THE one foreign correspondent who, as a figure, has captured the public imagination lately is Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune — the daring young miss of the Korean foxholes. Miss Higgins’s appealing femininity has no doubt had something to do with the conquest: Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post said to her in Korea, “If Racing Form had sent a race horse to cover this war, it wouldn’t be more of an oddity than you are.” But “oddity” aside, Miss Higgins’s dispatches have shown her to be an outstanding reporter, and now she clinches the issue with a book, War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent (Doubleday, $3.00).
After being ordered out of Korea because she was a woman, Miss Higgins made it a “personal crusade” to share the experience of the fighting men as fully as possible, and her story conveys to the reader an exceptionally vivid sense of participation. In some respects, she was worse off than her male colleagues. When covering the Inchon landing, the correspondents returned to the flagship to file their stories. But the Admiral decreed that his warship was no place for a woman at night, with the result that Miss Higgins slept on the flocks or at the front while the newsmen enjoyed Navy accommodations, warm showers, and scrambled eggs.
The Korean war, with its strange geography, fluid combat lines, and disappearing enemy, is probably the first war in which newspaper readers have complained of being confused by too much foxhole coverage and not enough over-all reporting from headquarters — the difficulty was that headquarters had a nasty habit of suddenly becoming foxholes. Miss Higgins’s book does a fine job of pulling together this bewildering campaign into a lucid narrative. It also contains a good deal of information which is probably news to most readers — for instance, that prior to the North Korean attack, supposedly a total surprise, the Reds had been showering leaflets over the border threatening invasion, and had ordered civilians to evacuate the parallel; that MacArthur instituted plans for the daring Inchon landing live days after the UN entered the war; that American officers inexplicably panicked at Suwon and precipitated a shocking, helter-skelter retreat, three days before the enemy appeared.
While War in Korea is mainly a combat story, the author makes some forthright comments on the controversial issues. MacArthur’s “end the war” offensive, she says, was a blunder which, in view of the Intelligence difficulties, was not as heinous as his critics have charged; the General was victimized by the legend of his infallibility. As for his decision to cross the 38th parallel, it had no bearing whatsoever on Chinese intervention. Miss Higgins warns that the new militarism of China has produced a first-class army and that the Korean fighting has proved a crucial point which Americans are reluctant to face: “We can no longer substitute machines for men.” It is “a mockery,” she declares, to suggest that we can stand up to Communism in Europe and Asia with three and a half million soldiers — “Every responsible officer knows that it will be closer to fourteen million if we want to win.” All in all, War in Korea is a book that packs a man-sized punch. Marguerite Higgins, in the fullest sense of the phrase, was there.
Verdict on history
Sumner Welleswas there when Franklin D. Roosevelt made the great diplomatic decisions that have shaped the post-war world, and he feels that some of the recent antiRoosevelt books by gentlemen who most decidedly were not there have put grotesque falsehoods into circulation. By way of rebuttal, Mr. Welles has written Seven Decisions That Shaped History (Harper, $3.00). The following are the arguments that Welles develops: —
1. Roosevelt had a statesmanlike plan, to be announced on Armistice Day, 1937, for rallying the peaceful nations against the drift toward war. It was scotched by Cordell Hull and Chamberlain. 2. Roosevelt’s policy toward the Vichy government played an important role in hastening victory. 3. The late President, who has been accused of “provoking the Japanese attack, was consistently more cautious on the issue of embargoes than most of his military and diplomatic advisers, because of his awareness of isolationist sentiment. 4. On January 25, 1942, Roosevelt overruled Hull’s instructions to Welles to reject the limited declaration of anti-Axis solidarity which was the most Argentina would accept at the Pan-American Conference at Rio. This decision “saved New World Unity.” 5. The grave mistake made in postponing political and territorial settlements until the end of World War II cannot be blamed primarily on Roosevelt; this postponement was urged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Winston Churchill on grounds of “military expediency.” 6. The Far Eastern settlement reached at Yalta was “warranted,” in the light of the military leaders’ (erroneous) estimate that we needed Russia’s help against Japan. That settlement was bound up with Roosevelt’s determination to unify China under Chiang Kaishek, a policy abandoned after his death. 7. Roosevelt made possible the creation of the United Nations before the war’s end.
A book of this kind opens up controversies (including Welles’s feud with Hull) which are going to be fiercely debated for years, and which certainly cannot be debated in a paragraph — all I can proffer is a marginal comment or two. It is my impression that Welles’s book adds relatively few significant facts to the known record. He performs a timely service in pointing up the extent to which isolationist pressure has contributed to the hesitancies of U.S. policy and, as he stresses in the last chapter, is endangering containment of Communism today. He furnishes a useful corrective to those glib postmortems on wartime diplomacy which have ignored the fact that many disastrous decisions were made because the military believed they were necessary to win the war as rapidly as possible, a policy with which the entire nation was warmly in accord. He does not, I believe, bring forward anything which weakens the charge of Roosevelt’s critics that F.D.R. failed to grasp the total unreliability of Stalin’s promises.
Of making many books about Bernard Shaw there has been no end, and some have been nothing so much as illustrations of Durante’s Law, namely that “Everybody wants to get into the act.” Most people, I suspect, feel that by this time they i have heard more than enough about the Sage. But the latest Shavian memoir, Thirty Years with G.B.S. (Dodd, Mead, $3.00), by his secretary, Blanche Patch, is an exceptionally interesting item. Even in the best books about Shaw, and, no less, in Shaw’s writings about himself, it has often been hard to separate the truth from the great Shavian “act.” Shaw himself liked to boast that the public image of G.B.S. was “one of my most successful fictions”; and he guarded it by stage-managing his biographers with a firm hand.
Miss Patch, writing after his death, was under no such constraint; what is more she happens to be a remarkably independent woman, who was never swept away by Shaw’s personality. She gives us a picture of Shaw as seen by a sensible, clear-eyed associate so close to the man himself that reality shuts out the legend.
Miss Patch seems to have been influenced by Shaw at least to the extent of becoming an agreeably crisp and lively writer. Her occasional comments on the plays and on Shaw’s leading ideas show a shrewd and vigorous intellect, but her memoir makes no pretension to being more than “just a modest domestic backcloth” to Shaw’s career. It is certainly the most human close-up of G.B.S. I have encountered — of his working habits, household routine, and many idiosyncrasies.
Between breakfast and lunch, Shaw turned out a daily average of 1500 words, some 40 million all told; and in thirty years his secretary only caught him in one spelling mistake. He wrote his plays in shorthand, using blocks of green-tinted paper that was restful to the eyes. Dialogue he could write at great speed, but he had trouble developing action; he once said he would find it easier to write all of the dialogue of Hamlet than manage the entrance and exit of the Ghost.
Miss Patch’s book is crowded with amusing trivia. At sixty-five, Shaw enthusiastically took up the tango. . . . A young workingman once asked Shaw how to learn to write poetry, and was advised to cultivate the habit of talking in rhyme, such as “Molly, you sinner, where’s my dinner?” . . . Shaw sometimes worried about paying small bills by check for fear of depreciating the value of his autograph. . . . During the war, when the air raid sirens sounded, Shaw would go to the piano and play Italian opera. . . . At meals, he kept the radio turned on so loud that conversation was virtually impossible; the world’s most famous talker was, ordinarily, quite untalkative.
Thirty Years with G.B.S. is notable among Shavian memoirs in that it brings Mrs. Shaw into the foreground. Charlotte Shaw was a woman of wide culture, with a very active interest in life. She was one of the first people to whom T. E. Lawrence showed the original manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and he humbly accepted her suggestions for improvement. A deep friendship developed between Lawrence and Mrs. Shaw — she was the only woman, he said, with whom he felt completely at ease. It was Mrs. Shaw’s fondness for travel which took Shaw around the world. His attitude towards Charlotte, says Miss Patch, was always “tenderness itself”; but otherwise he was quite lacking in human warmth. He was a humanitarian and a reformer not because he loved his fellow man but because he hated poverty and considered error wasteful. Shaw emerges from this memoir as, above all, a man to whom writing was as natural, and as essential, as breathing.
“The divided generation”
“In this book,” writes Stephen Spender in his autobiography, World Within World (Harcourt, Brace, $3.50), “I am mainly concerned with a few themes: love, poetry, the life of literature, childhood, travel; and the development of certain attitudes toward moral problems. All these are related to the background of events from 1928—39.” Born in 1909, Spender belongs to what he calls the “divided generation” of writers, who became deeply involved in the political turmoil of the thirties, a period which it is now fashionable to regard as simply the era of pink delusions. It was that, of course, but it was also — and this is one of Spender’s deeply fell motifs — the era in which frightened conservatives, by playing along with fascism, precipitated the end of a great Liberal phase in history.
Spender, who was living in Germany during the emergence of Hitlerism, quickly grasped its portent and joined the anti-fascist struggle. In 1936 he was invited into the Communist Party, went to Spain as an observer, and there was revolted by the methods of the Communist minority which was fighting to dominate the Republican side. Since then, he has been a prominent spokesman against Communism. But never having surrendered himself, body and soul, to the God that turned out to be Satan, Spender is not today palsied by the sour fanaticism of so many ex-Communists. He does not believe that political man can live by anti-Communism alone; and he tries to define an attitude toward polities based on the pre-eminence, at all times, of the individual conscience.
Side by side with the political chronicle, Spender unfolds, with searching candor, his struggle to understand and harmonize two strains in his make-up: his compelling need for deep friendship with another man, and his seeking for wholeness through the love of woman.
And then, throughout World Within World, there is the world of letters: Auden at Oxford, immensely self-assured and erudite, surrounded by a “cabinet” of emergent artists. Evenings at Virginia Woolf’s. An amusing portrait of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the disheveled, fantastic grande dame whose “Thursdays” brought together the choicest literary lions in London. Ernest Hemingway in Spain, trying hard to behave like a character out of Hemingway. The launching of Horizon, with Cyril Connolly. Fine evaluations of poetry, Auden’s and Eliot’s in particular. Reflections on the role of the artist.
When Spender was a small boy, he planned to write a book which would bear witness to a truth which was then perfectly clear to him but has become difficult to state in middle age. The whole of his autobiography, in effect, seeks to achieve that statement, and it is this: “Everyone is occupied in blindly pursuing his own ends . . . and yet . . . he wants something quite different . . . simply to admit that [what] he presents to his fellow beings [is] all a mask, and beneath the mask there is only the desire to love and be loved just because he is ignorant and miserable, and surrounded by unknowns.”
The big lie
In the immense body of anti-Communist literature, there have been few memorable works of fiction: Darkness at Noon, 1984, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and one or two others. To this select handful, I am inclined to add The Burned Bramble (Doubleday, $3.95), by Manès Sperber, though it is seriously flawed as a novel.
Mr. Sperber — a teacher of psychology who worked for the Communist Party in Germany until 1937 and has fought Communism since — has written a panoramic story of the Red underground in Central Europe in the early thirties. The profusion of characters, the jerky movement from one plot to another, and the continual jumps across the map are, unfortunately, as confusing to the reader as the gyrations of the Party Line. Even so, The Burned Bramble is an impassioned and profound picture of Communist experience in the years before Stalinism had fully shown its face — of the faith and exaltation; the monstrous erasure of human decency and truth; the incredible loyalty and self-sacrifice whose eventual reward was a disillusioned soul, a cheated mind, and a bullet in the neck. “One finds reflected in this book,” says Arthur Koestler, “the swaying and trembling outlines of the most extraordinary adventure of the human spirit since the age of the medieval Church.”
The novel’s central drama, which revolves around Herbert Soennecke, leader of the German Communist Party, is in essence the story of how the Komintern helped to bring about the bloody liquidation by the Nazis of the Reich’s vast Communist network. The Komintern ruled against coöperation with the Social Democrats, in the mistaken belief that they and the Nazis would wear each other out. Soennecke, an “old revolutionary.” questions the Party Line; and after events have proved him right, he and his chief aides are summoned to Moscow to serve as scapegoats for the Party’s error by making a confession of treachery.
Mr. Sperber projects the evil of Stalinism not by the cheap device of making his Communists hateful but by making you aware of the evil done to men and women by a poisonous ideology. His Communists — Germans, Austrians, Yugoslavs; peasants, workers, intellectuals — emerge as human beings, however corrupted by the God they serve. One cannot help feeling sympathy when, for instance, they are taking part in the Austrian workers’ hopeless fight against the Schuschnigg regime. One feels compassion as they are tortured and murdered by Gestapo and police; betrayed by each other; used as expendable puppets by the Party. And because of this sympathy and this compassion, one is able to feel, in the later pages, the crushing impact of the truths which struck the Soenneckes, the Sperbers, and the Koestlers fourteen years ago.
As a distraction from the time’s distemper, we are offered a book billed as “a novel of sheer delight” — Festival (Harper, $3.95) by J. B. Priestley. “Let the misanthropes and wet blankets take warning,” the jacket says menacingly, “Festival . . . will make the world a pleasant place to live in for a very large number of people.” At the risk of appearing a misanthrope and wet, blanket, I must confess that my appetite began to flag, drastically, after getting through half of Priestley’s 600-page helping of Olde English Delight.
I am, if anything, more easily amused than the next man by British comedy characters such as Priestley’s Commodore Tribe, an engaging old adventurer, broke and full of distinction; Major Bulfoss, the Blimpish Tory M.P.; Seth Hull, the rugged publican, mine host at the White Hart; and similar traditional types. But Priestley has taken a humorous little fracas, which might make the world a pleasant place for a few hours — shall the township of Farbridge celebrate the Festival of Britain? — and he has spun it out with stubborn complacency into a bloated epic. At best Priestley is a rather simpleminded humorist, who seems to find it hilarious to parody his betters (a playwright who is obviously Christopher Fry). His hearty brand of good clean British fun has its charm, but in bulk — that is, in Festival — it reminds me of the suet pudding with currants we used to get at school: after it time you don’t notice the currants, you just taste the suet.