Henry Robinson Luce died in 1967 at the age of 68 in Phoenix, where he had been living in semi-retirement with his wife Clare Boothe Luce. He was wealthy beyond the dreams of need. Life magazine, which at one point was read by one in every three Americans, was being gravely wounded by television’s competition for ad dollars and would die as a weekly only four years later.
But Time Inc. remained a major force and profit center in American print journalism, and Time’s prose style, even minus the excesses (“pig-faced, gat-toothed”) of its brash early years, had profoundly influenced and reshaped the writing of news with its use of intimate details and you-are-there scenes to dramatize and humanize events large and small.
The shelf of books about Luce (and the Luces) and Time Inc. is wide and, 27 years after his death, not yet complete. The histories have ranged from the adversarial, especially W. A. Swanberg’s deeply researched “Luce and His Empire” (Scribner’s: 1972), to the official: the first two volumes in particular, by Robert T. Elson, of “Time, Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise” (Atheneum: 1968, 1973).
The Elson volumes, taking Luce and Time Inc. through 1960, four years before Luce retired as editor-in-chief of his magazines, were certainly not adversarial but they are remarkably candid about the infighting and the fierce policy disputes of the early days.
The infighting and the policy disputes are central to the latest addition to the shelf, University of South Carolina historian Robert E. Herzstein’s “Henry R. Luce: A Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century.”
The main thrust of Herzstein’s book (like Swanberg’s, extremely well-researched and annotated) is actually Luce’s long and blinding obsession with China, which left him unable to accept the corruption and unpopularity of Chiang Kai-Chek’s Guomindang government and the growing strength of the Communists under Mao Tse-tung, but which influenced U.S. foreign policy for more than a decade.
Luce’s American Century was born of three speeches he then honed into a LIFE article (Feb. 17, 1941) and later a book. The U.S., Luce cried, “must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world,” to see that “free economic enterprise” prevails in the world, to guarantee the freedom of the seas, to export to the world its “technical and artistic skills.”
But none of it would happen, he added, without “a passionate devotion to great American ideals . . . a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of cooperation” and it must fail without adherence to “the great principles of Western civilization--above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity.” We are called, Luce concluded, “to create the first great American Century.”
“Harry Luce’s American Century,” Herzstein says, “was thus reverent, generous and humanitarian, it also brooked no rivals, took the world for its stage and assumed its own moral superiority.”
Of the first 1,200 letters LIFE received, Elson reported in his Vol. 1, only 75 were negative. But the Nation, as Elson also reported, called the piece “smug, self-righteous, superior, and fatuously lacking in a decent regard for the susceptibilities of the rest of mankind.”
Because the boy becomes the man, Herzstein takes a leisurely tour through the fairly familiar ground of Luce’s childhood as a Presbyterian missionary’s son in China, which engendered the love he never lost.
Herzstein is freshly interesting about the early days of Time, when a fanatic and prolific Foreign News editor named Laird Shields Goldsborough infused the pages with an implicit anti-Semitism (Bernard Baruch was “Jew Baruch”), downplayed the plight of European Jews and hailed the rise of Franco. “On the side of Franco are men of property, men of God and men of the sword,” Goldsborough wrote in an answering memo to fellow editor Archibald MacLeish’s complaint about the slant of Time’s coverage.
Herzstein had access to the irascible private journal kept by an early Luce editor John Shaw Billings, and now archived at Herzstein’s university. Billings’ uncensored comments are like lightning flashes, illuminations of the official traffic in memos.
Luce ultimately had to demote Goldsborough, who in 1950 leaped to his death from the Time-Life Building, still carrying his gold-headed walking stick.
The Luce crusade to save the China he remembered and create a modern China he envisioned, is a sorry chronicle of evidence--supplied by the bright young Bostonian Theodore White and his colleague Annalee Jacoby--dismissed and ignored. Herzstein’s documenting of the rising tension between White and Luce is detailed and saddening.
It is a double irony. To the end of his days Luce remained convinced China need not have been lost to the Communists. But White, accurate as he was in depicting the corruption of the Chiang government and the dynamism of the Communists, “devoted little time,” Herzstein says, “to pondering the totalitarian ideology and discipline that had energized the Communist state within the state. . . . In fact, China was caught in a time-warp in which a failed authoritarian regime did battle against an embryonic totalitarian movement.”
As for his American Century, Luce, Herzstein says, reacted with “occasional annoyance,” when anyone mentioned it after 1947. The Cold War and anxiety at the possibility of nuclear annihilation “undermined the self-confidence and peaceful development essential to Harry Luce’s original idea of American globalism. Though his United States won the Cold War 27 years after his death in 1967, it paid a terrible price for victory in lives, social cohesion and fiscal stability.”
By the time he died, Herzstein concludes, Luce “felt that the mood of the country had turned sour.” Even at that, he did not live to experience Vietnam, rising racial tensions, Watergate and the Nixon resignation--or the Time-Warner merger and the erosion of Time’s magisterial editorial voice.
The years after World War II are telescoped in Herzstein’s book. There were fabulous earnings and new magazines (Sports Illustrated, Money, Entertainment Weekly) yet to come. But the two great crusades of Harry Luce’s life were over; his reputation as an innovating force in print journalism, unrivaled by Hearst or anyone else, remains intact. Herzstein’s book is fascinating to anyone who cares how we are made to perceive and misperceive the world; it is also a study in melancholy.
“Henry Robinson Luce’s idealistic patriotism and faith in human progress resulted in . . . great achievements, but they also led him into defeats and disappointments,” Herzstein writes. And little in the later world would likely have eased the disappointments.