Ross F. Collins, North Dakota State University, Published May 17 2014
Baldwin man who sat front and center of history
By Robert B. Davies, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011, 399 pages, $32.95.
Robert Davies spent 32 years at Minnesota State University Moorhead teaching history to generations of us journalism majors who most often hardly knew the difference between Lincoln Steffens and Lincoln Logs. He mentioned the New York Times fairly often. Sometimes he mentioned a writer for that newspaper named Hanson Baldwin.
Davies knew quite a bit about Baldwin. In fact, he came to know so much that he wrote this biography of the country’s top military journalist during much of the last century.
For a series on the World War II Guadalcanal Campaign in 1943, Baldwin reached the pinnacle of American journalism, winning a Pulitzer Prize. But to Baldwin, that was just act one of a career as first-ever Times military editor.
His work would span another quarter century. Baldwin’s wide-ranging writing defined prolific – 18 books and thousands of articles. But in interviews with Davies, Baldwin in retirement dismissed all that. There is nothing, he said, quite as evanescent as a journalist’s writing.
Baldwin seemed to be right. He really was nearly forgotten by all except a few specialists in journalism history. Or he would have been, had Davies not brought the once prominent journalist back from obscurity.
Davies covers Baldwin’s youth as a naval officer and fortuitous jump into journalism. He takes readers through World War II and the Cold War conflicts of Korea and Vietnam. The chronicle of Baldwin’s work offers an opportunity for reflection on United States’ military history – its triumphs for sure, but more often than we’d like to admit, its tragedies.
Baldwin was a confidant of political leaders and an acquaintance of military commanders. But he was not necessarily an apologist for either. He was often critical, frequently outspoken, sometimes blunt.
Baldwin had every right to his opinion as the most credible and knowledgeable military journalist of his time. But after the Korean War’s frustrating stalemate, the country’s attitude to its military was evolving.
“Baldwin’s writing,” wrote Davies, “served as a public diary that followed the changing public perception of the role of the American military in our national life.”
As perceptive as Baldwin could be on so many military issues, by the 1960s he had become the journalistic elder who apparently could not see that continuing the war in Vietnam was tearing American society to pieces. He had differences with Times management before this over his opinions, but his unwavering support for the Vietnam War brought him into clashes that couldn’t be resolved. He retired in 1968.
Baldwin died in 1991, without writing his own memoirs. But for those who want to know more about the American Century through one of its greatest writers of military affairs, Davies brings us the biography of a man who occupied a chair at front row and center of history.