All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/9

Isaac Don Levine, who describes himself as a “mutualist” (meaning that, like Leonard Read, he believes in “anything that’s peaceful”), has for many years been our most vigorous and competent authority on the machinations of the Communists. You would think that he would be full of honors for his many services to freedom, but the strange thing is that he still suffers from being ahead of popular opinion in his efforts to arouse a sleeping Republic to various totalitarian menaces. His fascinating autobiography, Eyewitness to History: Memoirs and Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent for Half a Century (Hawthorn, $10), is a compendium of journalistic “firsts” that few people accepted as truth at the moment, even though events have invariably sustained the Levine point of view.

When Don Levine was growing up in Czarist Russia before World War I, he was conscious that there was a New World on the far side of the globe where “live and let live” was the rule and the doctrine of mass terror was unknown. His father wanted to give him an orthodox Hebrew education, but he persisted in imagining that the Dnieper River was Mark Twain’s Mississippi. He read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in Russian translations, along with Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and when, on the occasion of Mark Twain’s death in 1910, a local paper printed a dispatch about the erection of a statue to Twain on the river bluffs at Hannibal, Missouri, Don asked the editor if he would like an eyewitness report of the statue’s unveiling.

When the editor expressed amusement, the young Don took it as encouragement. Accepting the editor’s interest as evidence of a bona fide assignment, Don surprised his skeptical friends by getting a passport, which was not an easy thing to do. He arrived in New York in October of 1911, intent on shaking the mud of the Dnieper River banks from his boots in favor of real Mississippi mud. In pursuit of his dream he wound up in Kansas City, where the mud was Missouri mud. Intent on making himself as much of a native as possible, Don entered a high school in the most exclusive residential area of the city. He was going to be a midwest American, and nothing else.

Came the Revolution

The Russian Revolution intervened. The trouble with Don Levine was that he knew Russian, and there was a journalistic market for informed articles on what was happening as Kerensky rose and fell and the Bolsheviks made their bid to take over. Don translated some Russian handbills for Garet Garrett, then the managing editor of the New York Tribune, and they turned out to be the first news bulletins of the Revolution. This curious news beat made Don an expert, and it wasn’t long before the boy who had wanted above all to be a mid west American found himself back in Russia, working for Victor Lawson, the publisher of the Chicago Daily News.

Don Levine was never taken in by the Bolsheviks, which meant that he had “liberal” America to fight. On the other hand, he didn’t make the journalistic mistake of thinking Lenin and Trotsky were in danger of defeat by the White Russians and Admiral Kolchak. Cleaving to the truth, Don described Trotsky, for example, as a great actor in a live drama, but no hero or genius. Lenin, to Don, had a closed and unoriginal mind and did nothing to change the inner character of the State. And when Don Levine wrote the first extended biography of Stalin, he saw him as a Tammany Hall figure, a “boss” without idealistic features. (This was before the big trials and purges of the Nineteen Thirties had revealed the real bloodiness of the Stalin character.)

Out of phase with the Western “liberals” who insisted on seeing the Russian “experiment” even under Stalin as something holy, Don Levine remained a minority voice among the intellectuals of the Twenties and the Thirties. His pattern, which was that of the youth who insisted on pointing out that the naked emperor was indeed naked, was set, and it was perhaps a foregone conclusion that he would be unable to get President Franklin D. Roosevelt to listen to Whittaker Chambers’s revelations about the extent of Soviet spy infiltrations at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

Levine met Chambers—or “Carl,” as he had been known when he was a Communist courier — through Herbert Solow, a specialist in Soviet intrigue who later became a most gifted editor of Fortune magazine. It took a good deal of doing to get Chambers together with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, who was willing to guarantee, at least implicitly a promise of immunity from prosecution to an ex-spy who could furnish evidence that would benefit the country. Chambers was a most reluctant witness (he had no vindictive spirit against Alger Hiss), but he told enough about the spy rings working in Washington to frighten Berle. When the information went to the White House, however, Roosevelt scoffed at it. So nothing happened for seven long years until the House Committee on Un-American Activities, reacting to the Cold War, started digging into the subject of Soviet penetration of the Washington bureaucracies.

Insights and Revelations

The Chambers story is a high spot in Don Levine’s book, but it is only one of a number of revelations that correct the historical record of our times. Don Levine ferreted out more facts bearing on the assassination of Leon Trotsky than anybody else was able to dig out. He had interesting contacts with Albert Einstein, who was willing to help him when it came to exposing the Nazis but who timidly froze up when asked to apply an antitotalitarian standard to the machinations of the Communist Party. He investigated the slaughter of the Romanoff royal family, giving us unforgettable pictures of what happened both before and during the hail of bullets that cut down Czar Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra and their five children in the cellar at Ekaterinburg.

With his knowledge of the terrorist mind and tradition, Don Levine was probably the first journalist to grasp the meaning of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy. Oswald brought the Che Guevara-Maoist terror to American soil, where it was to rage throughout the later Nineteen Sixties, resulting in the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and in the disruption of universities all over the country.

No Compromise with Communism, But a Balance of Powers

Levine’s final chapter shows him going against the prevailing hopes of detente with the Communists. The conflict between tyranny and freedom won’t end, he says, until there is a world of free men everywhere. But he sees “a road to safety for the United States and the rest of the free world” in the contest between Moscow and Peking for the domination of Asia. He has listened respectfully to refugees from the Chinese interior province of Sinkiang who say, “The salvation of the free world lies in the continuance and acceleration of the Sino-Soviet conflict.” He worries a bit about a possible Japanese-Chinese entente in Asia and an embryonic Russo-German rapprochement in Europe. He hopes these won’t be allowed to sprout, for if they do it is bound to augment the burden of the arms race the U.S. must carry.

Therefore, Levine suggests, the U.S. should strengthen ties with West Germany and Japan, leaving Russia and Red China to their own devices. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.