In “Assignment Russia: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War,” Kalb, now 90 years old, effectively transports the reader to a historical period that will soon be lost to living memory. His narrative offers behind-the-scenes glimpses into the functioning of journalism and diplomacy in a three-year period when both were undergoing sea changes.
Despite the title, Kalb does not take up his Russian assignment until Page 221. We spend the first act of the book in New York, where Kalb navigates the legendary world of CBS Radio and gets a crash course in news-writing and old boys’ networking after leaving his PhD program in Russian history at Harvard. The book’s second act is a months-long trip through Europe and East Asia as Kalb tries to answer a question that he thought U.S. diplomats were overlooking: Was the Sino-Soviet alliance weaker than it appeared? The travelogue includes stops in New Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok and Hong Kong and is a fascinating primer on Russian-Chinese power relations.
With his wife, Mady, who had been pursuing a PhD in Soviet studies at Columbia University, Kalb arrives in Moscow in May 1960 to reestablish a CBS News bureau. His predecessor, Daniel Schorr, had been denied readmission to the country two years earlier after the Soviets took umbrage at CBS airing a “Playhouse 90” teleplay titled “The Plot to Kill Stalin.” By 1960, the Soviet government was allowing CBS News to send a new correspondent to be the one-man bureau. Kalb landed in Moscow at a particularly fraught moment in U.S.-Soviet relations, just weeks after Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane crashed in Soviet territory. The site of his first news story as a foreign correspondent is Gorky Park, where the crash detritus is on display as evidence of American duplicity.
The Kalb of the book is so young, earnest and anxious about making good in his new field that every assignment manages to inspire genuine suspense. Will the legendary CBS correspondent Blair Clark like Kalb’s one-minute-and-30-second commentary on Soviet moves in the Middle East, enough to read it on the air? (He will!) Will Kalb’s first book, about his recent time in Moscow working for the U.S. Embassy, be well-reviewed? (It will!) Will Nikita Khrushchev, in Paris for the 1960 four-power summit, take his early-morning walk so that Kalb won’t have dragged a camera crew to the Soviet Embassy at 6 a.m. for no reason? (Of course! The Soviet premier not only takes the walk, he takes it with Kalb and both their entourages in tow, and in a charming anecdote Kalb stops at a boulangerie to buy croissants for the lot of them.)
Indeed, everything works out for Kalb, who — despite some stubbornness — remains a likable narrator. He complains incessantly to the Soviets that he can’t fold his 6-foot-3 frame into the 5-foot-10 bed in his lodgings at the Metropol Hotel. To his glee, his CBS bosses finally save his sleep by shipping his own bed from his in-laws in New Jersey. “CBS airmailed our bed from South Orange to Moscow,” he writes. “That’s right! The bed was airmailed, wrapped like a big holiday gift, including sheets, pillows, and pillowcases, from a small town in New Jersey to the capital of the Soviet Union.”
From the preface, the reader knows to expect a hagiographic treatment of Murrow, as well as an abiding faith in the power of journalism and a romantic view of American democracy. “It was a major, important assignment for me and CBS, and I hoped that I would be able to perform in the Murrow tradition of serious, fearless, and enlightening journalism, so essential for the functioning of American democracy,” Kalb writes.
That faith no doubt captures the feeling that many reporters had in the early 1960s, or at least it captures the nostalgia for that era so common in memory. But given Kalb’s background — in addition to having started in academia, he was founding director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy — there is a bewildering lack of critical distance. Instead, he tends to whitewash U.S. intentions and journalistic norms without much interrogation of the inherent conflicts of interest in foreign policy reporting. For instance, in Kalb’s telling, the Russians saw cultural exchange as “a weapon in the Cold War,” while the Americans “saw it as a way of gently opening each society to the other’s charms and maybe, one day, ending the Cold War.” Perhaps many did, but a gesture toward the more complicated story of Cold War policy and journalism that historians have since told would have added some critical nuance.
Kalb makes the disclaimer in his preface that “memoirs, by definition, are not works of history — no footnotes, no bibliography.” But some of the best memoirs do include detailed endnotes — Katharine Graham’s exquisitely researched “Personal History” comes to mind — and the journalists and scholars to whom “Assignment Russia” will especially appeal would surely appreciate a more thorough accounting of Kalb’s source material. Reading conversations that occurred 60 years ago already requires a leap of faith from readers. Could we not be told whether Kalb discussed these conversations with the sources who are still living? Did he take notes at the time? When did his and Mady’s memories differ?
The book ends in the spring of 1961 with Kalb turning down Murrow’s request to join him at the U.S. Information Agency. Kalb decided to remain in Moscow, his dream assignment, for two more years. And that, he promises, is the subject of the next memoir.
Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War
By Marvin Kalb
Brookings. 337 pp. $24.99