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Leonard Lewin; Author of Satire on Dangers of Peace

February 01, 1999|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Leonard C. Lewin, who penned a brilliant satire purporting to be a government study on the dangers of peace titled "Report From Iron Mountain," has died. He was 82.

Lewin died Thursday in New Haven, Conn.

The book, published in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, was commissioned by the editor of the humor magazine Monocle after a fall in the stock market was blamed on a "peace scare." Lewin, an editor and writer of considerable talent, wrote what appeared to be a suppressed secret government study by a prominent Midwestern professor identified only as "John Doe."

According to the introduction, written by and credited to Lewin, Doe and more than a dozen other scholars had been part of a top-secret "study group" that had gathered in a mammoth underground bomb shelter in upstate New York in 1963. Lewin wrote that the group worked for more than two years "to determine, accurately and realistically, the nature of the problems that would confront the United States if and when a condition of 'permanent peace' should arrive, and to draft a program for dealing with this contingency."

The 109-page report concluded that if peace "could be achieved, it would almost certainly not be in the best interests of society to achieve it."

"War fills certain functions essential to the stability of our society," such as full employment, the report said.

Written in bureaucratic jargon, the report suggested that in a search for new crises, the government might introduce massive environmental pollution. In a move to control population, birth control drugs could be added to the food and water supply. "Aggressive impulses" from those used in combat might be controlled through blood sports.

The book became a bestseller. Esquire magazine published a condensation in its December 1967 issue that ran more than 25,000 words. The book's publisher, Dial Press, tongue firmly in cheek, continued to cite the book's authenticity.

Sales were brisk and the book was translated into more than a dozen languages. But by 1972, Lewin had had enough of the hoax. He confessed to being the author in an essay in The New York Times Book Review.

In the essay, Lewin said he had decided to end the mystery over the authorship after reading the "Pentagon Papers," and other documents about the Vietnam War and deciding that some of the information being leaked "read like parodies of 'Iron Mountain,' rather than the reverse."

He said his original intent has been to discuss "the issues of war and peace," in an interesting way and "extend the scope of public discussion of 'peace planning' beyond its usual stodgy limits."

The furor eventually faded, and the book went out of print in the late 1970s. But in the mid-1980s, Lewin received a request from a group of white supremacists asking whether he had any copies to sell. He said no.

By the early 1990s, the book had become something of a right-wing manifesto, and ads for it began showing up in journals popular with rightist militias. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lewin found a copy of the new edition of "Iron Mountain" in which his acknowledgment of authorship appeared in a blurb on the back accompanied by: "Does editor Leonard Lewin's claim of authorship represent the truth? Or was it just another move in the deception game. . . . ?"

Lewin sued Liberty Lobby, the publisher of this edition. When the case was settled, Lewin ended up with 1,000 copies of "Iron Mountain" in storage.

Over the last few years, copies of other unauthorized editions continued to be available on the Internet, and many militia members still believe that it's a suppressed government report.

Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and the former Monocle editor who had commissioned "Iron Mountain," wrote years ago that "the report was a success in that it achieved its mission, which . . . was to provoke thinking about the unthinkable--the conversion to a peacetime economy and the absurdity of the arms race. But it was a failure, given that even with the end of the cold war we still have a cold war economy."

Lewin, a liberal who campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, was born in New York City in 1916. In the early '40s, after his graduation from Harvard University with a degree in psychology, he became a union organizer in Hartford, Conn., with the United Electrical Workers. He later worked with his father at a sugar refinery in Indiana before moving back to New York in 1960 to pursue his writing career.

He edited "A Treasury of American Political Humor," published by Delacorte in 1964, and he contributed to various publications.

He is survived by his daughter, Julie Lewin of Connecticut, son Michael Lewin, who lives in England, and by longtime companion Lorraine Davis of New York City.

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