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Oregon lad became a founding father of Russian Communism

Portland native Jack Reed was the only American buried in the Kremlin wall; his enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks was cooling toward the end, but after he died they gave him a state funeral and declared him a martyr to the revolution.

John Reed as he appeared just before the First World War. (Image: Library of Congress)

The list of national VIPs who have been native sons and daughters of Oregon is a short one, even considering how short the state’s history is. Herbert Hoover and Ulysses S. Grant may be the closest; both had strong Oregon connections, although neither was actually born here.

But internationally, it’s another story. Back in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power in the December Revolution in Russia, among their number was the scion of one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the Beaver State — a Harvard grad named John Silas Reed.

 

John Reed, or “Jack” as he was always called, was born in 1887 in one of the biggest and most opulent mansions in Portland: the home of Henry and Charlotte Green, a French chateau-style residence tucked into five acres next to what’s now Washington Park. Henry, who had founded Oregon’s first gas works and the West Coast’s first iron smelter and died two years before Jack’s birth, had left his family a solid position in Portland’s elite; young Jack grew up surrounded by servants and in utter luxury, his playmates carefully chosen by his parents to ensure that their families were socioeconomically worthy.

The depression of 1893 straitened the family’s finances somewhat, and they had to move to cheaper digs. Then, just before Jack went off to Harvard, Jack’s father, C.J. Reed, became a federal marshal and was called upon to help Francis Heney crack down on the Oregon land swindlers — who were using dummy settlers to acquire title to public land and hand it over to large timber concerns. The land swindlers were very well connected in Portland, and after a few of them were prosecuted (including Senator John Mitchell) the elites in Portland shunned C.J. as a traitor to his class.

The ostracism took a toll on the elder Reed, and when he died in 1912, young Jack blamed the wealthy swells of Portland for it. Although he’d return to Portland many times to visit his mother, and would meet his wife there, he was always glad to get away.

 

The body of John Reed lies in state at the Kremlin in 1920. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

After graduating from Harvard, Reed soon made a name for himself as a sort of muck-raking Bohemian journalist. With the sponsorship of a fellow Harvard man, Lincoln Steffens, he moved to New York, settled into Greenwich Village, got an editing job at the American Magazine to pay the bills, and started building a reputation as a freelance journo.

He soon had a reputation as a sharp, incisive observer and gifted writer with a penchant for social-justice issues: a brutal crackdown on striking female silk-mill workers in New Jersey, the Ludlow Massacre of striking miners in Colorado, the Mexican revolution. Soon he was working for a frankly Socialist magazine, The Masses.

As a journalist, Reed became known for the kind of personal narrative nonfiction writing that would be rediscovered and rechristened “The New Journalism” in the 1960s. Journeying to Mexico, he immersed himself in the local culture and palled around with Pancho Villa for several months; the fruit of his journeys was his first major breakout book, Insurgent Mexico.

When the First World War broke out, Reed went to France as a war correspondent. At the time, though, American war correspondents were regarded by the French army as liabilities at best and spies at worst. The information-gathering methods that had served him so well in Mexico proved utterly useless in France. After several months of fruitless attempts to even reach the front lines, he started an affair with a German woman and went with her to Berlin. There he had better luck, and according to one account was actually invited to participate in firing on the French lines with a Mauser rifle; although probably untrue, this story would haunt him later.

In 1916, on a trip home to visit his mother, Reed met a fellow socialist writer named Louise Bryant, a San Francisco native and University of Oregon alumna. By the end of that year, the two of them were married.

The cremated remains of a body being interned in the Kremlin Wall necropolis. While its identity isn’t known, it can’t be Reed, because he wasn’t cremated before burial. (Image: Bundesarchiv)

When the U.S. entered the war, suddenly socialists were very out of fashion, and Reed couldn’t get any kind of work. His angry, anti-intervention articles in The Masses got the magazine shut down by the wartime government, so in August 1917 he and Louise traveled to Petrograd to report on the fast-developing situation in the new Russian Republic, which had arisen to try to salvage what could be saved from the wreckage of the Russian Empire.

It was in Russia that Reed fully and unreservedly “went native.” Reed made no attempt to hide his enthusiasm for the Bolshevik cause there. He met and collaborated with Trotsky and Lenin; started learning Russian; and, after the dramatic seizure of the Winter Palace on Nov. 7, eagerly placed his pen in the service of the new revolutionary government. Lenin briefly made him the U.S.S.R.’s consul for New York, but withdrew the nomination after hearing rumors that Reed had proposed a propaganda campaign to prop up the previous government.

Reed returned to the U.S. and barnstormed around for a time, making fiery pro-Bolshevik speeches and getting arrested on various violations of the just-passed Espionage and Sedition Acts. A trial on charges of sedition for work he’d published in The Masses resulted in a hung jury, twice. Early in 1919 he was grilled by a Senate committee. Finally, facing another sedition indictment, he slipped out of the country on a Scandinavian freighter and made his way back to Russia.

There he found that victory seemed to have gone to the Bolsheviks’ heads, and the bullheaded bureaucracy that he’d found so infuriating in pre-revolutionary Russia was making a triumphant comeback. After a month or two, he once again decided to return home, indictment or no indictment; but before he could do so, he caught spotted typhus and, with Louise Bryant at his side still trying to nurse him back to health, died on Oct. 17.

 

Although before his death Reed’s relationships with the other top Bolsheviks had seemed well on their way to a total deterioration, after he was dead (and therefore harmless) they hastened to make a revolutionary martyr of him. Reed received a funeral with full military honors. After lying in state for a suitable period, his body was buried at the Kremlin Wall necropolis; he thus became the only American to be buried there (although half of the ashes of “Big Bill” Haywood, a founder of the International Workers of the World union, were interred there in 1928).

It was a long way from Reed’s old Oregon home.

(As a side note, a persistent rumor claims Portland’s Reed College was named after John Reed. In fact, it was named after an unrelated Portland industrial magnate, Simeon Reed, whose fortune endowed it in 1911 — although the intellectual climate of the college, throughout most of the last 100 years, has been such that John Reed would have found it a very congenial place.)

(Sources: Homberger, Eric. John Reed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990; DeWolfe, Fred. “Portlander John Reed Remembers Lee Sing,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, fall 1996; Munk, Michael. “John (Jack) Reed,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org)