Reader’s Détente: The Decline of the Digest

Reader’s Détente: The Decline of the Digest

In a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, when the friends were both in high office, the president asked Mulroney, “Brian, did you read that article in the Reader’s Digest that trees cause pollution?”

via Flickr creative commons, IFHP97

In a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, when the friends were both in high office, the president asked Mulroney, “Brian, did you read that article in the Reader’s Digest that trees cause pollution?” Mulroney was exasperated. “I knew him and liked him well enough that I didn’t get into an argument. I just said, ‘I gave up reading Reader’s Digest, Ron,’” he later told a journalist.

Reagan was a lifetime reader of the Digest. He once used an article from the magazine to slur the nuclear freeze movement as being comprised partly of Soviet agents. It was terrifying to contemplate the most powerful man in the world getting foreign policy ideas from a pocket-sized general-interest family magazine, but Reagan was not alone. For decades, Reader’s Digest was the primary source of information and opinions about international affairs for tens of millions of Americans. The magazine did not just run any articles about foreign policy, however; the Digest had a clear right-wing perspective, which had a tremendous, though often ignored, influence during the Cold War. As it turns ninety this year, it’s worth recalling the Digest’s peculiar history—and what is says about the ability of the most middlebrow of publications to influence American public opinion and simultaneously reflect it.

The Digest was influencing American opinion long before the Soviets overran Eastern Europe. It was first published on February 5, 1922, by Minnesota-born DeWitt Wallace, the son of a minister, who spent four months reading magazines while holed up in a French hospital during the First World War. By 1929 the magazine had 290,000 subscribers. “From the beginning, in the early 1920s, the Digest was concerned that America might be in decline, presenting an image of a once virtuous society fast succumbing to Satan through ‘loose morals,’” writes Joanne P. Sharp, a historian at the University of Glasgow, in her 2000 book Condensing the Cold War: Reader’s Digest and American Identity.

And yet, for all its congenital conservatism, Reader’s Digest wasn’t initially devoutly anti-Communist. On the contrary, the two articles in the magazine on the Soviet Union in 1922 suggested that the October Revolution was a welcome response to the czar’s oppression. “Human effort has been guided by trial and error, so today we find that the Bolsheviks, except for their desire for world revolution, are rapidly approaching other nations of Europe in their efforts,” one of the articles read. More sinister was the remark that one needn’t be upset about Lenin’s terror because it was simply “traditional Oriental despotism plus modern police technology.” Writes Sharp: “Reader’s Digest concentrated more on improvements in the lives of average Russians, the positive attitude of the Russian people to their government, and the honesty and equity of the new country than on critiques of the new system or fears of its consequences.” Amazingly (in light of later developments), another article stated that “we are not called upon, nor are we morally in a position to interfere in Russia’s internal life, or to pass judgment upon the acts of her rulers.”

This wasn’t a short-lived infatuation. Fellow traveler Eugene Lyons published an interview with Stalin in RD in 1931 in which he asked such hard-hitting questions as why the dictator’s actions were “so persistently distorted,” including the use of such slanderous terms as “dictator.” Lyons accepted Stalin’s claim that dictatorship was impossible under the Soviet system.

None of this is to say that the Digest was entirely sympathetic to, or indifferent toward, its future mortal enemy. One piece noted religious persecution in the Soviet Union, and by the mid-1930s Stalin was routinely compared to Hitler, with one article saying that “violence is the very nature of the communist dictatorship.” The Digest’s newfound hostility to the Evil Empire was of a piece with its hostility to the New Deal. Like many conservatives, the Digest thought Franklin Roosevelt was leading the country toward some sort of socialism.

When the United States entered the war alongside the Soviets, the Digest again expressed admiration for the Hammer and Sickle. Soviet soldiers were praised, with comparisons to early American pioneers. Stalin was portrayed as more of an idiosyncrasy than as a representative of the entire Soviet system, and the U.S.-Russian relationship was characterized as “one of friendship and goodwill.” Equally as cynical, in light of the magazine’s future hard-right views, was the Digest’s defense of the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe. “The Soviet government is as legitimately entitled to promote a regional system of Eastern Europe, composed of co-operative and well-disposed independent governments among the countries adjacent to Russia, as the United States has been justified in promoting an inter-American system of the 21 sovereign republics of the Western Hemisphere,” read a 1944 piece.

All of that friendliness and whitewashing came to a stark halt with the opening of the Cold War. The Digest became rabidly anti-Communist and never relented until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The magazine was single-mindedly obsessed with the threat the Soviet Union posed to America. At a time when television was becoming the medium of choice for Americans, the Digest overcame the electronic competition to reach the apex of influence in American journalism.

By the fortieth anniversary of Reader’s Digest, there were forty international editions, in thirteen languages plus Braille, and it was the largest-circulating journal in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Peru, and a number of other countries, with a total international circulation of 23 million. It was for years the most popular magazine in America.

Its rhetoric was apocalyptic at the time. “WORLD WAS III has already started,” read a 1961 article. “War was going to be inevitable the moment we become weak,” read another [italics in original]. The Digest actually had little faith that America would last. “Can we survive?…a successful attack on us might give the merciless communist leaders control of the world in a week.” The Soviets’ violent military was always moments away from dominating the globe.

Another theme was a constant fear of subversion. “The unsuspecting American imagines that we are safe from socialism because he knows the people will never for it. But socialism can be put over by a small majority,” read one piece. Others were just paranoid: “This country is the Number One target of the communist espionage apparatus,”—never mind Eastern Europe. The Digest urged readers to get involved personally in ferreting out the Soviet menace: “This is where you come in. No-one is too small or insignificant, too young or too old, to be shackled and regiments, or pauperized and destroyed…By its all-encompassing timetable sooner or later [the] ‘communist masterplot’ has to reach you.” Being alert was the only way to avoid becoming a “slave of communism.” As Sharp put it, “it was not possible, in the eyes of the Digest, to be sympathetic to any communist belief without actually being a communist.” But as Dissent co-editor Michael Kazin pointed out in the journal Democracy, Communist parties in the West did a lot of good in promoting civil rights, gaining union recognition and fighting for higher wages, opposing discrimination on the basis of gender and race and religion, and securing access to high-quality education:

Most communists in Western Europe, Japan, and the Americas gradually became cheerleaders for liberal ideals and social-democratic policies themselves. Communists thus put grassroots muscle, and their tightly blinkered idealism, behind the goals of the New Deal and joined the coalition that kept it in power.

None of this is to deny that the Soviet Union posed a real threat to America and Western Europe, and was unconscionably brutal toward its own people and all of Eastern Europe. But inflating the scale of that threat was both counterproductive and often depraved.

Some of what the Digest published was valuable, especially in educating the public in international affairs, albeit at superficial levels. The magazine’s March 1950 issue opened with George F. Kennan’s essay, “Is War With Russia Inevitable? Five Solid Arguments for Peace.” That article counseled calm, arguing that “current Stalinist doctrine does not demand war.” Kennan declared that Russia was not suicidal, and so its acquisition of nuclear weapons did not alter much of the strategic situation in the world. The magazine had also published excerpts of Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1947.

For the most part, however, Reader’s Digest promoted right-wing views on both economics and Communism. It published excerpts of Whittaker Chamber’s Witness, and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom filled the first twenty pages of one issue, under a banner headline that read: “One of the Most Important Books of Our Generation.” Where once the New Deal had received some positive reviews (“The broad policies of the New Deal inject into the framework of capitalism certain principles of social responsibility which the ‘economic man’ of traditional capitalism did not recognize”), by the late 1940s all ideas with a hint of collectivism in them were thought to be perpetuated only by Communist dupes or infiltrators. Communism was described as a “disease,” “cancerous,” “a blood virus,” and a “sickness.”

The momentous Sino-Soviet split did not significantly alter the Digest’s perception of the hostile world. “The cold war isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat,” Nixon wrote in the magazine in 1964, years before he would pursue détente with China. Digest writers alleged that détente would make the world more dangerous, because Communists would take advantage of de-escalation of tensions to pursue their agenda of global domination. “Russia has not changed,” read one piece in 1969. “Crying peace when they do not mean peace—is a device for promoting communist takeover by every means short of nuclear war.”

RD reached the height of its popularity in the 1970s. It was the bestselling monthly magazine in the world, with 17 million copies sold domestically. There were 3,500 people employed at RD headquarters. And yet the magazine’s hard-right views would seem to cater to a small constituency. The magazine constantly promoted the war in Vietnam as of paramount importance in winning the Cold War. They knew “what the communists are after—in Vietnam and elsewhere.” According to Sharp, readers were given information on how to register their protests and convey their demand that America stay strong in the war. Military leaders were given space to make their arguments, and the editors decided to provide the address of the North Vietnamese delegate to the Paris peace talks, along with the specific amount of postage necessary to write to him.

If its cultural impact and popularity peaked in the 1970s, its political influence did so in the Reagan years. Only the National Review could compete in its influence on Reagan, who wrote an article in the magazine on “The Unforgettable John Wayne” in 1979. The term “welfare queen” was popularized in the magazine long before it became one the Gipper’s talking points. It has been alleged that “his chief source of information about the Soviet Union was Reader’s Digest.” Reagan’s knowledge of economics came in no small part from Hayek’s except in RD, according to his biographer Lee Edwards.

This was the beginning of the end of the magazine, however. It is as if with the demise of the Cold War, RD lost its raison d’être. The company went public in 1990. It, like most other publications, has struggled to regain its footing in the digital era. In the second quarter of 2012, revenue plummeted 22.5 percent. Its CEO told Adweek that the company anticipated missing the terms of a $50 million bank loan. International editions have been thinned out.

RD’s executives believe it can survive. “It’s traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church,” the president of the Reader’s Digest Association told the New York Times in 2009. The editorial team had considered turning the magazine into a companion to Fox News. But the Cold War is over—and with it, it seems, the Reader’s Digest.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.