A Man From Mars

Fifty years ago John Gunther, a brilliant foreign correspondent, published a famous book about "the greatest, craziest, most dangerous ... most powerful and magnificent nation ever known."


John Gunther

"AMERICA," Winston Churchill said, "stands at this moment at the summit of the world." The moment was August, 1945. Nazi Germany had fallen, the atomic bomb had been dropped, imperial Japan was about to surrender, the European Allies were battered and spent, and the United States bestrode the narrow world. It was a new America, hardly known to the world -- or to itself. This was the America that John Gunther portrayed in the vivid and acute reportage of Inside U.S.A., which is to be reissued this month by the New Press.

This book, now half a century old, is an astonishing tour de force. It presents a shrewd, fast-moving, sparkling panorama of the United States at this historic moment of apparent triumph. Sinclair Lewis called it "the richest treasure-house of facts about America that has ever been published, and probably the most spirited and interesting." At the same time, in its preoccupations and insights Inside U.S.A.foresaw dilemmas and paradoxes that were to harass and frustrate Americans for the rest of the century. And in this age of collective journalism one is permitted to marvel that Inside U.S.A. is a one-man production.

John Gunther was forty-three years old in November of 1944, when he set out on his exploration of America. He was already the best known of the brilliant generation of foreign correspondents that had educated an isolationist America about the outside world in the years between the two great wars. Their names are mostly forgotten now -- Vincent Sheean, Raymond Gram Swing, Dorothy Thompson, Edgar Snow, Harold Isaacs, Paul Scott Mowrer, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, H. R. Knickerbocker, and many others. They were a venturesome crowd, audacious, irreverent, resourceful, hard-playing, hard-drinking, and hardworking, and their ardent dispatches brought home to Americans the personalities, ambitions, intrigues, and dangers that were putting the planet on the slippery slope into the Second World War.

Many, like Gunther himself, came from the isolationist heartland, the Middle West. Gunther was born in Chicago in 1901, graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922, and later that year made his first trip to Europe, in the style of the times, on a cattle boat. After a stint back home as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, he returned to Europe in 1924 and soon, as a Daily News roving correspondent, was covering stories in a dozen European countries. By 1930 he was the head of the Daily News bureau in Vienna. In 1935 he was transferred to the paper's top job in Europe -- bureau chief in London.

He was a big man, six feet two, blond, handsome, spirited, generous, gregarious, upwardly mobile, with expensive tastes, boundless charm, boundless curiosity, and boundless energy. Rebecca West, whom he interviewed in Chicago in 1923, described him as a "Gothic angel . . . with the vitality of seven carthorses." (Meeting again in London in 1924, they became lovers.) He was a man's man too, well liked by fellow reporters.

The 1930s, Gunther later recalled,

were the bubbling, blazing days of American foreign correspondence in Europe. . . . Most of us traveled steadily, met constantly, exchanged information, caroused, took in each other's washing, and, even when most fiercely competitive, were devoted friends. . . . We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.

But Gunther was not a conventional correspondent. He had little interest in spot news or in scoops; he thought it silly to break his neck trying to beat the competition by a few minutes on a story that everyone would have in an hour. His early hope had been to succeed as a novelist. His novels made little impression. Rebecca West told him that his fiction was awful. But his journalism, with characters supplied by life itself, was the work of a novelist manqué. "I had little basic interest in politics

. . . ,"

he said, "but I was ravenously interested in human beings.

. . .

For good or ill, I instinctively think of myself as a novelist." And his preferred form was not the dispatch but the book.

In 1934 Cass Canfield, of the house of Harper's, persuaded him to try his hand at a country-by-country survey of Europe. Carrying on his newspaper job during the day and working nights, weekends, and holidays on the book, Gunther somehow turned out Inside Europe in seven months. The book, published in February of 1936, was extremely readable, packed with high-level gossip and striking personality sketches, packed also with solid facts presented in a lively manner. It was an instant success, enabling Gunther to retire from daily journalism. As a freelance writer, he began to apply the Inside formula to other parts of the world. Inside Asia came out in 1939, Inside Latin America in 1941.

After Pearl Harbor he served briefly as a war correspondent in Europe. But since 1936 he had been thinking about an Inside book on his native land. Inside Europe had been something of a helter-skelter job of improvisation and assembly; each new Inside book was preceded by ever-more-systematic preparation. For the book on the United States, Gunther prepared as never before.

He began by drafting an elaborate outline and requesting comments from a hundred or so journalists, academics, scientists, and lawyers across the country. Then he asked members of Congress; business, labor, and farm leaders; and heads of national organizations to suggest key people to whom he should talk in the (then) forty-eight states. He submitted questions to forty-eight governors -- and received forty-seven replies. He read the classic works on America (Alexis de Tocqueville, James, later Lord, Bryce) and the writings of the living Briton who knew the most about America -- D. W. Brogan.

Having done his homework, he began in November of 1944 his "long circumnavigation of the greatest, craziest, most dangerous, least stable, most spectacular, least grown-up, and most powerful and magnificent nation ever known." For thirteen months he traversed all forty-eight states, visiting more than 300 communities, including all but five of the forty-three cities with a population above 200,000.

does not pretend to be a profound analysis of American civilization, in the manner of Tocqueville and Bryce. But Gunther had his own quiver of penetrating questions. His objective was to identify the forces that made "this incomparable Golconda of a country" move. Wherever he went, he asked, Who runs this state or city? What are the basic and irreversible sources of power -- social power, economic power, political power? He interviewed more than 900 people and emerged with more than a million words of notes. And he did it all himself, without professional researchers or stringers.

It took Gunther fifteen months and half a million words to complete the book, which he called "the hardest task I ever undertook." It was all the harder because in the spring of 1946 his beloved sixteen-year-old son fell ill with a malignant brain tumor. Young Johnny lingered in pain for more than a year, while his father, between constant visits to the hospital, worked desperately away on the book. The last batch of copy went to the printers on March 11, 1947; the index (5,197 entries) was completed on April 11; books were shipped on May 6 and in the bookstores (for $5.00) by the publication date of May 28. The book sold half a million copies in the first three months. "I could pay my debts," Gunther recalled, "which were considerable."

Big sales and enthusiastic reviews were small consolation; Johnny died at the end of June. His grieving father turned to a memoir of his son, a restrained and moving work intended for family and friends. In 1949, assured that it might comfort other parents, he consented to its publication. Death Be Not Proud remains Gunther's most enduring book.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Americans, and soon thousands of Europeans, read Inside U.S.A. and discovered the new America. The only virtue he brought to the job, Gunther claimed, aside from curiosity, was ignorance. "Not only was I writing for the man from Mars; I was one." The book has the excitement that an ace foreign correspondent brings to a strange land. Gunther was never sated: he had the happy gift of being able to roll on and on without letting the sights blur his eyes or the sounds deafen his ears. Reviewing the book fifty years ago in The Atlantic, I found the writing lucid, informal, and relaxed. I was especially struck by his talent for sharp and sensitive observation, his relish for people and portraiture, his knack for compressing intricate analyses into brief paragraphs -- all these make for intense readability. The book captures the national mood at the end of the Second World War -- the hopes, the doubts, the selfishness and the generosity, the ugliness and the grandeur -- not as in a still photograph but as in a wonderfully varied moving picture.

There are brilliant set pieces: a day in the life of Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, for example, and a delightful account of Colonel McCormick and the Chicago Tribune. There are delectable phrases: Los Angeles as "Iowa with palms," and Senator John W. Bricker, of Ohio, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1944, as "intellectually . . . like interstellar space -- a vast vacuum occasionally crossed by homeless, wandering clichés." Gunther had good things to say about Wayne Morse, of Oregon; Wilson Wyatt, of Louisville; Walter Reuther, of Detroit; Leverett Saltonstall, of Massachusetts; Harold Stassen, of Minnesota; Ellis Arnall, of Georgia. He came to feel, however, that he had not done justice to Earl Warren, of California -- "the most serious misjudgment of a personality I have ever made."

It is to be noted that Gunther in 1947 spotted John F. Kennedy as an "attractive youngster," Lyndon B. Johnson as an "able" young congressman, and Hubert Humphrey as "one of the best mayors in the nation." Richard M. Nixon, first elected to Congress in 1946, did not make the California chapters.

His flip judgments often raised hackles. Indianapolis did not relish being described as the dirtiest city in the nation, though its citizens did start thereafter to clean the city up; nor did Knoxville, Tennessee, enjoy its ranking as the ugliest city. Publication produced a pleasurable amount of local protest and outcry.

Gunther was impressed by the "extraordinary tenacity of state characteristics," the deep-rooted instinct of a state to grow its own way -- and so are we, when we read his still accurate chapters on, say, California ("at once demented and very sane, adolescent and mature") and Texas ("spacious, militant, hospitable, beaming with self-satisfaction"). For all the recurrent concern about standardization and conformity, Gunther was right in emphasizing the regional variations and peculiarities, the intractable pluralism, that defied homogenization and continue to do so to this day.

is far from a panegyric. Gunther listed "the worst American characteristics -- covetousness, ignorance, absence of esthetic values, get-rich-quickism, bluster, lack of vision, lack of foresight, excessive standardization, and immature and undisciplined social behavior." America was still "an enormously provincial nation," he wrote. "I do not know any country that is so ignorant about itself." Have we improved noticeably in the half century since?

GUNTHER had no doubt about the supreme domestic challenge. "The most gravid, cancerous, and pressing of all American problems," he wrote, "is that of the Negro, insoluble under present political and social conditions though capable of great amelioration." He was appalled by the treatment of black Americans in the white South. Until he reached the South, he had, as he confessed, no real idea of what life was like for his black fellow citizens. "I knew that 'segregation' was a problem; I had no conception at all of the grim enormousness of the problem." He could not believe it when he was forbidden to take eminent black educators into restaurants in Atlanta, supposedly one of the more civilized southern cities. Atlanta "out-ghettoes anything I ever saw in a European ghetto, even in Warsaw," he wrote. "What I looked at was caste and untouchability -- half the time I blinked remembering that this was not India."

His catalogue of recent lynchings breathes with anger. He noted that almost every victim of lynching since the war was a veteran. The war, he argued, had been fought abroad for democratic principles still violated at home. One result was a rebellious black community, "probably more unified today, more politically vehement, more aggressive in its demand for full citizenship -- even in the South -- than at any other time in history." He detected slow but steady improvement: black Americans were at last let into the American Bar Association and the American College of Surgeons; Jackie Robinson had even penetrated organized baseball.

One thing he deemed certain: the days of treating black Americans like sheep were done with. The hope, he felt, lay in incipient black militancy, in latent white decency, and, above all, in education. "The United States must either terminate education among Negroes, an impossibility, or prepare to accept the eventual consequences, that is, Negro equality under democracy." Not a bad guess; in the half century since, there have been black justices on the Supreme Court, a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a black governor of Virginia, black mayors across the country, even in Atlanta. Still, white America has far to go in admitting its black fellow citizens to full equality.

Another concern high on Gunther's list was the protection of the environment. The issue in 1945 was phrased in terms of the conservation of natural resources. Gunther observed that the guardian of the balance of nature was the national government, and the enemies were the greedy locals -- cattlemen, timber men, sheep men, mine owners -- who hoped to make a fast buck by overgrazing and mining the lands and slashing through the forests. Read his story of FDR's rescue of Jackson Hole from the Wyoming cattle interests.

America, Gunther observed, is "a nation on wheels." Americans are always on the move. Nomadism, he thought, breeds indifference to local civic problems: hence municipal corruption, defective public services, slums, juvenile delinquency, the repellent sprawl of filling stations and diners. Yet, at the same time, nomadism is one of the centripetal forces, like chain stores and comic strips, that binds the United States together. The melting pot, he suggested, is another such force. Gunther's view that on the whole the melting pot works will distress multicultural ideologues half a century later, but it is far from clear that Gunther was wrong.

His interest in what holds a nation together is especially relevant in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War has released ethnic, religious, and linguistic antagonisms that tear nations apart. As for the United States, the fact that it is "in final distillation and essence still run by the propertied class" is, he thought, "the biggest single factor making for national unity." But the fact that "this class has failed in many of its duties, responsibilities, and obligations is the greatest single impediment to unity and the chief force making for discontent." Those who most fear revolution, he wrote, are at the same time those who most bitterly oppose government action designed to fend off disaster.

The American future, he proposed, depends on the way the nation answers three principal questions: how to maintain a democratic polity if the economic machine should break down again, as it did so disastrously in the 1930s; how to reconcile the increasing power of corporate interests and their lobbies with the public interest and the general welfare; and how to avoid a reversion to isolationism and use American power to promote international organization and the cause of peace.

Fifty years later the first question has not bothered us much; the automatic stabilizers built into the economy by the New Deal have thus far prevented a major depression. But the next two questions afflict us still, and perhaps more than ever.

Midway in his quest Gunther discovered that he was accumulating too much material for a single volume. He decided to write first a state-by-state book on the Inside Europe pattern, surveying the local politicos, the industries, the crops, the natural settings, the prejudices, dialects, jokes, and folklore, the food and drink. A second volume, Inside Washington, would deal with national problems, figures, and institutions. The general questions raised in Inside U.S.A., along with discussion on a national scale of big business, labor, agriculture, journalism, women, religion, and education, were thus deferred for more-systematic consideration in the sequel.

Alas, Gunther never got around to writing the second volume. He explained later that he dreaded the amount of work involved, and that he could not figure out how to synchronize the publication of the book with the presidential-election schedule. Instead he brought out a revised edition of Inside U.S.A. in 1951 -- "less exuberant, less sanguine, than the original," he said in 1962.

In 1948 he had married Jane Perry, a beautiful and intelligent young woman who became the indispensable partner in his new projects. Inside Africa came out in 1955, Inside Russia Today in 1958, Inside Europe Today in 1961, Inside South America in 1967, Inside Australia, a posthumous work completed by William H. Forbis, in 1972. He also wrote books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur, a couple of novels (no more successful than his earlier efforts), and several children's books.

He wrote so much partly because he loved writing and partly because he also loved living well. He was a generous host, a great party giver, a natty dresser, a frequenter of deluxe restaurants and nightclubs. He habitually spent all the money he earned. But even when he had money, he had no desire to stop writing. It is interesting to note that Gunther remained a top reporter for forty years, while many of his flashy contemporaries in that great generation of foreign correspondents faded away after the war. The reason is simple: Gunther worked harder than anyone else. His curiosity was unlimited; his ear and eye for significant and revealing detail were preternaturally sharp; and his capacity for making the most unpromising material vivid and readable was extraordinary. His reactions and judgments were often exceedingly astute. He was (and deserved to be), in the words of Eric Sevareid, "in his day probably the most famous American newsman of them all."

In addition, John Gunther was a man of the utmost personal kindness, especially to young writers (as I had good reason to know). He was wonderful company and a marvelous friend. And he remained throughout a genuinely modest man. "I'm terribly limited," he told a Time interviewer in 1958. "I completely lack intensity of soul. I'm not original. I'm really only a competent observer who works terribly hard at doing a job well." He was not kidding, but he was wrong. He had a real talent for bringing facts to life, and fifty years later Inside U.S.A. still vibrates with his energy and vitality, still draws on the past and present in ways that continue to illuminate the future.

John Gunther died in New York City of liver cancer on May 29, 1970, at the age of sixty-eight.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; A Man From Mars; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 113 - 118.