Noel Field: From State Department to Stalinism

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Noel Field

Born in 1904 and raised in Zurich, Switzerland, by upright, pious, and wealthy American Quaker parents, Noel Field was brought up to be a fervent – but, alas, eternally naive – believer in peace and equality. After his father’s death in 1921, Noel, his two siblings, and their mother relocated to the U.S., where Noel attended Harvard and then joined the State Department, an idealistic and unworldly young man determined to use his position to remedy the world’s cruelties and inequities.

In Washington, D.C., Field and his Swiss wife, Herta – whom he had known since he was nine years old – lived in a black neighborhood and, appalled by the racism they observed, took part in anti-segregation protests.

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Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

Then there was the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were convicted of murder in 1921 and executed in 1927. The case made international headlines, resulted in the formation of defense committees around the world, and led to riots and vandalism. All this activity on behalf of the two defendants was believed at the time to be spontaneous; in fact it was all orchestrated by a U.S.-based Soviet agent, Willi Münzenberg, who saw the case as a golden opportunity to destroy “the myth of America” and thus make the U.S. fertile ground for Communism. Millions fell into his trap. One of them was Field, whom Kati Marton, in her recent biography of him, describes as “an ideal target” for Münzenberg’s machinations.

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John Reed

Disillusioned by his own country, Field began to read the works of Marx, Lenin, and the American Communist John Reed. He subscribed to the Daily Worker. Soon he was a “secret radical.” Bookish, sheltered, and utopian-minded as he was, he was easily drawn to the Communist dream of a workers’ paradise. The fact that he’d never set foot in the Soviet Union helped. “His exposure to Stalin’s Russia,” notes Marton, “came entirely from Moscow’s propaganda.” The Daily Worker‘s glorious descriptions of Bolshevik life – which he took entirely at face value – contrasted dramatically with America’s economic inequality and racism, which he saw firsthand.

Marton cites another factor in his attraction to Moscow: brought up in a starchy milieu (part WASP-y, part Swiss) without much in the way of human intimacy, the “stiffly self-conscious Noel” was deeply moved by the feeling of warm solidarity he experienced at a 1929 gathering of Communist laborers in New York City. “For once,” he wrote, “I felt myself a ‘comrade’ among that enthusiastic workers’ audience.”

It would take five more years before Noel Field fully shifted his allegiance. But he was already on the path to treason.

Galloway’s heroes

epa02375994 British PM George Galloway poses with a gift he received during his reception at the Arab Cultural Center in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, Syria, 05 October 2010. Galloway leads the Gaza-bound Viva Palestina 5 aid convoy that arrived in Damascus on 02 October from Turkey. The convoy includes 143 trucks loaded with medical and humanitarian aids and 370 Arab and foreign activists. Galloway said he is determined to go on with his aid convoy to Palestinians under Israeli siege despite the Egyptian authorities' decision to ban his entry to Egypt. EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
George Galloway

Recently, columnist Nick Cohen noted that the folks on the left who used to come to the defense of George Galloway have gone silent, having finally realized, apparently, just how loathsome a creature they were associating with. The same, it might be added, has been true of the defenders of Hugo Chávez: with a few exceptions, those who exulted over Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution in its first years have stopped doing so, having seen the increasingly tragic consequences of chavista socialism.

It’s no surprise that Galloway himself was an early booster of chavismo – and that, long after it declined from a chic cause into an embarrassment for the international left, he continued to eulogize it.

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Hugo Chávez

Back in 2007, Galloway lauded Chávez in the Guardian, sounding for all the world like John Reed celebrating the birth of the USSR:

The atmosphere in Caracas is fervid. The vast shanty towns draping the hillside around the cosmopolitan centre bustle with workers’ cooperatives, trade union meetings, marches and debates. The $18bn fund for social welfare set up by Chávez is already bearing fruit. Education, food distribution and primary healthcare programmes now cover the majority for the first time. Queues form outside medical centres filled with thousands of Cuban doctors dispensing care to a population whose health was of no value to those who sat atop Venezuela’s immense wealth in the past.

Galloway rejected out of hand the “mendacious propaganda that Chávez is a dictator and human rights abuser.”

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Galloway with Fidel Castro

In 2012, he actually spent two weeks in Venezuela campaigning for Hugo’s re-election; the next year, when Hugo shuffled off this mortal coil, Galloway was quick to mourn the caudillo’s death, calling it “a body blow for the poor and the oppressed,” praising his friend for having “transformed Venezuela by the force of his will,” and calling him “a veritable Spartacus” who “rallied an army of not slaves, but those despised by the oligarchy.” He celebrated Chávez for standing up to Israel and to “North American hegemony.” By this point, it was clear to every pair of eyes unblinkered by ideology that Chávez’s only accomplishment had been to destroy his country’s economy – along with its liberties and human rights. But Galloway never let real-world conditions get in the way of his uncritical admiration for absolutism and contempt for freedom.

What about Castro? Check this out. Of all the people you’ve met in your lifetime, who’s had the most positive impact on you?” an interviewer once asked Galloway. His reply: “Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro is the greatest man I’ve ever met by several miles….The most inspiring, the most charismatic, the most wise, and the most tireless of all the people I’ve ever met. He’s my real hero.”

And let’s not forget Putin. Since 2013, both Galloway and his wife have been on the payroll of the Kremlin’s RT television network. In the first half of that year alone (while still a member of the British Parliament, mind you), he earned £25,600 – about $37,000 – for going on RT from time to time to trash his own country and extol Putin. The Russian president has certainly gotten his money’s worth out of employing Galloway. In his appearances on RT, the wily Scotsman has consistently defended Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, arguing that Russia “has every right, indeed, obligation, to act in defense of its compatriots, its citizens, its economic and military assets which it has on the territory of the Ukraine by agreement and by treaty.” He’s called  the U.S. approach to the Kremlin actions “ludicrous” and counseled the EU not to “poke the bear with a stick.” And, in the ultimate act of moral degeneracy, he’s smeared patriotic, democracy-loving Ukrainians who oppose Russian intrusion in their affairs as “terrorists,” “ultra-nationalists,” and “Nazis.” There’s no low to which he won’t go. 

Warren Beatty and Lenin’s “fight for freedom”

On Friday we harked back to 1981 and the movie Reds, Warren Beatty‘s nostalgic look at the beginnings of Soviet Communism. 

A trailer for the film makes it clear exactly how Beatty viewed it and how he wanted potential audiences to view it. “There is a movie,” reads the on-screen copy, “that challenges conservative politics[,] that shines a spotlight on the issues of our day.” It’s about “a nation’s right to freedom…about the fight for freedom.”

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Alexander Kerensky

Let’s break this down: this trailer is actually suggesting that the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution of 1917 – which overthrew the democratic government under Alexander Kerensky that had been installed after the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced it with a totalitarian regime – was a step forward for freedom. Yes, the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to decades of oppression, terror, forced collectivization, show trials, political murders, genocide in the Ukraine, the Gulag, and much else. Furthermore, the trailer equates the Kerensky government with American conservatives circa 1981 (the year, of course, that Ronald Reagan became president), and implies that both are enemies of freedom; meanwhile it likens the Bolsheviks to the American Democratic Party of 1981, and suggests that both are heroes of freedom.  

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Dorchester Hotel, London

Beatty began writing Reds in 1976 with Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths. They worked together on their screenplay celebrating Communism during months-long stints at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel in New York, the Dorchester in London (described by Wikipedia as “one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive hotels”), and the glamorous Plaza Athénée in Paris. Sometimes, while working in Paris, they were helped out on the script by Elaine May, who flew in and out of New York on the Concorde. There’s no record that any of them saw the irony in any of this. 

redsposterCertainly the irony seems lost on Peter Biskind, author of an in-depth Vanity Fair article about the making of Reds. Biskind makes it clear that he finds the “idealism” of the film’s hero, John Reed, praiseworthy, and he expresses regret that this “idealism…seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” He actually writes the following about Reed (played by Beatty) and his girlfriend and fellow Communist, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton): “More than just lovers, more than just revolutionaries, they have made political lives, lived their politics, and Reds is above all a tribute to that.” At least the late Roger Ebert picked up on the irony, noticing in his review that the copyright statement at the end of this film about a man who hated millionaires reads “Copyright MCMLXXXI Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited.” Beatty, for his part, appeared, by the time he won the Oscar for Best Director, to have recognized the contradictions at the heart of his own project, giving a nod in his acceptance speech to the bigwigs at Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf + Western, for their “decision, taken in the great capitalistic tower of Gulf + Western, to finance a three-and-a-half hour romance which attempts to reveal for the first time just something of the beginnings of American socialism and American communism.”

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Film rights, anyone?

Don’t get us wrong. Reds is a terrific piece of filmmaking – excellently acted and directed, with splendid production design, stirring set pieces, a lucidly told and fast-paced story about memorable characters. That’s precisely the problem. Beatty made a hero out of America’s most prominent early enthusiast for the Russian Revolution, and did a remarkably effective job of making that useful stooge’s blind devotion to a cruel and monstrous tyranny look praiseworthy, exciting, and supremely romantic. One can only be sorry that Beatty was moved to make a film about an ardent fan of Boshevism rather than about any one of its millions of victims. When, one wonders, will Tinseltown release a movie on the scale of Reds about the Gulag? 

Warren Beatty’s love letter to Lenin

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Warren Beatty in Reds

We’ve spent the last couple of days contemplating Shirley MacLaine‘s love affair with Mao’s China. Now let’s turn to her brother, Warren Beatty, and his long-term crush on Soviet Communism. Our focus is on the epic 1981 movie Reds, Beatty’s “dream project” and “labor of love,” which he co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It tells the true story of John Reed (Beatty), a journalist – and devoted Communist – who, in the U.S., helped establish the American Communist Party, and, in Russia, was a fervent participant in and witness to the birth of the Soviet Union, where he became one of Lenin’s very first American useful stooges and ended up as the only American to be buried in the walls of the Kremlin. 

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A scene from Reds

Politics aside, Reds is a good old-fashioned big-screen drama in the best Hollywood tradition. Over three hours long, it’s as stirring and sweeping as Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. And there’s no fashionable modern-day moral ambiguity: Reed is, quite simply, a hero. The movie encourages us to view his commitment to Communism as admirable. As Peter Biskind wrote in a 2006 retrospective on the film for Vanity Fair, it’s an “homage, of sorts, to the Russian Revolution as well as to the high passions that animated the largely forgotten American left in the years before, during, and after World War I.” In Biskind’s eyes, it wasn’t just John Reed who was a hero – Warren Beatty, too, was a hero, whose “vision and persistence” enabled him to win over studio heads who weren’t enthusiastic about the idea of a motion picture that would “dramatize the Russian Revolution from a not entirely unsympathetic perspective.”

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Diane Keaton in Reds

Biskind tells a story that provides a glimpse into Beatty’s mindset. While visiting the Soviet Union in 1969, Beatty was asked by Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk to star in a movie about Reed. Beatty turned Bondarchuk down – not because he was loath to take part in a project that would have been a work of sheer Communist propaganda filmed under close Kremlin control, but because he didn’t like the script. Even then, however, he was already thinking of making his own Reed movie, and asked to meet an old woman who had been one of Reed’s lovers. She had spent 16 years in a labor camp, and hated Stalin, but was philosophical, telling Beatty that “of course the revolution is in its early stages.” Beatty’s reaction? “It was at that moment I thought, I have to make a movie about that kind of passion.” Not, note well, a movie about that kind of self-destructive delusion – the woman was still devoted to an evil and pernicious ideology that had landed her in a labor camp for 16 years! – but about what he regarded as a laudable ardor.

More on Monday.

“Journalist spies,” then and now

Declassified Soviet documents have long since proven otherwise, but the myth persists that concerns, during the decade or so after World War II, about Kremlin operatives in Hollywood, Washington, and the New York media were the product of “McCarthyite hysteria.” It’s always useful, then, to be reminded just how real that phenomenon was – and just how important it is for free people always to be on guard against the infiltration of their societies by the servants of tyranny.

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Walter Duranty

Today, it’s well known, at least in some circles, that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), the New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Russia, was in fact a tool of Stalin who routinely printed outrageous lies – and who actively sought to discredit colleagues who strove to get out the truth. But Duranty wasn’t alone. On July 1 of this year, Matthew Vadum reported on new research in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies establishing that the number of American reporters of that era who can fairly be described as “journalist spies” turns out to be considerably higher than was previously thought.

In the article referenced by Vadum – entitled “Spies in the News: Soviet Espionage in the American Media During World War II and the Beginning of the Cold War” – University of Ohio scholar Alexander G. Lovelace reports that as of June 1941, no fewer than 22 American journalists were active, full-fledged members of the USSR’s spy network in the U.S., and that after 1941 that number grew. As Vadim reminds us, “the relationship between the U.S. government and the press was different in those days.” What he means is that there was an atmosphere of trust; government officials took it for granted that American journalists were, first and foremost, loyal Americans; consequently, as Lovelace notes (his article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall), they “were routinely trusted with secret information to be used as ‘background’ for stories.”

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Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds

Who were these “journalist spies”? Some of their stories have already been told. The 1981 Warren Beatty movie Reds made heroes out of two of the earliest such turncoats – John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom, in the wake of the October Revolution, filed disinformation-packed “news reports” that glamorized the fledgling USSR and its Communist system.

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Whittaker Chambers

Nor is it any secret that Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine from 1939 to 1948, was a Soviet spy. Chambers, of course, eventually recognized the error of his ways, turned in State Department official Alger Hiss and other Communists, and told the story of his own journey into and out of the Party in the classic memoir Witness.

But Chambers wasn’t the only staffer at that supremely influential newsmagazine who was secretly working for the Kremlin. Others included John Scott, Stephen Laird, and Richard Lauterbach. The last-named did Stalin a great service when he reported that the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets killed more than 20,000 Polish military officers in cold blood, had been committed by the Germans.

29 Jun 1955, Washington, DC, USA --- Original caption: Washington, D.C.: CBS News correspondent Winston Burdett testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee here today. Burdett admitted being a Communist from 1937 to 1942 and under questioning by Eastland, he said that he had engaged in espionage abroad for the Communists. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Winston Burdett testifying in 1955 before a Senate subcommittee, to which he confessed to having been a Soviet spy

Other KGB men included Peter Rhodes of the New York Herald-Tribune and Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and CBS News. (Burdett, who for a time had regular personal contact with both FDR and J. Edgar Hoover, eventually admitted his history of espionage in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.) Then there was Walter Lippmann, in his time the dean of American political commentators. Lippmann himself was not a Soviet spy, but – as it turns out – his secretary was. Therefore Lippmann, in whom many leading politicians confided, unknowingly helped transmit vital top-secret information to the KGB.

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Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men

In the immediate post-Watergate era, many young Americans’ image of journalists was shaped largely by the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as stirring heroes of American freedom. Some of those Americans took a long time to recognize that many journalists are, in fact, less devoted to objective truth than to partisan agendas, in the service of which they are more than willing to distort or suppress the facts. Some Americans, alas, have yet to wake up to this reality. Alexander G. Lovelace deserves our thanks for a timely reminder that even the most trusted, respected, and highly placed members of the fourth estate may secretly owe their allegiance to the most morally abominable of masters. There is no reason to believe this is any less true now than it was in the early days of the Cold War.