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The Red Warbler

Pete Seeger, 1919-2014.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By RONALD RADOSH
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During the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41), Seeger sang antiwar songs that, in effect, called for the support of Hitler. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he withdrew the songs he had just recorded and suddenly supported the “antifascist alliance” between the United States and the Soviets. During the Cold War, he supported unilateral American disarmament and backed one Soviet propaganda campaign after the other. “Put My Name Down, Brother, Where Do I Sign?” he sang, calling for signatures on the Stockholm Peace Petition developed by KGB fronts in Europe. 

During the Vietnam war, Seeger not only helped lead the antiwar movement, he also sang in praise of the brutal Ho Chi Minh. Lyndon B. Johnson was called “a big fool” in one of his most famous songs, while he sang of Ho Chi Minh: He educated all the people, / He demonstrated to the world, / If a man will stand for his own land, / He’s got the strength of ten

In 1999, Seeger traveled to Cuba to receive an award from the Castro regime. The fading Cuban tyrants honored him with their highest cultural award, given for “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism,” which was in and of itself a travesty. Accepting an award from Fidel Castro should make it clear that Seeger’s would-be humanism and protest was aimed at one side only: his own country, which he clearly thought was led by the world’s sole oppressors. 

One cannot hope to be thought of as a defender of human rights and also accept an award from the Cuban police state. That, too, must be taken into consideration when evaluating what Pete Seeger really learned from his own Stalinist past.

In his last years, Seeger, who, in the period when the Soviet Union was briefly pro-Israel, sang songs in both Hebrew and Yiddish (including Israeli songs), gave his support to boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) against Israel, even to the extent that he handed over royalties from “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the movement.

A great folk singer who contributed much to the American story, he was fatally flawed by the leftism he imbibed with his mother’s milk. How telling that a man who sought social justice, peace, and a livable world could, at the same time, believe that serving leftist tyrants was somehow compatible with his dream of universality and solidarity.

Ronald Radosh has written widely on folk music and politics, and is the author, with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel

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