Salisbury, Harrison Evans

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Salisbury, Harrison Evans

(b. 14 November 1908 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 5 July 1993 near Providence, Rhode Island), journalist whose lucid prose and historical perspective made him one of his generation’s most distinguished reporters, and whose books and prize-winning dispatches from the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam often influenced the course of American foreign policy during the cold war.

Called a “journalistic one-man band” by an admiring editor, Salisbury was one of two children of Georgiana Evans, a homemaker, and Percy Pritchard Salisbury, a sales manager for a Minneapolis factory that made bags for grain and flour. He attended the local public schools and graduated in 1925 from North Side High School, where he edited Polaris, the school newspaper. Entering the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he immediately joined the campus paper, the Minnesota Daily, and beginning in 1928 worked professionally as a part-time reporter for the Minneapolis Journal. In his senior year he assumed the editorship

Harrison Evans Salisbury. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

of the Daily, earning the enmity of the administration and the Board of Regents with editorials and stories sharply critical of the university’s policies. In a confrontation that made the front page of the New York Times, he was expelled from the university in January 1930, four months shy of graduation, after violating the school’s ban on smoking in the vestibule of the library.

The expulsion, Salisbury wrote in his memoirs, was a blessing because it led immediately to a job with United Press (UP) at thirty dollars a week. His first major story—an unsparing account of the Great Depression’s impact on Minneapolis—won praise from UP’s Chicago office and a demand from the Minneapolis Journal that he be fired for slandering the city, foreshadowing the controversy his later reporting often produced. UP killed the story but retained Salisbury, who was moved to Chicago, where he covered the trial of Al Capone. On 1 April 1933, he married Mary Jane Hollis, with whom he had two children; the marriage ended in divorce in 1950. He married Charlotte Young Rand, a writer, on 18 April 1964. Salisbury stayed with UP for eighteen years, moving successively through positions of increasing responsibility and gaining a reputation for clear writing, well-researched stories, and a knack for scooping the competition. Although company policy prohibited writing for other publications, Salisbury supplemented his meager wages by freelancing under more than a dozen pseudonyms for magazines like Coronet, Collier’s, and Esquire. Assigned to UP’s London office in 1942, he was named the bureau chief in 1943 and the foreign news editor a year later. He spent eight months in the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, and on his return to the United States in 1945 wrote a series of articles for Collier’s that became his first book, Russia on the Way (1946).

In 1949 Salisbury joined the New York Times as its Moscow correspondent—a difficult assignment because of the Soviets’ restrictions on foreign journalists. During a single month in 1951, for example, Soviet censors allowed only six of Salisbury’s thirty-four stories to reach New York City. Because the Times gave no indication that his prose had been altered or cut by the Soviets, he was often vilified by the paper’s readers for glorifying the communist state. He refuted the charges on his return home in 1954 in a fourteen-part newspaper series, “Russia Re-viewed,” and in American in Russia (1955), which described in detail the terror of Joseph Stalin’s regime. He won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting and later published the uncensored versions of his dispatches from 1949 and 1954 in Moscow Journal: The End of Stalin (1961).

Barred from the Soviet Union after 1955, Salisbury reported domestically for the New York Times, wrote freelance articles for periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post, and expanded a controversial story on Brooklyn’s teenage gangs into The Shook-up Generation (1958). His vivid accounts of police brutality against civil rights workers in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1960 led to a $6 million libel suit against the Times that the newspaper eventually won on appeal four years later.

In 1957 Salisbury won a George Polk Memorial Award for his coverage of several Eastern European states, including Poland and Romania. He was readmitted to the Soviet Union in 1959 and reported favorably on the changes Nikita Khrushchev was bringing to Russia, a theme he pursued in To Moscowand Beyond: A Reporter’s Narrative (1960) and A New Russia? (1962). He wrote a well-received novel, The Northern Palmyra Affair (1962); published two books for young people, The Key to Moscow (1962) and Russia (1965); and edited The Soviet Union: The First Fifty Years (1967).

In his initial administrative assignment for the Times, Salisbury was named the director of national correspondence in 1963, and in that role directed the paper’s coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The following year he was made the assistant managing editor, overseeing a variety of special projects. In 1970 he became the first editor of the Times’s Op-Ed page. He edited two collections of pieces from that page:The Eloquence of Protest:Voices of the 7O’s (1972) and, with David Schneiderman, The Indignant Years: Art and Articles from the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times (1973). In 1972 Salisbury became an associate editor of the paper.

Salisbury’s own reporting interests had shifted by the mid-1960s to China and Southeast Asia. A thirty-thousand-mile tour, the first of several trips to the Chinese mainland, became the basis for Orbit of China (1967); subsequent visits produced War Between Russia and China (1969), in which he argued that the ties between these two powers were fraying to a greater extent than most observers in the West realized, and To Pekingand Beyond: A Report on the New Asia (1973), describing recent regional economic and political developments.

Salisbury earned notoriety in the mid-1960s for his controversial dispatches from Hanoi during the Vietnam War. The first American reporter to visit North Vietnam in more than a decade, he was present when American planes bombed Hanoi on Christmas Eve, 1966. In a dramatic series of detailed articles, which the Times syndicated worldwide, and in Behind the LinesHanoi, December 23, 1966—January 7, 1967 (1967), he wrote that the relentless bombing had only stiffened North Vietnam’s resolve to fight on. His eyewitness accounts of collateral bomb damage contradicted the American government’s assertion that the air war targeted only military installations and produced only minimal civilian casualties. The government, he suggested, was not telling the truth to the American people.

President Lyndon Johnson was furious, and his administration opened a deliberate campaign to discredit Salisbury as “careless” and “a known Communist sympathizer,” allegations picked up and enlarged by editors and columnists who favored a hard line against the North Vietnamese. Salisbury weathered the criticism, but not without cost. He received both the Overseas Press Club award for international reporting and his second George Polk Memorial Award, but was denied a second Pulitzer Prize when the prize jury’s four-to-one vote in his favor was overruled by the Pulitzer’s governing board. In 1971 he found a measure of vindication as part of the New York Times team that published the “Pentagon Papers,” giving an inside look at the administration’s policymaking during the war.

Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969) brought him international acclaim—the English writer C. P. Snow called it “a nonfiction masterpiece”—and denunciation by the Russians, who banned it because, they said, it denigrated the Communist Party. In his next book, The Many Americas Shall Be One (1971), he called on Americans to renew the nation by restoring the traditional values of the Founding Fathers.

Following his mandatory retirement from the Times in December 1973 at age sixty-five, Salisbury continued freelancing from his home in rural Taconic, Connecticut, while maintaining an apartment in Manhattan. He rose nearly every morning at 4 A.M. to write for three or four undisturbed hours, devoting the remainder of the day to research for his next project. It was a regimen that produced fifteen books and numerous essays over the next twenty years, beginning with his second novel, The Gates of Hell (1975), the story of a dissident Russian writer (modeled on Alek-sandr Solzhenitsyn) that received largely unenthusiastic reviews.

Salisbury fared better with Travels Around America (1976), in which he compared the United States on the eve of the bicentennial to the world of his ancestor—a Yankee peddler in the eighteenth century. He completed his second history of Russia, Black Night, White Snow: Russia’s Revolutions, 1905-1917 (1978), and followed it with Russia in Revolution: 1900-1930 (1978). In addition, he edited Salharov Speaks (1974), by Andrei Sakharov, and Russian Society Since the Revolution (1979). In 1980 he wrote the critically acclaimed Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times. He was a moderator for Behind the Lines (1974-1975), a weekly critique of the media, and for National Town Meeting, both on PBS. He served as the president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1975-1977) and of the Authors League (1980-1985).

After completing A Journey for Our Times: A Memoir (1983) and Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons from a War (1984), Salisbury and his wife spent four months in China retracing the 7,400-mile route Mao Zedong had followed five decades earlier to save the Red Army from Chiang Kai-shek. The Long March: The Untold Story (1985) was both a history of that epic journey and a meditation on the changes that had come to China since Mao’s death. As he turned eighty, Salisbury published a second memoir, A Time of Change: A Reporter’s Tales of Our Time (1988), followed by The Great Blacky Dragon Fire: The Chinese Inferno (1989), an account of a devastating forest fire in Manchuria in 1987.

Salisbury was back in Beijing in early June 1989, just in time to observe the events in Tiananmen Square, in which the Chinese government attacked dissident students who were calling for democratic reforms. His first-hand account, Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June (1989), was in bookstores by mid-September. His final books were The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (1992), a dual biography of Mao and his successor, Deng Xiaoping; and Heroes of My Time (1993), profiles of Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Nikita Khrushchev, among others, who had inspired him “by their conduct in times of great peril.”

Salisbury died from a sudden heart attack while riding in a car driven by his wife near Providence, Rhode Island. He had a history of heart trouble but had not let it interfere with his demanding schedule of travel and research. To the end of his life, he took great pleasure in being a writer. “There is nothing,” he once said, “I would rather do.”

Salisbury’s papers, consisting of more than 200,000 items from 1930 until his death, are in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York City. They include his reporter’s notebooks, interview notes, and his bylined newspaper articles, as well as letters from many national and world figures. His memoirs, A Journey for Our Times (1983) and A Time of Change (1988) are complemented by six published diaries of his wife, Charlotte Salisbury, covering their travels in Russia and Asia from 1966 to 1983: Asian Diary (1967); China Diary (1973); Russian Diary (1974); China Diary: After Mao (1979); Tibetan Diary (1981) ; and The Long March Diary: China Epic (1986). An obituary is in the New York{ Times (7 July 1993).

Allan L. Damon