The Ideological Odyssey of John T. Flynn

John E. Moser
Assistant Professor of History
Ashland University

[Note: This is a brief overview of the life and career of the American journalist John T. Flynn.  My full-scale biography of Flynn is entitled Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism.  A Romanian translation of this article is available here.]

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, John T. Flynn made a name for himself as a liberal--perhaps even radical--expert on economics.  The author of such books as Investment Trusts Gone Wrong! and Graft in Business, Flynn wrote weekly columns for both the New Republic and the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.  He also served at various times as associate editor of the liberal journal Common Sense, a member of New York Citys Board of Higher Education, advisor to the Pecora committee investigation of the New York Stock Exchange, counsel to the Nye Committee investigating the profits of arms manufacturers in World War I, and chairman of the New York City chapter of the America First Committee.  Yet although he would refer to himself throughout his career as a liberal, he would gradually disassociate himself with the political ideas put forward by individuals such as Franklin Roosevelt and journals such as the New Republic.  By the late 1940s he was closely identified with forces on the fringes of American conservatism, and indeed by the late 1950s he had come to embrace an agenda that included abolition of the income tax and complete withdrawal from the United Nations.

A native of Maryland, Flynn was a graduate of Georgetown University’s law school, although he would never formally practice law.  He preferred journalism, and worked for a series of publications in different cities before settling in New York City, where he took a job on the news desk of the Globe.  It was not until the late 1920s that he became known on a national level, thanks to his articles in Collier’s, which was edited by one of his colleagues at the Globe.  By the end of the decade, however, his byline was commonly appearing in a number of national publications such as Forum and Harper’s.

Through these early writings he won a reputation as a perceptive observer of the “New Economy,” particularly the growing domination of major corporations.  While he did not necessarily object to this phenomenon, he did think that it required a new approach to business ethics.  The unethical practices of the past--he cited the example of the butcher placing his thumb on the scale--only affected a small number of consumers, but in the modern economy fraud at the corporate level would hurt thousands, if not millions, of investors and customers.  In particular he saw abuses in the banking system and the New York Stock Exchange, and as early as February 1929 he was predicting that the value of corporate securities was about to plummet.[1]

Flynn’s dissent from the unbridled optimism of the late 1920s--and his seeming prediction of the Stock Market Crash of October 1929--brought him to the attention of the editors of the New Republic, which was at the time in the vanguard of the American noncommunist Left.  He began contributing to the magazine in 1930, and from March 1933 until November 1940 he had a weekly column, “Other People’s Money,” after the book of the same name by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.  His articles in the early 1930s were openly critical of industrialists, bankers, and stockbrokers, whom he blamed for the country’s economic woes.  He also took aim at President Herbert Hoover, whose efforts to bring an end to the Great Depression seemed in Flynn’s eyes calculated to help only big business.[2]

Flynn welcomed the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and referred to his New Deal as a “promising experiment,” but quickly found fault with the new president.  A large number of his cabinet members and advisors, Flynn observed, came from banking and big business.  Moreover, while he praised certain Roosevelt projects, such as Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Committee, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, he claimed that the president had done nothing to solve the fundamental problems that underlay the American economy--the wide gap between rich and poor and gross corporate mismanagement, especially in the banks and the stock exchange.[3]

Even more disturbing for Flynn was that the president seemed to be moving the country toward involvement in another war.  He had long been concerned about Roosevelt’s fascination with the navy, and feared that he might resort to massive military spending in an effort to revitalize the economy.  Not only would this help to reduce unemployment, Flynn noted, but it could also win the president handsome political benefits, since even conservatives would be willing to get behind arms spending.  To fight this trend Flynn founded along with socialist Norman Thomas the Keep America Out of War Committee (KAOWC), whose membership came to include many prominent left-wing intellectuals, writers, and labor leaders.[4]

Little did Flynn realize, however, that his hostility to Roosevelt and his agenda was destroying his reputation as a liberal journalist.  In July 1939, in response to an article in the Yale Review, Roosevelt wrote a confidential letter to the editor in which he called Flynn “a destructive rather than a constructive force,” and suggested that in the future the journal refuse to print articles by him.  It is unknown whether Roosevelt sent such letters to other editors, but in any case it is clear that by late 1940 fewer and fewer of Flynn’s manuscripts were finding their way into print.  That November the editors of the New Republic announced that “Other People’s Money” would no longer run, because “[l]acking sufficient material for a weekly column on the original subject, Mr. Flynn has ranged far afield.” Although some wrote to protest the decision, Flynn would never write for the journal again.[5]

In the short term, however, the cancellation of Flynn’s column would have little effect on his livelihood, since at the end of 1940 he accepted the chairmanship of the newly formed New York City chapter of the anti-interventionist America First Committee.  The Chicago-based organization quickly became a serious thorn in the side of President Roosevelt.  Its speakers, who included several United States Senators, a number of prominent authors, and the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, appeared at huge rallies across the nation, protesting administration measures that they claimed were designed to draw the country into the European war.  And while most of the organization’s membership lived within a 200-mile radius of Chicago, Flynn’s New York City chapter was by far the largest outside the Midwest.  By early August Flynn’s chapter was claiming a membership of at least 135,000.[6]

Flynn’s experience with America First only served to deepen his disenchantment with the Left.  He believed that issues such as Lend-Lease and the use of American warships in British convoys were legitimate subjects for debate.  However, he sensed a growing campaign to “smear” the organization by accusing its members of being Nazi sympathizers.  And although Flynn was extremely sensitive to the need to keep pro-fascist and anti-Semitic elements out of his chapter, the enemies of America First engaged in on ongoing campaign to connect its membership with extremist groups such as the German-American Bund and the National Union for Social Justice.[7]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the formal involvement of the United States in the war led to a quick disbandment of the America First Committee, and Flynn found himself out of a job.  In an effort to rebuild his career, Flynn quickly returned to writing and public speaking, but for the first time he was without an audience.  The general public believed that Flynn and the rest of the anti-interventionists had been on the wrong side of a very important issue.  And, of course, his criticism of Roosevelt had cut him off from his former associates on the respectable Left.

Nevertheless, by the end of the war John Flynn had revived his career as a journalist and public intellectual; by this time, however, his primary audience was on the Right.  It was, in a sense, the culmination of a trend that had been going on since 1940.  His critique of the president, although generally coming from a liberal perspective, nonetheless delighted many conservatives by portraying Roosevelt as a dimwitted dilettante.  Flynn’s involvement with the America First Committee put him in close contact with a number of prominent antiwar conservatives.  His attacks on Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies continued after Pearl Harbor, but increasingly they came from a conservative rather than a liberal perspective.  For example, in November 1943 Flynn called the New Deal “a degenerate form of socialism and a debased form of capitalism,” based on deficit spending and the government’s crowding out of private business.  Considering so much of his criticism of FDR in the mid-1930s centered on the president’s alleged eagerness to cater to big business, the change in emphasis is striking.[8]

But of course criticism of the New Deal was hardly new territory for Flynn, even if his attacks were increasingly couched in terms that would resonate among conservative audiences.  During the war years, however, he launched two further projects, both of which would cement his place not just on the Right, but on its extreme fringe.  The first was an investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack, of which Flynn was convinced Roosevelt had prior knowledge.  The second was an effort to get back at those who had sought to discredit prewar anti-interventionists, by claiming that they had been part of a communist-inspired conspiracy to draw the country into a war to defend the Soviet Union.

After the war many of Flynn’s writings would suggest complicity between New Deal agencies and Soviet communism.  These accusations reflect his deeply held belief that Roosevelt and his supporters had betrayed liberalism itself, and that they had shut Flynn out of the mainstream journals when he had tried to alert his readers to this fact.  Although he continued to claim the mantle of liberalism, his work now appeared in such right-wing publications as the American Mercury and Plain Talk.  Indeed, in the early 1950s he emerged as a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against alleged communist subversion in the U.S. government.  By the end of the decade his message was identical to that of the fledgling John Birch Society, calling for the abolition of the income tax and withdrawal from the United Nations.

Although Flynn consistently referred to himself as a liberal, his definition of the term seems to have changed markedly over the course of his career.  In an article that appeared in Forum in 1932, he defined liberalism as “not so much a collection of beliefs as a character of the mind.”  Its most important feature was “a willingness to examine the ideas of other men and to reexamine his own.”  A liberal valued the “right to free development of the individual,” and championed democracy because the people “have a right to rule themselves.”  However, the goal of the modern liberal, he claimed, was to find a place for the individual within modern industrial society—“to shape conditions under which the physical, spiritual, intellectual, political, social, and economic well-being and happiness and freedom of the individual can be best developed.” Above all, this meant understanding that “the doctrine of laissez-faire is now the gospel of the reactionary.” Liberals had to accept the necessity of large-scale government involvement in the economy as a check on the power of corporations and other powerful entities.[9]

Sixteen years later Flynn had a different outlook.  In 1948 he published an article in the American Mercury entitled “What Liberalism Means to Me,” in which all of his earlier concerns about unfettered capitalism seemed to have vanished.  Liberalism, he claimed, once had as its primary purpose the reduction of the power of the state, but in present times, he lamented, the word had been “captured by certain aggressor philosophers, carried off as so much loot and offered for acceptance to a wholly different clientele.”  He praised capitalism for producing “beyond a doubt the greatest freedom in the world and the greatest abundance.”  The “planned economy,” he concluded, apparently forgetting that he had embraced economic planning in the 1930s, “has produced before our eyes the most appalling consequences.”[10]

Flynn did not abandon all of his earlier views.  To the end of his life he would retain an innate hostility toward defense spending and overseas military action, even when the communists were the enemy.  The communist threat to America, he believed, was primarily moral and intellectual; the war was to be fought in print and in the schools, not in Europe and Asia.  This attitude would keep his work from appearing in National Review, the new conservative magazine that began publication in 1955.  William F. Buckley, the magazine’s editor, claimed that Flynn’s opposition to “militarism” was “difficult to defend in the absence of any discussion whatever of the objective threat of the Soviet Union.”  Notwithstanding his views on foreign policy, Flynn had clearly made a significant ideological migration.  Yet he never seems to have recognized that such a shift had occurred; he preferred to see himself, in the words of one biographer, as “a liberal without a party.”[11]
 

Notes

[1] Flynn, “Taming the Great Bull,” Forum 81 (February 1929): 88-94; Flynn, “Whatever Goes Up,” Collier’s 84 (14 September 1929): 10; Flynn, “Dishonest Business,” Forum 82 (December 1929): 351-55.

[2] Flynn, “Inside the R.F.C.,” Harper’s 166 (January 1933): 161-69; Flynn, “Did the R.F.C. Save Banks?” New Republic 74 (29 March 1933): 184-85.

[3] Michele Flynn Stenehjem, An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976), p. 29; Flynn, “OPM: Let’s Look at the Record,” New Republic 97 (November 30, 1938): 99.

[4] Flynn, “OPM,” New Republic 88 (September 16, 1936): 155-56; Flynn, “OPM: Armament and the Borrowing Program,” New Republic 97 (December 14, 1938): 172; Flynn, “OPM: Hurray for War Profits!” New Republic 100 (November 1, 1939): 367-68; Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 211-212.

[5] Franklin D. Roosevelt to Wilbur L. Cross, July 7, 1939, photocopy in Wayne S. Cole Papers, Drawer 1, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA; “Other People’s Money,” New Republic 103 (November 18, 1940): 677; Correspondence, New Republic 103 (December 9, 1940): 792-94.

[6] Minutes of the Meeting of the Women’s Division of America First, August 5, 1941, Robert E. Wood Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA.

[7] Stenehjem, An American First, pp. 121-141.

[8] New York Times, November 26, 1943, 40:1.

[9] Flynn, “Why a Liberal Party?” Forum 87 (March 1932): 158-63.

[10] Flynn, “What Liberalism Means to Me,” American Mercury 67 (August 1948): 169-76.

[11] William F. Buckley to Flynn, October 22, 1956, John T. Flynn Papers, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR; Stenehjem, An American First, pp. 28-29.
 

Sources on Flynn

Frey, Richard Clark, Jr.  “John T. Flynn and the United States in Crisis, 1928-1950.”  Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1970.

Horowitz, David A.  Beyond Left and Right: Insurgency and the Establishment.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Kazin, Michael.  The Populist Persuasion: An American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Moser, John.  Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism.  New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Radosh, Ronald. Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Stenehjem, Michele Flynn.  An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee.  New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976.


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