Theory & Science (2003)

ISSN: 1527-5558

The Press, The Press, The Freedom to Suppress

William Mandel


On August 25th, the Financial Times of London published an attack against an Englishman, Walter Duranty, who died forty-six years earlier, reprinted worldwide on the web on Johnson’s Russia List. For the quarter-century prior to the Cold War, Duranty was often referred to as the greatest reporter in the world. Because he opposed the Cold War, he has long since been dropped down the memory hole. His name is unknown to most people under seventy.

There is wide belief that the mass media, including the press, are much worse than they were before the generations now middle-aged or younger were born. Duranty’s story has a lot to say about whether it is greater concentration of ownership that is responsible for what we are not told or whether the problem has always been the echoing of government policy.

Walter Duranty must have been an extraordinary figure for Columbia University and perhaps the New York Times, to consider unpersoning him (thank you, George Orwell) by cancelling his seventy-year-old (!) Pulitzer Prize.

He was.

As to the primary allegation against him, that he denied the Ukrainian famine, I quote him: “Whatever Stalin’s apologists may say, 1932 was a year of famine in Russia...” Duranty, Stalin & Co., New York, Sloane, 1949, p.78.

I was his collaborator in the writing of that book.

In April 1948 I had returned to New York from a year as fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where I completed a one-man encyclopedia of the USSR.

Quoting my autobiography, Saying No To Power, Berkeley, Creative Arts, 1999: “One day the phone rang and a voice with a British university accent said: ’This is Walter Duranty. Are you busy the next month or so?’ I answered no. ’I’m writing a book about Stalin and the men around him -- his possible successors, and I wonder if you’d collaborate with me.’

Here was a man who had won the O. Henry Prize for best short story of the year and had won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism more than fifteen years earlier for his coverage of the Soviet Union for the New York Times from 1920 on. He was the author of a published novel, of a best seller on his years in Moscow, I Write As I Please, which went through more than a dozen printings, and of three other books on the USSR. I had read his dispatches from Moscow since I was ten, perhaps earlier.

My father, a civil engineer, had taken a job in Kuzbass, Siberia, in 1925, leaving the family in New York for a year. “And this man needed a collaborator? And he was asking me? I responded: ’Why me?’

He said: ’I’ve read your books. You’ve come to the same conclusions from your scholarship that I have from my on-the-spot observations.” My A Guide to the Soviet Union, Dial Press, 1946, was then required reading at institutions like Yale and Stanford.

“’In today’s atmosphere’“, Duranty continued [“cold war” had become part of the daily vocabulary precisely in 1948] “’I have to be dead certain that I am absolutely accurate on matters of fact. And I need documentary support.’

This was a truly great reporter -- he was as well-known in those pre-television years as the most famous major network anchor today, because Russia’s attempt to build a non-capitalist society was THE story of the years subsequent to World War I -- but understood that he was not a scholar. (Albert Rhys Williams was also like that. Very few reporters understand that about themselves.)

So we worked together. It was delightful. Duranty had a suite in a hotel just off Park Avenue. I would sit at the typewriter and he would dictate, stomping around the room. Duranty was of middle height, quite bald, with a mouthful of false teeth, and an impish smile. One of his legs was shorter than the other because he had lost a foot jumping on a railroad train in France and he wore an artificial replacement. He would order marvelous sandwiches for us from room service, and, true to journalistic stereotype, always had a drink in hand. I don’t think I permitted myself alcohol when working, although I was not a teetotaler.

Every once in a while Duranty would ask for back-up information on something, and I would provide it, either from memory or from my A Guide to the Soviet Union, which had brought him to me. Despite the library of books written on the USSR by then, he directly quoted only two, mine and one by Prof. [Frederick L.] Schuman, mentioned previously,” a political scientist at Williams College, then having the same national name recognition as, say, Galbraith in recent decades, “another member of our very small mutual admiration society.

I would interrupt his dictation with a suggestion or an objection, the latter usually on grounds of political interpretation. If he were sober, he’d say, ’Bill, I’m no hero,’ meaning that he agreed, but the Cold War hysteria made it too dangerous to say what I wanted. If he were drunk, he would accept my point, and retain it when he re-read it sober.

My name did not appear in his book, Stalin @ Co., except as quoted source. I had a good feeling of getting even when Newsweek, which had listed me in its assault on Communists and fellow-travelers” June 2, 1947, “What Communists Are Up To Now,” among whom it included the president’s son Elliott Roosevelt, Senator [later Representative] Claude Pepper, patron saint of social security, etc., “gave Duranty’s book a favorable review, nearly a full page, in 1949 [Feb. 21]. Duranty, incidentally, was neither a Communist nor a Marxist but, as an English citizen, was not even a Laborite. He always voted the Liberal Party ticket.

But he never got another book contract, and lost his contract on the lecture circuit, where he had been an absolute lion, and a lady-killer. It was simply that he truly loved the female sex, and women reciprocated. His experience proved the people at John Day right. Non-hostile books on the USSR were simply not salable to the book-buying public.

John Day, now Stein & Day, was the publisher that had contracted with me in 1946 for that encyclopedia of the USSR, with a handsome advance. Their letter saying they could not publish the book when submitted in 1948 read in part: “One would think that when a nation is worked up to hysteria about another nation, its public would want to read and learn all it can about the possible ’enemy.’ But not so Americans, A year ago they were listening to lectures and buying books about Russia. Now they turn a deaf ear and a blind eye.”

Over forty-five years later, that letter was part of the documentation which won me a substantial Hammett-Hellman award from Human Rights Watch as an author who had suffered political persecution. Some day Duranty’s disappearance from the public eye will win similar recognition. This is written to help.

My website,, carries some of the sound track of my testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960, which has been used in six documentary films. I was subpoenaed for my broadcasts about the Soviet Union on KPFA and other Pacifica stations. Several chapters of my autobiography are also on the site. Autographed copies of that book, Saying No To Power, may be purchased for $24, sent to me at 4466 View Place, Apt. 106, Oakland, CA. 94611. Any bookstore will get it for you from the publisher, not autographed.