By WILLIAM JOHNSON – 18/03/01
In the fall of 1955, René Lévesque was sent on an assignment that he would consider the decisive break in his career as a journalist. Radio-Canada, his employer, chose him to accompany External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson on an official visit to the Soviet Union. This was no routine assignment. It came at what was hoped to be a turning point in the Cold War, the fraught tensions between the USSR, totalitarian master of Eastern Europe, and the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO – led by the United States.
Lévesque would recall that experience proudly over the next three decades when he was interviewed about his career. He would recall it in great detail in his 1986 book of memoirs. He even declared his reporting on the climactic meeting between Pearson and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, held on October 11, 1955, to be “ce scoop, le plus flamboyant de ma carrière.”1 He claimed that his report on that meeting was published on all the front pages of the great newspapers of the world because he had penetrated behind the Iron Curtain and provided a revealing first portrait of the still mysterious Soviet leader. But, he claimed, his remarkable report was quashed by Radio-Canada at the demand of federal authorities because it portrayed Pearson in a bad light. This treatment, he claimed, was a factor motivating his later embrace of separatism.
Since the former Premier of Quebec gave such outstanding importance to this particular episode, his narrative of it, which varied considerably over the years, calls for careful scrutiny to verify the true facts of the case. Few other events in his life reveal so clearly the complexity of his character and the deep motivation that inspired his words and actions, first as a journalist and finally as one of Quebec’s most influential politicians of all time.
Here is his own final account, published in his memoirs in the year before his death. It begins by setting the scene:
The place, the U.S.S.R.; the time, 1955, shortly after the death of Stalin. Trailing along on the skirts of Lester Pearson, Minister of External Affairs, our little press team was making its first incursion behind the Iron Curtain.2
1. René Lévesque, Attendez que je me rappelle…, Montréal, Québec/Amérique, 1986, p. 180. An English version of his memoirs is available : René Lévesque, Memoirs, translated from the French by Philip Stratford, Toronto, M&S, 1986, p. 136.
2. I am using here the English translation of Lévesque’s memoirs. In the French edition, this appears on p. 175.
I will skip his account of the Canadian delegation’s progression from Ottawa, with stops in Prague and Warsaw, to an ostentatious official reception in Moscow. The climax of the trip came when Pearson travelled in a small Russian plane to Mishor, in the Crimea, for an evening meeting with Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin. Here is how Lévesque described the first few minutes of that encounter, while journalists were permitted to attend, before the meeting then went behind closed doors:
Toward the end of the day it was an equally curious amalgam that we discovered assembled in one of the most impregnable sites of Yalta. Before the huge white villa with exquisitely elegant columns stood a couple more black jalopies, somewhat the worse for wear, and a gang of bodyguards, peevish louts in thick uniforms, like some archduke’s modest personnel who had been briefly released among the petunias.
Nikita Sergeivitch Khrushchev3 was also a typical moujik. The thickset peasant stuffed into a well-cut suit received us in the salon and sat still, letting us approach as if in royal audience. But his bright, shifty eyes suddenly came to rest on the little tape recorder I was carrying by a strap over my shoulder. Not even waiting for the end of the presentations, he asked me what it was.
“It’s for the radio.”
“Ah! Radio, da, da, horosho!”4
Brushing aside his slightly nervous bodyguards with an imperious look, he made me unload my gear onto a small table and asked me to turn it on. After which, like a well-trained boxer, he literally sprang at poor Pearson.
“So you come from Canada, the American colony. And you have the nerve to criticize what you choose to call our satellites!”
“But, er…but…” spluttered our crestfallen minister.
“And this organization,” shot out Khrushchev, rushing his interpreter, “the one you have baptized NATO, this means North Atlantic, no? And doesn’t it move outside the Atlantic and come dangerously close to our frontiers?”
“Er, but, it’s for defence…”
“Well, you really make me laugh! Defence against what? Against us? Ridiculous! Talk about defence, we know something about that, let me tell you, and what it costs, and something about aggression, too. We haven’t the slightest wish to get into that again. It’s you who are threatening us, and I’d be much obliged if you’d tell your partners that.”
Pearson was on the canvas. Collecting his wits again he asked to have the diplomats, one of whom was George Ignatieff, later delegate to the United Nations, shown to their rooms. The media contingent, myself included, was put up in a superb suite on the ground floor.5
3. The name of the Soviet leader is spelled variously in the texts that I’ll be quoting. For the sake of consistency, I’ll spell it Khrushchev in English and Khrouchtchev in French.
4. Horosho! in English, means great! or fine!
5. Lévesque, Memoirs, op. cit., p. 133-34. French version, pp. 177-78.
Here, writing three decades after the event, Lévesque portrays Lester Pearson as a sputtering hapless victim of Khrushchev’s verbal assault during those early minutes of the meeting, before the journalists were ushered out. Lévesque used theatrical techniques to convey a scene where one participant, Pearson, was crushed, overwhelmed, reduced to babbling inarticulateness, by the other participant – the powerful and assertive Khrushchev. The Canadian minister is described as “poor Pearson.” He has become “our crestfallen minister.” He “spluttered” rather than spoke. He was unable to utter a single complete sentence. “Pearson was on the canvas.” Then, he is “collecting his wits,” which presumes that they had previously deserted him. Hapless Pearson is portrayed as resorting to a ploy so as to escape from his torment: he requests that the members of his party be shown to their rooms. That also suggests that the official meeting was over and that those first few minutes adequately conveyed the substance of the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting. Lévesque now had “the most flamboyant scoop of his career.”
This clear-cut scenario, however, is contradicted by the reports of other participants at the event and, more importantly, by the contemporary account of reporter Richard Needham, the other Canadian journalist present at the event. Here is what the Globe and Mail published in its edition of October 13, 1955:
On Canada’s NATO Role
Pearson, Red Leader Argue
By R. J. Needham
Moscow, Oct. 13 (Thursday) – Tired but cheerful and satisfied with the results of his Russian trip, External Affairs Minister Pearson boarded an RCAF plane shortly after noon today at Saky in the Crimea and left for Singapore.
Prior to departure, he had visited Stalingrad and Sebastopol where he saw and heard of war damage and spent the night at Mishor, a Crimean holiday resort on the Black Sea where he vigorously defended Canada’s ties with the United States and NATO against equally vigorous criticism by Communist Party Boss Khrushchev and to a lesser extent Premier Bulganin.
This reporter was the only Canadian newspaperman to accompany Mr. Pearson to meet Khrushchev and Bulganin and watch them square off with the external affairs minister on the matter of Canada’s foreign policy.6
Almost as soon as Pearson arrived at the Khrushchev residence Tuesday evening, Khrushchev laughingly waded into him. Mr. Pearson’s comments about the war damage in Sebastopol and the troubles caused Russia by various invaders, led Khrushchev to remark: “We’re being troubled again by Englishmen, Canadians and Americans. They’ve got some kind of a NATO. God knows what it’s for. They’ve even drawn Turkey into it.”
6. Needham obviously did not consider Lévesque as a “newspaperman” because his reports were to be broadcast, not printed in a newspaper. There were also Russian journalists present, but they were not Canadian newspapermen.
Mr. Pearson answered that he had lost his voice in Moscow trying to show that NATO was a good and defensive organisation and that Americans were a good and friendly people. Khrushchev genially observed that when people attacked others, they always said it was for defensive purposes, to which Mr. Pearson firmly replied: “So far as Canada is concerned, we will not attack anyone nor will we take part with other people in an attack on anyone.”
Khrushchev said: “In that case, you must leave NATO. That’s the best way.”
Mr. Pearson replied: “We might agree to leave NATO if you would agree to leave a lot of other things we’d like you to leave.” The party thereupon retired behind closed doors amid general laughter.
I understand that subsequent discussions, which lasted four hours, were very frank with the Russians forthrightly stating their position regarding NATO and the forthcoming foreign ministers’ conference at Geneva.
Stating the Western position just as forthrightly, Mr. Pearson made it clear that Canada remains firm in support of NATO which it considers an essential element of its foreign and defense policy until replaced by something better under the UN.
Mr. Pearson also insisted that Canada’s friendship with the U.S. was strong and deep and would remain so, but saw nothing inconsistent between that and friendship with Russia.
The external affairs minister was reported satisfied with the blunt nature of the talks in which Khrushchev played a major role. Mr. Pearson feels he had as good a chance as has ever been given any representative of Western powers to put the Western case to the Russians, argue it out with them and assure them that nobody has any intention of attacking them.
He believes the talks at Mishor and Moscow will result in better understanding between the top levels of Canada and Russia, just as he hopes the visit generally will result in greater friendship and contacts between the Russian and Canadian people.
According to Needham’s account, it was mission accomplished for Lester Pearson. Khrushchev had been provocative (he was already famous for it, as shall be shown presently), but the discussions had been frank and cordial on either side. Needham stressed that Khrushchev had been humorous rather than hostile in his verbal challenges, and that “The party thereupon retired behind closed doors amid general laughter.” And Needham, unlike Lévesque, quoted full sentences uttered by Pearson in response to Khrushchev’s sallies.
Lévesque had presented it all as deadly serious. And Lévesque leaves out a significant fact about the encounter that Needham made clear: that Pearson suffered from a bad cold and laryngitis for much of his stay in Russia. The volume and tone of his voice clearly could not match Khrushchev’s, if loudness was to be considered the decisive factor in characterizing the first minutes of the meeting.
Most significantly, Lévesque pretended that those preliminary exchanges before the journalists constituted the entire official discussion, and that Pearson had terminated the meeting by asking that the Canadian visitors should be shown to their rooms. This was doubly deceitful: it implied that the Canadians would be sleeping in that same palace where Khrushchev was staying, which was false, as we shall see. And Lévesque failed to point out what Needham declared: that the discussions went on for four hours after the journalists were excluded. For Lévesque, those few minutes of the opening scene constituted all that there was to report. Pearson was in consequence to be judged an abject failure because Khrushchev had been so much more belligerent than he.
Which of the two accounts is the more credible? Needham’s, which appeared at the time and was therefore subject to the scrutiny of all who had attended? Or Lévesque’s, which was delivered three decades later? A significant omission that is pertinent to Lévesque’s credibility is that, even though he proclaimed this to be the most flamboyant scoop of his career, he never published a transcript of what he had reported at the time and sent back by plane to Radio-Canada. Why not? In an appendix to his 1986 memoirs, he republishes a far less important article that had appeared in 1956 in the Quebec magazine titled Vrai. Why not back up his claims of having delivered an “historic” scoop by providing his readers with the verbatim original text?
In fact, the invitation that had been given to Lester Pearson personally by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to visit the Soviet Union was part of a new strategy of openness by the heirs of Stalin after the dictator’s death in 1953. The new Soviet leaders pursued a policy of courting Canada and other NATO countries, attempting to create a distance between the United States and its allies. Accordingly, the initial reception was remarkably cordial when the Canadian delegation arrived in Moscow, as Lévesque himself recognized, even if he attributed it to Russian national character rather than a new Soviet policy. He wrote: “We were royally welcomed, given a great spread, and treated with an exuberance that couldn’t be explained just by the recent end of such a long reign of terror, for Slavs are naturally very generous.”7
The cordiality of the reception was so obtrusive that it threatened the health of all the visitors, and especially Pearson’s. The Canadians were so welcomed, embraced, lavishly fed, toasted, serenaded, toured and entertained that, after a few days, they were exhausted. Both Lester Pearson and his wife Maryon came down with bad colds, as did George Ignatieff, who was even forced to suspend his diplomatic activities at one point and take to his bed.
Ignatieff, an official in the Department of External Affairs, had been especially included in the trip because he had been born in Russia, son of Count Paul Ignatieff, who had served as minister of education under Tsar Nicholas II until the 1917 revolution. Ignatieff was also a descendant of the legendary Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, who led the Russian defense forces in 1812 against Napoléon Bonaparte’s invading Grande Armée. George Ignatieff spoke Russian fluently and had a solid grasp of Russian culture and customs.
7. René Lévesque, Memoirs, op. cit., p. 132.
He would recall in his memoirs the strain of being exposed morning, noon and late into the night, to the constant and pressing Russian attention.
The visit did not start off on a happy note. Exhausted and suffering from jet lag (the time difference between Ottawa and Moscow is eight hours), the Pearsons were looking forward to a quiet evening and a good night’s sleep at the Canadian embassy, where they had told the Soviets they wanted to stay. But we soon discovered that our hosts had made different arrangements. No sooner had Pearson and Molotov exchanged formal greetings at the airport than all of us were whisked off to the expropriated home of a wealthy Moscow merchant, converted into a government hospitality mansion. […]
Though we had eaten en route and were not hungry, we were served a sumptuous supper complete with caviar, which, incidentally, became a staple part of our diet throughout our stay in the Soviet Union. Then we were off to the Bolshoi Theatre, where the Pearsons, seated beside Molotov in the imperial box, received an ovation from the audience.8
A similarly exhausting schedule was maintained, with variations and much travel, day after day. So, on October 11, it was a tired Pearson, suffering from laryngitis, who travelled to Mishor, a resort in the Crimea, to meet Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin.
For Pearson and his party, the day had begun at 6 am and had included travel to Stalingrad where the Canadians were given a tour of the city and a lecture on its Second World War devastation. They also visited Sevastopol. So it was already evening when the Canadian party arrived at Mishor after travel by plane and car. They were put up at a guest house about half a mile away from the Yusupof Palace9 where Nikita Khrushchev was vacationing and where Bulganin had come specifically for this meeting. Ignatieff commented on Pearson’s state of health:
We were housed in a “rest home,” a luxurious mansion set aside for vacationing Soviet officials, with a full medical staff in attendance. A female doctor was determined to give Pearson a complete examination before prescribing a remedy for the cold that plagued most of us during our visit to the USSR. But Mike insisted that all he wanted was a gargle to restore his vanishing voice, and, after a bit of an argument, he got his way.10
8. George Ignatieff, The Making of a Peacemonger. The Memoirs of George Ignatieff, prepared in association with Sonja Sinclair, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1983, p. 128-29.
9. The family name of the famous owners of the palace is spelled many different ways, including Ioussoupov, Yusupov and Yusupof. For convenience, I will use throughout the spelling Yusupof, which is that used by Pearson in his memoirs.
10. Ignatieff, op. cit., p. 140.
In his own memoirs, Pearson would also recall his physical condition when he arrived at the guest house.
I was met at the door by a pleasant lady doctor who had heard I had a bad cold (which was true) and a laryngitic throat (which was also true). She brought me pills and a gargle; my voice, which had almost disappeared, began to return. I was certainly to need it later.11
Pearson also recognized in his memoirs the aggressiveness displayed by Khrushchev at the start of their meeting. He wrote: “Khrushchev lived up to his reputation for brutal frankness by opening up at once on the iniquity of NATO. We talked very frankly around the table for a couple of hours. I reported our conversation to Ottawa in the following terms.”12
After that introduction, Pearson’s memoirs then went on to reprint in full the lengthy memorandum, written by him the very next day, in which he summarized for the record all the major topics that had been discussed at the meeting, and the conflicting viewpoints expressed. The official talks lasted two hours, ending at 10 pm. They were then followed by a dinner which lasted two and one-half hours, during which unofficial conversations continued and a deluge of toasts were commanded.
Here is an excerpt from that memorandum, written the next day when the events were still fresh.
The two hours’ talk which I had with Khrushchev and Bulganin on the last night of my visit was undoubtedly the most interesting, both on account of the two Soviet personalities involved and the frankness with which Khrushchev in particular put forward the Soviet attitude to such important matters as NATO and the security of Europe. I am having this summary report despatched by Ignatieff at the first opportunity on his way back to Ottawa.
Khrushchev, who is as blunt and volatile as only a Ukrainian peasant turned one of the most powerful figures in the world can be, came straight to the point before we even sat down. With a CBC microphone pushed in front of him (this was permitted for the first few minutes of our visit along with photographers and a few journalists), he asked me why Canada does not leave NATO which he described as an aggressive alliance and a direct threat to Russia and to peace. I replied that I had talked myself hoarse (I had indeed almost lost my voice at that time) trying to convince people in Moscow that NATO was purely defensive and had no aggressive intent whatever. I added for good measure that I had also been trying to convince them that the Americans were fine people, good neighbours with no thought of attacking anybody. Khrushchev also said that he hoped I was convinced by my visit that there was no economic or food crisis in the Soviet Union. It was typical of wishful thinking in the West who were looking in vain for Soviet weaknesses. I said that I doubted any such reports of crisis and that my own experience would suggest there was lots of food.”13
11. Mike. The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, Volume 2: 1948-1957, edited by John A. Munro and Alex I. Inglis, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1973, p. 203.
12. Mike, op. cit., p. 204. His memorandum summarizing the two-hour official talks begins on page 204 and ends on page 209. It then went on to describe the more than two-hour dinner at which so many of toasts were imperiously commanded by the Russian leaders.
13. Mike, op. cit., p. 204.
Pearson, in his memorandum, went on to describe in thousands of words all the many issues that had been discussed the night before. The formal discussions lasted till 10 pm, then conversations during dinner continued with much food and drink for more than two hours. Towards the end of his account Pearson wrote:
In conclusion Khrushchev, now in a more mellow mood, said that what the world needs is “time and patience.” “The Soviet Union,” he said, “could afford to be patient” – “our system is solid, our economy developing.” Western leaders, however have to accord, he said, “civil rights to communism” and not react to it “like a bull to a red rag.”14
During that dinner, Pearson wrote, the atmosphere became much more relaxed. Here is an incident that Pearson recalled:
We also toasted President Eisenhower’s recovery from his illness and both Bulganin and Khrushchev said, and it sounded genuine, how much they had been impressed by him at Geneva,15 and that he was a good and “peace-loving” man. Khrushchev even went further and said that he had established good personal relations with Mr. [John Foster] Dulles whom, to his surprise, he had found to be a man he could talk to.16
Ignatieff’s account would be published in his memoirs 28 years after the event, and so was much briefer, less precise and less reliable than Needham’s news story or Pearson’s next-day official memorandum. Ignatieff did comment on Pearson’s state of health as he arrived at the meeting with Khrushchev, but he gave no suggestion whatever that Pearson was overwhelmed, overawed or left inarticulate by the boisterous Khrushchev, whom Ignatieff described as follows:
Khrushchev, the archetypal Ukrainian peasant with his compact, powerful frame and shambling walk, obviously intelligent and bubbling with energy, but deliberately crude in language and behaviour, as though determined to advertise the fact he had once been a swineherd.17
14. Ibid., p. 208-09.
15. The reference here is to the Geneva Summit, held three months earlier, from July 18 to 23, which both Khrushchev and Bulganin attended. It will be discussed presently.
16. Ibid., p. 210.
17. Ignatieff, op. cit., p. 141.
Ignatieff recalled the special attention that he himself had received from the two Soviet leaders:
“You know, Nikita Sergeyevich,” Bulganin chimed in, “he is the son of Count Paul Ignatieff, the former minister of education.” From that point on Khrushchev persisted in addressing me as “Count” or “ex-Count” until I felt compelled to point out that, as a Canadian, I preferred to be called plain Mr.18
About the discussions at the meeting, Ignatieff wrote:
The official talks between Pearson and the two Soviet leaders, which lasted about two hours, revolved almost exclusively around Soviet relations with a divided Germany. Khrushchev made it abundantly clear that, in so far as Western Germany had been admitted to NATO under the Paris Agreements of October 1954, reunification was out of the question. Unless the Federal Republic of Germany were excluded from the western alliance, East Germany would be rearmed, and the Soviet government would take whatever additional measures it considered necessary to safeguard its own security and the security of its allies.
Pearson tried to explain that, so long as the Red Army remained in the heart of Europe and the Soviet government engineered coups d’état such as the one in Czechoslovakia, the west could not afford to relax its defences. He also pointed out that a Germany rearmed under the auspices of NATO was the safest option available to the Soviets, since any weapons and troops located in that country would be under NATO rather than German command. But that argument didn’t cut any ice with Khrushchev. He kept on ranting against NATO and the capitalist system in general, and assured us that communism was bound to prevail against the decadent west. As for Canada, he warned us that next time around we would not escape the ravages of war. “We know what war is. You Canadians and Americans don’t know,” he repeated time and again. The only reassuring part of the conversation was his admission that nuclear war was unthinkable, that some other means would have to be found to resolve our differences.19
In sum, what really occurred that evening was a somewhat unconventional meeting between very serious people who discussed seriously matters of vital concern to each of them. The Canadian delegation arrived in the Soviet Union with a double purpose. The first objective was to convince the Soviet leaders that Canada, though a member of NATO and an ally of the United States, was not an enemy, but rather wanted to be a friend. The second and prime objective, obviously consequential to the first, was the negotiation of a trade agreement whereby the Soviets would commit themselves to buy 1.5 million tons of Canadian wheat over a period of three years. The negotiations took up much of the time of Ignatieff, of Pearson and especially of Mitchell Sharp, then Canada’s associate deputy minister of trade and commerce. A Canadian Press story dated October 10 – the day before the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting, brought out the importance of trade for the Canadian mission.
18. Ignatieff, loc. cit..
19. Ignatieff, op. cit., p. 142.
MOSCOW, Oct. 10 (CP) – External Affairs Minister Pearson of Canada and foreign Minister of Russia today ended trade talks that will probably be resumed in Ottawa in a matter of weeks.
The talks were reported to be satisfactory and Russia is expected to send a trade delegation for the continued talks shorty.
Mitchell Sharp, Canada’s assistant deputy trade minister, will leave for Ottawa tomorrow.
No official statement on the talks has yet been released but it was learned that Canada is offering Russia what it offers other countries willing to trade.
The negotiations proved to be successful: a trade agreement with the Soviets was reached in principle and announced in a joint communique, signed on that evening of October 11, despite the fact that Canada refused to lift the embargo on selling the Soviets such “strategic minerals” as uranium, nickel, aluminum and copper. The agreement would be signed months later in Canada.
So the primary objective of the mission was attained, though Lévesque ignored that completely so as to focus only on Khrushchev’s aggressive opening sally. To confirm the fact that Lévesque’s later account was in this respect misleading, one has only to read the headlines and the first two paragraphs of a report on the trip, published on the front page of The New York Times on October 13, 1955. It offers the perfect rebuttal to Lévesque’s thesis that Pearson’s performance had been an abject failure. Lévesque, of course, ignored the joint Pearson-Khrushchev communique that was signed that night of their encounter.
CANADA, RUSSIANS SET TRADE ACCORD
Agree on Most Favored Nation Formula
To Cooperate In Arctic Research
By WELLES HANGEN
Special to The New York Times
MOSCOW, Wednesday, Oct. 12–Canada and the Soviet Union agreed last night to accord each other most-favored-nation privileges in their trade. This means that each country would give imports from the other country the same treatment that it accords to its most favored trading partner.
A joint Canadian-Soviet communique published this morning in the Soviet press referred only to discussions of the “possibility” of concluding a trade pact on the most-favored-nation basis.
The article went on to list the areas in which Canada and the Soviet Union desired more cooperation between their two countries, including “in the areas of culture, science and technology.” Agriculture, transport and Arctic sovereignty were also mentioned, as was the war in Vietnam. None of these topics appeared in Lévesque’s account. The article also cited the following quotation from the joint Canada-USSR statement of October 12 attributed to Mr. Khrushchev and Mr. Pearson:
“Cooperation should be inspired by the wish of both countries to establish peace through-out the world and guarantee security.”
Only after detailing all of these issues that were raised officially between Canada and the Soviet Union did The New York Times article take up, on page 2, the meeting between Pearson and Khrushchev. It did not contain any information that could have originated from Lévesque.
Mr. Pearson conferred last night with Nikita S. Khruschev, Soviet party chief, and Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin at their Crimean resort.
He spent the night there and will leave the Soviet Union today by air en route to the Colombo Plan conference in Singapore.
Pravda and Izvestia, chief Moscow newspapers, reported this morning that Mr. Pearson had visited Sevastopol, chief town of the Crimea, before going to the villa of the Soviet leaders at Mishor.
The communique said the two nations had recognized the importance of “measures directed toward removing obstacles in the sphere of international trade.”
It is understood that a Soviet trade delegation will go to the Canadian capital in two or three weeks to discuss the conclusion of a new trade agreement embodying the most-favored-nation principle and providing for a sharp expansion in Soviet-Canadian commerce.
During last night’s talk at the Crimean villa of the Soviet leaders, it was agreed that the two countries should exchange parliamentary delegations.
Last night’s discussion was general in nature and proceeded in a “very cordial atmosphere,” according to Robert Dunn, Canadian press officer, who spoke by telephone with a member of Mr. Pearson’s party in the Crimea.
Mr. Pearson flew yesterday to Stalingrad from Moscow and did brief sightseeing in the city before boarding another plane for the trip to the Crimea.
This article demonstrates that a rapprochement between Canada and the Soviet Union had been set in motion with the agreement of both parties. That was a significant and newsworthy change in international relations and in accord with the “spirit of Geneva,” the meeting of the four major powers in July that had brought together the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union in a search for international security. The New York Times gave this agreement front-page prominence. Lévesque thought it was more important to ignore the geopolitical implications achieved by the visit so as to concentrate only on Khrushchev’s provocative approach and Pearson’s lack of voice. Lévesque chose to make much of what was considered by most newspapers as least newsworthy.
Incidentally, this New York Times report also confirmed George Ignatieff’s account in his memoirs that, after leaving the meeting with Khrushchev, and despite the multitude of toasts, he had phoned Robert Dunn in Moscow with a report on the meeting that was to be communicated to the journalists in Moscow. In that phone call to Dunn, Ignatieff had, as he said, “confirmed to him the wording of the communiqué which Pearson and Khrushchev had approved earlier.” At the same time, The New York Times article also refutes Lévesque’s claim that his account of the meeting had been printed prominently, without his byline, in all the world’s great newspapers. His vindictive report found no echo then or ever in The New York Times.
Lévesque, rather than bring out the weighty issues of security and international trade that preoccupied the participants to the talks, had made it all about himself and his “scoop,” as we shall now see as we continue quoting from Lévesque’s account in his memoirs. Here is what he wrote:
In fact, there were just two journalists, Bob Needham20 of the Globe and Mail, the Anglophone scribe, and me, for audio-visual coverage and French. Due to the smallness of the plane and the hurried departure, the main group had chosen us to represent them and we were charged to pool everything we could pick up when we got back.
Our harvest had already been exceptional. Cracking a bottle of Caucasus champagne, we couldn’t get over the good luck that had brought us to spend a night on the home turf of the master of All the Russias living it up like kings into the bargain. And what a windfall that bout of verbal fisticuffs with Pearson had been! Tickled pink, I stepped out on the balcony with my sausage sandwich and my glass of Georgian bubbly. The sea looked wonderful, so I swallowed down my snack, dropped my pants, and jumped in. It was almost the end of me. The water was treacherously mild for a full stomach, and a very strong current carried me out beyond the promontory behind which the villa was hidden. Seeing that I was being transported into a vast bay that stretched away to the horizon, I made a supreme effort and managed to struggle back until finally a wave threw me up on a rock, nearly skinning me alive.21
Lévesque again placed himself prominently and dramatically in the story. He said “there were just two journalists,” which ignored the Russian reporters and photographers also present at the meeting. He acknowledged here that he and Needham were both “pool reporters,” equally delegated by the other Canadian reporters to act as their eyes and ears during the side-trip to Crimea. In some of his post-event interviews with journalists and biographers, he made no such admission.
20. He meant Richard Needham.
21. Lévesque, Memoirs, p. 134-35.
Again, here, he suggests that he was to spend the night in the Yusupov Palace: “we couldn’t get over the good luck that had brought us to spend a night on the home turf of the master of All the Russias living it up like kings…” Then he goes on to suggest that he went for a swim in the Black Sea in front of that palace. Neither statement is credible.
Three participants at that night’s encounter, Pearson, Needham and Ignatieff, recorded that they were housed in a guest house away from the palace. Needham, in a later column on his trip, made clear that the journalists, after the first few opening minutes of the meeting at Yusupof Palace were conveyed by car back to the guest house, not left in the palace. Here is an excerpt:
The evening of Oct. 11, I arrived with Mr. Pearson at Mishor, in the Crimea, where he was to meet Russia’s two top leaders, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin. A lavish meal, with cognac, vodka and several kinds of wine was sent to my room in the guest house complex with the information that I would have to be at the meeting in 30 minutes. I gobbled down as much as I could as quickly as I could and threw myself into a car. When I got back from the meeting, just half an hour later, the Russians expressed regret that I had had to rush through my dinner – and sent another one, equally lavish.22
Needham stated in print that he “got back from the meeting just half an hour later.” Is it credible that Lévesque alone spent the night at Yusupov Palace, with Khrushchev and Bulganin under the same roof? That is ridiculous for security reasons, among others. And it is unlikely that only one journalist was conveyed back to the guest house while the other went swimming in front of the palace.
Moreover, a journalist like me cannot believe that Lévesque, supposedly after consuming champagne and a late supper, when it was 9 pm or later, would risk plunging all alone into unknown October cold waters in the dark. It would have been irresponsible for any journalist there that night, on a particularly important and costly assignment, to leave the palace or the guest house while the discussions were still continuing, to go and plunge all alone into unknown waters. The only credible motive for his story is that it allowed Lévesque to spin a dramatic tale about himself. Just imagine: he almost drowned…
Lévesque’s account in his memoirs then went on:
22. Richard J. Needham, “Land of Tomorrow – or Maybe the Next Day,” Globe and Mail, October 27, 1955.
Some cognac brought me around and then we slept the sleep of the just, or would have if it hadn’t been for the noise of flushing toilets that kept waking us up every half hour all night long. The explanation came next morning when we saw our pale diplomats coming downstairs on rubbery legs, hanging on to the bannisters. What had happened was quite simple. Since he had got his message across as soon as we arrived, Khrushchev arranged with his gang to have a little fun at the Canadians’ expense in his own particular manner, which didn’t always obey the rules of etiquette. All during dinner, at the least pretext, he or one of his aides would raise a glass in a toast with the express aim of getting Ignatieff in particular (a White Russian and therefore a degenerate to his hosts) dead drunk and rolling under the table.
We didn’t breathe a word of this second federal Waterloo on our return to Moscow. Pearson was in such a vile humour that we feared for our visas. It was on this occasion we noted that the boyish half-smile and incontestable diplomatic skill hid a very touchy character that the least check would set to pouting and issuing cutting words. Well, we couldn’t do anything about that. Our report from Yalta contained new material that, as all our colleagues in Moscow agreed, relegated everything else to the back seat, and the story of the sudden emergence of Krushchev together with my interview made the front page in Brussels, Paris and London.23
Here, Lévesque again ignored the two-hour in-camera official discussions between Pearson and Khrushchev that preceded the banquet. That was consistent with his message that he had caught the true newsworthy significance of the meeting in those first few minutes that were open to the journalists.
He again attributed monumental importance to the disparity in aggressiveness between Pearson and Khrushchev in those early minutes, characterizing it as “this second federal Waterloo,” no less. Clearly of Historical significance! And he continued his attack on Pearson’s reputation: he not only repeated his previous message that Lester Pearson was weak and ineffectual, but now he maintained that Pearson proved himself nasty, petty and despicable. Pearson was so vindictive after his humiliation at the meeting that “we” dared not relate the extreme toasting episode to our colleagues in Moscow, despite the fact that “we” had been delegated by them precisely to serve as their eyes and ears in Mishor. “We” feared that if we talked about the drinking to other journalists, Pearson would have our visas cancelled and we would be packed off to Canada.
That story is absurd, as any real journalist can testify. Lévesque and Needham were at Mishor as pool reporters, that is, as representatives of all 10 Canadian journalists who had accompanied Pearson to Moscow. An important part of the story, according to Lévesque in his memoirs, was that Pearson and Ignatieff had been reduced to a ludicrous drunken state and that Pearson was so vindictive, pouting and nasty that Lévesque and Needham dared not reveal the fact to the other Canadian journalists for fear of being expelled from the Soviet Union. In other words, Lévesque tells us that he and Needham compromised their journalistic integrity for fear of expulsion.
23. Lévesque, op. cit., p. 135.
The story makes no sense, from several points of view. By the time Lévesque and Needham met the other journalists in Moscow, Pearson had already left the Soviet Union for Singapore. Lévesque’s mission in the Soviet Union was already over. As Needham soon reported in the Globe and Mail, he left the Soviet Union the following morning, on October 14. So the two had nothing to fear from Pearson, certainly not expulsion from the Soviet Union. That would have truly been newsworthy, had it really occurred.
But in fact, Lévesque was depicting Needham and himself as cowards, unworthy of the title of journalists. And Lévesque was painting Pearson, without the slightest evidence offered, as childish, vainglorious and dangerously vindictive. This portrait contradicted all the testimonies of those who knew Pearson best. He was anything but petulant or petty. To claim that “the least check would set [him] to pouting and issuing cutting words,” without quoting a single cutting word or recalling a single incident of pouting to back up the accusations, was simply irresponsibly malevolent and unworthy of a journalist. It was sheer calumny.
Needham’s own account of that historic meeting again contradicted Lévesque’s version. His very first paragraph stated: “Tired but cheerful and satisfied with the results of his Russian trip, External Affairs Minister Pearson boarded an RCAF plane…” How could Lévesque claim that Pearson was really “in such vile humour that we feared for our visas” and “pouting and issuing cutting words”? One of the two witnesses was lying.
Lévesque’s account was non-credible for another reason. Neither Pearson nor Ignatieff saw any reason to feel shame over Khrushchev’s ploy to get them extremely drunk. On the contrary, in their memoirs, each expressed a certain pride in his own performance. Incidentally, both had published their memoirs before Lévesque published his own. But Lévesque took no account of that in his determination to slander Pearson. Here is Pearson’s account:
It soon became apparent that Khrushchev was determined, ably seconded by Bulganin, to put us all “under the table.” He and Bulganin proposed toast after toast in “pepper vodka” and they kept eagle eyes on us, especially on George and Ray Crépault (the “wily French boy,” as they called him) to make sure that it was “bottoms up” each time. Someone said we drank eighteen toasts, but I wouldn’t know. I do remember we even drank to the Canadian wheat surplus.24
Ignatieff was no more abashed than Pearson when describing the scene:
Our host proceeded to propose a seemingly endless series of toasts. Once again I was informed that I was expected to drink “like a Russian,” and it didn’t take me long to realize what was the objective of the exercise. “Your husband is trying to get me drunk,” I said to Mrs. Khrushchev, who had joined us for dinner and was sitting beside me. […]
24. Mike, op. cit., p. 209.
I counted eighteen vodkas, fortified with red pepper, before heading for one of the washrooms Khrushchev had so thoughtfully pointed out to us earlier in the evening. I was violently sick, then returned to the table where my absence had apparently gone unnoticed, and joined in the drinking all over again.”25
Both gave descriptions of how that evening ended in the first hour of October 12. Their accounts suggest that, rather than feeling crushingly humiliated as Lévesque suggested, they were proud of having foiled Khrushchev’s attempt to get them grossly drunk. Here is Pearson’s account of how the dinner ended:
If Khrushchev had had his way, we would have been there, in one way or another, all night, but Bulganin finally assisted us in breaking up the party. About 12:30, the four Canadians marched straightly, heads up, with fixed determination and without any assistance, to our car, after a very spirited leave taking. We left our two Russian hosts in worse condition than we were, and we felt that we had not done too badly, either socially or diplomatically. I would like to think that we had earned medals that night for conviviality beyond the line of duty! But “once in a lifetime” only!26
So much for Lévesque’s insistence that Pearson had met his Waterloo and consequently was in a dangerously vile humour. Pearson stated, incidentally, that “the four Canadians marched… to our car.” So they did not spend the rest of the night at Yusupof Palace, as Lévesque falsely maintained.
Ignatieff’s account is equally positive. He claimed the credit for bringing to an end the drinking binge:
Shortly after midnight I told Khrushchev and Bulganin that Pearson was suffering from a sore throat, that he had a busy day ahead of him, and that we ought to be on our way. After “two more for the road” we thanked our hosts and marched out of the banquet hall with our heads held high and the dubious satisfaction that we were in marginally better shape than some of the people we left behind. I barely made it back to our quarters before I was sick all over again.”27
25. Ignatieff, op. cit., p 142-143.
26. Mike, op. cit., p. 211.
27. Ignatieff, op. cit., p. 144.
Pearson, writing his report on the day following the meeting, gave Ignatieff the credit for the most fortitude shown that night: “George was our hero because, right after returning from the party the night before, he had phoned Moscow, got Bob Dunn, our Press Officer, on the wire, and passed on through him to the Canadian journalists some information I thought they should have. That was a tour de force at that hour and after that dinner.”28
Ignatieff also prided himself in his memoirs on the fact that, after the dinner meeting broke up at 12:30 am, he was still able to phone Moscow to dictate a report on how the evening went.
Terrible though I felt, I couldn’t go to bed until I had telephoned Moscow, got hold of our press attaché and confirmed to him the wording of the communiqué which Pearson and Khrushchev had approved earlier. It was without any doubt one of the most difficult phone calls I ever made. My head was spinning, and though I propped myself up in an armchair, the floor seemed determined to come up and meet me. I woke up next morning with all the symptoms of an acute hangover which neither the glorious view of the Black Sea nor the warm sunshine could dispel.29
So why would Lévesque concoct the story about not daring to tell the other journalists about the drinking bout, supposedly because they feared Pearson’s retaliation? A plausible explanation might be that Lévesque, given his obsession with promoting himself, could not bear to have someone other than himself steal the show at Mishor – especially not a future prime minister of Canada like Pearson.
Lévesque’s mendacity and narcissism were most displayed in the following excerpt which concludes his narration on the actual visit.
As soon as I got back to Montreal I modestly inquired how my dispatches had been received at home. “What dispatches?” they asked. “Did you dispatch something? We thought you’d been sent to Siberia. »
« Wait a minute. What about the stuff I sent from Moscow, and especially from Yalta? »
« Never saw hide nor hair of it, man. Better go try to look it up some place.”
As you can guess, this is exactly what I immediately did, only to run into surprised expressions and excessively evasive explanations. I ended up hammering on the door of External Affairs, where the cat finally came out of the sack. My excellent interview, as I would surely appreciate without too much difficulty, had just one flaw: it was rather hard on the Honourable Minister, to the point that it might have caused him some embarrassment. So, as I would certainly understand, n’est-ce pas, they had taken the liberty to put a temporary embargo on it, though by now, of course, nothing stood in the way of my taking it up again.
28. Mike, op. cit., p. 211.
29. Ignatieff, loc. cit..
Thanks a lot. There’s nothing deader than old news. I blew my top, blasted them as they deserved for political censorship, and came out of there feeling like jumping over a cliff and with a solid and enduring antipathy for that cautious collection of Canadian mandarins. Under my fellow journalists’ bylines I’d been able to read my story everywhere, but here at home the most flamboyant scoop of my career had been suppressed to protect the dignity of Lester Pearson. It was enough to make one…separatist!
Sadly, I transformed my red-hot news story into a straight documentary, served up cold.30
This excerpt is probably the most revealing of all for what it says about Lévesque’s character, his quite particular personality. He craved personal grandeur. And so he regularly embellished his accounts of where he had been and what he had done. He also had a craving to paint Canada and Canadian federalists in a bad light. Here he achieved both objectives in just a few paragraphs.
First, he exaggerated the significance of the story he had to tell. He called it “my interview” when it was totally untrue that he had interviewed Khrushchev. Even by his own account, he had not asked Khrushchev a single question nor received from Khrushchev a single answer. It was mere narcissistic inflation to describe his coverage of the initial moments of the meeting between Pearson and Khrushchev as “my interview.”
But more telling still was his claim to have realized “the most flamboyant scoop of my career.” There was no scoop, flamboyant or otherwise. In the jargon of journalism, a “scoop” is the publication of a significant discovery, previously unknown, made exclusively by the author of the report. There could not be a scoop here because Needham and some Russian journalists were also present. Lévesque’s report was, presumably, somewhat different from Needham’s but Needham also reported on the vigorous exchange between Khrushchev and Pearson in the initial moments of their encounter. Moreover, Lévesque was in attendance as a “pool reporter,” that is, as a representative of the other eight Canadian reporters who had been left in Moscow for lack of space on the Russian plane. By definition, a pool reporter cannot claim a scoop.
Then, Lévesque blamed Pearson and the mandarins in Ottawa at External Affairs for the suppression of his story. He accused the news directors of Radio-Canada of submissiveness for accepting such a directive from mandarins in Ottawa. He called it a case of “political censorship.” It is very hard to believe that journalists or news managers at Radio-Canada would have submitted to an “embargo” dictated by federal civil servants for so trivial a reason as Pearson’s vanity. True journalists are always on the alert to catch governments in default. They always dream of speaking truth to power. Moreover, there is the practical problem with this story: how would the mandarins in Ottawa have even known what was in Lévesque’s report? He surely didn’t sent his report to civil servants in Ottawa.
30. Lévesque, Memoirs, op. cit., p. 133-136
Lévesque’s credibility is further undermined by the fact that his story kept changing from one retelling to the next. In November 1961, Maclean’s published a monumental 4,477-word profile of René Lévesque.31 The author, Ken Johnstone, repeated what Lévesque had told him in the course of lengthy interviews about his coverage of the 1955 Pearson-Khrushchev meeting:
Lévesque recorded the exchanges as they were translated. When he got back to Moscow with his exclusive recording, he allowed the English and French newspapermen there to listen to the exchange, and it made headlines in Paris and London. He shipped it air express back to Montreal, but when he got back to the CBC he found the recording gathering dust on a shelf. It had been decided that since Pearson had not fared well in the exchange, the recording would not be released. “My scoop wasn’t good enough for Canada!” he lamented.32
In this interview, Lévesque claimed that he had “shipped it air express back to Montreal.” So, in this account, it never found itself in the hands of federal officials. Then he says that “when he got back to the CBC he found the recording gathering dust on a shelf.” So, at least the recording reached Radio-Canada in Montreal. He suggests that Radio-Canada officials made the politically motivated decision not to air it. That was different from the claim cited earlier that federal officials in Ottawa had held back his report or put it under embargo. In the Maclean’s account, Lévesque’s report never passed through Ottawa but went directly to Montreal by air express.
Lévesque gave another trajectory for his report when he was interviewed by his first biographer, the historian Jean Provencher. Here is what Lévesque said in 1973:
Alors, moi, je l’ai envoyé à Moscou, comme c’est normal. C’était le premier interview avec Khrouchtchev au moment du début de sa puissance. Personne ne l’avait jamais interviewé du côté occidental et voilà une de ces engueulades historiques. Ce qui m’a crucifié, moi, c’est que, comme on était dans un groupe avec Pearson et que Pearson avait l’air fou un peu, tous les autres [journalistes] ont sauté dessus, les Français, les Allemands, les Britanniques, etc., et s’en sont servi. Ce qui fait que, quinze jours plus tard, au moment de mon retour, alors que je passais par des villes européennes, on m’a montré des journaux où évidemment c’était en première page avec des titres sur huit colonnes. Interview de Khrouchtchev. Il magane ou, enfin, il attaque de front la politique occidentale en s’engueulant avec Lester B. Pearson, etc. On avait fait la première page des journaux partout. Mais pas sous mon nom, parce que, quand tu pool, les autres s’en servent et ce sont les agences de presse qui en deviennent les auteurs. Mais c’était bien mon matériel. Et quand je suis revenu au Canada, à Montréal, trois semaines après, on n’avait pas employé un seul mot, pas une seule ligne. Radio-Canada avait foiré là-dessus et ne l’avait pas employé, parce que ç’avait été envoyé via Ottawa qui avait dit : « Le ministre n’a pas l’air assez à son avantage. Nous considérons que ça ne doit pas être employé. » Je l’ai diffusé ici un mois après, mais c’était du réchauffé. À Carrefour,33 on a fait une petite série sur ce voyage, accompagnée d’images, mais ça avait servi dans tous les autres pays trois semaines auparavant. Ici, parce que l’image du ministre aurait pu en souffrir – c’est ça le désavantage de la valise diplomatique – ils ont dit : on ne s’en sert pas. »34
31. Ken Johnstone, “The man in the middle of Quebec’s new deal,” Maclean’s, November 18, 1961, pp. 29, 40, 42-45.
32. Ibid. p. 43.
33. Carrefour was a regular program scheduled by Radio-Canada.
34. Jean Provencher, René Lévesque Portrait d’un québécois, Montréal, Éditions La Presse, 1973, p. 88.
In this account, Lévesque no longer says that he sent his report by air express to Montreal. Now, without explanation, it has passed through Ottawa in a diplomatic pouch and, somehow, it fell into the hands of federal mandarins who were able to unpack it, examine it, then put an embargo on its publication. Nonsense. If it was really shipped by diplomatic pouch, why would it have been unpacked and examined by federal civil servants in Ottawa? They would have had no right to do anything other than send it on, unopened, to Radio-Canada in Montreal.
Then, Pontaut claimed that this was “the first interview with Khrushchev,” and “no one from the West had ever interviewed him.” Lévesque’s report was “an historic tongue-lashing.” “They showed me newspapers where, obviously, it was on the front page with headlines covering eight columns.” Each of these is a false statement, each repeating faithfully one of Lévesque’s lies. In reality, Lévesque had not interviewed Khrushchev at all. Many Western journalists had already, in fact, recorded Khrushchev for hours in word and in action, as we shall demonstrate presently. Lévesque had only recorded Khrushchev for some part of 15 minutes.
That same story of Lévesque’s unjust treatment emerges ten years later, in 1983. This time, Lévesque’s biographer was Alain Pontaut, a French journalist who moved to Quebec and became editor of a separatist publication. Pontaut’s account of the suppressed report is brief:
L’interview exclusive, d’abord transmise à Moscou, va parvenir à toutes les agences de presse et faire, sans nom d’auteur, la une de tous les journaux du monde. Rendue à Ottawa, elle y sera au contraire retenue, jugée fort peu flatteuse pour le ministre canadien. En somme l’auteur de ce scoop retentissant, non seulement en constate partout, sans crédit, le retentissement mais encore est le seul qui n’ait pas le droit de s’en servir. Et quand il le pourra, il aura l’air, avec retard, de copier sur les autres!35
35. Alain Pontaut, René Lévesque ou l »idéalisme pratique, » Montréal, Leméac, 1983, p. 61.
Lévesque’s report is, once again, falsely called an “interview.” It is falsely called a “resounding scoop” – it was neither a scoop nor resounding. It is falsely claimed that Lévesque’s account appeared “on the front page of all the world’s newspapers.” In fact, outside of Quebec, not one major international newspaper published the account of the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting on its front page. Of those that did carry a brief account of the meeting on an inside page, not one conveyed Lévesque’s portrait of Pearson as a stuttering boob or a vindictive pouter. Lévesque’s report is, in this account, again sent through Ottawa and is kept back there – all without explanation of why a Radio-Canada journalist would send his report through Ottawa instead of directly to Montreal.
Yet another account is offered by Lévesque’s most important biographer, journalist Pierre Godin. He had interviewed Lévesque at great length before the latter’s death in 1987, and his immense four-volume biography began publication in 1994 with its first volume. Here is Godin’s description of the trajectory of that famous report.
Mais pour René Lévesque, le meilleur reste à venir : il pourra mesurer la fragilité des proclamations d’indépendance politique de Radio-Canada, son employeur.
Bâillonné par Radio-Canada
Aussitôt son reportage ficelé, il le fait parvenir à Moscou d’où on l’achemine au Canada via Londres. Il jubile : lui, René Lévesque, il a réalisé la première entrevue avec Nikita Khrouchtchev. Interview qui a tourné, quelle aubaine, à l’engueulade historique. Nul doute que Radio-Canada accordera à son scoop mondial toute la place qu’il mérite.
C’est oublier la censure politique d’ici. Pour être moins brutale et tatillonne que celle que l’on trouve derrière le rideau de fer, elle ne fonctionne pas moins quand l’exige la raison d’État ou, tout bonnement, l’ego d’un homme politique déculotté. C’est compter aussi sans les liens étroits entre le gouvernement fédéral et la haute direction de Radio-Canada qui, sur un signe de son tuteur, parle facilement la langue de bois. Le fait que Radio-Canada occupe un édifice – l’ancien hôtel Ford – que lui loue le ministère des Affaires extérieures ajoute à… la promiscuité.
Sur le chemin du retour, fier comme un coq, René Lévesque lit son interview dans la grande presse européenne qui en fait ses manchettes. Certes, son nom ne figure pas dans les dépêches car, après avoir fait parvenir son matériel à Montréal, il a dû partager sa primeur avec les agences de presse qui n’ont pu envoyer de journalistes à Miskhora. C’est la règle.
À Londres, avant de rentrer au Québec, il file au bureau de Radio-Canada pour s’assurer que son reportage a bel et bien pris le chemin du pays. « Nous n’avons pas eu de nouvelles, mais on le leur a bien fait parvenir, vous pouvez en être sûr, » lui jure le préposé. Le reporter vedette monte dans l’avion avec la certitude d’être accueilli à Montréal comme un héros.
Ce n’est pas vraiment le cas. Le petit monde de Radio-Canada n’a jamais entendu parler de son fameux scoop… Pas un seul mot de son entrevue-choc, reprise par la presse du monde entier, n’a été entendu sur les ondes du réseau national. Quelle douche froide! Il mène sa propre enquête jusqu’à Ottawa. Quand il apprend la vérité, il crie à la censure politique.
Comme il le racontera plus tard, l’épisode l’a laissé à jamais sceptique quant à la pseudo-indépendance de Radio-Canada, en plus de faire naître en lui une antipathie viscérale envers le mandarinat fédéral. Avant d’arriver à Montréal, son reportage a transité par le ministère des Affaires extérieures. Scandalisés par sa teneur, les mandarins de service ont interdit à Radio-Canada de le diffuser parce que le futur prix Nobel de la paix n’avait su donner la réplique au coléreux Monsieur K.
Les pleutres de la direction ont plié l’échine devant Ottawa. En somme, son employeur lui a volé son scoop! « Sous la signature des collègues, écrira-t-il dans ses mémoires, je m’étais relu partout ailleurs, mais ici ce scoop, le plus flamboyant de ma carrière, avait été étouffé pour les beaux yeux de Lester B. Pearson. C’était assez pour devenir… séparatiste.
René Lévesque obtient quand même le crédit de sa primeur grâce aux journaux de Montréal. La Presse du 13 octobre raconte en effet dans le menu détail son exploit, avec son nom en bonne place, dans un article coiffé du tire « Khrouchtchev attaque violemment l’OTAN. »36
In this lengthy passage, Godin conveyed all the paranoid fantasies of Lévesque, all his hostility and contempt towards Radio-Canada, Lester Pearson and federal mandarins. In this account, Lévesque’s report travelled from Moscow to Radio-Canada’s office in London, UK. There is no suggestion that it traveled by diplomatic pouch. So why on earth would Radio-Canada employees in London send Lévesque’s report through Ottawa, to be examined by federal civil servants there? That makes no sense in the real world. But, in Lévesque’s world, it expresses the collusion between Radio-Canada’s journalists and managers (“the cowards”) with federal officials. Lévesque was certain that he would be welcomed back by his employers “as a hero,” no less. After all, “his shock-interview was taken up by the press of the whole world.” His report was “a world-wide scoop.” “Political censorship” in Canada is more subtle and less obvious than that found behind the Iron Curtain but it is equally effective, Godin assures us. Instead of separation, there is “promiscuity” between Radio-Canada and federal officials. “it comes into play no less when required by reasons of state or simply the ego of a politician who was caught with his pants down.”
Godin offers us a good reality-test of his credibility, in the last paragraph quoted above. He claims, no doubt echoing Lévesque, that “La Presse of October 13 relates in minute detail his exploit, with his name prominent, in an article with the headline: “Khrushchev violently attacks NATO.” So what do we find on the front page of La Presse on October 13? Here is the article:
Pearson persuadé que Moscou veut la paix
Le ministre canadien des Affaires extérieures se dit très impressionné de la puissance de l’URSS, et croit ses assurances sincères
Par Norman McLeod
36. Pierre Godin, René Lévesque. Un enfant du siècle, Montréal, Boréal, 1994, pp. 275-77.
Karachi, Pakistan, 13. (BUP) – L’hon Lester B. Pearson, ministre canadien des Affaires extérieures, s’est dit aujourd’hui persuadé que l’URSS ne veut pas la guerre. Au lendemain de sa tournée en Russie, M. Pearson a résumé ses impressions dans les termes suivants :
« Ma principale impression est celle de la puissance, de l’énergie de la nation. L’URSS est un pays gouverné par un groupe d’hommes forts et compétents, sans autre désir que de rester en paix pour grandir leur pays et résoudre les problèmes intérieurs qu’ils avouent être nombreux.
Il est aussi difficile de douter de la sincérité des protestations des simples citoyens contre la guerre.
Une déclaration de M. Khrouchtchev
M. Pearson révèle que M. Nikita Khrouchtchev, secrétaire général du parti communiste, lui a déclaré au cours de leur entretien, mardi soir près d’Yalta : « Nous ne voulons attaquer personne; vous dites que ni vous ni aucune autre puissance occidentale ne voulez attaquer personne. Très bien, alors nous allons arranger les choses ».
M. Pearson ajoute : « Après ma visite, si courte et si restreinte qu’elle ait été, je souhaite plus que jamais que nous arrangions les choses, et de la bonne manière. »
M. Pearson révèle qu’alors qu’il était en route vers le palais Youssoupov, où se retirait M. Khrouchtchev et où se déroulèrent les conversations, les Russes lui ont fait visiter l’arsenal maritime de Sébastopol, jusqu’à présent fermé aux Occidentaux.
Le débat sur l’OTAN
D’autre part, M. Pearson confirme qu’avant même de terminer les poignées de main, M. Khrouchtchev lui a demandé : « Pourquoi ne pas vous retirer de l’OTAN? C’est une organisation de guerre ».
M. Pearson dit avoir répondu à M. Khrouchtchev que le Canada appuie sincèrement l’amélioration des relations internationales, le rapprochement entre les États, mais que le Canada reste fermement attaché aux principes de défense collective qu’incarne l’OTAN.
M. Pearson poursuit qu’il a insisté sur le caractère purement défensif de l’OTAN, qui restera donc un élément essentiel de la politique étrangère et militaire du Canada, jusqu’à ce que la confiance internationale soit assez forte pour que l’ONU suffise à garantir efficacement la sécurité internationale.
Des personnages de la délégation canadienne disent que le principal porte-parole soviétique pendant la mission Pearson fut M. Khrouchtchev
Le président du conseil, maréchal Nicolas Boulganine, qui était pourtant revenu du Caucase spécialement pour rencontrer M. Pearson, s’est presque tout le temps borné à suggérer des questions ou réponses au secrétaire général du parti communiste.
Une difficulté surmontée
À Basrah, en Irak, hier soir, M. Pearson était incapable de causer avec les correspondants. Aujourd’hui il avait recouvré un peu de voix, mais celle-ci restait enrouée.
That was the real report in La Presse on October 13. No mention of René Lévesque by name. No portrayal of Pearson as unable to get out a complete sentence. The story began half way down the page and carried the headline, “Pearson persuadé que Moscou veut la paix.” It was datelined “Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 13” and bylined “BUP” (for British United Press). It was obviously written after Pearson had left Moscow and met the news media in Karachi. Clearly, Pierre Godin did not check out what he had been told by René Lévesque. He swallowed his story hook, line and sinker.
In fact a story in Le Devoir on that same day was just a little closer to Lévesque’s description. It was titled, “Un conseil de M. Khrouchtchev à M. Pearson : « Quittez l’OTAN.” It referred to “Two Canadian journalists who accompanied the minister,” but it named neither of them. It was datelined « Moscou » and bylined « Reuters ». It appeared in the bottom half of the front page, over four columns. Here is the full piece as it was published in Le Devoir :
Un conseil de M. Khrouchtchev à M. Pearson : « Quittez l’OTAN »
Moscou (Reuters) – Au cours d’un entretien qu’il a eu mardi soir avec le maréchal Nicolai Boulganin et M. Nikita Khrouchtchev, M. Lester B. Pearson, ministre canadien des Affaires extérieures a discuté des questions relatives à l’OTAN durant plus de quatre heures.
Deux journalistes canadiens qui ont accompagné le ministre en Crimée précisent que le président du Conseil des ministres d’URSS et le premier secrétaire du parti communiste Nikita Khrouchtchev ont rencontré M. Pearson dans une résidence d’été, à quelques 10 milles de Yalta. La présence des journalistes avait été autorisée pendant les 15 premières minutes de l’entretien qui aurait principalement porté sur l’alliance atlantique.
Mr. Pearson a d’abord fait part à ses interlocuteurs de la vive impression qu’ont créés sur lui les chantiers de construction qu’il a vus à Stalingrad et à Sébastopol. Comme le ministre canadien faisait observer que la reconstruction doit sans doute drainer les ressources financières du pays, M. Khrouchtchev s’en est pris à l’OTAN.
Le premier secrétaire du parti communiste aurait affirmé que l’Occident, au moyen de l’OTAN, se préparait à la destruction en Russie. M. Pearson a répondu que l’OTAN est une alliance strictement défensive.
M. Khrouchtchev a répondu que ce n’était pas la première fois dans l’histoire qu’un instrument d’agression avait été qualifié de défensif.
Il a ajouté, en guise de « conseil personnel » à M. Pearson, que le Canada devrait se retirer de l’OTAN. M. Pearson a répondu qu’il serait peut-être possible de s’entendre à ce sujet, mais l’Occident devrait alors inviter l’URSS à renoncer à certaines choses.
This account not only has no mention of René Lévesque’s name, but it also fails to picture Pearson as a hapless victim of Khrushchev’s wrath who is unable to speak a full sentence. In that sense, it reads more like an abbreviated version of Needham’s account than of the explosive report that Lévesque claims to have filed at the time. So why did Lévesque refer to a Montreal newspaper that “did recount in every detail his exploit, with his name prominently displayed,” when it was demonstrably false?
Le Devoir carried another front-page story on October 15, this time attributed to “PC”, la Presse Canadienne. Pearson is quoted for his impressions of his meeting with Khrushchev, but again, there is no sign of the extreme one-sidedness demonstrated by Lévesque in his later accounts.
Les Russes affirment à M. Pearson qu’ils « n’attaqueront personne »
KARACHI (PC)—Dès son arrivée dans la capitale du Pakistan, le ministre canadien des Affaires extérieures a révélé ce que venait de lui confier le secrétaire du parti communiste soviétique : Les Russes « n’attaqueront personne, » a dit M. Khrouchtchev qui a prédit que les problèmes mondiaux « seront bientôt résolus. »
M. Pearson est arrivé à Karachi après une visite d’une semaine en l’URSS. Il a passé la soirée de mercredi à Basra, en Irak, et se rendra aujourd’hui à Singapour où il assistera à la conférence des États membres du Plan de Colombo.
S’efforçant de résumer ce qu’il a appelé une utile et intéressante visite en Russie, M. Pearson a exprimé l’espoir que l’Union soviétique soit désormais un peu plus convaincue que ni les Nations Unies ni l’Alliance Atlantique ne sont ni ne deviendront des instruments de guerre et qu’en définitive, le seul souci de l’Occident, comme d’ailleurs celui de Khrouchtchev, consiste à préserver la paix et la sécurité.
Pas de guerre
Rappelons que M. Pearson a eu en Crimée mardi, un long entretien avec le président du Conseil des ministres de l’URSS, M. Boulganine et M. Khrouchtchev. Ce dernier, a dit M. Pearson, a répété : « Nous n’allons jamais attaquer qui que ce soit; nous réglerons les problèmes éventuellement. »
Le ministre canadien a ajouté que, malgré la brièveté de sa visite en Russie, il avait des raisons de croire que les choses allaient s’arranger « de la bonne façon. »
M. Pearson a fait observer que les conversations avaient été très franches, d’un côté comme de l’autre, mais utiles. Il était d’avis que M. Khrouchtchev lui avait entièrement exprimé le fond de sa pensée.
Les entretiens de Crimée qui ont eu lieu à la résidence d’été de M. Khrouchtchev, non loin de Yalta, ont été qualifiés de « très cordiaux. » Le diner qui réunissait les hommes d’État s’est prolongé après minuit. M. Khrouchtchev a exprimé ses inquiétudes à propos de l’OTAN, mais le chef de la diplomatie canadienne s’est empressé de le rassurer, soulignant que l’Alliance atlantique est purement défensive, et que le meilleur moyen de l’abolir consiste à instaurer dans le monde des conditions telles que les organismes chargés d’assurer la paix soient inutiles.
Le maréchal Boulganine, qui assistait à l’entretien, a très peu participé à la conversation, mais il a levé son verre à la santé de M. St-Laurent.
Commentant les résultats de sa visite, M. Pearson a déclaré :
« Les Russes qui dirigent le pays constituent un groupe fort et compétent qui ne manifestent aucun autre désir que celui de vivre en paix pour édifier leur pays et résoudre leurs problèmes domestiques qui, de leur propre aveu, sont nombreux.
À Moscou, jeudi matin, La Pravda déclare que la visite de M. Pearson « contribuera incontestablement à renforcer les relations de bon voisinage entre le Canada et l’Union soviétique. »
Le journal souligne également les points suivants :
1. Au cours des entretiens de Moscou, une mutuelle satisfaction a été exprimée « à l’égard du rapprochement des points de vue du sous-comité du désarmement des Nations Unies dont le Canada et l’Union soviétique sont membres. »
2. L’identité des points de vue canadiens et soviétiques sur la question indochinoise sera notée avec une grande satisfaction « par les peuples de bonne volonté à travers le monde. »
La Pravda précise que l’accord canado-soviétique sur la nécessité « d’appliquer les accords de Genève pour assurer la trêve indochinoise et prévenir les actions militaires est d’une importance encore plus grande au moment où certains cercles, qui ne sont pas intéressés au règlement pacifique au problème indochinois, s’efforcent de faire échec à la mise en œuvre des accords de Genève. »
Again, nothing in that Le Devoir that corresponds to Lévesque’s claim that all the newspapers in the world had reproduced his report, and that at least one had evoked his name.
Now, what about the great international newspapers: did they project René Lévesque’s vision of a defeated Lester Pearson before a towering Nikita Khrushchev? Hardly. We have already seen the front page report in The New York Times on the Pearson-Khrushchev communiqué, based on a Tass agency’s report and Ignatieff’s call to the press attaché of the Canadian embassy in Moscow. Here is the report that appeared in Paris’s Le Monde on October 14, 1955. The story ran in a in a single column on page 5:
M. KRHROUCHTCHEV CONSEILLE AU CANADA de quitter l’O.T.A.N.
Moscou, 13 octobre (A. F. P.)
M. Khrouchtchev a critiqué violemment l’O.T.A.N. au cours d’un entretien de quatre heures qu’il a eu mardi en Crimée avec M. Lester Pearson, ministre canadien des affaires étrangères, rapporte un témoin oculaire de l’entrevue.
Après avoir évoqué les destructions causées en Union soviétique par la dernière guerre mondiale, le premier secrétaire du comité central du parti communiste aurait déclaré : “Et il paraît que le Canada, les États-Unis et la Grande-Bretagne se préparent, à l’aide de l’O.T.A.N., à infliger à l’U.R.S.S. de nouvelles ruines.”
Légèrement surpris par cette répartie, M. Pearson aurait fait remarquer que la définition de l’O.T.A.N. changeait “selon le camp auquel on appartenait” et souligné le caractère défensif de l’organisation.
« Ce n’est pas la première fois dans l’histoire que l’on désigne comme défensif une entreprise offensive » aurait répondu M. Khrouchtchev, ajoutant : « Le meilleur conseil que je puisse donner au Canada, c’est de quitter l’O.T.A.N. »
This very brief single-column summary of the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting is a far cry from the eight-column headline at the top of the front page that Lévesque claimed he had seen in all the great cities of Europe. A similar account appeared in The Times of London. Its edition of October 13, 1955, carried just a brief story in a single column towards the bottom of page 7. Here it is in full:
MR. PEARSON’S TALKS WITH RUSSIANS
Moscow, Oct. 12 – Mr. Lester Pearson, the Canadian Minister for External Affairs, argued for four hours with Marshall Bulganin, the Soviet Prime Minister, and Mr. Khrushchev, the Communist Party First Secretary, almost entirely about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, when he met them on Monday, it was learned today.
The meeting took place at a Black Sea villa. Two Canadian journalists who were present at the beginning of the meeting said Mr. Pearson opened the conversation by saying he had been greatly impressed by the construction work he had seen at Stalingrad and Sebastopol. Mr. Khrushchev said there was much still to be done in rebuilding, and when Mr. Pearson mentioned the vast expenditure that must be involved, Mr. Khrushchev suddenly launched into a strong attack on NATO. He said the west was apparently still planning to unleash destruction on Russia through NATO.
Mr. Pearson pointed out that NATO was purely a defensive organization. Mr. Khrushchev gave some “friendly advice” to Mr. Pearson: that Canada should leave
NATO. – Reuters.
This short article, relegated to one column on page 7, also repudiates Lévesque’s claim to have scored the scoop of a lifetime. The Times cited the account of “Two Canadian journalists who were present at the beginning of the meeting…” So Lévesque can’t even claim that this article was based strictly on his own reporting. Moreover, the article gave approximately equal voice to Pearson and Khrushchev, just as Needham did, whereas Lévesque’s recollection totally unbalanced the dialogue in Khrushchev’s favour, leaving Pearson capable only of a stutter.
Why was there such an enormous discrepancy between, on the one hand, Lévesque’s conviction that he had achieved a “most flamboyant scoop,” a “world-wide scoop,” over an “historic shouting match,” and the ho-hum attitude of the world’s most prestigious newspapers? Manifestly, Lévesque suffered from delusions of grandeur. He expected that he would be received as a hero when he arrived back at Radio-Canada in Montreal. Instead, the news managers there did not know what he was talking about. What great scoop?
So Lévesque developed a conspiracy theory. The supposedly affable Lester Pearson was, he discovered, really a vindictive, nasty, petty and dangerous enemy. He feared that Pearson would have him expelled from the Soviet Union. But Pearson was not the only enemy. Clearly, the mandarins in the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa were also in on the conspiracy. They had conspired with the news managers at Radio-Canada to kill or at least delay the broadcasting of his report, and so minimize his tremendous scoop.
There were a number of discrepancies in Lévesque’s repeated narrative over the years. The first was to exaggerate the importance of Pearson’s encounter with Khrushchev and, consequently, of the revelation that Lévesque delivered to a startled world. After all, Pearson was not a head of government, Canada was not one of the Big Four at Geneva, and Khrushchev had far more pressing issues with other countries than Canada, as we shall see presently. Khrushchev was not in Moscow to greet Pearson; Pearson had to make a detour in a small Russian plane in order to meet Khrushchev face to face.
Lévesque justified the importance of his message by constantly implying that he was the first to reveal the true character of Nikita Khrushchev to the world. He had gone behind the Iron Curtain, supposedly at the start of Khrushchev’s assumption of power, and Khrushchev had actually spoken to him, asking him through an interpreter about his tape recorder. And that tape recorder gave him an advantage that no other journalist present there that night could claim: the actual sound of Khrushchev’s voice, speaking in Russian.
And so, in Lévesque’s mind, he had obtained the first “interview” with Khrushchev and his “scoop” was flamboyant. Let us recall of few of those claims to unique and surpassing importance:
It was the first interview with Khrushchev, at the beginning of his power. No one from the Western world had ever interviewed him. And here you had one of those historic shouting matches.37
This quotation joins several others in which Lévesque claimed to have revealed an as yet unknown Khrushchev. We already quoted from his memoirs the following sentence:
Our report from Yalta contained new material that, as all our colleagues in Moscow agreed, relegated everything else to the back seat, and the story of the sudden emergence of Khrushchev together with my interview made the front page in Brussels, Paris and London.38
In a moment, Radio-Canada’s special emissary would unknowingly contribute to an east-west diplomatic row that would make the headlines of the international press.39
37. Provencher, op. cit., p. 88.
38. Lévesque, op. cit., p. 135.
39. Pierre Godin, René Lévesque: Un enfant du siècle, Montréal, Boréal, 1994, p. 273.
The small world of Radio-Canada knew nothing about his great scoop. Not one word of his dramatic interview, taken up by the press of the entire world, was ever heard over the airwaves of the national broadcaster. What a cold shower! And what a lesson it provided on the relations between press and power! He conducted his own enquiry as far as Ottawa. When he found out the truth, he denounced the political censorship.40
“Under the signature of fellow journalists,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I was read everywhere else; but here, this scoop, the most flamboyant of my entire career, was squelched to placate Lester B. Pearson. It was enough to make me… a separatist.”41
Each of these claims is, in fact, fraudulent. In October of 1955, Khrushchev was not “at the beginning of his power,” he had succeeded Stalin two years earlier as head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, shortly after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. And it was utterly false that “no one from the Western world had ever interviewed him.” Khrushchev had, in fact, been constantly in the public eye ever since the opening of the Geneva Summit on July 18, 1955. At that summit, the most insistent proposal put forward by the Soviet Delegation was, precisely, that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact be dissolved. So the substance of Khrushchev’s denunciation of NATO with Pearson was hardly big news.
The Geneva Summit had brought together the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, in an attempt to end the cold war, or at least to reverse the armaments race. Premier Bulganin and Khrushchev had mingled regularly with leaders and diplomats from the West, for instance at the several receptions held in turn by each of the four powers at Geneva. Here is an except from a front-page New York Times story, dated July 19, 1955.
Eisenhower and Zhukov Meet
Khrushchev Breaks in on Chat
By ELIE ABEL, Special to the New York Times.
GENEVA, July 18 – Marshall Georgi K. Zhukov, Soviet Minister of Defense, renewed today his wartime friendship with President Eisenhower.
The men who commanded the Soviet and Allied armies that crushed the resistance of the Nazis ten years ago talked warmly of their children and grandchildren and of the prospects of easing East-West tensions. They have been exchanging letters from time to time for several months.
Marshal Zhukov, who dined with the President this evening as a member of the Soviet delegation to the Geneva conference, received from General Eisenhower two wedding presents for his daughter, who was married last Saturday. One was a pen set engraved “From the President of the United States, July, 1955,” and the other a United States radio.
President Eisenhower learned only this morning of the marriage of the marshal’s daughter. Nikita S. Khrushchev, Communist party chief, broke into a private conversation between the two old comrades-in-arms as they were waiting for the opening session of the conference to begin.
“I want to let you in in on a Zhukov family secret,” Mr. Khrushchev told the President through an interpreter. Mr. Khrushchev went on to say that the Soviet Defense Minister had passed up his daughter’s wedding and come to Geneva because he was so eager to see the President.
40. Godin, op. cit., p. 276.
41. Godin, op. cit., p. 277.
The President had three opportunities today to talk over old times with Marshal Zhukov. The first, interrupted by Mr. Khrushchev, was described by James C. Hagerty, White House press secretary, as a “very enthusiastic meeting.” […]
The two wartime colleagues chatter again at the dinner in the President’s villa this evening with Oleg Troyanovsky serving as interpreter. …
The Eisenhower guests tonight included, in addition to Marshal Zhukov, Premier Bulganin Mr. Khrushchev; Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Soviet Foreign Minister; Andrei A. Gromyko, First Deputy Foreign Minister, and Mr. Troyanovsky.
On the United States side, the President had Secretary of State Dulles, Douglas MacArthur 2d, counselor of the State Department; Livingston T. Merchant, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs; Charles E. Bohlen, Ambassador to Moscow; Mr. Hagerty; Llewellyn E. Thompson Jr., Ambassador to Austria, and Major Eisenhower.
Mrs. Eisenhower greeted her husband’s guests on the terrace of the villa before retiring.
The Geneva Summit lasted six days, ending on July 23. That meant that the delegations of the four powers were in constant communication, both during the official discussions during the day and during the many parallel social events. Lévesque’s contention that Khrushchev was an unknown new leader to Westerners until he delivered his report on the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting to an astonished world is ridiculously unfounded.
In the first years of his ascendancy, Khrushchev launched a campaign to establish better relations with communist parties in other countries and with Western countries. He visited China in 1954, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in March of 1955. It was part of what was called “the Khrushchev Thaw.” The invitation that was extended to Lester Pearson for an official visit was only a small part of that campaign. In March of 1955, Khrushchev invited Austria’s Chancellor Julius Raab to come to Moscow. There they reached an agreement that led to the reunification of a demilitarized and neutral Austria, soon to be confirmed at the Geneva Summit in July. Another official visit by a Western leader was that of Finland’s president Juho Kusti Paasikivi, who arrived in Moscow on September 15, 1955. That visit led to the Soviet Union agreeing to withdraw its troops occupying the Finnish naval base of Porkkala, on the Baltic Sea, and restoring it to Finland.
The most dramatic of these many official visits was that of West Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, in September of 1955. News accounts of that visit, which featured five days of strained negotiations between Adenauer and the Soviet leaders, expose the fraudulence of Lévesque’s claim to have been the first Western journalist to “interview” Khrushchev. Here is a report from Le Monde, in its edition of September 8, more than a month before Pearson’s meeting with Khrushchev:
Cent journalistes allemands sont arrivés à Moscou
Bonn, 7 septembre (A.F.P.). – Le train spécial qui servira d’« ambassade roulante » pendant le séjour de la délégation allemande arrive aujourd’hui dans la capitale soviétique. Une avant-garde de près de cent journalistes allemands est déjà sur place.
Les derniers détails du voyage du chancelier Adenauer ont été réglés hier matin. Des pilotes soviétiques sont arrivés à Hambourg, siège de la Lufthansa, pour communiquer à leurs collègues de la compagnie allemande les renseignements qui leur seront utiles au-delà du rideau de fer. Les deux Superconstellation qui transporteront le chancelier Adenauer et sa suite partiront respectivement de l’aérodrome de Wahn jeudi à 9 heures et à 9 h. 45 (heure française). L’appareil du chancelier atterrira à l’aérodrome Vnoukovo, situé à 30 kilomètres de la capitale, et non à l’aérodrome central, comme l’avaient fait M. Nehru42 ou le président Ho Chi-Minh.43
This news report demonstrates just how presumptuous and farcical was Lévesque’s claim to be a kind of Marco Polo, first from the West to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain. Adenauer was accompanied by about 100 German journalists, and that did not count the full-time journalists that several newspapers already maintained in Moscow. And the journalists were able to report events in the USSR with far greater depth than Lévesque could achieve with his 15 minutes in the presence of Khrushchev. Here excerpts from another report in Le Monde, published on September 14, 1955, on p. 4:
Dans la salle des chevaliers de Saint-Georges
Le maréchal Boulganine a reçu 2 000 invités
en l’honneur du chancelier Adenauer
Moscou, 13 septembre (A.F.P.). – Le président Boulganine a donné hier une grande réception, à 18 heures, au Kremlin, en l’honneur du chancelier Adenauer et de la délégation gouvernementale allemande.
Dans la salle des chevaliers de Saint-Georges, du grand palais du Kremlin, aux murs recouverts de plaques de marbre, éclairée par d’immenses lustres dorés, huit longues tables étaient alignées perpendiculairement à la grande table d’honneur derrière laquelle étaient assis les membres des deux délégations et les dirigeants soviétiques.
Les autres invités, diplomates des pays accrédités auprès de Bonn, et les personnalités soviétiques se tenaient debout. Plus de deux mille invités se trouvaient dans la salle, parmi lesquels on remarquait le métropolite Nicolas de Kroutitsi, la fille de Staline, Svetlana, des maréchaux, des ministres, des savants et d’autres personnalités de Moscou. […]
42. Jawaharlal Nehru, president of India, had visited the Soviet Union, arriving on June 7, 1955.
43. Ho Chi-Minh, president of North Vietnam, arrived for an official visit on June 22, 1955.
Longues conversations Adenauer-Boulganine
Tandis que M. Khrouchtchev mangeait de bon appétit tout en conversant avec le chancelier Adenauer, le président Boulganine a commencé par corriger au crayon le texte dactylographié de l’allocution qu’il devait prononcer plus tard. Puis, croisant les bras sur sa poitrine, le chef du gouvernement soviétique a entamé à son tour une longue conversation avec le Dr. Adenauer. La conversation prenait par moment un caractère extrêmement animé. Le chef du gouvernement soviétique à un moment donné, s’est même frappé le front d’un geste désespéré, exprimant visiblement son étonnement de tant d’incompréhension.
Au milieu de la conversation, le maréchal Boulganine a pris à témoin M. Khrouchtchev, qui était plongé dans une longue conversation avec M. Arnold. L’intervention du premier secrétaire du parti a déridé un moment les deux hommes d’État, mais après avoir trinqué ensemble ils ont repris une conversation sérieuse qui a duré plus de quatre minutes avec la même vivacité, mais cette fois-ci à trois.
Voyant que le président Boulganine s’apprêtait à allumer sa troisième cigarette, le chancelier Adenauer, d’un geste autoritaire, a retiré la boîte des mains du président du conseil soviétique et l’a déposée hors de sa portée. Il a été approuvé bruyamment par M. Khrouchtchev, qui est, comme on sait, ennemi du tabac.
À la fin du repas, du champagne soviétique a été servi aux invités.
Pendant ce temps d’autre dirigeants soviétiques conversaient longuement avec les délégués allemands. M. Malenkov, après avoir trinqué avec son voisin, M. Blankenhorn, a engagé une longue conversation avec le secrétaire d’État, M. Hallstein, conversation qui s’est terminée à la fin du repas. Toutes les conversations entre les dirigeants soviétiques et allemands se sont déroulées par l’intermédiaire d’interprètes des deux délégations.
Au cours de la réception, le maréchal Boulganine a prononcé l’allocution suivante : […]
Prenant à son tour la parole, le chancelier a déclaré : « Au cours des derniers jours, nous avons eu avec les délégués soviétiques, sous la direction du président du conseil Boulganine, des échanges de vues sincères, ouverts et parfois violents. Mon voisin de droite, M. Khrouchtchev, n’a pas toujours tenu sa langue. »
M. Khrouchtchev intervenant :
« Oui, mais je ne cachais jamais de pierres dans ma poche. »
« Je ne l’ai pas dit, a ajouté en souriant le chancelier. M. Khrouchtchev est un homme qui dit parfois trop vite ce qu’il pense, mais je crois que nous pouvons aussi nous confier à lui. […]
« Je lève mon verre et je bois pour qu’entre nos deux peuples s’établissent de bonnes et amicales relations, et non pas seulement diplomatiques, car les diplomates ne sont pas toujours des amis. Mais je bois également pour les relations diplomatiques et à la santé des peuples soviétique et allemand. »
These are excerpts from a very full account of a lengthy banquet that brought together diplomats from many countries, delivered by a journalist who obviously was in the hall to witness to the entire reception. A further observation to be made: Adenauer commented on the provocative and impulsive interventions by Khrushchev during the closed-door negotiations. So Lévesque was hardly revealing an unknown characteristic of the Soviet leader when he described his first aggressive comments with Pearson. This was no longer news.
A delegation of parliamentarians from France would soon follow the German delegation. Once again, a reporter accompanying the delegates commented on the same aggressive posture of Khrushchev. Here is an excerpt from a report in Le Monde, published on page 12 October 5, 1955, a few days before Pearson’s encounter with Khrushchev.
DOUZE JOURS EN U.R.S.S.
IV. -Les conclusions des parlementaires français
De notre envoyé spécial GEORGES MAMY
Au cours de ce voyage, la délégation parlementaire a connu deux faiblesses. (1) En premier lieu, face à M. Khrouchtchev, elle fut manifestement débordée et il ne semble pas qu’on ait songé à mieux préparer cette rencontre que les entrevues avec les soviets locaux. Il est vrai que le premier secrétaire du parti communiste soviétique abuse quelque peu de son avantage.
So a delegation of French parliamentarians had spent 12 days visiting the Soviet Union, accompanied by journalists who sent back a steady stream of reports. Like the Germans, the French delegates had found Khrushchev notably argumentative and unsettling. And this was published once again before the Pearson-Khrushchev meeting. Khrushchev’s crude behaviour was already a well-known fact that deprived Lévesque’s “scoop” of any major news value.
Now, to demonstrate definitively just how false was Lévesque’s pretention of opening a first window into a Russia still cloistered behind the Iron Curtain, here are excerpts from a top-of-the front-page report from The New York Times, dated September 13, detailing a discussion of five United States senators with Bulganin and Khrushchev.
U.S. SENATORS GET SOVIET TRADE BID
Kremlin Chiefs, in interview, Ask Machines, Not ‘Toys,’ in Return for Manganese
By WELLES HANGEN
Special to The New York Times
MOSCOW, Sept. 12—Nikita S. Khrushchev said today the Soviet Union wanted to import United States machinery and agricultural products. The Communist party chief implied Moscow would offer manganese and other strategic materials in exchange for United States goods.
Mr. Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin told five United States Senators they wanted to expand Soviet-United States trade sharply to promote “better relations between our countries” and satisfy Soviet import requirements.
“The trouble with you people so far is that you want to trade manganese for toys,” Mr. Khrushchev smilingly told the Americans.
“We used to have good trade relations with you,” he continued, “and we would like to get back to that.”
Both Mr. Khrushchev and Marshal Bulganin urged repeal of United States regulations against trade in strategic good with the Soviet Union and its allies. They urged Congress to enact new legislation making such trade possible on a large scale.
The interview took place in a Kremlin conference room. […]
Senator Young opened the meeting by inquiring whether the Soviet Union would be interested in purchasing some surplus United States agricultural products.
“Such trade is not only possible but desirable,” Mr. Khrushchev replied with characteristic vigor. He added quickly that there was no food crisis in the Soviet Union “as you in the United States believe.” […]
Mr. Khrushchev declared that the Soviet Union had sharply expanded its agricultural output by bringing 75,000,000 acres of idle or virgin land under cultivation in the last two years.
The party leader inveighed bitterly against Washington’s restrictive policy on trade with the Soviet bloc as Premier Bulganin nodded vigorous approval.
The Soviet Union wants United States machinery and machine tools, M. Khrushchev said. It would prefer to import certain types of industrial equipment rather than make everything here, he added.
Mr. Khrushchev sought to minimize the economic motivation behind his call for expanded Soviet-United States trade.
“We value trade least for economic reasons,” he insisted, “and most for political purposes as a means of promoting better relations between our countries.”
Replying to a question put by Senator Kefauver, Mr. Khrushchev said he expected “important results” from next month’s conference of the Big Four foreign ministers in Geneva. […]
There was much good-nature sparring about politics in the United States in the interview. When Senator Kefauver observed the Senators represented both major United States parties, Mr. Khrushchev retorted: “You would have to have a microscope to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans in your country.”
Chided about activities of the Cominform and Communist parties abroad, the Soviet leader asserted: “If we were trying to meddle in your affairs, we would be working hard to elect members of the United States Senate.” […]
At the end of the two-hour session, Senator Kefauver requested that the Columbia Broadcasting System be authorized to maintain a permanent correspondent in Moscow as the National Broadcasting Company already does.
“This will be taken care of immediately,” Mr. Khrushchev told the Senator.
On September 19, 1955, The New York Times summarized on page 5 all the intense diplomatic activity that was then taking place in Russia, in the month before Pearson’s visit.
Soviet’s 1955 Diplomacy Plays Never-Ending Diplomat’s March
Ten days ago it was Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany who arrived. He stayed six days. The very next day President Juho K. Paaasikivi and Premier Urho K. Kekkonen of Finland flew in from Helsinki. Right behind them on Friday came Premier Otto Grotewohl of East Germany and his party.
For the first time that anybody could remember the Soviet Government conducted three sets of international negotiations in a single week; two of them simultaneously.
Next week the flow of visitors will be reversed and the band will play for ceremonial departures. But it will still be a long time before the last is heard from the honor guard band. Visits to the Soviet Union are scheduled by the French, Burmese, Egyptians and New Zealand premiers, just to mention a few.
No wonder Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin caught the flu and took a couple of days off last week. The diplomatic pace has been exhausting, if not killing.
A rugged constitution is needed by those who follow the negotiations and festivities, as do news correspondents, protocol officers, security guards and a host of other hangers-on, aides and functionaries.
They dash from one negotiating session to another, from one news conference to the next, from a foreign embassy to the Kremlin, from the Foreign Ministry to the telegraph office, swearing as they go, always late and always harassed.
How different a picture these contemporary newspaper reports convey from René Lévesque’s claim to have been the first Westerner to ”interview” Khrushchev. For those fans of René Lévesque who still choose to believe in his rectitude, I reprint here part of a front-page report by The New York Times on a speech given by Khrushchev on September 17, 1955.
Khrushchev Warns West Communism Will Win Out
Says Smiles Since Geneva Do Not Mean Reversal of Marx-Lenin Line
Special to The New York Times
MOSCOW, Sept. 17- That new smile on the face of the Russian bear doesn’t mean the Soviet Union is going to abandon communism. In an extraordinary speech tonight at the Kremlin, Nikita S. Khrushchev, Soviet Communist party chief, gave warning of that to the Western world.
Those who wait for the Soviet Union to abandon communism “wait until a shrimp learns to whistle,” Mr. Khrushchev declared.
At the same time in the most fervent and evangelical terms he expressed supreme confidence that victory in competition between communism and capitalism would go to the Communists.
He disclosed that Soviet leaders had said as much to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany when he was here for negotiations with them.
“We honestly said to Adenauer,” Mr. Khrushchev reported: “Your star is waning. It is the star of capitalism. That of socialism is only beginning. But it will shine with a thousand fires.”
The Khrushchev speech, a real rabble rouser, was delivered off the cuff at a dinner for the East German delegation now visiting the Soviet Union. It revealed to Westerners probably for the first time the native vigor and force of Mr. Khrushchev, the rough and ready orator.
The banquet for the East Germans also presented a sharp contrast to the one given last Monday evening in same room, the magnificent gold and white Georgievsky Zal (St. George’s Hall) of the Great Kremlin Palace. There was constraint to the meeting between the West Germans and Soviet leaders. During part of the meal Dr. Adenauer and Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin argued with each other and in the end came up with the understanding that led next day to a formal agreement.
Tonight the atmosphere was more relaxed. The Soviet leaders behaved as if they were friends – as indeed they were.
At the end of the evening both Marshal Bulganin and Mr. Khrushchev embraced Walter Ulbricht, the West German Communist party boss, and kissed him soundly on both cheeks.
Close beside the East German was Premier Urho Kekkonen of Finland who is also here for negotiations with the Soviet Government and members of his party
Explains the Soviet Smile
After Marshal Bulganin had proposed a toast to the visiting Germans, Mr. Khrushchev took over the microphone.
“They say that the Soviet delegates smile. That smile is genuine. It is not artificial. We wish to live in peace, tranquility.
“But if anyone believes that our smiles involve abandonment of the teaching of Marx, Engels and Lenin he deceives himself poorly. Those who wait for that must wait until a shrimp learns to whistle.”
The party chief was quoting one of the myriads of Russian proverbs.
While the Soviet Government is for communism, it also is for the coexistence of the Communist and capitalist systems, Mr. Khrushchev declared. It does not seek to convert others to communism by force, he added.
“Go your way then,” he said to the capitalist countries, “until you see that it is the way of the blind. We shall continue to progress along the road of Marx, Engels and Lenin, which is as clear as a sunny day.”
Sees No Need for War
There is no need for war, he added, because peaceful competition would result in the inevitable triumph of communism.
Mr. Khrushchev’s speech was not scheduled and twice Marshal Bulganin rose and put a mildly suggestive hand on Mr. Khrushchev’s shoulder, but the party speaker was well wound up.
We don’t know what René Lévesque actually did say in his original report on that October 11, 1955 meeting between Lester Pearson and Nikita Khrushchev. We don’t know because Lévesque never dared to make public the authentic text.
But what we do know now is that, over three decades, Lévesque spun a self-magnifying legend of that meeting. From start to finish, the legend was one gigantic lie.
Lévesque lied about having interviewed Nikita Khrushchev. He lied about having obtained a world-wide scoop. He lied by claiming that Khrushchev had vanquished Pearson and reduced him to stuttering incoherence. He lied by claiming that those few first minutes of greetings between the Canadians and the Russians summarized fully all the discussions held that night. He lied by saying that he had gone for a swim in the dark in the Black Sea in front of the palace where Khrushchev was vacationing. He lied by claiming that he had spent that night sleeping in the same palace where Khrushchev slept.
He then lied by portraying Pearson as a nasty, vindictive little personality who was likely to have Lévesque expelled from the Soviet Union if Lévesque told the true story of what happened at the encounter. He lied by asserting that he and Richard Needham, the pool reporters attending the meeting on behalf of all 10 Canadian reporters on the trip to Moscow, had then withheld from the other reporters some of what had happened, that because they feared Pearson’s reprisals. He lied about his story having been printed over eight columns in all the great newspapers of the world. He lied by claiming that the mandarins at External Affairs in Ottawa had ordered his report embargoed because it showed Pearson in a bad light. He lied by claiming that the news managers at Radio-Canada had held the story back as a case of political censorship. He lied by suggesting that this paramount injustice had put him on the path to separatism.
That Lévesque told all these lies is incontrovertible. The proof is laid out here. But it raises a serious question: how is it that his several biographers, like Jean Provencher and Pierre Godin, credulously accredited Lévesque’s legendary account without checking out any of his egregious falsehoods?
And the cardinal question for history is raised: was René Lévesque really a pathological self-aggrandizing liar?