An astonishingly high percentage of millennials do not know who communist leaders like Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin were. Even worse, among those actually familiar with these leaders, a quarter had a favorable opinion of Lenin and a full 37% admired Che Guevara.
These are among the most eye-popping results of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s survey of American attitudes toward capitalism, socialism, and communism.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding is how many Americans, and particularly millennials, lacked basic knowledge of the crimes of communist regimes. About 30% of millennials labored under the delusion that George W. Bush’s administration had killed more people than Joseph Stalin.
Only 37% had a very unfavorable view of communism, and a little less than 20% thought it likely they could vote for a Communist political candidate.
These results are, alas, no surprise to anyone who teaches at an American university. Even college students at elite institutions have an abysmal lack of historical information, fueled in good part by the gutting of general education requirements.
Hiding crimes at the New York Times
You can be sure that if a reputable survey had found such widespread admiration for Adolf Hitler or demonstrated an ignorance of the Holocaust and willingness to vote for a Nazi running for political office, it would generate outrage, hand-wringing about historical amnesia, and front-page stories in the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets about the danger to democratic values festering in the body politic.
There was no such reaction to this survey, however.
That very same media bears a significant amount of blame for the public ignorance about the most murderous, blood-soaked ideology of the twentieth century. Along with the American educational system, it has whitewashed or glossed over the crimes of communism for many years.
It began with the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, who covered up the horrific man-made Ukrainian famine of the 1930s that killed millions — and won a Pulitzer Prize for his lies. It continued with the New York Times’ Havana correspondent Herbert Matthews, who glorified Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, concealed their communist beliefs, and assured Americans that they were simply democratic reformers. That same newspaper printed the delusions of Sydney Schanberg, who hailed the victory of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
To this day, the Times is far quicker to raise alarms about the activities of fascist or neofascist groups than to cover the behavior of their communist counterparts.
Consider the attention the media has given to the lunatics of the far right who endorsed Donald Trump for president. Did anyone bother to note that the Communist Party of the United States endorsed Hillary Clinton? Was she pressed to repudiate its support?
Forgetting the lessons of communism
Most Americans are familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust; it is a subject taught in schools, and its lessons are hammered home in such public commemorations and displays as the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Such reminders are absolutely necessary and proper. They are a vivid demonstration of the brutality and evil that America helped to destroy during World War II, and a warning about the consequences of racial and ethnic hatred.
Where are the equivalent warnings about the evils of communism? Communist regimes murdered even more people than fascist ones.
For more than 70 years, they conducted a ruthless war on their own citizens, starving tens of millions in deliberate campaigns to bring the peasantry to heel, executing millions because of their class background or their ethnic identity, deporting whole populations for the sole crime of belonging to a group labeled an enemy of the people, imprisoning thousands of intellectuals for their writings or ideas, persecuting religious believers, and arbitrarily shipping dissidents and innocents alike to concentration camps where they labored under horrendous conditions.
Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews. Stalin alone is responsible for some 20 million deaths. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s policies led to some 45 million Chinese dying. And the Khmer Rouge killed nearly 2 million in Cambodia. Every other communist regime accounted for tens of thousands of other murders.
The failures of communism
Such horrific figures were justified on the grounds that they were necessary to remove traitors and to build a utopian society. But communist societies failed miserably in their efforts to surpass capitalism.
The Soviet Union and its East European satellites collapsed because they were failed states. China has managed to survive only because it abandoned the communist economic model, retaining only the politically repressive one-party state. Other communist states, like Cuba and North Korea, are poor, repressive, and isolated nations.
Venezuela, which adopted a Marxist economic model, is in economic collapse despite having the world’s largest oil reserves; it is unable to feed its people, pay its public servants, or even produce enough toilet paper.
And these are the models that 20% of millennials think worth emulating. It is most unlikely that the vast majority of young Americans holding such views are aware of the human costs of the ideology they admire or would really vote for someone advocating such an ideology.
But it is worth asking what they are being taught — or not taught — in high school and college. The United States vanquished two totalitarian enemies in the twentieth century. If American democracy is to survive, it must teach its young that both of those battles were worth waging and winning.