Forbidden Journey

Back in 1957, while experiencing the pleasures of living in Paris on the G.I.Bill (I was supposedly reading for the Doctorate in Social Psych at the Sorbonne), even though or, more accurately, because it was the middle of the Cold War, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation a persistent consideration, added to by a low cost package of roundtrip railtickets plus three weeks room and board, together with a group of other Left Bank ex-patriate American existential adventurers, including Shel Silverstein - who was then doing cartoons for Playboy Magazine, I found myself on a train heading to Moscow to attend the Sixth World Youth Festival. Upon arrival in the Soviet capitol, together with other Americans, approximately 180 in all, we were housed in a student dormitory on the outskirts of the city. The Russians had made US flags, along with those of the other countries in attendance; with one such US flag given to us to be carried into Lenin Stadium on the opening day.

Moscow Stadium

In addition to attending vodka-drenched parties with many of the other 30,000 foreign Festival participants, jitterbugging in the Kremlin, and wandering the streets until dawn singing "Moscow Summer Nights," I was invited to show my UCLA Masters Thesis film at the VGIK Film Institute.

Moscow Film Institute

Towards the end of the Youth Festival, in an attempt to overcome the alienation from the West which followed the 1949 communist victory in China, together with people from other capitalist nations, all Americans attending the event were invited to visit China. Despite the US State Department's then-existing ban on all travel by Americans to China, 41 accepted; with five of us being hired as "Special Correspondents" by various US news agencies - myself by NBC-TV's legendary Moscow Bureau Chief Irving R. Levine. Max Frankel, who was later to become Editor of the NY Times, apparently chagrined that he, a pro, was prohibited by his employer from defying the State Department's travel ban, despite later hissing at me: "You think you're hot stuff for being the first to get into China," gave us decent coverage:

New York Times front page photo & story

The same made-in-Moscow US flag which had accompanied us into Lenin Stadium was brought along with the intention of adorning the exterior of our train car as we traveled for nine days and 6,000 miles across Siberia. But, without mentioning it to anyone else in the group, the self-appointed "leaders" of the 41 Americans on the train decided it would be an insult to our hosts to show it in China. Just as we were arriving in Beijing I learned about this and, together with my small but nasty faction of independent journalists, seized the flag. Defying the whines of the "leaders," upon arrival at the Beijing Central Station, where several thousand Chinese were waiting to greet us, we emerged from the train waving the Russian-made Stars and Stripes. Instead of attacking us, the Chinese crowd cheered and, accompanied by a full brass marching band, broke into their version of "John Brown's Body." Having anticipated some such possibility, I had my cameras ready, and shot both stills and 16mm film of what I felt was a historic event: the arrival of the first US flag in China since the 1949 break in relations.

Arrival - Beijing

As I was doing so I noticed a chubby non-Chinese man with a 16mm hand-camera filming it as well. He later introduced himself as David Chipp, the Reuters reporter in Beijing. Inviting me and a couple of the other Americans in our group who had press contracts to his hotel room for drinks, Chipp seemed very friendly, asking how I expected to get my footage out of China. Three days later, after I'd convinced the Chinese to let me ship my film to Moscow, from where NBC then transshipped it to NY, I received a cable from Irving R. Levine informing me that CBS, which had first asked me to shoot for them, then reneged, saying that they "wouldn't support anyone who was defying the US State Dept's travel ban," had preempted my "US Flag Arrives In China" film report with their own footage, shot by David Chipp! By having one of his sneaky Brit friends fly his film out via Hong Kong, he'd scooped me. What pissed off Levine was that Chipp, in addition to repping Reuters, was supposed to be an NBC, not a CBS, stringer. When I met C.P. Ho, one of the managers of the Foreign Correspondents Club here in Hong Kong for the first time yesterday, he asked if I knew Chipp, and then told me how he, Ho, knew about this story because, 47 years ago, he'd been the one who'd handled Chipp's footage through Hong Kong. It's a small world, and time is often very tangled. Ho, ho!!

© 2004 - Robert Carl Cohen

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