In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
Hamilton Fish Armstrong underwent a serious operation almost immediately after he laid down the editorship of this magazine with the 50th Anniversary Issue last October. He died in April. He was our friend, our mentor, and the principal source of the ideals we strive to continue. We have asked three friends and associates to write of him, and we conclude with an excerpt from one of his own early articles. It sums up what he stood for.
For a full half-century Hamilton Fish Armstrong was associated with Foreign Affairs, first as managing editor and then as editor after the death of Archibald Cary Coolidge. When the journal was inaugurated by the Council on Foreign Relations, Coolidge, as a Harvard professor, remained in Cambridge, and Armstrong had to hold the little fort, then on Forty-Third Street. The two men worked admirably together and Armstrong often declared how much he gained from his all-too-brief collaboration with one of the wisest and most broad-minded unofficial statesmen this country has ever had.
When Armstrong took over the editorship in 1928, Foreign Affairs was already recognized for its authoritative and objective treatment of world affairs. But it was left for the new pilot to steer a course through the stormy seas of a world depression, and then to keep an even keel through a decade of aggression in Europe and Asia, culminating in the ordeal of the Second World War and eventually the anguish and uncertainty of the thermonuclear age.
No better guide could be imagined. He traveled widely, came to know at first hand the problems of many countries, and seized every opportunity, in New York and abroad, to assess the statesmen of foreign nations and their policies. His own writings, often full of foreboding, were nevertheless as well-balanced as they were well-informed. Under his stewardship the magazine attained a world reputation and an influence out of proportion to its circulation.
In 1925 I assumed charge of the Recent Books section of Foreign Affairs and from that time on remained in close collaboration with Ham Armstrong, in one capacity or another, until his retirement last fall. Every year increased my respect for his competence, his patience and kindness, his complete devotion to international relations and the cause of peace. We did not always agree. On several occasions, at his request, I wrote articles on imperialism or related topics. The conclusions were not always to his liking. He would argue vigorously to test them; while not always convinced, he would publish none the less.
It is a privilege to pay tribute to a devoted, loyal and lifelong friend. The imposing file of Foreign Affairs will forever stand as a monument to his dedicated and untiring service in the interest of his country and of world peace.
William L. Langer
There can surely be few others of whom it may be so justly said that they are born, not made, than of editors. The calling requires a special motivation, a special instinct, a special patience and persistence, that seem to lie in the very tissue of character and personality.
Hamilton Armstrong was one of these. He enjoyed editing. He believed in it. He had a firm and clear concept of what he wanted Foreign Affairs to be, and he never deviated from it. It was not the only concept one could have had; it did not always meet with agreement on the part of others; there were, obviously, many other ways in which a journal devoted to international affairs could have been conceived. But this conception was his; he had faith in it and he pursued it with patience, logic and consistency over the decades, steadily winning acceptance and respect for it, making no concessions to the passing fancies of the moment, resisting all the temptations of mass circulation and commercial success, filling with growing mastery and dignity, as the years went by, that narrow but commanding niche in the structure of American journalism which he had made it his life's purpose to fill.
A forum for the opinions of others, expressing no opinion of its own. A place for fact, for thought, for calmly reasoned argument, with no room in its columns for polemic, for anger, for personal attack. A literary tone that would be quiet and serious, but never pretentious. Importance, as the main criterion in the selection of material-whether the importance was to come from the significance and originality of the subject matter or from the authority of the author. But no concessions to any would-be contributor, humble or great, when it came to clarity of thought, significance of content, and moderation of language.
These, as I saw it, were the principles on which Ham Armstrong built up the journal that was the work of his life. Perhaps the greatest service he rendered to the rest of us was to demonstrate, by the success of his efforts, that there was still a place amid all the cacophony of modern communications-a valued, respected and appreciated place-for journalistic creativity based on principles of this kind.
George F. Kennan
I first met Hamilton Fish Armstrong twenty or so years ago when he was about sixty years old. I remember my surprise that the editor of what I had regarded as a rather stuffy magazine was so conspicuously lacking in pomposity and self-regard and so filled with charm and spirit. Later I also discovered that Ham was a far more cunning editor than I had realized. His was an ideal way to communicate dangerous thoughts to the American establishment. Among all those "Bulgaria at the Crossroads" pieces and those pronouncements by forgotten foreign ministers on forgotten problems, one encountered a surprising liveliness and ecumenicity of contribution- John Dewey, W. E. B. DuBois, John Gunther, Harold Nicolson, Isaiah Berlin, Harold Laski, not to mention Lenin, Radek and Bukharin.
As a first-class editor, Ham Armstrong came up with interesting ideas, set them forth with a skill that tempted the most overworked writer, and used his charm ruthlessly to get the pieces he wanted. He proposed subjects that tempted me in spite of myself, and overrode my doubts about whether I had time to do the job properly. Afterward, I was always grateful to him for having made me write the articles.
He was always on the lookout for younger contributors. This was because, having followed international affairs for a long time, he understood that foreign policies, unlike diamonds, were not forever and that what worked in one set of circumstances was not necessarily engraved on the tablets of the ages. He did not, like some contemporaries, suppose that ultimate wisdom on foreign policy had been confided to his own generation, or that the foreign relations of the United States had reached a degree of perfection at some point, probably 1949, that required no further amendment or revision.
While Ham recognized that a rapidly changing international society required fresh assessments and prescriptions, he held fast to one general view-that America could not avoid a major role in the world and that this role must be as intelligent and magnanimous as possible. He had the highest standards for his country, took personal pride in both the ideals and the craftsmanship of foreign relations, and felt personal shame when America's performance fell below the standards he cherished. His last piece in Foreign Affairs, "Isolated America" in the 50th Anniversary Issue, is a deeply moving confession of faith, doubt and hope.
No account of Hamilton Fish Armstrong as a public force can do justice to his rare personal qualities. His memoirs, which so well combine historical solidity and literary charm, will remain, along with Foreign Affairs, as his public monuments. But what will endure in the minds of his friends is the memory of a New York gentleman of a vanishing school. He treated everyone, old or young, famous or unknown, with the same generous courtesy and concern. It was more than manner, though his manners were distinguished; it was a genuine youthfulness of mind and openness of heart. One remembers his marvelous humor, his infectious table talk, his unending delight in the house on West l0th Street where he was born and where he lived all his life, his Christmas parties over which Christa Armstrong presided with such grace and, above all, his own exceptional sweetness and indomitability of character.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
". . . we may perhaps pause for a backward glance and try to decide whether at any point our national policy has lacked in good faith, good manners, generosity, a proper sense of responsibility, or any other virtue by which, without being quixotic or emotional, we might have helped the journey of other peoples towards the goal which all profess to have in view- international understanding and peace."
Hamilton Fish Armstrong, "After Ten Years: Europe and America," Foreign Affairs, October 1928.