Radicals on the Run

Cover art for the book Flights: Radicals on the Run by Joel Whitney

Joel Whitney’s Flights: Radicals on the Run (O/R Books) is a wonderfully written text about a truly remarkable if also painfully elusive subject: artists and others on the run from Cold War capitalism. The evidence of the pursuit, even the meaning of the pursuit, has of course been hidden as carefully as possible.

The first remarkable element of the book is the staggering diversity of personnel. Some of my own favorites, victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, show up in 1950s Mexico in the company of others, all of them close to the Popular Front antifascism and the Cold War remnant.  Collectively, as the persecuted Left, they become successors to Diego Rivera, simultaneously the precursors of Malcolm X and Seymour Hersh. Others here stand all by themselves, not so much part of the Left as victims of guilt-by-association, Frances Stonor Saunders and Rigoberta Menchu among them. American agents tracked them all and tried to make life difficult for them.

The second element must surely be the writing of the author. Whitney has been mainly known as an editor-in-chief of Guernica, but has been writing for Jacobin among other places in recent years. He is a prize winning essayist, and this book shows it. His earlier volume, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, surely helps establish the groundwork for what he does here. Whitney is adept at getting inside the personalities of writers, among other public intellectuals, seeing what makes them tick within their personal lives, and also what makes them unique.

In this case, the uniqueness is earned in an unusual way. The US government, the State Department, CIA and its field operations have set out to persecute thousands of Americans, and so many others, since long before the Cold War. Back when, the early FBI, known first as the Bureau of Investigation, collaborated with employers and local “Red Squads” in quashing labor activists, Wobblies and would-be communists. By the early 1920s, thousands of immigrants had been pinpointed for deportation. By 1950, some of the world’s leading writers, actors, theatrical and film directors all looked hard at the authorities, unpersuaded of the necessity for the ongoing anticommunist crackdown. Cracking down on the creative community itself, the government and its cheerleaders, including liberals and conservatives alike, could end the threat of intelligent, critical and genuinely popular entertainment as well as of labor and anti-racist struggles to the Cold War consensus.

Speaking as past interviewer of lefty oldtimers and scholar of their lives and work, this reviewer regrets that Whitney came too late to access the rich field of 1930s-40s writers, directors and stage-hand technicians who had mostly died by 2000 and for that matter, the mostly ethnic but also multi-racial working class Left a generation before them. In recovering narratives through oral histories and archives, a small army of sympathetic researchers has come to understand that there is much more to be said about the lives and the collective meaning of their work. We can be sure the Whitney’s contribution will help future scholars find their way.

Never mind the limitations of Flights. Whitney describes his subjects vividly, memorably. Paul Robeson, for instance: the great global singer-actor trapped and abused by US authorities, cruelly prevented from giving an eager world of listeners his live performances. Or Lorraine Hansberry, now recognized one of the most brilliant playwrights of midcentury, up there with Arthur Miller and Edward Albee among others. But Whitney also points to a figure like British writer Graham Greene, no leftist by any precise measure, but the kind of critic of Cold War intrigue that the US Information Agency and its British counterparts found maddening: he understood too well the collective mentality of the spies.

I am greatly drawn to the portrait of a couple of forgotten Americans, modernist poet George Oppen and Mary Oppen, who fled to Mexico in 1950 ahead of an investigation of a former roommate and supposed or imagined spy. Ensconced around Mexico City, they became doubly guilty by their casual associations with others  in flight, including Dalton Trumbo, not many years earlier the most famous, best paid writer in Hollywood. Whitney traced the couple’s FBI files and other records, including George’s poetry and Mary’s memoir. In 1969, George won a Pulitzer. It was cold comfort in a nation so set upon wiping out Vietnamese resistance by military assault against civilian populations.

In moving onward in generational time, Whitney gives us well-chiseled of people as unlikely grouped as the Guatemalan heroine and witness Rigoberta Menochu, novelist Gabriel  Garcia Marquez, activist-scholar Angela Davis, the singular Malcolm X, and someone of special interest to me, Frances Stonor Saunders, as a supreme muckraker.

Saunders took it upon herself, as a young scholar-journalist during the 1990s, to discover what the CIA’s heavily-funded clientele within the intellectual-cultural world, did to get the money and did with the money. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, as she discovered, set up dozens of prestigious “front” magazines, including the British based Encounter, or heavily funded others, such as the Partisan Review and New Leader, with past notable records. Lavish European events for American intellectuals, five star hotels, four star dinners with the available celebrities in London, Paris or Rome offered a lot of heavy perks. So did the contacts with publishers and agents, all overseen by such founders of the CCF as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,, one of the most influential luminaries of the day or, from London, famed essayist Isaiah Berlin, among less-than-honorable others.

To have laid this out clearly, with brilliant writing, made Stonor Saunders a minor celebrity in her own right, rather like keen reporter and journalistic rebel Seymour Hersh. Trained in the highest circles of US reporting, acquiring the prestige  of a fearless investigator of mysterious movements and personalities, Hersh turned against US “interests,” so-called, in search of the truth. We find Hersh in the book’s Prologue: Hersh is a mentor of the author and perhaps a model as well. Breaking with respectability, Hersh demonstrated that the My Lai Massacre happened as a result of policies, not despite them, and has gone on embarrassing the US government (while enraging liberal supporters of US foreign policy) by uncovering the US sabotage of the Nordstream pipeline, or the many suspicious details about Osama Ben Laden’s execution.

Whitney offers much more that the reader will want to enjoy, especially thanks to the book’s relaxed style. Annotations of the chapter titles note which of the personalities had their lives threatened by US authorities, and which actually suffered probable assassination. For many of my 1960s generation, the more-the-suspicous links of FBI infiltrators to the assassins of Malcolm X continue to offer hints at a still-hidden story. Several actual assassinations in Central America, by proxies of US interests, make the largest strategic point of the book clear: there is no end in sight.

Whitney stumbles only once, and it may not be entirely fair to discuss an ignoble  moment in an otherwise admirable life. The wonderful Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, at the close of his storied career, turned wildly against Liberation Theology, the newest and most unique development in the Hemispheric Left of the late twentieth century. In his rage, Paz sought somehow to blame Cuban “totalitarianism” for the failings of a redemptive, would-be revolutionary project earlier upheld by Paz himself. It was said that Paz urgently wanted a Nobel Prize, and this is surely true, but also surely beside the point. The old poet-polemicist, who had (among so many other efforts) so ardently defended the students murdered by the Mexican government in the 1960s, had grown tired of revolutions. He offered, instead, for a region beset by worsening environmental and living conditions, his new-found faith in liberalism, aka Capitalism For Our Time.

Never mind. This is a valuable book. Find a copy for yourself,  and dig in.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.