Truth and Consequences
Orwell: The War Commentaries, edited by W.J. West, New York: Pantheon Books, 253 pages, $18.95
George Orwell is a particular favorite of neoconservatives. The Committee for the Free World publishes paperbacks through its Orwell Press. Thus it is fitting that a new collection of the famed Briton's World War II commentaries for the BBC raise the issue of a journalist's subordination to his government. Neoconservatives have been among the toughest critics of actions by the press that they believe ill-served the national interest.
Orwell's 1941–43 weekly war analyses, helpfully annotated in this volume by editor W.J. West, were broadcast to Indian audiences. For much of the span, they were delivered, deceptively, by Indians. Great Britain was greatly worried that the jewel in its colonial crown would be plucked by the Axis powers. The Nazis, too, were blaring propaganda, attempting to foment rebellion that might aid the Japanese, who were already at work on neighboring Burma. India was ripe for strife at the time—Mahatma Gandhi and much of his Congress Party leadership had been jailed. Loss of the raj could devastate the Allies.
So the stakes were high. The crucible of hot war probably forged for a reporter an even more difficult choice than confronts the press today as it records a (usually) cold war. Now as then, however, concern about facts—and in a broader sense, truth—is felt in the face of a massive disinformation campaign by a tyrannical adversary. How much should be told, and how should it be told, when the consequences for affairs of state could be grave?
George Orwell's choice during this period was to shade the truth. To voice the early setbacks of the war in a consistently upbeat tone. To reassure independence-minded Indians, whom he privately favored, of their interest in maintaining the empire. To paint the Soviet Union, which he had grown to detest during the Spanish Civil War, in a broadly favorable light.
The last of these adds irony to the neoconservative affair with Orwell. For among this small but influential camp, posted in New York and Washington, are the bitterest foes of Soviet communism today. It is they who consistently remind us of Moscow's never-changing aims and deride those who, in doubting the nature of the beast, have given it comfort.
Here, then, are selections of what George Orwell the BBC propagandist had to say:
• "Great Britain and Soviet Russia have reached complete agreement as to their peace aims, which guarantee to every nation both access to materials necessary for life, and the right to live under the form of government which it chooses for itself." (Jan. 10, 1942)
• Stalin's "speech was notable for its lack of vindictiveness and for the wise and large-minded way in which it distinguished between the German people and their rulers." (Feb. 28, 1942)
• "Sir Stafford Cripps [who was to be Churchill's ambassador to Moscow] about seven years ago became dissatisfied with the too cautious policy of the Labour Party and founded the Socialist League.…Its main objectives were to form a Popular Front government of the same type as then existed in France and Spain, and to bring Great Britain and the other peace-loving nations into closer association with Soviet Russia.…He has brought home to the ordinary people in Britain the enormous effort which their Russian allies are making, and the necessity of supporting them by every means in our power." (March 14, 1942)
• "…the mass of the Bulgarian people, who are very pro-Russian in their sympathies and indeed almost regard themselves as Russian." (March 28, 1942)
• May Day thoughts were directed "to the allies of Russia, active or potential, the proletariat of all lands, European patriots, oppressed brother Slavs, and the workers of Germany." (May 2, 1942)
• The Anglo-Russian Treaty "means that the two regimes are now in far greater political and economic agreement than would have been possible or even thinkable five years ago. It means, in fact, that the ancient ghost of Bolshevism and 'bloody revolution' has been laid [to rest] forever." (June 13, 1942)
• In the Ukraine, "the Germans intend to plunder these territories for their own advantage, without regard to the interests of the inhabitants, and…intend to break up the collective farms which the Russian peasants had built for themselves." (Nov. 7, 1942)
Orwell also sought to portray, indirectly as his situation required, the Soviets as benefactors of the Indian nationalists. In fact, as West observes, Stalin seemed content to let the Congress leaders remain in prison but had insisted that members of the Indian Communist Party be set free.
Now, of course, we must consider the context. "Russia" was tying down the invading Germans in grueling fighting at a time when the United States was only beginning to be involved overtly in the war and Britain was regaining its strength after a lonely burrow beneath Hitler's bombs. The Soviets were due no illusions—indeed, London had mulled a war strike against them in early 1940, while they tried a pact with Hitler—but once the Eastern front opened up, it was considered vital to the Allied cause. London's Ministry of Information, to which Orwell answered, was full of Soviet sympathizers and had issued a directive on how to treat Stalin's regime that was a good deal more craven than anything Orwell put on the air.
And yet…a critical part of the world was given (along with most everyone else) a false portrayal of a nascent evil empire. How big a role this played in the survival of the Soviet Union and, even more arguable, in its emergence as a threat to human freedom, one cannot say. (Interestingly, India is today the free world's greatest illusionist with regard to the Soviets.) Shouldn't honest men have said honest things about the parties at war, even when the imperatives of foreign policy suggested otherwise?
Most informed opinion, indeed most neoconservatives, hold that the Soviet alliance was a necessary bargain with a devil in order to defeat a more pressing and pernicious demon. Probably so, to some extent. But Orwell himself pointed to a militating factor in a February 1943 reference to broadcasts by Joseph Goebbels as the tide of the war was turning. Goebbels was warning of the risk of a communist onslaught through Europe—what Orwell called "the Bolshevik bogey"—"to appeal to those sections in Britain and America who [were] frightened of seeing Soviet Russia become too powerful and might be willing to consider a compromise peace."
Again, the consensus has discounted the idea that Nazi Germany (or imperial Japan) could have been brought to heel through something short of unconditional surrender, with their generals still in command. What's more, the growing awareness of atrocities and the characteristic American need to see enemies and battles in black-and-white terms may have prevented such a course. But it can hardly be denied that the terms of the war's end benefited the Soviets and that the coloration given the wartime ally in Britain and the United States widened the democracies' tolerance for postwar Soviet expansionism.
Editor West notes at several points where the propaganda excesses of both sides gave inspiration to Orwell for his masterful Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps by the late 1940s when he completed that work he appreciated even more fully the relationship of truth to totalitarianism.
Tim W. Ferguson is editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Truth and Consequences".