Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present

By Neil Jumonville | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Protecting Liberalism in
World War II,
1939–1947

If, in the 1940s, Commager was drawn to writing in periodicals, there were important reasons. With the rise of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, the future of democracy was in danger. Intellectual activists, public commentators—whether or not they were also professional scholars—had an important role to play in the protection of intellectual freedom. Historians, in Commager's view, should earn no exemption from this task.

Although not central to his writing, foreign policy had been an interest of his for at least fifteen years before World War II. The diplomatic conflict between the United States and Britain over the Oregon territory was the subject of his thesis and his first scholarly article. Yet it was not until the end of the thirties that Commager, like the rest of the nation, awoke to the increasing urgency of global affairs. Like many in this period, he had learned the lesson of World War I that the United States should not waltz into conflict with idealistic illusions or with the idea that a war was naturally an “irrepressible” and unavoidable conflict. 1

But some wars were more imperative. On the front page of the New York Times Magazine on New Year's Day 1939, under a drawing of a torch-bearing Roman warrior battling a Nazi beast, Commager launched a series of articles encouraging America to defend democracy in the world. For the next two years he took it as his responsibility to nudge his fellow citizens to prepare for a battle to defend free institutions.

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