Obituary: Isaac Patch / Cold Warrior smuggled books into Soviet Union

June 20, 1912 - May 31, 2014

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Isaac Patch, a Cold Warrior who led a CIA-financed book distribution program that smuggled hundreds of thousands of banned or hard-to-find texts into the Soviet Union, died May 31 at his home in St. Johnsbury, Vt. He was 101.

The cause was complications from dementia, said a niece, Patricia Patch Critchlow.

Political warfare — to win the hearts and minds of adversaries — played out in many forms during the Cold War. One of the least known but most effective was a CIA-funded effort to get reading materials, including modern novels and medical texts, behind the Iron Curtain.

Scholar Alfred A. Reisch wrote in “Hot Books in the Cold War” that sending books into the Soviet sphere of influence “played a decisive role, by contributing . . . to the West’s ideological victory. They did so at a relatively low financial cost and without loss of lives.”

Another writer, John P.C. Matthews, termed the massive clandestine program a “Marshall plan for the mind.”

One leader in the effort was “Ike” Patch, a lanky New Englander who had studied Russian at Harvard University and who, during a stint as a diplomat in Moscow during World War II, tried with mixed results to instill in the Soviets a love of baseball.

Mr. Patch had survived Foreign Service duty in early Cold War flash points such as Manchuria and Czechoslovakia. His family was expelled from Prague with 24 hours’ notice after the Communist-led regime accused him of espionage, a charge he denied.

In the early 1950s, he joined what became best known as Radio Liberty, a CIA-underwritten network similar to Radio Free Europe but aimed directly at the heart of the Soviet empire. A colleague from those years later described him as “a tall, shrewd string bean with a deceptively mild appearance and manner.”

In 1956, Mr. Patch became the New York-based director of special projects at Radio Liberty. His chief legacy was orchestrating the distribution of banned Russian-language works as well as Western books never before translated into Russian. His work was modeled on Radio Free Europe’s CIA-financed book-printing operation, which had been in operation for several years.

In his memoir “Closing the Circle,” Mr. Patch described the mission: “To communicate Western ideas to Soviet citizens by providing them with books — on politics, economics, philosophy, art, and some technology — all denied them by the Soviet dictatorship.”

He had to overcome some internal resistance to the plan. Some colleagues argued it would be a wasteful folly because the Soviets sealed their borders tightly. Others perceived in Russia a general lack of receptiveness to Western ideas.

Mr. Patch prevailed, pointing to his work during the war as a code clerk at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. His assignments had included visiting Russian bookstores and sending volumes back to Washington — a task that later helped him make important connections and convince him of the general hunger in Russia for reading.

The CIA financed the effort — at first with a modest $10,000 — under the rubric of a new company called Bedford Publishing. Bedford made available works by James Joyce (“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”), George Orwell (“Animal Farm”), Boris Pasternak (“Doctor Zhivago”) and Vladimir Nabokov (“Pnin”), among others.

Soviet citizens abroad could get the books for free at Bedford’s offices in New York, London, Paris, Munich and Rome. Bedford also provided the books gratis to Western travelers — doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists and journalists — en route to the Soviet Union.

A network of intermediaries ensured that the books arrived at their final destinations within the Soviet Union. In his memoir, Mr. Patch said the recipients of Bedford’s services included the dissident Soviet writer and Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Svetlana Stalina, the daughter of the late Soviet dictator.

Yale Richmond, a former State Department official, wrote in his book “Cultural Exchange and the Cold War” that Bedford and successor organizations brought more than 1 million books into the Soviet Union over the decades.

Mr. Patch retired to Vermont in the early 1970s. A few years later, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe’s book ventures were folded into the CIA-funded International Literary Center, which continued operations until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Isaac Patch IV was born June 20, 1912, in Gloucester, Mass., where his father was mayor and also worked as a banker. His maternal uncle, A. Piatt Andrew, was a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts who helped start the American Field Service, the volunteer ambulance corps in World War I that later became an international youth-exchange program.

Ike Patch attended Amherst College in Massachusetts but dropped out before enlisting in the Navy in January 1941, nearly a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, which led to U.S. entry into World War II.

An accident at sea injured Mr. Patch’s back and led to a medical discharge. He began taking Russian language classes at Harvard, and he soon went to Moscow for the State Department.

Mr. Patch was involved in efforts to racially integrate public schools in Englewood, N.J., in the 1960s, and he later became a naturalist when he moved to Vermont.


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