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Arnold Beichman, 1913 – 2010

An oral history and remembrance of a great adventurer and friend.

By From the May 2010 issue

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I don't know how i first met Arnold Beichman, but I do know I'll never forget him. The news of his death came as a shock, even though he was not far off his 97th birthday. At his peak he was a bustling tornado of energy and enthusiasm. As Commentary's John Podhoretz put it, if we could bottle and take whatever he had, "we would immediately lead lives of energy and purpose, high good humor and great good feeling, and a sense that, though there were very dark forces at work in the world, the world itself was a wonderful place."

When I last saw Arnold, at the Hoover Institution party in Washington, he was 95 and in a wheelchair but still brimming over with life. I last heard from him a few months ago. I had e-mailed him about Max Ascoli, a New York editor who published the Reporter in the 1950s. Arnold replied and concluded, "Any more questions? Ask away."

Now, as I write this, I have a dozen more questions but I guess they'll have to wait.

The obits said he was a "legendary anti-Communist." He was that but it makes him seem far less interesting than he really was. If you asked him about Communists he knew in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, he could be spellbinding -- it was his instant recall, wealth of detail, and the unexpected side alleys of his memory that would hold you -- but he had so much more to offer.

He never wrote an autobiography. I asked him more than once if he planned to and he always said no. Actually, three volumes would have barely scratched the surface. He had decades of detail in his head and he liked to share it with you, but he knew that organizing his adventures and putting them down on paper would be a bore and an even greater chore.

At one point I embarked on my own oral history and he did sit down for a series of taped interviews. That was in 1991. His memory was almost photographic. He would surprise himself by his ability to recall names and details 60 years after the event with hardly a senior moment. But if he wasn't going to write his memoirs, I knew it would be absurd for me to try.

Sometimes he gave the impression that he wasn't much interested in the books that he had written. His best (maybe) was Nine Lies About America, with an introduction by Tom Wolfe. Arnold had also been a lifelong friend of the novelist Herman Wouk and he wrote a short book about him, too. He never mentioned it in my hours of interviewing and I only found out about it the other day. I have never seen a copy. I was with him at the Hoover Institution when his book on Soviet treaty diplomacy came out (1990). He had a copy in his office but he seemed not much interested. He threw it across the desk in my direction. "Here, you wannit?"

He wrote thousands of newspaper articles, or columns, but at times they felt perfunctory, too. He was an early adopter of the new computer technology and he wrote whatever he wrote as quickly as possible, using "macros" and high-tech shortcuts that his astronomer son Charles (a professor at Cal-tech) had taught him. Agonizing over a blank page was not his style.

HE GREW UP ON New York's Lower East Side. His father arrived in New York in 1906 and the family -- Arnold, the oldest, had two sisters -- lived on Eldridge Street. It was a fourth-floor walk-up with no bathroom. His parents were orthodox Jews and their world had a radius of a little more than 100 yards. Yiddish was spoken at home.

They lived in New York City just as they lived in Kolk, in a province of Ukraine. In New York, the house was here. A block away was the store, a block away was the synagogue, a block away the kosher butcher. So why do you have to learn all these silly languages, like English? Although my father did pick up Italian.

Arnold learned the Torah "forward and backwards," and the Prophets. He was grateful for his education in the Bible. Then he started to "play games" with his father, for example asking him, "Can God commit suicide?" Sidney Hook told Arnold that he used to try out the same tricks with his father.

Eventually Arnold rebelled, refusing to wear a phylactery and violating the Sabbath. "I lost interest in being an observant Jew." No great guilt feelings. Solomon Beichman was unhappy, because he wanted Arnold to be a rabbi. But eventually he accepted that Arnold was "living in another country."

But he was a major influence on his son. In 1933, Arnold suggested that his father might want to support Norman Thomas for mayor of New York. But Solomon wisely wondered what would become of his cotton goods store. If socialists could away take your property in the Ukraine, why not here too?

Arnold was short of stature -- everyone in his class was taller. Napoleon overcame that, but how would Beichman "conquer the world"? He went to work for the school newspaper and found that reporters were the center of attention. Especially sports reporters. And the girls took a sudden interest. So that would be his career. He set his sights on Columbia University, which had a journalism school. (Now it's a graduate school, but then it was for undergraduates.)

I wanted to break out of the East Side mold. I didn't want to become a doctor. I wanted to be a newspaperman. I got into a long correspondence with H. L. Mencken, whose letters I have somewhere. I'd write him for advice. I wrote to Heywood Broun, a columnist on the New York World. I never thought I'd get into Columbia because they had a numerus clausus, a quota. It's a phrase from medieval times. So many Jews could live here. At Columbia it was 10 percent.

Intensely competitive, Arnold was admitted (in 1930) mainly on the basis of one interview. He was reading the newspapers cover to cover and was ready for all the questions. He knew details of the 1922 Washington Disarmament Conference and who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (William E. Borah).

He became the editor of the Columbia Spectator and came away with a few lifelong lessons, even if he still hadn't graduated (because he hadn't really studied). He returned to Columbia in 1963 and not only graduated but stayed on and ended up with a PhD at the age of 60.

One lesson from Columbia: Don't suppress the truth for some higher cause. When fraternity boys threw swastikas down from a balcony onto a Jewish dance in 1933, rabbis told him: don't print it. "It was the old business of keep it quiet." Later, when he was working for a New York newspaper, PM, Irish Catholics physically attacked Jews in Dorchester, in Boston. Publicity would only lead to pogroms, Arnold was told, but he ignored the advice and it became a national story. "But not a line came out about it in any Boston paper, because Cardinal O'Connell was the power."

With the rise of Hitler and Stalin, "politics became a duty." And here came Arnold's first run-in with the Communists.

The Communists at Columbia went by the name of the Social Problems Club. In 1933 the Nazi ambassador, Hans Luther, was slated to speak. They asked me to write an editorial opposing that. But I supported his appearance on the grounds of academic freedom. The new Soviet ambassador, Litvinov, had been given a platform. They said, well, Luther represents a gangster government. So I said, "Well, whom does Litvinov represent, if not a gangster government?" They were horrified. How could I suggest that the Soviet Union was a gangster government?

The next day his editorial attacked the Social Problems Club and advocated equal treatment for the ambassadors. (Arnold added, in one of his instant asides, that when FDR established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw a big celebratory party at the Waldorf Astoria.)

That was the first of many skirmishes with the Communists. What Arnold soon learned was that if you shared power with them in any enterprise or forum, they would inevitably take over the whole show. Rather than partner, you would become their fundraiser.

How come? How to account for their passionate intensity and ability to dominate? "Organization," he told me, but it was one of the rare times when his answer disappointed. Whittaker Chambers addresses the issue of Communist zeal in Witness. (Chambers went to Columbia, earlier, but he and Arnold never met.)

In great detail Arnold described many of his encounters with the Communists in the 1930s and '40s. He gave me the impression that he was able to oppose their intensity with a comparable level of drive and energy. He got on "very badly" with I. F. Stone at the New York Post, and for PM  he witnessed the execution of Louis "Lepke" Buchalter at Sing Sing ("horrifying").

I BECAME GOOD FRIENDS with Arnold in 1986, when we went on a two-week tour of the Soviet Union organized by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. All the hard work of travel was done for us by Rev. Moon's very helpful assistants, and we had a wonderful time.

They organized several such trips. The irony was that their goal was to get journalists -- rightly suspected of being "soft on Communism" -- to see it firsthand. Of course, mainstream journalists refused all such invitations, so the church was reduced to bringing along people already anti-Communist, among them Beichman, who knew the story of Communist perfidy maybe better than anyone in the United States. In fact, his anti-Communism was so well known that the Soviets had never allowed him into the country. It was a good opportunity to observe him close up.

In Leningrad -- today it is once again St. Petersburg -- some of us decided to go by Metro to the center of the city.

"I just realized," Beichman said on the train, "all these people are Communists." We looked around us with renewed curiosity. "I've spent all this time criticizing the Soviet Union and I'm beginning to worry that nothing iniquitous is happening." The people were law-abiding, no guns to their heads, going home to wives and children, some with packages and books in their laps.

Beichman said that his reaction was obviously shared by many travelers to the Soviet Union. Seeing little to fear they decide that anti-Communists are paranoid and perhaps go on peace marches when they return home.

"I think Gorbachev knew what he was doing when he let us in," Beichman said.

On Nevsky Prospekt a young man saw that we were American, came up, and wanted to exchange money at the market rate (illegal). He was openly scornful of Communism and said that few of his friends believed in it. But he feared being drafted to Afghanistan.

Was he concerned about being followed? Beichman asked. No, the authorities would only be keeping an eye on us if we were White House big shots or, let's say, notorious anti-Communists. I didn't have the heart to tell him that Beichman was one of the most notorious in the United States. Arnold slipped him a few dollars and he was gone in a second.

A few months later, on another Moonie trip, this time to Korea, Japan, China, and the Philippines, Arnold was with us again. In Beijing, we had fierce disputes about the future of China. "China is a big nothing!" Arnold said. He was the leader of the once Leninist, always Leninist faction -- resolutely resisting any optimism about China's prospects.

When Alvin Rabushka of the Hoover Institution expressed a cautious dissent, we heard from Arnold right away.

"Women squatting on their haunches selling screws and junk. Junk! Junk of junk, that's sub-junk. Shmattas [rags]. They take big shmattas and they make little shmattas. From that you're going to get a consumer economy? C'mon, Alvin!"

"They didn't even sell screws and rags five years ago," Alvin replied.

"You're dreaming! Leninism is a theory of power. They cannot give up power." Later, as Arnold was getting into the bus, he said, almost to himself, "The trouble is, no one reads Lenin. They just hear about it."

Rabushka turned out to be closer to the truth, surely. Amazingly, China's ruling class retained power even while allowing capitalism to flourish, a feat comparable to driving through heavy traffic and changing clothes at the same time. But Arnold's updated thoughts on China is one thing I would love to ask him about now.

LITTLE HAS BEEN SAID or written about what may be the most interesting period of Arnold's life. From about 1950 to 1970 he went off on what can only be described as freelance adventures. "I found a way to have all the pleasures of being a foreign correspondent without anyone telling me what to cover," he told me. He never wanted "an executive job," but went to work first for the Musicians Union, then for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). They paid his expenses and a stipend. He would write articles and "Communist analysis" with foreign date-lines for various publications, especially the Christian Science Monitor.

"I got very interested in international trade unionism and the inroads the Communists were making into Africa and other countries as they were liberated from colonial rule." Arnold told me. Somehow, that became his entrée and passport. With Geneva as his stopover he would be introduced to people with connections. Who can follow what is really involved with "international trade unionism"? I never could.

He said, without my asking him: "I have never taken, that I can think of, a dime from the U.S. government." I believe that. But does it not seem possible that the ICFTU (founded in 1946) receives at least some government funds? George Meany was a friend and ally of Arnold's.

Beichman was in East Berlin in 1952, Stockholm in 1953, Algeria in 1957, South Vietnam in 1959, the Congo in 1960, and Ghana in 1971. He also became "the world's expert on Arab trade unions." (Who can dispute that!) The Christian Science Monitor published as a pamphlet his series of articles on unions in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Arnold was also in Yemen (when I don't know). He knew Tom Mboya, assassinated (probably) by allies of Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi   in 1969. (President Obama has referred to Mboya as "my godfather.") Sir Roy Welensky of Northern Rhodesia was another of Arnold's allies, and a man after his own heart.

"Stalin had just died," Arnold said of his trip to Stockholm, "and that's where I met Bill Colby -- he was CIA although I didn't know it -- and I helped him out of a very bad scrape. It's a long story and I'll save it for another occasion." That occasion never arose --  my fault, not his reluctance to talk.

He was in Tunisia in 1957 and from there went to Algeria, having "arranged that in New York." The Algerian war was just beginning and Arnold was its first war correspondent. "That's a story in itself." Again, I never pursued it. He took along an excellent camera and his pictures were published in Newsweek. At that time he became good friends with Arnaud de Borchgrave.

Vietnam? What was he doing there? He "became friends with Diem and flew around the country with him" -- another untold story.

What took him to the Congo? He did tell a long story about that. "I predicted the arrest and execution of Patrice Lumumba two months before it happened," Arnold told me. Then he told friends at the American embassy what he had heard and they said, "Gee, where did you get that?"

"My boys in the trade unions," Arnold confided to me. "At that time the trade unions were the best-informed people, outside the real holders of the secrets."

In Ghana? He went there to write something after Nkrumah's overthrow, stopping off in Geneva to hear the trade-union angle. Arnold was given a villa in Accra vacated by the East Germans. Ghana at that stage "might just as well have been a Soviet province," he said. The Soviet ambassador was known as the vice president.

"I loathed Nkrumah," Arnold said. But he threw him a sidelong glance of sympathy because Nkrumah was naïve enough to believe all the batty things liberals were saying. "That's a story in itself -- the great discovery of Africa by American intellectuals." I was looking forward to his tirade, but then he distracted me: "There are things I cannot talk about to this day, about how Nkrumah was ousted."

"How was he?"

"Can't talk about it. I am honor bound not to. And I simply will not." Nor did he.

A NEW DEALER IN THE 1930s, Arnold was a Kennedy Democrat by 1960. Along with Meany, Arnold shows up with JFK in Berlin, and is offered the job of assistant secretary of labor. But he turned it down. "In government you have to keep your mouth shut and bow your head." Daniel P. Moynihan accepted the job.

Later, Arnold became an honorary member of the Reactionaries Luncheon Club in London, along with Kingsley Amis, Colin Welch, Anthony Powell, Robert Conquest, and others. They met weekly at Bertorelli's near Whitehall. Arnold was doing research for his Ph.D. -- something to do with Tory politics. He lived in Chelsea. His surroundings were always stylish.

Meanwhile there had been a "messy" first marriage to a pianist, "trouble in splitsville," and a mysterious walk-on role for Walter Winchell, the influential gossip columnist who knew something important about the divorce that Arnold refused to discuss.

Arnold regrets missing "the adventure" of World War II. He had learned to fly and had become a good friend of Herbert Dargue, the commander of Mitchel Field on Long Island. Arnold, then 28, wanted to join the Army Air Force and Dargue was smoothing over the age problem when he was killed in a plane crash. Then Arnold was turned down as a Marine combat correspondent. On the day he was drafted, a new regulation exempted men with two children, which by then he had.

Later he co-piloted a Cessna 310 across the Atlantic, New York to Brussels --a "terrific adventure for him," said Carroll Beichman, his second wife. She was married to Arnold for almost 60 years and they lived mostly in British Columbia. "Flying small aircraft was a major passion for him and he did it whenever he could," she said.

Arnold meant it about missing the "adventure" of war. What he really wanted was an adventurous life and he had one. He was shot at in Yemen, Algeria, and Vietnam. I regret his unwritten memoirs, which could have been told as pure adventures rather than as anti-Communist parry and thrust. But of course living them was enough, and making them as enjoyable to read as they were to listen to would have been difficult indeed.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).