In Other Words

The Disappeared

Even the Soviet Union eventually acknowledged Stalin's Great Famine. Why does China still hide evidence of its own mass starvation under Mao?

For decades, the Soviet Union hid its horrors behind the Iron Curtain. The worst of them was Joseph Stalin's man-made famine in Ukraine and southern Russia, the result of his program of forced rural collectivization that claimed the lives of 7 to 10 million people in 1932 and 1933. Land, property, livestock, even houses were requisitioned as farmers became state employees forced to deliver ever higher grain quotas. Those who resisted or tried to hide food were deported to the Gulag or executed. Whole parts of the Ukrainian countryside turned into death zones. Millions perished, yet Stalin managed to silence all talk of the famine, sending those who breathed a word of it to labor camps in far-off Siberia. The census data, which would have shown a huge spike in mortality rates, were locked away for half a century.

But even before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Communist Party leaders in Ukraine started investigating the famine in their own party archives. They found a wealth of gruesome documentation. Some of the most shocking evidence came from photographs of starving children with skeletal heads, ribs poking through their skin, begging for a scrap of food on the pavement in Kharkov, Ukraine's capital at the time of the famine. One picture showed emaciated corpses piled onto a cart, drumstick limbs akimbo amid a tumble of bodies. These were not a few isolated snapshots -- there were hundreds of images. Leonid Kravchuk, who would later become Ukraine's first democratically elected president, was one of the first to see this evidence. He was so haunted by the faces of the children killed by the famine that he persuaded Vladimir Ivashko, then the first secretary of Ukraine's Communist Party, to approve the reproduction of 350 photographs in a book released to the public in 1990. Today, the famine is officially and universally remembered across Ukraine as the Holodomor, literally "death by hunger."

A man-made disaster of even greater magnitude shook China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a campaign he called the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao Zedong herded the countryside into giant collective farms in 1958, believing that they would catapult his country into a utopia of plenty for all. As in Ukraine, everything was collectivized: Villagers were robbed of their work, homes, land, belongings, and livelihood. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known; at least 45 million people died of starvation over four years, as I found out when I was given unprecedented access to recently opened Communist Party archives in China.

I read through thousands of documents: secret reports from the Public Security Bureaus, detailed minutes of top party meetings, investigations into cases of mass murder, inquiries compiled by special teams tasked with determining the extent of the catastrophe, secret opinion surveys, and letters of complaint written by ordinary citizens. Some were neatly written in longhand, others typed out on flimsy, yellowing paper. Some were excruciating to read, for instance, a report written by an investigation team noting the case of a boy in a Hunan village who had been caught stealing a handful of grain. A local Communist Party cadre forced his father to bury the boy alive. The father died of grief a few days later.

Other documents presented the famine's horror in the sterile language typical of communist bureaucracy. A police report I discovered in one provincial archive listed some 50 cases of cannibalism, all in a city in Gansu, a province in northwestern China:

Date: 25 February 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Yaohejia Village. Name of Culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Yang Ershun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother. Number of People Involved: 1. Manner of Crime: Killed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

But despite months of patient work sifting through mountains of yellowing folders, I never came across a single photograph of the catastrophe in those archives.

Historians in Beijing explained away the lack of photographic evidence by telling me that party cadres at the time did not have any cameras, as China was still a poor country. It's not a convincing explanation: The archives are replete with criminal investigations that contain exhaustive photographic evidence from the 1950s and 1960s -- mug shots of criminals, photos of crime scenes, even rolls of film documenting land disputes between collective farms. Certainly the state propaganda machine never lacked for photographic equipment. Today, it's easy to find online black-and-white photos from 1958 to 1962 showing peasants cheerfully driving the latest tractor model through the fields; rosy-cheeked children gathering around tables laden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in collective canteens; and Chairman Mao plodding through the fields in a straw hat and cotton shoes, or marveling at a bumper harvest. There are even photos of Mao's nemesis, head of state Liu Shaoqi, investigating the famine in his home district in Hunan province in 1961.

So what happened to the visual evidence of one of the world's most horrifying atrocities?

The Red Guards, Mao's armed revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution, probably destroyed it. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in part to eliminate senior officials who criticized his reckless economic experiments that had led to the famine. As Red Guards started seizing state institutions by force in 1967, government servants destroyed records and any visual material en masse -- anything that could have discredited Mao's Great Leap Forward. Individuals with photos of the brutal starvation acted with the same impulse. Rae Yang, the daughter of a family of diplomats who had served abroad, saw her parents burn all the letters they had kept, as well as some old photographs, flushing the ash down the toilet.

But not all the evidence was reduced to ashes. It's a pretty good guess that photographs of the famine are still locked away deep inside party vaults. After all, some of the most sensitive material on the Great Leap Forward remains classified. Entire collections -- most of the central archives in Beijing, for instance -- remain beyond the reach of even highly accredited party historians. In their acclaimed biography of the chairman, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday report that during the Cultural Revolution, when senior officials like Liu were tortured to death, security personnel took photographs and sent them to Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. These, too, are probably filed away in some secret gallery of horrors.

For four years, I studied Mao's famine, and only once have I seen a visual illustration of its awfulness. In 2009, I visited a historian in a drab concrete building in the suburbs of Beijing. He, too, had been working on the history of the Great Leap Forward, burrowing in archives for more than a decade and obsessively documenting the starvation that had decimated the region of his birth, a county barely 100 miles north of Mao's hometown in Hunan. Stacks of photocopied archival material bulged out of filing cabinets in his sparse office. I asked him whether he had ever seen a photograph of the famine. He frowned and reluctantly pulled out a folder with a reproduction of the only picture he had discovered. It came from the files of the party committee in his home county and was from a police investigation into a case of cannibalism. The small, fading picture showed a young man standing against a brick wall, peering straight into the camera, seemingly emotionless. By his feet stood a large pot containing the parts of a young boy, his head and limbs severed from his body. 

Jean-Yves Bajon Collection (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)

In Other Words

A Father's Secret…

And his journalist son's search for the truth.

For most of my childhood, I didn't know my father was a spy. He and I traveled the world for a quarter-century as he worked in Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan, Spain, and several other countries. To my knowledge, he was a diplomat, which I understood to mean cocktail parties, foreign languages, and embassies.

He cut a dashing figure -- tall, handsome, charming -- and I wanted to be just like him. His shelves were crowded with books about espionage, and he encouraged me in my obsession with James Bond movies. Sometimes my dad would disappear for long stretches and out-of-town trips. "Gotta see a man about a horse," he'd say with a wink, and I knew I wasn't meant to indulge my curiosity further. In Yugoslavia, he would take our dog, Duke, out for long walks alone at night. It was only much later that I learned he was slipping away to deliver "dead drops" in the parks near our house. In Pakistan he took me on trips to the North-West Frontier Province, where we stood on hills and watched as Afghan refugees fled the 1980s war against the Soviets. My childhood was filled with adventures like this. My father seemed uniquely capable of living life with such panache.

Only when I was 14 did he finally tell me the truth. We were sitting in a car in a parking lot on Detroit's outskirts. Above us was his office, three small rooms with a sign that said "Apex Insurance." "Do you know what I do?" my father asked me. After a brief hesitation he told me the answer: He had been an undercover CIA officer since the late 1960s, and all his embassy jobs had been designed as cover assignments for his real task, spying. He instructed me that from then on I was to be the keeper of his secrets. There was a greater good, he explained. I was old enough to understand it and old enough to be a part of it. His secret became mine.

When I became a foreign correspondent many years later, I had a vague notion that journalism was about as far as one could get from spying. One was about disseminating information as widely as possible; the other was about keeping it a closely guarded secret. As I traveled, however, I found far more similarities in our professions than I had been comfortable admitting. When, as a CIA contractor, my father traveled to Afghanistan after I had worked there in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he often talked to the same people, asked the same questions, and traveled the same roads I had as a reporter. In Khost he lived in a Special Forces camp just down the road from where I had stayed and spent his days talking to provincial governors and grizzled Pashtun elders about their problems, just as I had.

A few years later we both found ourselves in Jordan. He was stationed there, and I was on my way into Iraq. Once again we were both confronted with the parallel tracks our lives and careers were taking. In Baghdad I struggled to stay on top of the daily drumbeat of attacks in an attempt to document Iraq's growing civil war, while my father, in Amman, focused more closely on identifying who was behind the spiraling violence. Although our tasks were different, the larger story of the war's effect on the Middle East had caught both of us in its grasp. It was unnerving to be so close to him physically, in a dangerous part of the world, yet in the dark about what exactly he was doing. Journalism was about telling stories, but it seemed the one story I could not tell was the story of my father.

IT WAS IN Mexico City, of all places, that I finally became determined to get that story -- the real story, that is. I had been assigned there as Newsweek's Latin America bureau chief -- 34 years after my father had moved there, as an adventurous student and then teacher, and found himself on the way to becoming a Cold War spy. It's often forgotten today, but Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s had become an important proxy battlefield between the United States and the Soviet Union, teeming with spies for both sides as they sought advantage in the tumultuous political protests racking Mexico City in 1968. There were excesses on both sides, and the year I arrived in Mexico, President Vicente Fox had begun pressing his government to open up its files about "the dirty war" -- the period in the '60s and '70s when the Mexican government had waged a brutal campaign to suppress and ultimately destroy nascent leftist rebel groups and communist guerrilla movements. For the first time, government officials were beginning to talk openly about the country's darkest secrets. Mexico had established a freedom of information law by then, and reporters, myself included, were poring through old documents, trying to piece together what had happened more than 30 years before.

Much attention focused on the night of Oct. 2, 1968, when several thousand protesters gathered in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas, angry about police violence and the government's recent crackdowns on free speech. As the demonstrators milled about, Mexican Army and security forces, for reasons that remain contested to this day, moved into the plaza and began shooting. At least several dozen were killed; many more were abducted -- "disappeared" in the language of the time -- never to be heard from again. That massacre in Mexico City's Tlatelolco area would forever be cemented as the single worst episode in the long, sorry history of Mexico's dirty war against its own people.

The turbulence Mexico was experiencing as these facts came spilling out in many ways mirrored the personal story I was just beginning to probe -- cracked, partial, and fragmented, to be sure, but there all the same. I soon learned the year of the Tlatelolco massacre was the year my father had lived in Mexico and was recruited by the CIA. As I began reporting on Mexico's political evolution decades later, I found myself returning again and again to my father's past -- and my own complicity in it. As Mexico faced its secrets, I faced mine.

That same spring of 1968, I learned, my father was working as a political science instructor at the University of the Americas. A group of Soviet spies had infiltrated my father's campus attempting to recruit one of his students. When my father discovered the plot, he cleverly engineered a meeting with the local CIA officers -- and was soon recruited himself. He would go on to serve as an "access agent" for the U.S. spies in Mexico, helping them orchestrate a dangerous operation to ensnare a KGB officer who had penetrated the university -- and even spending several hours in a Mexican jail to help them trap the Soviet spy. The experience was enough to whet his appetite for more. He left Mexico for training in the United States soon after and within a year embarked on his spying career.

One of my father's stories of his time in Mexico had always stood out for me. He found himself on a Mexico City rooftop, peering down into a crowd of student protesters. My father sympathized with the students, he had frequently told me, and he often marched with them in the streets. A friend from the university had wanted to take some footage for a movie he was making that day, and he and my dad went up to the roof to get a better view. As a child, the image of my father peering out as thousands of people gathered below was mysterious and intriguing, but also vaguely unsettling.

By the time I was in Mexico working as a reporter, I began to wonder whether my father's role was more than mere coincidence. I knew people who had lost loved ones to the government's tyranny. My father had been a witness, and possibly more, to those terrible times. As a journalist I wanted to know everything about what he had seen or done, but as a son, I was afraid of what I might discover.

When I filed requests with Mexico's newly formed freedom of information service, writing my father's name in the topic line felt like an act of betrayal. Digging through documents unearthed by the National Security Archive, I found evidence that "trained observers" had been present on the rooftops of the nearby Chihuahua Complex the night of the Tlatelolco massacre. I also read about an anonymous "American" who had reported on some of the goings-on in those weeks and months. Had my father witnessed the massacre?

The more I dug, the more suspicious I became, and I was soon forced to question my own motivations. The year I moved to Mexico I had met and fallen in love with a woman whose father, a leftist guerrilla commander, was jailed in 1968 for allegedly subversive activities. Her father had been on one side of the dirty war and was punished badly for it. Which side, I wondered, had my father been on? The possibility, however slight, that there was a darker truth to my father's life in Mexico also opened up the uncomfortable prospect that the rest of his life and career were black holes. I wondered how much of what he had told me was the truth and how much he could never tell me. Most troublingly, I began to wonder how well I knew my father at all.

I finally decided to confront him. When my father responded by telling me the same story about the rooftop he had related so many times, I didn't believe him. I was reminded instead of something he had told me years before. I had wanted to know how he had learned to extract information from his agents, about the dangers of navigating the line between secrecy and disclosure, and how he, how anyone for that matter, went about recruiting Soviets, a crowning achievement for any American spy. My father told me something he had learned from one of his teachers, a former Soviet intelligence official who had defected to the United States and was by then, in 1969, working for the CIA in Washington, D.C., training young recruits. You'll never be able to recruit a Soviet with Sears, Roebuck catalogs or golden tales about the capitalist high life, the Soviet officer told the class. "Soviets recruit themselves," the teacher said. His students just needed to learn how to be -- or how to become -- "the kind of person" in whom Soviets would entrust their fate.

Over the course of my career in journalism, I've spent years reporting in conflict zones -- in Afghanistan and Iraq, and across Africa -- and trying to live up to my father's advice to become the "kind of person" who could procure and then deliver valuable information. Digging into my father's past, however, I found myself using the same methods he had taught me -- eliciting information rather than asking for it outright, making myself available for him, trying to build conversations rather than interrogations.

Eventually I discovered that he had not, in fact, been on the same rooftop the night of the Tlatelolco massacre. This was not a journalistic revelation so much as it was a personal one. I had wanted to confirm through my reporting what I already knew as a human being -- that my father was a good man. He had become a CIA spy in Mexico, but he had never come anywhere close to being involved in a dirty-war massacre. As a reporter, I sort of wished he had told me more. But as a son, I couldn't have been more relieved. If there is a coda to any of this, it is that I will only ever know part of the truth. My father's life, and mine to a certain extent, will only ever be a story. Any child of a spy will tell you the same thing.

Photos courtesy of Scott Johnson