Author talks about Oregon native Ralph Barnes' role in history


Gazette-Times reporter

When journalist and war correspondent Ralph Barnes died in a plane crash in 1940, he left behind a legacy of enterprising reporting in the face of censorship, danger and dark days.

Barnes, an Oregon native and graduate of Willamette University, didn't set out to become a journalist, explained author Barbara Mahoney while speaking at the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities Monday afternoon.

Mahoney has written a book on Barnes' life titled "Dispatches and Dictators: Ralph Barnes for the Herald Tribune," published by the Oregon State University Press. A former history professor, Mahoney is now senior vice president for development for the Oregon Health & Science University Foundation.

Barnes received a master's degree in economics from Harvard, but ended up working for a Brooklyn newspaper after moving to New York.

"He discovered his life's vocation," Mahoney said of Barnes' first experiments in journalism. Soon, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he talked his way into a job with a large newspaper, learning the trade as he went. He gradually started getting bigger stories, and when Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris he clinched the first interview with him. He then moved on to Italy, where he worked in Rome.

He finally landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune as its Moscow reporter, where he worked for four years under Stalin's regime. He also worked in Berlin for several years during the Nazi uprising, and he was a witness to growing anti-Semitism in Germany. "He spent a great majority of his time working under totalitarian regimes and developing sources in an atmosphere of fear," she said.

Mahoney first discovered Barnes' story when she saw the obituary of his wife in the (Salem) Statesman Journal. A former professor at Willamette University, Mahoney used her connections to Barnes' alma mater as well as source materials from his family.

"I can only hope people save their

e-mails," Mahoney joked about current society, which has moved away from the letters and other written materials that are so essential to historians trying to reconstruct lives such as Mahoney attempted to do with Barnes.

Letters, clippings and memoirs from colleagues helped Mahoney to reconstruct a picture of Barnes' life as a foreign correspondent. While juggling a university job and raising children, she managed to spend two hours every morning working on the book. She said what struck her most was the personal side of Barnes' life, despite the fact that he was living in the middle of some of the 20th century's biggest moments.

"I was impressed with the sacrifices involved," she said of Barnes, who traveled with his wife at his side and often had to leave his children behind. "It was not the glamour we associate with a foreign correspondent's life at all."

Mahoney spoke about the challenges Barnes faced as the only reporter covering the entire Soviet Union for his paper, of working on deadline under the eye of censors, and what she called "the challenge of discerning the meaning behind events as they occur."

"His working style was prodigious," she said. "I think it would be against union laws today to expect him to turn out what he turned out."

Barnes learned the language and cultures of the countries he covered and expected that his readers back in the United States were intelligent and deserved accurate, informed and nuanced accounts. His work was usually censored by the governments he was living under, and therefore his work was limited to what he could write. But under such conditions, he still managed to make astute observations of history-making events as they happened, predicting things ranging from the impending expulsion and extermination of European Jews to Germany's attack on the Soviet Union.

"Barnes told the full story to the best of his ability," she said.

Barnes' coverage of the Nazi movement eventually led to his expulsion from Germany. Shortly afterward, while traveling aboard a British bomber, he died in a plane crash in Yugoslavia, the first U.S. foreign correspondent to die in World War II.

Mahoney said her study of Barnes revealed a man who strongly believed he needed to be a witness to the events he chronicled in his stories.

"I believe in the judgment of history," Mahoney said, "that Ralph Barnes was one of the preeminent journalists of the 20th Century."

Theresa Hogue is the higher education reporter for the Gazette-Times. She can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 758-9526.

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