BY OSCAR HANDLIN
The present slips so swiftly into history that it is difficult for those who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s to realize that those decades are more than a generation away. The age of FDR is more remote from that of LBJ than from that of Theodore Roosevelt. The cast of characters of the New Deal years is both familiar and historical. We recall them as contemporaries, yet their problems belong to a remote past.
JOHN MASON BROWN’S THE WORLDS OF ROBERT E. SHERWOOD (Harper & Row, S6.50) deals with the life of a man who was a mirror to those times. In 1939, Sherwood, by then a well-known playwright, met Harry Hopkins, and through him entered the Roosevelt circle. Sherwood became one of FDR’s chief speech writers, and during the war, worked actively in the Office of War Information. Within his career, there was thus a significant intersection of literary and political interests.
John Mason Brown’s leisurely biography carries the story down to 1939. Gracefully written and enlivened by frequent anecdotes, the book is sympathetic but critical and frank. Drawn as it is primarily from Sherwood’s papers, it tends to reflect its subject’s point of view. It does not ask what there was about Sherwood that made him useful to Roosevelt and Hopkins. Yet it contains the materials that answer the question.
Sherwood was born into a good New York family and dutifully attended Milton Academy and Harvard. His education was entirely extracurricular. The pampered search for fun and club life left little time for study, and the young man never got beyond his sophomore year. Instead, in 1917 he joined the Canadian Army, went overseas, and was wounded in action. He returned to enter New York literary circles as a critic and editor, then shifted to writing for the theater. By 1939, when he met Hopkins, Sherwood’s plays had won widespread popularity, handsome financial rewards, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Family and school connections eased Sherwood’s way. At Harvard he had written for the Lampoon, the comic magazine; in New York he joined Robert Benchley, another former Lampoon editor, on Vanity Fair and moved into the Algonquin Circle. Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and the other bright young people who met regularly around the hotel’s round table expressed and influenced the taste of the 1920s. They valued most the mild humor that mocked the genteel culture of their time. 1 hey disliked formalism, and they distrusted abstract ideas.
Sherwood’s plays reflected their influence. Bright, facile with words, and a conscientious craftsman, he was able quickly to put together clever comedies that moved easily along on a thread of conversation. But like his friends, he wanted to be profound as well as gay. In the hospital during the war he had been depressed by the “narrowness and shallowness” of his own mind; as a writer he wished to deal with serious subjects — lightly, of course, not like the contemporary dramatists of social significance. As a result, he was available to voice the ideas that floated through his circle.
In 1916 he was a pacifist; in 1917 lie went to war. After his return he was for peace again; The Road to Rome, Acropolis. and Idiot’s Delight were satires on militarism. The German attack in 1939 once more dissolved his pacifism, and There Shall Re No Night reflected the change in line. Reunion in Vienna made a covert attack upon psychoanalysis; The Petrified Forest exposed the futility of intellectuals. Sherwood’s undisciplined mind was malleable; he rarely thought an idea through. Well on in his career, he reflected, “The trouble with me is that I start with a big message and end up with nothing but good entertainment.”
He was at his best, therefore, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in which he put words to another man’s thoughts. In a sense, that play was Sherwood’s apprenticeship tor his service with Franklin Roosevelt. The experience of trying to understand and to act out another President’s approach to the crisis of an earlier war prepared Sherwood for the role he would play for FDR. Roosevelt needed not a profound or original thinker, but one who could articulate for the widest audience the Presidents views on the problems the nation faced.
John Mason Brown is eminently qualified for the task of writing this biography. Himself a graduate of Harvard, he was a close observer of the New York theatrical scene as a critic and lecturer and as drama editor of the New York Evening Post until 1941. Like Sherwood also, he left Broadway for the war, serving in the naval reserve during the landings in Sicily and Normandy. He writes with sympathy and understanding, yet with enough detachment to set his subject in context.
CRAFT AND INTELLIGENCE
ARTHUR MANN’S LA GUARDIA COMKS TO POWER (Lippincott, $3.95) illuminates another aspect of the 1930s. The flamboyant Fiorello was as much a part of the New York scene as the Algonquin Circle, as much a politician as the champ in the White House. La Guardia’s career reflected the forces that transformed American politics in the New Deal era.
This volume by a professor of history at Smith College recalls the headlines of another year — the tin boxes of the Seabury investigation, the Tammany chieftains, the professors and reformers who enlivened the New York campaign of 1933. It also contains the best account of an urban election we have ever had. Drawing upon a wide variety of sources, Mann’s skillfully written book shows in detail how a Republican was able to carry and hold a predominantly Democratic city, a subject that holds considerable interest for John Lindsay thirty years later. La Guard ia’s success rested upon the ability to mobilize the support of a strategic cluster of ethnic groups. He hammered together an alliance which included Yankees, Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans, a cross section of the city sufficient to give him the majority. Mann’s perceptive analysis of La Guardia’s personality explains the cement that held these elements together: the Little Flower fought for the principles in which he believed with a political craft, second in his time only to that of FDR.
CONVERSATIONS WITH WALTER LIPPMANN (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $4.95) assembles six television interviews, conducted between 1960 and 1965 by Howard K. Smith, Walter Cronkite, David Schoenbrun, Charles Collingwood, and Eric Sevareid. These illuminating talks reveal the spontaneous reactions of a thoughtful mind to the great problems of our times.
Walter Lippmann is one of the few major figures from the period of the 1920s and the 1930s who have survived to our own era. As editor of the old World and in his syndicated column, he expressed an enlightened liberalism which, however, grew increasingly out of tune with the New Deal world. Before the election of 1932, he was suspicious of Franklin Roosevelt, and he remained a persistent and intelligent critic of the New Deal until the outbreak of war.
Lippmann has changed little with the passage of the decades. His columns still are informed and reflective, and he continues to call, as he did in the 1930s, for the application of intelligence and knowledge to public policy. Talking about American policy in East Asia in 1965, for instance, he explains that his focus is not on the immediate future, but on the situation “five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.”
The intelligence which he calls for is thus not the craft of a La Guardia or a Franklin Roosevelt, and that explains why Lippmann never understood them or Lyndon Johnson. The politicians may respect long-term planning and consistency, but they react intuitively to the problems before them by a process which is not altogether logical. Their wisdom rests on experience rather than on theory, and they respond more quickly and often more effectively to crises than those who desire an entirely rational approach to each emergency.
Each attitude has its limitations, and each complements the other. The crises of the past thirty years have come so swiftly and the world has changed so radically that craft has guided our policy more often than intelligence. But it is well to continue the effort to set immediate objectives within the context of ultimate goals.
In large measure, the perennial disorder of the world since 1920 has been a product of the necessity of dealing with the power of men who refused to be bound by the rules of Western civilization. Our situation has been that of a society seeking to preserve its stability against outsiders who are not guided by our conventions of proper behavior. The Communist and fascist regimes consciously rejected the existing order of international law; the Japanese in the 1930s added to that repudiation the complexities of attitudes formed by an entirely alien culture.
JOHN DEANE POTTER’S YAMAMOTO (Viking, $6.95) is the biography of the Japanese admiral who conceived the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, written by the former Far Eastern correspondent of the London Daily Mail. Mr. Potter has mastered his material competently, and he tells a consistently interesting story. Yamamoto is the central figure, but the narrative covers the whole course of naval warfare in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor until the admiral’s death in April, 1943.
Yamamoto understood his position and foresaw the consequences of his actions. But he was trapped by the exigencies of a policy he could not control. He had studied at Harvard just a little while after Sherwood had been there and had become an expert on the oil industry. From his stay in the United States, the Japanese naval ollicer acquired a high, perhaps exaggerated, impression of American military strength. Although he advanced steadily in rank, he always opposed the aggressive policies of the military clique in Tokyo.
In 1941, he dissented from the decision to make war on the United States, predicting ultimate defeat for the empire. But unswervingloyalty to the Mikado led him into a desperate attempt to win. Destruction of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor in advance of the declaration of war was the one bold stroke that might decisively alter the balance of power in the Pacific.
The attempt succeeded. Yamamoto calculated that the Japanese then had a year to eighteen months to consolidate their position. But neither he nor anyone else could predict the actual course of the war in that interval. The battles of Midway and Guadalcanal turned on split-second contingencies outside individual control. In the end, the Americans won not because their men were braver or more skilled or their ships superior, but because they could more adequately compensate for their mistakes by an immeasurably greater naval construction and repair program. Yet for a year and a half the possibility remained that the willingness to go beyond the limits of endurance or permissible action that Americans accepted would win out for the Japanese.
Mr. Potter has given us an exciting and thoughtful book.
JOHN STOYK’S SIEGE OF VIENNA (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.95) tells the story of an earlier barbarian invasion that threatened the security of Western civilization. This first modern account of a decisive event in Europe’s history is lucidly and graphically written. The narrative is straightforward and unspeculative, yet it too raises questions about the extent to which men control events.
In 1683 the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire encompassed the northern shore of the Black Sea, Rumania, most of Hungary, and all the Balkans, including much of the Adriatic coast. Between the Turks in Budapest and the weak and divided German principalities lay only the power of Hapsburg Austria, and its capital. Vienna, was within easy reach. Yet the main concern of the Hapsburgs was the maintenance of their power against the rising strength of the rival French and Prussian monarchs in the West.
The opportunity was not lost on Sultan Mehmed IV or his Grand Vezir Kara Mustafa, who decided to disregard their treaty with the Austrians and expand to the west. The gamble almost paid off A great army besieged Vienna, and hordes of Tartars devastated the countryside. The Emperor Leopold was slow to recognize the danger and responded sluggishly to the crisis. The Turks in fact had breached the walls before help came from Germany and Poland and ended the last assault of Islam upon Christian Europe. Thereafter, the tide turned, and the next two centuries witnessed the gradual ouster of the Turks from the Continent.
The story as told deals with the clash of personalities and with military and diplomatic maneuvers. Yet the author knows that larger social and economic forces were also at work. The question remains: Had help come late and the Turks taken Vienna, would the features of the Europe which moved into the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution have been altered?
THE CONSEQUENCES OF OVERKILL
SEYMOUR MELMAN’S OUH DEPLETED SOCIETY (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $5.95) is a plea for a reasonable relationship between military and economic policy in the United States. The author, professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University, argues that the present high rate of armament manufacture has produced an undesirable distortion in the productive system. He is neither a pacifist nor an advocate of immediate disarmament. But he maintains that harnessing industry to the capacity for overkill neither adds to military security nor is healthy for the economy.
Some items in his indictment are indisputable. The nonmilitary parts of our industrial plant tend to become obsolete. In these areas, lags in innovation and technology produce inefficiency and reduce the capacity of the society to consume. The government, its attention diverted to the necessities of military production, spends a disproportionately low share of its resources on medical aid, education, and other public purposes.
Not all these faults are ascribable to the pressures for armament, however. The American Medical Association opposed medicare for reasons of its own, and the backwardness of the construction industry is due to practices by unions, management, and the municipalities which antedate the cold war. Furthermore, Professor Melman has a tendency toward exaggeration in the interest of strengthening his case. American industry still has the capacity for competition, and the events of the past months have shown that the government is capable of applying substantial sums to nonmilitary uses. But his arguments deserve careful consideration.