The US Press and Russia: A Tortured History

Puzzled about the latest news regarding Russia's claims in regard to the Ukraine and Crimea? You should be. American news about that region always has been suspect.

American journalists always have struggled with how to cope with the variety of foreign policy positions the United States has taken toward Russia. A look at one nugget of Kansas history suggests that we should regard national media analyses of Russia's claims in regard to Crimea and Ukraine with a great degree of skepticism.

In 1945 William L. White, a well regarded journalist and the son of famous Emporia (Ks.) editor William Allen White, published a book titled, Report on the Russians. White told the story of Russians killing Poles in the Katyn Forest. Although his book was on the bestseller lists from March to September of 1945, he was derided and castigated by government officials and by other writers and journalists for going against their current wisdom on his critical treatment of the Russians.

One of the accounts in White's book detailed the Katyn Forest massacre, which was uncovered in 1943 when Germans revealed mass graves of nearly 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest. The story was controversial. Did the Russians shoot them in the spring of 1940 or did Germans kill them after the 1941 invasion? White noted most American accounts had previously "damned" the Germans, but he raised serious questions about the validity of the Russian claims that Germans had committed the atrocity. Subsequent research showed that the Russians were indeed the perpetrators of the massacre and a 2013 release of archival documents confirmed that the United States helped Stalin hush up the 1940 murder by Russians of more than 22,000 Polish soldiers in the Katyn Forest of western Russia.

I first discovered this story while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. I was interviewing the late Kathrine White, Bill's widow, in their home in Emporia, Kan., in the early 1980s about her father-in-law. She opened a trunk of material about White's book -- letters from admirers and challengers, newspaper clippings and reviews of the book. She was determined to vindicate her late husband.

Bill took over editorship of the Gazette after his father's death in 1944, and Kathrine continued managing the paper until she died in 1988.

Bill White's experience documents the danger of "group think" among journalists and the strength of public opinion in volatile times. It is a reminder that the role of the press is not to promote ideological consistency or schism, nor to aid in government manipulation, but to clarify events and issues. That journalists wanted to "buy the government line" is apparent in stories such as one appearing in Life Magazine in March, 1943 that declared that Russians "look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans." In April, 1944, the New York Times declared that Marxist thinking was out in Russia and the competitive system was back in.

During the summer of 1944 White accompanied Eric Johnston, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to the Soviet Union. Early the next year White published his account of the trip, which stayed on the best seller lists from March to September.

Four groups attacked White's book: 1) contemporary foreign correspondents and literary critics; 2) the Soviet-American Friendship Alliance; 3) high-ranking officials in the federal government, including some military personnel and 4) Johnston.

Critics accused White of being biased against the Russians, of unfairly emphasizing poverty during wartime, and of commenting unfavorably about industrial development under a communist regime versus industrialism under a capitalist regime. The U.S. government wanted no criticism of Russia, a major ally. Other journalists feared his criticism would jeopardize their own access to Russian news sources.

Bill White was a seasoned reporter. In 1919, at the age of 18, he accompanied his father to the Versailles Peace Conference. A 1924 Harvard graduate, he served on the staffs of the Washington Post and Fortune magazine, was in England during 1940-41 as a correspondent, and published three popular war-time books. He also covered the Russo-Finnish War and was an editor of Reader's Digest when he wrote Report on the Russians. Before the book, White had been a popular writer. He and his wife, the former Kathrine Klinkenberg, a researcher for Time magazine, had moved socially in New York literary circles since their marriage in 1931. But if one were to believe the reviews, particularly those of the New York press, White had, with a few strokes of his pen, transformed himself from a credible war correspondent to a Russian red-baiter.

Journalists were pressured to sign a petition against White by the National Council of Soviet-American Friendship. Established in 1943, the Council included in its membership many people who were interested in maintaining the American-Soviet alliance. Among these were prominent figures such as Arthur Capper, Kansas senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City; Federal Circuit Judge Learned Hand; Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior; and Boston financier Hugh Cabot.

The Council issued a statement and 16 writers signed the petition expressing disagreement with the book, noting that while "none of us is satisfied with the limited facilities extended to us as reporters by the Soviet government, and none denies the truth of certain statements in Mr. White's book as condensed in Reader's Digest," the "peculiar but fundamental dishonesty" of the book lay in the total absence of either "foreground or background detail." The statement continued:

We therefore, have no hesitation in saying that for Americans seeking understanding on the basis of real knowledge of Russia, in the hope of finding a common ground for living at peace with our neighbors, White's book must rank as a highly biased and misleading report, calculated to prolong the oldest myths and prejudices against a great ally, whose sacrifice in this war have saved us incalculable bloodshed and destruction.

Among signers of the petition were three especially well-known writers -- Quentin Reynolds, Edgar Snow and John Hersey -- and it was the inclusion of these three that particularly disturbed White. Others included Raymond Arthur Davies, a Canadian broadcaster who had headed the Young Communist League in Toronto; Alexander Werth, a British correspondent who worked for BBC and the Sunday Times, and who had been born in Leningrad; Ralph Parker, English writer for the Times, who was married to a Russian woman; Richard Lauterbach of Time magazine, who later was fired from Time and worked for a Communist newspaper; Ed Stevens, who had been a Russian correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor from 1934 to 1939 and who had married a Russian woman; and Ella Winter, former wife of Lincoln Steffens.

White received some positive responses from staunch anti-Communists and from those who had been delighted with the promise of the Russian Revolution of 1917 but who had become disillusioned during the Moscow trials of the 1930s. William Henry Chamberlin, Russian correspondent from 1922-1934 for the Christian Science Monitor, a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal, and author of The Russian Enigma in 1943, praised White's book as "the most truthful and realistic account of present-day Russia I have read for a long time."

Kathrine White likely would view release of the new Archives documents as a too-late blessing. She also likely would view today's journalistic accounts of Russian activity with skepticism. Until her death, she was bitter about White's treatment by former journalistic and literary friends and about the damage they did to his journalistic reputation. For years she staunchly defended the accuracy of her husband's Russia reporting.

Besides the obvious historical foreign policy implications, the story has important lessons for today's journalists: It illustrates the dangers of "pack journalism," and cautions reporters to view with a critical eye policy proclamations about shifting positions toward foreign powers.