Today's Patreon harkens back to Eugene Lyons, an extraordinarily candid truth-teller and star of America Betrayal (introductory excerpt below). I suppose the post-Thanksgiving subtext is all about what you can and can't say, what you should and shouldn't say, and how silence is and always has been, quite literally, death.
From American Betrayal, pp. 95-99
Two extraordinary and very different works by journalist Eugene Lyons take us a little closer to the answer. One is The Red Decade (1941), “an informal account of Bolshevism in our country,” as he described it, and the other is Assignment in Utopia (1937), his memoir of his personal odyssey from committed fellow traveler of Communism and dedicated apologist of the Soviet experiment to outspoken and remorseful anti- Communist. Where The Red Decade surveys the Communist penetration of the opinion- and- decision- making echelons of the West, Assignment in Utopia examines its effect on the Western opinion-and-decision-making mind— Lyons’s own— and how the ideology, once internalized, acts on conscience, reason, and also the survival instinct. His experience is singularly instructive.
Through Lyons’s reflections we see from the inside looking out what we usually try to understand from the outside looking in. As a general memoir of disenchantment with Communism, Lyons’s book is by no means unique; there is a rich literature on the subject. However, as a working journalist, a gentleman of the press (“mainstream media” came much later), Lyons, who served as United Press Agency’s Moscow correspondent between 1928 and 1934, offers an uncommon perspective on ghastly, seminal events, and how and why they were reported to the outside world, or not.
As Lyons’s fervor for the Soviet experiment waned, his insights into the Communist state’s use of terror— and American willingness to excuse such terror— grew and sharpened until they became personally unbearable. Not the typical reaction, alas. In tracing the fi ssures of doubt that would slowly develop into crevasses large enough to swallow up his Communist loyalties, Lyons adds to our understanding of how the culture of omission we have inherited evolved, and how its creators actually operated. Lyons perfectly sums up the internal workings of what we know now as “media bias,” at that time a largely new phenomenon in terms of both ideological impetus and global impact:
In the first year or so of my Rus sian sojourn , my imported convictions were a sieve that sifted events for me; reporting was no more than a physical job of finding and transmitting “desirable” information; I needed only a little dexterity in wishing away or explaining away the rejected materials.
Kind of like one of Andrew and Mitrokhin’s see-no-KGB historians.
Later, when doubts obtruded themselves and my instincts were more and more hurt, the sifting became more and more a mental effort, paid for in self-reproach.
Such “self-reproach” turned out to be the undeniable thorn of conscience, but it could just as easily have been the ever- gratifying tickle of masochistic torment. Had things gone differently, he writes, had he not, specifi cally, returned to Russia after a 1931 sojourn in the States for his final, ultimately therapeutic dose of Communist reality, he might have “evolved a new, if badly scarred and patched enthusiasm.” Later, he would think that by returning for ultimate disillusionment he had “escaped something vaguely shameful,” and that had he not returned to Rus sia for the second half of his Moscow tour, “I might have ended by contributing high- minded lies to the New Masses and slept happily ever after.”
Still, self-extrication was a long process. Lyons writes of self-censoring pressures that sound like a set of adolescent anxieties: “the anxiety to ‘belong’ in the dominant social circles in Bolshevik Moscow, the fear of being rejected by the only circles that mattered to me at home.” These “played their roles in keeping me ‘friendly,’ ” he writes, along with more concrete, professional concerns. Only “friendly” correspondents could remain in Russia. The slightest deviation from the Party line could draw a meaningful official warning, for example, in a sudden inaccessibility of Soviet officials, or a delay in obtaining travel visas.
Indeed, the totalitarian culture of censorship that Westerners— press, diplomats, businessmen, industrialists— came all too quickly to accommodate was probably the key source of lasting and corrosive moral compromise. Which reminds us of the crucial role free speech plays in a moral society.
S. J. Taylor, in her frank biography of New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, the most notorious Soviet apologist in the Moscow press corps, reveals an early example of this phenomenon. In mid- 1932, she writes, after British business interests sent a Canadian agricultural expert named Andrew Cairns to study the effects of forced collectivization on Soviet agriculture, the results of the study—“a record,” British ambassador Sir Esmond Ovey wrote at the time, “of over-staffing, overplanning and complete incompetence at the centre; of human misery, starvation, death and disease among the peasantry . . .Workers are left to die in order that the Five Year Plan shall at least succeed on paper”— was suppressed by this same British ambassador. Taylor writes, “In a somewhat puzzling statement, Ovey wrote, ‘The pity of it is that this account cannot be broadcast to the world at large as an antidote to Soviet propaganda in general.’ ”
Why ever not? Weren’t these facts exactly what the world desperately needed as an antidote to poisonous Soviet propaganda? Wasn’t this report exactly what the peasants, already dying of starvation by the tens of thousands, were owed? Taylor duly explains the apparent reason the publication of Cairns’s report was “postponed” (à la Trotsky’s Stalin bio censored by Cass Canfield).
The British Foreign Office wanted to send Cairns back to Russia the following spring— presumably to write another report that would be similarly “postponed”—“but because of the controversial nature of Cairns’s first report they feared he would be refused a return visa if it were published.” In the end, Cairns did not return; the report languished unpublished. Western complicity in the Terror Famine, the Stalinist assault on the peasantry that killed an estimated six million people between 1930 and 1933, may be seen as having been, from the start, a matter of business as usual.
Where true believers such as Eugene Lyons were concerned, however, selfcensorship wasn’t only a matter of narrow tactical calculation. He writes of “the bugaboos of loyalty and consistency, the need to safeguard my faith; a frantic desire to save my investment of hope and enthusiasm in the Russian revolution”— motivations that more than anything else speak to an unbecoming human weakness for self- validation, an ego- driven cause all too many find irresistible even as they end up clinging to fraud like an anchor of self-esteem.
A man’s faith in Communism must be justifi ed simply because it is his faith. It is his “investment,” as Lyons put it, that must be protected along with his “consistency.” How could I have been so dumb is the neon- flashing subtext to be blacked out by heavy overlays of falsehood or “carefully sifted” truth. Thus Lyons safeguarded his faith, and he succeeded, publicly, for some years after doubts had set in. On returning home to the U.S. in 1931, Lyons was something of a celebrity for having scored the fi rst, two- hour, sit- down interview with the elusive Stalin himself (much to Timesman Duranty’s consternation). “It was,” Lyons writes, describing the 1930s equivalent of 24/7 media coverage, “front- paged throughout the world, quoted, editorialized, put on the radio by the ‘Marchof Time’ as one of the ranking ‘scoops’ in recent newspaper history.” It was also, he confesses, “a magnifi cent opportunity frittered away.” Amid the flood of congratulatory tele grams from around the world, Lyons confesses to having been “far from exultant.”
I thought of all the searching questions which I might have asked but had been too idiotic and too timid and too grateful to ask and I was overwhelmed with a conviction of failure. I had failed to confront Stalin with the problems which were by this time weighing on my own conscience— the use of terror as a technique of government, the suppression and punishment of heretical opinion within the ranks of devoted communists, the persecution of scientists and scholars, the distortion of history to fit the new politics, systematic forced labor, the virtual enslavement of workers and peasants in the name of the socialism which was to emancipate them.
From this extraordinary mea culpa comes a sense of the grotesque mismatch that pit vain and weak mortals against the inhuman, supernatural evil of Stalin, starkly and terrifyingly apparent in 1931 even as the majority of his twenty million victims still lived. But maybe that’s giving the journalist a sentimental pass. I confess to liking Lyons from his work, and admiring his post facto honesty that drove him to reveal himself in such a brilliantly unflattering light. Such revelation helps us learn how these omissions, these collusions, these twistings of the truth come about.
“In my purely professional thrill of a Stalin interview, I had been content to remain politely on the lacquered statistical surface of the Soviet scene.” All the way home across Europe and the Atlantic in 1931— the land and sea odyssey back to the safe haven of the Statue of Liberty, New York City— Lyons “wrestled with the problem of how much of what I had seen and what I had thought I should tell,” a problem that reveals his internalization of the totalitarian taboo. Such candor is refreshing if also disturbing. As a vital source of public information, Lyons was torn by a dilemma that was in fact no private matter, particularly once United Press dispatched its star correspondent on a public lecture tour (having plugged his recent series summing up his three years in Russia in foot-high letters on delivery trucks: THE TRUTH ABOUT RUSSIA).
It was here that Lyons succumbed to emotional currents he felt emanating from his Depression- era audiences. “I had intended to paint a more realistic picture,” he writes of a lecture stop in Youngstown. “But the simple believing people, their eyes pleading for reassurance, . . . could not be denied.” And remember, Lyons had already concluded (and declared privately) that the USSR was a terror- state.
It all seemed far away from Youngstown and the other twenty cities in the throes of economic crisis that Lyons toured in the northeast, so far away that, he writes, “your mind imposed its own favorite designs upon the Soviet contradictions, choosing, discarding, arranging, hastily repairing the damage wrought by three years of immersion.” He continues, “What ever your American lectures may have done to the listeners, they almost convinced the lecturer. By compromising with your experiences you nearly sneaked back into the comfortable groove of uncritical faith . . . [The] dead are dead and the maimed are dying, and what if another million dung- colored Rus sians are driven into the marshesand forests and deserts, if the great idea marches forward.”57 Chilling words. After all, “What if?” here means “So what?” Anything to keep the “great idea” moving forward— particularly if it were only millions of “dung- colored Rus sians” standing in the way.
It’s hard not to hear a shocking echo: The dead are dead and the maimed are dying and what if a million dungcolored Jews are driven into the ovens just a few years later, if the great idea marches forward . . .
But that’s different.
The difference I see is that the Nazi totalitarian “great idea” was always inseparable from its toll, but the Soviet totalitarian “great idea” was always separated and protected from its toll. We never ask why one Holocaust matters when multiple holocausts do not, why one “great idea” of totalitarianism was only totalitarian and the other was only great. We condemn the German population of a police state for looking the other way from and doing nothing about Jewish annihilation under way in Nazi concentration camps; we never think to question ourselves living large in a free world and looking the other way from and saying nothing about ethnic, politi cal, class, and religious annihilation under way in Soviet concentration camps. This split vision derives from the triumph of Communism’s unceasing world revolution against “traditional” morality, objective morality, a morality of fi xed standards by which men navigate, or at least perceive the shoals of evil and treacherous behaviors. Such morality tells us there is no separating the idea from its toll. This is the lesson we have erased from our slate.