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University, says a 1932 Pulitzer Prize should be rescinded.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
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 Durantys
reporting credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda.
Actually, it was a pack of lies, conscious lies. Duranty
wasnt 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 Durantys
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
wouldnt be airbrushing history; it would be facing
up to history and to a stain on the great papers own
The Times is
rightly severe in condemning government lies. In Durantys 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
Durantys Pulitzer Prize. That wouldnt 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,
Durantys story, in itself, may not seem to matter very much at this
point. But its a thread in the huge fabric of Communism, which
didnt 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
The full story of
Communisms 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. Its 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 cant do that math.