You may never have heard of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. But if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably want to know about it, for it’s an institution that seeks to address a profound need that lies very close to the heart of our own efforts: namely, the extraordinary ignorance of the brutal reality of Communism in today’s America, especially on the part of young people.
The extent of that ignorance was underscored on October 17 by the foundation’s own annual report on American attitudes toward socialism and Communism. The executive director of VOC, Mario Smith, summed those findings up as follows: “An emerging generation of Americans have little understanding of the collectivist system and its dark history.” While older generations are aware of the evils of Communism, millennials (born between 1982 and 2002) aren’t. This makes sense, of course. The fall of the Iron Curtain occurred before they were born or when they were small children. They’ve been taught about the evils of Nazism, but little about Communism. They know about the Holocaust, but probably not about the Gulag.
The VOC’s sobering numbers confirm this ignorance. According to the study, only 18% of American millennials can place the name of Josef Stalin; the comparable figures for Lenin and Mao Zedong are 42% and 33%. The inevitable result of this profound ignorance of Communism is a disturbingly benign attitude toward it. While 91% of older Americans and 80% of baby boomers view Communism negatively, only 55% of millennials do. Fully 25% of millennials who recognized the name of Lenin actually view him favorably.
This sympathy for Communism surely owes a lot to baby-boom teachers or professors who, when they have touched on Communism, have actually treated it sympathetically. Instead of underscoring the fact that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were equally totalitarian, many of those supposed educators have drawn sharp distinctions between Nazism and Communism, pronouncing the former as unqualifiedly evil but depicting the latter as a beautiful dream that perhaps got just a wee bit out of control. In recent decades, school syllabi touching on Communism have focused less on the horrors of life in the USSR and more on the purported victimization of American Communists during the era of the Hollywood blacklist. In this formulation, the villain of the piece is not Stalin but Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Consequently, almost 45% of millennials actually say they would vote for a socialist president – a statistic that might have been surprising before the Bernie Sanders campaign, but perhaps isn’t so surprising now. Fully 32% of millennials actually believe more people were killed under George W. Bush than under Stalin. (The figure for Americans generally isn’t much better: 25%.)
Much of the millennial sympathy for socialism and Communism can be attributed to the widespread use, in high-school and colleage history courses, of a single book entitled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922-2010). We’ll get to him tomorrow.