Friday, August 01, 2008

A Very Sad Book

This [Tim Tzouliadis's "The Forsaken"] is a very sad book, the story of thousands of Americans who, during the Depression, lured by sham Soviet propaganda and pro-Soviet falsehoods spread by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and the corrupt New York Times Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, migrated to the USSR in search of jobs and a role in the "building of socialism." It was, in the words of the author, "the least heralded migration in American history" and a period when "for the first time in her short history more people were leaving the United States than were arriving." Most of these expatriates, not intellectuals but simple working men, were quickly disenchanted and wanted to return home, only to find that Moscow considered them Soviet citizens and barred them from leaving. Ignored by the American government, many of them ended in the gulag.

The history we know is false. No matter how hard they try, historians when they write can't purge themselves of knowing how it turns out. Usually, I suspect, they don't even try. To understand why people did what they did, you have to stand in the past and blind yourself, so you cannot see ahead.

In the 1930s, capitalism and liberal democracy looked like dead ends. The Soviet Union, filtered through the supposedly reliable reporting of Western observers who actually went there, seemed to be charging ahead with inspired workers and full production, where the U.S. was a land of cold chimneys and breadlines. In Germany and Italy, other collectivisms made monumental strides, under dynamic leadership, amid popular enthusiasm. That a certain brutality accompanied all this was known, but it had not yet become monstrous and even then the full degree did not become apparent to most people till after the war.

I wonder about "for the first time in her short history more people were leaving the United States than were arriving." I don't have the right books on hand now, but it might be there were brief periods in the 1830s and perhaps 1850s, during severe economic downturns, when more people were leaving than arriving.