The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler 
by Kathryn Olmsted.
Yale, 314 pp., £25, April 2022, 978 0 300 25642 0
Show More
Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War 
by Deborah Cohen.
William Collins, 427 pp., £10.99, March, 978 0 00 830590 1
Show More
Show More

In the summer of​ 1941, the American reporter Dorothy Thompson flew to London via neutral Lisbon. She was met by her British editor, J.W. Drawbell of the Sunday Chronicle, who had ‘looked in vain for someone in authority, some worthy figure representing England’ to meet her off the plane – the archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps. What was the point of the Ministry of Information – all those ‘millions of pounds on leaflets, on advertising, on propaganda of all kinds’ – if it couldn’t put together a parade? Thompson was to have three suites at the Savoy, fully staffed and filled with flowers. Anyone she wanted to meet – leaders of governments-in-exile, naval commanders, bomber pilots, H.G. Wells, the boy-king of Yugoslavia – was made available. Churchill played host at a country-house weekend. The queen had her to tea at Buckingham Palace. Anthony Eden took her to the movies. Drawbell wasn’t satisfied. In the book he wrote about Thompson’s visit – Dorothy Thompson’s English Journey, now deservingly out of print – he envisioned the ‘scene that would have been played out’ if she had been as good a friend to Germany as he thought she’d been to Britain, and had flown instead to Berlin. He asked the functionaries of Whitehall to imagine that ‘massed stormtroopers … Who knows? The Führer himself’ might have waited for her plane to land. As far as Drawbell was concerned, it was ‘impossible ever to estimate what the friendship of Dorothy Thompson meant to this country’. He thought she would be responsible for bringing America into the war.

Just a few years before, Thompson had been most famous for her marriage to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and for what her friends referred to as her ‘comico-terrible gaffe’. In 1931, when the Nazi Party was on the rise in Germany but had yet to secure a majority in parliament, Thompson had interviewed Hitler for the Saturday Evening Post. For an hour, she had waited for him in the foyer of the Kaiserhof Hotel, next to the Reich Chancellery, so nervous that she considered taking smelling salts. She had been trying to meet Hitler for more than seven years, but he’d always put her off, seemingly ‘lofty and remote from all foreigners’ – a pose, she thought, intended to indicate that ‘Hitler, the pure, the incorruptible had time only for his own.’ His new willingness to talk to her (so long as she asked no more than three questions, submitted at least 24 hours in advance) was a sign, she assumed, that he was readying himself to be a world leader. She was disappointed:

When finally I walked into Adolf Hitler’s salon … I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog. He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.

As she tried, in vain, to get him to answer the question ‘What will you do for the working masses when you come to power?’, he became ‘hysterical’. ‘He gives the impression of a man in a trance. He bangs the table.’ Thompson had spent years reporting from Germany; she was confident that in any coalition government, stronger, saner men – President Hindenburg, for example – would be able to keep the Nazis in line. Hitler told her that his plan was to get into power legally, then to abolish the constitution. ‘I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance,’ he said. ‘Everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, and discipline and obedience below.’ But other parties would never vote in favour of their own destruction. ‘Oh, Adolf! Adolf! You will be out of luck!’

When the article was republished as a short book, it included Thompson’s suggestion, barely veiled, that Hitler was probably gay. When she returned to Berlin in 1934, she knew better than to expect a warm welcome from the new chancellor. But no American reporter had been expelled from the Reich until Thompson received a hand-delivered letter from the Gestapo that accused her of offending ‘national self-respect’, rendering them unable to extend a ‘further right of hospitality’. The international press corps saw her off at the train station the next morning, her arms full of the roses they had given her. By the time she got back to the US, Thompson had been transformed into the most famous anti-Nazi writer in the country. She made a thirty-city lecture tour and began a column in the Herald Tribune, opposite Walter Lippmann. Syndication in more than a hundred other papers gave her one of the largest readerships in English. Her commission was to provide a ‘cosy’ primer on current events addressed to housewives, so that women ‘would not always have to be seeking information from their husbands’. But she really had only one subject: Germany was at war with the world; Britain and the US just didn’t know it yet. She had no idea how to make it cosy. In the run-up to the Munich Agreement, the drama critic Alexander Woollcott wrote to Rebecca West that he had the ‘impression from a fairly faithful reading of Dorothy Thompson in the Herald Tribune that she may sail at any minute in order to strangle Neville Chamberlain’.

After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, opinion pollsters asked Americans to what extent they were in favour of aiding European democracies. The answer: not much. They were willing for their country to sell food to Britain and France – that was about it. The year before, only 5 per cent had supported taking in more refugees. In Kathryn Olmsted’s book The Newspaper Axis, American newspaper owners are shown putting their weight behind isolationism, what William Randolph Hearst preferred to call ‘America first’. He commissioned Hitler and Mussolini to write for his many newspapers (at $1 a word), and was delighted that Hitler had restored ‘character and courage’ to Germany. At a time when most Americans got their news from newspapers, press barons pushed editors into publishing ‘balanced’ reporting from Nazi Germany, which ignored or downplayed what was happening to the Jews. They also provided a context for Hitler’s territorial ambitions: they were a result of the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, and comparable to British imperialism. The polls found that 64 per cent of Americans thought that fighting in the Great War had been a mistake; the papers cautioned their readers not to fall for British anti-German propaganda again. Hearst led the charge to keep in force the Neutrality Act, which prevented Americans from exporting war material to any ‘belligerent’ nation, including Britain.

Thompson was fortunate (until she wasn’t) to work for a newspaper whose owners, Ogden and Helen Reid, usually allowed her to write what she wanted, so long as she didn’t oppose the Republican Party. On domestic policy, it was easy enough for her to oblige: she thought that Roosevelt’s expansion of the welfare state smacked of ‘fascism’ and government overreach. (‘I wish to stand on … my constitutional right to be insecure,’ she wrote, opposing social security payments.) But – almost alone among American pundits, and with the largest audience of any of them – she encouraged him to use the full power of the presidency when it came to lifting the military embargo, in defiance of the isolationist Congress. If they waited too long, she warned, Britain might enter into collaboration with Germany, as ‘powerful’ Englishmen wanted to do. She acknowledged that British propaganda in the Great War had ‘exploited to the utmost’ the American love of ‘Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, Magna Carta’, and that those of ‘Anglo-Saxon stock’ like herself had felt an ‘intensity of feeling for the people from which they sprang’, which had been misplaced. But this war was different: Americans needed to send aid to Britain, not for the sake of the British, but because it was in their own stupid best interest.

Those who disagreed with her were ‘muddle-headed’ ‘cowards’ and ‘ostriches’, ‘architects of cynicism’, ‘afraid to wake up and live’. She was particularly cross with the national hero Charles Lindbergh. He’d been ‘beloved’ to her when he’d flown solo from New York to Paris; but he’d taken to headlining rallies to defend the Neutrality Act against the ‘British and Jewish races’ who would ‘lead our country to destruction’. He was the American Thompson most feared, ‘America’s number one problem child’, the beautiful man who was, she was certain, intent on becoming ‘America’s Führer’ (as he does in Philip Roth’s The Plot against America). His fans accused Thompson of hysteria – attacks against her were nearly always gendered. One quip (attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth) was that Thompson was the ‘only woman in history who has had her menopause in public and made it pay’. She received so much post, much of it hate mail, that it had to be delivered to her on special trucks; three secretaries, all called Madeline, helped her sort through her letters and turned the most threatening ones over to the FBI. In front of the White House, a group of women attempted to hang her in effigy: they said that they were all mothers, and that Thompson wanted ‘to give away a million boys’ lives in blood and pain’. Senators from Idaho, Montana and North Dakota called for her to be investigated as a ‘British agent’. How else to explain her comment, during the Battle of Britain, that if ‘democracy perishes in Britain, it will not be because the British people did not fight Hitler with all they had; it will be because … the world’s greatest democracy and brother free nation allowed them to perish without adequate aid’? It didn’t help that her father, a Methodist minister in upstate New York, had been born in Durham: proof of her divided loyalty.

A long, condescending two-part New Yorker profile of Thompson in the spring of 1940 argued that it might be dangerous for an ‘incendiary’ to have such a huge platform (seven and a half million readers, many of them overly ‘susceptible’ to her ‘belligerence in print’), but was most interested in how her ‘overpreoccupation with world affairs’ was wrecking her marriage. In the early days of their courtship, Lewis had insisted on following her to Vienna, where she reported on a workers’ protest, then to Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Lewis thought her career made her glamorous, like a starlet. Thompson helped him with his most famous novel, It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, about a Hitler-ish dictator taking control of the US. But now he’d started referring to ‘the international situation as it relates to Dorothy’ as ‘it’, and made a show of leaving the room whenever she insisted on talking about ‘it’, which was all the time. He told friends that if he were to divorce her, he’d name Hitler as co-respondent. (They did divorce, though not until 1942, after years of separation.) The article also insinuated that Thompson’s career was the result of an ‘extraordinary kind of reporter’s luck’: she hit on the idea of travelling around Central Europe as a freelance reporter and learned German, while other ‘rich Americans had ignored Europe, except as a playground, since the Armistice.’ Who could have guessed that the region would become of interest to so many Americans again, and so soon?

Time magazine, which put Thompson on the cover in 1939, was more admiring: ‘She can do more for a cause than almost any private citizen in the US.’ The year before, an article she wrote for Foreign Affairs persuaded Roosevelt to host, via the State Department, a splashy international conference in Evian on the plight of Jewish refugees. Thompson had proposed the ‘set up’ of ‘some bridge’ – ideally, a powerful agency – that would funnel newly stateless German and Austrian Jews into ‘the countries that may be ready to receive them’. Thirty-two countries sent representatives to France (Golda Meir was one), but few of them had power, and some claimed that the conference had been a boon only to the town’s hairdressers. Country after country offered excuses for their refusal to increase immigration quotas (‘As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,’ the Australians said), and some nations (Romania, Hungary, Poland) asked to be relieved of the Jews they already had. In the end, the conference was fodder for Nazi propaganda: the rest of the world didn’t want Jews either.

In Deborah Cohen’s​ group biography of American reporters and pundits who ‘took on a world at war’, Thompson shares space with some of her friends and rivals, particularly John Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker and Vincent Sheean. Cohen is more interested in the personal lives of her subjects than in anything they wrote, an emphasis I found frustrating, even as I admired the stylishness of Cohen’s own writing. The broken marriages, unsatisfying affairs, alcoholism and psychoanalytic adventures of her male subjects kept blurring into one another, while Thompson stands apart, and not only because she was a woman. She had her breakdowns too (and three marriages), but she seemed tougher than her peers, and they knew it. ‘She could always step over the corpses and go on, steadily, resolutely,’ Sheean claimed in the book he wrote about Thompson and Lewis, Dorothy and Red (1963). Thompson almost never talked about sexism – she often pretended it didn’t affect her – though in one of her columns she admitted that if she had had a daughter, she probably would have told her not to try to have a career: it cost too much. Besides, ‘society’ had a ‘greater need of good mothers’ than it did of writers of the ‘second-rate novel’. But she never thought of herself as a second-rate anything. On the radio, she was introduced as a ‘cross between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nurse Edith Cavell’. She didn’t disagree. She wrote that her father had taught her that the world was in a ‘continual struggle between good and evil, virtue and sin’, and that ‘progress was furthered only through creative individuals, whose example and achievement leavened and lifted the mass.’ All her life, she had wanted to be one of those individuals; now everyone was telling her that she was. She had a platform; she wanted to see what she could do with it.

A few months after the failure at Evian, Thompson took up the cause of a single refugee: Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish teenager who had shot dead a Nazi diplomat in the German embassy in Paris. Thompson tried to explain that this ‘anaemic-looking boy with brooding black eyes’ had been driven to ‘this unique desperate act’ to ‘call attention to the wrongs’ done to his race. He had been born in Hanover, but as the son of Polish Jews had never been entitled to German citizenship, and was stateless. He had been living in Paris, but his papers had expired. ‘He could not leave France, for no country would take him in. He could not work because no country would give him a work permit.’ He had been filled with ‘dark anxiety and wild despair’, but had kept it together until he learned that his father had been ‘summoned from his bed, and herded with thousands of others into a train of box cars, and shipped over the border, into Poland’. Thompson knew Grynszpan was doomed, but raised money for his legal defence anyway.

Who is on trial in this case? I say we are all on trial. I say the Christian world is on trial. I say the men of Munich are on trial, who signed a pact without one word of protection for helpless minorities. Whether Herschel Grynszpan lives or not won’t matter much to Herschel. He was prepared to die when he fired those shots … No kinsman of Herschel’s can defend him. The Nazi government has announced that if any Jew, anywhere in the world, protests at anything that is happening, further oppressive measures will be taken. They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage.

Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard. This boy has become a symbol, and the responsibility for his deed must be shared by those who caused it.

The assassination provided the pretext, two days later, for Kristallnacht. Olmsted’s book shows that British and American newspaper owners feared that drawing attention to what happened that night – publishing photographs of smashed shops and schools, or dead and wounded bodies – would undermine support for appeasement and isolationism. In articles and editorials, they tried to suggest that the pogroms had been the work of out-of-control mobs, rather than organised and abetted by state officials. And they pushed the line that Jews, ‘who did not have their country’s best interests at heart’, were making full use of every bad thing that happened to them ‘to draw their nations into war’. The same year, pollsters had found that a majority of Americans thought that violent attacks against Jews were wholly or partially their own fault. Thompson hoped to move the needle a little, or at least to keep it steady. To expand her audience, she’d added a radio show on Monday evenings. The New Yorker profile noted that the show’s sponsor, General Electric, ‘worried about the violence of her radio attacks on Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini’ – all the more jarring because they were delivered in a strong, authoritative woman’s voice. Producers tried ‘to soften’ the tone of the show by calling it The Hour of Charm, and ‘by quickly bringing on, after she finished speaking, a trio of girls who sang, for example, “Thank God for a Garden, Thank God for you”’. Thompson had about five million listeners, though she couldn’t always count on getting through to them. One St Louis station cut her off mid-broadcast because it thought her criticism of Hitler (she called him a liar) might offend German-Americans. Thompson’s colleagues, sympathetic to nationalist struggles in the British Empire, were sometimes cool to her too. When the Blitz began, Frances Gunther said she hoped ‘London is razed till there’s not a stinking stone of it left – till it’s bald – like Jawahar [Nehru]’s poor old bald head.’ Cohen argues that Thompson wasn’t ‘uncritically pro-British’, but that ‘what she cared most about was the survival of Western Christian civilisation’, and she had persuaded herself that ‘Britain – and American public opinion about Britain – was key.’ She wrote a pleading letter to the Sunday Times: if Britain wanted to bolster American support, it needed to improve its propaganda. Americans would take the risk of sending war material – Churchill had asked for fifty destroyers – only if they believed that Britain had emerged as a defender of the civilised world, rather than merely ‘the defender of her own empire’.

In the early months of 1941, Roosevelt tried to persuade Congress to pass the Lend-Lease bill, which would allow him to supply ‘the British people and their allies’ with weaponry ‘in sufficient volume and quickly enough so that we and our children will be saved the agony and suffering of war, which others have had to endure’. He claimed – a bit of a feint – that this would actually lessen the chance of America entering the war: Britain, China and the Soviet Union might be able to defeat the Axis without American infantry if they were properly provisioned. A Gallup poll showed that almost half of Americans still didn’t want the bill to pass. Lindbergh argued that it was ‘obvious’ the British were losing the war; indeed, they were destined to lose to Germany, no matter how much assistance the Americans provided. Roosevelt had recalled the American ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, for saying much the same thing. Thompson’s reporting from wartime London had an agenda: she wanted to persuade Americans that the British were holding up through the Blitz – ‘everyone here is optimistic’ – but not so certain of victory that they didn’t require American help. During her month in residence at the Savoy, she claimed she’d seen proof that ‘Britain had changed’: class distinctions were slipping away; everyone was becoming friendlier, more democratic, practically American. ‘Everyone is terribly kind.’ She said little about her meeting with Churchill, except that when she asked him how he expected to win the war, he told her he was ‘presently concerned only with how not to lose it. And we shall lose it, you know, unless you come in – and with all you have.’ That much was obvious to her too.

When Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, Thompson championed him in her column; the Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie, wasn’t opposed to aiding Britain (‘short of declaring war’), but he was a businessman with no political experience – that was the largest part of his appeal – and Thompson was certain that the Nazis were hoping he’d win. The Herald Tribune at first refused to print her endorsement, and though they relented, the Reids didn’t renew her contract. When Roosevelt won, he wrote to her: ‘You lost your job, but I kept mine – ha ha.’ She moved to the less influential New York Post, whose readers were mostly working-class Democrats, not the movers and shakers she was used to addressing. She thought of herself as preaching to the converted, and didn’t like it. When the US finally declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a friend’s son heard her sobbing, unable to stop repeating: ‘We’ve gone to war. We’ve gone to war.’ In American Cassandra (1991), Thompson’s biographer Peter Kurth argues that ‘it was a sorrow’ to her ‘that the United States had only been brought into the fight against Hitler for “the usual nationalistic reasons”’. She was certain the Allies would win, but had an ‘all but immeasurable apprehension’ about what they would do to Germany when they did.

Olmsted tries to complicate the ‘standard mythology’ about American entry into the war: she argues it’s not quite the case that ‘all debate’ about American war policy ‘came to an end’ the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The isolationist presses didn’t entirely stop insisting that, at least on the Western Front, ‘America was fighting an unnecessary war against other white people on behalf of the ungrateful British and the un-American Jews.’ Newspapers continued to publish assaults on Roosevelt and on America’s allies (the Soviets ‘were even shiftier and more ungrateful than the British’). But Thompson thought her work was done. After Pearl Harbor, even Lindbergh dropped his opposition to the war, and tried to re-enlist in the Army Air Forces.

She needed a new subject. American troops had yet to deploy when Thompson wrote in a column for the Ladies’ Home Journal: ‘You see to it that this war ends, as it began for us and our allies, as a war of liberation,’ not in ‘sheer aimless destruction’. She began to suggest ‘positive and constructive’ peace proposals. She thought that insisting on unconditional surrender was ‘a barbarity’: the Germans needed assurance that their country wouldn’t be stripped of industrial capacity and turned into a ‘purely agricultural’ state, or they would never stop fighting. For several months in 1942, she addressed German audiences over short-wave radio. She spoke as if to an old friend, ‘Hans’, a German patriot, who she knew had been ‘tricked … into this war’; she wanted to reassure him that Americans had no ‘quarrel with the German nation’. But victory was still too far away; the distinction she made between being pro-German and pro-Nazi was too subtle, and sometimes collapsed. Kurth shows British intelligence becoming increasingly concerned that Thompson’s work amounted to Nazi propaganda. She had been ‘a good friend of ours’, the Foreign Office reported, ‘and on the side of the angels for a long time’, but now it feared that if her views were to ‘become formally adopted as American policy, or widely held by public opinion’ there would be ‘very serious complications’. In January 1945, the editor of the New York Post, Ted Thackrey, published a reprimand to Thompson in the same pages that usually published her. Thackrey felt that ‘Miss Thompson’s view has been orientated primarily by a consideration of the plight of the German people,’ and worried that she was ‘vastly more disturbed’ by the ‘real or fancied “persecution” of Germans’ than she was about anything else. Thompson tried to stand up for herself: no one in the American press needed to be anti-Hitler, but someone needed to defend the Germans and, also, to oppose Jewish immigration to Palestine (she thought the proposed creation of Israel was a ‘recipe for perpetual war’). The Post fired her.

Thompson’s friend the historian Stephen Graubard said ‘she was like a great ship left stranded on the beach after the tide had gone out.’ She continued to write and to publish – usually about the downfall of American morality – but her influence was never what it had been. Before the US entered the war, one of her columns had refuted Lindbergh’s claim that Jews controlled the American press. She had carefully listed the owners of major newspapers, syndicates, chains – all goyim (one exception, the New York Times, was ‘Jewish-owned’, she allowed, ‘but has an overwhelmingly gentile editorial board’). She insisted that ‘if every American Jew died tomorrow it would not make the slightest difference’ to the ‘policy’ of the press. But when she no longer commanded an audience of millions, she knew whom to blame. She wrote to Rebecca West: ‘Jews … ruthless[ly] exploit you when they can, and especially exploit your feelings of sympathy and charity, and kick you all the harder in the teeth if you cease to be of use to them, or draw back a little on being exploited.’ There’s probably a lesson in that; her younger self would have made a column out of it.


Deborah Friedell discusses Dorothy Thompson's influence with Tom on the LRB Podcast:

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences