The New Yorker at War

General Forrest Harding’s house in Franklin, Ohio, is preserved as it was before his death in 1970, and it is a museum of disappointment. Musty evening wear fills the closet, a shrunken military tunic hangs from a stand. Hidden away in the drawers can be found pictures of successful generals Harding knew-his classmate “Georgie” Patton Jr. at West Point, his commander Douglas MacArthur in Australia-while over the bed hangs a banner that Harding made a century ago as a cadet: “Down Eros, Up Mars.”

The banner mocks the general’s one turn on a battlefield. He did not see combat till age 55, at a crucial battle in New Guinea in the Second World War. A month into the action, Harding sat stymied in his tent in the rain forest, miles from the front, and MacArthur ordered him relieved of command. A buddy from West Point, Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, flew in to take over. “You’re licked,” Eichelberger pronounced. General Harding threw his cigarette into the mud and a day later wept at MacArthur’s headquarters before slinking off to Panama for the rest of the war. General Eichelberger went on to glory in the Philippines and Japan.

A general’s collapse-it is an unspeakable thing. Harding was bitter and angry even years later, says a quartermaster who ran into him at the Pentagon. “Brokenhearted,” another general reported. A neighbor says he was sour in his old age. To this day, historians step delicately around Harding’s story.

And entangled in Harding’s disgrace was a young writer for The New Yorker, who struggled to come to terms with it, and never did.

A couple of weeks before graduating from Harvard in 1937, E.J. “Jack” Kahn Jr. got the letter he’d been hoping for. The New Yorker had a job for him as a “Talk of the Town” reporter, for $25 a week. “You should bear in mind that the turnover here is fairly rapid and that while you will be given every opportunity to show us what you can do, you must not expect this job to be permanent unless after three or four months you have shown that you fit in here,” wrote St. Clair McKelway, then the magazine’s managing editor.

Fit in he did. When Kahn died 10 years ago, The New Yorker eulogized him as the most prolific writer in its history, a short, strongly built man who “loved to think of himself as a journeyman reporter-a ‘Front Page’ character,” but who had a graceful style. Kahn was funny and he was game; he would go anywhere to do a story or book. He didn’t seek immortality, his friend Jeremy Bernstein wrote in The American Scholar, it was enough for Kahn to bring “pleasure and enlightenment” to readers over more than half a century. He had a two-floor apartment on Park Avenue, he gave fun parties, Bernstein said.

And at the end of his career, Kahn had also become the symbol of the excesses of the William Shawn era; he was the author of a five-part series on grain (“The Staffs of Life … Corn: The Golden Thread … “) that was widely ridiculed and that made it easier for the magazine’s new owners, the Newhouses, to replace Shawn as editor in 1987.

Kahn had been at The New Yorker four years-and Shawn had been managing editor for two-when in July 1941 Kahn was called up in the peacetime draft. Basic training in South Carolina came as a shock to this New York boy. He didn’t care for guns or bayonet training, he did a lousy job of digging a foxhole. In letters to Shawn (held at the New York Public Library’s New Yorker Archive), Kahn cracked that he had to associate with draftees who read Western Detective and take orders from an officer who was so stupid he couldn’t even work for Time.

When the blue dye of his denims came off on his legs, the 24-year-old cried that he would do anything to be back in Manhattan, and so he reached out to Harold W. Ross, the editor of The New Yorker.

The Army had played a vital role in Harold Ross’ education. In World War I, Ross had gone AWOL and hitched his way across France after he heard that the Army was starting a weekly newspaper in Paris. For the next year and a half he wrote for and then edited The Stars and Stripes, an experience that prepared him for launching The New Yorker five years after the war. By the time World War II rolled around, Ross still had Army connections, which he called to try and get Kahn a job with Army P.R. in New York. That fell through, but Ross was able through to an old Stars and Stripes friend to get Kahn accredited as a correspondent for a new magazine called Yank, writing “heartthrob humaners,” as Kahn told Shawn.

Kahn would have to stay with his unit, but Ross told him it would all work out.

“You will look back and laugh at it all someday. You will say, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’” Ross said.

Besides, the editor said, Army life gave a writer freedom. “You can’t expect every organization to be run with the cool, masterful efficiency of The New Yorker magazine,” he said. “It was my experience that eventually I got on an independent basis …. At home there are too damned many people with time on their hands and an interfering spirit.”

Sure enough, Private Kahn adjusted. The Army permitted him to write articles for The New Yorker about life in uniform, and Kahn discovered what so many other newsmen did in the Second World War, that access to the press gave a youth influence among officers. At Fort Bragg, N.C., Kahn became a regular guest at officers’ quarters, and formed what proved to be a lifelong friendship with his commanding general: E. Forrest Harding.

The two men had a natural affinity. Kahn and Harding were both short men from aristocratic backgrounds. Harding’s father owned paper mills. Kahn’s father, Ely Jacques Kahn Sr., was a prominent New York architect (Ayn Rand, a onetime employee, had used him as the model for an elegant and socially acceptable architect in the Fountainhead). Kahn had graduated from Horace Mann, Harding Phillips Exeter. And the general was a man of letters. He had edited The Infantry Journal and written poetry. He loved Shakespeare. He had taught many devoted protégés, who included Omar Bradley and Major General C.T. “Buck” Lanham, Hemingway’s close friend, that they must study the history of war.

In the 10 months following Pearl Harbor, the 32nd Infantry Division shipped out to Australia and made its way to a jungle training camp in Queensland, and Kahn found a remarkable niche. He was secretary to Harding, writing the major general’s letters home to Ohio, and he was contracted to Simon and Schuster to publish a collection of his New Yorker Army pieces. General Harding was writing the foreword for the book. Yes, it was highly unusual for a major general to perform such a service for a private, Kahn told his editor at Simon and Schuster; it was just that the two got along so very well.

In his letters to Shawn, Kahn was capable of a military fatalism. He was a soldier now-Pearl Harbor had come as less of a shock to him than to the editors in New York. “I fancy that I won’t be home again for a long long time.”

If that blithe and jaunty tone now seems mannered, Jack Kahn might be forgiven, for it was then the all but official tone of his magazine. As the late Gardner Botsford, a former New Yorker editor, wrote in his memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly, the culture of The New Yorker before the war was a “Hollywood version of journalism”-antic, sophisticated, unorthodox and entre-nous, with writers dueling one another to be more clever. Such a magazine was not made for the grim and serious events that were now unfolding. Harold Ross had already had his war, and now complained noisily that the new one was going to kill off his magazine.

As it turned out, the opposite was about to happen. The war made The New Yorker into a national publication. Its journalism took on depth and scope, thanks in part to the stunning work of A.J. Liebling and John Hersey. Its circulation doubled, thanks in part to a 24-page “pony” edition the magazine produced for distribution to the troops along with Time. After the war, Botsford wrote, “everybody in the office was grayer and more serious-especially Shawn.” Who, as we all now know, became the high priest of literary journalism.

But Shawn was alive journalistically to Kahn’s war experiences. When Kahn’s best friend Dan Herr got shot to hell during a strafing, it required Shawn to tell Kahn-three months after the fact, when the story showed up in the Daily News, where Herr had worked as a copy boy-that he should write about how it felt to see your best friend on a stretcher. Kahn resisted. Your idea, not mine, he said. When Kahn mentioned to Shawn that Mickey Rooney had visited the troops, it was Shawn who saw the story.

“There is something typical, or significant, or very American, or grotesque about the personal appearance of Rooney at an army camp,” he told Kahn. “I can’t believe that that young man is married, even though I was married at his age.”

Kahn got Ross’ wisdom, too. When the young writer persisted in stating, over editors’ objections, that a soldier from New York running into another New Yorker overseas cried out, “You wouldn’t be from East 181st Street?”, in the same tone that Stanley had greeted Livingstone, Ross weighed in. “Unhappy comparison. Stanley’s extreme calmness and repression and formality being a worldwide byword. One of most casual remarks in history.”

“Guess he is right,” Shawn said. The line was cut.

Kahn could be the young budding writer with Shawn. He described to him the shock of arriving in New Guinea and, despite having seen endless pictures of this in magazines, actually seeing women walking down the path with their breasts flapping against their stomachs. He offered wise-ass names for the editor’s firstborn-Chiang Kai Shawn or Sean Shawn. He teased him about all the moist-eyed young women he would have to hire, to fill out a staff reduced by war. And he chastised Shawn for not commenting expansively on his work: “Damn it, why don’t you write me some time and let me know what you think …. “

The next piece Shawn received, in October 1942, brought his highest praise.

“PROFILE HAS ARRIVED AND IS MAGNIFICENT PERIOD CONGRATULATIONS PERIOD. REGARDS, WILLIAM SHAWN.”

By today’s journalistic standards, this piece would be strictly out of bounds.

It was a long, glowing portrait of General Harding that didn’t report that it was written by his secretary. The general had read the piece several times with great care, Kahn told Shawn. He had even “smoothed” it over. Shawn told the writer it was his finest work, graceful and warmhearted.

But Shawn had a journalistic problem with the article. It said nothing about what General Harding was actually doing in the war, or where he was posted. The editor asked Kahn to fill in the gaps. Kahn responded that censors would only allow him to say that Harding was commanding a division “overseas.”

He told Shawn to ask Washington for permission to say where Harding was, so Shawn asked Washington.

Though Shawn would never learn as much, the general was in a very important place indeed: Buna.

By mid-1942, the stunning advance of the Japanese across the Pacific had come to a bloody halt. They had suffered their first setbacks at the hands of the Australian Army and the American Navy, and had dug in on several islands north of Australia. In New Guinea, the Australians had chased the Japanese across a towering mountain range and hemmed them in at Buna, a village on the north coast. The Aussies formed a line on the south and west.

Now General Harding and the 32nd Infantry Division gathered on the south and east of Buna. The battle was to be the first engagement of the American Army on land in the Second World War. MacArthur’s intelligence officer likened the battle in importance to Verdun in World War I.

History was on Harding’s mind, too. In memos to Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, that Jack Kahn surely typed-and probably helped write, too, from the sound of them-Harding described the oncoming hostilities in blithe terms. “Les Terribles” would “polish off” Buna by Nov. 1, he predicted. Then they’d move on to “take Lae,” nearly 200 miles further up the coast.

“Do I hear you remark, ‘Why stop short of retaking Mindanao?’ Give me time, Dick, give me time,” Harding wrote. “Tell General MacArthur that what promised to be a long, dull plodding campaign against inhospitable nature, is beginning to look more like MARENGO”-a rout by Napoleon-”than Hannibal crossing the Alps.”

These statements would soon look foolish and bizarre. It took the Allies a year to capture Lae, two years to get Mindanao.

Back in New York, William Shawn was getting desperate. Washington had shot him down.

“CANNOT GET PERMISSION WASHINGTON TO TELL WHERE GENERAL STATIONED IN ARTICLES PERIOD,” Shawn cabled Kahn. “WASHINGTON SAYS PERMISSION MUST COME FROM COMMANDING GENERAL THEATRE OF OPERATIONS PERIOD WOULD YOU PLEASE DO WHAT YOU CAN PERIOD SOONER THE BETTER REGARDS WILLIAM SHAWN.”

Kahn responded in December 1942 with two cables urging Shawn to run the piece regardless. Permission was unobtainable for a number of reasons, he said vaguely. The article should be run as soon as possible, he said in his first cable. The second cable restated this suggestion more emphatically.

And so the piece ran. In its last issue of 1942 and first issue of 1943, The New Yorker published a two-part profile of Forrest Harding, “Two-Star General,” set off with handsome sketches of the general, a Peter Arno drawing of Navy men on one cover.

The article was 12,000 admiring words for a soft-spoken general who loved Hamlet and didn’t believe in senseless discipline. Harding had never seen combat-he had spent World War I training soldiers stateside-but Kahn said that he was ready for anything.

“He has thoughtfully read most of the books ever written on battle …. He has never cried ‘over the top!’ except in maneuvers and dreams, but has spent years with troops and has acquired about all the military knowledge the Army can impart,” Kahn wrote. “In years of training, and occasional communion with Hannibal and Napoleon, his favorite elder generals, General Harding has learned practically everything communicable about strategy and tactics.”

A deeper divide between P.R. and fortune than the one now straddled by Forrest Harding cannot be imagined: A month before the articles came out, he’d been fired.

The general (and many others) had greatly underestimated the Japanese strength at Buna. The fight had dragged on all through November 1942. The Americans and Australians enveloped the Japanese, but Harding had held back, seeking reinforcements before trying to demolish the Japanese pillboxes and sniper positions.

At his forward headquarters in Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea, Douglas MacArthur was seething. The daily casualty figures from Buna were low, showing little resolve. MacArthur needed a victory. He was anxious to publicize his first victory on the road back to the Philippines, where he had been humiliated a few months before, and his Australian partners were growing impatient, too. They had been fighting in North Africa for two years and openly questioned the green Americans’ fighting abilities. When George Vasey, the leading Australian frontline general, was asked for an official situation report on the Yanks, he said only, “Hebrews 13, Verse 8″ and declined to elaborate.

Aides finally located a Bible. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

MacArthur dispatched several officers to Buna. All came back with similar reports. Harding’s command lacked discipline and aggressive spirit. Some soldiers had run from the front and lolled against tree trunks. The general’s command post was too far from the action; his colonels were unreliable.

At last, MacArthur summoned Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger from Australia. Their conference on the veranda of headquarters in Port Moresby on Nov. 30, 1942, is famous. Pacing back and forth and addressing no one and everyone, as was his custom, MacArthur told Eichelberger to relieve Harding or he would himself be sacked. “Send Harding back, Bob. He has failed miserably.” Then echoing an order his own commander had given to him in France in the First World War, MacArthur said, “I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive …. “

Eichelberger flew to the front on Dec. 1 and, having known Harding since their boyhood in Ohio, tried to save the situation. “I said at the start, Forrest, I have been ordered by General MacArthur to bust you, but stick by me and I’ll try to keep you here … ,” Eichelberger later wrote.

What he saw changed his mind. Harding expressed fear when Eichelberger declared that he wanted to visit the front line, and when Eichelberger challenged a regimental commander about his failure to advance, the colonel blew his top and then so did Harding.

Eichelberger felt that Harding was behaving in an entitled way, calling on their friendship rather than their professional relationship. He had had enough. “Over the mountains for you … Forrest,” he said.

Harding made a last request: He wanted to take Jack Kahn and another aide with him. The trio left for Port Moresby on Dec. 3. MacArthur’s former secretary describes the scene: “He stood by my desk while waiting to see the General, looking at me sadly, with tears in his eyes. ‘I just couldn’t stand to see my boys die.’ I’m sure Harding meant it, and I felt for him. Since then, though, I have reconsidered …. Battle is not an exercise in compassionate saintliness.” The history of war is littered with generals who were beloved by their men but showed little resolve to fight-most famously George McClellan, who so frustrated Lincoln that Lincoln asked to borrow his army for a while. The cerebral Harding was in that category.

Robert Eichelberger was a harder man. Over the next six weeks, he captured Buna at great cost of life. Though overshadowed by the Marines’ fight in Guadalcanal, Buna was a crucial battle. Nearly 3,100 Americans and Australians lost their lives, as did many thousands of Japanese. MacArthur and his strategists took away an important lesson: never take the Japanese on frontally, but “island-hop”-bypass their bases and choke their supply lines.

Harding had commenced a new battle of his own, to save face. A relieved general was sometimes busted to colonel. On their Dec. 5 flight to Australia, Harding and Kahn prepared a written defense to MacArthur of the general’s conduct at Buna. According to Gentle Knight, a biography of Harding by Leslie Anders, the two wrote that the division “had plenty of fight left but … no stomach for another go at a position which had beaten off four attacks …. ” They mailed the defense to MacArthur in Brisbane, where, as Kahn later wrote in a memoir, he served as Harding’s “aide, friend, and drowning-one’s-sorrows drinking companion.”

You have to stop and marvel at Jack Kahn’s role. At 25, he was lobbying General MacArthur to preserve his general’s reputation (and sending MacArthur an inscribed copy of his new book, The Army Life) and lobbying William Shawn to run a profile of that general full of assertions that events had rendered false, beginning with its first line, that Harding was overseas “commanding a body of United States troops,” and going on to such stretchers as: “If he leads his troops successfully, he will probably be at least a permanent brigadier general and thus entitled, for instance, to be appointed Superintendent of West Point.”

Kahn’s letters to Shawn in the weeks after the profile ran hint at some discomfort over what he’d pulled off. He told his editor that he was greatly relieved that the Harding profile ran when it did. He spoke of his “mysterious references to possible mishaps” in connection with the piece. He said he wasn’t able to say what he was up to or where he was.

In fairness to Kahn, saving a general’s face was Army policy, and the press often went along. At the Army’s first battle in North Africa, in February 1943, Gen. Lloyd Fredendall pulled a Harding-hiding away in a bunker while Rommel overran American troops. Eisenhower relieved Fredendall. This was reported in the newspapers, but downplayed. A few months later Eisenhower tried to cover up the fact that George Patton Jr. had slapped a shell-shocked soldier in a Sicily hospital whom he’d accused of cowardice. Many journalists took a vow of silence on the incident, before columnist Drew Pearson broke the story three months after the fact, creating a firestorm in the United States, and forcing Patton from command for several months.

MacArthur had promised to keep Harding’s relief off the record, and nothing came out. The general maintained rank. A month after The New Yorker pieces ran, Harding was awarded the Silver Star (for gallantry during the skirmish in which Kahn’s friend Herr had been injured) and flew home. He was then appointed commander of the Canal and Antilles Zone. Kahn went with him. A year after that Kahn made his way back to the States. First to New Orleans, then to Washington and New York, serving, as he had earlier hoped, in Army public relations.

By war’s end, he had resumed his puppyish relationship to Harold Ross. When Ross, then 53, said something about the end of middle age, Kahn implored, When does youth end? Ross brushed him aside with wit. “Mr. Kahn,” he said, “Infancy is the first year of life; I read that in a baby book and have stuck by it ever since. The rest is unclear.”

Kahn also did what he could to soften his old general’s feelings, by returning often to Buna in print. He dedicated his second book, G.I. Jungle, in 1943, to the troops of the 32nd Division “who took Buna and to Major General E.F. Harding Who Led Them To It”-a dubious statement indeed. He called Eichelberger “Bobby the Butcher” in a letter to Harding and wrote a piece about Buna for the Saturday Evening Post that mocked Eichelberger without naming him. The troops only became “disheartened,” Kahn said, “when a newly arrived and well-fed general, on a brief tour of the front lines, suggested gratuitously that their physical condition would be greatly improved if they would only start taking vitamin pills. ‘Been taking them for twenty years myself,’ he added in an unsolicited testimonial …. ” Later that general ordered the men to charge, “and a Jap knee mortar bracketed him and he got the hell out of there.”

It is a measure of the influence that journalists have on generals that Kahn’s comments enraged Eichelberger. This hero of the Pacific war saw Kahn as a “high-flying newsman” and several times mentioned him in letters to his wife. Kahn was a “little Jew,” Eichelberger said, who had left Buna so early, Dec. 3, that he could not know what had happened in the month that followed.

Later Eichelberger, who died in 1961, went further: “That little Kike on Forrest Harding’s staff named EJ Kahn has written a book about Buna …. I may have to take something from the newspaper men but I’ll be darned if I feel I should take anything from a man in uniform.” Eichelberger complained that Kahn had no firsthand knowledge of the battle. He had not gone to the front, even when Harding and Eichelberger had toured it, “and after that he was flying back to Port Moresby.”

Eichelberger asked the Army command to investigate Kahn as an insubordinate in uniform. According to the general’s biography, his aide wrote to Washington in 1944 urging censors to “tighten up” on Kahn. By another report, Kahn was reprimanded.

The true story didn’t come out for years. Several generals mentioned Harding’s relief in their memoirs, but not until 1957 was it openly discussed, when the Army’s Center of Military History published a book called Victory in Papua. The author, Samuel Milner, interviewed Harding and questioned the decision to relieve him, but he also underlined the conclusion by Australian and American officers that Harding’s command “seemed to lack aggressiveness.”

Kahn seized on this history. He reviewed it for The New Yorker and said that it showed that Harding’s “supersession was precipitate.” He used plainer language in 1975, in his memoir, About the New Yorker and Me, a Sentimental Journal. Here, he wrote that MacArthur’s decision to relieve Harding was “absurd.”

Few military experts support that view. “The officers didn’t know their jobs. The commanders were too far to the rear,” General George C. Kenney wrote bluntly of Harding’s command, while Robert Eichelberger’s tactics at Buna, and his personal daring, were for years taught at the officers school at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

World War II made many writers, including Norman Mailer and James Michener in the Pacific. But if Buna had given Jack Kahn first-rate material, he never did get his arms around the story. He was too respectful, or maybe he was just too close. Roger Spiller, an editor of the Library of America’s collection of World War II writing, and a professor of military history at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, says that Kahn had put himself into a “highly equivocal situation, one no enlisted soldier should ever look for, and certainly one no general officer should ever permit. Essentially, Kahn is a mascot to Harding.”

It must be said that ’42 was a wrenching autumn for Jack Kahn. His best friend was shot up and barely survived. A role model, the widely admired New York Times reporter Byron Darnton, was killed by friendly fire (and in his effects the Army found cables from The New York Times to Darnton directing him to offer MacArthur $250,000 for his postwar memoir and $20,000 for his wife Jean’s; Darnton had told The Times to go through MacArthur’s aide; MacArthur ordered the cables destroyed as potentially embarrassing). Kahn himself became a casualty, when he was hospitalized-as countless others were-with dysentery. By getting him out of Buna, Kahn later wrote, Harding may have saved his life.

This is a bitter story. War is a bitter experience. It is not the study of Hannibal, or cries of Over the Top, it is not the Stars and Stripes or MARENGO-and it is not foolish intelligence reports or predictions of easy success. It is destruction and disease and depopulation and mass murder. Even heroes of the Second World War were left embittered by it. By 1945, MacArthur’s right-hand man, General Richard Sutherland, was said to be destroyed by his service. Eichelberger hated MacArthur (calling him “Sarah,” for Sarah Bernhardt) and shunned West Point. Forrest Harding had been crushed by Buna, of course, and never spoke to his friend Eichelberger again. And at Buna, Jack Kahn found a conflict between a man and the magazine he loved. No wonder he never wanted to look back.

There’s just one bright spot here, shined down by Harold Ross. Before the war began, Ross gave Jack Kahn advice. He told him that a soldier could use his writing to give himself independence, and he said so beautifully.

“There were many, many officers around but none of them could keep track of what I was doing,” Ross wrote. “I found that the army regards publication as a black art and beyond comprehension, and something they could only go so far with, like fire.”

As E.J. Kahn and Forrest Harding and Robert Eichelberger soon found out, generals and reporters are on a kind of par with one another amid the horrors of battle. They angle for position, they use one another to enlarge their reputations. Still, some writers and editors hold on to their own black art. We need them now more than ever.

Sources for this article include: In the Caesar’s Shadow: The Life of General Robert Eichelberger, by Paul Chwialkowski; pieces about Buna by Jay Luvaas and Kasserine Pass by Martin Blumenson in America’s First Battles; Ben Yagoda’s About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made; Genius in Disguise, a biography of Ross by Thomas Kunkel, Lida Mayo’s Bloody Buna; and the late Paul P. Rogers’ volumes about MacArthur and Sutherland, The Good Years and The Bitter Years. Quotations came from these archives: the MacArthur Archives and Library in Norfolk (MacArthur correspondence; memos on Darnton’s effects), the United States Military History Institute in Carlisle, Penn.; the Australian War Memorial (for the Harding-Sutherland correspondence) and the AWM’s Keith Murdoch Sound Archive; the Harding Memorial in Franklin, Ohio; and the New Yorker Archive at the New York Public Library. The letters of Harold Ross, William Shawn and St. Clair McKelway are used courtesy of The New Yorker and Condé Nast Publications Inc. http://www.newyorker.com.