Last week’s passing of folk singer Pete Seeger was duly noted in the nation’s prestige press. Most stories noted that the 94-year old had been a major force in the revival of folk music in America. He had indeed. And many of us enjoyed his singing. Referring to Pete’s endless political involvements, the media decorously referred to him as an “activist,” a progressive.
But, as Grove City College’s tireless researcher, Dr. Paul Kengor, reminds us here: Pete Seeger was a lifelong Communist. It took Pete more than half a century to express any reservations about Josef “Uncle Joe” Stalin.
The 26-year rule of the Iron Man (stalin in Russian means “man of steel”) was punctuated by the sounds of bullets in the back of millions of skulls. Western people knew this, or sensed it.
Britain’s irrepressible Lady Astor, the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons, once confronted Stalin in the Kremlin, asking him bluntly: “How long are you going to keep killing people?” All of Stalin’s henchmen, those Communist apparatchiki who managed to survive his relentless purges, froze in place. Uncle Joe, however, seemed nonplused. He simply continued drawing on his pipe and said in his soft voice: “As long as it is necessary.”
It remained necessary until the day—March 5, 1953—that Stalin died. Stalin’s contribution to the history of man’s inhumanity to man is best remembered in the innocuous name of GuLAG, the Russian acronym for “State Administration for Camps.” Those camps were spread out throughout the twelve time zones of the USSR. Some of the portals of the GuLAG were no bigger than a telephone booth. Some of the camps where millions perished were larger than France.
Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave the world the incontrovertible evidence of Stalin’s crimes against humanity in his massive, three-volume work, The GuLAG Archipelago. For his boldness in speaking truth to power, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the KGB, hauled back through what prisoners called “the gates of hell” in Moscow, and threatened with his life and the lives of his wife and beloved sons. He told his KGB interrogators that they could take his life, and even his family members’ lives. His evidence would be presented. It was already in the hands of his publishers in Paris.
Instead of killing him, the Soviet rulers decided to kick him out, and let his family go with him. They reasoned that the West would soon grow tired of this stern moralist, this prophetic visionary, this Christian witness. And soon we did. Or at least the chattering classes soon tired of him.
But everyone who could read TIME, Newsweek, or The New York Times in 1974 knew about Solzhenitsyn’s brave stance against Stalin and the GuLAG—and against Stalin’s heirs then still in power in the USSR.
Pete Seeger surely read about the crimes of Communism, and not in right-wing journals, either, but in the approved publications of the liberal Left. It would be another 33 years before Pete could bestir himself to utter a word of criticism of Stalin. By that time, the USSR had imploded and even the Russians were publicly speaking of Stalin’s “empire built on bones.”
Solzhenitsyn had described Communism succinctly as “atheism with a knife at your child’s throat.” I knew that that was certainly true for the Russian dissident writer himself, but last year I read Anne Applebaum’s massive documentation of the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.
This honest liberal details unsparingly the crushing out of all forms of religious, civil, political, social, scientific, and artistic freedom in that vast area “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” Churchill pointed to an “Iron Curtain” that the Man of Steel had brought down.
Anne Applebaum’s book of that title confirms virtually everything that Solzhenitsyn had said in the GuLAG. She even relates the story of the last non-Communist premier of Hungary. Leaving Budapest for a weekend visit to Switzerland, the unfortunate official was told to submit his resignation at once. Only then would his beloved son be allowed to join him in exile in the West.
Communism: Atheism with a knife at your child’s throat.
Ron Radosh is another honest chronicler of American Communism. A “red diaper” baby himself, Radosh was raised by Communists and lived for decades in the Communist orbit in America.
Ron Radosh’s gentle rebuke to his former banjo teacher, Pete Seeger, is titled “The Red Warbler.” That’s an inside joke, folks. One of the great dramatic moments in the history of anti-Communism in this country came in 1948 when members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) were grilling former New Dealer, Alger Hiss. The suave, elegantly thin Ivy Leaguer Hiss denied under oath even knowing Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers, an ex-TIME Magazine editor, was the rumpled, portly “witness” who accused Hiss of having provided him with Top Secret State Department documents for transmittal to the USSR in the 1930s.
HUAC questioners, seeming to lighten up on Hiss, asked him about his hobbies. He acknowledged he was a birder. And he brightened up when he spoke of having once seen a very rare bird in Washington’s Rock Creek Park—a prothonotary warbler.
That was the very incident that Chambers had alerted committee members to in secret session. It was that rare bird that established the truth of what Whittaker Chambers had been saying. And that bird sent Hiss to prison, not for espionage, but for perjury.
Pete Seeger managed never to have to say he was sorry. One of my favorite Pete Seeger songs is the tune he crooned about the USS Reuben James. This U.S. Navy destroyer had been sunk by a Nazi U-boat in October, 1941. “What were their names/tell me what were their names/Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James” was the song Pete and his comrades sang—urging the American people to abandon their neutrality and enter World War II against Hitler’s Nazi menace.
All very appealing—except that just months before, prior to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union—Pete and his pals were agitating against American involvement in the “imperialist war.” That’s because Stalin was then an ally of Hitler.
Pete was nothing if not nimble. He could pick and strum and sing like a warbler. And when the Communist Party required it, he could turn on a dime. Or is that a