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The intellectual and liberal media enchantment with Communism

Written By | Jun 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 – Throughout the world, Communist states have crumbled. There can now be no doubt about what the people of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other countries upon which Marxism-Leninism was forcibly imposed, including Russia itself, think of Communism.

Indeed, it was Communist leaders, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, who proclaimed the horrors which previous leaders inflicted upon their countries. As we review Communism’s bleak record, the tens of millions of innocent people who lost their lives at the hands of Stalin, Mao and lesser tyrants, and the degraded lives thrust upon hundreds of millions of men and women, we should reflect on a chapter of the Cold War for which we in the United States and elsewhere in the West are ourselves responsible.

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That chapter deals with the Western journalists, intellectuals, clergymen and other opinion leaders who did not resist that Communist tyranny but embraced it, defended it and apologized for it.

Consider the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who created the modern propaganda play. When he visited the Manhattan apartment of American philosopher Sidney Hook in 1935, Stalin’s purges were just beginning. Hook, raising the case of Zinoviev and Kamenev, asked Brecht how he could bear to work with the American Communists who were trumpeting their guilt.

Brecht replied that the U.S. Communists were no good, nor were the Germans either, and that the only body which mattered was the Soviet party. Hook pointed out that they were all part of the same movement, responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of innocent former comrades. Brecht replied: “As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Hook asked: “Why, why?” Brecht did not answer. Hook got up, went into the next room and brought Brecht’s hat and coat.

During the entire course of Stalin’s purges, Brecht never uttered a word of protest. When Stalin died, Brecht’s comment was: “The oppressed of all five continents must have felt their heart-beats stop when they heard that Stalin was dead. He was the embodiment of their hopes.”

And consider the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. In a July 1954 interview with Liberation, Sartre, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, said that Soviet citizens did not travel, not because they are prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country. “The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do.” He maintained that, “There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”

Some years later, Sartre admitted that none of this was true: “After my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1954, I lied…I wrote an article…where I said a number of friendly things about the Soviet Union which I did not believe. I did it partly because I considered that it is not polite to denigrate your hosts as soon as you return, home, and partly because I didn’t really know where I stood in relation to both the Soviet Union and my own ideas.”

Sartre, however, continued along the same path repeatedly. Of Castro, he said, “The country which has emerged out of the Cuban revolution is a direct democracy.” Of Tito’s Yugoslavia: “It is the realization of my philosophy.”

Another intellectual defender of tyranny was Lillian Hellman, the American playwright. She visited Russia in October 1937, when Stalin’s purge trials were at their height. On her return, she said she knew nothing about them. In 1938 she was among the signatories of an ad in the Communist publication New Masses which approved the trials. She supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, stating, “I don’t believe in that kind, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.”

There is absolutely no evidence that Hellman ever visited Finland, and her biographer states that it is highly improbable.

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In her book “Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First,” Mona Charen, a columnist who served in the Reagan White House, examines the manner in which so many American liberals misread the Cold War and the nature of Communism.

Many liberals, she writes, were “…inclined to excuse, justify, or ignore the grave sins of our adversaries while always calling down the harshest possible judgment on America. Lenin is widely credited with the prediction that liberals and other weak-minded souls in the West could be relied upon to be ‘useful idiots’ as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. Though Lenin may never have actually uttered the phrase, it was consistent with his cynical style…Liberals managed, time after time during the Cold War, to live down to his sour prediction.”

In Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge were shooting their way towards Phnom Penn, the Washington Post editorialized that, “The threatened ‘blood-bath’ is less ominous than a continuation of the current bloodletting.” New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg filed dispatches heaping scorn on the notion that a Communist victory was anything to dread. On April 13, 1975, just a week before the Lon Nol government fell, the Times ran a front-page story by Schanberg saying, “…for the ordinary people of Indochina…it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.”

Schanberg described the Khmer Rouge as a coalition of disparate elements, some Communist, some not. Even after the Khmer Rouge took the capital, Schanberg continued to ridicule the idea of a bloodbath: “Another prediction made by the Americans was that the Communists would carry out a bloodbath once they took over, massacring as many as 20,000 high officials and intellectuals. There have been unconfirmed reports of executions of senior military and civilian officials, and no one who witnessed the takeover doubts that top people of the old regime will be or have been punished and perhaps killed or that a large number of people will die of hardships on the march into the countryside. But none of this will apparently bear any resemblance to the mass executions that had been predicted by Westerners.”

That report was filed from Bangkok on May 8, three weeks after the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, an event Schanberg had witnessed with his own eyes. Mona Charen points out that, “Even if Schanberg did not see any of the thousands of peremptory executions carried out in the opening days of Khmer Rouge rule, didn’t the wholesale evacuation of the capital, a war crime according to the Geneva Convention, give him pause about the nature of the Khmer Rouge? Evidently not…In fact, Schanberg would have despised anyone who wrote such a thing. Yet for movements calling themselves ‘revolutionary,’ any crime, no matter how repulsive, could at least get the benefit of an open mind from the correspondent from the New York Times. Mr. Schanberg was also rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for his Cambodia reporting.”

When Richard Nixon traveled to Communist China, journalists traveling with him tended to ignore the brutal tyranny around them. New Yotk Times columnist James Reston wrote: “China’s most visible characteristics are the characteristics of youth…a kind of lean,muscular grace, relentless hard work, and an optimistic, even amiable outlook on the future…The people seem not only young but enthusiastic about their changing lives.”

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith was even more impressed, saying that, “Somewhere in the recesses of the Chinese polity there may be a privileged Party and official hierarchy. Certainly it is the least ostentatious ruling class in history. So far as a visitor can see or is told, there is, for worker, technician, engineer, scientist, plant manager, local official, even, one suspects, table tennis player, a truly astonishing approach to equality of income…Clearly, there is very little difference between rich and poor.”

From the first days of Communism, many Americans and others in the West were impressed. New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who was stationed in Moscow during Lenin’s, and part of Stalin’s reign, offered this assessment of Lenin in 1921: “Lenin has a cool, far-sighted, reasoned sense of realities…He is willing to put aside what experience has shown to be impracticable theories and devote himself to rebuilding Russia on a new and solid foundation.”
Of Stalin, Duranty wrote: “Stalin is giving the Russian people, the Russian masses, not Westernized landlords, industrialists, bankers, and intellectuals, but Russia’s 150,000,000 peasants and workers, what they really want, namely joint effort, communist effort.”

In the midst of the enforced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, Duranty visited the region and denied that starvation and death was rampant. In November, 1932, Duranty reported that “there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” When the famine became widely known in the West, and reported in his own paper and by his own colleagues, playing down rather than denying became his method. Still denying famine, he spoke of “malnutrition,” “food shortages,” and “lowered resistance.”

In The Times of August 23, 1933, Duranty wrote: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” and went on to declare: “The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population last year, and particularly the grain-producing provinces, that is, the Ukraine, the North Caucasus, the Lower Volga region, has, however, caused heavy loss of life.” He estimated the deaths at nearly four times the usual rate. The usual rate would, in the regions named, “have been 1,000,000” and this was now in all probability “at least trebled.”

In his important book about Soviet collectivization and the terror-famine of the 1930s, “The Harvest of Sorrow,” Robert Conquest declares that Duranty’s “admission of two million extra deaths was made to appear regrettable, but not overwhelmingly important and not amounting to ‘famine.’ Moreover, he blamed it in part on the ‘flight of some peasants and the passive resistance of others’…Duranty blamed famine stories on émigrés, encouraged by the rise of Hitler and spoke of the ‘famine stories then current in Berlin, Riga, Vienna, and other places, where elements hostile to the Soviet Union were making an eleventh-hour attempt to avert American recognition by picturing the Soviet Union as a land of ruin and despair.”

What Americans got was not the truth, but false reporting. Its influence was widespread. What Walter Duranty got was the highest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for 1932, complimenting him for “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia.” The citation declared that Duranty’s dispatches, which the world now knows to have been false, were “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity.”

The New York Times has been repeatedly asked to return this Pulitzer Prize, but it has not seen fit to do so.

Walter Duranty was only one of many correspondents and writers in the 1920s and 1930s who fed their readers a steady diet of disinformation about the Soviet Union.

Louis Fischer, who wrote for the Nation magazine, also glossed over the famine of 1932-33. He once referred to what we now know as the “Gulags” as “a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution.” In 1936, he informed his readers that the new Stalin constitution showed that the dictatorship was “voluntarily abdicating” in favor democracy.

In the battle between freedom and tyranny, sadly, many in the U.S. and other Western countries used their considerable abilities to advance not freedom but tyranny. Those who did so, should not be forgotten.

Few, Mona Charen laments, ever paid a price for the role they played: “One of the most celebrated heroes of American history, Charles Lindbergh, saw his reputation shredded due to his failure to perceive the monumental evil of Nazism. Yet American liberals who committed the identical sin vis-a-vis the Communists, and demonstrate in ways small and large on an almost daily basis that they still do not get it, have paid no price for their appalling judgment.”


Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.