October 23, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     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rescinded.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 

     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 

     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."

     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 

     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 

     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 

     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.


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