Eugene Lyons (July 1, 1898 – January 7, 1985) was an American journalist and writer. A fellow traveler of Communism in his younger years, Lyons became highly critical of the Soviet Union after several years there as a correspondent of United Press International. Lyons also wrote a biography of President Herbert Hoover.
Eugene Lyons was born July 1, 1898, to a Jewish family in the town of Uzlyany, now part of Belarus but then part of the Russian empire. His parents were Nathan Lyons and Minnie Privin. His parents emigrated to the U.S., and he grew up among the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side of New York City.
"I thought myself a 'socialist' almost as soon as I thought at all," Lyons recalled in his memoirs. As a youth he attended a Socialist Sunday School on East Broadway, where he sang socialist hymns such as "The Internationale" and "The Red Flag." He later enrolled as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth section of the Socialist Party of America (SPA).
In 1916, Lyons enrolled in the College of the City of New York before transferring to Columbia University the next year. During his school years he worked as an assistant to an English teacher in an adult education course.
During World War I, Lyons was enlisted in the Students Army Training Corps, an adjunct of the United States Army. With the end of the war in November 1918, Lyons was demobilized and honorably discharged. He later recalled that on the day he removed his uniform, he wrote his very first story, a piece for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the Workers Defense Union, which she organized on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World. Lyons worked for the Workers Defense Union for some time, composing news releases for the Socialist daily newspaper New York Call and other left wing publications. "It was a time of raids on radicals, 'Treat-'em-rough!' hooliganism, and mass deportations," Lyons later recalled.
Lyons then went to work as a reporter for the Erie, Pennsylvania Dispatch-Herald. He also worked briefly for the New York paper Financial America and at writing copy in the publicity departments of two motion picture companies.
In the fall of 1920, with revolution in the wind in Italy and dreaming of becoming the next John Reed, Lyons made his way to Naples bearing credentials of the Federated Press news service and the monthly magazine The Liberator. En route he met another aspiring correspondent bearing identical credentials, Norman H. Matson, and the pair decided to spend the next six months sharing expenses in pursuit of their common goal. Versed in the ongoing case against the Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Lyons made the pilgrimage to Sacco's native village of Torremaggiore, where Sacco's older brother Sabino was mayor. Lyons' Italian experiences were later put to use in his first book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti, published in 1927 by the Communist Party-affiliated International Publishers, in which he argued the case for the pair's innocence.
While in Italy, Lyons was approached by an official of the Soviet Union's new Italian embassy to become a secret courier. The Soviets thought that as an American, he could cross frontiers safely. But before anything came of this, Lyons was arrested by the Italian police as a radical and expelled into France.
In the fall of 1922, Lyons became editor of Soviet Russia Pictorial, the monthly magazine of the Friends of Soviet Russia, an organization closely connected with the then-underground Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Lyons later recalled that "unhesitatingly, I cast my lot with the Communists. I devoted the next five years largely to Soviet activities." After Soviet Russia Pictorial was closed down in 1924, Lyons became a correspondent for the Soviet news agency TASS.
Lyons' work for TASS led to his becoming the United Press (UP) correspondent in Moscow (1928–1934) — instead of reporting from the United States for the Soviet press, now he would write on Soviet events for an American audience. While Lyons never joined the CPUSA, he had close ties and was considered a fellow traveler of the organization. UP thought that Lyons' political background and the close contacts it implied would give him and it an edge over its competition in delivering news from the Soviet Union. Lyons remained the UP's man in Moscow from 1928 until 1934, years which gradually transformed him from a friend of the Soviet state and Communism into a tireless and fierce critic of both.
Lyons was initially supportive of the Soviet regime and found its repressive actions credible. He covered the 1928 Shakhty Trial of mining engineers, regarded by historians today a precursor to the show trials of the late 1930s. Lyons saw that the trial was unfair and that the accused were denied an opportunity to fully defend themselves. But he still believed that they must be guilty of something.
UP's choice of Lyons paid dividends in 1930. On 22 November, he was summoned to the Kremlin for a surprise interview with Joseph Stalin, a move to eliminate rumors circulating in the West about the Soviet leader's demise. Lyons thus became the first Western journalist to interview Stalin, and his report of the encounter represented a major "scoop". Lyons later recounted his meeting with the Soviet leader, a conversation which was conducted in Russian with the occasional help of a translator:
"One cannot live in the shadow of Stalin's legend without coming under its spell. My pulse, I am sure, was high. No sooner, however, had I stepped across the threshold than diffidence and nervousness fell away. Stalin met me at the door and shook hands, smiling. There was a certain shyness in his smile and the handshake was not perfunctory. He was remarkably unlike the scowling, self-important dictator of popular imagination. His every gesture was a rebuke to the thousand little bureaucrats who had inflicted their puny greatness upon me in these Russian years. * * *'Yes, you may,' he said, 'except that I hate to take the bread out of the mouth of the Riga correspondents.'"
'Comrade Stalin,' I began the interview, 'may I quote you to the effect that you have not been assassinated?'
He laughed. At such close range, there was not a trace of the Napoleonic quality one sees in his self-conscious camera or oil portraits. The shaggy mustache, framing a sensual mouth and a smile nearly as full of teeth as Teddy Roosevelt's, gave his swarthy face a friendly, almost benignant look.
Lyons' interview with Stalin ran two hours in duration, joined midway by Commissar of Defense Kliment Voroshilov. Lyons' cable detailing the interview was widely reproduced across America and was hailed by an editorial in the New York Daily News as "the most distinguished piece of reporting of this year, if not the last four or five years."
On the heels of his journalistic coup, Lyons returned to the United States for a brief visit in March 1931, making a lecture tour to 20 Northeastern cities organized by UP. Lyons had already begun to harbor doubts about the violence and repression associated with the Soviet regime and was torn between "looming doubts and waning loyalties." But Lyons found himself engaged to speak mostly before businessmen's luncheon clubs. "Looking into their self-satisfied faces, I could forget my doubts," Lyons later recalled. He delivered a blinkered defense of the revolution to his assembled audiences.
"Had I remained in America permanently I might have evolved a new, if badly scarred and patched, enthusiasm," Lyons wrote in his memoirs. "I might have ended by contributing high-minded lies to The New Masses and slept happily ever after." But Lyons did return to the Soviet Union later that year. He found the GPU imposing ever-increasing terror against recalcitrant peasants, anyone suspected of secretly holding gold or foreign currency, and those accused of economic crimes such as sabotage:
"The newspapers were filled with the same braggadocio and threats. Victories, successes, triumphs, but the plan for spring sowing far behind; three shot for sabotaging the rabbit-breeding plans; enginemen and signalmen shot for counter-revolutionary negligence in connection with a disaster on the Kursk line; eighty-four arrested for forging bread cards. Another internal loan was being oversubscribed — 'voluntary' contributions of a month's wages or two months' wages. Another blast-furnace started in Magnitogorsk. Poincaré-War and agents of imperialism and dastardly kulaks and Left-Right and Right-Left deviators and secret Trotskyists and heil Stalin and 2 + 2 = 5."
His doubts gradually overwhelmed his faith in the revolution.
Lyons was among the earliest writers to criticize New York Times Moscow reporter Walter Duranty for journalistic dishonesty. Writing about Duranty in 1941, Lyons said, "Of all his elliptical writing, perhaps his handling of the famine was the most celebrated. It was the logical extreme of his oft-repeated assertion that 'you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.' Now he made his omelet by referring to the famine as 'undernourishment.'"
Ironically, Lyons himself had played a role in concealing the 1932-33 terror famine in Ukraine when he denounced British journalist Gareth Jones as a liar for his initial reports of the famine. Jones had published the first significant reports of the massive famine in the Manchester Guardian, only to have the veracity of his reporting denounced by Lyons, Duranty, and others in the Moscow press corps. Lyons later self-critically recalled, "throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes — but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials."
Return to America
After his return to the United States early in 1934, Lyons wrote two books about his Moscow years. The first was a rather subdued work entitled Moscow Carrousel, published in 1935. It was followed by a far more outspoken account of events, Assignment in Utopia, published in 1937.
Lyons' writing directly influenced George Orwell. In his seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell borrowed a chapter title from Assignment in Utopia, "Two Plus Two Equals Five." Lyons recalled that this was a common slogan in the USSR during the drive to complete the first Five-Year Plan in just four years; Orwell adapted it as a metaphor for official totalitarian lying.
Following his return from the Soviet Union, Lyons very briefly flirted with Trotskyism. Leon Trotsky himself initially praised Assignment in Utopia but later became quite critical of Lyons as he moved to the political right.
After two books on his Moscow experience and a biography of Stalin, Lyons set to work on a full length study of CPUSA influence on American cultural life during the 1930s, entitled The Red Decade. The book was not popular when published in 1941, however, since soon after it saw print the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany and became an American ally in World War II. The book's fame came only later, during the era of McCarthyism, when its title became a byword for the popular front alliance between Communists and liberals during the 1930s.
During the early 1940s and the Second Red Scare which followed World War II, Lyons was a frequent contributor to the popular press on anti-Communist themes, targeting liberals if Lyons deemed them inadequate in their denunciations of the Soviet regime. In The American Mercury Lyons was critical of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for lending her prestige to a gathering of the American Youth Congress, a front joint organization bringing together Communist and Socialist student groups. In 1947, Lyons attacked former Vice President Henry Wallace as an appeaser of the Soviet dictatorship who refused to face up to the true nature of the regime.
Writing for the American Legion in 1950, Lyons accepted the premise that American government agencies had been infiltrated by Soviet spies. He also lauded the work of the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its work investigating the activities of the CPUSA and exposing Communists in the government employ.
In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, Lyons wrote biographies. He published a widely read biography of former President Herbert Hoover in 1964. In 1966, he published a biography of his first cousin David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA and founder of NBC.
Lyons returned to the topic of Soviet Communism in his final book Workers' Paradise Lost, published in 1967.
Death and legacy
Lyons died on January 7, 1985, in New York City.
- The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: International Publishers, 1927.
- Modern Moscow. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1935.
- Moscow Carrousel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1935.
- Assignment in Utopia. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937.
- Stalin, Czar of all the Russias. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1940.
- The Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941.
- Our Unknown Ex-President: A Portrait of Herbert Hoover. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948.
- Our Secret Allies: The Peoples of Russia. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.
- Herbert Hoover: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday,1964.
- David Sarnoff: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
- Workers’ Paradise Lost: Fifty Years of Soviet Communism: A Balance Sheet. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967.
- Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937; pg. 8.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 9.
- Lyons notes that the Workers Defense Union had its offices in the building of the Rand School of Social Science in New York City. Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 10. For an advertisement touting the Workers Defense Union, see back cover of Dance of the Ten Thousand," New York: Rand School of Social Science, December 3, 1918.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 10.
- "Moscow Scoop," Time, December 8, 1930
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 12.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 21.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 24.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 25-27.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 34.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 37.
- The original typescript of Lyons' cable containing his interview with Stalin — signed off by Stalin as "in general, more or less correct" — may be seen in the Eugene Lyon Papers at the University of Oregon.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 384-385.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 387, 390.
- Cited in Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 391.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 397, 400.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 398-399.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 414-415.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pp. 415-416.
- Lyons, Assignment in Utopia, pg. 575.
- Review of Assignment in Utopia in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell
- Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), pg. 149.
- Leon Trotsky, "Twenty Years of Stalinist Degeneration," 1938.
- Leon Trotsky: 1942: In Defense of Marxism Chapter IV
- Eugene Lyons, "Mrs. Roosevelt's Youth Congress," The American Mercury, vol. 49 (April 1940), pp. 481-484.
- Eugene Lyons, "Wallace and the Communists," The American Mercury, vol. 65, pp. 133-140.
- Eugene Lyons, "Who's Hysterical?" American Legion Magazine, vol. 48 (March 1950), pg. 20.
- Eugene Lyons, "The Men the Commies Hate Most," American Legion Magazine, vol. 49 (October 1950), pp. 14-15.
- Moscow Carrousel in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Review by George Orwell of Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons in New English Weekly, 9 June 1938, garethjones.org