A rather dreary life of one of the lions of the American left.
Cottrell (History/California State Univ.; Izzy, 1992) specializes in the radical and reform movements that proliferated in America during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. His subject here, Roger Nash Baldwin (founder and longtime head of the ACLU), came into contact with almost all such movements at one time or another. A Boston Brahmin and Harvard graduate, Baldwin moved to St. Louis and began his career as a Progressive and a social worker. During WWI his work with conscientious objectors drew him to civil liberties and gave birth to the ACLU. The next 30 years saw Baldwin, like many on the left, flirt with communism and then swing fervently back to anticommunist liberalism. He lived out his very long life as a public intellectual, working at the UN and advising on ACLU policies until he reached his mid-90s. The author points out—over and over again—that Baldwin’s life and career were marked by a fundamental contradiction between his aristocratic (often autocratic) ways and the liberal (often radical) causes that he supported. Baldwin fervently believed both that the ACLU’s membership should be elite and that all problems could be settled by a face-to-face chat between well-educated men—a view that made him look horribly naïve in his dealings with J. Edgar Hoover, among others. Cottrell also convincingly points out that Baldwin was disingenuous at best about the extent of his involvement with the Communist Party. But Cottrell never really gets down to any kind of insightful analysis; instead there are pages upon pages of alphabet soup, where the attendees of countless meetings held by acronymed leftist organizations are listed. Most glaringly, the author completely sidesteps the issue of Baldwin’s possible homosexuality—while noting the “rumors,” the two “unconventional” marriages he entered into, and the suicides of two of the young men that Baldwin habitually “adopted.”
More an annals than a biography.