Pilgrimage Among the Scribblers

A former editor of Barron’s and Fortune, Mr. Davenport is author of The U.S. Economy and a frequent lecturer on political economy.

At a recent Berlin conference of the Mont Pelerin Society—that unique collection of libertarian economists and political conservatives—it was my good fortune to meet up with my friend John Chamberlain. Characteristically, he had made up his mind to come to the meeting at the last minute and, with Yankee parsimony, had chosen a roundabout route: Icelandic Airlines to Luxembourg, then a punishing bus ride to Frankfort, and finally a late Sunday afternoon flight to Berlin on Pan American (since under present insane regulations German domestic airlines are prohibited from overflying the Eastern zone). Yet at the opening reception of the conference that evening, there was John un-fazed by jet lag, mixing among academics till well after midnight and exercising his art of effortlessly picking up nuggets of information from whomever he meets—nuggets which will later be transmuted into equally effortless loping prose.

This art of absorption of detail combined with unifying intellection is much in evidence in Chamberlain’s new autobiography (A Life with the Printed Word, Regnery/Gateway, $12.95). Superficially, it is the story of how Chamberlain made his way up from cub reporter in the New York Times city room in the late Twenties to book reviewer and how thereafter he met the deadlines for Fortune, Life and many another publication. More fundamentally it is the stow of how one man moved steadily from Left to Right—right politically and in the moral sense—amidst the clashing and false ideologies of our times. For anyone pondering the tragic significance of the Berlin Wall where the simple crosses mark the deaths of those seeking escape to freedom, this book is necessary and I was about to say required reading except that the latter word might offend John’s sensibilities. For after all, he has emerged as one of our foremost advocates of the voluntary and cooperative society.

Such voluntarism was in full flower when Chamberlain, born in the same year in which the Wright Brothers took off at Kitty Hawk, grew up in New Haven and its environs, where he keeps a farm at Cheshire, Connecticut. In the turbulent Sixties, he recalls lending his barn to an itinerant youth seeking release from inner city pavements, only to find his acres invaded by aimless hippies and smogged, one may guess, by mists of marijuana. The incident serves as a deeper recall of the very different motivations of John’s youth, when sailing in Morris Cove or expedi tions to East Rock were the order of the day, leaving one too tired at night for endless and aimless palaver.

At school in New Haven John mixed freely with blacks before race became a fetish, and with immigrants of all nations—Swedes, Irish, Poles, with only the Italians still resisting the melting pot. Then on to Loomis Academy where more serious study was combined with ice skating on the Connecticut as far as Windsor Locks and canoe trips downriver to Long Island Sound. Finally an extraordinary Wanderjahr where John and a companion first shipped to New Orleans on the steamer Mo-mus and then hitchhiked across Texas and proceeded by rail to the orange groves of California in the days when there were no minimum wage laws or powerful unions to prevent motivated boys from working in the packing sheds. It was an era when, to borrow from one of Chamberlain’s later books, “men were free to walk over the horizon.”

His recall of his college education (Yale 1925) and of the Twenties generally exhibits the same artistry and follows the same methodology. Yale was indeed a magic place with its careless freedom, its occasional gin and orange juice parties and above all the marvelous lectures of Billy Phelps (Tennyson and Browning), Bob French (Chaucer) and Chauncey Brewster Tinker (The Age of Johnson). Yet one thing was lacking: a grounding in the great works of political economy and the nature of government—a lacuna for which as John wisely notes, many a grad including himself were to pay dearly in future years.

In casing the Twenties, Chamberlain attacks the myth that they constituted a crass materialistic era. They were, in fact an intensely creative period as evidenced by the flowering of poetry and literature and John pays loving tribute to Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen Vincent Benét, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and many another. Yet this was a time when intellectuals paid scant attention to and even despised the enterprise system which sent them to college and sustained them in Greenwich Village and Paris. When the roof fell in in ‘29, political thinking was already moving leftward and the literateurs fell easy prey to Marxian ideologies.

From Left to Right

Chamberlain himself was vulnerable to this Leftward swing. His first book, Farewell to Reform, published in 1932 when his father, a New Haven merchant, was in financial trouble and when the economy was at sixes and sevens, was a radical document, arguing not only that capitalism was non-reformable but that sooner or later the “syndicates” and collectivists would march to power. Predictably this left him open to solicitations not just from Socialists but from Communist cells even then boring from within American society. Yet bit by bit, John’s Yankee shrewdness pulled him back to more solid ground, influenced, too, by discerning Trotskyites who had already taken the measure of Stalin, and later by reports of such men as William Henry Chamberlin who detailed the mass murders of the Communist Utopia.

Switching from the Times daily book column to Fortune magazine, he came to see that businessmen had something to be said for them. He was profoundly influenced by and wrote a ringing foreword to F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. His clinching conversion to the market economy came, he writes, when on post-war assignment to Britain he discovered that while governments were very good at putting on the economic brakes, they never supplied the gasoline or leaned on the accelerator pedal for economic advance.

This negative perception turns into positive affirmation in Chamberlain’s mature works: The Roots of Capitalism (1959) and The Enterprising Americans originally designed for a series in Fortune and later published in book form (1963), still the best history of American business on the market. Here Chamberlain, strongly influenced by the American economist Francis Amasa Walker, breaks new ground.

The true hero of the economic process is the entrepreneur, large or small, who sets investment in motion and without whom Americans might still be stalled on the Great Plains. In stressing this thought, Chamberlain anticipated by a good many years modern supply siders who place primary emphasis on motivation. The business of government is not the impossible one of planning the economic future, but rather setting the framework for creative endeavor by maintaining law and order at home and adequate defense abroad.

War and Peace

As to that, Chamberlain’s reflections on foreign policy are far more diffuse and difficult to interpret than his domestic philosophy. As a child of the disillusioned interwar generation he tells with refreshing candor how he at first favored a policy of strict neutrality at the time war broke out in Europe, and only bit by bit came to see how much would have been forfeited had Britain gone down in the terrible summer of 1940 with loss of the British fleet and control of the Atlantic. With Pearl Harbor these doubts and hesitations vanished only to be replaced by arguments as to the conduct of the war and the shaping of the peace. In a chapter close to the end of his book Chamberlain, fascinated by strategy, pries into some of them: Mac-Arthur’s application of the theory of double envelopment in the Pacific, and more pertinently for anyone pondering the truncation of Europe today, General Al Wedemeyer’s thesis that if only the Allies had launched their cross-Channel invasion in 1943 instead of 1944 they might have swept the Continent while Hitler and Stalin were bogged down along the Volga.

Here Chamberlain following Wedemeyer attributes the delay to Churchill’s “love of empire.” It seems more reasonable to suppose that in 1943 the West simply lacked the “gear and tackle” to make the Normandy landings possible. Moreover the whole thrust of Chamberlain’s book suggests that ideas, no less than logistics, influenced the partition of Europe. The confusion of American intellectuals—what Julien Benda called La Trahison des Clercs—played a part in Roosevelt’s extraordinary concessions at Teheran and Yalta. Had American public opinion taken the full measure of the Bear that Walks like a Man, Eisenhower even as late as 1944-45 might have been under firm orders to outpace the Russians to Berlin while Patton captured and held Prague.

The guardian of public opinion is, of course, the free press and when it comes to the press, Chamberlain is fully in stride. His severest shafts are aimed at his first home, the New York Times, which while still an essential journal of record has fallen far from the standards of Adolph Ochs. John laments how Lester Markel finally took over the Times Book Review from the fairer-minded J. Donald Adams, and he faults managing editor Turner Catledge for his harboring Tom Wicker and Herbert Matthews who represented Fi-del Castro as simply an agrarian reformer out of the Sierra Maestra.

With his second important employer, Henry R. Luce, John is more lenient. He himself squirmed under Luce’s sudden shifts in tactics and dictates when he was writing Life editorials and he criticizes Luce severely for harboring so many woolly-headed Liberals in his entourage. But he concedes that Luce was truly a man of stature, and if he sometimes played with Liberals, he also harbored many a conservative—notably Whittaker Chambers who dominated Time’s foreign news when the going was toughest, Charles J. V. Murphy who exposed the disaster of the Bay of Pigs against all the blandishments of President Kennedy, and for that matter John Chamberlain himself.

John learned to his cost just how hard it is for an editor or publisher to hold any group of journalists together—prima donnas all—when he joined with Henry Hazlitt and Suzanne LaFollette in launching the fortnightly Freeman in the early Fifties. The venture broke up in squabbling among friends though the name and the tradition are still carried on today by the journal for which this review is written. Nor was John’s venture in editorship all lost. For from the ashes of the old Freeman also came Bill Buckley’s National Review and it turned out that Buckley had the resources and the skill to give the U. S. what it most lacked: namely, a fighting weekly of opinion that melded together libertarian economics with the higher conservative values as enunciated by Russell Kirk. That synthesis in turn has not been lost on Ronald Reagan.

With Reagan’s election, the autobiography ends; John Chamberlain is not one to cast the future. But in recalling the past his book surely prepares us for the days ahead and in this sense we are all in Chamberlain’s debt. Meeting him again close to the Berlin Wall made me wonder how this man of so many books and columns does it. But that is of course his secret and alchemy and I sometimes doubt whether he himself could explain it. Facility, yes. But likewise integrity, humility and compassion. These are rare virtues and this is a rare and significant book.



John Chamberlain’s book reviews have been a regular feature of The Freeman since 1950. We are doubly grateful to John and to Henry Regnery for now making available John’s autobiography, A Life with the Printed Word. Copies of this remarkable account of a man and his times—our times—are available at $12.95 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

Further Reading

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