Kirchwey, Freda (1893–1976)

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Kirchwey, Freda (1893–1976)

American editor and publisher of The Nation, the oldest liberal journal in the United States. Born in Lake Placid, New York, on September 26, 1893; died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on January 3, 1976; daughter of George Washington Kirchwey (1855–1942, a lawyer, criminologist, and dean of the law school at Columbia University) and Dora Child (Wendell) Kirchwey; had one sister and two brothers; graduated from Horace Mann School, New York, 1911; Barnard College, A.B., 1915; Litt.D., Rollins College, 1944; married Evans Clark, on November 9, 1915; children: Brewster Kirchwey (died young); Michael Kirchwey; Jeffrey Kirchwey (died young).

Began working for The Nation (1918); became managing editor (1922), chief editor (1936), and publisher and owner (1937).

Freda Kirchwey—a political activist, editor and publisher of The Nation, and a "militant liberal"—was a tireless defender of the underdog. She was a radical feminist in the 1920s as well as a champion of social justice domestically. Shifting emphasis in the 1930s, she emerged as one the first major public figures in the United States to warn of the threat posed by international fascism, and was a supporter of collective security and the cause of the Spanish Republic. After 1945, she fought successfully to maintain The Nation as a forum for Americans who challenged many of the basic assumptions of the Cold War.

Kirchwey was born in Lake Placid, New York, in 1893, into a family with a history of concern for social justice. Her German-born grandfather Michael Kirchwey had participated in the (unsuccessful) German liberal revolution of 1848, and her father George Washington Kirchwey was a reform-minded lawyer, criminologist, and dean of the law school at Columbia University. A well-known figure in the Progressive (Bull Moose) movement, George had a strong interest in prison reform, believing that many prisoners could be rehabilitated, and was willing to test some of his ideas when he served briefly as warden of Sing Sing prison in 1915–16. Believing that laws would only be respected if they were applied ethically, he publicly denounced the death penalty as a "demoralizing spectacle" that served no social purpose, and he actively campaigned for its abolishment, serving as president of the American League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.

Freda attended the Horace Mann School, an experimental high school affiliated with Teachers College of Columbia University. The academically gifted student then entered Manhattan's Barnard College. Here, and at Columbia, she enrolled in courses taught by some of the most innovative scholars of the day, including Charles Beard, Franz Boas, and James Harvey Robinson, a pioneer of social history. With a sharp eye for hypocrisy and injustice, Kirchwey was a "rebel girl" from an upper-middle-class milieu who was in opposition to the discriminatory and exclusionary policies of Barnard's sororities (known at the time as women's fraternities). Incensed by the anti-Semitic rules that precluded Jewish participation in these organizations, she denounced such policies in the school paper and called for the sororities to be abolished.

While still a student, she wrote essays in favor of women's suffrage, read the then-radical authors H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, was an active member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, and joined the garment workers' picket line. One of her instructors at Barnard described her as the prettiest, most intelligent, and most radical girl in her class. Her classmates agreed, voting her both "Best Looking" and "Most Militant." After her graduation from Barnard in 1915, she married Evans Clark, keeping her maiden name. Clark, who then taught economics at Princeton University, would eventually become a professional researcher, then director of the Twentieth Century Fund. The couple would have three sons, Brewster, Jeffrey and Michael. Tragically, Brewster died as an infant and Jeffrey died at age seven.

In 1915, when Kirchwey was hired by the sporting newspaper Morning Telegraph as its society columnist, she continued to write pro-suffrage pieces. In 1918, she worked briefly as an editorial assistant for the New York Tribune, as well as for the literary magazine Every Week. That August, she began working for The Nation, an influential liberal journal founded in 1865. Oswald Garrison Villard, an admirer of Kirchwey's father, had recently reorganized the crusading weekly. Impressed by Kirchwey's energy and intelligence, he hired her to read, clip, and file articles for the journal's international-relations section. Her creativity and initiative were quickly revealed, and in June 1919 she was promoted to editor of this section of the journal. In 1922, Villard recognized Kirchwey's talents by appointing her managing editor.

In her early years with The Nation, Kirchwey spent much of her time on women's issues. The achievement of suffrage in 1920 did not end her commitment to debates on gender roles, and she was part of the struggle for legalizing the dissemination of birth-control information. She believed that modern American women had an obligation to work in the political arena, and in the early 1920s she was a militant member of the left wing of the National Woman's Party (NWP). At the NWP inaugural convention, held in Washington, D.C. (February 1921), Kirchwey minced no words in attacking the fledgling organization's leadership, which boasted such names as Alice Paul , as having been "a veritable tank" that was insensitive to the party's rank-and-file membership and intent on crushing all attempts to bring about equality for black women, birth control, or a maternity endowment.

During the following month, in a March 1921 article in The Nation entitled "Alice Paul Pulls the Strings," Kirchwey acerbically alleged that Paul was a racist who was indifferent to the appeals of black women and who so resented their presence at the convention that they had been denied use of the elevator. Kirchwey had suspicions that the NWP had agreed not to raise the race issue in return for support of women's suffrage in the Southern states. Abrasive on these and other issues, Kirchwey had a pragmatic side, which was manifested in her opposition to an Equal Rights Amendment for fear that it could lead to an undermining of legislation that protected women in the workplace.

During her first decade as managing editor of The Nation, she placed a strong emphasis on exploring issues related to changing roles of women in modern society. For a series of articles entitled "New Morals for Old," she recruited such noted writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman , Joseph Wood Krutch, H.L. Mencken, and Beatrice M. Hinkle . The series brought forth a strong reader response, and in 1924 Kirchwey edited the articles into book format under the title Our Changing Morality. In another series published in The Nation in 1926–27 as "These Modern Women" and "Men—What of 'Em?," she asked a number of women (whose identities were not disclosed) to share their viewpoints on such matters as marriage, male-female relationships, children, and careers. Her approach to the data revealed a progressive attitude when she called on the women's autobiographical sketches to be analyzed in the journal by a neurologist, a behavioral psychologist, and a psychoanalyst of Jungian persuasion.

In her private life as well, Kirchwey employed modern notions. For a number of years, she and her husband experimented with "open marriage," a decision that would test and almost destroy their relationship. A two-career marriage, and the illnesses that had led to the deaths of two of their sons, also placed great strains on Kirchwey's personal life. Suffering from depression after her son Jeffrey died from tuberculosis and spinal meningitis, for a while she could not bring herself to work at The Nation. Eventually, however, she rallied emotionally and poured her energies into the journal. Her biographer Sara Alpern has suggested that after the deepest period of mourning had ended, Kirchwey "seems to have merged herself into the journal; she and the journal became one."

During the 1930s, there was a shift away from women's issues in the journal, and feminist concerns were rarely mentioned in The Nation after 1932. The appearance of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany during 1933 played a major role in this change. Welcoming articles on the most recent events in Germany and Europe by writers of various backgrounds, Kirchwey became one of the first American editors to fully recognize the immense threat posed by fascism. Readers were alerted from the start to the existence of Nazi concentration camps, the growing inhumanity of German anti-Semitism, and the rapid growth of the Third Reich's military might. In view of the fact that the Soviet Union was the most resolute anti-fascist power, Kirchwey regarded the Stalin regime, illiberal as it was domestically, as an indispensable bulwark against the threat posed by Adolf Hitler's powerful state. Criticism of Stalinism and its brutal governance of the USSR was often muted in The Nation during these years. Kirchwey, herself a militant liberal rather than a Communist, felt that with the threat of fascism as a clear and present danger, and with the Communists adopting a Popular Front strategy of collaboration with liberal and even conservative anti-fascists, the "unity of the left" would be best preserved by not emphasizing a divisive editorial policy.

In international affairs, she was ardently internationalist and a strong supporter of the idea of collective security. Only by implementing such policies, she was convinced, would the democracies be able to check the spread of fascism. This point of view was made even more relevant in the summer of 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began and a democratically elected Republic was attacked by Francisco Franco's fascist rebels, with significant military assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Although former Communists who became passionately anti-Communist like Eugene Lyons regarded Kirchwey with a jaundiced eye as a gullible fellow traveler whose journal naively "hummed with hymns" praising Stalin's dictatorship, the reality of the matter was considerably more complex. The Nation initially saw the first Soviet purge trials in 1936 as a sign of a setback rather than a total repudiation of the democratic (on paper) Stalin Constitution of that year, but the Moscow trials that followed and the bloody purges in general were reported critically and with considerable skepticism. Kirchwey was also critical of the Communist Party, USA, which exhibited intellectual dishonesty when wrapping itself in the names of Jefferson and Lincoln and when calling the defense of democratic institutions a necessity while at the same time maintaining what she saw as its "intolerable control" over its members in all aspects of their political lives.

Many of the most distinguished contributors to The Nation during the 1930s and 1940s, while liberal in varying degrees, were also out-spoken in their rejection of the intellectual strait-jacket of Communism. Among these were John Dewey, Norman Thomas, Sidney Hook, Joseph Wood Krutch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Margaret Marshall . Kirchwey, who became publisher and owner of The Nation in 1937, hired Marshall as editor of the cultural section, which included book reviews as well as art and film criticism. At times, particularly after the Soviet Union became an ally of the West in 1941, discerning readers noticed a split between the front of the magazine, which rarely criticized the Soviet state, and its back pages in which Margaret Marshall provided a safe haven for essays by anti-Stalinist stalwarts like Sidney Hook, Philip Rahv, and Diana Trilling .

The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 outraged Kirchwey, who had hoped that the Soviet Union might be able to continue to oppose Hitlerite aggression in Europe. In a sharp criticism of Stalin's dictatorship, she charged that the de facto alliance had been timed to give Adolf Hitler "the greatest possible benefit." The destruction and partition of Poland revealed itself as having been prearranged, and the Soviets' justifications for their actions were, in a word from Kirchwey, "sickening." She penned an equally harsh denunciation of the Soviets several months later when they invaded Finland to seize strategic territory. Unlike Communists and those intellectuals who found justifications for the Soviet foreign policy flip-flop, Kirchwey used her journal as a forum for harsh criticisms of Stalinist duplicity and betrayal of the anti-fascist cause. In its pages, one could read articles by Louis Fischer, Granville Hicks and Lewis Corey that were not only devastating critiques of Soviet realpolitik, but also sophisticated theoretical criticisms of Soviet realities as well as the Marxist foundations on which its state and society claimed to have been constructed.

With the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the editorial policy of The Nation once again took on a broadly sympathetic attitude to the Stalinist state, or at least to the courage and sacrifices being made by the Soviet people fighting against fascism. On the American domestic scene, Kirchwey voiced her belief in a 1944 editorial that liberals and progressives should seriously consider the creation of a permanent political federation resembling the Popular Front coalition of the previous decade. At this time, she had found much to admire in the work of militant labor's CIO political-action organizations.

Fearless of the critics and enemies The Nation already had or would likely make in the future, Kirchwey wrote and polemicized on many issues directly or indirectly related to World War II. In one instance that elicited considerable interest in intellectual circles, she vehemently criticized Time-Life publisher Henry Luce, who in 1941 had proclaimed the dawn of an "American century" in the world. Luce saw the peaceful globe that was to come as one that would be dominated by the United States, with a marginal amount of assistance by Great Britain and China. Pontificating that its ideas and ideals enabled it to transcend the crippling class divisions of other societies, Luce saw America's historical experience and achievement as "the key to the future."

Kirchwey tore into Luce's pronouncements with passion. She compared his "Lucite New Order" to the Nazi New Order and asserted that his "cult of American superiority is no whit less revolting and no less unjustified than the Nordic myth that provides the moral sanction for Hitler's brutal aggression." As she saw it, Luce's vision of a triumphant capitalist American-led world was profoundly insulting to the guerillas fighting Hitler's occupying armies, the inmates of concentration camps, and the soldiers of the Red Army who had shed their blood to halt the Nazi juggernaut. To Kirchwey, Luce was as myopic as he was culturally arrogant, revealing an "unconcealed contempt" for the peoples and cultures of Europe.

Throughout the war, the pages of The Nation mirrored Kirchwey's concern for the fate of the Jewish people. Her sympathy for the plight of the Jews dated back to the early years of her journalistic career when she had come to know and respect the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. This friendship had a significant impact on her attitude toward Jewish aspirations, including her strong support for the idea of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. With the start of World War II, The Nation kept its readers informed of

the rapidly deteriorating situation for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. These included firsthand reports from the pen of Varian Fry, who in 1940–41 carried on a secret rescue mission in southern France as the head of the American Emergency Rescue Committee. Fry's articles provided details not only on the "massacre of the Jews" but also documented the pervasive anti-Semitism of United States consular officials who made it virtually impossible for threatened Jews to escape to America. Kirchwey wrote a number of eloquent articles contrasting the horrors engulfing Europe's Jewish population with the paltry efforts of Washington in rendering assistance. She exposed the deliberate roadblocks of U.S. policy, and in the article "Rescue Hungary's Jews!" (August 26, 1944) revealed a remarkable level of understanding of what only decades later has come to be more fully comprehended as the process of industrial mass murder called the Holocaust:

Several million Jews in Central and Eastern Europe have met their death as a result of Nazi ferocity and Allied indifference. Millions of non-Jews have died, too, murdered as hostages or killed in guerrilla fighting or victims of the policy of depopulation practiced in every conquered country. But the Jews have died as Jews, selected for obliteration to satisfy the race mania that underlies the whole dogma of Teutonic fascism.

Done in cold blood, on a scale more impressive than any battlefield can equal, in centers specially constructed for extermination, this systematic murder of a race is without example in history. It is too vast and too terrible for the normal mind to grasp; indeed this is its protection. People react with anger to individual acts of cruelty; they hardly react at all to the impersonal horror of mass murder.

While Kirchwey believed that a better world could, and indeed had to, result from the second World War, she had few illusions about peace even after the defeat of fascism in 1945. She regarded the military triumph of the Allies not as the end, but only as "the beginning of the victory." Her reaction to the appearance of nuclear weapons was rational: "If anything is sure about the atom bomb it is that no physical protection against it will ever be possible." Permanent world peace would have to be based on something other than military force, and its moral and institutional foundations would have to be carefully crafted and passionately defended. During the war, Kirchwey had become active in a circle of intellectuals who were strongly influenced by the political emigre Louis Dolivet. Dolivet's International Free World Association and the magazine Free World both equated anti-fascism with postwar plans for a strong United Nations organization. Other influential members of Dolivet's inner circle included newspaper columnist Max Lerner and writer Archibald MacLeish.

As the Cold War seemed to sweep the world inexorably toward destruction in the late 1940s, Kirchwey attempted to make sense of an irrational universe. Although The Nation made every effort to understand Soviet actions from a perspective other than that of knee-jerk anti-Communism, she personally recognized that in the final analysis Joseph Stalin and the Stalinized American Communist Party had little to offer Americans but slogans and cynical ideological zigzags. Sometimes vilified by conservatives as a "totalitarian liberal," Kirchwey was driven by political impulses derived from her hatred of fascism and concern for the underdog. At the same time, she could be a political realist, regarding half as better than nothing at all. Accordingly, she supported Harry Truman in the 1948 election campaign and wrote highly critical pieces on the politically suicidal strategies of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. When the Korean War erupted in June 1950, she backed U.S. intervention as part of a UN effort to repel aggression. In other areas, however, she remained a militant liberal, particularly in her spirited defense of civil liberties and courageous rejection of the smear tactics of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. On the international stage, The Nation campaigned vigorously against the Argentine regime of Juan Peron, which Kirchwey saw as a relic of the fascist dictatorships she had despised.

Seemingly determined to thrive on controversy, Kirchwey could only smile when Time magazine described The Nation in 1943 as "a pulp-paper pinko weekly." In 1948, after a series of articles strongly critical of the Roman Catholic church by Paul Blanshard appeared in The Nation, the journal was banned from the official periodical list of the New York City public-school system. Incensed at what she saw as an infringement of free speech, Kirchwey took the matter to the courts. After a series of legal cases, she won in 1950 and the ban was lifted.

In 1955, a year when glimmers of hope began to suggest that the Cold War's worst tensions could be reduced if not eliminated, Kirchwey decided to retire and sell The Nation to Carey McWilliams. Still energetic and cause-oriented, she devoted herself to working for a number of liberal organizations including the Committee for a Democratic Spain, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Committee for World Development and World Disarmament. She also was active in such time-tested organizations as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP. Moving to Florida, she attempted to write an autobiography but made little progress on it. Writes Alpern: "Kirchwey could never write that book, for there was no way that she could write the Nation's history without writing her own." After her husband died in 1970, her own health deteriorated rapidly. Freda Kirchwey died in a nursing home in St. Petersburg, Florida, on January 3, 1976.

In 1944, on the 25th anniversary of Kirchwey's association with The Nation, she had been honored by 1,300 invited guests at a gala testimonial dinner. On that occasion, columnist and radio commentator Dorothy Thompson praised her friend for having fought "to throw light into dark places and to defend the people versus those interests that in our society have repeatedly striven to defeat the full realization of the promises of democracy."


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Kirchwey, Freda. "Rescue Hungary's Jews!," in The Nation. Vol. 159, no. 9. August 26, 1944, p. 229.

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——. Noble Abstractions: American Liberal Intellectuals and World War II. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1999.

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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