Sanders, FDR, and the Dictators Whose Trains Run on Time

by Rafael Medoff

The controversy over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ praise of some policies of the Cuban and Soviet regimes speaks to a broader question that has long attracted public interest: Should our view of authoritarian governments be affected by the fact that their trains run on time?

The old saying about punctual trains often is intended as shorthand for brutal dictators who take some actions that improve the lives of their citizens. In the case of Sanders, however, he has sometimes invoked the term quite literally.

With regard to Cuba, Sanders this week praised Castro’s Communist regime for increasing the literacy rate of the Cuban population. Only after being prodded by the interviewer—Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes—did Sanders say that he “condemns” the imprisonment of political dissidents in Cuba.

Concerning the Soviet Union, it was the trains that attracted Sanders’ strong interest and effusive praise. On June 13, 1988, Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, held an hour-long press conference there, together with ten activists (including his wife, Jane), to share their impressions of the USSR, from which they had just returned.

Sanders spoke first. He heaped praise on the “friendship and openness” of the “extremely generous and warm” Soviet officials who hosted them, and he hailed the Soviet government’s cultural programs for youth, which, he said, “go far beyond what we have in this country.” 

Sanders focused on the trains in particular. “In Moscow we were extremely impressed by their public transportation system,” he said. “In fact, it was the cleanest, most effective mass transit system that I’ve ever seen in my life…The stations themselves were absolutely beautiful, including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful, it was a very, very effective system.”

Sanders, who spoke again toward the end of the press conference, did not mention the plight of the three million Soviet Jews who were being persecuted and prevented from emigrating. Nor did any of the other speakers at the press conference—with one very brief but revealing exception.

Burlington attorney Howard Seaver emphasized that ordinary Russians were willing to speak with the delegation. In that context, he made a passing reference—just one sentence—to the fact that among the individuals whom they met were “a couple of Jewish young men” who “were unhappy with the system” and therefore “were interested in emigrating.”

The explanation that the pair were “unhappy with the system” made it sound as if they were a couple of disgruntled capitalists, not Jews who were oppressed because of the regime’s anti-Jewish policies. Sanders’ silence on the subject, and Seaver’s misrepresentation of it, were telling.

The crux of the problem with Sanders’ perspective is not whether Cuban literacy rates actually have increased or Soviet trains really ran on time. The problem is that apologists for such regimes use insignificant points about literacy and trains in order to distract attention from their human rights abuses.

Recall the case of America’s ambassador to Fascist Italy from 1933 to 1936, Breckinridge Long, who greatly admired many of the policies implemented by Benito Mussolini. Long reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the streets were “well-paved and clean,” the black-shirted stormtroopers “are dapper and well dressed and stand up straight,” and “the trains are punctual, well-equipped and fast.”

FDR joined Long in focusing on the trains and disregarding Mussolini’s suppression of human rights. “I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble,” Roosevelt wrote back to Ambassador Long. In another letter, FDR referred to Mussolini (in 1933) as “the admirable Italian gentleman.”

Roosevelt’s private admiration for the Italian dictator may have influenced his policy of silence regarding Mussolini’s human rights abuses. For example, FDR said nothing about Mussolini’s repression of political dissidents, nor did Roosevelt condemn the intensifying mistreatment of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. At the president’s September 2, 1938 press conference, a reporter asked, “Have you any comment to make on Italy’s order for the expulsion of about 22,000 Jews who’ve been there since 1919?” FDR replied, “No,” and moved to another subject.

In 1935 and 1938, President Roosevelt even compelled Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to remove critical references to the Italian dictator in speeches that Ickes planned to give. In one instance, Roosevelt instructed Ickes to drop a line in which he was going to point out that Italian universities were “permitted to teach only what the government permits them to teach.” In the other instance, the president allowed Ickes to criticize fascism in general but pressed him to refrain from referring, directly or indirectly, to the dictators in Germany and Italy.

Public awareness of Franklin Roosevelt’s private view of Mussolini has long been overshadowed by the fact that the U.S. ended up going to war against Fascist Italy. Senator Sanders, however, could find himself confronted by voters—especially in Florida and New York—who personally experienced persecution by the Cuban or Soviet regimes and may not be so quick to forgive or forget.

(February 2020)