When I’m interviewed as the Post’s archives director, I often find myself addressing the misconception that the magazine was a newsmagazine. Actually, it was more of a general interest magazine that occasionally ran feature stories on current events. It didn’t run headlines, and it printed very few photographs compared to, say, Life magazine. And because its production time was so lengthy, it might not be able to comment on a news story for several weeks.
So, when war was declared in Europe on September 2, 1939, five weeks passed before the Post made any direct reference to it. And it did so in an unusual editorial entitled “America.” In it, the editors declared World War a misnomer for what had just erupted in Europe. “It is, in fact, again what it was before — a European war.”
This editorial was the first of many to argue that the fighting in Europe did not, and should not, involve America. The Post editors, like many Americans, were still bitter about America’s involvement in the last war. “Twenty-two years ago,” they wrote, “we were [fighting] on the continent of Europe, saying to ourselves, and believing, that we had engaged in a war to end war. It sounds ironic now. Nevertheless, it is one of the romantic facts to be written down in history that we had no other purpose. We were defeated. We were defeated because it was not our war. It was Europe’s war, and the peace that was written was a European peace, laying down the lines for the next war.”
Not only had that war cost America 116,000 dead and 204,000 wounded, it had also involved $10 billion in loans to allies and post-war relief aid, which it had trouble getting back.
The Post was far from alone in its isolationist attitude. But over the next two years, the editors had reasons to reconsider the Nazi threat as they watched Germany conquer one nation after another and savagely abuse the vanquished nations. Shortly before Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, the editors conceded that remaining isolated might not be feasible; we could try to avoid the war, but the war would eventually catch up with us.
The “America” editorial proved farsighted on one point. It argued that during the First World War “the world’s center of political gravity shifted from one continent to another — that is to say, from Europe to America.” England and France were trying to hold onto the “star of world supremacy” while Germany was trying to seize it. In fact, the editors wrote, that star “is not there. It is here.” The Post had recognized America’s new global power, years before its victory in the war made it obvious to the world.
On another point, though, the editors’ conclusion wasn’t quite as perceptive. The editors didn’t yet see that America couldn’t hold onto “world supremacy” and not get involved in this war.