Friday, August 07, 2015

Gun Lies

August 5, 2015

My town, New York City, enforces rigid gun laws. Police refused to assign me a gun permit. The law doesn’t even let me hold a fake gun on TV to demonstrate something.
But New York politicians are so eager to vilify gun ownership that they granted an exception to the anti-gun group States United to Prevent Gun Violence. New York allowed States United to set up a fake gun store, where cameras filmed potential gun customers being spoofed by an actor pretending to be a gun-seller.
“This a nine-millimeter semi-automatic. It’s a very handy gun. It’s easy to use,” he says. “You can carry it in a purse like that gal from Wal-Mart. Her two-year-old son reaches into her pocketbook, pulls it out, shoots her. Dead, gone, no Mom!”
States United then made that footage into an anti-gun public service announcement. “Over 60 percent of Americans think owning a gun will make them safer. In fact, owning a gun increases the risk of homicide, suicide and unintentional death,” says the video.
It’s a powerful message. But it’s a lie, says John Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center. He says that gun control advocates lie all the time.
Lott acknowledges the tragedies. Sometimes a gun in the home is used in a homicide or suicide, or leads to accidental death, but he adds, “It also makes it easier for people to defend themselves — women and the elderly in particular.”
Lott says, “Every place in the world that’s tried to ban guns … has seen big increases in murder rates. You’d think at least one time, some place, when they banned guns, murder rates would go down. But that hasn’t been the case.”
I pushed back: what about people harming themselves?
“There are lots of different ways for people to commit suicide,” Lott said, and researchers have looked at how those tragedies are affected by access to guns. “We find that people commit suicide in other ways if they don’t have guns.”
What about accidents? Lott replies that accidental shooting deaths are relatively rare: “about 500 a year.” That sounds bad, but about 400 Americans are killed by overdosing on acetaminophen each year (most of them suicides), and almost as many Americans drown in swimming pools.
“It would be nice if it was zero (but) consider that 120 million Americans own guns,” Lott says.
Often those guns are used to prevent crime. The homeowner pulls out the gun and the attacker flees. No one knows how often this happens because these prevented crimes don’t become news and don’t get reported to the government, but an estimate from the Violence Policy Center suggests crimes may be prevented by guns tens of thousands of times per year.
Add politics to the mix and the anti-gun statistics get even more misleading. Gang members in their late teens or early adulthood killing each other get called “children.” Fights between gangs near schools get called school “mass shootings.”
The number of mass shootings in America has been roughly level over the past 40 years, but the New York Times still runs headlines like, “FBI Confirms a Sharp Rise in Mass Shootings Since 2000.” That headline is absolutely true, but only because they deceitfully picked the year 2000 as their start point, and that was a year with unusually few mass shootings. It’s as if the paper wants to make it seem as if mass shootings are always on the rise, even as crime keeps going down.
It all helps stoke paranoia about guns. Some people respond by calling for more controls. Others, fearing the government may ban gun sales, respond by buying more weapons. The number of people holding permits to carry concealed weapons has skyrocketed to 12.8 million, up from 4.6 million just before President Obama took office. Since 40 percent of American households now own guns, anyone who wants to take them away will have a fight on his hands.
Has the increased gun ownership and carrying of guns led to more violence? Not at all. “Violent crime across the board has plummeted,” says Lott. “In 1991, the murder rate was about 9.8 (people) per 100,000. (Now) it’s down to about 4.2.”
I can’t convince my friends in New York City, but it’s just a fact: More guns — less crime.

Just who is helping Iran’s hard-liners?

By Charles Krauthammer
August 6, 2015

President Obama speaks at American University. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that the American public rejects the president’s Iran deal by more than 2 to 1. This is astonishing. The public generally gives the president deference on major treaties. Just a few weeks ago, a majority supported the deal.
What happened? People learned what’s in it.
And don’t be fooled by polls that present, as fact, the administration’s position in the very question . The Post/ABC poll assures the respondent that, for example, “international inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement economic sanctions would be imposed again. Do you support or oppose this agreement?”
Well, if you put it that way, sure. But it is precisely because these claims are so tendentious and misleading that public — and congressional — opinion is turning.
Inspections? Everyone now knows that “anytime, anywhere” — indispensable for a clandestine program in a country twice the size of Texas with a long history of hiding and cheating — has been changed to “You’ve got 24 days and then we’re coming in for a surprise visit.” New York restaurants, observed Jackie Mason, get more intrusive inspections than the Iranian nuclear program.
Snapback sanctions? Everyone knows that once the international sanctions are lifted, they are never coming back. Moreover, consider the illogic of President Obama’s argument. The theme of his American University speech Wednesday was that the only alternative to what he brought back from Vienna is war because sanctions — even the more severe sanctions that Congress has been demanding — will never deter the Iranians. But if sanctions don’t work, how can you argue that the Iranians will now be deterred from cheating by the threat of . . . sanctions? Snapback sanctions, mind you, that will inevitably be weaker and more loophole-ridden than the existing ones.
And then came news of the secret side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. These concern past nuclear activity and inspections of the Parchin military facility where Iran is suspected of having tested nuclear detonation devices.
We don’t know what’s in these side deals. And we will never know, says the administration. It’s “standard practice,” you see, for such IAEA agreements to remain secret.
Well, this treaty is not standard practice. It’s the most important treaty of our time. Yet, Congress is asked to ratify this “historic diplomatic breakthrough” (Obama) while being denied access to the heart of the inspection regime.
Congress doesn’t know what’s in these side agreements, but Iran does. And just this past Monday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to the supreme leader, declared that “entry into our military sites is absolutely forbidden.”
One secret side deal could even allow Iran to provide its own soil samples (!) from Parchin. And now satellite imagery shows Iran bulldozing and sanitizing Parchin as we speak. The verification regime has turned comic.
This tragicomedy is now in the hands of Congress or, more accurately, of congressional Democrats. It is only because so many Democrats are defecting that Obama gave the AU speech in the first place. And why he tried so mightily to turn the argument into a partisan issue — those warmongering Republicans attacking a president offering peace in our time. Obama stooped low, accusing the Republican caucus of making “common cause” with the Iranian “hard-liners” who shout “Death to America.”
Forget the gutter ad hominem. This is delusional. Does Obama really believe the Death-to-America hard-liners are some kind of KKK fringe? They are the government, for God’s sake — the entire state apparatus of the Islamic Republic from the Revolutionary Guards to the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who for decades have propagated, encouraged and applauded those very same “Death to America” chants.
Common cause with the Iranian hard-liners? Who more than Obama? For years, they conduct a rogue nuclear weapons program in defiance of multiple Security Council declarations of its illegality backed by sanctions and embargoes. Obama rewards them with a treaty that legitimates their entire nuclear program, lifts the embargo on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles and revives an economy — described by Iran’s president as headed back to “the Stone Age” under sanctions — with an injection of up to $150 billion in unfrozen assets, permission for the unlimited selling of oil and full access to the international financial system.
With this agreement, this repressive, intolerant, aggressive, supremely anti-American regime — the chief exporter of terror in the world — is stronger and more entrenched than it has ever been.
Common cause, indeed.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Is There Any Hope for Stopping Mexico’s Violent Drug Cartels?

August 5, 2015

Alejandro Acosta / Reuters, file
A soldier guards boilers at an outdoor clandestine methamphetamine laboratory discovered in Chiquilistlan, Mexico, on December 7, 2012.

Don Winslow, novelist and conscientious objector to America’s longest “war,” was skeptical when he was in Washington on a recent Sunday morning. This was shortly after news broke about the escape, from one of Mexico’s “maximum security” prisons, of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Guzman reportedly escaped through a five-foot-tall tunnel almost a mile long and built solely for his escape. Asked about this, Winslow, his fork poised over an omelet, dryly said he thinks Guzman might actually have driven away from the prison’s front gate in a Lincoln Town Car. What might seem like cynicism could be Winslow’s realism. Fourteen years ago, Guzman escaped from another “maximum security” prison simply by hiding in a laundry cart. With exquisite understatement, the Wall Street Journal reports that his recent escape raised “new concerns about corruption in Mexican law enforcement.”

Winslow, 61, was in Washington to publicize his 16th crime novel, The Cartel, a sequel to The Power of the Dog (2005). Both are about Guzman and other heads of the Sinaloa and rival cartels. The novels are, together, 1,200 pages of gripping narrative, mind-numbing carnage, and mind-opening reportage about the “war on drugs” that is in its fifth decade. Since President Nixon declared the war, the quality of drugs reaching American streets has risen and prices have fallen.
Since President Nixon declared the waron drugs, the quality of drugs reaching American streets has risen and prices have fallen.
More Mexicans have died in drug-related violence — 100,000 in ten years; over all, many more than twice the number of American fatalities in Vietnam. Winslow believes that the Islamic State is mimicking the cartels’ “vocabulary of mutilation” to create its charisma of cruelty — Internet videos of beheadings, dismemberments, crucifixions, flayings, immolations, etc. The Cartel is dedicated to 131 journalists, all named, who, because of their reporting on drug violence, are known to have died or vanished. “There were others,” he says. And there probably will be more.

Many of Winslow’s lurid passages — all, he says, “inspired by actual events” — are essentially confirmed in Roberto Saviano’s ZeroZeroZero, a non-fiction book on the world cocaine trade, written by the Italian journalist who has had police protection since he first published in 2006 Gomorrah, a report on a Neapolitan branch of the Sicilian Mafia. Saviano, a somewhat overwrought writer, understands the power of economics: One-thousand euros invested in Apple stock in January 2012 would have been worth 1,670 euros twelve months later. But 1,000 euros invested in cocaine in Colombia could have been sold for 182,000 euros in Europe, assuming — a reasonable bet — you could get it past law enforcement.

Mexico is a casualty of a U.S. drug-enforcement success. In the 1980s, the South Florida Task Force produced the “balloon effect” — squeeze a balloon in one spot, it bulges in another. The Task Force deflected sea-borne cocaine imports to Mexico. Hence today’s northward flow of drugs, southward flow of money, and drenching flow of Mexican blood as the cartels war with one another and with Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments.

Some U.S. emergency-room physicians are, Winslow says, glad that Mexicans, using precursor drugs from China, have taken over most manufacturing of methamphetamines because this has “standardized the product,” making it easier for physicians to standardize treatment protocols.

In both novels, Winslow relentlessly but not unreasonably compares the war on drugs to the war in Vietnam — American “advisers,” “the dull bass whop-whop-whop of helicopter rotors,” defoliants, assassinations, intelligence failures, and futility. A man of the Left, Winslow has scant sympathy for U.S. foreign-policy problems in Central America during the Cold War, when, he says, arming anti-Communists became entangled with the drug trade. He favors drug legalization because interdiction “is a broom sweeping back the ocean” and because legalization would financially cripple the cartels. But less bloodshed in Mexico would mean more social regression in America: Today’s levels of addiction are nowhere near the levels that probably would be reached under legalization, even without assuming the marketing measures that probably would be legal. So read his novels as didactic entertainment — you will be vastly entertained while learning many disturbing things — not as policy prescriptions.

Winslow now lives in Southern California not far from the border. When he decided to become a writer he moved to Idaho, where his sister was mayor of the town of Hope. He settled in a nearby area known as — really — Beyond Hope, a good place to begin his path to The Cartel.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post


A farewell and tribute to one of the leading chroniclers of the horrors of Soviet communism.

August 6, 2015

Historian Robert Conquest, left, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005 in Washington. PHOTO: EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Robert Conquest (1917-2015) was a great intellectual, historian, and moral conscience. For the denizens of what used to be the Soviet Bloc, Robert Conquest’s name is truly legendary. I remember my own first experience with Conquest’s masterpiece The Great Terror.  It was in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, in the mid 1970s, when I got it from a famous dissident’s wife as a personal gift. He had decided to remain in France and urged his wife to offer his books to a few friends and acquaintances. I was lucky to be counted among them. I read it in a few days (and nights). It was a truly transformative experience, as devastatingly illuminating as having read Arthur KoestlerDarkness at Noon, George Orwell’s 1984 or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
As a matter of fact, I had first heard of Robert Conquest’s path-breaking analyses of Stalinism from Radio Free Europe, during the unforgettable broadcasts by democratic intellectuals Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca. It was, however, an extraordinary, utterly disturbing, and unforgettable moment to read that encyclopedia of communist destructiveness that Conquest managed to compose in spite of Soviet archives being inaccessible, witnesses hard to interview, and all the other obstacles created by the re-Stalinization of the Soviet Union after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964. It was a genuine historical monument, superbly documented, an example of the best scholarship inspired by genuine empathy for the victims. Brought up in a family of former Spanish Civil War veterans who had spent the war years in the USSR, I thought I knew a lot about the magnitude of Stalin’s reign of terror. I was wrong: Conquest’s book made me understand the intrinsic criminality of the regime, its irresistible nihilistic logic, the diabolical drive to continuously homogenize society and eliminate whatever smacked of otherness, all the “objective” and “subjective” “enemies of the people.”  
If I were to name the books I still consider unsurpassed in terms of analytical, explanatory and interpretive power dealing with Stalinism, I would count The Great Terror together with contributions by Robert C. Tucker, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia, Leonard Shapiro, Boris Souvarine, Alain Besançon, and Adam Ulam. No wonder that the revisionist school targeted some of these authors (especially Conquest, Malia, and Pipes) as the main proponents of a liberal anti-communist, allegedly Cold War-driven intellectual paradigm.  It was quite normal for the self-styled anti-anti-communists of the Brezhnev era to dislike those who saw the system as essentially criminal and questioned the applicability of concepts such as social mobility in examining intra-elite massacres. This makes Stephen Cohen’s presence in this volume all the more remarkable.
It is therefore an imperative to pay tribute to such an intellectual giant. Several years ago, distinguished sociologist Paul Hollander succeeded in putting together a well-deserved, refreshingly diverse, non-encomiastic, and utterly honest festschrift for Robert Conquest (Paul Hollander, ed. Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation , New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).  Born in 1917, a poet, political thinker, diplomat, historian, a real polymath, Conquest has built an enduring oeuvre that has influenced generations of students of Soviet, Marxist and general revolutionary affairs. Martin Amis’ book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Hyperion, 2002) starts with the following quotation from Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine:  “We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word , but every letter in this book.” And Amis adds wryly: “That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long.”   
Political Violence is much more than the traditional anthology of solemn, frequently hackneyed paeans to a great scholar. It is in fact an excellent collection of penetrating studies on the very concepts that did underlie Conquest’s lifelong endeavor: the centrality of violence in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology; the links between utopia, violence, ideology, and terror; the limits and relevance of comparisons between the Nazi and the Soviet totalitarian experiments. As Conquest put it himself in a seminal essay on history as a battleground:
“The huge catastrophes of our era have been inflicted by human beings driven by certain thoughts. And so history’s essential questions must be: How do we account for what has been called the ‘ideological frenzy’ of the twentieth century?  How did these mental aberrations gain a purchase?  What was the sort and condition of people affected?  Who were the Typhoid Marys who spread the infection?” (Reflections on a Ravaged Century , New York: Norton, 2000, p. 3) 
Hollander’s introduction offers a valuable set of keys for interpreting Conquest’s uniquely rich and multifaceted contributions. Having written himself outstanding studies on the self-hypnotization of radical intellectuals (and not only) during what Arendt once called “the ideological storms of the twentieth century,” Hollander accurately highlights Conquest’s role as a proponent of ethical normalcy. Bukharin’s biographer Stephen Cohen (an admirer of Conquest’s work in spite of many divergences) focuses on the post-Stalin returnees, people who survived the Gulag and experienced the difficulties of adjusting to a society that seemed reluctant to confront its traumatic past. Particularly revealing are Cohen’s references to Nikita Khrushchev’s reliance on several Old Bolsheviks, former Gulag detainees, in unleashing and intensifying anti-Stalin campaigns. Building upon Conquest’s Kremlinological work, Mark Kramer explores the succession struggles and the intra-elite rivalries. He provides a fascinating aperçu of Lavrenty Beria’s tenebrous machinations in the aftermath of Stalin’s death and the fierce rivalries that culminated in Beria’s downfall and execution. Kramer’s analysis, based on archival materials, fully confirms Conquest’s prescient examination of elite infighting in the USSR in his book Power and Policy in the USSR (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961).
Norman Naimark provides an insightfully provocative examination of the genocidal implications of Stalin’s policies against the peasantry and certain ethnic groups. At a recent workshop at Yale, organized by historian Timothy Snyder, professor Naimark presented his views and reiterated the conclusion of the text included in this volume:
“In the final analysis, both totalitarian states – Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia – were perpetrators of genocide, the “crime of crimes”. In spite of the fall of the Soviet Union and the attendant greater access to information, we know much more about the Nazi atrocities than we do about the Soviet ones, and about those who initiated, organized, and carried them out. The crucial issue of intentionality and criminal culpability in the Soviet case can only be settled definitively with full access to Russian archives and to those responsible, who still survive.” (p. 47). 
University of Toronto’s Russian historian Lynne Viola, once a major exponent of the revisionist direction, author more recently of an impressive book titled The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), spelled out her reservations regarding the usefulness of  Naimark’s approach, especially in the light of possible tendentious manipulations.
Let me say that I encountered similar apprehensive reactions after the Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romanian (which I chaired) was issued in 2006, a document that described Romanian Stalinism as a genocidal regime. Having read most of the recent additions to the endless debates on the Stalin question, I am convinced that none of the main hypotheses put forward by Robert Conquest in his major writings has been contradicted by the newly opened archives. On the contrary, even former revisionists admit today Stalin’s crucially decisive role in unleashing, supervising, orienting, and finally halting the Great Terror. It was not institutional anarchy that led to the millions of deaths, but rather the structure of intentionality associated with Stalin’s vision of a perfectly unified society and the need to cleanse it of any potentially seditious “vermin.”
From Lenin to Mao and Guevara, the apostles of utopian collectivism were possessed by revolutionary hubris. Leszek Kolakowski is therefore right: communist nihilism is related to Dostoyevski’s demons’ contempt for individual rights and their reckless exaltation of the cathartic virtues of violence. In his writings on the ravaged 20th century, Conquest highlighted precisely this enduring attraction of rebellious intellectuals to a closed universe of empirically non-demonstrable yet compellingly contagious certainties. Let me say that at a time when many were ready to close their eyes and endorse, implicitly or explicitly, the self-serving Leninist narratives about the ultimate goal somehow justifying the appalling methods used to attain it (the proverbial need to break eggs in order to make the revolutionary omelet), Robert Conquest defended the honor of Sovietology. For him, there was no doubt that millions, not only “hundred of thousands” perished in the vortex of the terrorist universe. He never doubted the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the ultimate horror of a horrific age, but insisted on the monstrously murderous features of Bolshevism in its various incarnations.
For Conquest, evil is not a category scholars should avoid if they wish to fathom the age of ideologically-generated cataclysms. May he rest in peace, he deserves all our gratitude and admiration.
Let me finish this article with Robert Conquest's poem "George Orwell", published in 1969:
Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.
Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.
We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
–And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.
He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious, cunning virtue,
You share with just the few who don’t desert you,
A dozen writers, half-a dozen friends.
A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.
While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
–Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

Planned Parenthood and the barbarity of America

By George F. Will
July 31, 2015

An antiabortion protester in front of the Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri on July 28. (Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune via Associated Press)

Executives of Planned Parenthood’s federally subsidized meat markets — your tax dollars at work — lack the courage of their convictions. They should drop the pretense of conducting a complex moral calculus about the organs they harvest from the babies they kill.
First came the video showing a salad-nibbling, wine-sipping Planned Parenthood official explaining how “I’m going to basically crush below, I’m going to crush above” whatever organ (“heart, lung, liver”) is being harvested. Then the president of a Planned Parenthood chapter explained the happy side of harvesting: “For a lot of the women participating in the fetal tissue donation program, they’re having a procedure that may be a very difficult decision for them and this is a way for them to feel that something positive is coming from . . . a very difficult time.”
“Having a procedure” — stopping the beating of a human heart — can indeed be a difficult decision for the woman involved. But it never is difficult for Planned Parenthood’s abortionists administering the “procedure.” The abortion industry’s premise is: At no point in the gestation of a human infant does this living being have a trace of personhood that must be respected. Never does it have a moral standing superior to a tumor or a hamburger in the mother’s stomach.
In 1973, the Supreme Court, simultaneously frivolous and arrogant, discovered constitutional significance in the fact that the number nine is divisible by three. It decreed that the status of pre-born human life changes with pregnancy’s trimesters. (What would abortion law be if the number of months of gestation were a prime number — seven or 11?) The court followed this preposterous assertion with faux humility, insisting it could not say when life begins. Then, swerving back to breathtaking vanity, it declared when “meaningful” life begins — “viability,” when the fetus is “potentially able” to survive outside the womb.
When life begins is a scientific, not a philosophic or theological, question: Life begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with those of the ovum, forming a distinctive DNA complex that controls the new organism’s growth. This growth process continues unless a natural accident interrupts it or it is ended by the sort of deliberate violence Planned Parenthood sells.
Another video shows the craftsmanship of Planned Parenthood’s abortionists — tiny limbs and hands from dismembered babies. To the craftsmen, however, these fragments are considered mere organic stuff. People who proclaim themselves both pro-choice and appalled by the videos are flinching from the logic of their extremism.
Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, apologizes for the “tone” of her operatives’ chatter about crushing babies. But the tone flows from Planned Parenthood’s premise: Why be solemn about meat?
Even partial-birth abortion is — must be — a sacrament in the Church of “Choice.” This sect knows that its entire edifice depends on not yielding an inch on its insistence that what an abortion kills never possesses a scintilla of moral significance.
In partial-birth abortion, a near-term baby is pulled by the legs almost out of the birth canal, until the base of the skull is exposed so the abortionist can suck out its contents. During Senate debates on this procedure, three Democrats were asked: Suppose a baby’s head slips out of the birth canal — the baby is born — before the abortionist can kill it. Does the baby then have a right to live? Two of the Democrats refused to answer. The third said the baby acquires a right to life when it leaves the hospital.
The nonnegotiable tenet in today’s Democratic Party catechism is not opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline or support for a $15 minimum wage. These are evanescent fevers. As the decades roll by, the single unshakable commitment is opposition to any restriction on the right to inflict violence on pre-born babies. So today there is a limitless right to kill, and distribute fragments of, babies that intrauterine medicine can increasingly treat as patients.
We are wallowing in this moral swamp because the Supreme Court accelerated the desensitization of the nation by using words and categories about abortion the way infants use knives and forks — with gusto, but sloppily. Because Planned Parenthood’s snout is deep in the federal trough, decent taxpayers find themselves complicit in the organization’s vileness. What kind of a government disdains the deepest convictions of citizens by forcing them to finance what they see in videos — Planned Parenthood operatives chattering about bloody human fragments? “Taxes,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “are what we pay for civilized society.” Today they finance barbarism.
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Robert Conquest, historian - obituary

Historian who played a leading role in stiffening western resolve in the Cold War by chronicling the horrors of Soviet communism

4 August 2015

Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest Photo: Charles Hopkinson

Robert Conquest, the writer on Soviet Russia who has died aged 98, was a polemicist and a serious, published poet; but above all he was an historian, one of the outstanding scholars of his time, whose books did as much as any other man’s to alter our view of the communist experience.
Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.
An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.
Of his many works on the subject, perhaps the most important was The Great Terror, published in 1968 and detailing the full enormity of what Stalin had done to the Russian people in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz paid the most succinct tribute to this book when he said in 1972 that The Great Terror had “closed the debate” about Stalinism.
In the 1970s Conquest was invited to meet the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher to discuss the Soviet threat. According to her authorised biographer Charles Moore, Mrs Thatcher was advised that Conquest liked plenty to drink, so she laid in supplies of champagne. The meeting began at 9.30 am and they were still talking at noon.
In June 1978 Mrs Thatcher drew heavily on an advance manuscript of one of Conquest’s books, Present Danger (1979), for a major speech on foreign policy she made in Brussels. The theme of the book (and the speech) was, in Conquest’s words, “there’s nothing the Russians can do so long as we keep the level of our arms right,” and he dedicated the work to Mrs Thatcher.
In the run-up to the 1979 general election, Conquest floated the idea that she might appoint him ambassador to the UN once she became Prime Minister, but she declined to do so, believing that the Civil Service should not be supplanted at the public expense, although she took the unusual step of shifting the file of her correspondence with Conquest into No 10, whereas most of her files from opposition were sent to Conservative Central Office for storage.
Conquest subsequently left Britain for well-paid American academe, but he remained in touch and became one of her “Downing Street irregulars”, a group of intellectuals, many of them defectors from the Left, who gave her ideas relating to the nature and danger of Soviet communism. What worried Conquest particularly was the loss of nerve he detected during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. “I feel the real urgency,” he wrote to her in August 1979, “to stiffen up Washington” – a sentiment which she underlined in green ink and to which she found a receptive ear when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981.
George Robert Acworth Conquest was born a few months before the October Revolution on July 15 1917, in a hotel at Great Malvern, Worcestershire, the son of Robert Folger Acott Conquest, an American of Virginian stock, and his English-born wife Rosamund. His grandfather, HA Acworth, was a friend of Elgar’s, for whose opera-cum-oratorio Caractacus he wrote the libretto.
Young Bob was educated at Winchester, winning an exhibition to Magdalen College, Oxford, although he was rusticated from the latter after a college servant found what the dean called “amorous engines” (or contraceptives) in his room.
Between school and Oxford he had wandered through Switzerland and France, where he made friends with Walter Bernstein, an American his own age, himself later a screenwriter (and communist). He remembered Conquest in 1936 as “a very militant communist”, on his way to Spain for an anti-fascist “Workers’ Olympics”.

Robert Conquest: considered himself as much a poet as an historian (Television Stills)
At the outbreak of the Second World War Conquest volunteered for military service and was commissioned into the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Transferred to the Intelligence Corps towards the end of the war, from 1944 he served in Bulgaria as a liaison officer to the Bulgarian forces fighting under Soviet command, and later as a press attaché with the British military mission to the Allied Control Commission in Sofia. In 1945 his poem For the Death of a Poet won the PEN Brazil Prize for the best long poem of the Second World War.
After demobilisation Conquest joined the Foreign Office, but continued to serve in the same job for the British legation in Sofia. In 1948, however, he was recalled to London under a minor diplomatic cloud, after helping to smuggle two Bulgarians out of the country, now in the grip of hard-line Stalinism.
Conquest continued to work at the Foreign Office until 1956, becoming increasingly involved in the intellectual counter-offensive against communism. For several of those years he worked for the FO’s shadowy Information Research Department where, like George Orwell, he fell for the beautiful Celia Kirwan, who worked in the department and who inspired him to write several poems, among them Generalities, which appeared in The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse.
At the IRD he wrote various papers which sowed the seeds for his later work. One, on Soviet means of obtaining confessions, was to be elaborated in The Great Terror. Other papers were “Peaceful Co-existence in Soviet Propaganda and Theory”, and on “United Fronts – a Communist Tactic” describing the fate of the democratic parties in east European countries as they were taken over.
The IRD was sometimes called a propagandist operation, but just how serious and scholarly its work was could be seen when much of it was later published in the Soviet Studies Series. When an American leftist accused Conquest of “falsification” and “black propaganda”, Conquest challenged him to find a single falsehood in this series. There was no response.
After leaving the Foreign Office, Conquest held a number of academic posts. The first was as Sidney and Beatrice Webb Fellow of the London School of Economics in 1956-8 (he was tickled to have a fellowship named after the authors of what he considered the single most preposterously credulous book on Soviet Russia ever written). Then, after a spell as Visiting Poet at the University of Buffalo, he was literary editor of The Spectator in 1962, before returning to America as Fellow of Columbia in 1964-5. In the 1970s and early 1980s he was a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph’s “Personal View” column. He held other American research appointments, in Washington and at the Hoover Institution in California, and it was at this last that he finally settled in 1981.
His first books on Russia, Common Sense About Russia (1960), Power and Policy in the USSR (1961), and Russia After Khrushchev (1965) were solid, rather than exciting. But it was The Great Terror that really established his reputation as an historian. By the time it was published the Cold War was into its third decade and there were seemingly few illusions about Soviet Russia. All the same, Conquest opened many eyes to the full scale of that horror and everything he wrote was to be vindicated as the Soviet archives were finally opened. In fact, the figures of Stalin’s victims which Conquest had given, and for which he had once been derided, have been steadily revised upwards by younger Russian historians to at least 25 million. Most of their deaths were not ordered by the dictator in person, but plenty were. Conquest described how one day in 1937 Stalin and Molotov personally approved 3,167 death sentences, and then went to watch a film.
That book was followed by other major works on Soviet Russia. These included The Nation Killers (1970), about Stalin’s quasi-genocidal war on smaller nationalities, re-examined in Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991). Then came Lenin (1972), Kolyma (1978), which dealt with the Gulag camps, Inside Stalin’s Secret Police (1985) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986).
In Stalin and the Kirov Murder (1989), Conquest examined the assassination by “opportunists”, in 1934, of the Leningrad party secretary, an event used by Stalin as a pretext for unleashing the first wave of terror. As Conquest demonstrated, Kirov’s death was indeed a pretext, and had been ordered by Stalin himself.
Despite his views on communism, Conquest continued to call himself a man of the moderate left, voted Labour until the arrival of Mrs Thatcher, and emphasised that his warmest American political allies were Democrats.
He was one of the first to grasp the weakness of post-Stalinist Russia, and the ineptitude of its leadership which, he told a Senate committee in Washington in 1970, was “intellectually third-rate and likely to commit blunders”. He was also one of the first to foresee the Soviet Union’s disintegration.
In his last two works, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (1999) and The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2004), Conquest drew on decades of historical study to trace how seductive ideas have come to corrupt modern minds to often disastrous effect and discuss why and how people could have been so blind to what was going on.
Conquest always considered himself as much a poet as an historian (he chose Two Muses as the title of an unfinished memoir written before his death). Maurice Bowra once told Conquest that he found his poetry “much more satisfying than almost anyone else’s now writing”. Alongside his historical works, Conquest published several volumes of his own poems and in 1956 edited an anthology, New Lines, which included nine poems by Philip Larkin who became a close friend. So did Kingsley Amis, with whom Conquest wrote the squib, The Egyptologists, in 1966, and who included some of Conquest’s light verse (under the pen-name “Victor Gray”) in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse.
Conquest had a particularly felicitous gift for reducing the classics to doggerel. In a riff on Jacques’s soliloquy, he wrote “Seven ages: first puking & mewling; Then pissed off to hell with your schooling; Then f---s, & then fights; Then judging chaps’ rights; Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.” Larkin quoted this to a friend with the words, “He’s a genius.”
More disconcertingly for their admirers, it emerged from the pages of Larkin’s published letters that Conquest and Larkin shared an enthusiasm for pornography. On one occasion Conquest wrote a letter to Larkin purporting to come from the Vice Squad which had found the poet’s name on a pornographic publisher’s list. Larkin panicked and went to see his solicitor, convinced that he was going to lose his job as librarian at Hull University, before Conquest owned up.
Among other interests, Conquest was a lifelong member, later fellow, of the British Interplanetary Society, to which he was recruited by a young civil servant called Arthur C Clarke. He also published a science fiction novel, A World of Difference. In 2009 he published Penultimata, a collection of poetry. His last collection, Blokelore & Blokesongs, was published in 2012 when Conquest was 95.
Conquest was appointed OBE in 1955 and CMG in 1996. In 2005 he was presented with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Robert Conquest was married four times. By Joan Watkins (1942-48) he had two sons. He then married Tatiana Mihailova (1948-62) and Caroleen McFarlane (1962-78). There were other entanglements, though Larkin was exaggerating when he referred to Conquest’s “limitless number of 24 yr old girls”.
From 1979 he enjoyed an exceptionally happy marriage to Elizabeth “Liddie” (née Neece), who survives him with his children.
Robert Conquest born July 15 1917, died August 3 2015