Robert L. Bernstein

Books and Ideas: The U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

VTR Date: June 22, 1985

Guest: Bernstein, Robert L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Bernstein
Title: “Books and Ideas”
VTR: 6/22/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Some years ago, the State Department asked me to undertake a rather modest mission to Moscow. Would I, as a college professor and an American historian spend a week at an official American exhibit on higher education at Sokelnycky Park outside of Moscow? My job? To answer the questions of Soviet citizens who had the temerity to come and stand on those long lines at the exhibit. And surely I wasn’t invited without a security check, nor should I have been. Not in the real world, at least. But I wasn’t told what to say, what ideas to bring with me or express. After all, I was supposed to be the expert. Now however, a much more significant American exhibit in the Soviet Union has caused an awful lot of trouble, not there, but here in the United States, has raised a lot of hackles, and has posed a number of interesting questions about truth and wisdom in publishing and government. It all has to do with the 1985 Moscow International Book Fair, and with the fact that American private commercial publishers received public funds in support of a book exhibit at the Moscow Fair entitled “America through American Eyes.” For the National Endowment for Democracy, the semigovernmental agency that probably never should have been asked to and never should have agreed to grant the funds, thought that the publishers’ lists of books to be exhibited in Moscow was imbalanced to the political left, if you will, and asked that others be added from the political right. Well, that in turn touched off some publishers’ anguished cries of censorship. And today we want to discuss this unhappy situation with Robert L. Bernstein, Chairman and president of Random House, not only a most distinguished leader of the publishing industry, but one who for years has been in the vanguard of the fight for free speech and human rights everywhere.

Mr. Bernstein, thanks for joining me today. Not Moscow, but a little table here on The Open Mind. I guess the first question that occurs to me to ask you is, what in the world were you publishers doing there in this situation having asked for and gotten money from the government, what were you doing in Moscow anyway? Or would you be doing in Moscow?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I almost want to ask you a question.


BERNSTEIN: As I listened to your open remarks and you said, “Probably never should have asked for and never should have been given the money for this book fair,” the history of the exhibit of America through American Eyes goes back to 1979, when the fund for Free Expression, which is a group that I work with, and the Association of American Publishers decided that even though there were loads of other exhibits at the Moscow book fair that publishers freely exhibit whatever they choose to send there providing that it is not censored. But we decided that we could have an exhibit which would be censorship-proof because it would be all books about America, and that we could probably show America wonderfully and show what American publishing is by putting together an exhibit that showed the diversity of American publishing and how we’re free to criticize our government, how we’re free to talk about anything we wish, and all kinds of books. And we got that idea and we decided to fund it with the Fund for Free Expression, got some of the money, and the publishers raised some of the money to fund this. And it went to Moscow. It was a huge success. We had a printed, like a book review section or catalog of all the books there, and we distributed those in Russian and English. And it was extremely well attended, and perhaps one of the most popular exhibits there. I unfortunately did not go because at the moment that I was given my visa, and the day before I was supposed to go, the Soviets withdrew my visa. So I never actually saw the exhibit. But I understand that it really was tremendous. In subsequent years it went to China. And this year we decided that it was time to try and bring it back to have it go to Moscow again. And the book fair actually takes place in September so that is when it will go.

Now, how did the National Endowment for Democracy get into this? The National Endowment for Democracy, as you know, is a new government venture. It’s money put up by the US government, and it claims it’s not government, but it’s certainly completely funded by government. And it’s supposed to be republicans and democrat and be nonpartisan it its action. And when it was being founded, our director met with a man named Alan Weinstein and asked him, “What are you going to put up money for? And she said, “Well, what about something like the Moscow book fair?” and he said, “That’s exactly the kind of thing we would like to fund.” The National Endowment is going to put up monies that heretofore had been given under the table by the CIA. And the idea was that at least some of these monies would not be given under the table anymore. There was no reason to do that. They could be given in a forthright way. And he said, “Apply, and I’m sure you will get your grant.”

Now, we have been very criticized for taking up that offer to apply and for getting the grant. And I think it can be argued both ways. I think you can be very critical of it, but here are the reasons why it was accepted. For one thing, America through American Eyes doesn’t make a profit for any publishers. It is not something that is done with any motive except to show American publishing and American life to Soviets. And it’s a strange thing, but Americans have always been interested in doing pro bono works of all kinds. It’s one of the really great things about this country. And this is one of those. In other countries, book exhibits to book fairs, to international book fairs, are subsidized by the government because nobody else would put up the money. I don’t know if they have the tax deductibility, but you just couldn’t raise it. So having to raise between 50 and $100,000 for this, the idea of getting half the money from the government, not having to raise it, was quite attractive. The USIA has sent exhibits to other book fairs before. This in no way inhibited publishers from sending any books they wanted to the book fair. As a matter of fact, there will be Baker and Taylor, one of the large wholesalers, will have an exhibit representing 150 publishers with over 2,000 books at the fair. Many other publishers will have their own exhibits at the fair. All of these publishers have decided that it’s better to be there and try and do what you can than not to be there, because the argument of whether you should go to the fair in the first place is also another legitimate argument you can have. But I think the people that were very critical of the publishers accepting the money are wrong, frankly. I don’t think that…..

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

BERNSTEIN: I don’t think there’s any… Because I think the government, it’s a good thing for the United States to have America through American Eyes at the Moscow book fair. I think what went wrong in this case is that Carl Gershman, who is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, did a very stupid thing. He interpreted his prerogative of shepherding the money and seeing that the money wasn’t spent for trips or in some idle way as having the right to look at the book lists that were going. The publishers, I must say, had been more careful. We didn’t want to be accused as publishers of trying to fight for our own books. So we appointed a committee of authors and librarians. The committee was headed by Kurt Vonnegut, who was attacked for being a leftist when this, when Mr. Gershman’s, in my judgment, attempt to censor the books became public. But the committee actually included librarians from the Philadelphia Library, from the New York Library, included a science writer, poetry writer, children’s book expert. And I frankly haven’t even seen the list until this day. And it doesn’t really matter what was on that list. This group chose the best list they could to appear in a Moscow hall for one week.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s interesting. You say, “It doesn’t really matter.” I mean, we’ll get Mr. Gershman or try to get Mr. Gershman here to respond to what you say.


HEFFNER: But just between us now, as a publisher do you say it really doesn’t make any difference what’s going to be published, as someone who puts the imprint of Random House on…

BERNSTEIN: Of course it makes a difference.


BERNSTEIN: What I was really saying was not that it doesn’t make difference what…This group chose a book, their idea of a cross-section of American publishing for this exhibit. They did it with the fact in mind that this exhibit was going to be one week in a Moscow hall. It was not going to be books that people took home and read. And it was going to be reviewed in a book section. I will maintain that their selection is as good a representation as some other group’s selection. You could have had another group do it. But you had to have a group that did it. What I think was improper is for the government to have any point of view at all.

HEFFNER: Well, you invited the government to have a point of view, in a sense, by asking the government to put in the money. You talked about the pro bono history that America has. Why wasn’t this done pro bono? Why risk the possibility that who pays the piper calls the tune?

BERNSTEIN: I understand that you raise a lot of money for this program. Is that right?

HEFFNER: There’s no lot of money that goes into this program.

BERNSTEIN: All right. Whatever. But you do raise…

HEFFNER: Outside of that.

BERNSTEIN: You know how hard it is to raise money.

HEFFNER: Sure. Sure.

BERNSTEIN: So that if you were offered money…


BERNSTEIN: And you are assured of made to feel that there’s going to be no difference…Don’t forget, this exhibit had appeared in 1979, it had been to China, it had been applauded. Everything was done exactly the same way. There was no reason to anticipate that there…And really there’s nothing wrong if you’re going to have a National Endowment for Democracy in the first place, which is nothing but a foundation in which the government decides to put some money for pet projects. It’s not different. I’m now going to look into this National Endowment for Democracy. I’m very curious as to what they give their money to. But if you’re going to have it, I don’t really see any reason why this could not have been left alone and gone forward.

HEFFNER: Mr. Bernstein…

BERNSTEIN: I told you originally, I thought you can argue it the other way. But not strongly.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s grant that you can argue it the other way. You would argue it your way, and I might lead Mr. Gershman or others into arguing it their way. But when you get to this matter of censorship, I’m a little bit puzzled about that. Do I misunderstand the facts? I thought they consisted of the request, not that anything be prohibited, not that anything be censored, not that anything be taken off the list, but for the sake of balance that things be added to the list. Is that incorrect?

BERNSTEIN: I believe it’s incorrect. Jack McRae, who is the chairman of the International Freedom to Publish Committee of the Association of American Publishers, says that he had phone calls from Carl Gershman in which Carl asked him to remove books for the list. The letter that was sent to the Association just asks that books be added to the list. So that in either case Jack McRae asked Carl Gershman to call Kurt Vonnegut who was the head of the committee and said that, “We cannot, we publishers have no voice in this list one way or the other, but I’m sure if you call Kurt Vonnegut he would probably add books to the list.” I don’t think anything terrible would have happened if books were added to the list, to be honest with you. I don’t think Mr. Vonnegut does. I think what happened was that Mr. Gershman said, no, he wanted us, the publishers, to go to Mr. Vonnegut to ask to do this, which we would not do. I also don’t think it’s important that…I don’t think the list is unbalanced, and I think you could get 20 points of view on that and probably have ten on either side.

HEFFNER: You have or have not seen the list?

BERNSTEIN: I haven’t looked carefully at the list. I looked at it very, very quickly. The things that I’m interested in in that list are the books that Mr. Gershman would consider frivolous, the books that show American lifestyle and show a little bit about what this country is like. Don’t forget, these books can’t be read. They’re going in a hall for one week, and people are going to walk by them and they’re going to read little descriptions of them. And actually picture books were probably the best thing that appears there.

HEFFNER: How do you feel about the whole business of being in Moscow where presumably a person of your deep, profound interest in liberty, in freedom of speech, in human rights? How do you reconcile a life’s work in that area with participating in a conference there? You said your visa had been taken away and you didn’t go to the first one, and then it was given back to you.

BERNSTEIN: No, I don’t know yet. I’m debating now whether I…I’m going to apply to go this year. And I’ll tell you why. I think that’s a debatable, another issue on which you can take either side. And I have taken both sides. I always kid people and say I really run a publishing house with an idea of one idea, which is: Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, which is a line of Ralph Waldo Emerson. But I actually boycotted the first fair and was going to go to the second. I boycotted it because I couldn’t get the Soviets to give me an opinion on censorship. And I was going to go to the second because I decided I should really, I made a mistake. Instead of asking for an opinion, I should have sent the books and tested it. And now I know what kind of things are censored and what is not. And my reason for now thinking about going again is that in talking to Soviet writers, most of whom have been exiled to Lev Kopeleft or Ri Oralova, to Mr. Axionov, they say that they would favor Americans trying to go and trying to speak there and say what they wish there, that you get the press there and you get attention on what you say, and that you can make some impact in going. I find it very hard to go. Just as I was talking to Jay Islin of public broadcasting, I said, as I’m coming in here, Andre Sakharov has disappeared right at this very, very moment. And we publish Andre Sakharov, and there’s not a big press fuss being made about it. There are writers in labor camps all the time. Uri Orlov, who founded the Helsinki Watch Committee is being beat up in some village in Siberia. I really believe that until the Soviets make some change in the way they treat people of ideas it’s unlikely that there’s going to be great progress. There may be stalemates. And so I find it very hard to go and very debatable.

HEFFNER: But you’re going to apply for a visa.

BERNSTEIN: I’m going to apply for a visa. And as I sit here, I haven’t decided whether if I get one I should go or not.

HEFFNER: But that, you know, okay, that’s fair enough. As you said, you quoted Emerson, “A foolish consistency,” etc. But given your feelings about the Soviet Union, what about this whole business of setting up an exhibit, “America through American Eyes”, when you catalog, as you just have, the abuses of personal liberty in the Soviet Union? I mean, you say again you will eschew a foolish consistency.

BERNSTEIN: Well, the idea of this exhibit is to show that there is another way of doing it to whatever group of maybe perhaps 75 or…We gave away 75,000 catalogs last time, and 100,000 are being printed now, to show Soviet citizens that there’s another way of doing it. That there are governments that exist that can be criticized. That there are societies that exist where change is encouraged, where free speech is encouraged, where people are not put away in labor camps because they speak their mind, where people are allowed to leave their country and return and write about other countries. It’s an attempt to open up a society that has been difficult to penetrate. Whether it’s a good one or a bad one, that’s debatable.

HEFFNER: If you were to read carefully the list of books chosen by Mr. Vonnegut’s committee, and if you were to come to the conclusion that indeed a great deal more could have been done to have made it balanced, that if you have a particular orientation in certain areas you’re going to have books that are quite reputable that reflect other orientations, the kind of freedom that you want to see prevail in the Soviet Union and doesn’t, if you came to the conclusion that that report, that list, was lacking in balance, would you want to do anything about it?

BERNSTEIN: I can’t get this point through. I’m trying to and…

HEFFNER: Well, maybe I just don’t agree with what you’re saying.

BERNSTEIN: Maybe. Maybe I’m wrong. But I think it’s irrelevant to this exhibit whether this exhibit is balanced. I don’t even know what “balance” means. And I daresay that no matter what committee you chose and no matter who you had on it, that the idea of first balancing, the idea of getting a balanced list would always be debatable, and then secondly whether a balanced list had any importance whatsoever in the exhibit going to the Moscow book fair is another question. But most important of all is whether the list should be balanced, whether it shouldn’t be balanced, is that that National Endowment for Democracy should not…Mr. Gershman was quoted by Mr. McRae as saying, “You have to make this acceptable to the National Endowment for Democracy and to the United States Congress.” Now, that is just not the way. To have that exist, in other words, to have official supervision, which is part of the definition of censorship in the Oxford Dictionary, over an exhibit going to the Moscow book fair, where you are going ostensibly to show that there is no government supervision and there is no censorship, I say is ludicrous.

HEFFNER: Well, one might also say that about going to a government agency. You mentioned before about the resources…

BERNSTEIN: I doubt if I’ll ever go to one again. I’ll tell you that. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Okay, but we’re talking about he one that was gone to now. You talked before about the CIA having surreptitiously having put in money earlier into such exhibits.

BERNSTEIN: No, no. No, no. No.


BERNSTEIN: When the, as I understand, when the Endowment was founded, it was founded because the CIA used to…I think it put money into Encounter magazine years ago, where it used to back different publications. And I think that some people said, “Look, there are some things the CIA puts money into which it will continue to do unknown to all of us. But there are many things which it’s been putting money into that there’s no reason at all why it should be secret. And we will take the ones that should not be secret, the publications it wants to help among those, and things that it wants to do to further democracy, and we will establish a foundation.” And that’s what I understand the National Endowment for Democracy is.

HEFFNER: Would you, having been in the position of publishing books that were literally torn to pieces by the CIA, with so many things eliminated, would you at this point participate in a n arrangement in which CIA money was identified?

BERNSTEIN: Of course not. Of course not.

HEFFNER: Would you participate in an arrangement in which any other kind of directed government money…money that was purposefully available?

BERNSTEIN: If it was done openly and I understood better than I did in this case the terms of the agreement. I would have to reserve judgment until I knew what I was talking about. I mean, suppose the USIA decided to send book exhibits all over the world. An interesting thing to look into now is the USIA has libraries all over the world. Every now and then I get enough energy up to try and look and see what books are going into those libraries. But I would be very, very careful.

HEFFNER: I remember when my documentary History of the US came out in the early ‘50s. It was first used by the USIA, put on its shelves overseas. And then in the McCarthy period it was taken off. Then when Ed Murrow became director of the USIA again under Kennedy, it was put back on. So the notion of political choice certainly can’t be foreign to anyone involved in the book business.

BERNSTEIN: It’s not.

HEFFNER: That’s why I was so puzzled at the naivite that was demonstrated by the publishing industry in getting involved in the first place in a government agency.

BERNSTEIN: I’m going to persist in that I don’t think it’s fair and just restate…

HEFFNER: But naïve.

BERNSTEIN: I don’t think naïve. I think you had an exhibit that had a history, that had gone through a process. And I think this is an aberration caused by one man who believes that it was in his responsibility to actually sit in judgment of this list.

HEFFNER: Mr. Bernstein, let me ask you another question. Now, we only have five minutes left. And I want to ask you, as a publisher, what responsibilities do you feel – let’s forget this issue – what responsibilities do you feel that a publisher has for the content, the orientation, as well as the truthfulness of the materials that he publishes? None? Is a publishing company a conduit through which the author dumps his materials? What responsibility do you want to take? What do you impose upon what you publish?

BERNSTEIN: I think you do the very best you can. You try to publish people of all different kinds of ideas and thoughts, and certainly not your own. You do that by having a varied group of editors who…because this is not an exact science, the publishing business. You have all different points of view coming in. Obviously nobody can ready anymore, in the size of these publishing houses, everything that’s being published. So you depend a lot on having a broad spectrum of editorial judgment. Those editors try to bring in honest people expressing whatever their thoughts are.

HEFFNER: And what responsibility do you and your editors take for what it is?

BERNSTEIN: Well, that is the hardest question now, because we have had so many books that have been exposed as having problems of truth. And you try to not have that happen. And it still happens very, very seldom in the publishing business. It’s different than newspapers and magazines which are having their own reporters write the material that they publish. Here at least in a book publishing house somebody else is putting their, it is the work of some other person which you are publishing. Now, you try to use the best judgment you can. You certainly try not to put anything forward that’s going to be a fraud on the public. But it sometimes can happen. And I think it occasionally will happen.

HEFFNER: Do you think that your industry is doing well enough by way of guarding against fraud, call it what you will?

BERNSTEIN: I think that most publishers today are doing a very conscientious job — most – in trying to avoid publishing anything that they know to be phony or false or to lack integrity. I think that if you know the background of the trade publishing business which is fiction and nonfiction, we’re trade publishing, and you know it is a business that has no advertising monies coming into it. It’s a very, very hard business. And I think, therefore, it becomes a problem of money. How many lawyers and checkers can you afford to put on each of these manuscripts? And that’s a cost that’s rising enormously in trade publishing as the publishers try to do this. But whether they’re doing it well or not will depend mostly on the results, I think. And really our society can even stand some mistakes. That’s one of the great things about the American system. It’ll come out, it’ll be exposed, and usually very, very quickly.

HEFFNER: What about those things that basically are attacks upon individuals, other individuals?

BERNSTEIN: Well, libel, you mean.

HEFFNER: Well, not quite libel. Libel is actionable. But that doesn’t reach the threshold of libel. Do you find that, would you say, as a major force in American publishing, that there is a good deal that doesn’t reach the threshold of libel, but that things that you really feel uncomfortable about in publishing today?

BERNSTEIN: Well, that’s all a matter of personal…those things are very hard to talk about in theory. At least I’ve found them always very hard to talk about in theory. I really have to see what the, what am I talking about. What is the issue? Who and what is being said about whom?

HEFFNER: Sam Vaughan sat at this table and indicated, I picked at something he had written, indeed, that perhaps we should have a (and he was only half joking) a truth in publishing act. And I wonder whether you are of the same disposition.

BERNSTEIN: No. I would leave things as loose as you can possibly leave them, because I think it’s important that you don’t have things that hinder ideas being expressed and that you take your chances in expression. I mean, for example…

HEFFNER: I have to take my chance with the audience and say we don’t have the opportunity now at the time to hear the example. So you’ll have to come back, maybe with Mr. Gershman.

BERNSTEIN: All right.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today, Robert Bernstein.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”