Reston, James Barrett ("Scotty")

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RESTON, James Barrett ("Scotty")

(b. 3 November 1909 in Clydebank, Scotland; d. 6 December 1995 in Washington, D.C.), journalist who, as the nation's preeminent columnist during the 1960s, raised important questions in the New York Times about U.S. institutions, government policy, and the role of the press during a time of international instability and domestic unrest.

Reston was the younger child and only son of James Reston, a machinist, and Johanna Irving, a homemaker. The family emigrated from Scotland to Dayton, Ohio, in 1920; Reston's parents became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1927. Reston graduated from Oakwood High School in 1926 and a year later entered the University of Illinois, from which he received a B.S. degree in journalism in 1932. While at Illinois he met Sara ("Sally") Jane Fulton, whom he married on Christmas Eve 1935; they had three sons.

Initially a sports writer, Reston began a fifty-year-long association with the New York Times in London on 1 September 1939, the day World War II began. He remained in England throughout the Blitz (a concentrated period of German bombardment of London between 1940 and 1941), returning to the United States to write Prelude to Victory (1942), a patriotic call to arms filled with the moral imperatives and faith in the American system that were to be the hallmarks of his syndicated columns in later years. Named the paper's diplomatic correspondent in 1944, Reston earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for a series of stories based on confidential memos and policy papers he had obtained from the Chinese delegation to the Dumbarton Oaks conference that created the United Nations.

Over the next fifteen years Reston developed a network of top-level government and diplomatic contacts, and on the strength of the insider information he received, won numerous awards, including a second Pulitzer in 1957 for the quality of his reporting. As Washington bureau chief from 1953 to 1964, he hired and nurtured a stellar corps of young reporters, who figured prominently in the Times's 1960s coverage of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam.

Reston's thrice-weekly column began on 1 March 1960, and within months he had become the most influential columnist of his day. He was a Jeffersonian democrat, with a boundless faith in America and the American Dream, as well as in the capacity of the American people to right themselves when they strayed from the national norms of freedom and civic responsibility. Throughout the 1960s he took a slightly left-of-center stance on the civil rights struggle in the South, challenged the growth of presidential power, and opposed first the escalation of military force in Vietnam and then the war itself. A defender of evolutionary change, he faulted the 1960s radicals for their lack of historical understanding and their propensity for violence.

In 1961, when one of Reston's reporters, Tad Szulc, learned that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was training nearly 5,000 Cuban refugees for an invasion of their home island in an effort to topple the Castro regime, Reston faced a serious dilemma—to publish the account or to withhold key elements in the interest of national security. After lengthy debate among the Times editors, key details were edited from the story before it was published. The Bay of Pigs disaster occurred eleven days later. Sometime afterward, President John F. Kennedy told the editor of the Times that he wished the original story had run in full because he would have foreseen the outcome of the invasion and withdrawn U.S. support. In 1962 Reston withheld publication of critical information during the Cuban Missile Crisis at the president's behest in order not to interfere with the secret negotiations that brought about a diplomatic resolution of the Soviet presence in the Caribbean.

Reston addressed those events and the issues they raised in three lectures to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City in 1966. Published as The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy (1967), the lectures examined the historic role of the press as the gadfly of politics and the defender of the people's right to know in light of changes that had significantly altered the conduct of foreign policy since World War II. Noting that the national press now had a global reach, Reston considered the dilemma of journalists operating in the atmosphere of the cold war, a time, he said, of "half-war and half-peace." Aggressive reporting that revealed the inner workings or hidden goals of the nation's foreign policy might put security at risk, but a failure to report might produce equally damaging results, as had been the case at the Bay of Pigs. It was essential to the security of the nation, Reston said, that a "vigilant and skeptical" press keep up "a steady barrage of facts and criticism," and that it direct its attention to "the causes rather than merely the effects of international strife."

As Washington bureau chief and later executive editor of the Times, Reston applied those principles by encouraging his reporters to write clearly labeled analyses that examined such developments as student radicalism, court decisions on civil rights, and the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. Reston himself had gone to Vietnam in 1965, and on his return began a long assault on the U.S. government's ongoing escalation of what he called "futile brutality." As he wrote in 1967, the Johnson administration's diversion of resources from the "fundamental problems" of overpopulation, hunger, and political instability worldwide was inimical to the best interests of the United States.

Reston played a key role in the Times controversial publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the extent of the government's manipulation of the press during the build-up and conduct of the Vietnam War. He continued to write his column in his remaining years on the Times, but his influence waned. Younger critics argued that, as the quintessential insider, he had lost the capacity to challenge the nation's leaders and was now a mere "presenter of established policy." More significantly, as Reston himself recognized, television had replaced newspapers as the chief purveyor of news and opinion and thus had reduced significantly the impact a single columnist might have. He retired from the Times on his eightieth birthday, 5 November 1989. He died of cancer at the age of eighty-six.

In his memoirs Reston wrote that there were three primary influences on his life: the ethical lessons of his parents, the love of his wife, and "the integrity of the New York Times." In a long and distinguished career, he served them and his readers well.

Reston's papers are in the Archives of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His autobiography is Deadline: A Memoir (1991). For information about Reston's years on the New York Times, see Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power (1969), and Harrison Salisbury, Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Dec. 1995).

Allan L. Damon