09 February, 2009
George Seldes was an influential American investigative journalist and media critic.
Seldes was born in Alliance, New Jersey. The writer and critic Gilbert Seldes was his younger brother. When he was nineteen, he went to work at the Pittsburgh Leader. In 1914, he was appointed night editor of the Pittsburgh Post. As a young journalist, he was influenced by the investigative journalism of Lincoln Steffens.
In 1916, Seldes moved to London where he worked for the United Press. When the United States joined the First World War in 1917, Seldes was sent to France where he worked as the war correspondent for the Marshall Syndicate. At end of the war, he obtained an exclusive interview with Paul von Hindenburg, the supreme commander of the German Army, but the article was suppressed and never appeared in American news media.
According to Seldes, the battle of Saint-Mihiel never happened. In his book Even the Gods Can't Change History, Chapter 1, First Encounter with the Goddess of History: Saint-Mihiel, he gives his account of what really happened there. There really was going to be a battle. General Pershing had planned to capture Saint-Mihiel, "following it up with a flanking movement on Metz and an encircling movement to cut the German line of retreat and capture whole German armies." However, on September 1 the Germans made a decision to remove all forces from Saint-Mihiel in order to reinforce other positions. So on the day of the expected battle, September 13, Seldes by chance was among the first to enter the city and be met by the inhabitants as the saviors, before General Pershing, Petain, and other high-ranking officers. Not one bullet was fired. Thousands of Germans did fall prisoners, but days later as they arrived at the train station by mistake, as a reinforcement of the German troops that had long ago left the city.
In the interview, Hindenburg acknowledged the role America had played in defeating Germany. "The American infantry," said Hindenburg, "won the World War in battle in the Argonne." But American newspaper readers never read those outstanding words. Seldes and the others were accused of breaking the Armistice and were court martialed. They were also forbidden to write anything about the interview.
Seldes himself believed that the blocking of the interview proved to be tragic. Instead of hearing straight from the mouth of Germany's supreme commander that they were beaten fair and square on the battlefield, another story took hold — the Dolchstoss (or "stab-in-the-back"), the myth that Germany did not lose in battle but was betrayed at home by "the socialists, the Communists and the Jews." This was the central lie upon which Nazism was founded.
"If the Hindenburg interview had been passed by Pershing's censors at the time, it would have been headlined in every country civilized enough to have newspapers and undoubtedly would have made an impression on millions of people and became an important page in history," wrote Seldes in Witness to a Century. "I believe it would have destroyed the main planks on which Hitler rose to power, it would have prevented World War II, the greatest and worst war in all history, and it would have changed the future of all mankind."
Seldes spent the next ten years as an international reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He interviewed Lenin in 1922, but the Soviet government did not like Seldes's reports, and he was expelled from the country the following year.
The Chicago Tribune sent him to Italy where he wrote about Benito Mussolini and the rise of fascism. Seldes investigated the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, the head of the Italian Socialist Party. His article implicated Mussolini in the killing, and Seldes was expelled from Italy.
In 1927, the Chicago Tribune sent Seldes to Mexico, but his articles criticizing American corporations concerning their use of that country's mineral rights were not well received. Seldes returned to Europe but found that increasingly his work was being censored to fit the political views of the newspaper's owner, Robert McCormack.
Disillusioned, Seldes left the Tribune and went to work as a freelance writer. In his first two books, You Can't Print That! (1929) and Can These Things Be! (1931), Seldes included material that he had not been allowed to publish in the Tribune. His next book, World Panorama (1933), was a narrative history of the interbellum period.
In 1934, Seldes published a history of the Roman Catholic Church, The Vatican. This was followed by an exposé of the global arms industry, Iron, Blood and Profits(1934), an account of Benito Mussolini, Sawdust Caesar (1935), and two books on the newspaper business, Freedom of the Press (1935) and Lords of the Press (1938). He also reported on the Spanish Civil War for the New York Post.
On his return to the United States in 1940, Seldes published Witch Hunt, an account of the persecution of people with left-wing political views in America, and The Catholic Crisis, where he attempted to show the close relationship between the Catholic Church and fascist organizations in Europe.
From 1940 to 1950, Seldes published a political newsletter, In fact, which at the height of its popularity had a circulation of 176,000. One of the first articles published in the newsletter concerned the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Seldes later explained that at the time, "The tobacco stories were suppressed by every major newspaper. For ten years we pounded on tobacco as being one of the only legal poisons you could buy in America."
As well as writing his newsletter, Seldes continued to publish books. These included Facts and Fascism (1943), 1000 Americans (1947), an account of the people who controlled America, and The People Don't Know (1949) on the origins of the Cold War.
In the early 1950s, Seldes came under attack from Joseph McCarthy, who accused him of being a communist. Seldes was blacklisted and found it difficult to publish his work. However, he continued to write books: Tell the Truth and Run (1953), Never Tire of Protesting (1968), Even the Gods Can't Change History (1976) and Witness to a Century (1987).
In 1981, Seldes appeared in Warren Beatty's Reds, a film about the life of journalist John Reed. Seldes appears as one of the film's 'witnesses' commenting on the historical events depicted in the film.
Seldes died in 1995 at age 104.