December 17, 2016

1956. A Fable for Comrade Khrushchev

A Parable of "Uncle Joe" Stalin
World War II editorial cartoon by Cecil Orr
Bill Downs

CBS Washington

March 20, 1956

Once upon a time not so long ago there was a wily old man who lived in a far, distant land. He was as wicked as he was clever, and believe it or not, he overthrew the emperor and his court and eventually made himself ruler of one-sixth of the earth's surface.

People were so frightened of him that they called him Uncle Joe, because he was able to say "Boo" in such a terrible way that grown-ups and children shivered in their beds. Anyone who evoked his displeasure had their heads lopped off and were never seen again.

The wicked uncle became so powerful that the world's greatest statesmen traveled to that distant land to drink toasts in his castle—because no one wanted to make enemies with so awful a magic.

However, Uncle Joe did not think himself wicked or wily or terrible at all. He bewitched all of his closest advisers who did not see the awful magic of him. And when Uncle said: "Lop off that head," the henchman lopped and lopped and lopped. Those who lopped well rose high in Uncle Joe's court and received nice things to eat and comfortable homes to live in.

To prove that Uncle Joe was not wicked, the henchmen wrote special schoolbooks telling the children how wonderful and kind and good he was. And the children of the land were taught far different things than the rest of the children in the world.

However, there came a day when Uncle Joe's magic caught up with him—or maybe it was just the wickedness—and he died. His henchmen and many of the grown-ups and children in the far distant land cried and cried.

But after a while the sobbing ceased, and the henchmen said: "We have no ruler. What shall we do? And besides, who is going to get all the gold and silver and jewels that Uncle Joe left behind him? Who is going to sleep in the silken bed in the castle and eat all the lark's tongue sandwiches in the deep freeze?"

The chief executioner, chief lopper of the land, bowed and said: "I volunteer." But the other henchmen did not like this, so they lopped off his head. Another volunteer—a fat one this time—they banished to the scullery.

After a while, a half-dozen of the chief henchmen got together and said: "Look, Uncle Joe really has so much gold and silver and jewels—and after all, there are many silken beds in the castle—and the deep freeze holds plenty of lark's tongue sandwiches. Now if we can get control of all the lopping axes in the land, then we can share Uncle Joe's treasures."

And that is what they did.

However, it came to pass that the henchmen found they did not inherit Uncle Joe's magic. When they said "Boo," grown people fell to their knees and the children were silent. But they didn't shiver in their beds; instead the grown-ups and children talked about how terrible Uncle Joe had been. "Now," they said, "There was a man who could really scare you."

Also, statesmen who traveled to the distant land seemed more curious than frightened of the henchmen, and when they drank toasts it was with some contempt.

"It is all Uncle Joe's fault," said one of the henchmen.

"That might be," said another, "but we taught the grown-ups and children to fear him."

"Zounds," said a third, "if we could teach them to fear him, then we can unteach them and make them learn to hate him."

And that is where tonight's fable for 1956 stops. The world is waiting to see exactly what moral Comrade Khrushchev and Company intend to draw from the story as it progresses.

We don't know whether it's a moral or not, but we can suggest an ending to the fable which the Kremlin should know about. It begins: "Joe Stalin, meet Bridey Murphy . . ."