America's "Red Decade" and the Great Famine cover-up

by Dr. Myron B. Kuropas

Dr. Kuropas has served as special assistant for ethnic affairs to President Gerald R. Ford and as a legislative assistant to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). At present he is supreme vice president of the Ukrainian National Association.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Before his death in 1945, some 10 million civilians, including 6 million Jews and 4 million Gypsies, Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and other "untermenschen," were slaughtered to fulfill a diabolical dream._1_

When World War II ended and the full extent of Hitler's horrors was finally revealed, the civilized world demanded justice. Thousands of Nazis and Nazi collaborators were hunted down, tried and executed for crimes against humanity. The criminals were punished, but the Nazi nightmare lingered on in hundreds of books, magazine articles, films and TV docu-dramas. Even today, in 1983, Nazi collaborators are being brought to trial to demonstrate that no matter how long it takes, no matter what the price, genocide shall not go unpunished. It is in remembering that we assure ourselves that the Holocaust shall never again become a policy of national government.

For Ukrainians, however, the Nazi Holocaust is only half of the genocide story. The other half is the Great Famine, a crime orchestrated by Joseph Stalin in the same year Hitler came to power. No one has ever been hunted down for that crime. No one has ever been tried. No one has ever been executed. On the contrary, many of those who willingly and diligently participated in the wanton destruction of some 7 million innocent human beings are alive and well and living in the Soviet Union.

Since the system which initiated the abomination is still very much intact, there is little likelihood that they will ever have to face an international tribunal for their barbarism. Nor is there any reason to believe that Communists have eschewed genocide as one of their strategies. Cambodia and Afghanistan have proven that.

While there is little the free world can do to punish Bolshevik criminals, the past can teach us to be wary of those contemporary religious and intellectual leaders who urge us to "trust" them._2_ One of the forgotten aspects of the Great Famine story is the role played by respected American clergy, diplomats, journalists and writers who, by defending Stalin in 1933, indirectly prolonged his reign of terror. Some were innocent dupes. Others were unconscionable conspirators. Almost all went on to pursue distinguished careers in their chosen professions without so much as a backward glance at the incredible human misery they helped conceal from world view. It is in remembering their actions that we can best assure ourselves that in America at least, genocide shall never again go unnoticed.

The Red Decade

During the 1930s, the United States found itself in the throes of the worst depression in its history. Banks failed. Businesses collapsed. Factories closed. Homes and farms were repossessed. Large city unemployment reached 40 percent. Bread lines and soup kitchens multiplied. The American dream, so real and vibrant during the 1920s, was shattered.

While America suffered, the radical Left reveled. Exploiting the economic turmoil and uncertainty which plagued the nation, Communists and their fellow travelers pointed to the "success" of the great Soviet experiment. Suddenly, thousands of despairing clerics, college professors, movie stars, poets, writers and other well-known molders of public opinion began to look to Moscow for inspiration and guidance. As millions of jobless war veterans demonstrated in the street and workers "seized" factories in sit-down strikes, the 1930s became what Eugene Lyons has called America's "Red Decade,"_3_ a time when romanticized bolshevism represented the future, bankrupt capitalism the past._4_

In the forefront of the campaign to popularize "the Soviet way" were American intellectuals, correspondents and even government officials who grossly exaggerated Bolshevik achievements, ignored or rationalized myriad failures, and, when necessary, conspired to cover up Bolshevik crimes. Especially impressed were those who traveled to the USSR during the 1930s, almost all of whom, it seems, found something to admire.

Some found a Judaeo-Christian spirit. Sherwood Eddy, an American churchman and YMCA leader, wrote: "The Communist philosophy seeks a new order, a classless society of unbroken brotherhood, what the Hebrew prophets would have called a reign of righteousness on earth." A similar theme was struck by the American Quaker Henry Hodgkin. "As we look at Russia's great experiment in brotherhood," he wrote, "it may seem to us that some dim perception of Jesus' way, all unbeknown, is inspiring it..."_5_

Others discovered a sense of purpose and cohesive values. Corliss and Margaret Lamont concluded that the Soviet people were happy because they were making "constructive sacrifices with a splendid purpose held continuously and continuously in mind" despite some "stresses and strains" in the system._6_

Still others found humane prisons. "Soviet justice," wrote Anna Louise Strong, "aims to give the criminal a new environment in which he will begin to act in a normal way as a responsible Soviet citizens. The less confinement the better; the less he feels himself in prison the better...the labor camps have won high reputation throughout the Soviet Union as places where tens of thousands of men have been reclaimed."_7_

The Soviet Union had something for everyone. Liberals found social equality, wise and caring leaders, reconstructed institutions and intellectual stimulation. Rebels found support for their causes: birth control, sexual equality, progressive education, futuristic dancing, Espernato. "Even hard-boiled capitalists," wrote Lyons, an American correspondent in Moscow, "found the spectacle to their taste: no strikes, no lip, hard work..."_8_

Contributing to the liberal chorus of solicitous praise for Stalin's new society were American diplomats such as U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies who argued that Stalin was a stubborn democrat who insisted on a constitution which protected basic human rights "even though it hazarded his power and party control."_9_

Like most liberals, Davies never accepted the notion that Stalin's purge trials were staged. "To assume that," he wrote, "...would be to presuppose the creative genius of Shakespeare and the genius of Belasco in stage production."_10_ Nor did he believe Stalin - whom he described as "clean-living, modest, retiring" - was personally involved in the elimination of his former colleagues._11_ Even though he had personally met and dined with many of the purge victims, Davies later concluded that their execution was justified because it eliminated Russia's "Fifth Column" which, in keeping with "Hitler's designs upon the Ukraine," had conspired to "dismember the union..."_12_

In the United States, meanwhile, the liberal press was equally enamored of Stalin. Writing in Soviet Russia Today, a monthly journal, Upton Sinclair, Max Lerner and Robert M. Lovett wrote glowing accounts of Moscow's important role in defending democratic principles._13_ In the words of Prof. Frederick L. Schuman, a charter member of the Soviet defense team:

"The great cleavage between contemporary societies is not between 'capitalism' (democratic or fascist) and 'communism' but between those (whether in Manchester, Moscow, Marseilles or Minneapolis) who believe in the mind and in the government of, by and for the people, and those (whether in Munich, Milan or Mukden) who believe in might and in government of, by and for a self-appointed obligarchy of property and privilege."_14_

For the Nation, Russia was the world's first true democracy and anyone who didn't believe it was "either malicious or ignorant."_15_ For the New Republic, communism was "a false bogey."_16_ When a group of 140 American intellectuals associated with the Committee for Cultural Freedom included the USSR in its list of countries which deny civil liberties and cultural independence, some 400 liberal Americans - including university presidents, professors and such prominent names as Langston Hughes, Clifford Odets, Richard Wright, Max Weber, Granville Hicks, Louis Untermeyer and James Thurber - signed and agreed to have published an "Open Letter" branding as "Fascists" all those who dared suggest "the fantastic falsehood that the USSR and the totalitarian states are basically alike." Joining the condemnation with pointed editorial comments were the Nation and the New Republic.17

How the press corps concealed a famine

In January 1928, Eugene Lyons, the newly hired correspondent for United Press arrived to take up his duties in Moscow. Although he had never actually joined the Communist Party in America, Lyons came with impeccable Leftist credentials. The son of an imprisoned Jewish laborer on New York's Lower East Side, he joined the Young People's Socialist League in his youth. Beginning his professional career as a writer for various radical publications, Lyons eventually became the editor of Soviet Russia Pictorial, the first popular American magazine about the "wonders" of Soviet life, and a New York correspondent for Tass, the Soviet news bureau._18_

"My entire social environment in those years," he later wrote, "was Communist and Soviet..._19_ If anyone every went to the Soviet realm with a deep and earnest determination to understand the was the newly appointed United press correspondent... I was not deserting the direct service of the cause for the fleshpots of capitalism," he reasoned, "I was accepting, rather, a post of immense strategic importance in the further service of that cause, and doing so with the wholehearted agreement and understanding of my chiefs in Tass and therefore, presumably, of the Soviet Foreign Office."_20_

As an enthusiastic member of Stalin's defense team, Lyons consistently penned dispatches which glorified the Soviet Union. "Every present-tense difficulty that I was obliged to report," he wrote, "I proceeded to dwarf by posing it against a great future-tense vision."_21_

The longer Lyons remained in the USSR, however, the more disillusioned he became with Soviet reality. Eventually, his reports began to expose the sham of Bolshevik propaganda, and Moscow demanded his recall.

Returning to the United States in 1934,_22_ he wrote about his experiences in "Assignment in Utopia," a book published by Harcourt-Brace in 1937. In a chapter titled "The Press Corps Conceals a Famine," Lyons described how he and other American correspondents conspired with Soviet authorities to deny the existence of the world's only human engineered famine. The most diligent collaborations in the sordid affair were Walter Duranty, head of The New York Times Moscow bureau, and Louis Fischer, Moscow correspondent for the Nation.

The first reliable report of the catastrophe to reach the outside world was presented by Gareth Jones, an English journalist who visited Ukraine in 1933 and then left the Soviet Union to write about what he had witnessed. When his story broke, the American press corps - whose members had seen pictures of the horror taken by German consular officers in Ukraine - was besieged by their home offices for more information. Angered as much by Jones' scoop as by his unflattering portrayal of Soviet life, a group of American correspondents met with Comrade Konstantine Umansky, the Soviet press censor, to determine how best to handle the story. A statement was drafted after which vodka and "zakuski" were ordered and everyone sat down to celebrate with a smiling Umansky.

The agreed-upon format was followed faithfully by Duranty. "There is no actual starvation," reported The New York Times on March 30, 1933, "but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." When the famine reports persisted over the next few months, Duranty finally admitted "food shortages" but insisted that any report of famine "is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."_23_

Duranty, of course, was aware of the situation in Ukraine and confessed as much to The New York Times book critic John Chamberlain, himself a communist sympathizer. Believing, as he later wrote, that "the Russian Revolution, while admittedly imperfect, needed time to work itself out," Chamberlain was distressed by Duranty's casual admission that "3 million people had what amounted to a man-made famine." What struck him most of all "was the double inequity of Duranty's performance. He was not only heartless about the famine," Chamberlain concluded, "he had betrayed his calling as a journalist by failing to report it."_24_

Fortunately, not all members of the American press crops in Moscow were involved with the cover-up. A notable exception was William Henry Chamberlin, staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who traveled to Ukraine in the winter of 1933 and reported that "more than 4 million peasants are found to have perished..."_25_ In a book titled "Russia's Iron Age" published that same year, Chamberlin estimated that some 10 percent of the population had been annihilated by Stalin during the collectivization campaign._26_ In describing his journey to Ukraine, Chamberlin later wrote:

"No one, I am sure, could have made such a trip with an honest desire to learn the truth and escaped the conclusion that the Ukrainian countryside had experienced a gigantic tragedy. What had happened was not hardship, or privation, or distress, or food shortage, to mention the deceptively euphemistic words that were allowed to pass the soviet censorship, but stark, outright famine, with its victims counted in millions. No one will probably ever know the exact toll of death, because the Soviet government preserved the strictest secrecy about the whole question, officially denied that there was any famine, and rebuffed all attempts to organize relief abroad."_27_

First to provide extensive coverage of the Great Famine in the American press was the Hearst newspaper chain which, unfortunately, placed the event in 1934 rather than 1932-33._28_

By that time, however, Stalin's American defense team was already busily denying the Chamberlin and Hearst reports. The most outstanding example was Louis Fischer who in the March 13, 1935, issue of the Nation reported that he had visited Ukraine in 1934 and had witnessed no famine. Even though he was aware of it, Fischer made no mention that the famine had occurred a year earlier. Problems with collectivization could not be denied, however. In his book "Soviet Journey," Fischer described the process in the following simple terms:

"History can be cruel...The peasants wanted to destroy collectivization. The government wanted to retain collectivization. The peasants used the best means at their disposal. The government used the best means at their disposal. The government won."_29_

With help from certain members of the American press corps, the Bolsheviks succeeded in their efforts to shield the truth about Ukraine's Great Famine from the world's eyes. Concealing the barbarism until it was ended, they generated doubt, confusion and disbelief. "Years after the event," wrote Lyons in 1937, "when no Russian Communist in his sense any longer concealed the magnitude of the famine - the question whether there had been a famine at all was still being disputed in the outside world!"_30_

The "need" for a famine

The famine story, however, would not die. Even Time magazine eventually admitted the possibility of 3 million Ukrainians dead._31_ None of this bothered Stalin's American defense team. In a 1933 publication titled "The Great Offensive," Maurice Hindus wrote that if the growing "food shortage" brought "distress and privation" to certain parts of the Soviet Union, the fault was "not of Russia" but of the people. Recalling a conversation he had with an American businessman, Hindus proudly wrote:

" 'And supposing there is a famine...' continued my interlocutor... 'what will happen?'

" 'People will die, of course,' I answered.

" 'And supposing 3 or 4 million people die.'

" 'The revolution will go on.'"_32_

If a famine was needed to preserve the revolution, so be it. "Maybe it cost a million lives," wrote Pulitzer Prize novelist Upton Sinclair, "maybe it cost 5 million - but you cannot think intelligently about it unless you ask yourself how many millions it might have cost if the changes had not been made...Some people will say that this looks like condoning wholesale murder. That is not true; it is merely trying to evaluate a revolution. There has never been a great social change in history without killing..."_33_

The legacy of the Red Decade

Although Svoboda reported on the famine_34_ and thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in New York City, Chicago, Detroit and other cities to protest Stalin's terrorism,_35_ the White House remained indifferent. On November 16, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and the Bolshevik regime.

Commenting on America's decision to establish diplomatic relations with the USSR, The Ukrainian Weekly reported that some 8,000 Ukrainians had participated in a New York City march protesting the move and added that while the protect was "not intended to hinder the policies...of the United States government - we Ukrainians are as anxious as anyone else to cooperate with our beloved president" - nevertheless, "we look dubiously upon the value of any benefits which America may obtain from having official relations with a government whose rule is based on direct force alone," a government which is unable "to provide for its subjects even the most ordinary necessities of life, and which has shown itself capable of the most barbaric cruelty, as evidenced by its reign of terror and the present Bolshevik-fostered famine in Ukraine."_36_

Fifty years later, The Ukrainian Weekly is still warning a largely indifferent America about the perils of trusting Soviet Communists. If docu-dramas such as "The Holocaust," in which the USSR was portrayed as a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi annihilation, and "The Winds of War," in which Stalin was depicted as a tough but benevolent leader whose loyal troops sang his raises in three-part harmony, are any indication of current media perceptions of the Stalinist era, then the legacy of the Red Decade lives on.

The world has been inundated with a plethora of authoritative information regarding Hitler's villainy and has become ever vigilant in its efforts to prevent a repetition of his terror. This is good, but it is not enough. Hitler was not this century's only international barbarian, and it is time we recognized this fact lest we, in our single-minded endeavors to protect ourselves from another Hitler, find ourselves with another Stalin.

  • 1. See Bohdan Wytwycky, "The Other Holocaust" (Washington: The Novak Report, 1980). [Back to Text]

  • 2. See Sydney Lens, "We Must Trust the Russians," Chicago Sun-Times (January 10, 1983). Also see Myron B. Kuropas, "Trust the Russians? C'mon!," Chicago Sun-Times (January 26, 1983). [Back to Text]

  • 3. Lens, "Radicalism in America" (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1969), p. 297. [Back to Text]

  • 4. Arthur M. Schlesigner, Jr., "The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval," (Boston: Houghton-Miflin Company, 1960), pp. 183-185. [Back to Text]

  • 5. Cited in Paul Hollander, "Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, 1928-1978" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 124. [Back to Text]

  • 6. Cited in Ibid., p. 127. [Back to Text]

  • 7. Cited in Ibid., pp. 144-145. [Back to Text]

  • 8. Cited in Ibid., p. 106. [Back to Text]

  • 9. Ibid., p. 106. [Back to Text]

  • 10. Cited in Ibid., p. 164. [Back to Text]

  • 11. Joseph E. Davies, "Mission to Moscow" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), pp. 191-192. [Back to Text]

  • 12. Ibid., p. 262. [Back to Text]

  • 13. Frank A. Warren III, "Liberals and Communism: The 'Red Decade' Revisited" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), p. 105. [Back to Text]

  • 14. Cited in Ibid., p. 109. [Back to Text]

  • 15. Cited in Ibid., p. 105. [Back to Text]

  • 16. Cited in Ibid., p. 149. [Back to Text]

  • 17. Eugene Lyons, "The Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America" (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1941), pp. 342-351. [Back to Text]

  • 18. Lyons, "Assignment in Utopia" (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1937), pp. 3-49. [Back to Text]

  • 19. Ibid., p. 37. [Back to Text]

  • 20. Ibid., p. 48. [Back to Text]

  • 21. Ibid., p.197. [Back to Text]

  • 22. Ibid., p. 607. [Back to Text]

  • 23. Ibid., p. 572-580. [Back to Text]

  • 24. John Chamberlain, "A Life With the Printed Word" (Chicago: Regnery, 1982), pp. 54-55. [Back to Text]

  • 25. Christian Science Monitor (May 29, 1934). [Back to Text]

  • 26. William henry Chamberlin, "Russia's Iron Age" (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1934), pp. 66-67. [Back to Text]

  • 27. Chamberlin, "The Ukraine: A Submerged Nation" (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), p. 60. [Back to Text]

  • 28. See Chicago American (March 1, March 4 and March 6, 1935). [Back to Text]

  • 29. Cited in Lyons, "The Red Decade," p. 118. [Back to Text]

  • 30. Lyons, "Assignment in Utopia," pp. 577-578. [Back to Text]

  • 31. Time (January 23, 1939). [Back to Text]

  • 32. Cited in Hollander, p. 120. [Back to Text]

  • 33. Cited in Ibid., p. 162. [Back to Text]

  • 34. See Svoboda (February 6, May 25, June 11, July 11, July 14, 1932). [Back to Text]

  • 35. See "The Golgotha of Ukraine" (New York: the Ukrainian Congress Committee, 1953), p. 5. [Back to Text]

  • 36. The Ukrainian Weekly (November 23, 1933). [Back to Text]

  • Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 20, 1983, No. 12, Vol. LI

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