Friday, December 2, 2016

Rising of The Chicago Sun in 1941 casts shadows today


     The most surprising thing is how familiar it all feels.
     Not the cover price: 2 cents. Nor the mobs of Chicagoans who waited in the streets at midnight to throw their pennies at harried newsboys and strip bundles of newspapers off the trucks before they stopped rolling. Certainly not the mayor and the governor and the three newsreel cameras on hand to watch the presses roll.
The known world, according to Col .McCormick
     But 75 years ago this Sunday, when The Chicago Sun, the predecessor of this newspaper, hit the streets in the early hours of Dec. 4, 1941, war might have been raging from the British Isles to Moscow to Malaysia. But people were still people, Americans were still Americans, cynical, divided, contentious, patriotic, devious concerning what was not yet called The Mainstream Media, treating it as both quarterback and tackling dummy.
     The Sun was a paper with a purpose: to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his conviction that we had to get involved in a war that Americans wanted to avoid. A Gallup poll found 88 percent of Americans were against fighting the Nazis. What debate there was focused on how much we should help our allies and how prepared we should be -- half felt we needed to mobilize for the inevitable; the other half felt that doing so would only antagonize Mr. Hitler.
    In Chicago, Col. Robert McCormick ran his Tribune as the voice of isolation, a kind of 1940s Fox News. The Trib was "savage in its attacks upon all liberals and everyone with whom it disagreed" according to media critic Oswald Garrison Villard, who noted the Tribune endorsed the Klu Klux Klan while taking a dim view of these unwashed foreigners some thought we ought to  shed American blood to protect.
     "On international questions the Tribune has generally been cynical, reactionary, militaristic and jingo," Villard noted in 1943, explaining how McCormick's idea of sane foreign policy was to annex Mexico "without hesitation" in order to "impose our superior morality upon the Mexicans," and that a United Nations was unnecessary since other countries could merely join the U.S. as new states — white countries, of course.
     The Trib was only the most extreme of the four Chicago papers. At the august Daily News, the publisher, Frank Knox, backed the Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee, a front group secretly backed by the German government, insisting, in a very Trumpian fashion, that European nations settle the $14 billion they still owed the U.S. from WWI before any further assistance was considered. The Chicago Times was a scrappy, pro-FDR tabloid, but considered a photo-driven lightweight. And the American was a Hearst rag obsessing over ax murders and love nests.
     Into this strode our unlikely hero, Marshall Field III. Inheritor of nearly $200 million in 1940 dollars, he had a 13,000-acre plantation in South Carolina, a six-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue, a summer home in Maine, a yacht, a third wife, and a guilty liberal conscience. In 1940, he founded PM, a New York city newspaper that raised eyebrows by being printed on quality paper stock and refusing to accept advertising.
     A newspaper needs a name, and a contest was held. The winner, Russell Trenholme, received $5,000 for "The Chicago Sun," explaining his entry: "When morning comes you look for two things to make your world right: you look for the sun and sunlight, and you look for your morning paper for the truth of what's going on in the world."
     The paper was greeted with delight in Washington. "Isn't this wonderful?" FDR gushed, waving a copy — and with fanatical opposition by the Trib, which not only threatened news vendors who dared carry it, but blackballed the Sun from joining the Associated Press, a case that went up to the Supreme Court.
     Others were less hostile, though noting that neither international news nor editorial direction were what made or broke a newspaper.
     "The future of the Chicago Sun might ultimately depend upon some little comic-strip twirp presenting as much nauseating morality . . . as Little Orphan Annie," Edwin A. Lahey wrote in the Daily News.
     That first issue sold 263,000 copies. Three days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That edition sold 896,000 copies, but the Sun's main reason for being vanished overnight, as the Tribune spun on a dime and was as enthusiastic for war as it had been for accommodating Hitler.
     The Sun soldiered on, though it never made money, a reminder that hard times in the newspaper business are not new either (the Villard quote comes from a 1943 book entitled "The Disappearing Daily"). The Sun merged with the Times early in 1948, making this paper, through its second bloodline, older than the Tribune, since the Times is a descendent of the Chicago Journal, founded in 1844.
     One more point before we let the Sun set for another 25 years.
     The headline on that first edition of the Sun, a broadsheet, was "REVOLT GROWS IN SERBIA."
     The Tribune's headline that day was: "F.D.R.'S WAR PLANS!"
     An isolationist Army captain had stolen contingency plans from the War Plans Division and passed them on to arch-isolationist Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, who gave them to the Tribune, which brandished them as "irrefutable evidence that that American intervention in the war was planned and imminent." The Germans adjusted their own strategy accordingly.
     Which eerily echoes WikiLeaks, with one very, very important distinction. After the war plans were published, the White House was asked what action would be taken against those publishing the state secrets.
     "Your right to print the news is, I think, unchallenged and unquestioned," White House press secretary Stephan Early said. "It depends entirely on the decision of the publisher and editor whether publication is patriotic or treasonable."


  1. Very nice trip into the past, casting off the sepia images in which it is usually depicted.


  2. IMO, "Gary Johnson for President" is the new "Dewey Defeats Truman."

    One of the few things A.J. Liebling wrote that I ever really liked was his savaging of that pompous ass McCormick in "Chicago: The Second City." (Even though I pretty much hated the rest of that book.)

  3. Oswald Garrison Villard is an interesting person, at least according to his Wikipedia page. Most of his criticisms have held up well over time. His 1943 book "The Disappearing Daily" seems to be hard to find. I've been trying to track down where or when The Chicago Tribune endorsed the Ku Klux Klan. Very unusual, in that back in the day, Robert McCormick was very anti anything to do with the democratic party. I've had no luck with the Chicago Tribune online archives, if anyone knows the date an editorial supporting the KKK was published, please add a comment. McCormick was a founder of The America First Committee, but strangely enough Villard also became a member.

    1. A little coda. Oswald Garrison Villard's "The Disappearing Daily" is available online. An excellent read, he employs a technique of alternating carrot and stick, alternately giving praise and shaming the targets of his critical analysis. So with the Tribune, Chapter 13 is titled Colonel McCormick and the Chicago Tribune, and sure enough on page 132 said "but it (Tribune) endorsed the Ku Klux Klan." On page 136 he goes on to elaborate "If the Ku Klux Klan had a brief life in Illinois, it undoubtedly prospered while it lived because of the Tribune's aid." I believe Villard was referring to the resurgence of popularity and recruitment for the KKK that occurred early in the 1920's. With the additional information providing a context for searches, I found this interesting Tribune flashback story from last year. In that article the Tribune confesses to having endorsed them early on "The first Ku Klux Klan grew out of intolerable conditions in the south and passed away when the danger of Negro domination and the plague of the carpet bagger were lifted." Also "It was born of an emergency and, while evils were committed in its name, it served an important end, while contributing one of the romantic episodes of our history." The article claims "The Tribune also editorially decried the revived KKK's presence in Chicago." Also noting at that time the KKK had it's supporters in both parties.
      As always, I'd rather have a Guaranteed Rate, than have my favorite baseball team participate in the revival of the KKK in Illinois.

  4. Helps explain why my liberal parents subscribed to the CST but not the Trib in the fifties.

  5. In the early 50s, I delivered at one time or another the Trib, Sun-Times, Daily News, and the Herald American and presumably read some of them. Yet, a few years later, when I sent a letter to a San Diego newspaper objecting to some outrageously unfair column written by one of their right-wing columnists, I blush to state that I held up the Chicago Tribune as a standard of journalistic integrity and fairness. The editor of the San Diego paper actually replied to my letter, saying something to the effect of, "Different places, different opinions, different standards," while no doubt snickering at my total ignorance of the Trib's provenance. This experience should have taught me something about selective memory and inherited prejudices, but it did not. I confidently predicted that Hillary would win by not just a landslide, but a super landslide, because I could not imagine any rational human being anywhere voting for the likes of Donald Trump. Yet quite a few people similar to me in upbringing, economic status and education, did choose to vote for him, not despite his flaws and perhaps not even because of them, but because they saw something, heard something, felt something about Mr. Trump that completely eluded my senses.



This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.