Commentary

TMQ reviews old Atlantic Monthly issues

Originally Published: November 22, 2011
By Gregg Easterbrook | Page 2

This is the Tuesday Morning Quarterback bye week -- the regular column returns in all its zany glory on Nov. 29. Here's an item to remind you TMQ exists.

Among the Old Issues: Your columnist thinks The Atlantic Monthly is the country's best and most important magazine. My 30-year association with The Atlantic as a staff writer, then as national correspondent, and now as a contributing editor is a source of considerable pride. That The Atlantic even makes a modest profit is confirmation that readers still care about the written word.

But piles of old magazines must be dealt with. Recently, I went through 30 years of back issues stacked in my office, saving some and pitching others.

I was struck by how many issues from the 1980s, when the storied William Whitworth was editor, contained articles that remain wholly relevant. One cover depicted Congress as a gigantic baby having a fit with its rattle: That article could have run yesterday. When I was a young writer, Whitworth told me his goal was to produce a magazine you could discover in a box in the attic decades later, and still want to read. The Atlantic Monthly achieves that goal, while most magazines have a relevancy shelf-life of maybe a week.

Impressed as I was by my afternoon reviewing old Atlantics -- I'll get to the best in a moment -- I was equally surprised by how many of the magazine's past covers were way off base. The Atlantic Monthly has the nation's smartest writers and sharpest editors, yet still rolls gutter balls. Consider some cover headlines:

August 1987: "THE DECLINE OF AMERICA"

Historian Paul Kennedy declares the country is spiraling downhill in military might and international influence. A quarter century later, American power has never been greater.

February 1994: "THE COMING ANARCHY"

This article is arguably the single most wrongheaded piece of serious writing in our generation: and I say that as someone who admires the author, the globetrotting Robert Kaplan.

The article predicts impending widespread famines and disease pandemics, devolution of governments into warlord rule in much of the world, dramatic rises in battle deaths as the globe falls into a Hobbesian war of all against all, and the very rapid decline of the United States. America will be "less of a nation than it is today, even as it gains territory following the peaceful dissolution of Canada." This is not the far future being predicted, rather, events said 17 years ago to be imminent.

Instead, the latest United Nations Human Development Report shows declining malnutrition, declining disease rates, rising income and rising personal freedom in most of the developing world, while combat and combat-related deaths are in decline (see the important new book "Winning the War on War" by Joshua Goldstein) and military spending per capita is falling. Predicting calamity pleased the PC doomsday circuit and got Kaplan invited to the White House to meet President Clinton. A cover headlined "THE COMING GRADUAL IMPROVEMENT IN MOST MEASURES OF GLOBAL WELL-BEING" would have been ignored.

July 1996: "RECIPE FOR A DEPRESSION"

According to this cover article, what would cause a second Depression? "A bipartisan drive to eliminate the deficit." By the logic of the article, the $8 trillion in red ink under George W. Bush and Barack Obama should have created a utopia.

January 1998: "THE GREAT CLIMATE FLIP-FLOP"

The world faces "a sudden and catastrophic global cooling."

September 1999: "DOW 36,000"

This cover article predicted the Dow Jones Index was on the way to hitting 36,000. Well, it didn't say when.

January 2005: "AMERICA ATTACKED, THE SEQUEL"

According to this cover story, beginning in June 2005, hundreds of thousands of Americans would die as suicide bombers blew themselves up in coordinated attacks across the country. Major U.S. cities would be evacuated and abandoned, while commercial air travel would end because of terrorist missiles fired at airliners. The author of this drivel was former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who by the strangest and most amazing coincidence has stopped mentioning his 2005 prediction. Though in 2010, Clarke predicted the "total collapse of the United States" owing to cyberattacks.

July 2005: "HOW WE WOULD FIGHT CHINA"

"The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century," the article foresaw. The cover showed a sinister-looking Chinese sailor in false color, with a sinister-looking warship in the background. The article supposed the only possible reason China is expanding its navy would be for aggressive war. But the United States has 11 supercarrier strike groups, which is 11 more than China, and we claim no one could possibly misunderstand our peaceful intentions! That sinister ship in the background? It's this vessel, lead ship of a class that was later cancelled.

Now let me single out for praise three The Atlantic Monthly cover stories of the recent past that read as prescient:

January 2003: "THE FIFTY-FIRST STATE"

At a time when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were saying an invasion and occupation of Iraq would last six months and cost nothing because oil revenue would cover U.S. expenses, The Atlantic warned that rapid military victory in Iraq would be followed by "many years, if not a decade" of ruinous expense as the United States inherited the problems of that country. The invasion happened in March 2003. Nearly nine years have now passed, perhaps $2 trillion has been spent and more than 4,000 Americans are dead. If that $2 trillion hadn't been added to the national debt, the U.S. economy would be stronger, and unemployment would be lower.

September 2005: "AMERICA'S COMING ECONOMIC CRISIS"

This warns that the country's finances will fall into tatters owing to "too much spending based on borrowing, plus ever-expanded health care benefits and special bonuses to senior citizens." This article appeared when the economy was roaring; two years before runaway borrowing began; three years before Congress enacted debt-based special bonuses to senior citizens; and five years before a major expansion of government-subsidized health care.

July 2007: "WHY CHINA'S RISE IS GOOD"

This article showed there is no severe superpower rift between Washington and Beijing, that increased economic output in China is mainly good for the world and that even as China grows in importance, the United States will remain the globe's leading nation for generations.

The above three have stood the test of time unusually well. What do they have in common? All were written by James Fallows, who is entering his third decade as America's leading public policy journalist.

In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for Page 2, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "Sonic Boom" and six other books. He writes a politics column for Reuters and is a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly. His website can be found here, and you can follow TMQ on Twitter.


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