The Happy Cold Warrior
From the May 19, 2003 issue: The first 90 years of Arnold Beichman.
May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By DAVID BROOKS
It was during this period that Beichman did the most amazing thing: He became a fellow traveler. This was during the Spanish Civil War, the so-called national front period, when leftists and Communists worked together against Franco. Arnold did publicity for an outfit he knew was a front group, supposedly raising money for the anti-fascists in Spain. Eventually he deduced that not some of the money, but all the money being raised in the name of Spain was in fact going to the Communist party.
During World War II, Beichman published the first American reports of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, having found a man who had escaped from the battles and could provide maps and a firsthand account. After the war, he interviewed Holocaust survivors as they landed in New York. He came across one beautiful young woman who had seen her five children killed but who had been kept around to serve the Nazi officers. Beichman innocently asked her how she could have preserved the will to live after her children's murder. "That's what I cannot forgive God for," she replied. "You still want to live no matter what. But I will never have children. That I know."
Beichman was finally fired from PM, during yet another political skirmish, and went to work for a series of trade union papers. "The reason I stayed with the labor movement," Beichman says, "is that I regarded them and [labor leader] George Meany as the only people you could trust in the fight against communism. Intellectuals and General Motors and the U.S. Senate you couldn't trust. But Meany didn't budge."
Beichman had by this time become reasonably well known, and one day he received a note from Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist. Winchell had been fed some of the details of Beichman's messy divorce, but had decided, for whatever reason, that he wasn't going to publish them, earning Beichman's lasting gratitude.
In 1949, Stalin launched a peace campaign, and a group of 800 intellectuals gathered at the Waldorf Astoria to call for the United States to endorse Soviet foreign policy. Beichman, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, Mary McCarthy, Dwight McDonald, and others organized a counter-demonstration. Through his connections with the hotel service workers' union, Beichman got the anti-Communist group a suite at the Waldorf, and they successfully undermined the conference, with Hook and others embarrassing the Soviet delegation with uncomfortable questions and harsh arguments.
In the 1950s and '60s, Beichman was one of the New York intellectuals who worked to delegitimize communism. "A staunch anti-communism was the great moral-political imperative of our age," Diana Trilling once declared, and that became the credo of Beichman's professional life. He headed the American Committee of the Congress of Cultural Freedom (refusing to accept what turned out to be the CIA money that eventually tainted the international branch of the Congress). He fell in with the Partisan Review crowd, and became friendly with Irving Kristol, whom he regards as his most important intellectual influence.
One story captures the ethos of that clique in those days. One afternoon, Beichman was walking home when his wife Carroll came rushing out onto the street saying that Diana Trilling had just called, and Arnold should hurry over to Commentary editor Eliot Cohen's apartment, for something terrible had happened. Beichman arrived to find that Cohen had committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head. His body was lying in the kitchen. Soon word spread, and people started pouring into the apartment. Shocked by the sight of the body, they started drinking. The body could not be moved until the coroner arrived, but friends kept arriving, pouring themselves cocktails, and even bringing in roast beef sandwiches. At first, the conversation was about Cohen, but then it drifted to so and so's review of such and such, and so and so's essay about this and that. "It became like an unusual cocktail party," Beichman remembers, with Cohen's body there in the kitchen.
BUT BEICHMAN was not merely a New York intellectual. After World War II, he was plagued by guilt that he had not served his country in combat. He had tried to get into the Army Air Force, and then into the Army, but he was too old and had children. After the war, in compensation, he sought out war zones. Writing pieces for publications like Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor, he covered wars in Yemen, Algeria, the Congo, and Vietnam. During the 1950s, he reported on stories across the Middle East, visiting Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus.