Travels With a Newspaperman
From Minneapolis to Moscow
University of Minnesota Update, Winter 1981
by William Hoffman
By contrast, today's New York Times is an independent and weighty record of a rather wide range of human activity. It has power sufficient to shape events.
But will the computer chip and the video screen make the newspaper obsolete? "If it happens, you and I won't live to see it," said Harrison Salisbury, a newspaperman. [emphasis added] It is a safe bet that Salisbury wouldn't care to live to see it. He reached for a copy of the day's Times lying at his feet. Placing it in his lap, he drew the top half of the front page toward him and tapped it with the back of his hand.
"The newspaper is a marvelous medium. It is extraordinarily convenient and cheap. Let's see. This one cost 75 cents. Now that's a little high. I bought it when I was downtown this morning. By the way, I understand that now you can have the Times delivered to your door here in the Twin Cities."
If Salisbury seems partial to the Times, it is with just reason. He is a former Times reporter and editor, and is the author of Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and its Times, which was published last year.
Salisbury, 72, is one of the preeminent journalists of the day. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his Cold War reporting from Moscow in the early 1950s, and was later denied another, voted him by a judging committee, because of political pressure. That followed a series of stories he filed from Hanoi in 1966-67, including an interview with North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, challenging the touted success of U.S. bombing. Salisbury had photographs to back up his detailed account.
After serving as Moscow correspondent and top domestic correspondent, Salisbury was named Times national editor in 1962 and later associate editor and editor of the Op-Ed (opposite editorial) page, which he initiated in 1970. He retired from the Times in 1973 after 24 years. He lives in Connecticut.
Salisbury is a recognized expert on Soviet and Chinese affairs. He has written a dozen books, including one on the Russian revolution and two novels. He has been writing virtually non-stop for more than half a century--ever since his first day at school as a University of Minnesota freshman when he walked into the office of the Minnesota Daily.
When the year was out, I joined the Minneapolis Journal part time as a reporter. I didn't attend the University the next year because I needed to earn some money. A year later, when I told the city editor that I was going back to school, he just couldn't understand it. He even offered me a three-dollar-a-week raise--to $21 a week--an enormous blandishment in those days."
Salisbury changed his curriculum from science to liberal arts. He graduated in 1930 with a bachelor's degree in English composition and political science, but not before getting himself kicked out of school in an incident that proved prophetic. The front page of the New York Time, on January 15, 1930, ran the following item: "Harrison Salisbury, Minneapolis, managing editor of the Minnesota Daily, undergraduate publication at the University of Minnesota, was suspended for one year today for smoking in the library in violation of a new rule...."
"I was a fool," said Salisbury, who together with more than 20 Daily staff members and sympathizers gathered in the library lobby to test the smoking ban by lighting up en masses under the watchful eyes of a University official specifically authorized to enforce the new rule. "I could have kicked myself around the block for that. We printed a satirical story about the incident. Word got into some of the newspapers downtown. The administration was very nervous about its pending biennial legislative request and felt it had to act." Salisbury was eventually reinstated and allowed to graduate with his class.
But adverse publicity can have advantages. The local United Press bureau chief got word of Salisbury's ouster and offered him a job. He started in St. Paul, moved to Chicago, Washington, and New York, and in 1943 became bureau manager in London. He was sent to cover the war in Africa later that year, and then was sent to Moscow. From Moscow he traveled to China and India before being recalled to serve as foreign editor in New York.
One of the first things Salisbury did when he arrived in Moscow was to hire a Russian tutor. "I studied the language for several years. Every evening at the Metropole Hotel I laid Pravda out on the table and translated the lead editorial on a yellow pad. One night, I picked up Pravda and read the entire editorial without using the dictionary. I dropped the paper and exclaimed, 'My God I know Russian.' I was ecstatic.
"I wasn't about to settle for Pravda, so I went and got War and Peace and tried to read it, but got nowhere. Then I realized that Pravda is just a bunch of clichÚs and political verbiage and that Tolstoy used all the richness of the language. Of course, now I can read Tolstoy, but I remember at the time I was crushed."
Salisbury had to get accustomed to having his dispatches to the Times censored. "January 1951 was a typical month. I filed 35 stories and only 6 were not censored. Sometimes I would try to write stories in such a way that they would get by the censors but their actual meaning could be understood by the editors.
"Once I sent a story that included agricultural statistics showing productivity growth. I disguised the fact that agricultural productivity had finally reached the levels attained under the czars, and got it by the censors. Then I got a cable from New York saying that what I'd written about the growth of Soviet agricultural production didn't make sense because the same levels were reached under the czars. I wanted to confirm it, but by then the censors were on to me."
Salisbury spent five years in Moscow and covered the death of Stalin in March 1953. During his tenure there, he felt he was in personal danger twice. The first time, several months before Stalin's death, followed a wave of arrests and trials reminiscent of the great purge of the 1930s. By and by, Pravda announced a "doctor's plot," an alleged Zionist conspiracy of four respected doctors, three of them Jewish, against the Soviet state. Thinking that "the boom might fall at any time," Salisbury conferred with the other three American correspondents in Moscow about leaving, "but like good newspapermen, we decided to stay."
The other time Salisbury felt he was in danger was a year later. "We were almost forbidden to travel in the Soviet Union when suddenly the travel barriers were lifted. Naturally I started to travel. I went to eastern Siberia near the Amur River where the concentration camps are located--the slave-labor camps. I took the train to a place called Birobidzhan, the seat of Jewish autonomy in the region. We arrived there in the middle of the night. There were no lights at the station. When I got up to leave the train, more than a dozen police agents got up with me. I didn't know where to go, so I followed them--to the only hotel in town and the worst one I've ever seen. I stayed there two or three days and saw the gangs and the forced labor. I was scared to death the whole time."
"The Russians have an excellent system of higher education. They maintain very high standards. The system is highly structured and competitive. Unlike here, class attendance is expected and students are required to take notes, which they are tested on. What is missing, it seems to me, is the use of knowledge, the practical training.
"I don't know which system is best. They lack problem-solving ability, whereas we institutionalize the application of knowledge. They admire the land-grant system and the interrelationship between agricultural experimentation, the agriculture industry, and the individual farmer--the entire extension concept. They have tried to imitate it, but without much success. It's an edge we have."
Salisbury frequently gives talks to college students and faculty. "I think it's important to travel around in order to get a notion of what's going on, to find out what people are think about. I enjoy talking on campuses most because people are more informed and discussion is generally livelier." Recently, Salisbury occupied the Richard M. Nixon Chair at Whittier College in California, lecturing about what he regards as the single most dangerous threat to world peace--the unstable relations between China and the Soviet Union.
In War Between Russian and China, published in 1969, Salisbury explored the ancient animosity between the two nations and called for U.S.-Chinese rapprochement in order to bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. But President Carter's failures, and the Soviet-Chinese military buildup continues on their common border.
"I visited the Chinese side last year. The Chinese are in a constant state of military readiness. They have all their nuclear weapons in the area, presumably trained on targets across the border. The Russians have amassed a million troops on their side, the Chinese perhaps two million. And the buildup continues." Salisbury conceded that it is a "mystery" how the two countries got along for nearly two decades following the Chinese revolution.
If Carter's foreign policy was a failure, Salisbury has no great expectations of the new administration. But, on the domestic front, neither does he fear that President Reagan will succeed in changing the ideology of the Supreme Court by appointing conservatives to fill court vacancies, a concern of some of Salisbury's colleagues.
Nor does he think the First Amendment is under attack by the courts. "What is more alarming is the public misunderstanding of the First Amendment, the role it plays in a free society and why the press must occupy that role. The First Amendment is in better shape than it was 10 years ago, mainly because of cases like the Pentagon Papers, but too many people don't realize what its purpose is."
Educating people about that purpose is partly the responsibility of professional journalism. That's why journalism students need to understand it and need "a solid background in the liberal arts, in sociology, economics, literature and language, because they won't get it later on."
Currently, Salisbury is at work on several books, including his memoirs. Writing "takes priority" over his many speaking engagements, he said. He's also been writing for the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and other magazines, and he hopes to write more novels. Plainly indifferent to the passage of time, Salisbury is living proof that a writer never really retires. ________________________________________________________________________
And so I am driven by these doglike instincts halfway across the globe and into the remote fastness of Asia to find, perhaps, a few bones of history and to try to snatch from nature's careless fingers a jewel or two.
--Harrison Salisbury's Moscow Journal, September 17, 1953. ________________________________________________________________________