Scott Armstrong, former Washington Post reporter and the founder of the National Security Archive. He published a series of articles in The Washington Post in January 1982 based on the documents William Worthy brought back from Iran.
Randy Goodman, a photojournalist who worked and traveled with William Worthy for a decade in the 1980s.
Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, a new digital magazine published by First Look Media. He is also the producer and writer of the documentary film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, and also the author of the book by the same name. He knew William Worthy well.
We spend the hour remembering the pioneering journalist William Worthy, who died earlier this month at the age of 92. During the height of the Cold War, Worthy defied the U.S. government by reporting from the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Iran, North Vietnam and Algeria. He also worked closely with many African-American leaders, including A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X. In the late 1950s, the State Department refused to renew his passport after he returned from a reporting trip into China. Despite not having a passport, Worthy traveled to Cuba in 1961 — two years after the Cuban revolution — and interviewed Fidel Castro. He was arrested upon returning to the United States — not for traveling to Cuba but for entering the United States illegally — an American citizen without a passport. The ordeal became the subject of Phil Ochs’ song, "The Ballad of William Worthy." In 1981, Worthy traveled to Iran, two years after the revolution ousted the U.S.-backed Shah, resulting in a series of blockbuster exposés about U.S. actions in Iran.
"For this generation of younger journalists who are coming of age in the era of the Edward Snowden documents, WikiLeaks, of the government surveillance on the metadata of journalists and many millions of people in this country and around the world, I would say that William Worthy is the single most important journalist that they’ve never heard of," said investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who considered Worthy a mentor. "If Bill Worthy was a white journalist, and not been an African-American journalist, he would be much better known than he is right now." We air excerpts of our 1998 interview with Worthy and speak to Scahill, former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong, and Randy Goodman, a photojournalist who worked and traveled with Worthy throughout the 1980s.
Photo Credit: Walter Lippmann
Special thanks to photojournalist Randy H. Goodman for her photos of William Worthy, Iran and associated images.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we spend the hour remembering the pioneering African-American journalist William Worthy. He died earlier this month at the age of 92. During the height of the Cold War, he defied the U.S. government by reporting from the Soviet Union, from Cuba, from China, from Iran, from North Vietnam and Algeria. He was a correspondent for the weekly newspaper The Afro-American of Baltimore from 1953 to 1980. He also contributed reports to CBS News, to the New York Post, to ABC and other media outlets. He worked closely with many African-American leaders, including A. Philip Randolph and Malcolm X.
In the late 1950s, the State Department refused to renew his passport after he returned from a reporting trip into China. Despite not having a passport, he traveled to Cuba in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution. During his trip, he interviewed Fidel Castro. When Worthy returned to the United States, he was arrested—not for traveling to Cuba, but for entering the United States illegally: He was an American citizen without a passport. He was originally sentenced to three months in prison, but his conviction was eventually overturned. His legal team included a young William Kunstler.
The legendary Phil Ochs wrote about this ordeal in the song "The Ballad of William Worthy."
PHIL OCHS: [singing] Well, it’s of a bold reporter whose story I will tell
He went down to the Cuban land, the nearest place to hell
He’d been there many times before, but now the law does say
The only way to Cuba is with the CIA
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay
Five thousand dollars or a five-year sentence may well be
For a man who had the nerve to think that travelin’ is free
Oh, why’d he waste his time to see a dictator’s reign
When he could have seen democracy by travelin’ on to Spain?
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay
So, come all you good travelers and fellow travelers, too
Yes, and travel all around the world, see every country through
I’d surely like to come along and see what may be new
But my passport’s disappearing as I sing these words to you
Well, there really is no need to travel to these evil lands
Yes, and though the list grows larger, you must try to understand
Try hard not to worry if someday you should hear
That the whole world is off limits, visit Disneyland this year
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.
AMY GOODMAN: "The Ballad of William Worthy" from Phil Ochs’ 1964 album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing.
It wasn’t until 1968 when the State Department granted William Worthy a new passport. Despite this, Worthy managed to conduct reporting trips to North Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Algeria. In 1981, William Worthy traveled to Iran, two years after the revolution ousted the U.S.-backed Shah. His trip resulted in a series of blockbuster exposés about U.S. actions in Iran. Worthy brought back to the United States a multivolume set of books compiling intelligence documents seized from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. He gave a copy of the books to investigative journalist Scott Armstrong of The Washington Post, who would write a series of exposés in the paper. The New York Times refused. Scott Armstrong is joining us today from Santa Fe, New Mexico. On New Year’s Day 1998, Democracy Now! aired an hour-long interview with William Worthy.
WILLIAM WORTHY: One of the most discouraging things about this country is the lack of critical thinking by Americans. The educational system fails Americans miserably in any kind of analysis of what’s going on. And any government line which is echoed daily by the mass media becomes gospel in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: William Worthy, speaking on Democracy Now! It was New Year’s Day 1998 when Juan González and I got a chance to sit down with him in our studios and interview him. We’re going to play more of that interview throughout the broadcast.
But first to investigative journalist Scott Armstrong, former Washington Post reporter, founder of the National Security Archive, published a series of articles in The Washington Post in January of 1982 based on the documents William Worthy brought back from Iran.
Thanks so much for joining us again, Scott. Can you talk about first meeting William Worthy and the significance of the information he brought back, why the U.S. government was so angry?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, Bill Worthy was an extraordinary character. He defended the Bill of Rights by acting on it, and was known for that. And I got a call from somebody from the ACLU, I think, and was put together with Bill and with Randy, who’s, I guess, with you today. And he’s a very self-effacing man. He’s very straightforward. And he said, "Here is important information," the actual documents that the—that showed what U.S. government policy was. The students had collected them into paperback books with introductory polemics, but they appeared to be the real thing. He thought they ought to be in the United States and brought back, as it turned out, two sets, one having been confiscated. And so, I talked with him and said, "Could I get the second set?" He quite happily turned it over.
And it was an extraordinary find. You could see that the U.S. government was—there were documents in there that were unlike any other documents I’ve ever seen. There were raw CIA reports, and not just studies that were done, not just published things as became part of the Pentagon Papers or part of the other things that were policy documents circulated by Snowden, but these were actual reports on meetings with agents. And from it, some of them had been reconstructed from shredded materials very painstakingly by the students. The difficulty was authenticating them. I had done a series the previous year, just in the fall of 1980, on the hostage crisis and the situation that Jimmy Carter had found himself in. It was very critical of the United States government. And I had written about it a couple times since. But this was something unlike anything I had seen. This was a whole history. I think there were—he brought back 12 of 13 volumes that existed then. Later, we ended up with 90 volumes in all. But it was an extraordinary insight into the history of overthrowing Mosaddegh, the popularly elected leader of Iran; re-installing the Shah, the CIA’s role in that; and then the cooperation that the CIA gave with SAVAK, the dreaded secret police of Iran. And it was—every intimate detail was included. They just—they had some documents in their entirety that just hadn’t even gotten to the shredder and other things that they were able to print out that were still in electronic form, that showed the U.S. government reaction to pressure on the Shah as the revolution occurred in Iran. And the United States did not deal with itself well. The United States government at one point during the hostage crisis considered releasing these documents, and Cy Vance advocated it, but it chose instead to try a military rescue. So, these documents were—essentially put a lie to every defense that had been given for the U.S. role in Iran over a 30- or 40-year period at that point.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Scott Armstrong, actually, William Worthy had first gone to The New York Times, is that right? But they refused to print these, do a piece on this, and then went to you.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: I was not aware of that, but I would not have let my pride stand in the way of these extraordinary documents, and I had to authenticate them anyway.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, when we come back from break, we’re going to play William Worthy, in his own words, describing that trip—several trips to Iran, and we’ll also, in addition to former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong, who founded the National Security Archives—we’ll also speak with Randy Goodman, who traveled with him on these trips. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re remembering the life of William Worthy. He worked for The Afro-American in Baltimore for decades. He went to Iran, North Vietnam. He went to Cuba. He went to China. He defied the U.S. government. He was indicted. He was convicted for coming back into this country without a passport. He presented his birth certificate. They had pulled his passport. He would ultimately win this case years later.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. My co-host Juan González and I had a chance to talk with William Worthy in a New Year’s interview, which we broadcast on January 1st, 1998. William Worthy talked about his trip to Iran and bringing back the books based on seized U.S. files that the U.S. government threatened to indict him over.
WILLIAM WORTHY: Well, you never would know it from the coverage of Iran after 1979, that the U.S. had been in bed with the vicious, corrupt, discredited Shah, who was ousted, and Khomeini, great religious leader, scholar, who had been in exile for years, came back to a triumphant return. And the U.S. seemed determined, under Carter and others, to try to restore something of the status quo. They found—don’t hold me 100 percent to this, my memory, but there was some plot afoot to restore the Shah, and Iranian students, including some who had been trained at Berkeley and others—I think it was November the 4th, 1980, '79 or ’80—went over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. And immediately the CIA operatives inside began shredding documents, but they didn't have much time, so it was an incomplete job. And they held the embassy staff there for 444 days, which helped to lead to Carter’s defeat for re-election, because of that unresolved crisis.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it also was the birth of Nightline as a show on television.
WILLIAM WORTHY: Right, yeah, yeah. Ted Koppel owes that to those students. So, an educator—I think he was named Norman Fora [phon.]—came to me. I think the University of Indiana organized a group of about 50 Americans to go over during the crisis to get a different perspective, and I was allowed to go along with a young woman in Boston named Randy Goodman. And we got acquainted particularly with Hossein Sheikh al-Islam, one of the Berkeley-educated students, who later became the deputy foreign minister. And some of our stories came out then. The documents later, at a time of a subsequent trip, were the shredded documents which had been restored, plus those that had not been restored, were published in Iran by the students in paperback form and sold on news stands and exported to other countries—but not to this country. And—I mean, not by their design, but by U.S. design. And so, Randy Goodman and Terri Taylor and I purchased at a news stand in one city, and some others later, these paperbacks. We had two batches in all. When we came back through—not Idlewild—JFK Airport in New York, we had one bag in our—one batch in our luggage, which—no problem. We shipped the others with camera equipment in unaccompanied baggage to Boston, and that’s where customs spotted them and turned them over to the CIA, and it resulted in the CIA and the government talking about indicting us for possession of classified documents. These were public things, distributed all over the world, nothing private about them any longer. And they seized them, and the ACLU took up the case. And over a period of a year, we got the documents back, and they dropped all talk of prosecuting us, which had been ridiculous, to begin with, and settled out of court for $16,000 in damages.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet it’s interesting how The Boston Globe played it in March of 19—
WILLIAM WORTHY: ’82, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: In March of 1982. It says, "The Justice Department has dropped plans to prosecute a freelance journalist for possession of purported copies of secret American documents stolen during the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Iran." And it goes on to say, "Sources said the decision to return the papers and end the criminal investigation was based on an unwillingness by government agencies to confirm the documents’ authenticity." And it says, "Privately, officials say the documents’ release was a serious intelligence breach. And ultimately," it says, "U.S. Customs agents seized the documents, and the Justice Department considered charging Worthy under the Threft" [sic]—
WILLIAM WORTHY: Theft.
AMY GOODMAN: Under the Theft of Government Property Act.
WILLIAM WORTHY: There’s no limit to the—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No mention that these were actually published paperbacks.
WILLIAM WORTHY: Yeah. There’s no limit to absurdity in Washington. The reason that, for one of those references, their unwillingness to prosecute, it would have meant that a CIA official would have had to testify in open court at the trial. And, of course, that would have given my ACLU lawyer a chance to cross-examine, with all kinds of embarrassment. So, some cooler heads did prevail on that. We never lost a wink of sleep over it. Even if they had prosecuted, they would have lost miserably in court, at least on appeal.
AMY GOODMAN: And what you’re saying is the CIA would have had to say openly in public court about their support of the Shah.
WILLIAM WORTHY: That these were authentic, yeah, that all these evil things that were disclosed in the documents were there.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were some of those things?
WILLIAM WORTHY: All kinds of things to bring down the Khomeini government and to create disruption, the usual counterrevolutionary policies that the U.S. carries out after a revolution that they don’t agree with.
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist William Worthy in a New Year’s Day 1998 interview that we broadcast. I was talking to him with Juan González. Our guest is Scott Armstrong, who took those documents and based his series in The Washington Post on them. Randy Goodman went with William Worthy on that trip, as well as a number of others. She’s a photojournalist who worked and traveled with William Worthy for a decade in the 1980s. She is joining us from Boston.
Welcome, Randy. You came back with Bill Worthy through the airport, through JFK. So, what happened? You had two sets of books, and one set were taken?
RANDY GOODMAN: Yes. What happened is we were on assignment, freelance assignment, for CBS-TV News in Iran. We had gone in October of 1981 and returning in late November. Because we had accumulated so much by extending our—what was supposed to be a two-week assignment to a two-month assignment, due of course to William Worthy’s ways of finessing people and getting interview after interview that was totally unexpected by us, as well as the Iranians, we had just casually taken one set of the books with us on board our transport back to the United States to JFK, along with some of our camera equipment, because we were due to report back to CBS News. But the extra bags, since we didn’t even have the money to transport it, we sent via air freight into Lufthansa—via Lufthansa into Logan Airport in Boston. And Bill and I, you know, went to CBS-TV News upon our arrival, learned unexpectedly from Terri Taylor, the other journalist who had accompanied us, that when she went to Lufthansa, their freight terminal, to pick up our boxes, that she was greeted very kind of casually and led to this back room in Lufthansa’s air freight terminal and greeted by two FBI agents, who said that they were threatening to indict us for perhaps having stolen government property. So, before she got a call through to us, we were learning about that from the news media broadcast on radio and television.
So Bill and I decided, well, if we have the identical set of books, why don’t we see if CBS is interested. And they, unfortunately, had no interest in it at all, and they said, "Well, we just had this casual relationship with this freelance crew," and kind of disassociated themselves with us, we thought, a little bit. And as Scott had mentioned, or you had mentioned, we said we’d try The New York Times, because we were right there in Times Square. When the Times refused, we went next door to the ACLU to just kind of clarify that we could get some representation from the Civil Liberties Union. And that’s when Bill decided we should perhaps Scott—you know, call Scott Armstrong, because he would probably be the next best person to consider looking at these and seeing if he could authenticate them. And such is the story that, you know, Scott had described.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Armstrong, these documents, were they also the beginning of the National Security Archives, these documents that William Worthy brought back from Iran?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, these documents were so complete and, once authenticated, painted such an unusually detailed picture of the U.S. machinations in Iran, that it became apparent that there was always going to be an understory, there was always going to be something in the background that journalists suspected, but were often unable to write about, because, at that point, the Reagan administration was there. The Reagan administration was attempting to intimidate Bill Worthy, attempting to intimidate other journalists. A year after I wrote the series, they came down with a National Security Decision Directive 84, which was—which said that no person in the United States government could talk to a member of the press about anything involving national security without first clearing it with the National Security Council. And that lasted about a week, because there was such an uproar from the press. But we were—it was still unclear whether the press was really going to pursue things like the Iran-Contra activities that were beginning to go on. The war in El Salvador had heated up again. And the Reagan administration was re-inventing facts every day of the week. And they would just make conclusory statements. They would deny things that were quite obvious to the journalists on the ground in different countries. And often our editors were intimidated.
So the question became: Was it possible to put together large groups of documents, get them declassified or otherwise accumulate them, and keep them in the public domain? And we tried it with—actually, it was an ACLU project at—in Washington that dealt with the questions of asylum for Salvadorians. And both Ray Bonner from The New York Times and I had independently used the Freedom of Information Act to request things, and we’d gotten back different—the same documents. Often, Ray would get back one where the top half was excluded and the bottom half was there, under national security grounds; I’d get back the same document, the top half included and the bottom excluded. So we began to put these things together, and we began to see that there were ways to get an authenticated version of what actually happened on the ground that would at least begin to pin down the administration on what its policy had been. I mean, documents do lie, in the sense that we are talking about communications between policymakers who have their own point of view, but they at least have the authenticity of showing what those points of view were and allowing people—allowing journalists to say something definitive about the position of the United States government at a particular point in time.
And it was that notion that we could do this, we could do something that was across the board on many different topics, that caused the National Security Archive to be created. It was one of the unintended consequences, I guess, of Bill Worthy’s exercise of his right to travel and his right to read and think and do what he wanted as a journalist. We began to exploit that right. And the Bill of Rights exists only insofar as you exercise it. So I left—at one point, left The Washington Post and founded the National Security Archive.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of TheIntercept.org, a new digital magazine published by First Look Media, also the producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary film, Dirty Wars, and the book by the same title. Jeremy, I met you the same day I met William Worthy, because you introduced me to him when I came down to the Catholic Worker in New York. Can you describe how you came to know this pioneering, revolutionary journalist?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, I mean, first of all, Amy, I would say that, especially for this generation of younger journalists who are coming of age in the era of the Edward Snowden documents, of WikiLeaks, of government surveillance on the metadata of journalists and—well, and many, many millions of people in this country and around the world, I would say that William Worthy is the single most important journalist that they’ve never heard of. And I think that if Bill Worthy was a white journalist and had not been an African-American journalist, that he would be much better known than he is right now.
I actually came across William Worthy quite by accident. I had never heard of him. I was researching the correspondence of David Dellinger, who was one of the most famous pacifists in American history—he was one of the defendants in the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial stemming from the antiwar activities during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago—the correspondence between David Dellinger and the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker, of course, founded in the early 1930s, was an anarchist, pacifist movement of the laity within the Catholic Church. And Dorothy Day and David Dellinger both had traveled to Cuba very early on in Fidel Castro’s first few years in office following the Cuban revolution of New Year’s 1959. And in the course of reading the correspondence between David Dellinger and Dorothy Day, where they were debating what the position of pacifists should be on a violent revolution, the outcome of which they supported because it overthrew this violent dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, I came across the name of a journalist I’d never heard of named William Worthy. And I read the correspondence of the three of them debating these issues, all of them having been to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and I was stunned at the brilliance and eloquence of these letters of William Worthy where he was articulating his defense of the Cuban revolution very, very early on.
And I wasn’t sure if William Worthy was still alive. This was in 1997. I wasn’t sure if William Worthy was still alive or where he was, and I managed to track down a relative of his in Boston, who then gave me a telephone number for him in Washington, D.C. And I just called him up on the phone and said, you know, "Could I take the bus down" [inaudible] up a friendship that endured over the years. And he really was a mentor to me. And I—you know, Bill and I had talked at some point, you know, about—I really wanted to write his biography, because I just found him to be such a fascinating person, and his insights were just incredible. And, you know, what to me was sort of amazing, as a young person who was aspiring to be a journalist, was that Bill Worthy was a man of impeccable principle. He would constantly talk about the struggle for African people around the world to carve out states for themselves, to fight for their rights. He did not believe that there was a such thing as an objective journalist at all. He believed in being on the side of the poor. He believed in being against empire. He believed in holding those in power accountable. And it was really through Bill Worthy that my passion for journalism led me to actually want to work at Democracy Now!
And so, I remember, Amy, you came into the Catholic Worker that day, and I had invited Bill Worthy up to New York to give a talk about his experience in Cuba. And we played that song at this event, where he was speaking and I introduced him, of Phil Ochs, where Phil Ochs talks about how—when Bill Worthy went to Cuba, against the wishes of the U.S. government and without a passport, because it had been taken away from him for his previous travels to other countries where the U.S. didn’t want him to go. And Phil Ochs wrote that song, "The Ballad of William Worthy," where he’s saying William Worthy wasn’t worthy to enter our doors; he went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore. And so, you and I actually met there at the Catholic Worker, and I think—you know, I’ve heard you joke about it before that I came up to you in the middle of a sentence and basically said, "You have to talk to this guy." And then, next thing I knew, I was bringing Bill Worthy in to Democracy Now! to do that interview that we’ve been playing parts of today.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to be more exact, you started, mid-sentence, saying, "There’s a man here who you need to interview." And I said, "Well, sir, what is your name?" And you said, "My name isn’t important. What’s important is the name of Bill Worthy." And that’s how I met you and I met William Worthy. Where—
JEREMY SCAHILL: But, Amy, just one thing I want to, you know, recall. Bill Worthy did this incredibly important work that Randy and Scott have been talking about regarding Iran, but also traveled to many, many countries around the world and often told stories that were meticulously documented that contradicted the official version—that contradicted the official version that Washington was projecting around the world. And, you know, he was sort of the quintessential unembedded journalist and was just a remarkable, remarkable man. And, I mean, I’m just—I feel honored to have known him, and it’s just a treasure to hear his words being played today.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Jeremy Scahill, by the way, the award-winning journalist, former producer at Democracy Now!, in Sydney, Australia. He’s been in New Zealand and Australia for film and book festivals talking about journalism. Scott Armstrong, I want to thank you for being with us, joining us from Santa Fe, New Mexico, from the studios of our partner, New Mexico PBS, actually which is housed in the Long House in the New Mexico Legislature. And also with us, Randy Goodman, who traveled with William Worthy for a decade in the 1980s. When we come back from break—and we’re going to go back to that Phil Ochs song, so listen carefully; maybe you might want to sing along—we’ll go to William Worthy, in his own words, describing his trip to Cuba, as well as to see Zhou Enlai. We will also hear him talking about China. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Phil Ochs singing "The Ballad of William Worthy." This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we remember today the life of William Worthy. He died May 4th in Brewster, Massachusetts, of complications related to Alzheimer’s. He was a journalist for decades. He was also an assistant to the dean at Howard University’s School of Communications. I want to go back to the pioneering journalist William Worthy in his own words. Juan González and I interviewed him for our New Year’s Day 1998 broadcast. I asked William Worthy to talk about being arrested when he returned from reporting from Cuba in 1961. During his trip, he interviewed Fidel Castro. When Worthy returned to the United States, he was arrested—not for traveling to Cuba, but for entering the United States illegally: He was an American citizen without a passport. He was originally sentenced to three months in prison, but his conviction was eventually overturned. This is Bill Worthy.
WILLIAM WORTHY: The federal indictment that followed in 1962—and the case dragged on for two years—was, of course, much more serious than losing one’s passport. But for some reason that the ACLU, which defended me, and the whole legal community could never understand, the Justice Department Internal Security Division, which was very reactionary, and if it’s still in existence, I presume it hasn’t changed, indicted me not for going to Cuba, but for coming back. And so, I was prosecuted for the novel crime of coming home. And the Fifth Circuit unanimously reversed that on the grounds that a citizen has an inherent right, an inherent constitutional right, to come home. And there’d been so much embarrassment to the Kennedy administration from the case that, althought the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department wanted to appeal to the Supreme Court, Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, vetoed it. He was—he and his brother were sick and tired of the case. They had had enough embarrassment over it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And previously, you had had problems with visits in the late '50s to China and other places, hadn't you?
WILLIAM WORTHY: Correct.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you tell us a little bit about that?
WILLIAM WORTHY: Well, after the Chinese revolution in 1949, the official line of the State Department was that communism in China was a passing phase and that anything that indicated recognition, journalistic interest or whatever, would only delay that passing, and so there was a ban on China. In fact, there was a ban on the whole Soviet communist bloc, but particularly on China.
And I had tried for about three years before I actually got the visa to get there. I accosted Zhou Enlai, the prime minister, at the first Asian-African Congress—Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1955. But one Sunday morning at Adams House at Harvard, where I was a Nieman Fellow for the year, I came up from breakfast and saw a Western Union telegram under my door, and I immediately knew what it was, instinctively. And a week later, I was in China, to the great distress of the State Department.
The U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong went into almost a terror-stricken episode, and Scott Nearing and his wife, years later, or several years later, were in Hong Kong with no any intention of going to China. They moved from one hotel to another, not leaving a forwarding address. And suddenly a loud knock on their door, and the chief security officer of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong wanted to—in fact, demanded to know whether they had any intention of going into China. He said, "That guy Worthy almost caused me to lose my job." I think what probably happened was that I went in on Christmas Eve, by pure chance, and I think they were all partying and not patrolling the border. And this man caught hell.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Scott Nearing was—is that the author—
WILLIAM WORTHY: Great author.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The author of Dollar Diplomacy and—yes.
WILLIAM WORTHY: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Classic work on U.S. intervention.
WILLIAM WORTHY: A little footnote to that remark. It was in my Bates College days, by pure chance, at the college library, I came across his classic book, 1925, called Dollar Diplomacy. And never have gotten over the section on Haiti, where he disclosed that when the U.S. was pressing, around 1914, for more and more concessions from the Haitian government, and they had declined to bow to that pressure, a contingent of U.S. military landed from a Navy ship and marched to the National Bank and took out, I think, about half-million dollars, which in those days, for a tiny country, was a lot of money, put it back on the ship and took it to National City Bank in New York.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, in broad daylight, wasn’t it? It was—
WILLIAM WORTHY: Yeah, right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right.
WILLIAM WORTHY: And it’s known by every Haitian still as the great Yankee bank robbery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes.
WILLIAM WORTHY: And that, really, turned me in an anti-imperialist direction, from which I have not veered ever since. It was one of the great shocks of my life, to read that.
AMY GOODMAN: Journalist William Worthy in that interview we broadcast New Year’s Day 1998. We want to turn to another section of the interview, where he explains why he chose to cover China and other countries widely viewed as enemy here in the United States.
WILLIAM WORTHY: One of the most discouraging things about this country is the lack of critical thinking by Americans. The educational system fails Americans miserably in any kind of analysis of what’s going on. And any government line which is echoed daily by the mass media becomes gospel in this country. And anyone who knew anything about the abominable conditions under Chiang Kai-shek in China could understand why there was a revolution. It didn’t necessarily mean that you shared their—all their political beliefs and orientation, but that the revolution was entirely understandable and justified. And since the U.S. was in a nuclear mood and came close, in 1955, to actually using nuclear weapons on China, over those offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, it was important to get, even on a small scale, from one person, something of a different perspective. And I think that was both a journalistic and an intellectual reason for challenging the travel ban.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what kind of dispatches or reports were you able to bring back? You did some work, as I understand it, for ABC on a documentary on Cuba.
WILLIAM WORTHY: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And were yours the first reports of the—with another perspective coming out of these countries?
WILLIAM WORTHY: You know, from quick memory, I can’t say yes to that with any certainty, but if there were any dissenting views, they were very rare. And this country has a political line, which, in general, the mass media follow rather uncritically, with exceptions. You will find in any major network, newspaper, magazine that there are people who are trying to get some of the truth across on every opportunity—at every opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you did in China. What were the news dispatches that you filed, and who did you file for?
WILLIAM WORTHY: Well, probably the most, quote-unquote, "significant" was the interview with the prime minister of China. I was at the cable office—I think it was on a Sunday—and he was getting ready to go on a trip somewhere to Europe, I think. And I, of course, had requested an interview, and the people, I guess, from his office finally tracked me down that Sunday morning at the cable office and rushed me to his residence.
And I remember his asking me, ironically, and of course satirically, how far Long Island was from New York. And the parallel was: How far is—were these two offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu, from the Chinese mainland? The distance is approximately the same. And it pointed out the arrogance of the United States of wanting to bomb China with nuclear weapons, because they claimed that those islands belonged to the departed and discredited Chiang Kai-shek government on what we called Formosa—I shouldn’t say "we," what the official name for it was Formosa, but the rest of the world, even then, was calling Taiwan.
Let me just interject a little story I like to think is of great historic interest. The Fellowship of Reconciliation across the river here in Nyack was—had their concerns verified when Prime Minister Nehru of India visited China in 1955 and came back and disclosed that there were areas where there was famine. It was, of course, a food—a total embargo on commerce with China at that time. And so they instituted a project asking people, their members and others, to send little rice bags with a ticket, a little tag, to President Eisenhower, with the label, "If thine enemy hunger, feed him." And they had no idea what the reaction was. They found out later, indirectly, through—after Eisenhower went out of office, through one of his aides, that this project had been discussed at Cabinet meetings and with the U.S. military, which was pressing for a nuclear attack on China. And Eisenhower—not many people know this, but I’m pretty sure it’s true—came out of a—had a Jehovah’s Witness mother who was opposed to his military career. And he turned to the Cabinet meeting, with the military officers’ high command sitting there, and said, "How many of these bags of rice have come in?" The New York Times had run a big story, and there had been a lot of news follow-up. And when he was told, I think it was 40,000 or 45,000, plus thousands of letters, he said, "If the American people want reconciliation with China, this is no time to be bombing it." And that was the end of that threat. A very interesting little side light to history.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s William Worthy. We ran this on New Year’s Day 1998. Juan González and I interviewed him. And to hear the whole hour, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. I wanted to read a quote that—in The New York Times; they actually took it from The Boston Globe, and it’s quoting William Worthy talking about his life. His father was a prominent obstetrician in Boston. And he was born in 1921, William Worthy was. He said, "Despite the respect and certain privileges derived from membership in a professional 'black bourgeoisie' family, my sisters and I were clearly aware, as children, of our 'inferior' minority group status." He said this in a Boston Globe article in 1968. "'The problem' was discussed at the dinner table. More importantly, it was all around us," he said. Randy Goodman, you traveled with William Worthy for a decade. You went to many different countries with him. He taught courses at Boston University. Can you summarize your feelings about the significance of William Worthy today?
RANDY GOODMAN: Wow, that’s a big job for a two-minute answer.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got one minute.
RANDY GOODMAN: One minute, OK. Well, his significance and his impact was that he was a man who believed, intellectually, emotionally, passionately, in civil liberties and an anti-imperialist perspective in equality, in justice. And he was not going to be fooled by any interpretation that masked the truth. And in all of the three countries that I traveled with him to, in all of the decade-long discussions that we had, this was at the core of William Worthy. Every single day had meaning. Every single hour, seemingly, he was working. You know, he was a quiet man in many ways. He was a very respectful man. He had kind of that Boston Brahmin, kind of upright stance, very strong-willed and intentioned, but his passion was really for the people, not only of his race, of various races and ethnicity in the United States, but really of the people of the world. And he wanted the truth about their circumstances, politically, culturally, ideologically, to be part of everybody’s everyday reality.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to William Worthy in his own words.
WILLIAM WORTHY: And this country has a political line, which, in general, the mass media follow, rather uncritically, with exceptions. You will find in any major network, newspaper, magazine, that there are people who are trying to get some of the truth across on every opportunity—at every opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: That was William Worthy in his own words. 1921, he was born; 2014, he died in Brewster, Massachusetts. To hear the full interview with William Worthy, go to democracynow.org. It’s also in transcript form. That does it for our broadcast. Special thanks to Jeremy Scahill, joining us from Sydney, Australia, and Scott Armstrong from New Mexico, former Washington Post reporter and founder of the National Security Archive.
Recent Shows More
Longest-Serving U.S. Prisoner in Solitary Ordered Free Again, But State Obstruction Bars His Release
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to
democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions,