Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, John T. Flynn

Oct 28, 2005 2:36 pm

Happy Birthday, John T. Flynn

John T. Flynn was probably the most important single activist and publicist of the “Old Right” from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was born in Bladensburg Maryland in 1882. Although he graduated from Georgetown Law School, he choose a career in journalism and never looked back.

He started on the New Haven Register but eventually moved to New York where he was financial editor the New York Globe. During the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote articles for such leading publications as The New Republic, Harper’s, and Collier’s. He became one of the best-known political commentators in the United States.

Like Oswald Garrison Villard, another key figure in the Old Right, Flynn was a leftist with populist inclinations during this period. He supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president and was a firm backer of the New Deal.

But Flynn was also a consistent anti-militarist. He was a key advisor to the Nye Committee in 1934 which investigated the role of the so called “merchants of death” (munitions manufacturers and bankers) in leading to U.S. entry into World War I.

By 1936, he had broken with Roosevelt. He was already comparing the statist and centralist features of the New Deal to Mussolini’s policies: “We seem to be a long way off from the kind of Fascism which Mussolini preached in Italy before he assumed power, and we are slowly approaching the conditions which made Fascism possible.”

Flynn was one of the founders of the America First Committee which opposed Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Flynn became head of the New York City chapter which claimed a membership of 135,000. The Committee charged that Roosevelt was using lies and deception to ensnare the United States into the war. It mounted campaigns against Lend Lease, the Selective Service, and other initiatives by Roosevelt.

Although Flynn scrupulously distanced the Committee from the ravings of extremist and anti-Semitic groups, such the National Union for Social Justice, his old pro-war leftist allies cut him off and the New Republic pulled his regular column, “Other People’s Money.”

The America First Committee disbanded in 1941 after Pearl Harbor and Flynn turned increasingly against New Deal liberalism which he regarded as a “degenerate form of socialism and debased form of capitalism.” In 1944, he wrote a classic critique of the American drift toward statism: As We Go Marching . Four years later, he followed this with The Roosevelt Myth. By the middle of the 1940s, he was describing himself as a liberal in the classical liberal tradition of small government and free markets.

During the Cold War period, Flynn continued his unflagging opposition to interventionist foreign policies and militarism. He was an early and prophetic critic of American involvement in the Indo-Chinese War on the side of the French. He charged that sending U.S. troops would “only be proving the case of the Communists against America that we are defending French imperialism.”

Unfortunately, Flynn’s association with the right also paved the way for some foolish alliances. He became an early and avid supporter of the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy in great part because McCarthy shared his contempt for the eastern Cold War elite.

Despite this ill-conceived association with McCarthy, Flynn remained fairly consistent in his foreign policy views. In 1955, he had a formal falling out with the new generation of Cold War conservatives when Bill Buckley rejected one of his articles for the new National Review. It had attacked militarism as a “job-making boondoggle.” Flynn retired from public life in 1960 and died in 1964.

My old friend and associate at the Institute for Humane Studies, John E. Moser, has written the first full-length biography of Flynn: Right Turn: John T. Flynn And The Transformation Of American Liberalism

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David T. Beito - 10/28/2005

Thank you! Do you have any memories you could share? Why did your great-grandfather retire from public life?

alexandra h gordon - 10/28/2005

What a pleasant surprise! Thank you for honoring my great-grandfather's memory. An enigmatic public figure, he was a warm, wonderful father and grandfather and he continues to be missed by my family. I look forward to reading John Moser's book.

Warmest regards.

David T. Beito - 10/26/2005

Is Moser sympathetic to Flyn's odyssey in the 1940s and 1950s? What is his broader thesis?

Kenneth R Gregg - 10/25/2005

Flynn was prophetic in so many areas. In the months prior to the Great Depression, he warned all those who read his columns about what was to occur.

I'm quite willing to forgive him for his McCarthyism toward the end of his career as following WWII, he was purged, like so many other "old right" figures, from public life by the dominating figures in politics (FDR), journalism (his column in the New Republic was cancelled) and publishing (only little-known publishers would print his books). As Moser says in "Right Turn" (and, like David, I highly recommend this work for those who want to understand this period and, in particular, Flynn):

"One of his greatest regrets was that the effort he committed to theAmerica First Committee in 1941 had brought him too much into the world of politics, leaving his cherished field of journalism almost completedly to his enemies....Not only had the forces behind the New Deal [he believed] captured the Democratic Party, but they had also taken control of labor unions, publishing houses, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, and even churches." (p. 210)

Flynn by this time, looked at the matter as a "cultural war" with McCarthy a populist front-runner in the opposition.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

David T. Beito - 10/25/2005

Thanks, I'll fix.

Mark Brady - 10/25/2005

Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth was published in 1948 (not 1944) and in a revised edition in 1956.