of a massive State Department white paper defending American policy. The white paper defended the “suppression” of the report in 1947 by claiming that Wedemeyer’s criticisms of the Chiang regime would have demoralized the Chinese government. The heart of the white paper, however, was a sharp rebuke to Luce and others who continued to claim that American policy was responsible for the defeat of the Nationalists. The blame for the “fall of China” fell, it argued, squarely on the shoulders of the Kuomintang, which “had apparently lost the crusading spirit that won them the people’s loyalty during the early years of the war.” Nationalist China had “sunk into corruption … and into reliance on the United States to win the war for them…. The reasons for the failures of the Chinese National Government … do not stem from any inadequacy of American aid…. [The Kuomintang’s] leaders proved incapable of meeting the crisis confronting them, its troops had lost the will to fight, and the Government had lost popular support.” This assessment, not surprisingly, enraged Luce and many other supporters of Nationalist China and greatly increased the bitterness that the Communist victory had already created. The “suppression” of the Wedemeyer report in 1947 and its eventual replacement by the State Department’s white paper became still more fodder for the belief that there had been a government-inspired conspiracy to undermine the survival of a non-Communist China.61
By early 1948 the situation in China was beginning to seem irretrievable; and while the Truman administration continued to insist that it was committed to the Nationalist government, material support from the United States was diminishing. Marshall had come to believe that defeating the Chinese Communists in the field was “an absolute military impossibility.” (Hence his ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat the Communists politically, through a coalition.) He was also convinced that the Nationalist army would not fight and that providing them with weapons was the same as arming the Communists. “Thirty-three divisions laid down their arms without a battle,” he told a group of reporters in a private meeting, “so their equipment—the stuff we supplied them out of our reserves—is now in communist hands without a struggle.” But the grim military prospects were only part of the calculation. Marshall and Truman also believed that the stakes in China were not high enough to justify an American intervention that was certain to be costly and had no assurance of success. “There are only four great centers of resources outside the U.S. which concern me a whit,” Marshall told the reporters. “These are in Japan, Germany, England, and Russia. China has no resources other than manpower, and there is a real question in my mind whether this great mass of manpower is an asset or liability.”62
For Luce, however, and for many others, no price could have been too high to defeat the Communists in China and preserve the Nationalist government. The cost of failure would be not only the loss of what Luce considered a great ally that could become an important asset to the democratic West. It would also be the beginning of Soviet domination of China and, eventually, all of Asia—a fundamental shift in geopolitical power. The unraveling of Kuomintang China was an almost unbearable prospect for Luce, especially as he saw many of the people who shared his commitment to China begin to turn away from the great project of saving it. “Time itself has not always been right,” the disillusioned Time Inc. reporter William Gray wrote from Shanghai, “and I hope your approach does not indicate any upcoming claim of omniscience on China…. In China even American businessmen accuse Time … of giving a ‘distorted picture without ever telling a specific lie.’” Luce ignored Gray’s evaluation in much the same way that he had rejected White’s.63
In May, Luce persuaded the Truman administration to send Charles Stillman, the president of the recently created Henry Luce Foundation, to China to help distribute American aid. “Charlie Stillman is the greatest single contribution which we of Time Inc. could make to the cause of upbuilding China…. He is not a diplomat or a college professor or a parlor pink or a rabble rouser,” he wrote. “He is a businessman.” But like the many other military officers, diplomats, reporters, businessmen, and philanthropists who had tried to rationalize the funding of the Nationalist government, Stillman found himself an impotent witness to the corruption and incompetence of the Kuomintang regime.64
As one effort after another collapsed, Luce became increasingly desperate and bitter. He used his magazines to express his own more and more isolated views. “American behavior in and toward China has been the most completely disastrous failure of U.S. foreign policy since the war,” he wrote in Life. He leaped at even the most implausible proposals—including a vague and quixotic plan to energize Christians in China (“a simple concrete idea which … might help to solve the vexing problem of America’s relation to China”). He used memos to his staff to vent his frustration. “What happens next in China?” he wrote angrily in August 1948. “What, if anything, does the U.S.A. prefer to have happen? One answer, of course, might be that the U.S.A. doesn’t and shouldn’t give a bloody damn.” As the end approached and all hope vanished, he began to make the case for what might have happened had the United States acted more forcefully. The Truman administration had made three mistakes, he later wrote: “not to take Communism seriously enough … not to take China seriously enough …[and] to permit a personal distaste for Chiang Kai-shek to influence U.S. policy toward his government.” Had the United States not given up on the Kuomintang too early, if the Soviets had not been allowed to enter Manchuria, if American forces had remained in China after the war, everything might have been different. And perhaps most of all he sought, almost wistfully, to rehabilitate the now-widely discredited Chiang, whom Luce continued to revere as one of the great figures in history. Chiang, he insisted, had retained the support of the Chinese people until war (and ungenerous critics) undermined him:
There were a lot of good men in the [Kuomintang] government at all levels trying to do a good job…. The idea of “progress” express[ed] itself in manifold forms before the war as well as during it. Not just economic ideas, but ideas like the “emancipation of women.” … The Chiang government … was even so well regarded that it was made one of the “Big Five” in the postwar world.65
As the dark year of 1948 progressed, Luce clung to a single hope: a Republican administration that would surely, he thought, commit itself more effectively to the defense of China. He was a strong supporter of Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a onetime isolationist who had converted to the new internationalism of the postwar era. But Vandenberg was never a serious contender, and Luce eventually had to place his hopes in a candidate he had never much liked: Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, running for president in his second consecutive election. “We lack big men, leaders or potential leaders, men of talent and integrity,” Luce had complained in 1946, clearly remembering the death of Willkie and his disappointment in Dewey in 1944. But he eagerly embraced the great opportunity he believed the Republicans had. Democratic unity, he said, was “coming apart at the seams.” The country was “clearly in a more conservative mood.” And Truman himself was so deeply unpopular that even Democrats were dismayed. (Time described the audience’s reaction to a Truman speech at a Democratic fund-raiser as “polite, bored tolerance toward the man they are stuck with in 1948.”)66
Luce began a speech in the spring of 1948 with an almost cocky certainty: “On January 20, 1949, the businessmen of the United States will celebrate the [Republican] party’s return to power after sixteen years in the wilderness.” His own certitude drove Time’s reporting, which also threw caution to the wind. With unusual rashness the magazine repeatedly presented Truman’s candidacy as doomed to defeat. “Only a political miracle or extraordinary stupidity on the part of the Republicans,” the magazine claimed in March, “could save the Democratic party, after 16 years of power, from a debacle in November.” Dewey and his running mate, California governor Earl Warren, constituted “the kind of ticket that could not fail to sweep the Republican Party back into power.” Occasional stories toward the end of the campaign noted reviving enthusiasm for Truman, but Time never wavered in its confidence in the outcome. As late as November 1, the magazine crowed that the day of the Republican return to power was “surely at hand.” Life prepared a single photograph for its postelection cover: a smiling Dewey—but fortunately for the magazine, it was not ready in time for publication before the election. “Time was just as wrong as everybody else,” the magazine sheepishly reported once it was clear that Truman had won.67
By then, however, the chances of reversing the course of events in China had already vanished. Not even a committed Republican administration would have been able to save Chiang Kai-shek and his regime. “Our Christmas skies are darkened this year by the disasters which have overtaken your country,” Luce wrote Chiang on December 24. “Be assured that your friends here know, as history will surely make clear, that you have fought with integrity of purpose for a cause you have cherished more dearly than any personal fate.” On the same day he told colleagues at Time Inc. more bluntly that China was “down the drain, and what can the U.S. do about it?” Someone suggested “gunboats,” but Luce said no, “that’s 19th century British policy.” And yet even then Luce could not abandon hope. Once again he made the lonely rounds in Washington, where all the officials he met continued to state the administration’s official position: “There is no disposition on the part of the U.S. government to give up China as a lost cause.” But it was obvious to almost everyone that these pronouncements meant nothing, that the United States was helpless to reverse the Communist victory. The government was continuing to support a non-Communist China only to defend itself from criticism.
Luce outlined a course for Chiang that he still believed might change the outcome. If there could be “massive evidence that there does in fact exist in China a wide-spread will and determination to resist Communist domination,” the regime might still survive. For that to happen Chiang would need to “declare that the Yangtze will be defended under your personal leadership,” that he should “give to the ablest man in China not counting yourself the task of forming an entirely new government whose primary requisite shall be a capacity to govern,” that there should be “a mighty demonstration of loyalty to this government by governors of provinces, mayors of cities, leading intellectuals and other representative men.” But even as he wrote this hopeful, hopeless proposal, the man he was attempting to persuade was preparing for his exodus to Formosa. Chiang’s response to Luce was friendly but pointedly evasive: “Your implicit faith in the cause of China’s prolonged struggle against world totalitarianism will not fail to cheer the bleeding hearts of my people.” Meanwhile, at a managing editors’ lunch that Luce did not attend, Max Ways, the Time foreign editor, said bluntly: “We have lost China. The Communists do provide ‘law and order,’ and hence temporary prosperity. I suspect Luce has led us into folly and dead-ends with his China ideas during [the] last fifteen years.” No one contradicted him. Luce was now almost alone in his own company.68