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Monday, April 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: Stalins Apologist

Stalin’s Apologist is an apt title for S. J. Taylor’s absorbing story of Walter Duranty (Oxford University Press, 404 pages, $24.95 cloth), But whether Taylor’s subtitle of Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow holds up in all its implications depends entirely on whom the reader chooses to question.

The Times certainly used Duranty, who had a facility for turning out readable “I was there” copy. It played up Duranty’s stories in columns adjacent to those written by Jimmy James, the Times managing editor. But James, along with Freddie Bir-chall, a previous managing editor who worked out of Berlin, disliked Duranty and would never have accepted him as an official spokesman. Eventually James let Duranty go on a $5,000 retainer that kept him out of Moscow for nine months of the year. It was a pleasant way of being fired.

As the Times dally book reviewer in the Thirties, I handed my copy directly to James, who seldom questioned anything. I listened to his tirades about Duranty. I also listened to Joseph Shaplen and Simeon Strunsky, who wanted to see Duranty replaced, as he eventually was by Harold Denny.

The main count against Duranty is that he was Stalin’s man no matter what. Nobody on the Times said so openly. I was flabbergasted when in the elevator i heard Duranty, on one of his trips to New York, say that three million people had died in the Ukraine in a man-made famine. This seemed to me tremendous news. i repeated what I heard, but Duranty, worried no doubt about a return visa, denied he had ever said it. That made me a liar, but Simeon Strunsky, who had heard Duranty too, came to my rescue.

The Times could have had a major beat if Duranty had been willing to tell all he knew about Stalin’s decision to starve out the better farmers known as kulaks. But it remained for others—in particular, the Manchester Guardian—to get the beat. An exasperated William Henry Chamberlin quit his job as Moscow man for the Christian Science Monitor to get the story told in the West.

Ms. Taylor lets Joseph Alsop have his bitter say in an introduction to a chapter called “The Masters of Euphemism.” Says Taylor: “On the 30th of December, 1974, syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop was bowing out. His last column, intended as a warning against the dangers of ‘the reporter’s trade,’ turned into a character assassination of Walter Duranty—a man who had succumbed, as Alsop said, to that ‘fatal hankering to be fashionable. . . .’ Alsop’s shot at Duranty was based on the famine cover-up, and he singled Duranty out as the one who threw a blanket over the fire. ‘Duranty . . . covered up the horrors and deluded an entire generation by prettifying Soviet realities. He was given a Pulitzer Prize. He lived comfortably in Moscow, too, by courtesy of the KGB.’” In discussing Duranty privately, Alsop called Duranty a fashionable prostitute” who made lying his “stock in trade.” He even lied, though facetiously, about his wooden leg.

While Duranty was busy “prettifying” Soviet realities, hardier souls were trying to evade travel restrictions to find out what had actually happened in the anti-kulak drive. William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News and Ralph Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune, acting on a tip from Eugene Lyons, went to the North Caucasus and the Ukraine, only to be arrested and sent back to Moscow. But they had seen enough. Malcolm Muggeridge, just out from England, bought a ticket to Kiev. His article, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian, corroborated the findings of Stoneman and Barnes. The big follow-up of the pioneering three was provided by Gareth Jones, who reported fully on his three-week walking trip.

Duranty’s reaction to the findings of Stoneman, Barnes, Muggeridge, and Jones was that the famine was “mostly bunk.” He led a pack in “throwing down Jones,” which had a popular run on the Left.

Oddly enough, it was Stoneman who made excuses for Duranty. Nobody, says Stoneman, seemed in a hurry to cover the famine story. As Stoneman saw it, Duranty was “simply amoral, without any deep convictions about the rights and wrongs of Communism.” In sending out Joseph Alsop’s “assassination” column, Stoneman would always add a note that Duranty behaved as other New York Times men did during the same period in Paris, Berlin, and London.

What moved Duranty was a desire to be right about the future. He had placed his bet on Stalin. Everything else followed from that. Even the purges were justified as necessities for keeping Stalin in power.

Duranty’s great sin was to care more about guessing right than about the nature of right itself. He was far from being alone here.

In the end Duranty was to suffer for guessing wrong. He had never saved any money, and he was reduced to the status of beggar when editors turned him down. His women friends saved him. After Stalin’s death he married one of them just before he died.

Duranty had been an opium smoker as a young man. He gave up opium because it interfered with his sex life. The Tunes did not worry about his past or his womanizing as long as the good stories flowed. In all, the Times was as amoral as Duranty himself.

  • 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.