Pete Seeger, Kremlin tool — and American hero?

Seeger in later years

We’ve spent the last couple of days exploring the career of Pete Seeger, musician, activist, Stalinist, and on-again, off-again critic of the U.S. (depending on the orders from Moscow). As with many other radical performers, he had ardent fans in politically active circles during the Depression and World War II, got in a bit of hot water with the government in the postwar years, acquired new counterculture fans during the civil-rights and Vietnam era, and in his old age, like many other sometime traitors, found himself being honored by the same government that had once called him in on the carpet and celebrated by the same media that had once banned or refused to review his performances.

David Boaz

But there was also a backlash. When the New Yorker ran a long, gushing profile of Seeger in 2006, praising him as a “conservative” devotee of “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” David Boaz of the Cato Institute took to the pages of the Guardian to remind readers of “Seeger’s long habit of following the Stalinist line.” Boaz cited the rapid switcheroo that Seeger underwent between Songs of John Doe and Dear Mr. President, contrasting some lines from the former (“Franklin D, listen to me, / You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea. / You may say it’s for defense / That kinda talk ain’t got no sense”) with some very different lines from the latter:

Now, Mr President
You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight …
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!

Ronald Radosh

Boaz quoted Ronald Radosh: “Seeger was antiwar during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact; pro-war after the Soviet Union was the ally of the United States; and anti-war during the years of the Cold War and Vietnam.” He also quoted historian Alan Charles Kors: “We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily, we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons, and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of Communism.” Indeed. Commented Boaz: “We can only hope that soon it will be the season for holding accountable those who worked for Stalinist tyranny, as we have held accountable those who worked for National Socialist tyranny.”

Alas, that reckoning did not take place in Seeger’s own lifetime. In 2007 he was feted at the Library of Congress; two years later, he performed at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert. At age 92, still a radical, he marched with Occupy Wall Street in New York. When he died in January 2014, Obama issued a statement saying that Seeger had “used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”

Always a Communist: Pete Seeger

The Weavers

As we saw yesterday, the folk singer Pete Seeger was, in the late 1930s, a slavish servant of the Kremlin line who was capable, at a moment’s notice, of making a 180-degree change in his position on any issue whatever. To continue the story: in the 1950s, he was a member of the Weavers, whose hits included the old tunes “Goodnight, Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; in the 1960s, this time as a solo act, he became a symbol of leftist protest. Identified strongly with the civil-rights and Vietnam War eras, he co-wrote such songs as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which became hits for performers ranging from The Byrds to Marlene Dietrich. Seeger also helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the protest movement. (He claimed that he was the one who changed the auxiliary verb in the title from “will” to “shall.”) Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he refused to answer questions; six years later he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, but his conviction was overturned. In November 1969, he led half a million protesters in singing “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House.

Speaking to the House Un-American Activities Committee

According to some sources, Seeger became disillusioned with Communism, quitting the Party in 1949. Other sources, however, say that he considered himself a Communist all his life. “I still call myself a Communist,” he said in 1995, “because Communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” On the one hand, he went to Russia in 1965 and to North Vietnam in 1972. On the other hand, he sang at a benefit concert for Poland’s anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in 1982. At some point he also publicly apologized for having thought Stalin was anything other than a monster – but he watered down the apology by saying, “I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks.”

Performing with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie in 1968

And so on, for several more sentences, the point being that everybody alive today has ancestors who did horrible things that need to be apologized for. The difference, of course, is that today’s Christians did not personally work with Torquemada or take part in the Crusades – whereas Seeger himself was a willing tool of Stalin, mindlessly following his orders and tailoring the message of his music to the Kremlin directives of the day. Then again, in 2007, heeding a critical article by historian Ronald Radosh, Seeger wrote “Big Joe Blues,” a song in which he accused Stalin of ruling “with an iron hand” and of having “put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land. / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race. / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place.”

Good try, but it could be argued that this is pretty weak stuff. Did Stalin really set humanity back “in the same nasty place”? Or did he, by injecting sheer terror into the daily lives of an entire country and by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering tens of millions, take it to places far nastier than those anyone else (excepting perhaps Hitler and Mao) had ever conceived of?

Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

Death and desperation in Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro

The weeks go by, and Venezuela continues to plunge toward toward chaos. One reads the stories and looks at the pictures, and things can hardly seem to get worse; and yet they keep getting worse. Last month, President Nicolás Maduro dissolved the National Assembly, leading to day after day of street protests by outraged citizens some of whom called Maduro “a ‘Bolivarian’ version of Vladimir Putin” and accused him of engineering a “socialist nightmare.” On April 28, we quoted The Week to the effect that “the economy shrank by 18 percent last year, with unemployment at 25 percent, and inflation slated to be 750 percent this year and 2,000 percent the next.” Chavismo has taken a particularly big toll on the nation’s health: according to The Week, “children are suffering from malnourishment for the first time in the country’s modern history” and “hospitals are running out of even basic drugs.”

May 3, 2017 in Caracas: in the foreground, Bolivarian National Guards; in the background, anti-government protesters

Now come reports that anti-government protesters are being tried by military tribunals, where they may be sent to prison for up to 30 years. In the city of Coro, noted the Associated Press, medical students and music students who were guilty of nothing but public assembly had been thrown in a military jail even though they are all civilians – a violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. As of May 10, over 250 protesters had reportedly been brought before military courts during the previous week (although some sources said the number was much higher).

Luisa Ortega

Maduro has defended the use of the military courts as “emergency measures” that are necessitated by what he describes as an effort by foreign powers (guess who?) to bring down his socialist government. “Some opposition leaders,” reported the AP, “believe the use of the military tribunals reflects Maduro’s weakening grip on power and a desire to circumvent someone who’s become a surprising irritant: Venezuela’s semi-autonomous chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has shown signs of unusual independence.”

On May 11, Agence France Presse brought even more sobering news. In 2016, 11,466 infants under the age of one died in Venezuela, as compared with 8,812 the year before – a 30% increase. This crisis has occurred during a time when the collapse of that country’s economy has resulted in a drastic shortage in basic items required by hospitals. (To quote AFP, Venezuelan doctors say that “hospitals have only three percent of the medicines and supplies that they need to operate normally.”) At the same time, the country experienced a 76% rise in malaria – the raw number of cases being no less than 240,000.

In the meantime, on May 10, CNN reported that Maduro’s three stepsons had gone skydiving with our professional athletes, Amy Chmelecki, Mike Swanson, Jon DeVore, and Noah Bahnson, who are sponsored by Red Bull and whose escapade with the Maduro boys was paid for by an outfit called SkyDive Caribbean.

In the midst of all this horror, the destruction by protesters of a statue of Hugo Chavez was cited as an illustration of the fact that the Venezuelan people’s rage is, in many instances, overcoming their fear. The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is not yet over.

The Weathermen: from terrorists to professors

We’ve been looking at the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, described by Arthur M. Eckstein in his book Bad Moon Rising as “the most notorious American radical group committed to political violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

14 Oct 1970 --- Washington: Replacing one woman with another, the FBI, October 14, added to its 10 Most Wanted list of fugitives, Bernardine Rae Dohrn, (shown in FBI flier), a self-proclaimed Communist revolutionary who advocates widespread terrorist bombings. In putting her on the list in place of the captured Black militant, Angela Davis, the FBI described Miss Dohrn, 28, as a reputed underground leader of the "Violence-Oriented Weatherman Faction of Students for a Democratic Society". --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

As we’ve noted, J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to bring them down. Yet when President Nixon tried to get him to employ illegal means to gather intelligence on the organization, Hoover resisted. Eventually, however, at White House urging and with Justice Department approval, Hoover’s men bugged the homes and phones of Weathermen friends, relatives, and supporters. Yet all their efforts proved to be unavailing. The Weathermen had gone underground, and the FBI couldn’t find them.

Job Talk
L. Patrick Gray

Hoover died in May 1972 and was replaced by L. Patrick Gray; before the month was over, the Weathermen set off a huge bomb in the Pentagon. (Today, the ease with which they managed to do it seems mind-boggling: “A female member of Weather had simply walked into the vast building along with crowds of civilian employees to scout a suitable location for a bomb, then had returned the next day, again simply walking in. She placed the bomb in a women’s restroom.”) No one was hurt, but the bomb caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage. “Under Gray,” writes Eckstein, “capturing the Weathermen became the main task of the Bureau’s entire Domestic Intelligence Division.” Though hampered by a June 1972 court ruling that effectively forbade most of the Weathermen wiretaps, the war on the Weathermen continued. Yet, in Eckstein’s account, it was a clumsy war, fought against a kind of enemy the FBI had never faced before.

kathie-boudin-fbi-posterIn the end, indeed, the downfall of the Weathermen was the result less of effective field work by the FBI than of “an aspect of traditional Marxist-Leninist political life that had bedeviled the American far Left from its origins: ideological division and disagreement, combined with savage factionalism.” What happened was this: in the mid 1970s, with the radical counterculture rapidly evaporating and the mainstream culture itself becoming more accepting of far-left ideas, Weathermen top dog Bill Ayers and others tried to steer the group away from violent underground revolution and toward open community organizing – toward, that is, the “education” (read: radicalization) of the working class and an emphasis on addressing practical political issues. The goal – Leninist revolution – was the same; only the method was different.

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Clayton van Lydegraf

But other members of the group, under the leadership of an old Stalinist named Clayton van Lydegraf, revolted, declaring themselves to be the real Weather Underground and returning with new brio to the business of planting bombs. They began by planning a deadly attack on the office of California state senator John Briggs. But they turned out to be as careless as they were violent. Unlike the earlier incarnation of the Weathermen, this one proved to be much easier for the FBI to penetrate. The Bureau even managed to plant an undercover agent in Lydegraf’s home – as a roommate. Before the Weathermen could carry out their bombing of Briggs’s office, then, the FBI managed to arrest its five top leaders – an action that, in one fell swoop, cracked the back of the national Weather Underground.

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Kathy Boudin today

Some of them went to prison, but not for long. And thanks to the entry of leftist counterculture values into the mainstream of elite American culture (especially the academy), many former Weathermen enjoyed successful post-terrorist careers and, in time, came to be treated as heroic veterans of the legendary Sixties. Bill Ayers became a professor of education at the University of Illinois – Chicago; Bernadine Dohrn is a law professor at Northwestern; Cathy Wilkerson teaches math in Brooklyn; Mark Rudd is a professor of math in New Mexico; and Kathy Boudin who was in that house on West 11th Street when it exploded in 1971 and who was later convicted of felony murder in connection with a 1981 Brink’s truck robbery in Nyack, New York, in which two police officers and a security guard were killed is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University.

Blowing up stuff

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J. Edgar Hoover

On March 6, 1970, the same day that bombs went off by mistake in a Greenwich Village townhouse, leveling the entire building and killing three members of the Weather Underground – who had supposedly been acting on their own, without the approval of the organization’s national leadership – unexploded bombs were found in an alley next to the headquarters of the Detroit Police Officers’ Association and in a ladies’ room in the 13th Precinct of the Detroit Police Department. The combination of the New York explosion and the discovery of the bombs in Detroit (which went unreported at the time in major newspapers) not only strongly suggested that the Greenwich Village bombers, far from being renegades, were in fact working in collusion with Weathermen in other cities, but also led J. Edgar Hoover to take the Weather Underground seriously as a domestic threat. (The discovery in late March of a “bomb factory” in Chicago only further emphasized the danger.) In the months that followed, the FBI hunted down leaders of the group, who went underground.

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Weatherman Mark Rudd

The Greenwich Village explosion was far from the beginning of the Weathermen story. On February 12, 1970, Weathermen set off pipe bombs next to police cars parked near the Berkeley, California, police department headquarters. One policeman’s arm was permanently mangled, and several other policemen suffered minor injuries. But some of the bombers were disappointed because nobody had died. On February 21, firebombs went off at several locations in New York – at the home of the judge in a then-ongoing Black Panther trial, at a police car, at two armed forces recruiting stations, and at the Low Library at Columbia University. On March 2, the group firebombed a policeman’s home in Cleveland. On March 12, three Manhattan skyscrapers were bombed, and 300 bomb threats phoned in; while there were no deaths, thousands of people were evacuated from office buildings. On June 9, eight policemen were injured in a bombing of New York City police headquarters. (One scary aspect of this crime was that the bomb had actually been planted inside the building.) And on August 24, a Weathermen-connected group of radicals in Madison, Wisconsin, destroyed the Army Mathematics Research Center in that city with a truck bomb, killing a researcher and injuring several others.

Phil Ochs, Berkeley, CAApril 1969 sheet 272 frame 11-12
Phil Ochs

Such was the spirit of the era, at least in certain circles, that many public figures saw the Weathermen not as despicable sowers of mayhem and destroyers of innocent lives but as heroic rebels. As Arthur M. Eckstein writes in his splendid history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, folk singer Phil Ochs, whose concert at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1970, was disrupted by a bomb threat that was possibly phoned in by the Weathermen, was tickled pink by the prospect of that storied venue being leveled by a Weather Underground bomb. “It’s be great!” he said.

J. Edgar Hoover didn’t agree. He wanted to destroy the Weathermen. More on that tomorrow.

The murderers on West 11th Street

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After the bombing

On March 6, 1970, bombs created by a radical terrorist group called the Weather Underground destroyed a three-story townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Three people (Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold) were killed, and two others (Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson) were injured. When police inspected the premises, they found enough unexploded dynamite to have destroyed every building on both sides of that rather long block. (At the time, actor Dustin Hoffman lived right next door.) The truth that eventually came to light was that the house itself which the poet James Merrill had lived in as a child, and which had later been the home of lyricist Howard Dietz had not been the target of the bombers, but had been their headquarters. The five people who had been killed or injured had, in fact, planned to bomb a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. “It is likely,” writes Arthur M. Eckstein in his history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, “that dozens of people would have been killed if the plan had succeeded.”

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18 West 11th Street, then and now

At first they called themselves Weatherman – singular, not plural. After a while they came to be known publicly as the Weathermen or the Weather Underground. The group itself had begun as a faction within the radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It was a Leninist group, devoted to an international revolutionary struggle on behalf of the proletariat against the forces of imperialism, capitalism, and racism; many of its members had spent time in Cuba, idolized Che Guevara, met with North Vietnamese officials, and/or been influenced by Mao Zedong.

After the townhouse bombing, the Weather Underground publicly announced that the 11th Street bombers were members of a renegade New York cell that had been engaged in a “rogue operation” that had not been approved by the Weathermen’s national leaders. The Weathermen’s national leaders further announced that, while they would continue to work toward a guerrilla revolution that would overthrow the U.S. government, they would make certain not to plant bombs that might actually harm or kill people and would instead carrying out bombings that would do damage only to property.

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Bill Ayers today

In the years and decades that followed, this claim – that the townhouse crew had gone rogue and that the Weathermen, as a whole, weren’t out to murder but only to commit vandalism – was faithfully repeated in the writings and public statements by members (and, later, former members) of the group, most famously Bill Ayers, who has since become famous as a friend and mentor of former President Obama. This relatively benign line was also reliably echoed in the Academy Award-nominated 2003 documentary Weather Underground and in Jeremy Varon’s 2004 book Bringing the War Home (a comparison of the Weather Underground with Germany’s Red Army Faction, which we wrote about last September). Only in recent years has this narrative been prominently challenged. As Eckstein makes clear in his book, many if not most members of the Weather Underground were, in fact, devoted to killing, and Ayers and other Weather leaders presented “a united front committed to maximum violence.” In short, the would-be bombers who worked out of that 11th Street townhouse were not defying the Weathermen leadership; they were engaged in precisely the sort of activity that Ayers urged upon them.

More tomorrow.