tv True Believer CSPAN December 27, 2016 1:00am-2:01am EST
story of how the book subject fields went from being an idealistic harvard graduate hard-core columnist to the modern forms of fanaticism to the story of how he came to write about all this in the same way. it's a brilliant book to both "the new york times" as a window into delusion and narcissism that fuels the self radicalized of any era but there is another reason we are particularly delighted to be hosting tonight's event at the library and that is the long distinguished career as a journalist and human rights advocate you can read about in the program actually researched and wrote much in the lewis frederick alle allen room one of those special places in the
quiet contemplative place. with a public event is where doing this evening. you can read about in the program she wrote her own book stranger is drowning grappling witwith impossible idealism, drastic choices and the overpowering urge to help deliver a center for scholars and writers. strangers traveling which also explores puzzling fascinating questions of human behavior was a finalist for the librarian 2016 award for excellence in journalism. i hope that you'll all agree there could be no better moderator for tonight's program than larissa and no more appropriate place to hold it than right here at the new york public library.
now please join me in welcoming melissa. [applause] good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you, larissa. such an honor to be interviewed by one of my favorite authors and i have to tell you one reason the producer of great literature is that there is terrible perception there so we have to keep our noses down. [laughter] >> the book about the cold war and about the attraction and
repulsion to it but it's essentially about this one man that very few people have heard of before you introduce him to us so can you just sit the scene and tell us who he is so we know what we are talking about? his career as a spy went unnoticed. in the 30s he was recruited while he was a rising young officer in the foreign service and the state department.
devoted stalinist at this point. at this point in the late 20s and early 30s immediate why there would be an attraction to the soviet union, and if you could talk us through that. they haven't come as xavier and they had an enormous impact and many american intellectuals were attracted to at that point. can you tell us more of that? >> there are parallels between that age and present euro into disenchantment he had a whole
generation that was disenchanted with capitalism with 11 million people out of work and he was raised as a quaker and i would say an exceptionally sensitive man and he is a complicated. it sounds very odd to call him sensitive, but he was at the outset. the injustices abounded and in the 30s racism, anti-immigrant sentiments which were at play in the execution which was a watershed moment.
what is extraordinary is he never let go of the state and itit's a type of personality tht it's something to lift him out of himself and to kind of explain everything in life and make sense out of it. i compare it in the process to the power today. so the power to capture minds becomes very addictive. >> let's tal >> let's talk about that for a minute. you talk about the recruitment of volunteers now. is it too early to know if they
have created those who cling to their faith for their whole lives regardless of what happens. but what are some of the differences to some extent it relies on the internet outreach and it's a very different mode of recruitment. many people come to them. draw some of the differences between this. >> the power of the leader and the only thing that they knew was his own propaganda and they kind of invented spam to be to
-- spinning. >> it was also the point was that? >> it was in the 30s and early 40s. so, we can't judge the era where these people and i think that i am pretty clear eyed in my judgment of the very troubling soul in so many ways and guilty of multiple betrayals. he basically betrayed everybody for the cause, faith and religion. okay, so isis if these early communists and it was the all-knowing little father of the people as he was called and
america was really on its knees. we have to keep remembering the four roosevelts lifting spirits, the united states parallels with today. capitalism seemed to be failing and witnessed thousands of veterans marching down pennsylvania avenue claiming the bonuses that they had been promised with their service and president hoover walked the white house gates. >> but they started off as a good guy and marched with these
veterans and his best friends in washington were not fellow up and coming diplomats. they were african-americans. so there was a lot to like about this guy and told there wasn't. >> this is one of the deeply fascinating things about this book is that it's not even as comprehensible a story as a good guy turned bad, or an idealist. he was always both. this is the hardest thing to understand. many people saying that even at the end of his life when he had the violence and brutality of the regime was very obvious and yet they still described him as a person of goodness.
he didn't change his mind. >> after a certain point, his allegiance to this obviously misleading faith was irreversible. they made so many sacrifices. he gave up a brilliant career and his country because unlike some, he had some scruples about the documents from the state department and about writing
than those of his colleagues or the kgb. when the opportunity to leave the country and this uncomfortable situation that he was in at the state department, he took that opportunity, he went to europe, worked for the league of nations if diminished the spanish civil war. it was the first time that there was an opportunity to do something other than talk about fascism. and again their faith was
flagging by now because of what they were hearing that was going on in the course of stalin. they rejoined the cause because the u.s. was so shamefully absent from the anti-fascist battle. and again, another parallel today. we were in a time of day maximum need to take in refugees principally those fleeing fascism but this is already starting in the 30s. the u.s. tightened its quote us against the refugees, and this was appalling for an idealist. and again, it fueled his faith.
>> he wasn't observing bees in the newspapers. he went to spain and helped out with the fighters. tell us a bit about what he was doing during the war. in his internal regret he got to know many of the future leaders of the soviet empire, the future communist leaders were in spain and he was helping and then fast-forwarfastforward to the py of them have paid with their lives. so that became like a curse.
just to take the trajectory, he worked for the state department at which point he was recruited. then he was working in spain during the civil war and then, tell us about what worked during world war ii. >> another piece of the supreme irony and a bunch of the boston do-gooders unitarians rushed in to fill the awful void left by the failures to engage in the refuge of the refugees by setting up shop which was kind of a sanctuary for the refugees for the german occupation of france. so from here he is hire he's hin
the thing. what he does with the solid unitarian funds is set up the aid. that is to rescue the hard-core communists from camp and help them find their way back to their home countries and begin the work of setting up the future soviet states. all on unitarians time, which is and what they had in mind. and for a long time, it worked. i've got all these descriptions as this holds some all-american guy and by the way, they had a
soft spot for that type. it's because their experience was a good shield against detection. how could such a well brought up harvard educated young man be a traitor? he was. >> as you describe the scene, he was involved with as i'm sure you know, trying to bring refugees from europe to the u.s. and constantly lobbying the government against the policy of clamping down. he was suspicious.
>> he had his own people in the field and in the air of humanitarianism it was pretty hard-core in selecting only not only the columnists, but has fallen. we all know this is shameful part of the history clamping down on refugees in world war ii and again facing the refugee crisis. it was just wondering.
>> i think that it's another blocblot on america's image in e world. we have a number on our face at the moment. we don't want to get into that. but, this is one we can't blame on donald trump. this is i think a sorry lack of compassion towards refugees and how they somehow a bout of the war against terror to be completed with those fleeing the
brutality. i don't want to get off too far on what we should be doing. doing. taking 10,000 refugees when germany has taken 1.5 million is pretty prophetic. i'm not inclined to sign up with any radical movements as a result. but i can see how somebody with this inclination towards wanting to do good in the world, and an enormous need as well, i mean he was a needy man. stick one of the things that is unusual is that he met his future wife when they were nine
and effectively you don't date when you are nine i hope, that they were each other's closest companions. as you know they've written about the marriages have thought about what that means constructing a political wife. what difference do you think it's made to this unshakably devoted companion who was 100% with him ideologically, emotionally in every way. did that enable him to take the road he did in some way? >> it is hard to imagine as a loner and a stranger everywhere he went. he spent his early years in
switzerland, son of a loving father who died much too soon filling him with an image of america that was a fantasy america so that when he arrived to harvard after his father's death having been his wish, he was shocked suddenly not in this utopia his father described above privilege, and again the alienation grows apace. the alienation was deepened. i quoted the recruiter
essentially recruited both of them and it is impossible to views into a single human but they did i would say and i quoted her as saying they would have become a buddhist monk. but funny enough, we haven't talked about the connection but it is relevant at this moment to mention my mother and father who were jailed as spies but they were convicted of being cia agents working for the americans
in the soviet occupied hungary. and they were the only journalists ever to have conducted an interview, because one of the conditions and again i'm jumping forward, sorry. one of the conditions of the release from the soviet captivity after five years was that they never spoke to the western journalists because of how banning it would be for the west to discover what this man had been through and again we will talk about what he went through. so, my parents were determined to interview this couple and tried for years.
when my father was being led to his cell in january, 1955 and he had just been released we will talk about why that happened, but the jailer said it to my father congratulations, you've got the vip so recently vacated by an american asian and two years later my father is freed and we ask is that the really cool place with a nice view and he said no, there was more sophisticated bugging them in the average person. but anyway, so when my mother and father meet in their hideaway in the past they've asked for political asylum after they are freed with the alger
hiss hearings i'm sure many of you recall that episode shattered his double life because he was revealed to be an agent. but anyway, the first question she asked my mother is what happened to the little girls. because my sister and i have han part of the coverage of our pair of interest -- pigments arrest particularly the act of cruelty to take a mother and father when there are little kids involved. so she was aware of that because they had a front-page picture of us and my father's impression of
both after the brutality of prison, she was stronger than and knew that he was the one keeping them together. and of course the records from the files even when they were in the hospital they were bugged. they were whispering to each other at night and day are never alone. he is saying he just wants to die and she's saying no. that is just what our enemies want you to do. you cannot give them that victory. we have to rebuild. so they did.
they were both in prisons for five years when they crossed over and their adopted daughter after some time goes looking for then it also is captured. she is the extraordinary heroine. this is a complicated, strange, fascinating figure she's just sort of thing unambiguous here. she was truly a child of the 20th century who grew up in germany with a jewish backgrou background. again, idealistic parents, doctors, lost to spain, volunteer. the parents are unable to look after her so they offered to take care of her.
who are doing anything to. but she doesn't swallow that facespace the way that he does n he meets and falls in love with an american g.i. indices his dream shattering and when dole is taken prisoner and he's now married to the gia and has two little kids. a six -month-old and a year and a half old. because she is a fundamentally good person and feels she owes them, she goes looking. they are now catching a big show
trial as he had in the 30s to get rid of the perceived enemi enemies. in the 30s it was the trotskyites were the enemies. now it's the hero of yugoslavia who has bolted from the fold. now they have all the soviet satellite and who better than the chief witness against all these people because he's an american so we are now posted by stalin roosevelt brief alliance.
he noticed him from his refugee rescue work. the book starts off with his hotel kidnapping and then flashes back from that. but erica has friends in the communist german party so she goes to berlin and is believed that there is a trap set for her and she is tortured into confessing that she was working for the cia. she has an entirely different experience, so she humanizes prison if that's possible. key difference when he's in
solitary confinement which i think is one of the most brutal forms of punishment. for five years virtually no contact except for the hungarian guards. erica is sent to the northernmost outpost of the gulags and is laying out railroad tracks in the freezing weather that has companions and has about as full a life as you can have in confinement. when the entire family is suddenly free it's not because there is an ounce of kindness and humanity in the kremlin but their interrogators turns up in
and at that moment the state department starts bombarding moscow and warsaw and prague with demands for the release of this american family. the family are released but they do not want to come home because they are afraid of the mccarthyist america. but this is one of the amazing twists in the story. when the ambassador contacted them after they requested asylum saying they fear returning to the u.s., he says quite
reasonably this is not consistent with american citizenship. this came as a total shock to him and believe that he explained it, his loyalty is to the american people, not the contemporary government said he considered himself a loyal dissenter but this would come as a shock, one of many little moments where your jaw drops. >> i am quoting myself, he had the gift of seeing only what each was to see if.
i just want to ask you about this before we go to questions. it's a combination of the villains and the repression of the uprising many people then saw the soviet regime for what it was and they stayed loyal but in 68 before he died spring was repressed and that seemed to have affected him. he didn't renounce communism but he stopped paying his party dues. why do you think after everything that happened why --
>> he spent a lifetime lighting as spies do and must. the only candor ever to come out is contained in this book because i was very fortunate getting a hold of correspondence and the fact is that by 68, the country where he was living the pair were very few people left who still believed he was working in a literary magazine and i interviewed people who were his colleagues and they all
said we were dreaming of our first car into passport to the west and nobody was thinking about revolution anymore so in that kind of environment, i think some of the juice kind of went out of -- i'm mixing metaphors here -- out of his revolutionary tomato. this revolutionary tomato. [laughter] >> it became a very dry fruit by then. but there are many things that are unforgivable and one is that he never acknowledged the faith for which he'd sacrificed everything was in fact as toxic
as the fundamentalism that captures young people today. she never acknowledged he hadn't participated in that movement that had played a role in the assassination. this was a targeted assassination so when you realize this is a young man that started with the great dream he promised his father he would do good things and prevent another world war and he gave his life for one of the most violent of all systems and became its pond but the book is also the story
of a tragic family because his siblings who were quite helpful because the fields for life into the kgb archives were not yet open and they never got the story but now i don't think that this is easy reading for the family but now they know and they never stopped trying from here they never stopped hoping and trying. but the story is triumphant. she restarts her life here and has a spectacularly successful
american life. we should go to questions at this point. >> he was able to get to the soviet union, was any of it really valuable and did they use it in any way? >> the reason the soviets were so interested is because in the 30s, with fascism rising, stalin wanted to have a sense of what if anything washington was preparing to do to fight and he
was well placed in the office of the western european wing of the state department to help along with that. he gave them enough so that the kremlin had the sense that the u.s. wasn't going to be active in the anti-fascist movement and he also gave a lot of information from the u.s. at the naval conference in 1934 i believe, and from there he did a lot of spying. but it's not determined by the quality of the material gets determined by your willingness to betray your country, and in
already answered some of the questions but what really impacts people to do these things like the oxford cambrid cambridge. >> the cambridge spies were a somewhat different species. he wasn't a cynic as they were. they were disenchanted with the british society and i don't think they gave a damn frankly as i could make out about the little guy for the job creation. he actually did come of the tragedy is that he really did start out with the high ideals
and slowly this ideology purely soaked into him so that he was ready to pretty much do anything for the faith in the personality type that is susceptible to the seduction and he was such a personality even without the internet, people like that they are talents spouted by those looking for recruits. yes? >> you did a lot of research, you understand.
but even in the late 30s and early 40s, the soviet union wasn't that close. in the civil war it was work. everybody that wanted to understand what the soviet union was all about. nobody really knew how it worked. >> i think that's the book that really ripped the veil off the cruelty of stalin. but that was already in the 40s. in the 30s, this was before
he was a favorite of the maximum execution. and i compared the show trials that have nothing to do with justice to the beheadings as a propaganda tool meant to spread ever. the image of these absolutely reduced former heroes of the revolution, quaking in their boots confessing to every crime under the sun was pretty repellent and people couldn't believe that these people were innocent because they needed --
it's like crying when a little father died in the biblical father of the people even though people knew he was as dominant a figure for the soviet people as fdr was for americans but only knew one president, fdr. a more general question. >> thank you for asking that and reading my other books as well. this will sound a little bit grandiose but i like to portray
through one character and it was in the book about my parents, enemy of the people. it was life under soviet rule. we don't really understand the era until we feel it otherwise it is dry academics, it's factual and i think through a human story through portraying a character that we can somehow identify with we are more able to understand.
it's a remarkable fact of my parents having been the only journalists to have met him and of course i did hear my parents talk about this strange guy. then i started thinking we've been talking about the parallels between the two areas if they played such a huge role in the chapter in that he wasn't at all known but we did in know in some ways they've probably more damage than he will be appalled
at how he basically destroyed his own family of a band never said sorry. >> do we have time for one more? was the adopted daughter ever bitter about the past her parents took her down? >> eric wasn't a bitter person. she considered herself a very fortunate person and even considered president had given her a tremendous perspective on life. she adored her biological parents and the father unfortunately died during the war but she and her mother were very close.