by Rafael Medoff
“Guess what, I love him,” gushed former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un last week. “The guy’s really awesome.”
Rodman and the three Harlem Globetrotters players who accompanied him, are just the latest in a long line of American cultural celebrities who have paid high-profile visits to brutal dictatorships over the years, handing public relations bonanzas to a sordid assortment of fuhrers and generalissimos.
One of the first American entertainers to visit the new Soviet Union was Isadora Duncan, one of the leading figures in American dance in the 1920s. She returned from Russia bursting with enthusiasm for the communist cause, and began concluding her performances by waving a red scarf over her head, while shouting, “This is red! So am I! It is the color of life and vigor!” (Ironically, the 1968 film about Duncan’s life starred Vanessa Redgrave, whose visits to PLO-occupied Lebanon were the subject of much controversy in the 1970s.)
Aviation hero Charles Lindbergh paid a friendly visit to Nazi Germany in 1936 –less than a year after the enactment of the notorious anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws– and came away filled with “admiration for the German people,” as he put it. Naturally the Hitler regime made full use of Lindbergh’s visit for propaganda purposes.
The mutual affection between Lindbergh and the Nazis was so strong that by the time he made his second trip to Germany, in the autumn of 1938, Lindbergh was seriously considering taking up residence there. He was deeply impressed to find that Hitler’s Berlin was such a “healthy, busy, modern city.” The second visit culminated with Lindbergh accepting the “Service Cross of the German Eagle” medal from senior Nazi official Herman Goering. Interior Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had good reason to dub Lindbergh “the number one fellow-traveler of the Nazis in the United States.”
Paul Robeson, the singer and actor, made a number of pilgrimages to the Soviet Union, beginning in 1934. His lavish praise of the Soviet regime provided much propaganda fodder for the Kremlin. According to the Daily Worker –the U.S. Communist Party’s newspaper– when Robeson was asked about the execution of “counter-revolutionary terrorists” (i.e. victims of Stalin’s show trials), he replied, “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!”
The visit to Hanoi in 1972 by actress Jane Fonda is perhaps the most notorious incident of an American entertainer lending on-the-scene propaganda assistance to a dictator. The North Vietnamese made good use of Fonda’s denunciation of America’s leaders as “war criminals” and her assertion that American P.O.W.s who reported being tortured were “liars and hypocrites.”
Folksinger Joan Baez, too, traveled to Hanoi that year, although her statements there were mild compared to Fonda’s and she later (albeit too late) publicly acknowledged the brutality of the North Vietnamese. In 1979, Baez organized a large advertisement in the New York Times denouncing the Hanoi regimes’s abuses. Fonda, by contrast, not only refused to join Baez’s protest but actually organized a counter-advertisement accusing Baez of joining the “better dead than Red” crowd.
From Jack Nicholson meeting Fidel Castro (and praising him as “a genius”) to Sean Penn visiting Iraq to oppose Allied military action against Saddam Hussein, American celebrities have in recent years continued the tradition of allowing themselves to be used by dictators.
No doubt some of these travelers were well-intentioned seekers of international peace and harmony. Others –especially the ones who are past their prime– may be attracted more by the lure of the spotlight and a paycheck. Perhaps for Dennis Rodman, visiting North Korea also offered the thrill of the stunt, like the time he donned a wedding dress to promote his autobiography. But Rodman’s cross-dressing, bizarre as it was, didn’t hurt anyone. Embracing dictators certainly does.