John Reed

John Reed

Harold Evans on that shameful tradition of red scare among Western journalists during modern times:

Only a handful of correspondents and newspapers emerge with credit in reporting the overthrow of the czar, the violent civil war and the intervention by Allied troops against triumphant Bolsheviks. Too many newspapers did not tell the public what was happening, but what newspaper editors and political leaders fervently wished were so — that in 1917 there was no danger of the Russian army deserting the cause; then that the czar was safe; then that Bolshevism would soon perish. The Allied intervention war was so underreported that even today many Americans do not know that 5,000 Polish-Americans from Michigan and Wisconsin joined British forces in Archangel, while 7,000 others went to Siberia to link up with Japanese troops in an attempt to smash the revolution.

In an article for The New Republic in 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz examined coveraged of the Russian Revolution in what was by then the country’s greatest newspaper, The New York Times, and concluded it was “nothing short of a disaster.” According to Lippmann and Merz, “the news columns were profoundly and crassly influenced by the hopes of the men who ran the paper. On the essential questions, the net effect was almost always misleading.” Between November 1917 and November 1919, the Times  reported on no fewer than 91 occasions that the Bolshevik regime was on the verge of collapse. Official censorship was not to blame. “The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors.” Their contribution to public understanding at a time of supreme crisis “was about as useful as that of an astrologer or alchemist.” The same criticism could be made of the statesmen — including Woodrow Wilson — the military missions, the diplomats and much of the press around the world, including London’s Times. But a rough draft of history did emerge from the bravery and independence of four journalists — John Reed of The Masses, Morgan Phillips Price of The Guardian, Arthur Ransome of Britain’s Daily News and Frazier “Spike” Hunt of the Chicago Tribune.

Ten Days That Shook the World

The work by the colorful Hunt, who was alone in predicting that the Bolshevik Reds would win, is a brilliant exception to the time. He horse-sledded almost 1,000 miles from Archangel up frozen rivers and snow-bound forests to reach American outposts, then sneaked out a 5,000-word cable via Norway that helped to have the isolated U.S. troops recalled from a foolish mission. Then he traveled in an armoured train with the Siberian peasant Red soldiers and learned enough to predict that the Bolsheviks would win. The crowning achievement, though, was John Reed’s. He was passionately on the side of the Bolsheviks, attended their riotous, marathon meetings, ate with them, slept with them and argued with them in the wild and menacing confusions in Petrograd. But he was too great an artist and reporter to pump out propaganda. (sic) Here is Reed going into a soldiers’ and workers’ meeting in Smolny Palace in 1917:

“It was cold and at the outer gate the Red Guards had built themselves a bonfire. At the inner gate, too, there was a blaze, by the light of which the sentries slowly spelled out our passes and looked us up and down. The canvas covers had been taken off four rapid-fire guns on each side of the doorway, and the ammunition-belts hung snake-like from their breeches. The long, bare, dimly illuminated halls roared with the thunder of feet, calling, shouting…There was an atmosphere of recklessnes.”

Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World” remains a masterpiece of reporting for vivid portraits and insights. He sees Lenin as “a short stocky figure, bald and bulging, a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colorless, humorless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncracies, but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms.” He sees Leon Trotsky “standing up with a pale, cruel face, letting out his rich voice in cool contempt.” He is prophetic: “In the relations of a weak government with a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal to act excites their contempt.” He saw it happen.

Workers' uprising in Russia, 1917.

Workers' uprising in Russia, 1917.

And yet Reed was a pariah. His anti-war views and radical politics made him suspect in the eyes of U.S. authorities. His writings in the left-wing Masses twice led to trials on charges of sedition. Although acquitted on both occasions, when he returned to the United States from Petrograd his papers were seized and held by the government for more than a year.

–Harold Evans, War Stories: Reporting in the Time of Conflict From the Crimea to Iraq. Newseum/Bunker Hill Publishing: Boston, 2003.

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