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The Rod of Correction

In June 1968 the world was in flames. The Vietcong had recently overrun Saigon, American cities smoldered in the aftermath of the King riots, and the Yippies were threatening to drop acid in Chicago’s water supply. Readers of that month’s Reader’s Digest learned how to cope with this bummer from a curious yarn titled “I Will Not Let You Steal My Shoes.” It recounted the fateful tryst of one W. N. Templeton and a slender girl called Gazelle. As Templeton strolled at twilight on a Moroccan beach with this oddly named mignonne (a Basque colonist with “a gypsy beauty about her”), the couple was set upon by three knife-wielding Arabs. This was 1955, short on the heels of a nasty anticolonial revolt, and Templeton knew well that “the instigators of terrorist activities against France” had inflamed Moroccan peasants with “talk of Holy War.” Premonitions of rape and grisly knifeplay danced in Templeton’s head. He regretted that he hadn’t packed his revolver. Presently, the leader of the gang grabbed at Gazelle’s sandals, which she held in her hand. But Gazelle, it turned out, knew a thing or two about how to deal with terrorists: She did not let go but fixed the brute with a gaze of self-possessed determination. No dice on the shoes, she informed him, because “if I allow you to rob me, I help you to become a thief.” And Gazelle wasn’t the kind of soon-to-be-dispossessed colon who turns the subjected Other into a thief. “Torture us, kill us, if you want,” Gazelle continued in Franco-Arabic patois, but understand that to do so would be cowardly, since we’re unarmed and this man is a visitor from across the seas. Remember, Allah sees everything, and He never forgives cowards. Here, I give you my sandals!

That clinched it. As Templeton looked on with wonder, Gazelle’s plucky little sermon reduced the ruffians to tears. They dropped their knives (which “met the sand with a zinging sound”). Thug No. 1 looked up at Gazelle. “There was no longer defiance in [his eyes],” Templeton noticed. “[R]ather, I saw a glimmer of the kindly dignity which is the mark of the Moroccan peasant.” Before disappearing with his confederates over a dune, the repentant thief gave this benediction: “Go in peace. Allah guards you.” We learn in the last line of the story that Templeton made Gazelle his wife. As for the would-be robbers, lives of kindly dignity no doubt awaited them.

You may even have to return countries to their rightful owners.

For all we know, a sylph named Gazelle may have lived in Casablanca in the Fifties, and she may have faced down a band of menacing Maghrebis. My money, however, says that “W. N. Templeton” was no South African automobile importer, as his biographical squib purported, but a Digest staffer, or maybe a CIA functionary exploring his literary side. The possibility can’t be ruled out that he was all three, but in the end questions of authorship, or of veracity, are irrelevant. Published just five months after the Tet Offensive, which dramatically shattered the illusion that American forces had the Vietnam War well in hand, the point of Templeton’s parable could not have been lost on many of the magazine’s tens of millions of readers: In the thankless business of administering civilization to nonwestern peoples, you win some and you lose some. You may even have to return countries to their rightful owners, but you should never, ever let them forget who’s boss.

The story fit nicely alongside the Digest’s other coverage of the war: implausibly upbeat stories (“What Does Combat Do to Our Men?”—it teaches them valuable leadership skills and makes them fine citizens), sensational accounts of enemy cruelty (“The Blood-Red Hands of Ho Chi Minh”), and exhortations to give Charlie a taste of our really big guns. In its own hamfisted way, the Digest strived to live up to the legacy of Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail and British director of propaganda during the First World War, who boasted, “Journalists are more important to the winning of the war than the generals.” It has been well documented that the Digest, like certain other large-circulation American periodicals, took CIA, FBI, and State Department feed for decades—though the ties were usually informal enough to safeguard editorial pretensions of objectivity. During the Second World War, the U.S. government pitched a scheme to sponsor Digest editions in Sweden and Latin America as a means to counterbalance Nazi propaganda in those countries. As Peter Canning recounts in American Dreamers, his 1996 history of the Digest, publisher DeWitt Wallace blanched at the idea of turning his magazine into a propaganda vehicle but went ahead with the editions anyway. It got much worse in the coming decades as the United States embarked on “containment” adventures around the globe. By 1968, Canning wrote, Digest honchos were not only working directly with State Department staff on certain war-related stories, but in the case of at least one story—which used a potpourri of reports and speeches from North Vietnam to suggest that antiwar protesters were “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”—galleys were shown only to sub-editors considered “politically reliable.” In 1977 the Digest managed to run the first report in the U.S. press on Pol Pot’s murderous campaign in Cambodia. How the Digest pulled off this coup when all foreign reporters had been kicked out of the country may be surmised from the bits of CIA disinformation that larded the piece.

But to focus on the Digest’s CIA connections is to miss the larger point about its journalistic mission. The secret of the magazine’s success was its unshakable faith in uplift and the “home truths” of Wallace’s Midwestern Calvinism—ad-mixed, of course, with the sort of hard-right politics that made it a favorite among the country’s top businessmen, clergymen, and spooks. It could be counted on to dress up the ruthless reasons of state with sanctimony, sentimentality, and cuteness. Even as it beat the drum for the Taft-Hartley Act and carpet-bombing, the Digest never neglected to pass along the lessons we can learn from our pets, self-abnegating peons, or the terminally ill man who finally caught that big fish. In its seemingly earnest attempts to grapple with the crises of the times, the Digest always arrived at a defense of power. In early 1968 it denounced Martin Luther King’s program of civil disobedience as a threat to the “basic freedoms” of the land and grist for “Communism’s worldwide propaganda apparatus.” A few months later, amid the riots following King’s assassination, the Digest reported that business leaders were healing the nation: “In contrast to the American trade-union movement, which is one of the greatest bastions of racial discrimination in this country, business understands that there are many Negroes, who, with job training, would be good workers—and business needs workers.”

Like Ronaid Reagan, whose unmistakably Digest-inspired imbecilities blew one last gust of balmy majoritarianism up the backside of the American body politic, the magazine is a fading relic of a time that now seems quaint and improbable. It stood in the breach to defend a faith now considered absurd even by the sons and daughters of the faithful. As Reagan and the Digest fumble toward the grave, we should not underestimate their role in destroying the innocent America they championed. In its zeal to twist any truth to serve the needs of state, the Digest did more to foster the cynicism and disbelief it railed against than all the combined scoffing of the Communists, hippies, union chiselers, and Weathermen it so fervidly denounced back in the day.