Reporter in a Troubled World:

Marquis W. Childs and the Rise and Fall of Postwar Liberalism

 

Marquis William Childs (1901-1990) was a reporter, columnist, and political commentator who specialized in national politics and foreign affairs.  His reputation centered on the influential “Washington Calling” syndicated column that he wrote from 1944 into the early 1980s, numerous magazine articles and books, and broadcast appearances on shows such as Meet the Press.   The column dealt with a wide range of domestic and foreign topics and it was reprinted in over 150 newspapers.  Like many of his generation, Childs was a New Deal liberal and editors frequently printed “Washington Calling” to provide a reliable liberal voice on their editorial pages.  Childs described himself as an “interpretive reporter,” one who explains and contextualizes the news rather than merely relaying the facts.  He tended to avoid pure opinion or speculative analysis.  His column was popular and successful because it was based on extensive original reporting and interviews with the powerful figures at the center of national life and decision-making.  He also traveled frequently to avoid the danger of Washington-centric points of view, which he understood to be a weakness of many columnists based in the capital. 

Childs saw his world as a very troubled and dangerous place, threatened from abroad by communism and engulfed in a constant state of atomic fear.  He sought to explain these perils to his readers and promote a balanced, realist foreign policy that would lead to peaceful co-existence and long-term prosperity.  Influenced by Wilsonian internationalism and the principles of Franklin Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter, Childs urged Americans to take an active role in the world and use American power and influence to promote democratic ideals around the world.

This book, which is based on my Ph.D. dissertation written at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a study of Childs' career as a reporter and columnist between 1944 and the early 1970s, the time of his greatest influence as one of the nation's premier commentators.  It discusses Childs' writing and newsgathering practices and his interaction with political leaders, fellow journalists, and the public through the decades of his professional career in Washington.  More, broadly, the book situates Childs in the political culture of his time.  These years overlap with the emergence, maturation, and fragmentation of what has been called postwar liberalism.  Through his column and his correspondence with prominent politicians and journalists, Childs was an active participant in the struggle to define postwar and find leaders who would implement liberal programs and policies.  Although he avoided outright advocacy and partisanship, his column reflected a consistent liberal worldview and he did use his writing to advance the principles and political leaders he saw as vital to the American mission.  This led him, for example, to champion civilian rather than military control over atomic weapons at the dawn of the cold war and extensive foreign aid packages such as the Marshall Plan.  It also motivated his courageous opposition to the red scare and McCarthyism, as well as his support for John F. Kennedy as a vigorous leader who would rescue the nation from its dangerous drift in the late 1950s.  He was a active supporter of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation and the anti-poverty, health care, urban renewal, jobs training, and other programs that made up the Great Society.  He valued this kind of activist leadership that used the power and resources of the national government to ensure legal equality and encourage the quality of life that allowed citizens to life safe and productive lives.

The book is based primarily on three large sources of primary material.  First and foremost is his published writing.  The Washington column was the major product of Childs' career.  From 1944 to the early 50s, it appears six days per week; later he wrote three or four columns per week.  He wrote a number of books on public affairs, including one of the first important studies of President Eisenhower.  Many thoughtful magazine articles on foreign policy and other topics are also available for analysis.  These tens of thousands of words tell us both what he saw as a reporter and how he saw it as a political columnist.   

A second major source of information is the archival record.  The Marquis W. Childs Papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society are the major source.  Consisting of roughly 35 boxes, this archival collection houses thousands of letters, memos, reports, press releases, lectures, photographs, and other materials that shed light on Childs' career as a journalist.  Although the Childs Papers are somewhat sporadic in their coverage, a scholar can piece together a fairly comprehensive understanding of his activities and interactions with sources, as well as follow the evolution of his thinking over time.  Other collections at the WHS (James Wechsler, William Evjue, Clark Mollenhoff, Joseph C. Harsch, Douglass Cater, Robert Lasch, and others) contain Childs correspondence or otherwise provide information about journalism in the period. 

The book draws on manuscript collections from the Library of Congress (Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Richard Strout, Richard Dudman, Joseph Pulitzer II) and the University of Illinois Library (James Reston), as well as the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Presidential Libraries.  Archives also contain a number of oral histories that Childs recorded with different researchers and archivists over the years.   

Finally, Childs published a memoir that gives background information on some of his many reporting trips and interactions with prominent world leaders.  Far from a comprehensive autobiography, the book is revealing in a number of instances and it represents his own attempt to sum up the nature and influence of his career as a political reporter.

Biography:

Childs was born on March 17, 1901, in Clinton, Iowa, and educated at the University of Wisconsin (B.A. 1923) and the University of Iowa (M.A. 1925).  He worked briefly for the United Press and joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1926.  He joined the paper's Washington bureau in 1934.  Childs earned a reputation as a solid and well-connected political reporter and he traveled widely to cover the news for his St. Louis readers.  Two trips to Sweden during the 1930s formed the basis of Sweden: The Middle Way, a book that brought the author his first wide attention.  Childs began his United Feature Syndicate column as a replacement for the popular Raymond Clapper, who was killed while covering the war in the Pacific in early 1944.  Childs continued to share an office with the Post-Dispatch staff, but from 1944 to 1954 worked independently as a columnist.  He returned full time to the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau, while continuing the column 3-4 days a week, in 1954 and stayed with the paper for the rest of his career. Be became the Chief Washington Correspondent and managed the capital bureau between 1961 and 1968.  During these years, the Post-Dispatch enjoyed a reputation as one of the nation's best newspapers and won a number of awards for its reporting.

Childs was a liberal anti-communist committed to limiting Soviet expansion while minimizing the risk of conflict.  Alarmed by the Soviet threat, he urged a vigorous defense and foreign aid program that would allow the United States to negotiate from a position of strength.  He promoted the United Nations and mutual defense pacts like NATO, as well as significant foreign aid.  At the same time, he was haunted by the danger of nuclear weapons and urged the strongest possible international cooperation to prevent the spread and use of such weapons.  Childs was fascinated by high-level negotiations and spent a great deal of time in Geneva, London, Paris, London, and Moscow covering summit meetings and interviewing diplomats and world leaders.  His 1955 book The Ragged Edge: Diary of a Crisis and the 1961 novel The Peacemakers recount his experiences reporting from the capitals of Europe.  

Childs was an ardent civil libertarian and wrote at length to defend the constitutional rights of those accused of communistic sympathies or other suspect behavior.  He was among the first to report critically on what became known as McCarthyism and never backed down from his stance that McCarthy-style anticommunism damaged the nation more than any Soviet spies could.  As he recounted in his later years, he believed that power was dangerous, not just because it was easily misused, but because it often made those who held it believe in their own infallibility.  Childs also wrote about excessive secrecy as a threat to fundamental democratic institutions.  His criticism of the war in Vietnam and suspicion of the Nixon administration earned him a place on the famous Nixon "enemies list." 

Childs was a prolific author of magazine articles and books, including several novels, as well as a popular lecturer on political topics.  He was also successful as a broadcaster.  He started doing radio news programs in the 1940s and made frequent television appearances later in his career.  He briefly hosted the news show “Washington Spotlight,” in the early 1950s and was a panelist on “Meet the Press” 163 times.  Despite these many broadcast appearances, Childs always saw himself as a “newspaperman” at heart.  Among his many awards was the first Pulitzer Prize for commentary, awarded in 1970 for his writing on the Vietnam war during 1969.

Childs retired from full time work in 1974, but continued to write a column for many years.  He published a memoir, Witness to Power, in 1975.  Marquis W. Childs died in San Francisco on June 30, 1990.

Book organization:

The book contains an introduction, six chapters, extensive notes, and a detailed bibliography.  Chapter one examines Childs' wartime writing and his response to the emergence of the cold war rivalry with the Soviets in postwar Europe.  It shows that he initially hoped for a peaceful postwar world based on a United Nations framework to promote self-determination and peaceful co-existence, but that his views hardened and he became increasingly disturbed by the threat of Soviet expansion.  He used his column to urge active engagement with European affairs and, generally speaking, adopted the consensus understanding of foreign relations and containment.  The next chapter focuses on Childs' writing about atomic weapons in the late 1940s.  The threat of atomic war horrified Childs and he wrote extensively about the need to control the new weapon, ideally under a system of UN-based international control.  Many of his columns, as the chapter makes clear, promoted the need for civilian control of the US atomic weapons program and he was an ardent supporter of the Atomic Energy Commission chair David Lilienthal, a New Dealer like himself. 

Chapter three is about the postwar red scare and McCarthy era.  Childs was clearly part of the liberal anti-communist organization in the 1940s and 50s, but he never succumbed to the paranoia and fear that motivated many Americans.  Instead, he urged a balanced approach to communism and frequently defended the civil liberties of those who were caught up in the machinery of the red scare.  He wrote dozens of columns highly critical of Senator McCarthy and other red-baiters, frequently arguing that this extreme anti-communism did terrible harm to the United States.  Chapter four examines Childs' writing about cold war foreign policy in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.  Although he initially thought Eisenhower would be a successful president, Childs, by the late 1950s, joined the chorus of critics who believed that the Eisenhower approach to foreign affairs was too passive, leading to a decline in American power and prestige.  Childs was also deeply worried by the Dulles/Eisenhower strategy of massive retaliation to any perceived Soviet advance. The chapter shows that Childs was drawn to Senator Kennedy and used his column to promote JFK's candidacy.  In a way, he took part in the effort to rebrand JFK as an updated version of the dynamic and assertive liberal of the FDR model.  He eventually came to believe Kennedy was also too weak, although he lauded the signing of the test ban treaty as a major achievement.

The final two chapters show Childs confronting challenges to postwar liberal consensus. Chapter five examines the civil rights movement and Childs somewhat belated response to the issue of race.  The columnist did, by the early 1960s, begin to dedicate much of his attention to civil rights.  Many of his columns in the later part of the decade focus on racial issues in the urban north and the efforts of the local, state, and federal governments to alleviate poverty, offer job training, provide decent housing, and similar programs.  The problems of black radicalism and racial violence late in the decade concerned him deeply and he was unable to imagine any lasting solutions.  Similarly, the disastrous American involvement in Vietnam, the focus of the final chapter, tested Childs' faith in the liberal mission in foreign affairs.  Although he repeatedly warned against getting involved in a land war in Southeast Asia starting in the mid-1950s, he also accepted the logic of US support for anti-communist regimes in the region.  The Vietnam War was a terrible paradox for Childs, as it was for most Americans, and this chapter analyzes the evolution of his thinking on the war and America's mission in the world. 

For further reading:

Writing by Marquis Childs

Childs, Marquis W.  I Write From Washington.  New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942.

Childs, Marquis W.  “The Interpretive Reporter in a Troubled World.”  Journalism Quarterly 27 (June 1950): 134-140.

Childs, Marquis W.  The Ragged Edge: Diary of a Crisis.  New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Childs, Marquis.  Eisenhower: Captive Hero: A Critical Study of the General and the President.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1958.

Childs, Marquis, and James Reston, eds.  Walter Lippmann and his Times.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1959.

Childs, Marquis W.  Witness to Power.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1975.

History of Washington journalism in the postwar U.S.

Alsop, Joseph, and Stuart Alsop.  The Reporter's Trade.  New York: Reynal & Company, 1959.

Altschull, Herbert.   Agents of Power: The Role of the News Media in Human Affairs.  New York: Longman, 1984.

Baughman, James L. The Republic of Mass Culture: Journalism, Filmmaking and Broadcasting in America Since 1941.  3rd edBaltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Bayley, Edwin R.  Joe McCarthy and the Press.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Cater, Douglass.  The Fourth Branch of Government.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.

Cohen, Bernard C.  The Press and Foreign Policy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Lentz, Richard, and Karla K. Gower.  The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010.

Merry, Robert W. Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Allsopp-Guardians of the American Century. New York: Viking, 1996. 

Nimmo, Dan.  Newsgathering in Washington: A Study in Political Communication.  New York: Atherton, 1964.

Ritchie, Donald A.  Reporting From Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Rivers, William L.  The Opinionmakers.  Boston, Beacon Press, 1965.

Stacks, John F.  Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism.  Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.

Steel, Ronald. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. 

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