Wes Vernon
May 7, 2007
Hard-nosed investigative reporting: a giant has left us
By Wes Vernon

Ralph de Toledano told me not long ago that he had started to work on his memoirs. What a shame he did not live long enough to finish that work. It is a great loss to history.

Here was a newspaperman with 21 books to his credit (by my count), some of them best-sellers, most of them reflecting his own shoe-leather detective work to shed some light on the dark corners where certified scoundrels and plotters of all kinds of mischief dwell.

Twentieth Century witness

When he passed away recently at age 90, Ralph had covered the political landscape of the 20th Century. He was a walking encyclopedia. Mention almost any historical figure, and Ralph had either interviewed him or befriended him or had covered him as a newspaperman. (By the way, he preferred to be called a "newspaperman," not a journalist. As a longtime broadcast newsman with an appreciation for the print media's more generous allocation of space in which to explore in-depth reporting, I appreciate and respect that.)

It is too bad that those of us who heard his many anecdotes when he held court at the National Press Club in Washington did not have tape recorders taking it all down. Just put them in print, slap them between hard covers, and you'd have a total page-turner.

Nailed Hiss

Ralph de Toledano burst upon the national scene big-time when he covered the Alger Hiss treason case for Newsweek. He was there from the day Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist turned top editor of Time, testified under oath before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) where he named Communists who had infiltrated the U.S. government, including Alger Hiss, who had engaged in espionage while at the State Department, and prior to that in other government positions.

Hiss, then a top official of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, vehemently denied before HCUA he had ever been a Communist or that he had engaged in espionage when he turned over deeply classified secrets to the Soviet Union. After two trials (the first of which ended in a hung jury), Alger Hiss was found guilty of lying when he said he was not a traitor.

The quisling's knee-jerk reaction to his conviction was to blame "a gallivanting drunken press," which ignored the fact that the reporters covering the story were overwhelmingly in his corner. Most of the press corps passionately wanted the erudite darling of the Roosevelt New Deal to be found innocent. After all, Hiss was at FDR's side at the disastrous Yalta Conference which effectively gave Stalin all the wiggle room he needed to gobble up half of Europe and advance in Asia. For the herd-instinct media, there was a lot of political mileage riding on the outcome. They wanted to buy into the "Ooops, sorry!" excuses for the sellout at Yalta.

But Ralph de Toledano, in addition to covering the story from start to finish, did his own sleuthing, followed the treason trail, and came up with evidence that clearly pointed to Hiss's guilt. He laid all that out in his reportage. After that, many of his colleagues stopped talking to him.

The endless aftermath

Ralph went on to record his coverage of the Hiss-Chambers case in his Seeds of Treason, an instant best-seller that went through several printings. Beyond that, he and his wife Nora aided Whittaker Chambers in the research that went into his literary masterpiece Witness, a first-person account of Chambers' torment and struggles with his conscience (to say nothing with the very real risk to his life) when breaking with the Communist Party. Witness detailed the impressions Chambers' experiences had left him in terms of his religious and philosophical outlook. It was a very moving work, rightly regarded as one of the best of the century.

Farewell to Chambers

When Whittaker Chambers died in 1961, Ralph's farewell ended with this eulogy to his friend in National Review: "Others can rehearse the facts and events that made up the life of Whittaker Chambers. Others can weep more eloquently than I for the man who knew the fate incumbent in the bone. For myself — for those who love freedom and who have been reached by his greatness — only this is valid: He died as a martyr. Let us say our good-bye. Now we must avenge him."

"Avenging him" referred to the demons that bedeviled Chambers. Ralph surely did his part to slay the Marxist beast. Chambers was a pessimist, as anyone with his past could easily be. He firmly believed that in breaking with Communism and opting for freedom, he was actually transferring his loyalties to the losing side. Unlike his friend, Toledano lived to see the downfall of the Soviet empire in the era of Ronald Reagan — one of the presidents he got to know during his distinguished career.

Spies, dupes, and diplomats

Ralph's follow-up to Seeds of Treason was his early fifties in-depth report on the Richard Sorge spy ring in the Far East prior to War II. Sorge went to Japan posing as a Nazi journalist. It was a time when the highest ranks of Imperial Japan were split as to whether to take on the United States or the Soviet Union. As a spy for the Red army, Sorge did his work well. He was arrested by the Japanese in October 1941 after he had informed Stalin of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor. Ralph told the whole story in his page-turning Spies, Dupes, and Diplomats. His account shows the Sorge spy ring could have been a factor leading to Japan's attack on the United States.

Blowing the whistle on the Justice Department

It used to drive Ralph crazy the way the Truman Justice Department would switch horses in midstream. One example he cited in his columns and books was the practice of "swinging" juries to avoid embarrassment to the administration.

Some trials resulted from his exposés in Look magazine and elsewhere. Just as the Grand Jury was getting interested in the spy testimony of Elizabeth Bentley — a former Communist who became an FBI informant — Truman's prosecutors would turn the jurors' focus to the open — and relatively ineffectual members of the Communist Party, and slide away from revelations of spies in the government.

Ike too

Ralph de Toledano wrote a book in the early sixties titled The Greatest Plot in History wherein he documented chapter and verse how the Soviets had stolen our atomic secrets. There was airtight evidence that the plot went way beyond the Rosenbergs. But the Eisenhower administration took a hands-off attitude on that. After the Rosenbergs were executed, the Justice Department shut down the investigation of other atom spies, and just walked away from it. Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example, had become a media cause celebre, even though his fingerprints were all over the scandal, and Ike didn't want to tangle with the establishment opinion-molders. So "case closed." Of course, Ralph said not so fast, and cited documentation proving the case was not "closed."

CIA mischief

One of Ralph de Toledano's best scoops was the story of how — during the Eisenhower administration — the CIA had tried to assassinate Chiang-Kai Shek, who ruled Taiwan after having been chased off the Chinese mainland by the Communist revolution. Since Chiang was our friend and ally in the struggle against the Soviet drive for world domination, this was shocking information to most.

When Ralph got wind of the CIA murder plot, he went to then Vice-President Richard Nixon for verification. Nixon not only corroborated the information but added angrily that, furthermore, they (the CIA) had also tried to wipe out Syngman Rhee of South Korea. Both anti-Communist leaders had been prodding the U.S. and others not to agree to sell-outs to the Soviets and the Red Chinese.

Foiled plot

Chiang had been warned of the planned attempt on his life, and been told that the CIA agents had been given $3 million to carry it out. His security people wanted to give the assassins a little welcoming party upon their arrival. The old generalissimo — nobody's fool — said something on the order of, "No, no, no, you idiots! Get the three million first, and then make your move."

So when the murder team's agents arrived, they started parceling out the three million dollars to locals who were in on the conspiracy. At the propitious moment, the CIA agents were arrested, and the local quislings were executed. No announcements were made.

Parting shot

And just a few months ago, Ralph's final book was released: Cry Havoc: The Great American Bringdown and How it Happened. (See this column November 27, 2006.) Therein he clearly revealed that the coarsening of American culture was no accident, a product of the Frankfurt School originating in Weimar Germany. A key player in that nefarious scheme also was instrumental in bringing Communism to Hollywood.

Metamorphosis

One of my favorite Toledano-isms was this: "God must love slobs. He made so many of them. Slobs of the right. Slobs on the left. A pox on both." In the forties, Ralph had actually voted for Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president. He did not go into the Hiss case as what you would call "a hard-charging right-winger." But the massive deceit he saw in that historic real-life spy drama helped solidify his years-long journey from left to right.

Scoops

Two Washington bigwigs discussing some inside and very interesting information while riding the National Press Club elevator — oblivious to the third man in the elevator — might well have read their conversations in a Ralph de Toledano column a couple of days later (after some fact-checking, of course). A good newspaperman is always on duty, always with his ears open.

Farewell

On April 21 at the National Press Club, Ralph de Toledano's fellow reporters and other friends said their final good-byes to the World War II veteran who had been the commander of the club's American Legion Post#20 before being struck with the illness that finally ended his days on earth. Here was a newspaperman and best-selling author who had chronicled the chaos that marked the 20th Century, and he was so proud to be commander of our Legion post.

90 years added up to a full life for Ralph de Toledano. But in the fulness of all time, it is barely a blip on the radar. One can almost hear him saying, "Not now, God. I have so much to do yet. My memoirs. More leads to track down. I need more time."

The profession has lost a giant. RIP

© Wes Vernon

 

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