John T. Flynn: Revisionist Journalist
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "John T. Flynn: Revisionist Journalist."]
To simply say, as I did recently, that John T. Flynn, the American journalist who lived from 1882 to 1964, was a liberal does not really explain why he is important to modern libertarians. Flynn was a liberal, all right. But so were lots of other people in that period. In fact, during the 1920s and '30s, when Flynn first began to build a national reputation as a journalist, classical liberals arguably dominated the mainstream print media in this country.
Nearly all the major intellectual journalists and opinion leaders in the American public prints of the time were broadly libertarian in their thinking. There was H.L. Mencken, syndicated newspaper columnist and editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. There was Albert Jay Nock, editor of The Freeman and regular contributor to The American Mercury, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. There was Garet Garrett of the Saturday Evening Post. There was Isabel Paterson of the New York Herald Tribune. There was Henry Hazlitt of The American Mercury, the New York Times, and, a little later, Newsweek. There was Felix Morley of the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. There was Rose Wilder Lane, one of the most prolific American freelancers, with articles in Harper's, the Ladies' Home Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, and Woman's Day, and a steady stream of books, including, a little later, the individualist classic The Discovery of Freedom, in the nation's bookstores.
No, espousal of classical liberalism in the years between the World Wars was no novelty; it was familiar enough to anybody who read the major periodicals of the time. For a journalist who flourished in that part of the 20th century to still be considered an important figure by libertarians 80 years later, that journalist has to have accomplished something considerably more noteworthy than merely being a liberal. The same might be said of other sorts of intellectuals, and of scholars, too. (And, for that matter, it can and should be said of intellectuals and scholars who were anarchists. Simply having been an anarchist is no reason to be remembered with interest many decades later by libertarians either. But for the sake of simplicity, let's confine our case at the moment to classical liberals.)
The reason Ludwig von Mises is remembered so well today — the reason his intellectual reputation is even larger today than it ever was during his lifetime, the reason it grows larger and more influential with every passing year — is not that Mises was a liberal; it's that, once one has read him, one finds it difficult to imagine how coherent thought about the social sciences, economics, history, or philosophy could even take place in the absence of having read him, without his work as the foundation for one's further thought on these matters. Mises has literally taught us how to think about these subjects. He has provided us with the most logical and rigorous explanation of why liberalism was important, why private property is important, and what makes civilization and human progress possible — and impossible.
Similarly, the reason Friedrich August von Hayek is remembered so well today — the reason his intellectual reputation is even larger today than it ever was during his lifetime, the reason it grows larger and more influential with each passing year — is not that Hayek was a liberal, but rather that he provided a phenomenally clear and luminous and usable understanding of how human society works, of how freedom works. His ideas about spontaneous order and the use of knowledge in society are far more important than his stands on particular policy questions of his era. And Mises's ideas about praxeology and the ways in which market prices convey information to buyers and sellers are far more important than his stands on particular policy questions of the same era.
So it is, too, with John T. Flynn. But to understand why Flynn should be important to modern libertarians, one must also understand a couple of fundamental truths about journalism. The first of these fundamental truths is that the term "journalism" has traditionally referred, not just to so-called hard-news reporting, but to all periodical writing about new or recent events in any department of human activity. Editorial writers, op-ed writers, book reviewers, columnists — all these people are just as much journalists as the "reporters" who write the government-glorifying drivel that fills the national- and local-news sections of most papers.
If you think of journalists as a kind of historian, you might say that the editorial writers, op-ed writers, book reviewers, and columnists are like the historians who stand back from the detailed, particular picture of a specific event or era and reflect instead on the bigger picture, the wider context into which the specific event or era under study must be fitted in order to be fully comprehended. Such a historian was the great revisionist Harry Elmer Barnes, who was also, it is worth remembering, a newspaperman; and the kind of newspaperman he was was an editorial writer, columnist, and book reviewer. Nor is this comparison between journalists and historians at all far-fetched. Ask the shade of Philip L. Graham, who was president and publisher of the Washington Post when he stated in 1953 that journalists "write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history."
In fact, that's the second fundamental truth about journalism we have to grasp if we want to understand the importance for today's libertarians of the liberal journalist John T. Flynn: journalists are just historians in a hurry. And just as there are revisionist historians, historians who attempt to revise our understanding of the historical record, so there are revisionist journalists, journalists who, while events are taking place, insist on an alternative understanding of those events, an understanding that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of the time.
John T. Flynn was, if not the very first, then one of the very first few, of the revisionist journalists to write about the New Deal, focusing on both its domestic and its foreign policies. He represents, therefore, the beginning of historical revisionism where the New Deal is concerned. And if any historical event fairly cries out for revisionist treatment, it is the New Deal. The myth of the New Deal, assiduously promoted by the state and its court historians, is that it was a triumph of liberalism that, by further curbing and cushioning the supposed "excesses" of capitalism, brought the American Dream within the reach of more Americans than ever before and brought what Franklin Roosevelt called "the four freedoms" — "freedom of speech and expression"; "freedom of worship"; "freedom from want"; and "freedom from fear" — to the masses.
The truth is far otherwise. The truth is that the New Deal was what the revisionist historian Gabriel Kolko called a "triumph of conservatism." Kolko used that phrase as the title of a seminal 1963 book in which he showed that the wave of federal regulation of business that came in with the Progressive Era in the early years of the 20th century was in fact spearheaded by large corporations, which wanted the regulations in order to put smaller competitors out of business and enable the large corporations to enjoy a large, virtually guaranteed market share without having to take the trouble to compete in order to get it. In many cases, Kolko showed, the big corporations that lobbied for these new regulations actually wrote the regulations that were eventually adopted.
This was a "triumph of conservatism," because it was the political conservatives of the time — Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt — who made sure the corporations got their way. Just as the original European conservatives championed policies designed to benefit the aristocracy, so these early 20th-century American conservatives championed policies designed to benefit America's substitute for an aristocracy: a collection of big businessmen who, like the aristocrats of old, depended upon the state for most of their wealth and power.
The New Deal, of course, was nothing more than another collection of these same conservative policies of intervention — economic intervention at home and political and military intervention abroad. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had adopted these conservative Republican policies during World War I. Now another Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, had adopted them in the face of the Great Depression. FDR, however, did introduce something new into the by now somewhat old and tiresome routine. These policies, FDR proclaimed, were actually liberal policies. And that proclamation made John T. Flynn mad as a hornet.
It would seem to be something small, like a hornet, that would be the right sort of thing to refer to in describing John T. Flynn. For, according to his biographer, John E. Moser, Flynn was a small man, who stood under five feet, ten inches and weighed under 150 pounds. But, like a hornet, he "had a hot temper" and was "quick to take umbrage at personal slights." It was not infrequent for those observing him in argument to become "alarmed by the sight of his red face and bulging veins." But any observer who expressed concern for Flynn's health at such times would quickly discover that remarks about high blood pressure "served only to make him angrier." Moreover, "he could hold a grudge for years."
He certainly held a grudge against Franklin Roosevelt for years for pushing the policies he pushed and then having the gall to call himself a "liberal." Moser reports that Flynn "wrote to New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank in 1940, 'I see the standard of liberalism that I have followed all my life flying over a group of causes which, as a liberal along with all liberals, I have abhorred all my life.'" In that same year, he wrote to his editor at The New Republic, that he, Flynn, was
a liberal writer who is saying now the same thing he said five years ago and ten years ago, who is opposed to third terms for presidents, to war-mongering and militarism and conscription and corrupt political machines and vast public debt. … I held these views before Roosevelt was President and I have now lost my liberal credentials because I do not agree with the New York Times, the Herald-Tribune, [Secretary of War] Mr. Harry Stimson, Mr. Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie about the war.
Two years earlier, in 1938, Flynn had expressed his wonderment in a column in The New Republic that the policies of the New Deal, including what he saw as its transparent efforts to involve the United States in the European war, were being promoted by "a Democratic administration supposedly in the possession of its liberal wing."
It's easy, from the vantage point of 75 years later, to understand Flynn's dismay. He was earlier than most to realize that, as he put it, the New Deal was "a form of conservatism dressed up as liberalism." He was earlier than most liberals to realize that while, as Moser puts it, "the president had posed as one of them … all they could really expect from him were [what Flynn himself called] 'sweet words with no meaning behind them.'" Flynn poured out his outrage and scorn in a series of newspaper columns and magazine articles that later formed the foundation for his two great books of the 1940s.
As We Go Marching, which came out in 1944, was, according to the historian Ronald Radosh, Flynn's "most important, representative and analytical work," the "most informed and perceptive" of all his books. Under the New Deal, Flynn believed, the United States was "little by little adopting first one and then another policy that is beginning to make us look more like a National Socialist government than a democracy." Among these policies, he argued, was "the organization of the economic society as a planned economy under the supervision of the State," though the American version of this policy did owe more to the fascist government of Italy under Mussolini than to the National Socialists of Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Fascism, as implemented by Mussolini, Flynn wrote, was a scheme "in which the government accepts responsibility to make the economic system work at full energy … using the device of state-created purchasing power effected by means of government borrowing and spending." And unsurprisingly (at least to Flynn), "having incorporated the principle of state-created purchasing power into his system," it wasn't long before Mussolini
turned naturally to the old reliable project of militarism as the easiest means of spending money. It is scarcely necessary to dwell on this since our newspaper files are well supplied with statements of returning American travelers since 1935 telling, some with an accent of approval, how Mussolini has solved the problem of unemployment in Italy by means of expenditures on national defense.
Some of our own high officials have found occasion to comment on this fact, contrasting his accomplishment with our own failure to put our people to work. Money was spent on highways, schools, public projects of various kinds, and on the draining of the Pontine Marshes, which became in Italy the great exhibition project not unlike our TVA in America. But this was not enough, and so he turned more and more to military expenditures.
According to Ronald Radosh, Flynn believed that "despite many differences in the character, customs, laws, traditions, resources of the people of Italy, Germany and America, we have been drifting along identical courses and under the influence of the same essential forces." Flynn warned the readers of As We Go Marching that there were homegrown fascists, American fascists, already living among them. If you want to figure out who they are, Flynn wrote, look for the people who
urge for America the debt-supported state … the state bent on the socialization of investment and the bureaucratic government of industry and society, the establishment of the institution of militarism as the great glamorous public-works project of the nation and the institution of imperialism under which it proposes to regulate and rule the world.
If they wanted to identify the American fascists, Flynn told his readers, they should look for the people
who wish to commit this country to the rule of the bureaucratic state; interfering in the affairs of the states and cities; taking part in the management of industry and finance and agriculture; assuming the role of great national banker and investor, borrowing billions every year and spending them on all sorts of projects through which such a government can paralyze opposition and command public support; marshaling great armies and navies at crushing costs to support the industry of war and preparation for war which will become our greatest industry; and adding to all this the most romantic adventures in global planning, regeneration, and domination all to be done under the authority of a powerfully centralized government in which the executive will hold in effect all the powers with Congress reduced to the role of a debating society. There is your fascist.
Flynn's other great book of the '40s was called The Roosevelt Myth. It took a detailed and critical look at the career of FDR, the man who gave us the New Deal and convinced most of us that it was a collection of "liberal" programs. In 1998, in his "Introduction" to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Roosevelt Myth, Ralph Raico said it "remains the major debunking of Franklin Roosevelt" and called it "merciless in exposing Roosevelt as a failure, a liar, and a fraud."
As Flynn himself put it, in the pages of The Roosevelt Myth,
Hitler and Mussolini were made to seem as brave, as strong, as wise and noble to the people of Germany and Italy as Roosevelt was seen here. Hitler was not pictured to the people of Germany as he was presented here. He was exhibited in noble proportions and with most of those heroic virtues which were attributed to Roosevelt here and to Mussolini in Italy and, of course, to Stalin in Russia. I do not compare Roosevelt to Hitler. I merely insist that the picture of Roosevelt sold to our people and which still lingers upon the screen of their imaginations was an utterly false picture, was the work of false propaganda and that, among the evils against which America must protect herself one of the most destructive is the evil of modern propaganda techniques applied to the problem of government.
If, today, we enjoy the services of numerous revisionist writers, all of them bent on correcting the public record as to the activities of the US government during and after the New Deal, we owe no small thanks for this fact to John T. Flynn.