HERE ARE SPOTS inA Journey for Our Times that should be required reading in journalism schools, to show how much better the profession is today than it was when Harrison Salisbury was coming up. But let's not get too serious about it. Journey is essentially a fine piece of nostalgia, entertaining, a perfect book for summer vacation reading. And in some parts, particularly his recollections of growing up in Minneapolis, Salisbury comes through with a real touch of class.
Since Journey is the life of a newspaperman, naturally it contains the obligatory number of the-story-at- any-cost anecdotes. For example, Salisbury and his United Press colleagues didn't for one moment consider warning Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak that he was marked by an assassin, for that would have deprived them of a scoop. (They were deprived anyway; Cermak wasn't in Chicago when he was shot.) Journey also contains, for Salisbury seems to have the soul of a sailor, quite a few female entanglements--Mary and Charlotte in America and Ellen in England and Olga and Juli in Russia--which we are sometimes told about with intimate slurpiness ("but her burnished image and the silver bell of her laughter would never leave me").
As Salisbury rises through the ranks to become a hotshot war correspondent for United Press and Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, he introduces us to Al Capone, chewing a bottomless supply of Juicy Fruit; Louisianians going berserk as Huey Long lay in state, his face "powdered and rouged like a chorus girl's"; Eddy Gimore of the Associated Press, barricading his teen-age Russian sweetheart behind a wall of groceries until he could, with Wendell Willkie's intercession, whisk her away to America; Ambassador Averell Harriman, drunk, having lost the vodka duel with the Russians; Nikita Khrushchev, dying, apologizing to poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for having once shouted at him: "You don't know what a terrible job it is to be a politician; I had to shout to hold my job"; Anastas Mikoyan, telling pianist Van Cliburn, "You know, I never wanted to be a revolutionary, really. What I wanted to be was a ballet dancer."
Salisbury broke into professional journalism at the age of 18, on the Minneapolis Journal, "the kind of paper," he tells us, "that forbade the use of the word 'blizzard' because it might give people the idea that it got cold in Minnesota." Two years later, having returned to the University of Minnesota and become editor of the student daily, he had the good fortune to be kicked out of school for writing too strong an editorial about the university's anti-smokimg policy. This made him something of a martyr, and since journalism loves its martyrs, he immediately gained what many veteran newsmen lacked in those Depression days--a job. It was with United Press. Shortly thereafter, he wrote a story about the terrible hopelessness of the lower classes in Minneapolis; his ex-employer, the Journal, which didn't like hard-luck stories any better than it liked blizzards, threatened to tear out the UP wires unless Salisbury was fired.
Instead, he was quietly shipped off to the UP's Chicago bureau, where he covered the decline of Al Capone, whose exploitation of Prohibition, he concluded, was simply part of a "cozy conspiracy" that included not only the gangs but also "the government, the police, the businessmen, the banks, the quiet and respectable interests that owned those fine old breweries where the beer was brewed." The radicalism of the upper Midwest was beginning to stir in him. He continued, too, writing about the miseries of the times. And it got to him: his friends coming through Chicago on cattle trains, looking for work; the thousands of migrant workers sitting on the curbs, but whose future was no less hopeless than that of his Uncle Andy, a lawyer, who spent the day at his desk playing solitaire or in the bathroom re-reading Barchester Towers. And his own salary was cut 10 percent, down to $27 a week.
"I lay awake at night, a small coil of fear in my stomach," he writes, "and listened to the 'L,' the trains going south, the trains going north . . . the roar as they came near and the echo fading as they sped away, dragging all of Chicago's dreams . . ." Ah yes, Salisbury did have a musical touch. It's probably those Welsh genes, which he says he hates.
After loitering for a time in FDR's Washington, still blissfully free of the security mania (a simple cardboard press card got you into a White House news conference, and at the State Department reporters needed no credentials at all to wander at will), Salisbury was off to London to begin covering World War II; there he learned just how cruelly stupid our generals could be, especially those in the Eighth Air Force who, simply as a way to seek glamorous publicity, insisted on daylight bombing raids although this "cost the lives of many fine young men and inflicted no really serious damage on Germany's fighting capability." This judgment, however, was not conveyed in the dispatches of our war correspondents.
When Salisbury returned to Russia for The Times after the war, his greatest problem was not simply loneliness but genuine isolation. Sometimes there might be half a dozen Western correspondents in Moscow, but sometimes, as happened through most of 1951 and 1952, he was the only one: one reporter surrounded by a huge prairie of hostility, first at the tag-end of the murderous Stalin era and then in the schizoid era of Khrushchev. Russian officials were generally too terrified to talk to him; the people on the street were extremely wary. In that situation, where does a foreign reporter get hissmaterial? He re-writes Pravda and Izvestiya, or he scournges around at the U.S. embassy with officials who don't know much more than he does. But for the most part, he doesn't get anything anywhere. A good reporter, however, can squeeze something even from that kind of rocky situation, and Salisbury was good.
When Mao Tse-tung came to Moscow to hack out a treaty with Stalin, Salisbury was shut out completely; he never even laid eyes on Mao. "Finally," he writes, "desperate from lack of information, I took to filing stories about the talks anyway. I just made them up." The emphasis is mine, from admiration. Using common sense and intuition, he concocted stories out of whole cloth. Some the Russian censor killed, some he cleared; and in that roundabout way, using the censor as his unwitting seeing-eye dog, Salisbury occasionally blundered into the truth and was able to write some remarkably sound pieces.
That wasn't the only time he used the technique with great results. But such ingenuity did not protect his pieces from, as often as not, getting chewed up in office politics back in New York; sometimes he was considered as a commie dupe.
Okay, now for some of the reflective nuggets from this old war horse. Salisbury says that FDR knew that the signing of the Nazi-Moscow pact in 1939 was inevitable and that if he had leaked this to the press, he could have delayed the war; he thinks Truman and Acheson blew a good chance to win reunification of Germany; he thinks Stalin was poisoned; if the U-2 incident hadn't forced the cancellation of the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit, they "could have laid the basis for an evolving collaboration which by now might have given us two decades" of tolerance. You will observe the foreign correspondent's crafty "could" and "might" in that sentence. As for domestic politics, Salisbury considers Harold Stassen "the outstanding young political figure of his day," who "with a dime's worth of luck and one clear pat from Eisenhower," could have elbowed Richard Nixon aside, whipped John Kennedy in 1960, and made the GOP "the party of Willkie, Vandenberg, Warren, Aiken, Hatfield and Mathias--my kind of Republicanism."
In a way, I'm sorry Salisbury took his journey. I wish he had stayed in Minnesota, at least for this book.
I wanted to know much more about his father, that melancholy fellow with the faraway look who ached to be an artist but instead spent 50 years in a bag factory; and about Salisbury's mother, slightly mad, whose hysterical crying rages, triggered by any trifle, sometimes lasted for days; and about his Uncle Scott, a charming embezzler who "lived on a diet of whiskey, peanuts and cottage cheese, nothing else"; and about that wonderful ghetto, 95 percent Jewish, where Salisbury lived and suffered "a teaspoon of discrimination," and about that magical home at 107 Royalston Avenue, where each principal room was furnished in a different wood and, at the age of 5, Salisbury could, without touching the floor, circumnavigate the library by clambering over a chaotic assortment of furniture and mantels and bookcases; and especially about those upper Middle West political mistrals that whipped up such a strange mixture of orthodoxy and radicalism. Witness Salisbury, a Republican who acknowledged that Huey Long was "essentially, everlastingly right."