Russian influence in the US (circa 1935)
by Chris Zappone
Russian influence works by playing on existing biases. Today, a libertarian’s cry for “freedom” can lead a libertarian to support Moscow’s position – even unwittingly – on issues like Ukraine, US foreign policy, or NATO’s role in Eastern Europe.
So it was in earlier times when Moscow wooed Western writers to function as a cheering squad for Russian objectives within the US.
In 1935, American literary critic and writer Malcolm Cowley helped form the League of American Writers, whose members included Erskine Caldwell, Archibald MacLeish, Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, John Dos Passos, and Dashiell Hammett among others. The Communist (read: Moscow-controlled) group tried to influence US foreign policy.
As Wikipedia notes: “The League’s policy objectives changed over time in accord with the shifting party line of the CPUSA. Beginning as an anti-fascist organization in 1935, the League turned to an anti-war position following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and to a pro-war position after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.”
Cowley, in a memoir, looks back on the time with a sense guilt.
After discussing his literary aspirations and his resolution to oppose the advance of Hitler in the 1930s, Cowley describes how the idealistic writers at the time, who he calls ‘Men of Good Will’, ‘failed disastrously’ in their aims. (emphasis mine)
“We’ in this case refers to all the thousands of writers and would-be writers, of intellectual and world-be intellectuals, in the Western countries who were moved by similar aspirations. We were the Men of Good Will, in the phrase made popular by Jules Romains’s many volumed-novel; we were those of public spirit, assured of their perspicacity, who held meetings and issued statements and uttered warnings of impending catastrophe. Internationally, the Russians were our friends. We had learned to be skeptical about what was happening inside Russia…Internationally, however, the Russians seemed above reproach. They supported the League of Nations, they voted for sanctions against the aggressors, they promised to defend any Eastern country that Hitler invaded, they proclaimed that peace was indivisible, that security must be collective, in other words, they flattered us by saying exactly what we might have said if given a voice in international rivalries. We were moralists, and so, it seemed, were the Russians outside their own borders.”
“As a matter of fact, we were part of their calculations. They hoped, they gambled they could change the policies of France, Britain, the United States, and thus form an alliance too strong for Hitler to attack. In order to persuade the governments of those countries, they had to create a strong base in popular sympathies, and this was not a task that could be performed by the Communist parties… But perhaps – so the Russian leaders must have reckoned – the Men of Good Will could do more to convince or frighten the statesmen. We writers, professors, publicists might thereby contribute something to the defense of the Soviet Union- and hence we were solicited, importuned, published, assembled in congresses, gently admonished, wildly praised, and in general made to feel our importance.”
From —And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade. Chapters of Literary History. 1918-1978 by Malcolm Cowley