Collaboration in the suppression of the Ukrainian famine

The paper below was delivered by Dr. James Mace at a conference on "Recognition and Denial of Genocide and Mass Killing in the 20th Century" held in New York on November 13.

by Dr. James E. Mace


William Randolph Hearst made a final attempt to use the famine to attack FDR. His newspaper chain ran a series of articles on the famine in 1935, in the style for which the term "yellow journalism" was coined. Written by Thomas Walker, the articles may have been a "reworking" of authentic material from 1933 which Hearst either bought or borrowed. Undoubtedly at Hearst's behest, Walker "updated" the story by placing the famine in 1934 rather than 1932-33. Knowing an easy target, Fischer accused Walker of "inventing" a famine. Fischer had been to Ukraine in 1934 and, of course, saw no famine. He interpreted the whole affair as merely an attempt by Hearst to "spoil Soviet-American relations" as part of "an anti-red campaign."

Fischer was challenged by Chamberlin who wrote from Tokyo, chiding Fischer for his failure to mention that 1932-33 had seen "one of the worst famines in history":

"I feel justified in recalling my personal observations of this famine because, although it happened two years ago, I think it will probably still be 'news' to readers of The Nation who depend on Mr. Fischer for their knowledge of Russian developments. I have searched brilliant articles on other phases of Soviet life for a single, forthright, unequivocal recognition of the famine although he was in Russia during the period of the famine and was scarcely ignorant of something that was common knowledge of Russians and foreigners in the country at the time."

Fischer responded that he had not been in the USSR during the famine, that he had mentioned it in his book, "Soviet Journey," but that he, unlike Chamberlin did not put all of the blame on the Soviet government. This is how he had described it: "History can be cruel... The peasants wanted to destroy collectivization. The peasants used the best means at their disposal. The government used the best means at their (sic) disposal. The government won."

Hearst then fell back upon more reliable accounts which had been available for some time. A story by Harry Lang, who had earlier published an account of his 1933 journey to Ukraine in the Jewish Daily Forward, was serialized in April. Most interesting about Lang's account was that he reported being told by a Soviet official that 6 million had perished. Richard Sanger, later a distinguished career diplomat, but a Communist in his youth, went with his wife to the Soviet Union in 1933 and gave the figure of 4.5 million. Hearst serialized his story after Lang's.

Perhaps the most interesting of these accounts, however, was that of Adam Tawdul, a Ukrainian American whose family had known Skrypnyk in the Bolshevik underground before coming to the U.S. in 1913. Tawdul returned to Ukraine in 1931, and thanks to this acquaintance, was able to move in high circles. Tawdul claimed that before Skrypnyk committed suicide the latter had told him that 8 to 9 million had perished from starvation in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and that another official had told him another million or two had died in the Ural Region, the Volga Basin and western Siberia.

All this led people to make inquiries to the State Department, which was of little help. An economics professor, R. W. France, wrote to the State Department regarding reference to Chamberlin's statement by a popular lecturer that "due to the exactions of the Russian government more than 4 million persons starved to death in the Russian areas affected by the drought in 1932. This seems to be a rather incredible statement since no such condition was reported in the papers at the time..."

In spite of all the information which, as we have seen, was in State's possession, Kelley responded that "insofar as the department is aware, the Soviet government has made no official announcement pertaining to the question of deaths resulting from starvation in connection with a drought in 1932," and enclosed a list of relevant English-language references.

Ignored at the time it took place, the famine in Ukraine was so quickly forgotten that it presents history's most successful case of the denial of genocide by the perpetrators. "Years after the event," Lyons wrote in 1937, "when no Russian Communist in his senses 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."

As for those who denied the existence of the famine most strenuously: Fischer, who broke with the Soviets following the Spanish Civil War, later admitted that the Ukrainian famine had cost the lives of millions. Looking back, he recalled that even at the time:

"My own attitude began to bother me. Was I not glorifying steel and kilowatts and forgetting the human being? All the shoes, schools, books, tractors, electric light and subways in the world would not add up to the world of my dreams if the system that produced them was immoral and inhuman."

Duranty, never an idealist like Fischer, could not be disillusioned because he had no illusions in the first place. In later years, when Sovietophilism had gone out of fashion, Duranty lied about ever having lied in the first place. In his last book, published in 1949, he wrote: "Whatever Stalin's apologists might say, 1932 was a year of famine," and he claimed that he had said so at the time. And, as we have seen, he had, but not in his dispatches to The New York Times.

There can also be no doubt that both the State Department and the White House had access to plentiful and timely intelligence concerning the famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine and made a conscious decision not only to do nothing about it, but to never acknowledge it publicly. For political reasons largely related to FDR's determination to establish and maintain good relations with the USSR, the U.S. government participated, albeit indirectly, in what is perhaps the single most successful denial of genocide in history. And in this we were hardly alone: the British record, for example, has also been partially told and was, if anything, worse.

The U.S. government was made aware of conditions in the USSR by its embassies and legations throughout Europe, which sent extensive reports based on interviews with American workers and visitors to the USSR, Soviet officials, the foreign press, Soviet citizens and foreign nationals, all of whom understood the gross inefficiency of the Soviet system, the mediocrity of local Soviet management and increasing hostility of the peasants long before diplomatic relations were established with the USSR. State Department officials were aware of thousands of Soviet citizens fleeing to Poland and Rumania and of soldiers and civilian brigades being sent into Ukraine to assist with the harvest. Washington even received letters from hungry Ukrainian peasants, asking for assistance. The official response to all queries regarding the horrors of life in the Soviet Union was to refer to them as "alleged conditions."

The term "famine" was used in diplomatic dispatches as early as November 1932. Inundated by queries and information regarding the famine, the State Department sought and received confirmation from Athens and from Riga, the premier U.S. listening post for Soviet affairs, a month before FDR recognized the Soviet government.

There can be little doubt that American journalists collaborated with the Soviets in covering up the famine. Duranty, who privately admitted his role as a semi-official Soviet spokesman as early as 1931 and who after the famine told British diplomats that as many as 10 million might well have perished, seems to have played an especially crucial role. Even as a candidate, it was Duranty with whom FDR first publicly broached the issue of recognition.

Duranty seems to have been determined that American public opinion not be negatively influenced on the eve of the Roosevelt-Litvinov negotiations. He thought it imperative that the United States and the USSR establish diplomatic relations and the famine, especially if it was the result of Stalin's malevolence, was a stumbling block that had to be removed. His influence on Roosevelt's perception of the Soviet Union was profound. As Joseph Alsop wrote:

"The authority on Soviet affairs was universally held to be The New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty... The nature of his reporting can be gauged by what happened in the case of the dire Stalin-induced famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s... The Duranty cover-up, for that was what it was, also continued thereafter; and no one of consequence told the terrible truth.

"This being the climate in the United States, Roosevelt and Hopkins would have had to be very different men to make boldly informed judgements of the Soviet system and Stalin's doings and purposes in defiance of almost everyone else who was then thought to be enlightened."

Poignant, often agonizing pleas for some type of intervention or assistance for famine victims from the Mennonite Russian, Jewish and Ukrainian communities in America were treated with courteous indifference. Reflecting the portion of the recognition agreement regarding mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, the State Department responded that since neither American citizens nor interests were involved, no action was possible and there was "considerable doubt whether there is any measure which this government could take at the present time which would be helpful."

From an American public policy point of view, however, a disturbing aftermath to the Roosevelt administration's failure to come to terms with "unenlightened," but accurate, intelligence about the famine was a purge of the State Department's "Russian hands," almost identical to the purge of its "China hands" in the early 1950s. Disappointed with U.S.-Soviet relations, FDR came to dislike certain career diplomats, especially those who didn't share his views on the Soviet Union. First among them was Robert Kelley. Following Department policy to make no public acknowledgement of the famine, Kelley remained sharply critical of Soviet policies and methods and was never convinced that the USSR was willing to abandon its revolutionary aims. William Bullitt, America's first ambassador to the USSR, went with high expectations of friendly relations but was quickly disillusioned. By 1935, he was describing it as "a nation ruled by fanatics who are ready to sacrifice themselves and everyone else for their religion of communism." He reported to State that "neither Stalin nor any other leader of the Communist Party has deviated in the slightest from the determination to spread communism to the ends of the earth." Bullitt was ostracized by both the Soviets and the State Department.

Roosevelt attempted to improve sagging relations with the Soviets by replacing Bullitt with Joseph Davies in 1936 and, the following year, at Davies' insistence, eliminating the Division of Eastern European Affairs and sending Kelley into diplomatic exile in Istanbul. The Riga Legation's Russian affairs section was also downgraded. Even this failed to satisfy Soviet Ambassador Alexander Troyanovsky, who continued his complaints that all American foreign service officers who dealt with the USSR were "reactionaries."

The big exception, of course, was Ambassador Davies, who described Stalin as "clean-living, modest, retiring" and a "stubborn democrat" who insisted on rights for his people "even though it hazarded his power and party control." Davies never even believed Stalin's show trials of the late 1930s were staged. His last dispatch from Moscow went so far as to state: "There is no danger from communism here, so far as the United States is concerned."

The man-made famine, given the absence of internationally recognized human rights norms and an administration committed to closer ties with the Soviets, was seen as an internal Soviet affair, viewed with skepticism, or simply not mentioned. Politicians and opinion-makers either turned a blind eye toward Stalin's famine out of expediency or saw sympathy for the Soviet Union as a litmus test of one's commitment to a more just society in this country. The tragedy is that the reality of mass starvation and collective victimization became a political football, as is ever the case when human issues are viewed through the prism of one's commitment to the Right or the Left.

If there is one lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it must reside in the universality of human rights and human suffering. If the quest for a "greater good" or the struggle against some "greater evil" is seen to require a double standard of blindness toward the injustice and evil perpetrated by those who claim to be on our side of the political spectrum, the victims will always be ignored.





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 17, 1988, No. 3, Vol. LVI

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