The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weaker man with the sponge. First, the criminal who slays, then the sophist who defends the slayer.
There is no famine, nor is there likely to be.
Out of the turbulent history of twentieth-century Communism the lives and careers of three men immerge as perhaps the most important, the most dominating of the many Communist revolutionaries who rose to high positions of power: Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and Fidel Castro. The continuous span of time that marked their rule began in the mid-1920s, when Lenin died and Stalin consolidated his own power within the party, and covers close to ninety years. Fidel Castro, now in his dotage, ruled for over half a century. His geriatric regime staggered into the twenty-first century with his younger brother Raul in his late 70s, the faithful custodian of “The Revolution.”
The first two men, Stalin and Mao, imposed their will and stamped the pathologies of their ruthless personalities upon the peoples of the two largest countries in the world. The changes that they initiated and presided over during their rule were staggering, far reaching and monumental. The third, Fidel Castro was only thirty-three when he and his even younger followers swept the corrupt Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959. Castro created and skillfully marketed his own distinct counter-culture image of Latin American Communism, infused with a heavy load of anti-Americanism, then exported it with great success world-wide. This small island nation, wrested from Spain by U.S. troops sixty years earlier, had been a playground paradise for the U.S. Yet, Castro somehow managed to turn himself and Cuba into powerful symbols. He was a young Communist David standing up to the Capitalist U.S. Goliath, hovering only ninety miles away, menacing yet inhibited, somehow intimidated by the righteousness of Cuban egalitarianism. The success of Castro in the early stages was greatly assisted by President Kennedy’s bungling of the Bay of Pigs invasion within months of his inauguration in 1961. Castro then connived with the Soviet Union to arm Cuba with nuclear missiles pointed at U.S. cities. This small island nation in the 1960s he then put at the epicenter of a Communist-Free World superpower stand-off that nearly brought about a modern Armageddon.
Castro’s reaction during the Cuban missile crises reminds one of the comments of Mao’s cavalier dismissal of the potential Chinese casualties from a nuclear war with the U.S. – as it is reported that he was furious that Khrushchev had given way to Kennedy’s threats. Castro had wanted and urged a Soviet-U.S. conflagration knowing that massive Cuban casualties would have likely resulted. “Castro acknowledged that he had encouraged Khrushchev not to back down, and he was prepared to provoke a shooting war that would have undoubtedly sacrificed untold numbers of Cubans.” [Anthony DePalma, The Man who Invented Fidel, Perseus, 2006, 207] Castro had actually wanted war. Like Mao, the well-being of his own people, not to mention innocents from abroad, meant little to him. The potential massive destruction and loss of life of the Cubans was incidental to his own sense of self-importance and his fixation on ideology and power. He told a group of students at the University of Havana a few days later that “Khrushchev had no balls.” (“no cojones”) [DePalma, The Man who Invented Fidel, 208]
Stalin, Mao, and Castro – each of these men was a master image maker, a cynical treacherous manipulator within his own party, and a veritable genius of self-promotion and political self-preservation. For decades each one presided over a brutal, repressive single-party police state, yet was worshiped at home as a near god, a man of incomparable wisdom, selfless devotion to the people and limitless benevolence. Abroad each one attracted large numbers of devoted followers and commanded the admiration and acclamation of the intellectual class.
Each of these three men owed a great debt of gratitude to a prominent journalist from the West who for each one created and presented to the outside world a softened and idealized image. Those images grossly belied their megalomaniacal personalities and were above all else false and distorted. The widely acclaimed books, newspaper and journal articles that they would write about Stalin, Mao, and Castro would help to shape public opinion, influence foreign policy and, ultimately, make it easier for each of these dictators to remain in power and to oppress and terrorize their own people for decades.
Walther Duranty, a British born journalist, served as the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times from 1922 through 1936. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for 13 articles written in 1931 and published in the New York Times analyzing the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership. In the New York Times executive offices hallway where over 80 portraits of Pulitzer Prize winners hang, including that of Duranty with the inscription that the award recognized “a profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia [consistent with] the best type of foreign correspondence.” [Douglas McCollam, CJR, November/December, 2003, 43]
But beside Duranty’s portrait is attached a note, “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.” [McCollam, CJR, 43] What then does this ying-of-praise, yang-of-repudiation mean? If “discredited,” then why are his photograph and inscription still in a place of honor? Duranty seems to hang in the Times hallway in a kind of limbo. Kindly stated, Duranty’s work as a journalist was badly tainted, and the awarding of his prize was no less than a travesty. It is difficult to overstate how unfortunate it was that a man of Duranty’s character and personality defects was to be misjudged as a superior talent and to be placed in a position to report on and influence opinion on momentous historical events that shaped the history of the twentieth century and affected the lives of so many people.
In 1990 thirty-three years after Duranty’s death, J.S. Taylor published a biography of Duranty entitled, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Time’s Man in Moscow. The title could not be more apropos. Indeed, Duranty served the Kremlin chief especially well, helping him to cover up from the outside world knowledge of the famine that Stalin had deliberately created and imposed on Ukraine in the early 1930s. Duranty, though not in the governing inner-circle, exhibited some of the same qualities of character as Stalin’s men, namely a lack of any moral principle and a dedication to self-advancement. In his Camrades: a Brief History of Communism, Robert Service writes that Duranty “was shameless, someone who would say anything that would prolong his comfort and his commercial activity in the USSR.” [Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, 294]
Duranty also witnessed Stalin’s show trials in the mid-1930s in Moscow. He drew from his extensive Russian expertise and experience and confidently declared to The New Republic after observing the 1937 trial that he found the confessions of the defendants to be credible. [S.J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow, Oxford, 1990, 267] Throughout the rest of the 1930s and into the 1940s Duranty followed and reported on the show trials for his western readers. Duranty’s rendering of the proceedings was essentially a vindication for Stalin as well as a rationalization of their obvious irregularities. Duranty published in 1941 The Kremlin and the People, a book in which he put forth his “Fifth Column” thesis, arguing that the Soviet leadership had indeed been infiltrated by saboteurs and traitors – which was Stalin’s own version – and that while there were excesses and abuses of what by Western standards would be due process, the trials on the whole were necessary in order for the Soviet Union to purge itself of traitorous elements before it entered into war. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, Oxford, 1990, 269-70] Duranty also downplayed the number of casualties from the Great Purges of 1936-1939. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 271]
The famine and its devastating effects that Duranty helped Stalin to conceal from the outside world plunged three to seven million people into starvation, depending on varying accounts. “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition, especially in the Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga” Duranty had written in 1933 at the time when people were starving by the millions. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 207] No exact count is possible, the Soviet census compilers who took the initial counts after the famine was done were ordered by Stalin to be shot, presumably because their numbers were too accurate and pointed toward the ugly truth of what happened.
The famine was a horrific piece of mass murder that continues to stagger the imagination in the cold blooded calculation of its planning, its massive dimensions and its merciless ferocity. A human catastrophe of this magnitude, one would think, would not be that easy to cover up. But Stalin was also extremely good at that as well. Malcolm Muggeridge, who traveled to Ukraine in 1933 after developing a suspicion of what was happening to the peasants, became one of the few outside direct eye witnesses. It was, he said, “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it ever happened.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 206] In recompense for his efforts to tell the outside world what was happening inside Stalin’s new society Muggeridge was vilified and then blackballed as a journalist. His own wife’s aunt, the Stalin-smitten, Fabian Socialist, Beatrice Webb sneeringly dismissed his reports as “a hysterical tirade.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 206] By telling the world what Stalin’s policies and his cadres were actually doing to the people they ruled over Muggeridge had fallen afoul of Britain’s powerful opinion-shaping Left. He became a persona non gratia and could no longer get work as a journalist. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 206]]
The famine, as Peter Paluch points out, was the first of its kind in modern history, a “famine on command”, brought about not by drought, crop failure or war. “One hundred thousand Communist party activists, brought in for the task from Russia, physically removed virtually all of the food from the region.” [Paluch, “Harvesting Despair, 33] Thirty years later Mao would undertake a similar approach with a similar outcome, and, like Stalin, he would have an obsequious retinue of prominent Western observers on hand to tell the outside world that all was well.
Duranty not only reported the famine to his western readers in euphemistic and misleading terms, he took the lead in discrediting the report of Gareth Jones, a fellow Brit who on a three week walking trip through Ukraine reported the extensive starvation that he had personally witnessed. Duranty apparently worried about falling out of favor with the Soviet censors and denied access to the high profile Metro-Vickers trial if the Jones reports were not repudiated. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 207] Gareth Jones, the amateur truth-teller, was no match for the “professional” Walter Duranty who was able to discredit him, the result of which was that Jones’s direct observations of one of the worst atrocities of the modern world were ignored and lost. “‘Throwing down Jones’” signaled one of the sorriest periods of reportage in the history of the free press, one in which Walter Duranty led the way – with the others in the pack all not that far behind.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 209]
Duranty deceived his Western readers for years. He devoted his skills to the crafting of a false image of the Soviet Union and above all, of Stalin, someone whose obvious crudeness and brutality could be excused as the darker side of a great and determined man whose better instincts were focused on the advancing the well being of toiling working class whose interests he claimed to represent. In Moscow in the very early days of the Bolshevik regime Duranty continued his “cunning Machiavellian reporting” that his reporter colleague, George Seldes of the Chicago Tribute attributed to him. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 110] Duranty failed to report the execution of Vicar General of the Catholic Church.
Like Stalin, Duranty was highly talented liar with lying deeply embedded in his character. His personal history reveals a man dissolute and largely devoid of personal morals. His long public career as a supposedly truth telling reporter was built upon the selling of lies on a very grand scale to many people. Muggeridge later in his life referred to Duranty as “the greatest liar I have ever met in fifty years of journalism,” and Joseph Alsop called him a “fashionable prostitute” who served the communists. [McCollam, CJR, 45]
Unlike Stalin, Duranty was a journalist. He practiced a profession which at its core is supposed to be about telling the truth to others about important events they are not in a position to directly observe or judge. The normative assumption is that the journalist operates independently of wielders of political power and exercises a kind of moral oversight in the form of an observer and reporter of events who has no vested interest in misrepresenting them. One may not recoil much from hearing an accusation of a lying from a politician, much less a dictator, since it is both fairly commonplace and predictable. But a lying journalist is different matter. The lies of a journalist are a betrayal of trust, a complete abdication of professional responsibility which in the modern world is viewed as a constraint on the abuse of power and privilege. The lying journalist is a betrayer of the worst kind.
Duranty emerges as a familiar type of reprehensible public figure in the twentieth century. There were others who followed in his wake, of particular note, Edgar Snow and Herbert L. Matthews. Strong criminal men of action, like Stalin, Mao and Castro in an age of mass communication, need the weaker men of words, the sponges, to wipe away and hide from view the blood, the depredations and the crimes. Stalin had many of these weaker men in tow, the intellectual sycophants who defended and praised him. But Duranty is in many ways a special case. For one thing, he was a westerner outside of Stalin’s orbit of direct power or control. This alone, however, did not make him special or unique. There were a lot of sophisticated admirers and adulators from the West like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells who came away from visits with Stalin entranced and full of praise. But Duranty did something far worse. He represented one of the most prestigious, influential and authoritative newspapers in the Western world, and he was charged with reporting to his readers the truth on a newly developing social order, one touted by its leaders to be far superior to anything past or present. Duranty, however, chose both to lie about what he witnessed. Even worse he attacked and defamed those who did tell the truth. Moreover, the lies he told deprived millions of his readers in the West of awareness of the real facts and the crucial knowledge of the monstrous nature of the Stalinist regime. Duranty’s journalistic writings helped mightily to shape in the West an appallingly soft and naïve view of Soviet Communism and a sympathetic if not favorable view of Stalin. Duranty also labored on behalf of the USSR to obtain diplomatic recognition from the U.S. For this massive and highly consequential performance of sycophancy and dishonesty, Duranty was bestowed with praise and awarded the highest prize of his profession, the Pulitzer, one which to this day has not been revoked. The New York Times, from Stalin to Castro to Ho Chi Minh has been consistently an apologist and special pleader for Communist tyrants.
Emerging from his biography is the portrait of a man whose character was deeply steeped in dishonesty. Duranty early in his career worked for the New York Times as reporter in France during WWI. “He was more writer than reporter. Whatever happened, Duranty would somehow convert it into a good story. And there would always be that mingling of truth and the elements of fiction in his work, a certain liberty—poetic license, if you will—more interpretative, less objective, at times, some would say, fatally flawed by constant wavering and equivocation.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 48]
Duranty‘s personal dishonesty is well documented. His rejection and shabby treatment of his family members he covered up in his autobiography Search for a Key by a fiction: he was, he wrote, orphaned as an only child at ten by a railway accident that killed his parents. This relieved him, as his biographer notes, of any “unwelcoming questions” about his mother and sister whom he dropped from his life and ignored in the last days of their lives. [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 27] Duranty also lied about his opium addiction in his autobiography saying that it began after his accident that took his leg, and that he began using opium to cope with the pain, when in fact he had used opium as a recreational drug much earlier in his life and with considerable frequency. [FN Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 31-32]
Duranty did not so much seem to be ideologue as he was a nihilist and an opportunist. A cynical, self-promoter, he impressed those around him as a man who did not seem to believe much in anything. “The deeply held moral convictions of other men,” writes his biographer, “served only to make Duranty uncomfortable, and he liked to believe he was better than they were because he was free from the bonds that tied their hands.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 232]
In summing up Duranty’s performance as a journalist his biographer writes: “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 remains the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded, exceeding in scale even the Jewish Holocaust of the next decade. It was Walter Duranty’s destiny to become, in effect, the symbol for the West’s failure to recognize and understand it at the time.” [Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, 239-240] True, but the fact that Duranty’s photo still hangs in halls of the New York Times and that the Ukrainian famine still nearly 80 years later remains a historical episode of little note and attention, suggests that Duranty’s complicity in covering it up was a piece of a much larger and continuing moral failure of the West. Moreover, the New York Times bears some responsibility for what Duranty did. “Researchers who have investigated Duranty’s career have found that certain editors at the New York Times did have doubts about his [Duranty’s] coverage of the Soviet Union and never acted to recall him.” [McCollam, CJR, 47] Duranty’s exposure as a compulsive liar and a self-promoting degenerate decades after his death is too little too late. His photo still hangs in the Times gallery. We now live in a time where the demand is high for “apologies” to be given by the heirs of offending groups to the descendants of wronged groups. Perhaps the New York Times ownership should issue a formal, public apology to the people of Ukraine for helping to hid from the outside world the truth of the mass murder Stalin inflicted on them.