Started by Abolitionists in 1865, The Nation Magazine Marks 150 Years of Publishing Rebel Voices

April 01, 2015

The Nation magazine, the oldest news magazine in the United States, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The first issue was published on July 6, 1865 — just weeks after the end of the Civil War and three months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, The Nation has published many of the nation’s leading dissidents, academics and activists. We broadcast an excerpt from the new documentary, "Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation," and speak with the magazine’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel. The Nation is celebrating its anniversary with a quintuple-length, blockbuster edition.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Nation magazine is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It is the country’s oldest news magazine. The first issue was published on July 6, 1865, just weeks after the end of the Civil War and three months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, it has published many of the nation’s leading dissidents, academics and activists. This is an excerpt from the new documentary, Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Everybody has kind of written for the The Nation. Pat Buchanan wrote for The Nation. Hunter Thompson wrote for The Nation .

UNIDENTIFIED: Theodore Dreiser, H. L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, James Agee, Sinclair Lewis.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Tony Kushner, Toni Morrison, Emma Goldman, Henry James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal.

VICTOR SAUL NAVASKY: It was the first to publish James Baldwin.

AMY GOODMAN: [Hot] Type was produced by Barbara Kopple. In a minute, we’ll be joined by The Nation's editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, live in studio, but first, this is another clip from Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation in which Katrina talks about the magazine's early history with contributing writer D. D. Guttenplan. The piece ends with the reading of a story that appeared in The Nation in 1932.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This is the essay I was telling you about. It’s about The Nation future. It’s 1955, but it says, "The Nation must change, as it has changed in the past. Within the last 40 years," and think about how this could be written today. "Within the last 40 years, one-third of our daily newspapers and more than 3,000 weeklies have ceased publication."

D. D. GUTTENPLAN: Wow, now it’s like—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And this is 1955, because we do sit here and think, you know, what is The Nation 's role in this media landscape. And that's, you know—

D. D. GUTTENPLAN: Where do we—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And then speaks—he goes on to speak—

D. D. GUTTENPLAN: Well, and also, how does it survive? I mean, in 1955, they were worried about being—they were worried about being strangled by the Red Scare and by McCarthyism, you know. And people were afraid to get The Nation. And if you got The Nation, the FBI probably knew about you.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Had you on a list.

D. D. GUTTENPLAN: Yeah, they probably put you on a list. The Nation grew out of the Civil War. It was started by Republican abolitionists who were concerned about the state of the freed men. We like to gloss over the first 50 years, in a way, because The Nation was enmeshed with the Republican Party. It was against workers’ rights. It was worried about inundation by foreigners and immigrants. It didn’t really break free of the Republican Party until World War I. We think of it now as kind of a version of the left of the Democratic Party. I mean, I hope it’s much more than that, but you could caricature it that way in some circles. But The Nation that we know now really took off in the '30s. That's because of the New Deal, which really was one of the, I think, the apogees of The Nation’s—not just its influence, but also its flowering, its flourishing, and its power.

SAM WATERSTON: "We give thanks that the economic disaster which confronts us has made men and women think, has made multitudes realize that our institutions are not perfect, that there is something radically wrong with the situation under which, even at the height of prosperity, many are on the ragged edge of starvation, while others literally roll in wealth. We believe the republic to be in jeopardy, but we have not lost faith that it can be rescued and set upon the right path to meet the needs of the situation."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sam Waterston reading a Nation editorial from 1932 and, before that, Katrina vanden Heuvel speaking with D. D. Guttenplan, who co-edited, together with Katrina, The Nation ’s 150th anniversary edition, which is more than 260 pages. That, an excerpt from [Hot] Type: 150 Years of the Nation.

And we are joined now by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly news magazine. Again, The Nation is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a quintuple-length, blockbuster edition of the magazine.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: And happy birthday.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This is daunting. It is something to survive, if you think, three centuries. And we were founded in this great city, as Don and others said there, by abolitionists committed to ending slavery, but also resonant in terms of your previous segment. Eric Foner, in one of the introductory essays in the issue, writes about the contested meaning of freedom in our history. And the founders believed in freedom as a universal birthright, but, boy, has freedom been contested in these last 150 years, and we can see that it’s still a battle. And those words you read from the editorial in the New Deal era, think about how resonant those are: "May we save our republic from the financial crisis and despair." So, it’s those echoes. It’s the fact that history remains present, remains alive. So this is about the past, present and future, and another 150 years is what we are committed to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I’m curious, in an age where a magazine is lucky to survive 10 years—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —or even count itself among the big ones if it survives 20 or 30, how has The Nation managed for 150 years to continue publishing?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think there are a number of reasons. I think, at various times—you know, this is a writers’ magazine, and it’s also, at this moment, as at other times in our history—there was reference to the McCarthy period—it’s a magazine for voices which might otherwise be marginalized. It’s for rebellious voices, for dissident voices, for writers’ voices, for—it’s also, because its supporters over the years have cared more for what it stood for than what it made, it’s become—it’s about it being a cause, a community, as much a publication. And I think it’s that ongoing dialogue in the pages between radicals, liberals, progressives, even conservatives with a conscience, that gives it a value that transcends.

And we have resisted. You know, in 1996, The Nation did a series called "The National Entertainment State," and it was about the threat conglomeratization, consolidation of the media, Murdochization posed to freedom of the press. That continues today. We’ve been at the forefront of the fight for Internet democracy. So I think fighting for independence and never giving up on a fight is part of why The Nation has survived.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go to John Steinbeck, one of the writers in The Nation? There are so many pieces—


AMY GOODMAN: —we’d like to highlight. I mean, from James Baldwin to W. E. B. Du Bois, from Molly Ivins to Edward Said to I.F. Stone. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote for The Nation.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay from 1961 to 1966. And his last essay in The Nation was really about moving the civil rights movement to a fight for economic justice. But in 1967, February, just two months before his Riverside speech, he came out against the Vietnam War at a Nation event in Los Angeles. So there was a history and a relationship there.

And James Baldwin, as you said, wrote his first piece for The Nation. And what’s so stunning is to read in his "Report from Occupied Territory," — Harlem, not the Middle East — his use of stop and frisk in 1966. Again, the echoes and the correspondence between past and present. Just a year ago, two years ago, The Nation, in, again, a different mode of storytelling, did a multimedia video exposing stop-and-frisk abuses in Harlem, and it was cited by the Judge Scheindlin in her court decision ruling stop and frisk discriminatory and unconstitutional. So, that echo, that correspondence between past and present.

AMY GOODMAN: So, then, read James Baldwin.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: James Baldwin, I will read the words. This is "A Report from Occupied Territory," from July 1966. "[T]he citizens of Harlem who, as we have seen, can come to grief at any hour in the streets, and who are not safe at their windows, are forbidden the very air. They are safe only in their houses—or were, until the city passed the No Knock, Stop and Frisk laws, which permit a policeman to enter one’s home without knocking and to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him. Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes. They are certainly not directed against anybody else."

And then Baldwin goes on to write, "I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself. It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect, and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud."

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 1966.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fifty years ago.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Fifty years. So, it does—I think it raises a question, which I know you grapple with here at Democracy Now! That is, 50 years ago, how does change come? Change has come in very difficult, hard ways in this country. And I think we’ve come ways, but you can see in that the echoes, obviously, of today. I think it’s a movement moment, again, as it was in 1966. It’s a different movement for racial justice, but these same concerns.

AMY: Can you go back to King?

KATRINA: Absolutely. This was—as I said, he wrote from 1961 to ’66.

AMY GOODMAN: So this was the same year that James Baldwin wrote in The Nation.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This was the same year. This was a few months before that. This was "The Last Steep Ascent,", it’s called. "At the end of 1965 the civil rights movement was widely depicted as bewildered and uncertain, groping desperately for new directions. The substantial legislative accomplishments of the past several years, it was argued, dealt so extensively with civil rights problems that the movement had become stagnated in an embarrassment of riches. Negro leaders, we were told, did not know how to maintain their assembled armies nor what goals they should seek.

"The dominant white leadership of the nation, in perceiving the civil rights movement as uncertain and confused, is engaged in political projection. The Negro freedom movement has a policy and a program; it is the white power structure that gropes in indecision. White America, caught between the Negro upsurge and its own conscience, evolved a limited policy toward Negro freedom. It could not live with the intolerable brutality and bruising humiliation imposed upon the Negro by the society it cherished as democratic. A wholesome national consensus developed against extremist conduct toward nonwhite Americans. That feeling found expression in laws, court decisions and in the alteration of long-entrenched custom. But the prohibition of barbaric behavior, while beneficial to the victim, does not constitute the attainment of equality or freedom. A man may cease beating his wife without thereby creating a wholesome marital relationship."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. King in ’66.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And King, very forcefully, later in that piece, as I said, raised the critical importance of economic justice, of economic equality and freedom, which of course he brought with him in the last days of his life to protests.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Katrina, I wanted to ask you, much of the attention on The Nation is on its political role, but it has also played a major cultural role—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in terms of cultural criticism. Could you talk about that aspect of the magazine’s contribution?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This special issue, I think, brings to bear—you know, brings to life, first of all, the great poets who have written for The Nation, from Sylvia Plath to Adrienne Rich to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg. And it has—over the years, the critics have elevated ideas and artists—Clement Greenberg elevating Jackson Pollock, the New York School; Harold Clurman, a great theater critic. James Agee was our film critic. He writes in here about John Houston. Stuart Klawans is one of—is a great film critic today. Arthur Danto, who died just a while ago, was an eminent philosopher whose essays about—from everything from Andy Warhol to Las Vegas and art, elevated that.

Interestingly, The Nation — as we call it, the back of the book, the literary section, was at war with the front during the '40s and ’50s, politically and culturally. I mean, there was a kind of anti-communist liberalism in the back, and in the front there was a vigorous, led by the editor then, Freda Kirchwey, kind of anti-fascist unwillingness to ally with what Arthur Schlesinger called vital, center Cold War liberals. So that battle went on both culturally and politically. But those brawls—you know, Christopher Hitchens didn't just write about politics for us. I mean, he would engage—and Katha Pollitt, our great columnist, one of her great essays was "Canon to the Right of Me," I think, and she still writes about cultural issues, when we can get her to.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of battles, Israel-Palestine, Edward Said—


AMY GOODMAN: —the late, great professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, leading Palestinian voice. When did he write?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: His first piece for The Nation was in a special issue in—33 years ago. Kai Bird, who was a longtime editor at The Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Robert Oppenheimer, has a fascinating essay in this issue, coming off of the special issue called "Myths of the Middle East," published 33 years ago, calling for, essentially, disengagement, U.S. disengagement with the Middle East at this point. Edward Said wrote his first piece for The Nation in that issue. I also remember in the time of the Oslo Accords, I was then editor, and we published Edward’s essay as a cover story, denouncing the accords, seeing, I think, in a prescient way, that they were leading to bantustan—

AMY GOODMAN: He became a pariah in the establishment after that.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, and I will say that The Nation, you know, has many readerships, and part of its readership is a liberal readership. And there were many who thought that it was premature that we published that essay, who found it offensive, who called—you know, one of the editors, Oswald Garrison Villard, said the week was not full if he had not received his requisite number of cancellations. Today, they come in different ways, but there is no question that one of the roles of The Nation is, I believe, to lift up ideas that might be considered heretical at one time, that later, in another generation, appear more commonsense.

Now, the Israel-Palestine issue remains deeply contested. I would, you know—1954, Bernard Fall, the great historian of Vietnam, argued in our pages that maybe a negotiated solution to Vietnam would be better than what came—thousands killed. And I think on a number of fronts, the opposition to the war in Iraq, which Democracy Now! was very much part of, there were very few media outlets at that time, in the run-up to the war. We were called names. We were vilified. Opposing war after 9/11 was not a popular stance, but that is part of what I think the role of The Nation has been, to stand apart, to not—you know, the faith in what can happen when you tell people the truth is something that is part of our DNA.

But Edward—this is not the piece I mentioned, but this was in September 8, 1997. And he writes, Edward Said, the great scholar of Joseph Conrad, the writer, by the way, that "It has taken almost four years for the Oslo peace process to peel off its cosmetic wrappings to reveal the stark truth hidden at its core: There was no peace agreement. Instead, Palestinians entered an appalling spiral of loss and humiliation, gulled by the United States and the media into thinking that we had at last achieved some measure of respectability, bludgeoned by Israel into accepting its pathological definition of security, all of which has impoverished our people, who are obliged to watch more settlements being built, more land taken, more houses destroyed, more sadistic collective punishments meted out. Israel should explain why we should forget the past, remain uncompensated, our travails unacknowledged, even as all other victims of injustice have the right to reparations, apologies and the like. There is no logic to that, only the cold, hard, narcissistic indifference of amoral power."

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Edward Said in 1997. We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and talk about what’s happening today, as well, in electoral politics in this country. Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine. It is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a quintuple-length, blockbuster edition of The Nation. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That is Joni Mitchell, "The Circle Game." She was found unconscious in her home last night in Los Angeles. She was taken to the hospital, but, according to her website, right now she is in good spirits in the hospital, so all the best to Joni Mitchell. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. She’s celebrating not exactly her 150th birthday, but the 150th birthday of The Nation magazine, the oldest American weekly in the United States. Juan?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Someone did approach Victor Navasky, the former editor and publisher, who has a really magnificent essay in the special issue about what this country lost as a result of McCarthyism, or also we might call it Hooverism, since we’ve learned so much about J. Edgar Hoover behind the scenes, but what was lost by voices stigmatized, views stigmatized, marginalized during the McCarthy period. But he begins the piece by saying someone approached him the other day and said, "Did you found The Nation?" And he said, "I may"—you know. But it’s a testament to—



JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about a giant at the confluence of both politics and literature, John Steinbeck, who also wrote for The Nation, and perhaps you might be able to read one of the segments that he wrote, and talk about his role, as well.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, he was—well, this is in a piece about the Dust Bowl and the drought, which we’re seeing play out again now in California. But he was someone who was very much part of the New Deal moment, which Don Guttenplan spoke about in the documentary. And The Nation, you know, heralded the New Deal, though, I hope, consistent with our role, we were always pushing Roosevelt to move to the left and working with the labor movement and others. But John Steinbeck, a great literary voice—and if I could add, part of what The Nationhas tried to do over the years is bring great literary voices to bear, to bear witness to the political moment—I think of Tony Kushner, who’s in the—Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, E. L. Doctorow—to bring to bear a literary insight. So, let me just, "Dubious Battle in California". This was September 1936.

“Let us see what the emigrants from the dust bowl find when they arrive in California. The ranks of permanent and settled labor are filled. In most cases all resources have been spent in making the trip from the dust bowl. It is quite usual for a man, his wife, and from three to eight children to arrive in California with no possessions but the rattletrap car they travel in and the ragged clothes on their bodies. They often lack bedding and cooking utensils.

"Attempts to organize have been met with a savagery from the large growers beyond anything yet attempted. The usual repressive measures have been used against these migrants: shooting by deputy sheriffs in 'self-defense,' jailing without charge, refusal of trial by jury, torture and beating by night riders. But even in the short time that these American migrants have been out here there has been a change. It is understood that they are being attacked not because they want higher wages, not because they are Communists, but simply because they want to organize. And to the men, since this defines the thing not to be allowed, it also defines the thing that is completely necessary to the safety of the workers."

Think about—

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The Grapes—if you think—I mean, so many have seen The Grapes of Wrath.

AMY GOODMAN: John Steinback.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And you can see it in what he writes. But you can also, again, the echoes of the assault on working people, on labor, on organized labor today, met with a different kind of savagery, but with a savagery.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us to Molly Ivins, and then that will take us to Texas, where we can talk about Ted Cruz.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about modern politics. Molly Ivins wrote in, what, 2003—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This is, well, 2003, and I will—right here. And I just want—yeah, have to—Molly Ivins wrote many pieces for The Nation, many of them about Texas. This is called "Is Texas America?"

“Well, sheesh. I don’t know whether to warn you that because George Dubya Bush is President the whole damn country is about to be turned into Texas (a singularly horrible fate: as the country song has it: 'Lubbock on Everythang') or if I should try to stand up for us and convince the rest of the country we’re not all that insane.

“Truth is, I’ve spent much of my life trying, unsuccessfully, to explode the myths about Texas. One attempts to explain—with all good will, historical evidence, nasty statistics and just a bow of recognition to our racism—that Texas is not The Alamo starring John Wayne. We’re not Giant, we ain’t a John Ford western. The first real Texan I ever saw on TV was King of the Hill's Boomhauer, the guy who's always drinking beer and you can’t understand a word he says.

"So, how come trying to explode myths about Texas always winds up reinforcing them? After all these years, I do not think it is my fault. The fact is, it’s a damned peculiar place. Given all the horse[bleep], there’s bound to be a pony in here somewhere. Just by trying to be honest about it, one accidentally underlines its sheer strangeness."

Now, I have to say, before we talk Ted Cruz, I think she ended that piece by saying, "As Willie Nelson sings, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane." And if you want to segue into Ted Cruz on that note.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ted Cruz has announced for president. Hillary Clinton hasn’t, and Elizabeth Warren says she won’t.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Right, right, so, you know, what to say? First of all, thanks to Democracy Now!, I hope The Nation, we move beyond the horse race, we hope, every cycle. We try. We try to bring up—you know, we try to bring to bear the issues commensurate with the scale of the crisis in this country. The Nation believes that, you know, this country deserves a contested primary, at least on the Democratic side. Now, on the Republican side, you’re right, Cruz is the first, and we’re going to have a caravan, a caravan of all kinds of, you know, clowns, thugs, operators, you know. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Both Cruz, Jeb Bush—


AMY GOODMAN: Both have endorsed the Indiana so-called religious freedom law.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I mean, you know, this is—what struck me the other day—this is somewhat different, but we’ve talked about this—how far the Republican Party has moved from, I mean, conservatism as maybe Edmund Burke understood. This is an extremist party. James Baker, secretary of state under George the first, spoke at the J Street conference the other day, spoke words of—you know, very carefully chose his words about Israel and why U.S. policy needed to be tougher on Israel. The Republican Party went berserk. Bill Kristol, who was over in Israel meeting with Netanyahu, said that if Netanyahu—if it was legal, Netanyahu would be the Republican candidate for president.

I mean, somewhere in here, as Molly Ivins might say, there’s a something—you know, but this is an extremist party that is turning against the civilizing advances of this country—I mean, we have a way to go, but what has been fought for. You see it in Indiana. And the delicious part, I have to say, is that there’s always been a struggle inside the Republican Party, where I think ordinary Republicans, ordinary working people Republicans, get shafted by the elite establishment money primary Republicans. And you’re seeing that exposed, it seems to me, because you get the corporations coming in now saying, "We don’t want any of this fake morality, fake freedom stuff." But there are people who are supporting that—the Santorums, the Huckabees. There’s a wing of the party which is still tied to what used to be called the Christian right, the Moral Majority. So, I think anything—I do believe movements make change in this country, but when the elites divide, as they are in some ways in the Republican Party, that’s going to be interesting to watch.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, in fairness to criticism of the other party, you wrote a piece recently in The Washington Post about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, where you criticize President Obama for, in his State of the Union address, claiming we should write the trade rules, and questioning, "Who does he mean by 'we'?"

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: But let me just step back, Juan, because you raise a good question, criticizing the other party. I think one of the reasons for The Nation's survival is that we have called out—first of all, we're a poor country. We have two mainstream, you know, two parties. But we’ve called out the Democrats, and that’s part of what we have been about.

It is—this is a bipartisan piece of legislation, right? I mean, you’ve got corporate Democrats signed up for it, but it’s a broader problem that corporate America is writing the tax and trade policies for this country. And this investor state mechanism privileges corporations, undermining the rights of ordinary people to control their destiny. So, I think it’s about a—the biggest crisis for our country today, and I do think Elizabeth Warren speaks most eloquently to this, is the rigged system, the rigged system—money, power, politics, the fusion of that, not just at home, but as in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, the global rigged rules, which are shafting working people.

So, how people take back power—you know, one of the reasons The Nation, and I think Democracy Now!, may stay in business, to use a crass term, for many years is, you know, I don’t believe there are any lost causes. There are a lot of causes to be fought for, but there are only causes waiting to be won. And organized people—and this is, as I said, a time when people are in motion. I think you’ve got Black Lives Matter, you’ve got post-Occupy, you have the Fight for 15, you have the fast-food workers, you have migrant rights, immigrant rights movements. I mean, there’s a sense that something is happening, and people are aching for a better America that works for people, not just, as this Trans-Pacific Partnership illuminates most clearly, corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much.


AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine. We will link to your website. The Nation is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a quintuple-length, blockbuster edition of the magazine.

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