Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones: one told the truth, the other did not

May 21, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, reporters, reporting, writers, writing.

The contrast between Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones is stark and ultimately tragic.

Duranty was the correspondent for the New York Times and covered the Soviet Union and the rise of Joseph Stalin for more than a dozen years in the 1920s and 1930s. He interviewed Stalin a number of times and always wrote favorable pieces that showed the Soviet Union making progress even though occasionally harsh measures against the populace were required.

Originally from England, Duranty was hired by the Times during World War I.

Duranty covered the Paris Peace Conference for the Times, and his reports brought him good notices. After the conference, he moved to Latvia, and from there to the Soviet Union. During a holiday in France in 1924, he was involved in a railway accident and eventually had his leg amputated. When he recovered, he returned to the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s first five-year plan to transform Soviet agriculture and industry caused widespread disruption and hardship for the Soviet people. Duranty paid little attention to all of that in his reports, and Stalin granted him an exclusive interview, which enhanced his reputation as a journalist.

The Times submitted a series of reports from the Soviet Union to the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1931, and early the next year Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. Duranty’s point of view was that the Soviet Union was a place where individuality and private enterprise were and would always be alien ideas. A country such as that needed communism and strong, even tyrannical, leadership to survive. 

One of the dissenting voices to Duranty’s reports was Gareth Jones.

Born in 1905, Jones was from Wales and grew up with a natural bent for languages. Eventually, he became fluent in German, French, and Russian, all of which naturally equipped him for some kind of foreign service. As an adult, Jones first taught languages but was also hired as a foreign affairs adviser to British MP and former prime minister David Lloyd George.

By the late 1920s, he was writing for newspapers as a freelance journalist. In the 1930s, he was in Germany, covering the rise of Nazism. He rode on the airplane with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels when they flew to Frankfurt a few days after Hitler had been appointed chancellor.

Before going to Germany, however, Jones had been to the Soviet Union to witness the Stalinization of that vast country. The articles that he produced were published anonymously by the Times of London and were explicit with the details of the human cost that Stalin’s plan was exacting from his nation.

In October 1931, another article by Jones reported on the starvation of peasants in southern Russia and in the Ukraine.

In March 1933, Jones visited the Soviet Union for a third and final time. He managed to elude authorities and slip into the Ukraine. He kept diaries of what he witnessed there, and when he returned to Berlin at the end of that month, he issued a press release that was published in the Manchester Guardian and the New York Evening Post. The article he wrote included the following:

I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying’. This cry came from every part of Russia, . . . I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be two hundred oxen and where there now are six. The peasants were eating the cattle fodder and had only a month’s supply left. They told me that many had already died of hunger. Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They warned me against travel by night, as there were too many ‘starving’ desperate men.

New York readers finally had a different view of the Soviet Union than what had been given to them by Walter Duranty and the New York Times. It was so different that the newspaper and the journalist felt they needed to respond. Duranty wrote that there was no mass starvation in the Soviet Union and described what was happening there in terms that Soviet officials themselves used.

In May the New York Times published a scathing rebuttal article by Jones himself. He took Duranty and other journalists to task, calling them “masters of euphemism and understatement.”

The Soviet government, of course, was incensed by Jones’s reporting, and Jones was banned from ever visiting the Soviet Union again.

Jones’s quest for the truth wherever he could find it was not finished. In late 1934 he left Britain to travel to the Far East on a “fact-finding tour,” during which he spent six weeks in Japan interviewing politicians and generals. He then went to China and Inner Mongolia, traveling with a German journalist. The two were detained by Japanese forces, and they were subsequently captured by bandits and held for ransom. The German journalist was released to arrange for a ransom, and it appeared for a few days that Jones would also be released.

In the middle of August 1935, Chinese authorities found Jones’s body. There were three bullet wounds, and it appeared that he had been killed around August 12th, the day before his 30th birthday. There was a strong suspicion that his death had been perpetrated by Soviet NKVD agents.

His friend Lloyd George said Jones “knew too much of what was going on. He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble. . . . I had always been afraid he would take one risk too many.”

Duranty left the Soviet Union in 1934, and for the rest of his life he defended the reporting that he had done when he was there. He was the author of several books, and he died in retirement in Florida in 1957.

Since that time, there have been repeated calls for the Pulitzer Prize committee to rescind its 1931 award. Those calls have been renewed because of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

A website devoted to Gareth Jones and his work can be found here

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