Last week the San Diego School Board issued an apology to banjoist and singer Peter Seeger, 89, fresh from his performance with Bruce Springsteen at the pre-inaugural concert for President Barack. The San Diego episode gave little hint that Seeger has a few items to apologize for himself.
He was a communist convert, and there were plenty of those in the 1930s, when it seemed that American capitalism was on the rocks and that the USSR, under Stalin, represented the wave of the future. When Stalin signed a pact with Hitler in 1939, the act that started World War II, many abandoned their communist faith and defense of the USSR. Pete Seeger was not one of those.
He was one of those “artists in uniform” as the CP doctrine had it, and considered his songs to be weapons. He hit stride during the Nazi-Soviet pact, following the Communist Party line of opposing military action against Hitler. In March of 1941, when the Pact remained in effect and Hitler had occupied much of Europe, Seeger crooned this:
Franklin D., listen to me, You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea, 'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea, You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea.
You may say it's for defense, But that kinda talk that I'm against. I'm against, I'm against, That kinda talk ain't got no sense.
Seeger also shilled for Birobidzhan, Stalin’s “homeland” for Jews, way out near Mongolia. This forlorn outpost might well have become a killing ground had not Stalin died before his latest anti-Semitic campaign could hit stride. Seeger remained in the Communist Party USA through the nadir of Stalinist brutality, including the deportation of artists, writers to the gulag, from which few returned. If this bothered him, he never said much about it. Neither did Seeger deploy his banjo, guitar, or voice against the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.
By his own account he “drifted out” of the CPUSA in the 1950s, but he scarcely deviated from the Party line. After the Korean War and Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, Seeger’s style of activism did not sit well with many Americans, particularly veterans. Unlike those in occupied Eastern Europe, the banjoist was free in America to compose and sing whatever he wanted, and the American Legion and other groups were free to protest him.
In 1960, Seeger was “nearly barred from playing a concert at Hoover High School,” explains the February 10 San Diego Union-Tribune piece by Greg Moran, who managed to combine Seeger’s “left-leaning politics” and “membership in the Communist Party.” Predictably, the piece brought in the “McCarthy Era” boilerplate.
The school board of the time insisted that Seeger sign a loyalty oath before he could perform at a public school, a reasonable request for a Stalinist shill who had slavishly followed the Party line. The ACLU took up his case and that effort failed. Seeger duly performed, but San Diego School Board member Katherine Nakamura still introduced a resolution that the board “deeply regrets its predecessors’ actions” and offering a hand of friendship to Seeger, “one of our dearest national treasures.”
In 1995, long after the fall of the USSR, Seeger said he still called himself a communist “because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” In 2004 he told Mother Jones: “I'm still a communist, in the sense that I don't believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”
Elsewhere Seeger is on record that Stalin was “a supremely cruel misleader,”? mild stuff for the worst mass murder of all time, the Pete Rose of genocide, in George Will’s phrase. Seeger has apologized “for following the party line so slavishly,” but one looks for more clarity, something like: “I was wrong to support Stalin’s invasion of Poland, in concert with his ally of the time, Adolf Hitler.” Or, “I regret remaining silent while Stalin sent thousands of artists and writers to their death in the Gulag.”
The San Diego School Board action would have been a good time for something like that, but Seeger said in a statement that, “It is a measure of justice that our right to freedom of expression has been vindicated.” Actually, this episode vindicated something else. And now abides credulity, mythology, and ignorance, but the greatest of these is ignorance.