- Historic Sites
The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he was asked to cover it for the Metropolitan . First Italy—nothing worth reporting. France, having settled down to trench warfare, seemed dull and gloomy to him, with none of the excitement of Pancho Villa’s hard-riding bands. He tried England-no exciting story there either. “The real war,” he wrote, echoing Steffens, “is a clash of traders.” Like most Village radicals, he was inclined to sympathize with Germany as the “underdog,” the late-comer among the trading and colonial nations who had arrived when everything was preempted. Not much to choose between the sides, but the Entente seemed “more hypocritical.” His most violent language was reserved for England, who grips the Red Sea, sucks the blood from all India, menaces a half billion human beings from Hong Kong, owns all Australia, half North America, and half of Africa … the great intriguer, sitting like a spider in the web of nations … It was England’s will that Germany should be destroyed.
The Metropolitan did not print his article.
Taking advantage of the fact that America was neutral, he left for Germany and its front in occupied France. His accounts are in general favorable to the occupiers. He spent a night under fire in the foremost trench, where he could see the French lines and the dead in no man’s land. After a night in rain and mud, under a hail of shrapnel and shells, he was asked by a German lieutenant whether he would like to have a shot. With a rifle borrowed from a German soldier, he fired two shots at daybreak in the general direction of the French. This escapade, reported by a fellow correspondent, was to cause trouble for him later in Czarist Russia, be held against him in Washington, cause him to be barred from France. That is how John Reed came to be transferred to the eastern front, with Boardman Robinson as his artist-illustrator. The results of their collaboration appeared in 1916 as The War in Eastern Europe .
His tour of duty as a European war correspondent was a disappointment to editors, friends, and to Jack himself. His daring recklessness, his poet’s vision and camera-eye, his shallow explanations of the “traders’ war,” were not enough to work with in the grim, vast, irreducible stalemate. “I have come to hate Europe,” he wrote his mother.
The eastern front proved scarcely more rewarding. Having worked his way up through the Balkans into Russia, without permission from the Russian authorities and pursued by the story of his two shots at the French, he landed in a Russian jail. It was sixteen days before American officials could arrange his peaceful and ignominious departure. With his usual boyish exuberance, he had written on his passport for the benefit of the Russian authorities: “I am a German and an Austrian spy. I do it for money. Reed.”
Despite misadventure, his brief stay in Russia had made him a Russophile: Russian ideals are the most exhilarating, Russian thought the freest, Russian art the most exuberant; Russian food and drink are to me the best, and Russians themselves are, perhaps, the most interesting human beings that exist … There the people live as if they knew it were a great empire … Every one acts just as he feels like acting, and says just what he wants to. There are no particular times for getting up or going to bed or eating dinner, and there is no conventional way of murdering a man, or making love.
It was Czarist Russia of late 1915 that he was celebrating.
Back in America in 1916, Reed was alarmed by his country’s drift toward war. With Henrietta Rodman, Franklin Giddings, Carlton Hayes, John Dewey, he signed an appeal to Socialists to vote for Wilson because “he has kept us out of war.” George Creel organized a group of writers to re-elect Wilson; among them were Steffens, Howe, Zona Gale, Hutch Hapgood, George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Reed. America’s swift entrance into the war on the side of the Allies, even before Wilson had pronounced his second inaugural, goes far to explain the subsequent fury of Village radicalism.
After the removal of his long-ailing kidney, the publication of a slender and undistinguished volume of poems, the writing of the essay on the first twenty-nine years of life, and exemption from the draft because of the kidney operation, Jack sought an assignment to Russia where the Czar had fallen and a revolution begun. In his “Almost Thirty,” Jack wrote: I must find myself again. Some men seem to get their direction early … I have no idea what I shall be or do one month from now. Whenever I have tried to become some one thing, I have failed; … only by drifting with the wind I have found myself. … I wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights … But I am not sure any more that the working class is capable of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. The War has been a terrible shatterer of faith … And yet, I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world—richer, braver, freer, more beautiful … I don’t know what I can do to help … My happiness is built on the misery of other people … that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play.