Utley, Freda (1898–1977)

views updated

Utley, Freda (1898–1977)

English-American journalist, author, and ardent critic of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Born Freda Utley on January 23, 1898, in London, England; died of a stroke at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., on January 21, 1977; daughter of Willie Herbert Utley (a journalist) and Emily (Williamson) Utley; educated at La Combe School, Geneva; Priors School, Surrey, England; King's College, London University, B.A. (first class honors), 1923; Westfield College, London University, M.A. (with distinction), 1925; research fellow, London School of Economics, 1926–27; doctorate, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1933; common-law marriage with Arcadi Berdichevsky, 1930; children: John (Jon) Basil.

Was a research fellow, London School of Economics (1926–28); worked as special correspondent, Manchester Guardian Commercial, in Japan (1928–29); employed in the Soviet Union by the Comintern, the Commissariat of Foreign Trade, the Commissariat of Light Industry, and the Institute of World Economy and Politics (1930–36); was special correspondent, London News-Chronicle, China war zone (1938); was an accredited correspondent, Reader's Digest, China (1945–46), Germany (1948); freelance writer.

Selected writings:

An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution (International, 1928); Lancashire and the Far East (G. Allen and Unwin, London, 1931); Japan's Feet of Clay (W.W. Norton, 1937); Japan's Gamble in China (Secker and Warburg, London, 1938); China at War (John Day, 1939); The Dream We Lost: Soviet Russia Then and Now (John Day, 1940); Lost Illusion (Fireside Press, 1948); The High Cost of Vengeance (Henry Regnery, 1949); The China Story: How We Lost Four Hundred Million Allies (Henry Regnery, 1951); Will the Middle East Go West? (Henry Regnery, 1957); Odyssey of a Liberal: Memoirs (Washington National Press, 1970).

During the night of April 10, 1936, a couple living in a three-room flat in Moscow heard a knock at the door. "We have guests," Arcadi Berdichevsky told his common-law wife. Springing out of bed, Freda Utley saw a soldier in the hall. Two secret police agents in uniform entered the sitting room, followed by the building's janitor. Forbidding them to speak, the secret police meticulously searched the apartment. The couple possessed hundreds of books. Each one was systematically examined. Utley recalled that when her eyes met Arcadi's "we gave each other a smile and a look of confidence and calm. One must keep calm. Is it a dream? Has the end come to pass? Is this now happening to us which has happened to so many others? Will the nightmare pass, or is this the end of our love and our life?"

At 9 am, the police led Berdichevsky away. After a parting kiss, Utley asked furtively, "To whom shall I go?" He shrugged. "No one can help," he said. Utley later recalled, "He passed out of my life on that lovely April morning in his old, Navy blue English flannel jacket, his black head hatless, a slight figure between the two stonefaced, khaki-clad police officers." Late in August 1936, Berdichevsky was sentenced without trial to five years at hard labor. Between that September and the following May, Utley received three postcards from him. Then all mail stopped, never to be resumed. Only on New Year's Eve of 1963 did she learn that her spouse had died on March 30, 1938, at Komi in the Arctic north.

Freda Utley's name would ever afterwards be linked with the strongest possible opposition to the Soviet Union and later to the People's Republic of China. In her books and articles, the British-born Utley fervently condemned Stalinist and Maoist rule and attacked any Westerners whom she perceived as favoring an accommodation to world communism. In her memoirs, she wrote, "It was I who had lured Arcadi to death or slavery in Soviet Russia by renewing his faith that God's kingdom on earth could be established by adhering to the godless faith of the Marxists."

Freda Utley was born on January 23, 1898, in London, England, to Willie Herbert Utley and Emily Williamson Utley . Both parents were Socialists, and indeed the couple had been introduced to each other by the son-in-law of Karl Marx. Willie was editorial writer and music critic for the London Star, contributed to British weeklies, and served as secretary of the Fabian Society. In Manchester, he had spoken from the same platform as Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels. Emily, who had grown up in a radical Manchester family, was a trained nurse.

For a time, Willie was so prosperous that his daughter grew up in a large home in Hampstead full of servants and governesses. From ages five to nine, Freda and her brother Temple traveled in Switzerland and Italy. Then, for two years, Freda attended La Combe School in Geneva, where she was the only English pupil. The atmosphere, she remembered, was "studious, tolerant, kindly, and healthy," qualities she certainly did not find at her next school, Priors, located in Surrey, England. Claiming that Priors embodied a "frigid, mind-destroying atmosphere," she developed a strong hatred of what she called "the imperialist English bourgeoise." In 1915, she was forced to leave Priors' School, for her father—already

tubercular—had suffered heavy business losses. Her mother nursed her invalid husband under conditions of extreme poverty: the couple lived in a two-room cottage in Cornwall so primitive that Emily had to fetch water from a bucket. Suddenly Freda was experiencing a social system that, she later said, "could fling one into poverty from security, and prevent one from continuing one's education whatever the proof of one's mental qualifications."

Utley first taught in Manchester, living on bread, margarine, and marmalade, then in 1916 became a resident governess in Hampshire. Early the next year, she was hired as a clerk at the War Office, drawing a salary of $11 a week. She also served as branch secretary of a trade union, the Association of War Clerks and Secretaries, through which she obtained a scholarship to King's College, London University. In 1923, she received a B.A. degree, with first class honors in history. Two years later, after study at London University's Westfield College, she earned an M.A. degree, her thesis centering on trade guilds of the late Roman Empire. As a research fellow at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1928, Utley studied the effect of Indian competition on the declining cotton industry of Lancashire. In the summer of 1926, she served as tutor to a son of philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom she later called "the greatest man I ever knew."

All this time, Utley was plunging into politics. She became secretary of the college's Socialist Society, then chair of the London University Labor Party. She joined the Independent Labor Party, a group more radical than the regular Labor Party. She also taught classes for the Workers' Educational Association, wrote book reviews for the London Daily Herald, and contributed articles to such journals as the New Leader, the New Statesman, Labour Monthly, and Contemporary Review. The General Strike of 1926 turned Utley to the extreme left as it convinced her of the reality of class war and the impossibility of any gradual approach towards socialism.

That year, while visiting a friend in Hamp-stead, Utley met Arcadi Berdichevsky, finance minister of the Soviet Trade Delegation in London. Never a Bolshevik, Berdichevsky had been a member of the Jewish Bund, a Social Democratic group in Russian Poland. Although always a dedicated Socialist, he had lived in England for six years and was ignorant of day-to-day life in the Soviet Union. Although Berdichevsky was already married, he and Utley were soon lovers.

In 1927, Utley visited the Soviet Union as vice president of the University Labor Federation, comprised of all the Labor and Socialist clubs in the British universities. Lenin's New Economic Policy was still in force and Leon Trotsky had not yet been exiled. Returning to England a true believer in the Russian experiment, Utley proclaimed her allegiance to British communism and addressed party meetings throughout the nation.

In the summer of 1928, when her London School fellowship ended, Freda joined Arcadi, who had moved to Moscow. "For him," she later wrote, "I was a symbol as well as the companion in the new life in socialist society which we both expected to lead." After brief employment as a translator, she went to China as a Comintern courier. Arriving in Shanghai, she met with leaders of the Communist underground. The couple spent 1929 in Tokyo, where she researched the textile industry and wrote for the Manchester Guardian Commercial, while Arcadi engaged in business activity for the Soviet government. By 1930, Utley had returned to Britain, where she served as a member of the party's Industrial Committee, wrote for Communist publications, and worked for the party among Lancashire textile workers.

Returning to Russia later that year, Utley entered into a common-law marriage with Berdichevsky. Arcadi worked for an economic agency, Promexport, which promoted the sale of Soviet manufactures overseas. Utley worked in turn for the Comintern, the Commissariat of Foreign Trade, the Commissariat of Light Industry, and the Institute of World Economy and Politics.

The couple lived a life of impoverishment, moving in Moscow from one primitive flat to another. At one point, they lived in a room with a single bed, a small table, and three hard chairs. Another time, they shared a bathroom with Berdichevsky's divorced wife and child and with another family of three. Moreover, the search for food became a daily struggle. Everywhere, Utley witnessed exploitation, starvation, gross incompetence, and a discriminatory reward system, with choice goods reserved for party functionaries. In 1933, she wrote her brother that Stalin was not a genuine Marxist and that she wished she could join Trotsky's exile movement. Soon she was disabused of Trotskyism as well.

Once her husband was arrested, Utley left Russia for England, for she feared her son might be in danger. Leaving her infant Jon in a nursery school in Ditching, Sussex, she returned to Russia where she daily joined the queue at the public prosecutor's office to discover her husband's fate. Whenever she was able to see an official, she was told to return in a few days. Soon she started writing letters of appeal—to the prosecutor; to the assistant chief of the secret police, Nikolay Tezhov; and even to dictator Stalin himself. No one replied.

Finally in July 1936, Utley went back to England, where she thought she could exert greater pressure. For two years, she did not speak publicly, for she feared that an open protest would seal Berdichevsky's fate. Only in 1938 did she ask the British Foreign Office for aid. Although deserted by her former Communist associates, she was befriended by Bertrand and Margery Spence Russell , Guardian correspondent Malcolm Muggeridge (himself much disillusioned with the Soviet Union), and Socialist author H.N. Brailsford, all of whom petitioned the Soviet Union to release Berdichevsky. Playwright George Bernard Shaw first refused to cooperate, telling Utley that "imprisonment under the Soviet is not as bad as it is here in the west." After much cajoling by the Russells, he eventually joined the appeal.

Never in my life have I seen a woman in whose heart and mind every hope on earth has been slain as has hers.

Agnes Smedley

Already Utley was becoming known as an Asian specialist. In Japan's Feet of Clay (1937), she called Japanese expansion "the most brutal, oppressive and destructive of all Imperialisms." Yet, so she argued, Japan was "putting up a big bluff to the world," starting its military aggression with the scantiest of food and industrial resources. Indeed, she found social revolution imminent.

In 1938, as special correspondent for the London News-Chronicle, Utley covered the China war. Part of a small band of Westerners she named "Hankow (Hankou)'s Last Ditches," she remained at China's beleaguered wartime capital until it fell to Japan. At one point, she ventured to the front at Nanking (Nanjing). The press corps gave her the name "Clayfoot Utley," a spoof on the title of her latest book, but she won respect by her willingness to bear hardship.

While in China, Utley formed a dislike for Song Meiling , commonly known as Mme Chiang Kai-shek, whom she found too egotistical and aloof from her people. Chiang Kai-shek himself, she believed, lacked vision and was insensitive to China's masses. At the same time, Utley welcomed courtship by China's Communists, whom she found agrarian reformers. Undoubtedly because of her strong opposition to Japanese expansion, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—unlike its Russian counterpart—did not consider her an apostate. Zhou Enlai visited her quarters and the Eighth Route Army gave a reception in her honor. She in turn found Zhou a charming, intelligent, "most persuasive" human being and the CCP producing "a different breed" of Communist. The reds, she asserted, were China's "greatest realists" and its "most modern-minded element."

In 1938, Utley's book Japan's Gamble in China was published, with an introduction by the British political scientist Harold J. Laski. At this stage of her writing, she believed in the reality of a United Front between the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang (Kuomintang). In a letter to the British weekly New Statesman and Nation written in January 1939, she wrote, "there are no 'Bolsheviks' to-day in China; they have all become 'Mensheviks.'" In another book, China at War (1939), she gave credit to Chiang's forces fighting on the Yangtze (Yangtse) River. She still argued that "the Chinese Communist Party long ago abandoned the dream of establishing its own dictatorship."

While she was en route to the United States in 1939, there to engage in a lecture tour, Utley's ship docked in Yokohama. The Japanese government, far from pleased with her writings, placed an armed guard outside her cabin door. Once in America, Utley addressed audiences from coast to coast for six weeks, sometimes speaking twice a day. Her sponsor: the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression, a group that wanted to embargo U.S. export of war materials to Japan.

All this time, Utley feared the advent of another war between Germany and the West, claiming that Stalin would exploit the opportunity to overrun "an exhausted and ruined Europe." In 1938, she endorsed the Munich agreement. In March 1939, she suggested that a Russo-German alliance was imminent, a view that seemed so absurd that she could not get it published. Once war broke out on September 1, 1939, Utley urged the U.S. to remain aloof from the conflict.

When Utley had given up all hope that her husband was alive, she wrote a fullscale exposé of communism, The Dream We Lost: Then and Now (1940, revised and reprinted as Lost Illusion [1948], with foreword by novelist John P. Marquand). Much of the book described, in the bitterest of terms, her personal life in the Soviet Union. She condemned Germany's "mad course of conquest" as well as Hitler's "brutality, ruthlessness, and mysticism." Yet she argued that if given economic opportunity and power, "the Germans may yet get rid of the brutal element now uppermost among the Nazis, and develop the progressive features of National Socialism: its Socialism as distinct from its rampant Nationalism." Indeed, she wrote of "the eventual democratization of the system." Furthermore, were the Germans to conquer the Soviet Union, the victory "would be a boon to the Russian masses" as Nazism ensured "the full development and utilization of resources." Continuing on this theme, Utley told a radio audience in July 1940: "The Russian brand of national socialism is even more oppressive, and far more destructive of life and material prosperity than the German."

In October 1941, Utley called for a negotiated peace, a proposal given national circulation in Reader's Digest. Here she claimed that the U.S. should place its power unequivocally behind any British efforts to reach an accommodation among equals. Such a truce, she conceded, would leave the European continent under German domination, but she found it the only way that Britain could preserve its trade and industrial plant. To Utley, any American invasion of the European continent would be folly, while wholesale bombing and economic blockade were counter-productive. Were such a peace made, there lay "the reasonable hope" that Germany would rid itself of "the gangsters that now rule her, and revert to civilized values."

By the end of 1939, Utley had decided to settle in the U.S., but she was unable to get citizenship until five years later. Her former Communist affiliations and extreme version of isolationism held up her application. Living in Baltimore, then in Greenwich Village, New York, she lectured and wrote in almost destitute conditions. Her contributions were usually to journals of small circulation, such as the New Leader, the Progressive, Asia, and Common Sense (where her plea for a negotiated peace originally appeared). In 1940, she became economic adviser to Starr, Park, and Freeman, Inc., an underwriting firm, where she worked until 1944. Her prediction in July 1941 that Japan would soon fight the U.S. saved the firm considerable funds.

In 1944, Utley moved to Washington, D.C., where she was consultant to the Chinese Supply Commission. She also gave confidential reports on China to the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. wartime intelligence agency. Her enthusiasm for the Chinese Communists had chilled when Communist leader Mao Zedong rationalized Stalin's 1939 pact with Hitler. By 1941, she was portraying them as "under the aegis of a foreign power which is not the least interested in them, but only in the survival of the Stalinist bureaucracy." In an article in the American Mercury published in September 1944, Utley conceded that Chiang Kai-shek's ruling party, the Guomindang, possessed many shortcomings; it had, however, been making progress until Japan's attack in 1937.

In October 1945, Reader's Digest sent Utley to China as correspondent. During her stay, she visited Chongqing (Chungking), Shanghai, Yan'an (Yenan), and Beijing (Peking). Interviewing both Chiang and Communist leader Zhou Enlai, she claimed that the two might be "noble men." Still maintaining that the CCP was an instrument of the Soviet Union, she argued in her report, Last Chance in China (1947), that the U.S. should equip the Nationalist armies. At the same time, to insure lack of corruption, the U.S. should insist upon the installation of reformist officials to direct the nation's rehabilitation. Although the Guomindang would have to borrow money from the United States, it could raise additional funds by exporting to Japan's former markets in Asia. Utley went so far as to claim that the Guomindang was not tyrannical but—to the contrary—too weak. She wrote, "The main defect of the Chinese Government is not its dictatorial character but its failure to govern, the graft with which it is riddled and its inability to check abuses and carry out the reforms to which it is pledged." She continued, "The American demand for a strong and democratic China is totally unrealistic. China should not be expected to run before she can walk."

When, in 1949, the CCP took control of China, Utley blamed the United States. In The China Story (1951), she wrote, "We lost China by default and opened the way to the Communist conquest of the Far East." It was, she implied, a small clique of Communist sympathizers in America, epitomized by such figures as journalist Edgar Snow, who had deceived ordinary Americans into believing that Chinese Communists were merely agrarian reformers (her own former belief). Yet, noting that Chiang proclaimed a land-reform program in October 1950, when he established a rump regime on Taiwan, she wrote, "Sometimes a great disaster is required to awaken men to their fundamental errors."

In the immediate postwar years, much of Utley's attention was focused on Germany. In 1948, she covered events there for Reader's Digest, out of which emerged The High Cost of Vengeance (1949). She found the denazification proceedings unfair, the dismantling of industrial plants reckless. To Utley, the forced removals of German nationals from the Sudetenland and Silesia equaled "those crimes against humanity" (a term used in the Nuremberg indictment) committed by the Nazis. Indeed, so she claimed, for the women and children who perished on the forced march, "a quick death in a gas chamber would have been relatively merciful." Unlike many former isolationists, Utley endorsed the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, Atlantic Pact, and U.S. entry into the Korean War.

When in 1950 Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Rep.-Wis.) attacked Sinologist Owen Lattimore, Utley wrote one of McCarthy's speeches against the China specialist. Lattimore had befriended Utley in 1936 and Utley once used Lattimore as a character reference. Testifying before a Senate investigating committee, Utley denied McCarthy's charge that Lattimore was the top Kremlin agent in the U.S., but branded him "an out-and-out defender of the Soviet government," a man who had "done more than anyone else to have poisoned the wells of opinion with respect to China." She called Lattimore a "Judas cow," a stockyard animal that led others to the slaughter. "The Communist cancer," she said, "must be cut out if we are to survive as a free nation. Perhaps in this operation some healthy tissues on the fringe will be destroyed."

During 1952 and 1953, Utley was a correspondent in Europe for Pathfinder and the Freeman. Although she would write occasionally for Commonweal and the Saturday Review of Literature, she wrote most frequently for the American Mercury. When the Korean War ended in 1953, she claimed that President Dwight Eisenhower had delivered half of Korea to the aggressors. Eisenhower's efforts at détente always found her in opposition.

When William F. Buckley's conservative weekly, National Review, was first launched in 1956, Utley's name was briefly on the masthead. She was, however, never a woman of the extreme right. Indeed, when she first arrived in America, her circle tended to be more likely comprised of strongly anti-Communist Socialists than of staunch Republicans. Without the threat of totalitarianism, she mused, the capitalist system might never have been able to have "resolved its contradictions." She accused the anarcho-capitalist author Ayn Rand of "believing in no god but Mammon." She served as ghost-writer for conservative General Albert Wede-meyer, whose modesty she had once praised, but ended up finding him too vain and equivocal.

During 1956, Utley visited India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. On her return, she praised American opposition to the joint English-French-Israeli attack on Suez. In her book Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), she asserted that the 1948 partition of Palestine had been unjust and claimed that Israel deserved Western protection. The Zionist state on its part, Utley said, should "accept definite boundaries and abandon her aim to ingather the Jews from everywhere in the world."

Utley wrote her memoirs, Odyssey of a Liberal, a spirited account as revealing of her politics as of her life, seven years before her death in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1977. She chastised those conservatives who "fail to see the need for change," claimed that the Communist powers constituted a greater menace than Nazi Germany ever possessed, and endorsed an American victory in Vietnam. She justified calling herself a liberal by a quotation from British poet William Morris that she frequently cited:

I pondered all these things and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat; and when it comes about it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.


Utley, Freda. The Dream We Lost: Soviet Russia Then and Now. NY: John Day, 1940.

——. Lost Illusion. Philadelphia, PA: Fireside Press, 1948.

——. Odyssey of a Liberal: Memoirs. Washington, DC: Washington National Press, 1970.

suggested reading:

Doenecke, Justus D. Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Newnman, Robert P. Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.

Regnery, Henry. Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.

Shewmaker, Kenneth E. Americans and Chinese Communists: A Persuading Encounter, 1927–1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971.


Papers of Freda Utley are located in the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford, California.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida