James Wechsler: The Editor Who Dared Challenge J. Edgar Hoover

Culture Watch

Mr. Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and is co-author of Disarmed & Dangerous: The Radical Lives & Times of Daniel & Philip Berrigan.

Few today remember the quintessential Cold War liberal newspaperman James Wechsler, the erstwhile voice of the once resolutely liberal (pre-Rupert Murdoch) New York Post. Since his death in 1983, he has fallen into undeserved obscurity because of liberalism's equally unmerited fate. Not only do politicians dread any identification with the infamous L-word but also because to admit that liberals opposed Stalinism while defending freedom at home is, for many now in power, sheer heresy.

James Arthur Wechsler was born in 1915 and entered Columbia College just shy of the age of 16, graduating in 1935. Shortly after he began working as an assistant editor for the Nation. In 1940 he joined Marshall Field's ad-less and innovative daily PM, serving as assistant editor ---and until his induction into the army--- as bureau chief of its Washington office. He later quit, charging that the newspaper was too pro-Communist for his taste.

From 1934-37, Wechsler was a member of the Young Communist League and a leader of the leftist and essentially pro-Communist American Students Union until he quit the YCL at the ripe old age of 22. Following the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, he wrote an article for the Nation condemning the Stalinist regime. For this "sin," the Daily Worker repeatedly damned him. And again, in 1948, he challenged the Communist Party by backing Harry Truman for the presidency when he opposed Henry Wallace's campaign, insisting that the Communists had captured the Progressive Party.

Internationally, he was the personification of a Cold War liberal, a journalist and an activist. His views often coincided with that of George Kennan and Walter Lippmann and especially Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who he brought on as a Post columnist) who defined Cold War liberalism this way: "liberalism and communism had nothing in common, either as to ends or means." Wechsler backed NATO and the Korean War (which triggered the massive rearmament of the U.S., which he ultimately criticized) but furiously dissented from what other Cold War liberals like Hubert Humphrey and some in the Americans for Democratic Action (of which in 1947 he was one of the founders and a longtime member) favored in 1950, namely, detention camps for "subversives."

With Wechsler as editor, the Post not only championed domestic liberalism but also frequently pricked readers' consciences. Ted Poston, one of its black reporters, was sent south to cover the emerging civil rights story. It exposed Richard Nixon's slush fund, which resulted in his humiliating "Checkers" speech to the nation. It featured sparkling liberal columnists like Murray Kempton, Marquis Childs, Pete Hamil, Max Lerner, William Shannon, and Samuel Grafton, one of country's few columnists who regularly dared criticize the U.S. for not doing enough to rescue European Jews from the Nazis. Women reporters were assigned to major stories and its education and sports sections were among the best in the nation.

The Post published critical articles about J. Edgar Hoover, denouncing his unaccountability in a democratic society and for causing terrible harm to many innocent people. He defended Max Lowenthal, an early Hoover critic, who dared publish the first book excoriating the FBI director. Not surprisingly, Wechsler was hounded and monitored by the FBI He was relentlessly pursued by the FBI and even placed on its "custodial detention" list between 1942 and 1945. A notation by J. Edgar Hoover's on a FBI memo described Wechsler and his wife, Nancy, as "radicals and leftists of the most dangerous type." His FBI file numbers 530 pages!

In response, he created a sardonic "sacred cow" prize and awarded it to the FBI's director. "Who else," asked Joseph Rauh, the veteran Cold War liberal and arch-civil libertarian lawyer who had defended both Wechsler and Lillian Hellman before congressional anti-Red committees, "would have had the courage, the wit, the ability to ridicule J. Edgar Hoover at the height of his power?" Very few indeed.

Wechsler needed Rauh's legal expertise after the Post published a series damning Joe McCarthy. He was hauled before the senator's Senate committee in a nasty spectacle in which Wechsler confronted his inquisitors. Yet he also "named names," afterwards unconvincingly rationalizing his behavior for doing so, (he claimed the people names were already known to McCarthy) and for which he was rightfully and bitterly excoriated by those he implicated. Penn Kimball, for instance, wrote a book, The File (1983), detailing what he said was Wechsler's egregious sin in offering his name to Red hunters. On the left, Victor Navasky (author of Naming Names) and Lillian Hellman castigated him for having given McCarthy the names of Murray Kempton and Robert Bendiner, among others. None of this convinced McCarthy and his sycophants who were never persuaded of Wechsler's "loyalty" and insisted he still retained Communist sympathies. In 1954 he was thrown off a popular TV show, "Starring the Editors," for being a "controversial personality."

He was a perennial debater, taking on the likes of William Buckley and Beatnik Jack Kerouac and Yippie Jerry Rubin, among many others, and in time, became less of a cold warrior than a dove.. He questioned an American foreign policy consensus that-- until the invasion of Iraq-- would eventually be shattered by 58,000 American body bags, tens of thousands more grievously wounded in body and mind, not to mention 3,400,000 dead Southeast Asians.

He wrote regularly what he saw as demonstrations of conscience during the Vietnam era: the ex-POW fighting for amnesty for draft resisters; the sacrifice of our troops in Vietnam; and the revelations of the Pentagon Papers. "The old men quibble, the young men die," he said in 1968. "No one beyond the reach of the draft can or should tell the students how to meet the crisis." The killings at Kent State in May 1970 horrified him and, in his fashion, he wrote about it through the grieving eyes of the father of one of the young women killed by the Ohio National Guard. He was aghast at the accession to power of the murderous American-backed Pinochet regime in Chile as well as the fascist-minded leaders in Argentina during the late seventies. In the spring of 1983 he turned his critical attention toward the Reagan administration's military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua, his last public battle before he died of lung cancer in September 1983.

If he were alive today, I believe he would be very critical of the Bush administration's imperial dreams and endless wars. I would hope too that he would be working hard to reformulate liberalism into a "new liberalism," concentrating on America's role as a stabilizing force in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world. At home he would be drawn toward class and racial justice, balancing private and public interests with fairness, criticizing the enormous gap between the very rich and everyone else and always refusing to ignore the victims of our fiercely competitive, greed-driven society.

His legacy to publishers, editors and reporters who would follow him was simple: "It was said long ago that the function of a newspaper is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.' Too many newspapers have forgotten the word or grown so fat and comfortable themselves that they view the phrase as inflammatory. We like it and we propose to remember it, not because we regard success as subversive but because success too often means the complacent loss of conscience."

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Murray Polner - 1/16/2004

As a result of new interviews after I wrote the article,I want to make the following change to read as follows:
Wechsler needed Rauh's legal expertise after the Post published a series damning Joe McCarthy. He was hauled before the senator's Senate committee in a nasty spectacle in which Wechsler confronted his inquisitors as an unfriendly witness.Still,in a controversial move criticized by McCarthy's opponents, he "named names" after agonizing over his decision. In his book "The Age of Suspicion, he wrote, "I did not believe my answers would tend to incriminate or degrade me but I was quite certain that silence would." But McCarthy and his admirers were never convinced of Wechsler's "loyalty" and insisted he still held communist symapthies. In 1954 he was thrown off a popular TV show, "Starring the Editors," for being a "controversial personality."

Murray Polner - 1/12/2004

Dear Michael. Thanks for your kind note re: James Wechsler and the late Governor of Nevada. People such as them need to be remembered for their achievements and courage but somehow always seem to fall into the cracks of history. But I fear that too many Americans know little about their past.


Murray Polner

Michael Green - 1/11/2004

I would like to commend Murray Polner for reminding us of the important but all too often forgotten work of James Wechsler. I believe that Wechsler also was the editor who first gave Murray Kempton wide circulation, and he was another critic of the kinds of stupidity that annoyed Wechsler. Since I teach, among other things, Nevada history, I also would like to mention that Governor Grant Sawyer (1959-66) of Nevada was one of the few political figures of his time who criticized Hoover, and for this the FBI director actively opposed his ultimately unsuccessful bid for a third term as governor.

Bill Heuisler - 1/7/2004

Mr. Polner,
Thank you very much for taking the time to respond. After rereading the article, I realized your skilled phrasing did make a different point and did not assess blame for the enormous SE Asia casualties, regardless of records.

As to the Press, I urge you to rethink solely on the basis of democratic idealism. The verb, afflict, has punitive or coercive connotations and "comfortable" may be politically subjective (particularly in Mr. Weschler's case). To allow chronicles to become editorials leads to Orwell's nightmare. Also, elected representatives of the people at all levels far outnumber any conceivable group of journalists. In our peculiar Democracy sheer numbers play a decisive part in freedom for all since collective suspicion, self-interest, altruism, good will, all allow and monitor majority rule without allowing needless surpression of minorities. We have checks and balances in our codes and developing political traditions.

The Press does not. The ink-stained wretch becomes judge and jury, legislator and executive when he, subjectively and without oversight, decides to label and or villify during alleged documentations of events.
Thank you again, Bill Heuisler

Murray Polner - 1/7/2004

Dear Bill: Many thanks for your thoughtful letter. Re: the casualties among Southeast Asians from 1965-73, the Encyclopedia of the VN War(ed by Spencer Tucker (0xford, '98) states that the South suffered more than 600,000 dead and 415,000 civilians killed ("the lowest figure"). The North suffered, they reported in 4/95, 1.1 million soldiers killed plus 600,000 wounded from 1954-75.They estimated that civilian deaths in the war was 2 million. The US est. for civiklians dead in the bombing of the north is 30,000.This doesn't include South Korean and Thai deaths. You may also wish to refer to books by Kutler, Sumner and Levy and Tim O'Brien's Introduction to The Things They Carried. Actually, we shall never truly know the exact number of people killed or wounded (let alone those who died but wouldn't have had there not been a war). I selected 3.4 million as an estimate because it was closer the most accurate estimates we have thus far.

Re: the Wechsler quote, you raise a valid question. The media, he believed, has to serve as watchdog and if need be, critic. Briefly, too many pols are closely tied to the special interests that feed their coffers.Wechsler and I agree that an independent press needs to write about the most vunerable, the injustices, corruption, govt. deceptions, etc. when govt does not.(Look how many in the media accepted that Iraq had WMDs, etc. without any challenge or questions or why the rate of hungrey and homeless keep growing). At the same time, I would also like to see rebuttals in papers, TV stations, cable, etc. and serious debates that allow dissenters too the right to express their views. So would,I believe, Wechsler. But he was also an advocate (which Tom and Dan and Bill aren't on camera but Fox is) This should give editors and reporters some courage in resisting govt pressures, advertisers, their owners,etc.)
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond.

BestWishes! Murray Polner

Bill Heuisler - 1/6/2004

Mr. Polner,
Two questions occured while reading your well-written article.
First, you wrote how "American foreign policy consensus that would eventually be shattered by ...3,400,000 dead Southeast Asians." Where does this terrible number come from? Do you say the US is responsible for the murders of Pol Pot? If not, where do your numbers come from?

Second, you admiringly quote Mr. Weschler, "It was said long ago that the function of a newspaper is to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Newspapers?This sentiment ignores the absolute duty of the unelected and unaccountable Press to print news - the truth as it happened. Shouldn't deciding for readers who is afflicted and who is not more properly be the function of public officials who are elected by the people?

Partisan reporters, Left and Right, become part of the so-called news. TV anchors who choose what is and is not news perform editorial triage with certain "victims" and therefore certain "villains". In my opinion, under the Weschler maxim, Nightly News has become commentary with Bill and Peter pointing at subjectively selected villains instead of relating news. Shouldn't the Weschler adage apply only to columnists like Krauthammer or Krugman?
Bill Heuisler