YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review

Bent on Saving the World, One Political Refugee at a Time



The Life and Times of Leo Cherne

By Andrew F. Smith

Foreword by Henry A. Kissinger

State University of New York Press

256 pp., $26.50

Two years before he died in 1999 at the age of 88, Leo Cherne told a friend he wanted to be "remembered as a cold warrior." He probably will be.

Andrew F. Smith's pedestrian biography of him, "Rescuing the World," stresses Cherne's tireless work on behalf of refugees in the world, beginning with Europe after World War II and continuing into Indochina and Africa. For 40 years Cherne was head of the International Rescue Committee.

But, as Smith writes, anti-Communism was the consuming force that drove Cherne's refugee work: "For Cherne, refugees were a political weapon. As he believed that the Soviet Union and Communism were the greatest post-World War II threat, he was more concerned with helping refugees who were escaping from the Communist countries."

Cherne came by his political activism naturally enough. He was born Leopold Chernetsky in the Bronx to radical socialists who had, like so many Russian Jews, emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms and to find a better life.

In high school he joined a gang, attended the Metropolitan Opera with his parents, got a job as a merchant seaman on ships to Puerto Rico and, as a junior in high school, successfully organized a fund to help the victims of a hurricane in Puerto Rico.

From 16 to 21 Cherne belonged to a youth organization of B'nai B'rith, where he specialized in giving strong political speeches against fascism. He attended New York University and its law school and, in the 1930s, got into advising businesses on how to cope with New Deal law and, later, on business law and regulations during World War II.

To this end he founded the Research Institute, which quickly flourished with many clients and 350 employees. Here Cherne developed the pattern of action for which he became noted, the cultivation of a wide circle of influential friends in business and government.

Cherne got into the refugee rescuing business in the early 1950s as the Cold War stepped up and refugees fleeing East Germany began streaming into the West. He succeeded the ailing Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as chairman of the International Refugee Committee and soon secured some generous financing from the Ford Foundation and others.

It was the aborted Hungarian Revolution in 1956 that thrust Cherne into the limelight and set him on the cold warrior course of which he was so proud. With a friend he made his way into contested Budapest and returned to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show" talking about the suppression of Hungarian rebels by the Soviet Red Army.

As anti-communism became his consuming cause, he campaigned among influential Americans for Ngo Dinh Diem as a reliably anti-Communist leader of South Vietnam. Later, as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board he had a hand in the creation, at the end of the Ford administration, of the famous "Plan B," a right-wing assessment by experts outside the government of the Soviet Union's intentions and power (it was dramatically more pessimistic than the government's assessment).

A longtime Democrat, Cherne, believing the Democrats were soft toward Moscow, became a Republican when Ronald Reagan was president. He cherished the Medal of Freedom that Reagan gave him, as he did his medal from the CIA for distinguished service.

One of the flaws of "Rescuing the World" is that Smith, defensive of his subject, does not explore in detail Cherne's relationship with the CIA, although he does say that Cherne met with CIA personnel from time to time and "mentored" them in economic analysis. Smith notes that the refugee committee once received $50,000 from the CIA for some resettlement work.

The greater flaw is that Smith's plodding prose does not bring Cherne to life. Smith notes, mysteriously, that he did not go into Cherne's personal life. He does discuss, at some length, Cherne's modest success as an amateur sculptor, creating busts of Lincoln and other famous statesmen.

But what remains, in "Rescuing the World," is an indistinct sketch of an ardent old cold warrior whom, by his death, time had passed by.

Los Angeles Times Articles