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."