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The National Review
April 7, 2003

OBITUARY: Howard Fast, R.I.P

Some years ago the caller identified himself as Howard Fast. We are representatives, he said, you and I, of different faiths, and I would like to dine with you. We did this, and some weeks later he joined the editors for dinner. The friendship did not blossom -- we were indeed apostles of different faiths. I was candid enough to tell him at lunch that if he hadn't left the Communist party I would not have shared dinner with him, inasmuch as the faith I belonged to demurred at social consort with active Communists. He smiled, nodded his head, and told me about when he had resigned.

The famous author of best-selling historical fiction including Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus had been, no less, the managing editor of the Communist Daily Worker. His work for the party was recognized by, among others, Josef Stalin, who awarded him the Stalin International Peace Prize the very year that Stalin died.

Fast's engrossing story was that when Khrushchev gave his famous 20th Congress speech in 1956, renouncing Stalin and his works, a copy of that speech reached the Daily Worker immediately before the CIA got hold of it. It was released to the press, which would give this revolutionary speech, or perhaps better, this counterrevolutionary speech, front-page attention, even as the historians have done. "There was a dispute in the Daily Worker on whether we should publish a report of Khrushchev's speech," Fast said. "The editor complained that if the Worker went with it, the Communist party of America would lose 10 percent of its membership. I corrected him. We'll lose 90 percent, I predicted. "And I was right."

Howard Fast too left the Communist party. But when he died on March 12, the long obituary in the New York Times referred (Paragraph #1) to "the blacklisting of the 1950s," to his proclivity for unpopular causes (Paragraph #4), to the interruption in his writing caused "by the blacklisting he endured in the 1950s, after it became known that he had been a member of the Communist party and then refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee." It was finally (Paragraph #9) noted that he had joined the party in l943 "because of the poverty he experienced as a child growing up in Upper Manhattan," and that he had left it in 1956.

Paragraph #18 recounts that "because of the blacklist," Fast's book Spartacus was turned down by various publishers, but that (Paragraph #19) "the stigma of the blacklist gradually faded after Mr. Fast's repudiation of Communism."

The lesson here is that obituary writers for the New York Times proceed on the cultural assumption that blacklists were undeserved, and that what is worth writing about in the Howard Fast situation isn't what poison Mr. Fast encouraged, during his years of servitude to the criminality of Stalin, but the blacklisting of him. Until, that is, Khrushchev enlightened him that Stalin was a terrible man who brought death to 20 million Russians and decades of servitude to the captive nations, which lived on in captivity because Stalin's reach greatly outlived his own death.

A suitable lead for Howard Fast's obituary might have read, "Howard Fast, best-selling historical novelist, brought on his blacklisting when the public sought to draw attention to his activities as a prominent advocate of Stalin. Mr. Fast went on to write many best-sellers . . ."

If a writer who had been an activist pro-Nazi until ten years after the Nuremberg trials were to die tomorrow, that part of his life would merit some attention, and would get it.

I liked Howard Fast, and hope that he will rest in not entirely untroubled peace.

[William F. Buckley, Jr.]

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