Wednesday, March 15, 2017

World War Wednesdays: Margin for Error: The Indomitable Clare Booth Luce

Clare Boothe Luce speaking at a Republican Convention in 1944
     I've spent the past few weeks learning about and appreciating strong women, especially women in politics, during my time as Equal Voice's Daughters of the Vote delegate for Elgin-Middlesex-London. I hope you''ll indulge me a further exploration on that theme but within a wartime context as we take a look at the life of the talented, wealthy, beautiful, and controversial Clare Boothe Luce.

     To start with some background, she was born on 10 March, 1903 in New York and spent her life as an author, politician, socialite, and public conservative figure. Her writings cover wide range of genres including fiction, journalism, war reportage, and drama, and her 1936 hit play The Women, which had an all-female cast, was adapted into a 1939 film.

     While her entire biography is fascinating and worth reading more about, I will be focusing specifically on her life during the Second World War period. Her time as a war reporter is actually much less well-known than her other roles, but it is one of the most significant elements of her wartime experience. She covered a wide range of battlefronts, enduring all the discomfort, danger, and frustration encountered by even the most seasoned war correspondents. Her first experience with the war was in 1940, which prompted her to write her first non-fiction book called Europe in the Spring. A product of her motivation to convince fellow Americans of the dangers of isolationism, it was a vivid and anecdotal account of her four-month visit to "a world where men have decided to die together because they are unable to find a way to live together." She was also a corresponded for Life magazine, and her profile of General Douglas MacArthur made the cover the day after Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. Besides withstanding bombing raids in Europe and the Far East, she also faced house arrest in Trinidad by British Customs when a draft Life article about poor military preparedness in Libya proved too accurate for Allied comfort. Her unsettling observations there ultimately led longtime friend Winston Churchill to revamp Middle Eastern military policy.
     Luce was also a pioneering woman in the politics, another of her Second World War occupations. In 1942, she won a Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Fairfield County, Connecticut. Her platform was based on three goals: "One, to win the war. Two, to prosecute that war as loyally and effectively as we can as Republicans. Three, to bring about a better world and durable peace, with special attention to postwar security and employment here at home." In 1944, the forty-one year-old became the first woman in American history to be listed as a possible candidate for the Vice Presidency. On 28 June of that year, the first Republican convention held in wartime since Abraham Lincoln's 1864 renomination took place, and saw Luce deliver one of the most controversial speeches of her time. The event was broadcast on both radio and television, and spectators across America collectively gasped when she boldly accused President Roosevelt of lying to the nation in the months before Pearl Harbor. According to historian James A. Von Schilling,
     Women delegates gasped at her strongest statements, reported the Herald Tribune the next day, while Republican men displayed "an expression of admiration grudgingly bestowed and a small, masculine flicker of fear."Watching her on TV, a New York Times reporter noted that "the addition of sight had multiplied the dramatic value. least tenfold."

     The considerable backlash and criticism resulting from one of the biggest TV moments of the summer did not stop Luce from being re-elected to Congress. During her second term, she was instrumental in the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, and over the course of two tours to Allied battlefronts in Europe, she advocated for more support for what she considered to be America's forgotten army in Italy. She was also present at the liberation of several concentration camps in April 1945. After V-E Day, she began warning against the rise of international communism as another form of totalitarianism which could potentially lead to a third World War. 

     Every once in a while as a historian, we come across a person who seemed to have been involved in an astounding range of historical events and whose biography reads like a history textbook. Luce's entire story is fascinating given the period in which she lived and worked, and I highly recommend looking into the parts of her life I wasn't able to cover. Research is credited to the Library of Congress "Women Come to the Front" exhibition as well as the article "Television During World War II" by James A. Von Schilling. 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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