The journalist who pioneered the whitewashing of Mao was Edgar Snow. He wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post, New York Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs and other publications. In 1936, Snow became the first Western correspondent to interview Mao at his hideout in northwest China. Snow spent four months spinning a heroic tale. The resulting book, Red Star Over China (1937), became a bestseller. In the book, he described Mao and his comrades as communists who followed the Soviet ideological line, but soon he figured out that communism wasn’t a catchy idea in America, and he downplayed it. Snow claimed that peasants embraced Mao because he offered “agrarian democracy.” Again and again, Snow portrayed Chinese communist leaders in glowing colors.
“Because they achieved everything against great odds,” he wrote, “it seemed natural to the Communist veterans that a whole nation should follow in the same paths with discipline and faith matched by high fortitude, and distant glory as the ultimate reward.” One would never know that Snow was writing about mass murder.
Snow was the most influential Western journalist writing about Mao and Chinese communism, but he wasn’t alone. Brooks Atkinson, reporting for the New York Times, claimed that “the Chinese communists are not Communists. Their system now might be described as agrarian or peasant democracy.” Theodore H. White, later best‐known for his books about presidential elections, was among Time Magazine staffers who viewed communists as “agrarian liberals.” John J. Fairbank, a Harvard historian of China, declared, “The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that happened to the Chinese people in centuries.”
Then there was Herbert Matthews, another New York Times man, who whitewashed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. In December 1956, United Press International reported that Castro had been killed, but Matthews learned that Castro was alive, and he arranged to meet the revolutionary leader in his Sierra Maestra mountain hideout. There was a long interview that resulted in a succession of New York Times front‐page stories. They convinced people that Castro was a decent fellow and that he headed powerful democratic forces almost certain to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“Castro’s personality was overpowering,” Matthews wrote. “It was easy to see that his men adored him and to see why he has caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba.” According to Matthews, Castro had “no animosity toward the United States or the American people” — which encouraged U.S. policymakers to stop helping Batista. To a significant degree, Matthews “made” Castro, because he wasn’t the only rebel against Batista, and before the New York Times coverage began, Castro’s forces were neither the largest nor the best‐armed. Castro’s comrade Ernesto “Che” Guevara said that Matthews’ articles were more important than a battlefield victory, in terms of fundraising and recruitment.
When Castro seized power in 1959, did he usher in the era of enlightened social democracy he had promised? Actually, he ordered executions of his political opponents, shut down dissident publications, postponed elections indefinitely, asserted his control over the economy and the Catholic Church in Cuba. Nonetheless, Matthews continued portraying Castro as a friend of the people. In addition to writing articles, Matthews wrote almost all of the New York Times editorials having to do with Latin America from 1949 until 1967 when he resigned because of widespread ridicule for failing to recognize that communism was a totalitarian movement. He hoped that his fantasies would be vindicated, but since 1959 Castro’s regime imprisoned more than 100,000 people and executed more than 15,000.
Lord Acton’s epic warning applies as much to intellectuals as to the rulers they admire: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”