Freeman Dyson, Useful Idiot

Freeman Dyson made his reputation as a first-rank theoretical physicist. He also had a sideline in popular essays and mildly controversial opinions in other fields. The following anecdote is taken from a collection of these for The New York Review of Books, The Scientist as Rebel (2006). (It is curious that scientists are always rebels in their own minds, no matter how orthodox their opinions.) It is a collection that reflects the general worldview of that organ more or less faithfully. The incident is said to have happened in 1956, and shows Dyson to have been one of those “useful idiots” the USSR was always assiduously cultivating. Usually this worked by appealing to their overweening egos, by constantly suggesting that scientists were important people in the Soviet Union. The Worker’s Paradise as a whole was, after all, run on strictly scientific lines, not just its Gulag.

After the Moscow meeting ended, I went with a group of foreign scientists to Leningrad. Accompanied by two Intourist guides, we went sightseeing along the shore to the west of the city. We walked by mistake into a coast guard station, evidently a restricted military area. An ordinary Russian seaman came out to shoo us away, shouting Nelzya, which means “forbidden.” At that moment we noticed that our guides, afraid of being held responsible for our error, were walking rapidly away in the opposite direction. So we stayed and had a friendly chat with the seaman in our broken Russian. When I said we were foreign scientists, he broke out into a broad smile and said, “Oh, I know who you are. You are the people who came to the meeting in Moscow, and you know all about pi-mesons and mu-mesons.” He pulled out of his pocket a crumpled copy of Pravda which contained a report of our proceedings. After that, he invited us into the station and proudly introduced us to his comrades. We sat with them for some minutes and did our best to explain to them what we had learned in Moscow about pi-mesons and mu-mesons. When we said good-bye, our host shook our hands warmly and said, “Why do you not come to our country more often? Be sure to tell the people in your countries, and your wives and children, that we would like to see more of them.” As I walked back into Leningrad and reflected upon this encounter, I found myself sadly wondering whether an average American coast guard sentry, confronted unexpectedly with a group of Russian physicists speaking broken English, would have greeted them with equal friendliness and understanding.

The Scientist as Rebel (NYRB, 2006)

Even writing as late as 2006, when this collection appeared, Dyson appears to have been unaware how easily he was gulled. It was just some marvelous coincidence that he ran into the world’s most scientifically mature and engaged Coast Guard, who just happened to know all about his conference, and it was certainly a stroke of good fortune that the Intourist guides beat a retreat at just the right time to leave them alone together …

Dyson was not alone. Paul Hollander produced a marvelous collection of this sort of thing in his Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (1981), which has now gone into a fourth edition. David Caute produced another, far too kind, collection in his The Fellow Travelers (1973). Kind because Caute himself was a sympathizer and Marxist, but there was only so much he could swallow.