Tuesday, December 13, 2016 9:22 AM
In many ways, my 2013 book American Betrayal is a history of Big Lies -- where they come from, how they are weaponized, and how they subverted our democratic republic despite the yeoman efforts of American patriots, largely forgotten, or, in the singular case of the late, great Sen. Joseph McCarthy, eternally slandered, to wrest the truth from American liars, many of whom are now on pedestals.
In the current chatter about "fake news," its origins in the totalitarian manipulations of the Big Lie, that flexing of ideology, political power, and what we used to call mass media that first came together over 85 years ago in the Ukraine Terror Famine, have been lost.
Here is a quick refresher from American Betrayal -- picking up with the extraordinary transformation of pro-Soviet-turning-anti-Communist journalist Eugene Lyons.
American Betrayal, pp. 100-104 (endnotes in the original):
On his real-life return to the USSR, Eugene Lyons would see and eventually understand. He writes of finding the familiar old mind games, the sifting techniques, no longer effective on his return. “With every week after my return I came to feel more ashamed of my mealy-mouthed caution while at home,” he writes. “Deep under those excuses I had made for myself, I now was forced to admit, had been the subconscious desire to remain persona grata with the masters, retain my job. I was protecting my status as a ‘friendly’ correspondent. And at that I had just about crawled under the line.”
There Lyons was to stay at least long enough to participate in a seminal event in Soviet crime and Western turpitude: what Robert Conquest would much later identify as the very first successful implementation of the “Big Lie”—the concerted assault on truth to form world opinion, in this original case, to deny the regime-engineered Famine in the Ukraine. It was a Faustian turning point.
On the face of it, this [deception] might appear to have been an impossible undertaking. A great number of true accounts reached Western Europe and America, some of them from impeccable Western eyewitnesses . . .
But Stalin had a profound understanding of the possibilities of what Hitler approvingly calls the Big Lie. He knew that even though the truth may be readily available, the deceiver need not give up. He saw that flat denial on the one hand, and the injection into the pool of information of a corpus of positive falsehood on the other, were sufficient to confuse the issue for the passively instructed foreign audience, and to induce acceptance of the Stalinist version by those actively seeking to be deceived.
Flat denial plus a corpus of positive falsehood: Sounds like another "black hole of antiknowledge," another corroding attack on the basis of the Enlightenment itself. Conquest describes this concerted effort to deceive the world about the truth of the state-engineered famine, Stalin’s brutal war on the peasantry, as “the first major instance of the exercise of this technique of influencing world opinion.”
This instance, then, was a seminal moment in the history of the world. The seminal moment, perhaps, of the twentieth century, a moment in which history itself, always subject to lies and colorations, became susceptible to something truly new under the sun: totalitarianism; more specifically, the totalitarian innovation of disinformation, later expanded, bureaucratized and, in effect, weaponized, by KGB-directed armies of dezinformatsiya agents.
What do I mean by “armies”? Ion Mihai Pacepa, former chief of intelligence in Communist Romania, told me, “During the Cold War, more people in the Soviet bloc worked for the dezinformatsiya machine than for the Soviet army and defense industry put together. The bloc’s intelligence community alone had over one million officers (the KGB had over 700,000) and several million informants around the world. All were involved in deceiving the West—and their own country—or in supporting the effort.”62
That came later. It had to start somewhere, though, and so it did. By 1936, after civil war broke out in Spain, George Orwell could sense a sea change in the writing of history, of news, of information, of the handling of what he called “neutral fact,” which heretofore all sides had accepted. “What is peculiar to our age,” he wrote, “is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” Or even that it should be, I would add. For example, he wrote, in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on World War I, not even twenty years past, “a respectable amount of material is drawn from German sources.” This reflected a common understanding—assumption—that “the facts” existed and were ascertainable. As Orwell personally witnessed in Spain, this notion that there existed “a considerable body of fact that would have been agreed to by almost everyone” had disappeared. “I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History ended in 1936,’ at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism generally, but more specifically of the Spanish Civil War.” He continued, “I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed . . . I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened.”
Then he hits it precisely: “I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’ ” (emphasis added).63 Ideology over all.
That had to start somewhere, too. The confession-minded Eugene Lyons seems to know where. In fact, he was present at the creation. Chapter 15 in Lyons’s book Assignment in Utopia is called “The Press Corps Conceals a Famine.” It lays out the basics about what he called in 1937 “the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932– 1933.” This group failure is best but by no means exclusively characterized by the eye-rolling bunk Pulitzer Prize–winning Walter Duranty would cable home as news to The New York Times, which was in fact Soviet-sanctioned propaganda designed to justify a brutal and unprecedented war to destroy millions of peasants. To familiarize ourselves with Duranty’s techinque, here from March 1, 1933, is how he rationalized the forced, violent uprooting of one million peasant families to all but certain death in penal colonies in the north:
The Russian masses may and do grumble about shortages and other difficulties, but there is no sign they are horrified, alarmed or even disapproving at the sight of “removals” of recalcitrant peasants . . .
They accept the Bolshevist explanation that “class enemies” must be defeated and made powerless, and, as far as this writer can see, they accept it read- ily as a natural and indeed excellent thing.
Thus, Westerners, free men as defined by the Magna Carta, the Rights of Man, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the American Way (even though Duranty himself was English), capitulated to the totalitarian machine. They listened to and amplified the agitprop of the “Bolsheviki” and the nomenklatura (priviledged bureaucracy). When it came time to face the Terror Famine, they preferred to construct their own, pre-Orwell memory hole to rid themselves of the truth.
It is an extraordinarily wide press conspiracy that Lyons goes on to describe, all of it designed to undermine the veracity of one man, one outlier, a lone truth teller who came, who saw, who reported—and, most important, made headlines. This singular person was twenty-seven-year-old Gareth Jones, a brilliant, Russian-speaking, Welsh journalist who had served as David Lloyd George’s secretary, and whose initial, attention-grabbing statements to the press on reaching Germany, after extensively debriefing his journalistic colleagues in Moscow and completing a secret trek through the starving areas of the USSR, brought the famine into the light. Exposure. His sensational report was carried in many newspapers including The New York Evening Post, The London Evening Standard, and The Manchester Guardian, where another, ultimately more enduringly famous truth teller, Malcolm Muggeridge, had just published sev- eral mainly overlooked articles about the state-organized mass starvation in progress.
“Everywhere was the cry, There is no bread. We are dying,” Jones told the world, which drove frantic editors back home to send a flurry of cables asking their Moscow correspondents why they couldn’t hear that same cry. “But the inquiries coincided with preparations under way for the trial of the British engineers,” Lyons explains, referring to the now-forgotten Metro-Vickers show trial that would see six British engineers convicted of espionage and ejected from the country. This, according to Lyons, became the correspondents’ overriding concern because there was a “compelling professional necessity,” he writes, to remain on “friendly” terms with the censors, at least for the duration of the trial.
A paper-thin excuse, it would seem, but the cover-up organized to discredit Gareth Jones was airtight. Lyons writes, “Throwing down Jones was as un- pleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation.”66
Like a scene out of Comrade X—a classic romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr set amid the Moscow press corps (which, believe it or not, packs grim elements of truth about the Soviet regime, no doubt to Dalton Trumbo’s consternation)—the real-life correspondents gathered in one reporter’s Moscow hotel room one evening in the spring of 1933. There, chief censor Comrade Umansky, “the soul of graciousness,” Lyons writes ironically, joined them. Due to the upcoming British engineers’ trial, incredibly, Umansky had leverage over the correspondents’ famine coverage, or so the men believed—or so they wanted to believe. Indeed, in Lyons’s eyes, “it would have been profes- sional suicide to make an issue of the famine at this particular point.” So, he writes, through “much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take . . . a formula of denial” was worked out among them.
“We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that dismissed Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski [hors d’oeuvres], Umansky joined the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early morning hours.”
A more morally sordid scene is hard to imagine. As for that “formula of denial” the correspondents worked out, Duranty would take the lead, as usual, and write a first-person smackdown of Jones in his next-day report—headline: RUSSIANS HUNGRY, BUT NOT STARVING—dismissing the Welshman’s “big scare story” in The New York Evening Post as hasty, wrong-headed, anti-Soviet thinking. Duranty admitted there was a lack of bread in the villages but put this fact down to mismanagement, inexperience, even “conspiracy.” He also inserted his chilling, trademark line: “But—to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Indeed, Duranty went on to compare the Soviets’ indifference to “casualties” in their “drive toward Socialization” with that of generals who might order a costly battlefield attack. Of course, he overlooked the potentially extenuating circumstance that generals are typically driving an enemy from the homeland, while the Soviet regime was fighting its people on their farms. Classic bottom line in prevarication: “There is no actual starva- tion or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
Got that? No deaths from starvation, but widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
To understand this episode is to understand the extent to which Orwell’s “Newspeak” had its birth in the pages of the free press as much as in the totalitarian censor’s office. ...