Smollett: the spy who got away

Yesterday we discussed George Orwell’s 1949 list of literary and journalistic colleagues whom he viewed as “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way.” Among them, we pointed out, was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who at the time was considered the ultimate authority on the Soviet Union – but whose name has since become synonymous with shameless journalistic dishonesty and the systematic whitewashing of tyranny.

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George Orwell

Another name on Orwell’s list was that of Peter Smollett. Born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Peter Smolka, he relocated in 1933 to Britain, where, according to writer Daniel J. Leab, he “wrote pro-Soviet travel journalism for various US outlet during the 1930s, became a naturalized British subject in 1938, changed his name, and after the war’s outbreak joined the Ministry of Information, where he energetically organized pro-Soviet propaganda and suppressed ‘unfavorable comment’ on Stalinist Russia.”

Animal-FarmHis title at the Ministry was Head of Soviet Relations. At the height of the war, when Orwell sent Animal Farm, his classic indictment of Soviet Communism, around to various publishers, one of them, Jonathan Cape, was “reported to be initially keen on the manuscript,” but “bowed out after consulting an ‘important official’ at the Ministry of Information, who advised against publication.” That official was Peter Smollett. On his list, Orwell described Smollett as “a very slimy person” who was “almost certainly [an] agent of some kind.”

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Kim Philby’s 1990 USSR commemorative stamp

He was right. After his death in 1980, Smollett/Smolka was revealed to have been an agent of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which, in addition to performing espionage, ran the Gulag labor camps, conducted mass executions, and carried out mass deportations of various minorities and farmers. The Mitrokhin Archive, which we discussed a while back, records that Smollett was recruited as a spy in 1939 by double agent Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, and that his NKVD cover name was ABO. Smollett’s wartime NKVD work, notes Henry Hemming, “was held in high regard by Moscow.” Not only did he pass top-secret information on to the Kremlin (working first under Philby and later under another one of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess); he was also an invaluable pro-Soviet propagandist. In communications to higher-ups at the Ministry,

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956, after his defection to the USSR

Smollett would exaggerate Soviet concerns, refuse to give in to them and then suggest as a quid pro quo a more Soviet-friendly stance on other issues. He maintained, for example, that the Soviets were exceptionally thin-skinned and, as such, no stories about Stalinist persecution could be broadcast. Smollett encouraged the BBC to run stories that exaggerated the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR….Elsewhere Smollett pushed the idea that after the war the USSR would be too weak to do anything other than rebuild.

The result of Smollett’s efforts was substantial. Hemming describes it as a “red haze” that “swept over Britain after the entry of the USSR into the war.” What he means is that Britain, thanks in large part to Smollett’s initiatives, was given a consistently prettified image of life under Stalin. As Hemming puts it, Smollett “helped to blur the line between the heroic Russians and the brutal Soviet regime.”

Smollett, Hemming points out, “was not unmasked during his lifetime, and instead enjoyed a successful post-war career as a respected Times correspondent and was even awarded an OBE.” But Orwell knew.

More tomorrow.

Orwell’s stooges

We here at Useful Stooges would not presume to compare ourselves with George Orwell, the great English man of letters and enemy of tyranny in all its forms, but we have at least one thing in common with him. Our website could be described as a catalogue of people – some past, most present – who, as we put it on our “About” page, are “pawns of tyrants in our own time” who “either admire despotism or have figured out ways…to profit from their cynical support for it.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Orwell made a list, too. In 1949, the year he published his classic novel 1984 and not long before he died, he provided the Information Research Department, a newly established propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, with the names of “journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way, and should not be trusted.” In other words: people who, if hired or used in any way by British intelligence, would be likely to become double agents.

In 1996, when the existence of Orwell’s list became widely known, and again in 2003, when the list itself became public, many of his fellow men of the left condemned him as a McCarthyite, a blacklister, a rogue. Communist historian Christopher Hill called him a traitor to his side. (It is worth noting that Hill also despised Animal Farm for attacking Communism.)

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Christopher Hill

But Orwell’s friend David Astor, the longtime editor of the Observer, had a clearer view of things: “Orwell wasn’t betraying the left – the pro-communists were betraying us.” For Britain’s misguided left, Orwell’s crime was simple: he recognized that totalitarianism in the name of Communism was no better than totalitarianism in the name of Nazism. In short, he hated Stalin every bit as much as he hated Hitler. And that was inexcusable.

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Christopher Hitchens

But Orwell requires no defense from us; anyone who wants one need only consult the splendid essay on the subject that was published in 2002 by the estimable Christopher Hitchens. (It appears in Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters,  in his posthumous collection, And Yet…,  which appeared last year, and is also behind a firewall at the New York Review of Books website.)

To this day, Orwell’s list is worth perusing. Because he was right. The people he named – journalists, historians, scientists, professors, even a couple of actors, a Member of Parliament, and a noted clergymen – deserved their places on that list. Orwell knew them for what they were. The problem is that we don’t. Most of the names on his list mean nothing to most people in the English-speaking world nowadays. That’s a shame. Because their stories illustrate that, then as now, it’s far from uncommon to find fans of totalitarianism in positions of power and influence in free countries.

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Walter Duranty

One of the names on Orwell’s list is that of Walter Duranty, our archetypal useful stooge. Duranty was the New York Times‘s man in Moscow from 1922 to 1936; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. At the time Orwell included Duranty’s name on his list, Duranty was still a highly respected journalist. Not until years later would his dispatches from Russia come under serious scrutiny. Robert Conquest, in his 1968 book The Great Terror, condemned Duranty for systematically whitewashing the evils of Stalinism and trying to cover up the Ukrainian famine. The publication in 1990 of Sally J. Taylor’s biography of Duranty, which was appropriately entitled Stalin’s Apologist, helped trigger a serious effort to have Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked. In 2003, however, the head of the Pulitzer board declined to withdraw the prize. He still didn’t get it; Orwell had gotten it more than a half-century earlier.

Another useful stooge whose number Orwell had early on was a Daily Express editor named Peter Smollett, who years later would be identified as a Soviet spy. We’ll look at Smollett tomorrow.

It’s the totalitarianism, stupid

The New York Times hasn’t always been a totally loyal participant in the struggle against totalitarianism – note that our poster boy for useful stoogery is the Times‘s own shameless apologist for Stalinism, Walter Duranty – but now and then it comes through. It certainly did so on March 26, when it ran a splendid op-ed, entitled “Please Cancel Your Vacation to North Korea,” by Marie Myung-ok Lee.

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Otto Warmbier

Lee, who teaches writing at Columbia University, began by referring to the case of Otto Warmbier, which we’ve already discussed here. Warmbier, it will be remembered, is the American college student whose ill-advised New Year’s vacation in Pyongyang turned into a nightmare after he was caught on closed-circuit camera taking a propaganda sign off of a wall in the hotel where he was staying. This innocent attempt to snag a souvenir resulted in a 15-year sentence at hard labor in a North Korean prison.

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Marie Myung-ok Lee

“In photographs from the trial,” writes Lee, Warmbier “seemed utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted.” Lee adds: “I was not shocked.”

The reason? Lee’s parents fled North Korea in their teens and settled in America. Lee knows how brutal the Kim regime is. After leaving the Hermit Kingdom, Lee’s father “tried several times to return to visit his homeland, including with a medical group bringing in supplies.” He was denied entry every time. Lee, however, was able to visit in 2009 as part of a group of teachers and students. She was also able to take her mother on the trip.

“Our group,” writes Lee,

was briefed several times about the things we could and couldn’t do. We were not allowed to bring Bibles, satellite phones, cameras with telephoto lenses, notebooks, pornography. We were told to expect that our group would probably be spied on and to not bad-mouth any of the regime’s leaders, past or present, even in private.

On arriving in North Korea, as Lee puts it, “you lose control.” They take your passport. They control your movements. They select your meals. They decide whom you get to meet. And they house you in a Pyongyang hotel that’s located on an island by itself, separated by water from the rest of the city. Of course there’s no possibility of making a phone call to the family back home or sending them an e-mail.

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Kim Jung-un

The reality of North Korean tyranny is no secret in the rest of the world. But for many Americans, tyranny is simply not a reality. They can’t process the idea. Living all your life in freedom can make it difficult to realize what it really means to live without freedom. As Lee writes, “reports of ‘drunken high jinks’” on the part of Americans visiting Kim’s realm “are becoming more common.” As we’ve noted previously on this website, the travel agency Warmbier used, Young Pioneer Tours, encourages a frivolous attitude toward totalitarianism.

Kim_Il-sungLee warns fervently against such attitudes. She recalls that during her North Korean visit, a tour bus she was riding on “stopped in the middle of the countryside” and she “noticed a bicycle leaning forlornly against a tree and felt that would make a compelling photo.” But before she could take a picture, “the bus was stormed by soldiers.” Another tourist, it emerged, had already snapped a photo – which was a particularly serious offense, because, unbeknownst to the passengers, they were in the middle of a military installation. The offender, a fellow student of Lee’s, was removed from the bus. A Warmbier-like situation was averted – but only because the student was a citizen of China, North Korea’s only ally.

“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.

Whitewashing The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Not so long ago, we took a sidelong glance at Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the left’s flagship magazine, The Nation. Like her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime Ivy League expert on Russia, vanden Heuvel was a big apologist for the Soviet Union and is, today, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Not to beat a dead horse – or a cadaverous ideology – but it would be remiss of us not to revisit Katrina, and her storied publication, in commemoration of what is, in more than one sense, a red-letter day in the history of American political journalism: namely, the 150th anniversary of The Nation, which was founded on July 6, 1865.

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John Dos Passos

To celebrate this milestone, The Nation has published an extra-large special issue, a pdf of which is available for free online. It’s well worth perusing. Simply in terms of layout and design, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Among the dozens of articles drawn from the magazine’s immense archives are critiques of George Armstrong Custer’s attack at the Little Big Horn, the annexation of Hawaii, U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and many other once-burning issues. There are also innumerable essays and reviews by such eminences as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Ray Bradbury, and poems by the likes of William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop – a salutary reminder that, for a long time, the back pages of The Nation were deservedly respected for introducing the public to major literary works and for publishing serious literary and cultural commentary, all of which was more or less effectively sealed off from the ideologically saturated claptrap up front.

But when it comes to the articles in this anniversary number that have been drawn from the front of the book, the two key words are caveat lector – let the reader beware. For this special issue is a masterpiece of cynicism and dishonesty. First, the editors have selected – and silently edited – vintage texts that show off the magazine at its best; second, they’ve supplemented those texts with new material that positions those articles in the magazine’s history – and presents the magazine’s role in the history of the modern world in a way that takes creative spinning, whitewashing, and airbrushing to new heights, presenting The Nation as a magazine that has always been right, even when everyone else was wrong, and that has always been good, even when everyone else was bad.

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Willa Cather

To be sure, in its early decades, The Nation was indeed a highly admirable mainstream journal. Its founders were Republican abolitionists who believed in liberty and democratic capitalism, and who argued for the equal rights of women and blacks. In the back of the book – the cultural pages – they published works by such luminaries as Henry James and Willa Cather.

Then…well, something happened. The Gilded Age came along – the era of the “robber barons”  and the capitalist abolitionists were succeeded by reflexively pro-labor, anti-capitalist “progressives.” They were (to put it mildly) soft on socialism, but they had valid points to make about the need for worker protections and safety nets.

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Freda Kirchwey

From there on, however, it just got worse. In A Better World,  a 1982 book about the relationship between Stalinism and the American intellectual left, William Oneill [sic] notes that after The Nation was purchased in 1937 by Freda Kirchwey, an outright Stalinist who’d been working at the magazine since 1918, she installed herself as editor-in-chief and turned the weekly, former an open forum of the liberal left,” into “an organ of the Popular Front” – meaning, essentially, a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin. 

For Kirchwey and The Nation, solidarity with Stalin necessitated the denunciation and smearing of all critics of the Soviet Union, whether conservative or liberal, and the fierce, unequivocal rejection of any hint that the USSR might, in fact, be – like Hitler’s Germany, and even moreso than Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain – a cruel and evil totalitarian state. Kirchwey’s logic? As she put it herself, Communists, for all their imperfections, had “also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain.” Yes, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. The current editors of The Nation – who tastefully omit to mention Kirchwey’s Stalinism in the anniversary issue – offer this outrageously lame explanation for her systematic refusal to so much as hint at the monstrous truth about life in the USSR: “Kirchwey and [her successor as editor-in-chief] Carey McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home.” Right. Just as The Nation of 2015 denounces Western counterjihadiststoday while acting as if jihadists themselves are a creature from some bestiary of the imagination, so did The Nation of yore pillory anti-Communists while all but pretending that Western Communism – a very real threat – was a fantasy.

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Front cover of S.J. Taylor’s book about Walter Duranty

August 1939 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which Stalin fans capable of being honest with themselves recognized as a mammoth betrayal, an alliance of their greatest hero with their most despised enemy. Many of them felt driven, as Oneill puts it, to try “to explain what had gone wrong, and sometimes even where they had gone wrong personally.” Yet some on the American left “resisted this temptation.” Oneill identifies this resistance primarily with The Nation, “whose capacity for introspection,” he states, “was nonexistent.” Quite simply, the magazine “did not apologize for past errors,” and “[e]xcept when nursing grudges it had almost no memory, the world being born anew in its pages every week.”

The Nazi-Soviet Pact, in any event, was soon forgotten; a few weeks later Europe was at war, and the USSR was allied with Britain and France, and Stalin was once again a hero – in, above all, the pages of The Nation. And after the war was won, The Nation reliably provided its readers with (in Oneill’s words) sheer “fantasy” and “naked propaganda” about the victorious Uncle Joe and his workers’ paradise. In The Nation during these years, Oneill points out, Russia was depicted as alternately revolutionary and liberal – or sometimes both at once – as the need of the moment required.” Writing in The Nation in 1946, Walter Duranty described a purge by Stalin as “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess.” (As one observer later put it, “The Nation excused mass murder so long as it was red mass murder.”) When the USSR brutally turned the countries of Eastern Europe into Communist satellites, Kirchwey, far from protesting this savage act, supported it as a “process of revolution.”

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Uncle Joe

As for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, Oneill cites a suggestion by Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth that this, too, was just fine, because, after all, those republics had been run by fascists (or so the Kremlin said) – and besides, they weren’t “really countries” anyway.

Readers of the current incarnation of The Nation will find these two arguments very familiar: they’re precisely the same ones that vanden Heuvel and her husband employ today to justify Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: (1) it’s (according to them) a fascist state, and (2) Ukraine is (to quote vanden Heuvel) “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.”

Then as now, you see, the countries “on Russia’s border” don’t matter to The Nation; all that matters is Mother Russia itself, which in 1917 became the beacon of hope for utopian ideologues and enemies of individual liberty around the world, and which, even all these years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, continues to serve the America-haters at The Nation as a counterbalance to American power and American values.

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James Agee

We’ve mentioned that The Nation‘s cultural pages were generally free of control by the editors who ran the front of the book. Sometimes this had results that might fairly be described as schizophrenic. Consider James Agee’s 1947 review of the now-classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is reprinted in the anniversary issue. The review is a total slam – and what’s interesting about it is that what Agee is criticizing in the movie is precisely what’s wrong with the magazine for which he happens to be reviewing it. “I mistrust any work,” he writes, “which tries to persuade me—or rather, which assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage.” One could hardly pen a more stinging indictment of the dangerously credulous view of the world – trusting in the power and virtue of social engineering, and rejecting the importance and value of individual liberty and individual character – that informed the political pages of Kirchwey’s magazine.

What about The Nation during the Cold War? We’ll move on to that next time.