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?

Yet again, the Rosenbergs

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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Just over a year ago we revisited the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953. Back then, their case attracted worldwide attention, both because of the seriousness of the charge – they had played a key role in delivering the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, an action that entirely altered the balance of power on planet Earth – and because they were a married couple with two children. More than a few Americans were eager to see them pay the ultimate price for what was, unquestionably, treason; others opposed their execution, either because of a defensible opposition to the death penalty, or to the idea of making orphans of two small boys, or, less justifiably, because they actually viewed the Rosenbergs’ crimes as insignificant, or believed them (despite all the evidence to the contrary) to be innocent, or even, in a great many cases, because they regarded Julius and Ethel as heroes precisely because they were secret agents for Stalin.

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Tony Kushner

The notion that the Rosenbergs were heroes – or, at least, that Ethel, the junior partner in the spy operation, could somehow be regarded as a heroine – was a major animating tenet of the American far left for many decades after the couple’s execution, and endures to this day. (In Angels in America, Tony Kushner turns Ethel into a veritable saint.) The notion has even survived the opening of archives that have provided absolute proof of the Rosenbergs’ activities on behalf of the Kremlin. In 2011, faced with this mounting evidence, one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert Meeropol, broke down and acknowledged his father’s guilt, while reasserting his mother’s innocence; but at the same time he expressed pride in both of them, saying that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals.” Needless to say, those ideals, as Rosenberg expert Ronald Radosh pointed out at the time, included “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, [and] the establishment of the Gulag.”

9/28/15 Robert Meeropol (pictured, pink shirt) and his brohter, Michael Meeropol, (pictured, blue shirt) received a proclamation from City Council member Daniel Dromm today. The proclamation recognized the contributions to the labor movement of Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of Robert and Michael. She was convicted of espionage along with her husband Julius in 1953 and was sentenced to death. Today would have marked her 100th birthday. Pictured, left to right: City Council member Mark Levine, City Council member Daniel Dromm, Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol and Gail Brewer. On the steps of City Hall, NY, NY . Please credit Gregory P. Mango.
The Meeropol brothers holding copies of the New York City Council proclamation lauding their mother

In October of last year, in yet another example of the continuing far-left compulsion to idealize one or both of the Rosenbergs, the New York City Council issued a proclamation honoring Ethel on what would have been her hundredth birthday, praising her “bravery,” and identifying her as a victim of “anti-Communist hysteria.” As we observed at the time, such actions are the work of people who “still speak of anti-Communism almost as if there was no such thing as Communism itself. In their rhetoric, the terror of life under Stalin dissolves; the Gulag disappears; the Iron Curtain evaporates. And all that is left is Americans’ apparently baseless ‘hysteria.’”

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E. L. Doctorow

Unsurprisingly, the same people on the far left who have persisted in viewing the Rosenbergs as heroes have also depicted the Rosenbergs’ sons as victims. And, yes, they were victims – of their parents’ fanatical devotion to an evil ideology. But the aim on the far left has always been to paint them as victims of a vengeful, heartless America, of “anti-Communist hysteria,” of anti-Semitism, and of other systematic societal ills purportedly afflicting the West. The most notable instance of this effort has been E. L. Doctorow‘s 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel, whose memory-haunted title character is based on the Meeropol boys; the novel’s manifest objective is to blame the young protagonist’s woes not on the boy’s Communist parents but on their capitalist executioners.

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The Meeropol brothers

The spin continues. On October 16, 60 Minutes broadcast a segment featuring both Rosenberg sons. The title, “Finding Refuge,” suited the segment’s angle: it was less an objective report on the facts of the Rosenberg case than yet another effort to whip up public sympathy for Michael and Robert Meeropol. The boys (who are now elderly men) admitted that after decades of insisting on their parents’ innocence, they finally came to accept that their father, at least, was a full-fledged spy. But this doesn’t bother them: as one of the sons said, he finds it “more palatable” to see his parents not as victims but as politically committed people who acted on their beliefs.

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Anderson Cooper

Now, pause for a moment and reflect on that statement. If the son of a couple of long-dead Nazis had spoken in this admiring way about their “commitment,” you can bet that Anderson Cooper would have responded on-camera by sharply challenging the idea that there could be anything “palatable” whatsoever about Nazism. But Cooper let that one pass by without a challenge, reminding us that while (of course) admiring Hitler is universally recognized as utterly appalling, in the corridors of Western media power it’s still considered acceptable to admire people for their unwavering dedication to Stalin.

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Ronald Radosh

During his interview with the Meeropol brothers, Cooper reminded them of what the judge in their parents’ case had said: “The Rosenbergs loved their cause more than their children.” Cooper characterized this as “a very cruel thing to say.” No; it was a plain and simple fact. As Radosh, who was also interviewed on the program, underscored, the U.S. government did not want to have to electrocute the Rosenbergs: it was trying to use the threat of execution to pressure them to provide information about their spy network. But they wouldn’t talk. Their loyalty to their comrades – to their fellow acolytes of Stalinist totalitarianism, and, of course, to Stalin himself – was greater than their loyalty to their children. That, not the judge’s statement, was the cruel element in this story. Plainly – and, perhaps, understandably – the Meeropol brothers are still unable to accept the terrible reality that their parents loved Stalin more than them. They still insist on seeing themselves as the victims of their parents’ executioners; in fact they are the victims of nothing other than the breathtaking power of useful stoogery.

Eulogies for a Stalinist

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Alexander Cockburn

As we’ve noted, Alexander Cockburn‘s death unleashed a torrent of praise from the mainstream media, most of which pretended that he’d been something of a classical liberal. The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg didn’t play that game – in fact, he admitted that Cockburn’s politics had been morally offensive – but he sought to put those politics into, shall we say, some kind of larger context. Emphasizing style over substance, personality over ideology, Hertzberg recalled “the dazzle of [Cockburn’s] charisma in the eyes of a certain cohort of bohemian and would-be bohemian youth” back in the 1970s. Hertzberg exulted: “what style! Cockburn was a rare bird, a peacock among the scowling mudhens of America’s humor-challenged Nixon-era New Left. He was a combative Fleet Street Oxbridge dandy, a prolific, lightning-fast writer, often laugh-out-loud funny, with a rich store of obscure (to us provincials) historical allusions and a knack for deploying a tone of elaborate courtesy in the joyful delivery of delicious insult.”

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Hendrik Hertzberg

He was a Stalinist, in short: an apologist for the Gulag, the Moscow show trials, the Holodomor, and much else. But oh, what sense of humor! What charm! What wit! And there was more: “Cockburn’s speaking voice was as seductive as his wit was sharp. He was good-looking, too, in the angular, joli laid way of certain British star performers. A bit of Jagger, a bit of Peter O’Toole.” 

Yes, a Peter O’Toole in the service of the Kremlin. 

One person who didn’t try to obscure the straightforward facts about this man was the distinguished historian Ronald Radosh, who quite rightly called Cockburn “the true successor of Walter Duranty, a man who wrote to serve the enemies of the United States and to glorify what he saw as the great achievements of the Bolsheviks and their successors.”

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Ronald Radosh

Radosh noted that when he, Radosh, favorably reviewed former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares’s memoir Against All Hope – a book that, as Radosh put it, revealed “the truth about the torture state that Fidel Castro had created in Cuba, thereby making the public aware for the first time in our country of the reality of how Castro treated his country’s political opponents” – Cockburn responded by disseminating the Havana regime’s lies, smearing the valiant Valladares and dismissing his accounts of torture as counterrevolutionary lies.

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Armando Valladares

In a letter to The Nation protesting Cockburn’s reprehensible effort to discredit Valladares, Radosh observed that the only reasonable conclusion one could come to after reading it was that Cockburn supported Castro’s torturing of his opponents. Cockburn, in his reply, derided Radosh as “a professional anticommunist, with the tunnel vision that goes with that trade,” and again denied that Castro’s government engaged in torture.

Given the kind of information to which Cockburn had ready access, it is impossible to interpret his statements about Castro and Radosh as anything other than the most cynical and heartless of lies.