Edith (Mrs. Woodrow) Wilson and Armstrong bestow the Woodrow Wilson Foundation medal on Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1937.
Hamilton Fish Armstrong Papers, Public Policy Papers, Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library
Democracy in a world of bullies

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. — Elie Wiesel 

Today we consider the story of a single man. This is relatively unusual here, in part because there are few topics worth considering in the History Corner that don’t bear the imprints of multiple Princetonians, for better or worse and often for both, or involve groups that metamorphose as they pass through generations of adherents. This is one of those uncommon cases — think maybe the reign of Queen Elizabeth II — where the person remains static and the arena changes around them. The comparison is apt in this case because the arena in question is identical: the entire globe. In fact, who is to say that Her Majesty would have even survived to ascend the throne without the presence, always in the background but not very, of Hamilton Fish Armstrong 1916? She appointed him a commander of the British Empire in 1972. 

That was a full 60 years after the event that charted a large portion of his life in the not-quite-public eye. Coming from 10th Street in Manhattan and a splinter of the ancient and stodgy New York Republican Fish family (Congressman Hamilton Fish III, a cousin, was five years his senior) who all unfailingly attended Columbia, Armstrong identified with Teddy Roosevelt’s populist bent rather than his party credentials, ended up at Princeton, and immediately as a freshman went to work on the presidential campaign of Woodrow Wilson 1879, falling under the spell of his famed rhetoric as well as his internationalist worldview. His father had been an American counsel in Italy, and to the urbane Armstrong this just seemed natural. He studied — along with Scott Fitzgerald 1917 and Edmund Wilson 1916 — with British poet Alfred Noyes, but that’s not where his true verbal facility lay. As the editor of the Prince he took a view beyond the pro-Allied president John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893; already in 1916 Armstrong was looking toward Wilson’s vision of an international community. On graduation, he enlisted in the Army, and ended up serving as an attaché in Belgrade, traveling heavily through the Balkans, picking up acquaintances he would call on for the rest of his life, and setting a template for most of his next 50 years.  

The crushing rejection of Wilson and his League of Nations dreams by the Senate and the election of incompetent, xenophobic Warren G. Harding in 1920 cut short a range of potential international relations work for the young veteran, but ironically this opened his life’s work in front of him. A group of power elite with internationalist business concerns, including former Secretary of State Elihu Root and writer Walter Lippmann, stepped into the governmental vacuum to form the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York. They kicked in the money in 1922 to start a journal, named Foreign Affairs and edited by a Harvard professor who refused to leave Cambridge. So they hired Armstrong away from his European correspondent slot at the New York Evening Post to become the day-to-day New York managing editor of Foreign Affairs, at the ripe old age of 28. He would be there until retiring in 1972, including 44 years as the head honcho. Five years before Henry Luce put a red frame on his new Time magazine, Hamilton Fish Armstrong created the powder blue analog that frames Foreign Affairs to this day. 

Armstrong interviewed for the magazine and cultivated an unending coterie of experienced diplomats, business leaders, and defense experts, and pestered them until they wrote for the magazine themselves. The cover story in the first issue was written by Root, a globally respected statesman, but it also contained an article by John Foster Dulles 1908, then a 34-year-old counsel to the Paris Peace talks. Both were Republicans of influence but firmly aligned with Wilson’s attitude toward the U.S. as a critical player in the global community. Dulles was active in trying to get the onerous German reparations — which were imminently to prove calamitous — reduced as an impediment to world peace.

And that day quickly came. Armstrong took over the editor’s job in 1928, and the next year across the globe the sky fell in. Everything we now know never to do in an economic downturn, various clueless and often xenophobic governments tried (tariffs, anyone?), while Foreign Affairs put forth well-constructed articles about cooperativeness that might result in avoiding the wars that, indeed, fell like a blight on the next 15 years. The minute the Franklin Roosevelt administration took office in 1933, the magazine became central to the arguments regarding the most effective ways to bring long-standing peace to the Western democracies and to protect them from the various totalitarian threats that quickly arose to oppose them in Japan, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Spain, among others.  

Armstrong never stood still, publishing such writers as W.E.B. DuBois and Time’s Dorothy Thompson as well as learned diplomats, endlessly visiting U.S. embassies to get the lay of the land first-hand as he had in the Balkans, and to gain access to local leaders who were affecting policy — or dictating it. He interviewed Mussolini, and he conducted the first interview by an American of Hitler, following his rise to the chancellorship in 1933. This was the period in which Armstrong wrote, like a man possessed, seven books between 1933 and 1940, denouncing the German reparations and appeasement of the dictators, raising the alarm of war, and excoriating those who ignored the gathering storm. The culmination was Chronology of Failure, the instant history of France’s 1940 downfall, which I stumbled across in the open shelves at Mudd Library.  

In parallel, Armstrong became a director of the parent Council on Foreign Relations. As the high-powered council gained traction, the pieces presaging World War II fell into place, giving him plenty of cover to bend an ear, solicit a new member, cajole an essay on world affairs, or gain introduction to yet another global power broker. While he supported Roosevelt up to a point, he felt that some of the president’s external policies were either too conciliatory or lacked urgency. Of course, FDR eventually needed to figure out how to get elected four times, and Armstrong had the luxury of no such worry. His pressure seemed generated by his own standards, and the ghosts of Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points. 

In fact, the council had set up committees before Pearl Harbor addressing the postwar world, rebuilding Europe, and dealing with Russian influence. When George Kennan ’25’s Long Telegram from Moscow was publicly revealed after the war, he chose to present it in Foreign Affairs. The support of the Marshall Plan and the many facets of the Cold War containment strategy were debated in its pages by experts of every stripe, including over the years 11 active secretaries of state. Articles often reflected views apart from Armstrong’s, but he magically remained on a cordial basis with establishment members on all sides. The image he conveyed as he globe-hopped ceaselessly was “a New York gentleman of a vanishing school, who treated every one, old or young, famous or unknown, with the same generous courtesy and concern,”' per Arthur Schlesinger Jr. 

At Princeton’s 1961 Commencement, Armstrong received an honorary degree, cited as a “ubiquitous traveler, quiet counselor to generations of statesmen, he believes and has demonstrated that free governments cannot thrive without contemplative men.” Receiving degrees with him were his friends Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican internationalist, and Dean Rusk, the new Democratic secretary of state. By 1968, Armstrong was openly critical of both their stances on Vietnam, although he continued to publish all sides of the increasingly brutal debate over the war, much as simultaneously Walter Cronkite openly decried the war while reporting all sides each night.  

The unwell Armstrong retired at the 50th anniversary edition of Foreign Affairs in 1972, again condemning “a war which was pushed from small beginnings to an appalling multitude of horrors. The methods we have used have scandalized and disgusted public opinion in almost all foreign countries.” Less than a year later he was dead, Vietnam having ruined his valedictory as the xenophobes ruined Wilson’s. It is possible Foreign Affairs has never again had the degree of influence it had that day; the international power elite, even as they now gather in Davos, are certainly not what they were. What is still clear, however, was this observation from his honorary degree citation: This supremely gifted and approachable man was “a prolific and authoritative writer, and above all one of the great editors of modern times.”