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Failures of the Modern Discovery Mission

In his latest book Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China, journalist and author Patrick Wright tells the story of the British delegations that took up Prime Minister En-lai’s invitation to ‘come and see’ the New China on the fifth anniversary of the communist victory in 1954.   Here, Wright answers a few questions I had about this intense era of diplomacy – when it ended and how it went wrong. –Michelle Rafferty, Associate Publicist

1.) Bill Richardson’s recent trip to North Korea reminded me of a topic you’ve written extensively about: the diplomatic “discovery missions” between East and West. Is this era behind us?

In one far from regrettable sense, Bill Richardson’s trip seems to come after the event. While extraordinary misrecognitions have attended ‘East-West’ travel for many centuries, the ‘discovery missions’ I have written about belong to a modern era that extended from the First World War to the invasion of Iraq, shaped as it was by Cold War attitudes that lived on in the minds of Rumsfeld, Blair and others, even after the breach of the Berlin Wall in 1989. These organized, if also unofficial, delegations made their journeys at a time when the world was divided into opposed and hostile blocs, each with its own ideology and claims to international extension.

2.) We know how the Cold War turned out, so looking back, what can we determine was accomplished on these missions?  Did they offer us any true prescience?

As for the question of ‘prescience’, there can be no doubt that many of the western travelers who visited the communist East during this period got things spectacularly wrong. The Mayor of Lyons and former French Prime Minister, Édouard Herriot, was led through Ukraine in the summer of 1933, and came home to repudiate the suggestion that millions of peasants and alleged ‘kulaks’ had been systematically starved to death under Stalin. Eleven years later, President Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace toured the Gulag at Kolyma in the company of his adviser, Owen Lattimore, without apparently suspecting that he was actually in a vast prison. Many British visitors were also taken in – as much by their own ideals as by the indulgence and trickery of their official minders. Visiting communists saw what they wanted to see, but so too did those well-known and senior pioneers of modern social science, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. As for the anti-fascist barrister D. N. Pritt, he inspected Stalin’s show trials and declared them better than anything available in British courts.

The list of deluded visitors also includes Christian socialists such as George Lansbury, who visited Russia in 1920 and, despite Lenin’s protestations of atheism, declared that the Bolsheviks were doing God’s work, and the so-called “Red Dean of Canterbury,” Hewlett Johnson, who made a similar pilgrimage to China in the early fifties and came home to provoke a storm of public condemnation with his credulous utterances. In many cases, these confusions followed less from a belief in Communism, than from the fear that war loomed, and that ‘peace’ demanded a conciliatory approach even if this did entail smiling at monsters. In the British experience, there were also moments when the men ruling the west – Dulles, Eisenhower, etc. – seemed utterly beyond influence, and excessive hopes were consequently transferred to the leaders in the East.

3.) So how can we account for all these “misinterpretations”?

We may well feel inclined to dismiss visitors, such as those discussed above, as ‘useful idiots’. But that retrospectively applied insult doesn’t tell us much about the conditions under which they arrived at their mistaken impressions. It has been suggested that the fault of these witnesses lay in their peculiar status as ‘intellectuals’ – arrogant, easily flattered, more interested in ideas than in practical human realities, filled with loathing of their own culture etc.

Yet these travelers’ confusions also bear the stamp of the ‘iron curtain’ they crossed . The ‘iron curtain’ is often attributed to Winston Churchill who famously used this originally theatrical term in his Fulton oration of March 1946. In reality, however, this political metaphor has a longer history than that. It was actually launched by anti-war campaigners: initially by a cosmopolitan aesthete named Vernon Lee, who applied it to the war between Britain and Germany in 1914, and then by friends and associates of hers who used it to condemn the Allied blockade of Bolshevik Russia from 1920 onwards.

As this earlier history reveals, the iron curtain was by no means just an armed frontier of the kind that divided Europe during the Cold War, and which now lingers on as the Demilitarized Zone dividing Korea. Instead it was conceived as a ‘psychological deadlock’ imposed on people by their war-swollen states. Its constituents included fiercely effective censorship, which canceled all independent exchange between the opposed peoples, ferocious propaganda campaigns in which those on the other side were demonized as monstrous and inhumane foes, and coercive measures taken to silence internal dissent. To those who opposed it in the early twentieth century the iron curtain was a throwback to a primitive era of national and imperial rivalry that many had imagined closed since the end of the Franco Prussian War in 1870.

It was imagined as a vertical division, brought down by the leaders of opposed nation states in defiance of a horizontally extended internationalism that, in the early years of the century, had been widely understood as the harbinger of a better future to come. It also defined a schism between ideologies: one which found its main focus at the frontier, but also extended into the opposed states, dividing an official view of events from that of doubters, skeptics and dissenters.

So those who traveled through this deceptive ‘curtain’ had to face challenges on two fronts: they had to work out how they stood in relation to the seductive stagecraft and hospitality of the East, where they were often confronted with considerable crowds expecting friendly speeches, and they also faced the suspicions of a hostile western press, which had been accusing the USSR’s visitors of being duped by strategically arranged ‘Potemkin villages’ since the first years of Bolshevik power. Further liabilities lay in the fact that so much faith was invested in the future in much of this period. In the early twentieth century, especially, an optimistic futurism found expression in many different domains: artistic movements, technology, as well as trade and politics. Communism relied heavily on the idea of a promised future, and it did so against a background of widespread ruin and reconstruction. Whether we are talking about the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Eastern bloc which emerged after 1945, or China after the ‘Liberation’ of 1949, the supposed new world was being launched in the wreckage of war. In all cases, western travelers found it possible to survey the ruins and see only the promised future to come.

It is also worth noting that the critics of this sort of ‘studious travel’ didn’t always come from the right. George Orwell attacked people like D.N. Pritt, and not just in Animal Farm, but there were many others who saw through the fantasies of the beguiled, and who insisted that the truth was plain to see for anyone who was really prepared to look. Trotsky was among them, and so too were the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. They arrived in Bolshevik Russia in January 1920, full of enthusiasm having been expelled from the USA, but were soon assaulting Bolshevik policy and the naivete of its visiting admirers. Another early critic was Friedrich Adler, the Viennese social democrat, who had shot Austria’s prime minister Count Karl von Stürgkh in 1916, claiming that Stürgkh’s cancellation of democratic rights in Austria made his murder the only way of encouraging a restoration of the militarized nation’s political life. He went on to become a fierce critic of the Bolsheviks’ rejection of allegedly ‘bourgeois’ legality and was scathing about the British trade unionists and politicians who came home in 1924 armed with horribly deluded reports of conditions in the USSR. He likened these ‘studious travellers’ to an apocryphal English lord who sailed across the English Channel to visit the continent for the first time. Having ordered his breakfast in an Ostend restaurant, this traveler is said to have picked up his pen and commenced the diary of his travels with the words ‘On the Continent the waiters have red hair…’

Patrick Wright is a writer and broadcaster. His highly acclaimed books include The Village that Died for England, Tank, and Iron Curtain. His latest books is Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China. Read more from Patrick Wright.

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  1. [...] Another reflection on the western travellers who crossed the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, this one from the OUP blog» [...]

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