Innocents of the West.
by Joan Colebrook.
Basic Books. 454 pp. $15.00.
For some lonely Americans who suffered incommunicado through the impieties of the 60’s, Innocents of the West is, though belated, as welcome as Friday’s foot-print on the sands of Crusoe’s Island. It offers hard evidence that somewhere in the vicinity there is another creature with five toes, all pointing in the right direction.
The book is a chronicle of Joan Colebrook’s purposive wandering during the years 1964 to 1969. Sensing that there was a connection between the anti-American feeling that surfaced at every chic party in Manhattan and—to take one example—the Newark and Detroit riots, she set forth to trace the streams of consciousness that linked them. In no sense, however, is this book a detective story ending in the exposure and confessions of those who forged the links of an articulated conspiracy: Miss Colebrook offers rumors, but no proofs; bits of evidence, but none admissible in a courtroom ruled over by anyone more scrupulous than the conspirators themselves. And yet, long before she completes her travels, it is clear that the crucial ideas floating loose from Boston to Darwin, from San Francisco to Cairo, were given their velocity and weight in Moscow, and that their trajectories were deliberately plotted to advance the geopolitical aims of the Kremlin. Naturally, most of the people who gave these ideas currency thought themselves responding only to the moral urgencies of the time. They were the “innocents” of Miss Cole-brook’s title.
Miss Colebrook’s travels began in Boston, where, working on an earlier book, she penetrated the black demimonde with its white fringes. Planes took her to California, buses to Mexico, both the rural and the urban country, brilliantly evoked in her writing. Then back to Boston and the Northeast; to Australia, her native land; to New York; to England, Egypt, France. While traversing this geographical sweep, she covers a similar expanse of time and history. The Mexico she visits is not only contemporary; it is also the Mexico of the late 30’s and early 40’s, the country of Trotsky’s exile and assassination. Trotsky’s death haunts her imagination as the remembered foreshadowing of what she sees and hears about her. It was the absurd innocence of a young woman follower that made him vulnerable in the end to the plotting of Stalin. A social worker from Brooklyn, courted by and bedded with a disguised Spanish GPU agent who palmed himself off as a clumsy would-be convert to Trotskyism, she opened the door all innocently to her lover so that he could bury his alpine pick in the brain of the exile she herself revered.
As Miss Colebrook leaves Mexico for the North, she picks up the threads of this now mythic story, finding them hanging on people’s clothes and costumes twenty-five years later. Thus, a black Boston prostitute tells Miss Colebrook, her devoted friend, that whites are to die a fiery death. “We are living in the doom of the white man’s world,” she says. “The U.S. government is active in its deceitful work.” In Cambridge, at the endless faculty-connected cocktail parties, she hears “an expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. life and the U.S. role in the world.” In Australia, she finds the propaganda about Vietnam goes something like this: “It is really a U.S. war.” “An imperialistic war.” “Australia has been dragged in by the U.S.A.” In England, she hears: “We are black, we are comely, and they—they are white—they are the dust of creation.” And in Paris:
But we are not against the blacks. We are only against the Americans. We especially like the Black Panthers.
Because they are most against the Americans?
Yes. Because they are most against.
Almost without end, Miss Colebrook hears, in snatches of dialogue, the essential phrases of the period, echoing in the student meetings of New York and in the homes of venerable leaders of the Old Left from Waldo Frank to Cedric Belfrage; from a California artists’ colony to apartments on the smart East Side; from the vast garbage dumps of Mexico City to the perilous north coast of Australia, bombed and nearly invaded by the Japanese in World War II, and now strangely indifferent to the menace of a new totalitarianism in China.
The heard fragments, illuminated by the comments of a few serious students of history who have somehow escaped the hysteria around them, fit together into a simple doctrine. Its beneficiary is clearly the Soviet Union, so clearly that it seems vapid to suggest that unconnected people all over the world were responding all at once, without prompting, to the allegedly patent horrors of American life. From the babble of voices, and the words published in magazines like Ramparts (funded, she alleges, by Czechoslovakian money), the themes echo over and over the apparent directives of a Moscow propaganda bureau: weaken the United States by radicalizing a significant part of the black population and making potential white leadership supremely uneasy over its guilt and the world’s hatred. Provoke anti-Semitism, and focus attention on Israel’s imperialism. Identify the United States as the power that moves Israel to its bidding. Impugn America’s liberties by calling the country “Amerika.” Suggest to Americans that this is the time for them to expand their consciousness. Provide the drugs to make this possible. Obscure reality with political sloganeering. Attack fundamental personal relations by denouncing manners and courtesies in the pursuit of abstract social goals.
Assembling these fragments of doctrine, Miss Colebrook makes a powerful case for anyone who remembers the reluctance of the nation to measure the Hitler menace in the late 30’s and the narrow margin that kept the army from being disbanded in 1941. At that time, a similar propaganda barrage, falling on similar fears and similar grievances, was remarkably effective. In both periods, the purposes were identical: to impair the will of the United States so that the objectives of its enemies’ foreign policy could be achieved with minimal risk. The primary objective in the 60’s was to clear Southeast Asia of American influence, but even more important, to persuade Americans to apply the “lessons” of Vietnam to moderating the U.S. grasp on its Middle Eastern strategic position and the oil fields.
What might be unconvincing as strategic speculation by Miss Cole-book is made concrete by the precision of her observations of the world she sees imperiled. Here, for example, is a slice of Queensland, observed from an Australian train:
At Mackay the smell of sugar in the air, mingling with the salt blown from the sea. Some of the passengers board the train carrying suitcases tied up with rope. The figures of aborigines and half-castes glow in the fading light, dressed in reds, oranges, purples. Two men who might have come from New Guinea stroll the platform holding cups of tea, their thick, tight-curled hair making halos around strong-featured faces. A white woman descends from one of the carriages to buy a newspaper. She wears a pale blue dressing gown, and her head is covered with pink plastic curlers. . . . From the train again the shining lavender blossoms of the canefields are seen, spirit flowers receding in the fast-dropping twilight.
The secret of Miss Colebrook’s effectiveness is the intensity of her love for the world she knows, its concreteness, particularity, and color. The fear that animates her is that this world will be lost, its varieties crushed by nihilists pursuing power, people incapable of attachment to its variety, their minds dazzled by the prospect of hatred unleashed under the excuse of “social justice.”
To some, these hypotheses may seem the product of a fevered imagination. But Miss Colebrook has heard the words, and remembers the awful price past innocence has paid.