What Accounts for the Renewal of the New York Review of Books ? Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

Scott Sherman, in the Nation (June 7, 2004):

... In the wake of the Vietnam War, the [New Yok Review of Books] became a formidable--and, in some sense, unique--journalistic institution. Many of its readers reside in academia, but the paper has a devoted following in the upper reaches of media, politics and philanthropy, which gives it an influence vastly out of proportion to its circulation of 130,000. (One recent essay, Peter Galbraith's "How to Get Out of Iraq," even caused a stir among some military intellectuals.) That influence translates into dollars: In contrast to virtually all serious literary and political journals, which drain money from their owners, the Review has been profitable for decades. But the formula is not without its imperfections, which have grown more pronounced in recent years. The publication has always been erudite and authoritative--and because of its analytical rigor and seriousness, frequently essential--but it hasn't always been lively, pungent and readable. A musty odor, accompanied by a certain aversion to risk-taking, has pervaded its pages for a long time. "In recent years," says the historian Ronald Steel, who has contributed since 1965, "the paper has sometimes verged on being bland or predictable, always using the same people."

But the election of George W. Bush, combined with the furies of 9/11, jolted the editors. Since 2001, the Review's temperature has risen and its political outlook has sharpened. Old warhorses bolted from their armchairs. Prominent members of the Review "family"--a stable that includes veteran journalists (Thomas Powers, Frances FitzGerald, Ian Buruma), literary stars (Joan Didion, Norman Mailer) and academic heavyweights (Stanley Hoffmann, Ronald Dworkin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.)--charged into battle not only against the White House but against the lethargic press corps and the "liberal hawk" intellectuals, some of whom are themselves prominent members of the Review's extended family. In stark contrast to The New Yorker, whose editor, David Remnick, endorsed the Iraq war in a signed essay in February 2003, asserting that "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all"; or The New York Times Magazine, which gave ample space to Michael Ignatieff, Bill Keller, Paul Berman, George Packer and other prowar liberal hawks, the Review opposed the Iraq war in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.

The firepower it directed against the liberal hawks reveals much about the Review's political mood these days. Like many in the liberal hawk camp, the publication sanctioned US military intervention in the Balkans on humanitarian grounds. But when Ignatieff & Co. invoked the logic of humanitarian intervention as a basis for military action against Saddam Hussein, the Review (which has showcased Ignatieff's work for years) insisted that Bush's crusade against Iraq was something closer to old-fashioned imperialism. As Ian Buruma wrote in a quietly devastating assessment of Paul Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism: "There is something in the tone of Berman's polemic that reminds me of the quiet American in Graham Greene's novel, the man of principle who causes mayhem, without quite realizing why."

What blew the dust off The New York Review? In no sense, really, has the paper returned to its New Left sensibility of the late 1960s: Chomsky, Hayden and Willis have not been reinstated; young lions like The Baffler's Tom Frank and The Village Voice's Rick Perlstein have not been invited to contribute; Eric Foner, Bruce Cumings, Richard Rorty, Chalmers Johnson, Stephen Holmes, Anatol Lieven, Elaine Showalter and Carol Brightman continue to publish much of their finest work not in The New York Review of Books but in the more radical, eccentric and sprightly pages of the London Review of Books. In short, the Review's liberal (and establishment) soul remains intact. What has changed significantly, in the age of Bush, is the Review's style of rhetoric and degree of political focus and commitment....

What accounts for the Review's post-9/11 revival? One word that continually tumbles from the lips of seasoned Review-watchers is"Vietnam." Says Mark Danner, who worked for Silvers after he graduated from Harvard in the early 1980s, and who has recently produced some searching essays in the Review about Iraq,"If you look back over the Review's history, you'll find that periods of crisis bring out the best editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing."

Some observers point to a circular continuity between the Review's coverage of Vietnam and Iraq."The late 1960s, for the paper, were, to some extent, the age of Chomsky," says Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann."The Review was a very strong critic of the Vietnam War. Gradually it became less militant, if you like. And indeed in the last year it has found some of its old vigor again, but it never lost what can be called a highly critical viewpoint about a number of aspects of international relations and foreign affairs." ...

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