The troubadour of totalitarianism Pete Seeger passed away last week. Historian Ron Radosh, who himself was a red diaper baby, growing up in a pro-communist family, and for years was a man of the left, in 2007 recalled Seeger’s allegiance to Communism:
Some will argue that Mr. Seeger deserves such praise. But our country has more than made up for the 17 years Mr. Seeger was blacklisted from both radio and TV. In the past decade, Mr. Seeger has received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton and has been fêted at the Kennedy Center. A recent profile in the Washington Post style section proclaimed him a “national treasure” and America’s “best-loved Commie.” A few years ago, Mr. Seeger was invited to speak at the National Press Club. Just two months ago, the Library of Congress held an all-day tribute to him. After all of this, shouldn’t a new documentary give its audience an accurate and honest account of his life?
In Mr. Brown’s film, Bruce Springsteen calls Mr. Seeger a great “citizen-activist” on camera. There are more accolades from all the usual suspects — Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Manes of the Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez, and Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers. But when it comes to specifically addressing Mr. Seeger’s politics, whom do we see on camera? First comes Charlene Mitchell, a former Communist Party leader and Presidential candidate, and then Henry Foner, a union official and lifelong fellow traveler.
The film’s most egregious moment comes when it tells us that Mr. Seeger joined the Communist Party in 1939, and drifted out of it a decade later. It relates how in 1941 he joined the first folk music group, the Almanac Singers, which sang for the labor movement and the CIO. Next the film mentions that Mr. Seeger entered the Army during World War II, another sign of his patriotism.
Nowhere does this documentary describe the Almanac Singers’ very first album, “Songs for John Doe.” As readers of this newspaper know, in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a
180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR’s America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.
In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Another song, to the tune of “Cripple Creek” and the sound of Mr. Seeger’s galloping banjo, said, “Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain’t a-gonna send us across the sea,” and “Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me.”
The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.
For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?
According to the film, one of Mr. Seeger’s greatest accomplishments was his tour with third-party Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948. Viewers are told only that Wallace was a peace candidate opposed to the America-created Cold War, and that he was falsely accused of being a communist. Nowhere do we learn that Wallace’s campaign was in fact a Communist Party-run affair, and that had he been elected, Wallace announced he was going to appoint men to his Cabinet who we now know were bona fide Soviet agents. Instead, we are asked to assume that every position taken by the old pro-Soviet left wing has been proved correct.
When the blacklist came to an end — of course the film concentrates on his victimization in those dark years — Mr. Seeger finally reached millions of Americans who, during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, came to believe there was never any merit to anti-communism, that it was the same as McCarthyism. Mr. Seeger went to visit North Vietnam in 1972, and came away ecstatic about the beautiful country and the peace-loving people there. We hear nothing about the political prisoners, the boat people, or about Ms. Baez’s lone protest after the war’s end against political oppression on the part of those she called “aging Stalinist leaders,” a protest that Mr. Seeger, for once, took no part in. Instead we see the video of him singing his anti-war hit, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”Supporters of Communism like Mr. Seeger are on the same moral level as supporters of fascism and it speaks volumes about the dedication of many on the left in this country to democracy that he was constantly lionized as a hero on the port side of our politics.