Saddam’s Useful Idiots

by Daniel J. Flynn

Keeping up a long, ignoble tradition of the American Left.

Fresh allegations that Iraqi intelligence funded the prewar propaganda trip to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by U.S. Representatives Jim McDermott, David Bonior, and Mike Thompson should not surprise anyone familiar with the history of the American Left. Ideological tourism, in which totalitarian powers engineer the junkets of influential leftists in exchange for positive publicity in the enemy nation, has seduced the likes of such radical heavyweights as Lincoln Steffens, W.E.B Du Bois, John Reed, and Tom Hayden.

Jack Reed is the father of the political pilgrimage. He traveled to witness the Russian Revolution on the dime of an American heiress. He later departed Soviet Russia with “Moscow Gold” — a million rubles (mostly in diamonds, actually) — and tales of utopia beyond the Urals.

“I suddenly realized that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven,” Reed, witnessing a Bolshevik funeral, wrote in Ten Days That Shook the World. “On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die.” Although the author was a paid agent of Soviet Russia’s Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda, in 1999 a panel convened by New York University named the book one of the 20th century’s ten best works of journalism.

Reed’s inspiring book, and evangelistic fervor, motivated others to make the Hajj to the Left’s Mecca. Reed’s mentor Lincoln Steffens journeyed to Soviet Russia on his apprentice’s advice. “The revolution in Russia is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, now,” wrote Steffens — using “Christian” as his appropriate nom de plume — “in order that Christ may come soon; and, coming, reign forever. Forever and ever, everywhere. Not over Russia alone. The revolution in Russia is not the Russian revolution. It is ‘The Revolution.’ ”

The grisly realities of the Soviet Union ultimately discredited such tales, but not the tales’ tellers. After largely disappearing in the 1940s and ’50s, the overseas jaunts returned again and again, with successive generations of Leftists forgetting the mistakes of the past.

Herb Aptheker, historian of the Communist Party USA, reinstituted 1930s-style ideological tourism in the 1960s by convincing SDS’s Tom Hayden and Yale University’s Staughton Lynd to travel to North Vietnam. “We are conscious of the ways in which some intellectuals during the nineteen-thirties sought to excuse the evil side of Soviet Communism,” Hayden and Lynd reflected. Yet the duo made excuses too. They compared the “ ‘rice-roots’ democracy” of Vietnamese Communists to American town meetings of the previous century, likened Vietnamese Communists to oppressed blacks in the American South, and announced support for the National Liberation Front. “Both sides use violence,” the pair conceded of the Vietnam War’s combatants, “but this does not mean both sides are equally violent . . . the other side employs violence more discriminately.”

The all-time dupe of totalitarian-engineered junkets has to be W. E. B. Du Bois, who served as a willing propagandist for the most murderous regimes in world history. In 1926, the man who had helped found the NAACP journeyed to “Holy Moscow.” “I stand in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia that has come to me,” Du Bois proclaimed. “I may be partially deceived and half-informed. But if what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” For unceasing propaganda on their behalf, the Soviet government awarded Du Bois the Lenin Peace Prize more than 30 years later.

A “partially deceived and half-informed” Du Bois uttered wildly inaccurate assessments of other totalitarian states as well. In 1937, Du Bois described the Japanese invasion of Manchuria as somehow benefiting the Chinese. He explained the conflict between China and Japan as the result of China’s “submission to white aggression and Japanese resistance” to it. Biographer David Levering Lewis notes that Du Bois’s Japanese junket was “facilitated by one of Imperial Japan’s most effective agents in the United States.” Du Bois, oblivious (willfully perhaps) to his travel agent’s position, claimed he “never knew” if this “student” served the Japanese government in any official capacity.

Traveling to Nazi Germany in 1936 for nearly half the year through the beneficence of American grant money, Du Bois found “domestic peace,” “a nation at work,” “houses for the poor,” “great celebrations,” and “new songs, new ideals, a new state, a new race.” It was, he reasoned, the truest socialist state next to Soviet Russia.

What of the racism of the Third Reich? Du Bois reported experiencing no hostility on account of race. Though clearly bothered by Germany’s anti-Semitism, Du Bois opined that it was “a reasoned prejudice.” “In the World War Jews did their legal service, but they were not eager to serve in an army in which they could not act as officers,” Du Bois reported to readers of the Pittsburgh Courier in December 1936. “After the war, bankers, financiers and merchants had many opportunities to profiteer at the expense of the workers and the middle class. Jews were prominent in such happenings because they were so largely represented in these callings.”

Du Bois concluded his series on Germany with an elongated quote from a German juxtaposing the tiny percentage of Jews in Germany with massive percentages of Jews in banking, the stock exchange, government, and law. Much done had been “shameful,” but “the worst was over.” In fact, it was just beginning.

In 1959, China proclaimed a national holiday in Du Bois’s honor to celebrate his trip there. In return, Du Bois bizarrely portrayed a China in chaos as a model to be emulated. In the midst of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions perished in state-induced famines, Du Bois saw in China “a sense of human nature free of its most hurtful and terrible meanness and of a people full of joy and faith and marching on in a unison unexampled in Holland, Belgium, Britain, and France; and simply inconceivable in the United States.”

Democratic Congressmen Jim McDermott, David Bonior, and Mike Thompson didn’t make such enthusiastic declarations about Iraq in 2002 as their ideological forebears had done about America’s enemies in times past. Embarrassing their own government, not embracing another, was their aim. Had the congressional trio recalled the shameful nature of past instances of ideological tourism, they may never have gone. It is this convenient amnesia that not only enables the Left to glorify the likes of Jack Reed on film and W. E. B. Du Bois in two Pulitzer Prize–winning biographies, but allows leftists such as McDermott, Bonior, and Thompson to repeat their mistakes without consequence. Doubtless, their embarrassment will be forgotten all too soon, as well.

– Daniel J. Flynn is the author of the forthcoming A Conservative History of the American Left.