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A Journey for Our Times, by Harrison E. Salisbury

Big News

A Journey for our Times.
by Harrison E. Salisbury.
Harper & Row. 546 pp. $22.50.

As long ago as the time of Lincoln Steffens it was obvious that journalists could themselves make good “copy”; all the more so today, when the death of a network anchorman can get more coverage than that of a major public official. So it is not surprising that the New York Times’s Harrison Salisbury, having achieved the category “legendary,” should have published the first volume of his memoirs.

It should be said at the outset that A Journey for Our Times is often engaging, a long work that holds the interest. Salisbury has been places, and he knows how to talk about where he has been. He does not underestimate his own importance—“Arcturus” is the sobriquet he bestows upon himself to characterize the brilliance of his early career—but neither does he overestimate the interest of his life for others.

Born in 1908 to a middle-class Minneapolis family on the downgrade, Salisbury, after a few semesters at the University of Minnesota, embarked on a career with the United Press that was to take him eventually to London during World War II and thence to Moscow, where he headed the New York Times bureau, and attained a reputation as this country’s premier Russian expert. After further adventures reporting from places as diverse as Hanoi and Birmingham, Alabama, Salisbury returned to New York where he served (in the early 70′s) as editor of the Times’s op-ed page before embarking on a productive retirement.

Salisbury’s recollection of his beloved childhood home will resonate for anyone with a similar affection for some place in the past. It is odd, however, that he recalls the house’s mansards (“almost as many . . . as Hawthorne’s house had gables”) when the photograph shows that it had none, or that he remembers his mother’s boisterous playing of the “Warsaw Concerto” (“I grew up thinking it portrayed the Battle of Warsaw”) when Addinsell’s piece was not written until 1942.

Nor are these the only places where memory serves him ill. He remembers that James J. Hill fought E. H. Harriman and Jay Gould to a standstill, although the last of these died a decade before the Hill-Harriman fracas. Even from later years, he remembers some rather surprising things, such as that in 1942 the commanders of the Army Air Corps feared heavy German air attacks on the U.S. coast if the tide were not quickly turned. Well, perhaps they mistakenly believed that the Germans had bombers capable of crossing the Atlantic, even of returning home. And, perhaps most incomprehensibly, he remembers that Douglas MacArthur was the theater commander responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor.

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Salisbury’s days with UP in Chicago coincided with the end of the Golden Age of enterprise in American journalism, and he recounts an instructive tale in this connection. One day the hard-bitten Chicago bureau chief told his reporters he had received a sensational and absolutely reliable tip: Al Capone had decided to rub out Mayor Anton Cermak because the latter, instead of maintaining a benevolent neutrality in the gang war between Capone and his rivals, had been playing footsie with Roger Touhy, leader of the disloyal opposition. The ceremony was planned for some Saturday morning on the steps of Chicago’s city hall, a venue which, Capone believed, would limit damage to innocent bystanders. When the assassins left for city hall, UP would be informed so it could score a sensational scoop. Week after week, Salisbury and his colleagues waited in vain for the good news. Then one day in Miami a man named Giuseppe Zangara inconsiderately and without warning murdered Mayor Cermak in the course of a bungled attempt to kill President-elect Roosevelt.

Four decades later, ruminating on the ethical dilemma facing a reporter in Saigon who photographed the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, Salisbury asks himself whether he and his colleagues ought to have warned Anton Cermak of the fate awaiting him. He concludes mildly, “I think I violated my civic responsibility,” treating the matter rather as if it were a failure to pay a parking ticket. Salisbury does not appear to have asked himself what sort of business it was that turned a young idealist into a ruthless opportunist who considered his professional advancement worth everything, and another man’s life (not to mention certain principles of democratic government) worth nothing.

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Salisbury, whose political development seems to have been arrested at the level of cracker-barrel radicalism (though he professes himself a lifelong Republican), hates what he calls the Bigs: Big Government, Big Labor, Big Spying. Conspicuously absent from his list is Big News. For most of his career, Salisbury worked for large and powerful corporations in the business of selling news, but when he criticizes them it is generally for refusing to use power rather than for abusing it; the possibility of abuse does not seem to occur to him. This is very evident in his treatment of the New York Times. Although he is now very hard on the senior Times editors who refused to print his heavily bowdlerized Moscow dispatches with the telltale slug, “Passed by Soviet censors,” he omitted dealing with this incident in his book Without Fear or Favor (published by Times Books and subtitled “An Uncompromising Look at the New York Times”)—even though the book does discuss certain ethical failures of the paper in the remote past. The possibility that the Times, in the course of becoming rich and powerful, might have done things it ought not to have done, does not appear to interest him very much.

Nor does it occur to him that he himself had any options in the matter. Salisbury’s own characterization of his censored dispatches is devastating—he calls them “automatically biased,” and reports having said at the time that their publication amounted to “a fraud on the American public—a dangerous one under the present conditions and a dismal one under the best of circumstances.” It is certainly true that his readers at the time were denied the sharp reporting of Russia that he provides us today; daily life under Stalin, as now reported by Salisbury, was in some ways more illustrative of the total abuse of power than the more sensational and better-known horrors of the Great Purge. Yet it does not seem to have dawned on him then that he could have put an end to the matter by resigning his Moscow post and returning home and exposing the fraud, or even by merely threatening to resign.

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In spite of all this, the idea that pervades A Journey for Our Times is that the Truth is something beloved of journalists and despised by just about everyone else, especially those in authority. Time and again, as he tells it, Salisbury has gotten into hot water simply by telling the Truth (which turns out to be indistinguishable from his Story). In this connection, it is unfortunate that in this volume Salisbury has not yet worked his way up to the time of his 1966 trip to North Vietnam, which he chronicled in the book In Hanoi: Behind the Lines. That book, remarkable for its gullibility even as compared with the many similar accounts produced by other pilgrims to the North, reported without a trace of skepticism Pham Van Dong’s claim that any postwar attempt by his government to annex South Vietnam would be “stupid” and “criminal.” Salisbury further described, again without a trace of skepticism, the rosy postwar scenario proposed by the NLF delegate in Hanoi, beginning with restored postal service, open borders, and restoration of trade, and culminating (after “quite a few years,” to be sure) in reunification, with all the details to be arranged by negotiation between North and South.

In the present volume, Salisbury’s discussion of the Hanoi trip is limited to the remark that it earned him the wrath of Lyndon Johnson. We can thus await his promised second volume with interest, and not a little anticipation of further selective glimpses into the Truth as perceived by this “legendary” journalist.

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