Melvin J. Lasky, 84; Outspoken Anti-Communist
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page B07
The intellectual Cold Warrior and magazine editor Melvin J. Lasky, 84, died of a heart ailment May 19 at his home in Berlin.
Mr. Lasky guided the small but influential London-based magazine Encounter, which published cultural and political analysis by prominent writers for a select audience.
A witty and pugnacious New York native, he drove Encounter's anti-Communist mandate for decades while embracing artistic and political freedoms. He fought those who lent moral equivalency to the Soviet gulag and American racial segregation. His critics enjoyed tweaking him by pointing out a visible irony -- he looked exactly like V.I. Lenin.
Politically charged in college, Mr. Lasky had witnessed the Nazi terror as an Army historian visiting concentration camps. He then settled in post-war Berlin, where he irked American authorities for his outspoken anti-Stalinist line at a sensitive time in U.S.-Soviet relations. He threw criticism back at his Western critics, comparing divided Berlin to a 19th-century frontier town full of Indian-fighters.
He made one distinction: "Here very few people have any guts, and if they do they usually don't know which direction to point their rifle."
In early speeches and writings, he held journalists responsible for maintaining civil freedoms in the face of totalitarian clawing. He likened Soviet-style Communism to Nazism.
He wrote to Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. military governor of Germany, that the Western powers were failing to fight Soviet propaganda that depicted Americans as jazz freaks who liked dumb movies and calendars with naked girls. Simmering below such decadence was the moral hypocrisy of racial segregation and economic inequities, according to the Soviets.
Mr. Lasky argued for a cultural complement to the Marshall Plan "to win the educated and cultural classes -- which, in the long run, provide moral and political leadership in the community."
In 1948, he co-founded Der Monat (The Month), a Berlin-based magazine funded by the Ford Foundation and CIA funds. Mr. Lasky cold-called George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley and got them to contribute articles. The journal featured interviews with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. Mr. Lasky personally chronicled the political upheavals that defined world affairs in the 1950s.
With Soviet influence proliferating in Europe, Mr. Lasky, Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone, among other leading writers, began the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The group sponsored anti-Communist conferences and magazines.
In 1958, Mr. Lasky joined Encounter, which had been started five years earlier by his friend Irving Kristol. The magazine counted among its contributors Nancy Mitford, Albert Camus, George F. Kennan, Isaiah Berlin and Vladimir Nabokov. Once called England's "leading highbrow magazine," Encounter derived its influence not from its circulation -- which peaked at about 40,000 in the 1960s -- but from its high-profile readership.
Viewing Encounter as a forum for vigorous discussion, Mr. Lasky saw neutrality as the worst offense in the ideological struggle between East and West. He was appalled that former European colonies in Africa and Asia seemed to admire American wealth as well as Soviet industrialization techniques.
In the late 1960s, newspapers reported that the CIA had helped financially sustain Encounter -- catnip for Mr. Lasky's opponents. He called Encounter an "unwitting recipient" of the funds. Further, he said, he always fostered editorial independence and open debate about political affairs and subjects ranging from prostitution to the state of the British aristocracy.
Still, several editors resigned, including poet Stephen Spender and the novelist Frank Kermode. Among the writers to flee its pages were Jean-Paul Sartre and Lionel Trilling.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company