“Young Radicals: In The War For American Ideals” by Jeremy McCarter, Random House, 368 pages, $30.
Jeremy McCarter’s introduction couldn’t possibly be addressed more pointedly to so many of us firmly ensconced in the political chaos of 2017. His book, he says, is “about what happens when the world, which had seemed to be spinning rapidly in the direction of peace and social progress, falls to pieces. It’s about reaching out to grasp the new America that seems to be drawing near -- freer, more equal, more welcoming -- and having America try to break your hand.” (In a way, McCarter’s book is dedicated to the Robert Browning proposition that’s “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”)
“Maybe,” he deadpans after writing that “you know the feeling.”
Specifically, here is a specimen telling of that early 20th century tale of American democracy. It’s about the American radicals who were trying to envision the America that would emerge from World War I. This is the 20th century’s Grandfather Generation of American radicalism -- Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, Alice Paul and John Reed.
We learn about paradoxical origins -- Eastman, as Art Young put it, starting out devoted to “truth, polemics, tennis and swimming”; John Reed “playing endless pranks” including lugging the office safe of Masses Magazine out to the sidewalk “just to give you boys something to do.” (It would have made for a great little scene in Warren Beatty’s classic late-century film about Jack Reed “Reds.”) Socialist Walter Lippmann, to McCarter, was “nationalizing America’s brains” during the war and wound up, three wars later during Vietnam, as a journalistic Grand Old Man inveighing against Lyndon Johnson’s escalation through “flagrant abuses of unchallenged power.” (When a senator quotes Lippmann to LBJ, he immortally replied to his fellow democrat “next time you want a dam built, ask Walter Lippmann.”) When Lippmann, in final disgust, gave up his column at last, LBJ made sure during his speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner “to belittle an unnamed but easily identifiable political commentator of yesteryear.” Familiar?