I never worked with or for Harrison Salisbury but I did know him as a legend and then as a friend. As a reporter he had the peculiar talent of very often finding what one could call the power-nerve of an event, by which I mean the spine of power relations which the event cut across. His reportage had a certain weight without portentiousness.
We were first thrown together when he enlisted me in the conferences of Soviet and American writers which were alternately held in both countries through the eighties. Later the same was done with Chinese writers. Harrison thought it vital to entice the Chinese and Russian establishments out of their shells and into contact with the highly suspect West.
He approached the world, I think, with a mind bearing the imprint of his childhood and youth in a Minnesota that in today’s terms would seem hard and deprived, but the experience opened him to the values of other people living difficult lives.
He had some special reasons to believe that the United States, China, and Russia held the future in their hands. Despite the long history of feudal thinking in those cultures, Harrison, I believe, saw a kind of primal relation between them and Americans. They are peasant societies, and from his midwestern sensibility he saw that the American root was planted in the soil; and that hardship and the virtues of endurance, grit, plainness, and hard work were common to all three cultures. One of his central concerns, I think, was that our relative wealth and urbanization had separated us from the poorer world; that too many of us were removed from life’s fundamentals by a factitious non-experience manufactured in Hollywood and New York.
Harrison became an historian, but with the difference that his past was that of investigative journalist. The past for him resembled the story of a crime and his job was first to dig out the facts before he allowed a theory to kick in. For example, one of the great events of the Russian Revolution was the legendary assault on the Czar’s Winter Palace, involving hundreds of Revolutionaries, a battle which for half-a-century was celebrated in paintings, movies, and literature. On investigation, however, he discovered that it was actually a takeover of the building by a handful of men meeting little or no resistance. I asked him where he had found the information to support his revised picture. “It wasn’t all that difficult,” he laughed; “there were half-a-dozen newspapers published at that time and it’s perfectly simple to find them in the library. I figured they must have reported such an important event and of course they had, and from several different political viewpoints, but there was unanimity in the number of people involved, which turned out to be a handful of fellas.”
Fundamentally he was a reporter down to the end, but one with an awesome moral courage. He really knew no favorites when it came to telling the facts. The New York Times, for instance was the institution closest to his heart, yet in his book about the paper, Without Fear or Favor, he directly confronted and challenged its connections with the Government and CIA. Yet he never, I think, turned cynical about the paper. In certain ways it had disappointed him but he could still see its accomplishments, and went on caring about it all his life.
Nor did he ever really despair of the country’s recovery of its direction after the big bamboozle of Reaganism and its suffocating Babbitry. I have to say, though, that observing him in conversations with people whose views I was almost sure he detested, it was impossible to detect his disapproval. If he thought there was information he wanted it whole and he wanted it from the informant’s point of view. There were times when I could have sworn he was some kind of Republican.
Harrison wrote twenty-nine books, an incredible number of articles and news stories, and lectured all over the United States. He should not be understood too quickly. I for one never knew in advance what his take on a new crisis was going to be when I would call him up, as I often did when some unexpected, bewildering turn of events occurred. As hardheaded as Harrison was history was, I think, a poetic construct for him, and he had immense respect for the power of accident in human affairs, of accident, petty vanity, and all the seemingly petty interventions of the ego. Like the novelist he loved gossip, but he knew the difference between it and the dark, underwater stirrings of power. His mind had a magnetic connection to power, and he never underestimated the force of an ideology, but nothing pleased him more than upthrust of the antic spirit snapping back at ideologists on both sides, and wrecking their cherished systems of thought.
Among his books are at least two that are permanent works of history, The New Emperors are about the China of Mao and Deng, and The 900 Days, his reflections on the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II which I believe will stand for a long time as some of the finest war writing in the English language. These books are written with a very hard pen, as hard as fate. The Leningrad book, especially, is a kind of reverential bow before the mystery of Russia’s endurance and the unimaginable sufferings of her peoples. In that book he surrendered to his subject, a siege more terrible and as significant as that of Troy, while at the same time maintaining the reporter’s cool eye for facts.
I happened to be with him during an American-Soviet writers’ conference in Lithuania soon after Gorbachev had taken office. A Russian acquaintance of Harrison’s came up to greet him, and rather loudly thanked him for his Leningrad book. That book had been published everywhere but not in Russia because it mentioned that in the depths of the siege there had been a certain amount of cannibalism, and indeed underground shops were selling human flesh, a horror the Party line forbade mentioning as a slur on the city’s Communist heroism. The book also pointed up Stalin’s gross military blunders, which of course were taboo as well. Several Soviet delegates had glowered at the very mention of the book which, for some stalwarts, had definitely marked Harrison as one of the enemy. But this woman, a siege survivor, persisted in congratulating him on the book’s truthfulness which she correctly took as his tribute to Leningrad’s heroism.
Coming away from this encounter Harrison said that something new must be happening; he thought that some really exciting change of line had come about in Russia, unknown to anyone. And that very evening Gorbachev appeared on television and despite confident predictions that he was going to lambast Reagan with whom he had just finished meeting in Iceland, he congratulated the American President on his constructive ideas. The conference’s Soviet delegates were incredulous, and watched the screen open-mouthed, astonished, aware that a new age was opening for Russia, and Harrison glanced over at me with his barely perceptible pussycat grin.
History for Harrison was a wild horse and he was forever trying to keep from being bucked off. In the early Fifties after the ice had formed in Soviet relations with the West, practically all the foreign correspondents evacuated Moscow, effectively prevented by the censorship from reporting any news at all. Harrison stayed on almost alone and kept sending his dispatches back to the Times, heavily distorted by censorship though they were. Editors still ignorant of the depths of Soviet censorship were beginning to wonder if Harrison might be a Soviet partisan; indeed, for some enthusiastic cold warriors he was an agent. But through a code he had invented he tried to indicate within a story that it had passed censorship and therefore might not be the truth, but some of the Times people were at first too innocent to understand this ploy. Harrison stayed on in Russia trying to open a crack for the truth to show through. Still, even the way the lies were being told was a kind of history which the outside world needed to know about. In any case Moscow was where the story was and that was where he placed himself.
Again, at the height of the Vietnam War he took it as a duty to go to Vietnam and have himself photographed before a bombed-out Vietnamese hospital in order to expose official White House avowals that no hospitals were being targeted or had even been accidentally struck.
Harrison was a famously tough-minded man. But underneath the hard skin was a great love for people and a spirit that refused to give way to defeatism. He might disagree with America’s taste in political leaders, but in his depths he believed in the ultimate wisdom of the American people, particularly in their loyalty to democratic ways. I think it was his passion for democracy that moved him to invent perhaps the most important innovation of the time, the Times Op-Ed page where every kind of view and opinion could be aired.
Tough-minded he was, but he was at the same time a good companion to poets, Russian as well as American. He was a marvelous audience for theater and had sound judgments about plays and players. He had a deep understanding of the power of art over events, the force exerted by images over human behaviour.
Above all perhaps, Harrison Salisbury was a necessary writer. He had the constitution of a camel, the will of a military commander, and the sensuous soul of a poet. On the very day of his mercifully quick death at the age of eighty-five, the review of his last book appeared in the Times. To his final moment he kept talking caringly to the world.