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 Airbrushing History? 

October 23, 2003

Professor Mark von Hagen, a historian at Columbia University, says a 1932 Pulitzer Prize should be rescinded. That was a long time ago. Why does it matter now?

Because the prize went to a liar for his lies. And they were very influential lies, whose impact was of historic importance.

The liar was Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent of the New York Times. Duranty wrote at the time that the Ukrainian famine, which had been amply reported in the less prestigious Hearst newspapers, was a false rumor.

But the famine was real, and it was no accident. The Communist regime of Joseph Stalin had adopted a policy of starving the rebellious Ukrainian population by seizing its food. Millions died, some resorting to cannibalism. Duranty, eager to curry favor with Stalin, denied this in his dispatches, though he privately estimated that as many as 15 million Ukrainians had starved to death.

By lying to the world in a newspaper renowned for its thoroughness and accuracy, Duranty helped Stalin to consolidate his power over the Soviet empire and also to gain respectability abroad. Until then, most Western governments had refused to accept the Soviet regime, but the year after Duranty received his Pulitzer the new administration of Franklin Roosevelt gave the USSR the diplomatic recognition it coveted. Fittingly enough, Duranty attended the White House ceremony welcoming the Soviet ambassador. He also got privileged treatment from Stalin.

The Times was slow to admit its terrible error in trusting Duranty. It eventually did so, but continued to include Duranty in its long list of Pulitzer winners. Today the Paper of Record is dealing frankly with that old scandal. Pretty frankly, anyway. Bill Keller, its executive editor, calls Duranty’s reporting “credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda.”

[Breaker quote: A lasting journalistic scandal]Actually, it was a pack of lies, conscious lies. Duranty wasn’t fooled; he knew better. So did Franklin Roosevelt, who, as president, had better sources of information than newspapers; but he also had a soft spot for Stalin, with whom he formed a cynical alliance during World War II. His administration was riddled with Soviet agents.

As for revoking Duranty’s Pulitzer, Keller still has qualms: “As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.” But repudiating an undeserved prize wouldn’t be “airbrushing” history; it would be facing up to history — and to a stain on the great paper’s own history.

The Times is rightly severe in condemning government lies. In Duranty’s case, it allowed itself to be the tool of government lies; they just happened to be the lies of a foreign government. And the purpose of those lies was to conceal a policy of mass murder rarely equaled in history.

Last year the Times dealt honestly with a much smaller scandal, the fake reporting of Jason Blair, which resulted in a major shakeup of its editorial board and, in fact, propelled Keller to his current job at the top. By now it can afford to acknowledge the much older and greater wrong of Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize. That wouldn’t mean pretending, Soviet-style, that Duranty never existed; it would merely mean denying him even a faint shadow of permanent honor and giving him the infamy history owes him.

Why does it matter? Well, Duranty’s story, in itself, may not seem to matter very much at this point. But it’s a thread in the huge fabric of Communism, which didn’t just happen in Russia and China, but was interwoven in complex ways with the West and owed much of its power to men like Roosevelt. No other form of tyranny has also hypnotized so many intellectuals abroad.

The full story of Communism’s amazing seductive power remains to be told. Duranty was unusual among its fellow-travelers because he was purely venal and never believed in the Marxist gospel. Many better men, with finer minds, were taken in by this cruel and colossal fraud, especially in Western Europe. It’s often explained as a secular substitute for religious faith. But who knows?

Communism even enjoyed some popular appeal. The Communist Party never caught on in America, but in France and Italy the Communists were major forces until fairly recently. In 1982 an Italian told me that while 95 per cent of Italians still had their children baptized in the Catholic Church, 30 per cent voted Communist. I still can’t do that math.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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