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Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 2000 /1 Elul, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Useful idiots -- LENIN is supposed to have referred to blind defenders and apologists for the Soviet Union in the Western democracies as "useful idiots." Yet even Lenin might have been surprised at how far these useful idiots would carry their partisanship in later years -- including our own times.

Stalin's man-made famine in the Soviet Union during the 1930s killed more millions of people than Hitler killed in the Holocaust -- and Mao's man-made famine in China killed more millions than died in the USSR. Yet we not only hear little or nothing about either of these staggering catastrophes in the Communist world today, very little was said about them in the Western democracies while they were going on. Indeed, many useful idiots denied that there were famines in the Soviet Union or in Communist China.

The most famous of these was the New York Times' Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer prize for telling people what they wanted to hear, rather than what was actually happening. Duranty assured his readers that "there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be." Moreover, he blamed reports to the contrary on "rumor factories" with anti-Soviet bias.

It was decades later before the first serious scholarly study of that famine was written, by Robert Conquest of the Hoover Institution, always identified in politically correct circles as "right-wing." Yet when the Soviets' own statistics on the deaths during the famine were finally released, under Mikhail Gorbachev, they showed that the actual deaths exceeded even the millions estimated by Dr. Conquest.

Official statistics on the famine deaths in China under Mao have never been released, but knowledgeable estimates run upwards of 20 million people. Yet, even here, there were the same bland denials by sympathizers and fellow travellers in the West as during the earlier Soviet famine. One celebrated "expert" on China wrote: "I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famines." Horrifying as the pre-Communist famines were, they never killed as many people as Mao's famine did.

Today, even after the evidence of massive man-made famines in the Communist world, after Solzhenitsyn's revelations about the gulags and after the horrors of the killing fields of Cambodia, the useful idiots continue to deny or downplay staggering human tragedies under Communist dictatorships. Or else they engage in moral equivalence, as Newsweek editor and TV pundit Eleanor Clift did during the Elian Gonzalez controversy, when she said: "To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami and I'm not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously."

Apparently totalitarian dictatorship is just a lifestyle, like wearing sandals and beads and using herbal medicine. It apparently has not occurred to Eleanor Clift to ask why poor people in Miami do not put themselves and their children on flimsy boats, in a desperate effort to reach Cuba.

Elian Gonzalez and his mother were only the latest of millions of people to flee Communist dictatorships at the risk of their lives. Some were shot trying to get past the Berlin wall and hundreds of thousands of "boat people" were drowned trying to escape a Communist Vietnam that many useful idiots were celebrating from inside free democracies. Many who escaped from the Soviet Union to the West during the Second World War were sent back by American authorities, except for those who committed suicide rather than go back.

Yet none of this has really registered on a very large segment of the intelligentsia in the West. Nor are Western capitalists immune to the same blindness. The owner of the Baltimore Orioles announced that he would not hire baseball players who defect from Cuba, because this would be an "insult" to Castro. TV magnate Ted Turner has sponsored a TV mini-series on the Cold War that has often taken the moral equivalence line.

Turner's instructions to the historian who put this series together was that he wanted no "triumphalism," meaning apparently no depiction of the triumph of democracy over Communism. Various scholars who have specialized in the study of Communist countries have criticized the distortions in this mini-series in a recently published book titled "CNN's Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy," edited by Arnold Beichman.

Meanwhile, that moral-equivalence mini-series is being spread through American schools from coast to coast, as if to turn our children into the useful idiots of the future.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate