Politics & Policy

He Shot Down Commies

John Barron, R.I.P.

“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman,” said the late Susan Sontag in 1982. “Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”

These were surprising words, spoken by a surprising source. Supposedly high-brow intellectuals such as Sontag weren’t supposed to credit the supposedly low-brow Reader’s Digest with anything–and especially not moral clarity. Indeed, Sontag’s remarks ignited a firestorm of controversy on the Left, whose guardians of political correctness usually viewed condemnations of Soviet totalitarianism as provocative and suspicious.

Sontag’s remarks were possible because her enemies were right, and Reader’s Digest was a bastion of anti-Communism during the Cold War. Friedrich Hayek once credited the popular success of his book The Road to Serfdom to the fact that the Digest had published a condensed version of it.

One of the Digest’s most important contributions to the cause of anti-Communism came in the form of articles and books by John Barron, who passed away on February 24 at the age of 75. On the day Barron died, most of the mainstream media was too busy genuflecting before the altar of Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps the most overrated journalist of his generation, to notice the departure of Barron. There was a short obituary in the Washington Times and–last week, finally–a slightly longer one in the Washington Post.

A man who was one of America’s greatest and most patriotic reporters deserves better.

John Barron was born in Texas, graduated from the University of Missouri, and studied Russian in the Navy. After serving as an intelligence officer in Berlin for two years, he embarked upon a new career as a journalist. At the Washington Star, he became a star reporter–most notably for breaking the Bobby Baker story, which involved a bribery scandal in the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1964, he and Paul Hope shared the George Polk Award for national reporting. Other prizes followed, including the Raymond Clapper Award for the most distinguished Washington correspondent, the Washington Newspaper Guild Award, and an honor from the American Political Science Association.

The next year, Barron joined the staff of Reader’s Digest. He wrote more than 100 stories for the Digest on a wide range of subjects. One of the most noteworthy, appearing in 1980, focused on unanswered questions surrounding the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick–and delivered a hard blow to the presidential aspirations of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was then trying to steal the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter. (Interestingly, Kopechne was once the roommate of Nancy Carole Taylor, who was Bobby Baker’s secretary.)

Despite this accomplishment, Barron was best known for reporting on one of his first loves: espionage. His most important work for Reader’s Digest involved exposing the evils of Communism in general and the schemes of the KGB in particular. His first book, KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Agents, prompted the Soviet spy bureau to issue at least 370 damage assessments and other reports. Moscow was so rattled by his journalism, in fact, that it sponsored a smear campaign against him. Here’s how Christopher Andrew described it in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB:

The resident in Washington, Mikhail Korneyevich Polonik (codenamed ARDOV), was instructed to obtain all available information on Barron, then a senior editor at Reader’s Digest, and to suggest ways “to compromise him.” Most of the “active measures” used by the KGB in its attempts to discredit Barron made much of his Jewish origins, but its fabricated claims that he was part of a Zionist conspiracy (a favorite theme in Soviet disinformation) appear to have had little resonance outside the Middle East. … The files noted by Mitrokhin list other KGB countermeasures against Barron’s book in countries as far afield as Turkey, Cyprus, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Somalia, Uganda, India, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.

While Barron’s KGB book was causing heartburn in Moscow, Americans were making it a best-seller. Newsweek hailed it: “In terms of hard geopolitical importance, this book outranks and helps illuminate Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Achipelago.” That’s an overstatement, but probably less of one than many people imagine.

Barron went on to become one of the first Western reporters to describe Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in Cambodia. This became the subject of his second book, Murder of a Gentle Land (co-authored by Anthony Paul). He also wrote influential stories linking the Soviet Union to the nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s. One of Barron’s sub-specialties was telling the harrowing stories of Soviet defectors.

Barron testified in ten spy trials and received additional awards for his work, including the Sir James Goldsmith Award for international journalism in 1985 and the Attorney General’s Award for Meritorious Public Service in 1987. He retired from Reader’s Digest in 1991, but he didn’t quit writing. His sixth and final book,

Operation SOLO: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin, was published in 1996.

If there’s room on the gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps it should read: “Here lies the Red Barron. He shot down Commies.”

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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