The Gray Lady – or the Lady in Red?

The headline could hardly have been more repulsive: “When Communism Inspired Americans.” It appeared in the New York Times on April 29. The article, by Vivian Gornick, was an unashamed exercise in nostalgia for the good old days of American Stalinism.

Vivian Gornick

The piece was reprehensible, but it should not have been surprising. After all, the Times, which is often referred to as the Gray Lady, has often, over the decades, seemed to deserve, rather, the nickname “The Lady in Red.” Recall, for example, that it was the home base of none other than Stalin-era Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, this website’s own mascot, who, as we wrote in our mission statement, “did more than any of his contemporaries to spread Soviet propaganda under the guise of news – and to discredit colleagues who dared to tell the truth about the brutality of Stalin’s regime.”

Walter Duranty

Duranty, as we pointed out, “defended the Gulag (in which millions died), the forced collectivization of peasants (ditto), and the 1938 show trials (used by Stalin to wipe out potential opponents). He also vigorously denied the reality of the Holmodor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which was deliberately engineered by Stalin and which also resulted in millions of deaths.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a Moscow correspondent at the same time, later maintained that the Times had published Duranty’s pro-Stalin propaganda even though it was “so evidently nonsensically untrue” not “because the Times was deceived” but because “it wanted to be so deceived.”

And Duranty was just the beginning. As Frances Martel noted at Breitbart, Duranty’s “style of fabrication” about Communism “continued well into the 1960s when writer Herbert Matthews leveraged his newspaper’s influence to promote the Cuban Revolution.” Throughout Castro’s reign, Martel observed, the Times “regaled Castro – who sent thousands, including Christians, LGBT Cubans, writers, and dissidents generally, to labor camps and killed thousands of others using firing squads – as a ‘victorious guerrilla commander in 1959’ and lauded the alleged ‘medical advances’ and ‘racial equality’ of communist Cuba in November when the Cuban government claimed Castro had finally died.”

Josef Stalin

The Times‘s publication of Gornick’s April 29 piece reminds us that the paper hasn’t changed its stripes. Nor has Gornick. The author of a 1978 book called The Romance of Communism, what she offered in her Times piece, all these decades later, was basically a thumbnail version of that book. She didn’t exactly defend or deny any of Stalin’s atrocities – she just swept them under the rug. Or, rather, she acted as if she and her family and their intimate circle of Communist Party members in New York had been totally unaware of all these well-publicized crimes against humanity until Khrushchev gave his so-called “secret speech” in February 1956. Yet despite those crimes, she sought, just as in her 1978 book, to depict mid-century American Communists not as totalitarians or world-class dupes but as moral exemplars – indeed, as the very noblest of souls.

Communism is every bit as vile an ideology as Nazism. Stalin took more even lives than Hitler. But while no self-respecting American newspaper would publish an old Nazi’s affectionate memoir of the Third Reich, the Times has always treated Communism differently. If Gornick’s piece wasn’t a good enough reminder of the Times‘s double standards on the Berlin and Moscow versions of totalitarianism, the newspaper actually published yet another such piece only a couple of weeks later. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

Halberstam: Ho’s happy hagiographer

David Halberstam

One last foray into the career of writer and journalist David Halberstam (1934-2007), who on his death, as we’ve noted, was the subject of breathtaking paeans throughout America’s mainstream media. The thrust of most of these glowing obits was that he’d been that rara avis, a brilliant investigative reporter who was, at the same time, one of the most incisive analysts of the events of the day.

On the contrary. Halberstam was celebrated in the usual places for one reason and one reason alone: because he provided a certain demographic (i.e. the kind of people who read the New York Times religiously and believe every statement they encounter there) with texts designed to confirm their lockstep prejudices and received opinions. Originally a cheerleader for the Vietnam War, for instance, Halberstam changed his mind about the subject exactly when all the right people in the U.S. changed their minds, and in The Best and the Brightest he told them exactly what they wanted to hear about the not-so-wise men who had led America into what he now professed to view as a quagmire.

The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972, was a huge hit and made Halberstam famous, as we’ve discussed. Another book of his, issued the year before, is less well known and deserves some attention here. It’s entitled, quite simply, Ho. Michael Lind, in his own 1999 book about Vietnam, described Ho as “perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a Stalinist dictator ever penned by a reputable American journalist identified with the liberal rather than the radical left.” Bingo. For instance, the book “omits any mention of the repression or atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime.” Lind reminded us that in 1945-46 Ho oversaw “a reign of terror in which thousands of the leading noncommunist nationalists in territory controlled by Ho’s regime were assassinated, executed, imprisoned, or exiled.” While Halberstam, in Ho, condemned South Vietnamese President Diem’s “massive arrests [of] all his political opponents,” he breathes “not a word” about “the far more severe repression in North Vietnam.” Some examples:

Ho Chi Minh

The Maoist-inspired terror of collectivization in the mid-fifties, in which at least ten-thousand North Vietnamese were summarily executed because they belonged to the wrong “class,” is not mentioned. Nor is the anticommunist peasant rebellion that followed; nor the deployment of the North Vietnamese military to crush the peasants; nor the succeeding purge of North Vietnamese intellectuals; nor the fact that almost ten times as many Vietnamese, during the brief period of resettlement, fled from communist rule as left South Vietnam for the North. The equivalent of Halberstam’s book would be a flattering biography of Stalin that praised his leadership during World War II while omitting any mention of the gulag, the purges, and the Ukrainian famine, or an admiring biography of Mao that failed to mention the Cultural Revolution or the starvation of tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward.

Michael Lind

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Halberstam omitted “mention of Soviet or Chinese support for North Vietnam after 1949”; failed to note that “Ho’s dictatorship modeled its structure and policies on Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union”; was silent about the fact that members of the Chinese and Soviet military actually “took part in the Vietnam War”; and so on. Lind examined the sources cited in Ho and noticed something very interesting: Halberstam systematically avoided citing “everything critical written about Ho Chi Minh” by those sources. In short, this writer who after his death was eulogized throughout the American media for “speaking truth to power” was, in fact, a happy hagiographer of a totalitarian tyrant.

Halberstam: misrepresenting the Fifties

David Halberstam

This week we’re according long-overdue attention to the handful of sane voices that rose in dissent against the almost universal (and thoroughly nauseating and reality-challenged) reverence, in American establishment circles, for the supposed lifetime of accomplishments by journalist and historian David Halberstam, that manifested itself upon his death in 2007.

Yesterday we cited Mark Moyar, who in a well-informed necrology in National Review mad a convincing argument that outright lies by Halberstam and a couple of other influential Vietnam reporters had helped destabilize the South Vietnamese government, cripple its war effort, cause the ultimate failure of the U.S. endeavor to repel Communists from the South, and lead to the disgraceful mistreatment of GIs when they returned home from that tragically failed conflict. As we noted yesterday, while Vietnam vets were shunned and despised after the war, Halberstam, who had played as significant a role as any in causing them to be despised, himself became the postwar toast of the American cultural elite.  

Hilton Kramer

But it wasn’t all about Vietnam. Both before and after the war, Halberstam seemed determined to poison Americans’ minds, on every front, about their own country and culture. In 1993 Halberstam published a book called The Fifties. Reviewing it, the respected critic Hilton Kramer said that it “in many respects reads like an overloaded 1960s political cartoon-strip about the history of the 1950s.”

Josef Stalin

Although Stalin had still ruled the USSR during much of the 1950s, and although the Soviet invasion of Hungary – to crush an attempt at democratic reform – occurred in the middle of the decade, noted Kramer, Communism was mostly “kept safely offstage” in Halberstam’s account. No, instead of focusing on “the real presence of Communist power in the world of the 1950s,” Halberstam paid attention to what he apparently viewed as “misguided American responses to Communism.” Kramer noticed that the entry for Communism in the book’s “very detailed index” consisted entirely of the words: “see McCarthyism, McCarthy era; specific countries and conflicts.” In short, Halberstam, in a book about the 1950s, was less concerned with the massive and evil reality of Communism than with a small-scale and arguably misguided reaction to it in Washington, D.C. (Stalin himself, observed Kramer, got much less attention in the book than Marlon Brando.)

And what of Halberstam’s treatment of America in The Fifties? During that decade, the U.S. had by far the world’s strongest economy and its best schools and universities. As Kramer reminds us, America was “the unrivaled center of the international art scene,” was producing literature and works of modern dance that no other country could compete with, and enjoyed an intellectual life so rich that virtually no one in the Iron Curtain countries could even imagine it enough to envy it. (One might also mention American film, television, and popular music, which during that decade became, more than ever, the common, cherished possession of the entire world.)

But did Halberstam dwell on any of this in The Fifties? No. Instead, complained Kramer with absolute justification, he served up a “Left-liberal mythology,” a portrait of

an entire society in the grip of politically inspired paranoid fear, abject social conformism, empty-headed consumerism, and spiritual sterility….His is a mind so completely saturated with the cultural clichés of the 1960s…that no other ideas have ever been allowed to violate its shallow certainties. The sheer spaciousness that came into American life in the 1950s after the ordeals of the Depression era an the fearful trauma of the war years is a closed book to him.

Kramer is right on the money. The Fifties was an appalling book when it came out, and to page through it now is to be even more appalled than one was at the time by its lethal combination of naivete, dishonesty, and simplification, not to mention its fierce determination to embrace every last left-wing stereotype about the 1950s, however absurd. This readiness to blow with the wind and to give elite readers what they wanted was precisely what made David Halberstam a hero to so many of them.

More tomorrow.

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?

Hating free speech: Howard Biberman

Herbert Biberman

We’ve been looking at the Hollywood Ten, those unwavering devotees of totalitarianism, blind servants of Stalin, and out-and-out traitors who, after being held in contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, spent a few years on the so-called Blacklist and later, in the 1970s, were gloriously rehabilitated, applauded by the media and by a new generation of Hollywood luminaries as heroes of the individual conscience, the life of the independent artist, and the First Amendment. Today’s subject: Herbert Biberman (1900-71), who after working in the New York theater in the early 1930s went to Hollywood, wrote several minor films, and married Oscar-winning actress (and fellow Blacklist member) Gale Sondergaard.

An APM button from the group’s “pro-peace” phase

In Hollywood, Biberman was a busy Communist bee. Among much else, he played a major role in a Soviet front group whose history of ideological shifts illuminates the way in which these groups perfectly mirrored the Kremlin’s own changing policies. Originally founded in 1933 as the American League against War and Fascism and conceived of as a means of preparing the Depression-struck U.S. for imminent Communist revolution, it encouraged workers to oppose FDR, whom it presented as oppressing workers and as being engaged in preparation for war. Two years later, however, having decided the U.S. was not on the verge of revolution after all, the Kremlin had the group’s name changed to the American League for Peace and Democracy and ordered it to support FDR and to boycott and propagandize against the USSR’s more immediate enemies, Germany and Japan.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop at the signing of the pact

Two years after that, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, forging an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, the American League for Peace and Democracy was renamed American Peace Mobilization (APM) and told to be pro-peace, pro-Nazi, and, once again, anti-American. After Hitler invaded Russia, however, the APM, under Kremlin orders, underwent another ideological make-over: now it supported the Soviet war against Hitler and equated Nazi Germany with the U.S. and Britain, representing Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill as equally imperialist and equally intolerable.

Some of the Hollywood Ten and their lawyers, December 1947

How does Biberman fit into all this? He was on the APM’s “National Council.” As Allan Ryskind writes in Hollywood Traitors, Biberman told an APM meeting that the U.S. had become “a colony of the British Empire” and that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill were “making a deal for the money markets of the world” and sacrificing “the lives of millions of men” in the process. At an APM rally in Los Angeles, he received a standing ovation after savaging FDR and Churchill. The readiness of Biberman (and several other members of the Hollywood Ten who were also on the APM “National Council” or otherwise involved in the group) to instantly change their ideological tune, not once but several times, in accordance with Kremlin directives only goes to show that none of this had anything to do with individual conscience or personal philosophy – it was all about being robotic, lockstep soldiers who were prepared to believe anything that Josef Stalin told them to.

Biberman before HUAC

Later, after America had entered the war on the side of the USSR, Biberman was active in other Soviet front groups, among them the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization (HWM). These supposedly independent groups, which represented themselves as having been founded spontaneously by free-thinking individuals who, among other things, simply wanted to serve the war effort. In fact they were all branches of the same tree, following the same orders from the same masters in Moscow.

Albert Maltz

In 1946, like Alvah Bessie, Biberman stood up at a Communist gathering to condemn their fellow Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz for the high crime of having suggested that the works of Communist artists should not be straitjacketed by Kremlin ideology but should rather be allowed to deviate from that ideology in minor specifics as long as it served, on the whole, the general aims and principles of Communism. For Bessie and Biberman, Maltz’s suggestion amounted to heresy; after Bessie denounced Maltz, Biberman took his turn, “spout[ing] elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred.” In short, despite the Hollywood Ten image that would take form decades later, he was very far from being a champion of free expression.

Tinseltown’s traitors

Dalton Trumbo

We’ve devoted a good deal of attention on this website to Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), the blacklisted Communist screenwriter who was celebrated in a 2015 movie, Trumbo, in which he was played by Bryan Cranston. But it occurs to us that some of the other leading figures on the Blacklist – the members of the Hollywood Ten, as they were known – deserve equal time. Or at least a mention.

Let’s begin with the cardinal issue: they were all Communists. They were all unswerving admirers of Josef Stalin – and this at a time when his record as a bloodthirsty dictator and mass murderer of his own people had already been well established. And yet in later years – from the 1970s onward – they were hailed as heroes of free speech and the individual conscience (two things that Stalin himself was determined to crush). And, as illustrated by Trumbo, the idealization of these champions of totalitarianism continues into our own time. Witness a November 2015 article in the Hollywood Reporter entitled “The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names.”

Josef Stalin

Written by David L. Dunbar, the article bore the subhead: “When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about communism in the industry, a few held their ground – and for a time, lost their livelihood.” Of course, if they’d been stubborn supporters of democratic capitalism living in Stalin’s Russia, they’d have lost not only their livelihoods but their lives – but that’s a detail that the fans of the Hollywood Ten prefer not to think about.

As Dunbar observed, the committee, known as HUAC, subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, directors, and producers to testify at a 1947 hearing to probe “subversive activities in the entertainment industry.” Most of those summoned proved to be “friendly” witnesses – meaning that they agreed to say whether or not they were or ever had been members of the Communist Party. Those who answered yes were invited to name fellow Communists – and, if they did, were sent back to work with their reputations intact.

Nine of the Hollywood Ten

But then there were the Ten. They refused to answer the committee’s questions. In return, the committee held them in contempt, fined them $1000 apiece, and ordered them sent to prison for up to a year. Back in Hollywood, their studios fired them.

The logic behind HUAC’s decisions, of course, was that these were unrepentant servants of a foreign power that, while having been a wartime ally, was quickly metamorphosing into an enemy. Under the Constitution, to be sure, they had a right to their opinions, a right to express them, and a right to gather freely and discuss them. Then again, they didn’t have the right to be traitors. Whether they crossed the line into treason is a question that has been discussed ever since.

As for their being fired – well, that’s another issue. The studios were private employers. They had a right to hire or fire whomever they wished. No one has a right to a lucrative job writing movies. Whether it was morally defensible to fire them for their Communist sympathies, is again, a matter for discussion and debate.

One point, however, is crystal clear: these men who publicly took the moral high ground, condemning a system in which they were punished for their political views, themselves were ardent believers in a system that routinely executed dissident artists such as themselves.

Who were these men? We’ll start in on them tomorrow.

Stalinizing Britain’s schools

Recently, British columnist James Bartholomew took up a subject that goes to the heart of what this website is all about.

james-bartholomew-2
James Bartholomew

It started with a holiday cocktail party, where he happened to meet a woman who teaches history at a top U.K. school. “We somehow started chatting about Stalin,” he recalled, “and she said – in passing – that there had been good aspects to his Five Year Plans.”

Stalin_Joseph
Josef Stalin

Of course, anyone who knows the true history of Stalin’s Five Year Plans knows that they proved to be a nightmare for the people of the Soviet Union. Far from improving the Soviet economy, as intended, they caused famine. Compared to the Western world’s economy, the USSR’s was a disaster. Yes, they told the world otherwise, but historians have long since shown that the statistics shared by the Kremlin with gullible Western journalists were sheer fairy tales.

After his encounter with the history teacher – with whom he “only just managed to avoid having a row” – Bartholomew decided to look into exactly what British children are being taught these days about Stalin. He bought a copy of a study guide for history students. What he discovered was that the fatuous teacher’s “balanced” view of Stalinism is now “the standard line” at the very best British schools.

Take collectivization – Stalin’s expropriation of privately held farms from their owners and introduction of a system whereby groups of peasants were ordered to run them on behalf of the state. As any student of Soviet history knows, this policy proved to be disastrous. Bartholomew sums up the results:

Production decreased. People starved. Some farmers were not keen to have their property taken away. They were imprisoned or killed. Some collectives hid grain to avoid starvation. If discovered, they were killed, too. In all, up to ten million died as a result of the collectivisation in one of the greatest man-made disasters the world has ever known.

But that’s not what British students are being told. According to the study guide, collectivization had its “pros and cons.” One “pro”: it “ended the forced exploitation of peasants by greedy landlords and got rid of the greedy and troublesome kulaks.” The “kulaks” were the small farmers from whom Stalin stole the farms. To call these people “greedy and troublesome” is to use the language of Stalinism itself. They were greedy, yes, insofar as they sought, like any person operating a private business under a capitalist system, to maximize production and profits and minimize expenses. “Troublesome”? Again, yes, to the extent that they stood up to the Bolsheviks who took their property from them.

eton
Eton College

Another “pro” of collectivization: “It helped peasants work together.” Yes, and ultimately starve together.

“It would be grotesque,” observes Bartholomew, “to suggest as a subject for discussion the possible Pros and Cons of the Holocaust. It would be sickening to offer the idea that forced labour camps ‘helped people work together’ even if you expected children to knock the suggestion down.” The same should apply to Stalin’s reign of terror. But no: when it comes to subjects like Stalinist collectivization, “students are advised to give a ‘balanced answer.’ Students are to take into the ‘balance’ that up to 10 million people were starved or killed. The brutal enforcement of starvation of 2.5 to 7.5 million Ukrainians, know as Holodomor, is not mentioned.”

kremlin
The Kremlin

The reason for this is clear. In Britain, as elsewhere in the West, the people who formulate school curricula uniformly recognize the horrors of Nazism – but some of them are likely to have a soft spot for Communism, notwithstanding its own attendant horrors. “The communists in the Soviet Union,” Bartholomew reminds us, “were responsible for the deaths of a minimum of between 13 and 15 million people, the second worst rate of deaths caused by human action after those caused by Mao Tse Tung in China. But young people are not taught this.” And the less they know about “the terror, economic failure and mass murder that took place under communism,” the more likely they are “to be seduced by similar ideas.” Yes, that’s how it works.