“True enough, but he made the trains run on time.” We are all familiar with that defense of the dictatorial buffoonery of Benito Mussolini, who hardly belongs to the A Team of twentieth-century monsters such as Hitler and Stalin. As many scholars have since noted, he, in fact, did not make the trains run on time, but it was a defense of sorts. Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times columnist with an acute moral sensibility. Those of us who still read the New York Times have more than once had breakfast spoiled by Kristof’s graphic accounts of starving children and victims of oppression in Niger, Thailand, and other far-flung places of the world. He is also one of the few writers in the general media who have recognized the crucial role of Catholic and evangelical enterprises in responding to dire needs in places that most people would as soon ignore, and in keeping alive a concern for human rights in circumstances that do not get the attention of the media and the powers that be.

All the more surprising, therefore, is Kristof’s review of the important and justly acclaimed new book by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf). Based on exhaustive interviews and the mining of previously secret documents, Chang and Halliday make the case that Chairman Mao was responsible for the deaths of no less than seventy million people, making him the greatest mass murderer of human history.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review of October 23, Kristof has his reservations. The book says that in the great famine of 1958 to 1961 that was engineered by Mao “close to 38 million people died.” This bothers Kristof because other writers say the toll was about 30 million, while one minority report suggests it was, so to speak, only 23 million. Kristof writes, “Simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate worries me; if that is stretched, then what else is?”

I have written in FIRST THINGS and elsewhere that ours is the first time in history in which human slaughter has been on such a monumental scale that we routinely split the difference by the millions. Hitler killed seven million or three million Jews? Let’s agree on five. Apart from those who died in the war, Stalin is responsible for fifteen or thirty million deaths? All right, it’s a deal, we’ll settle on twenty million. Most scholars agree that at least 30 million died in Mao’s great famine. Chang and Halliday say “close to 38 million people died.” Kristof allows that they have studied the matter much more carefully than he has, and it might be argued that 38 million is close to 30 million. It’s nearly as close as the 23 million estimate that he credits. Most troubling, however, is the suggestion that any of this has a bearing on the authors having “stretched” the horror of Mao’s rule. Ah, it was only 23 million, so Mao wasn’t quite so bad after all.

Kristof goes on to make it explicit: “But Mao’s legacy is not all bad.” While all those killings are deeply regrettable, Mao did a lot for the emancipation of women and he ended child marriages. “Indeed, Mao’s entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.” The review concludes: “Mao’s ruthlessness was a catastrophe at the time, brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book¯and yet there is more to the story: Mao also helped lay the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of China after five centuries of slumber.” He laid the groundwork, one might observe, by putting untold millions into the ground.

Note that Kristof’s words are not cast as a reflection on the ironies of history in which good may result from grave evil. Rather, Kristof is balancing the pros and cons of Mao’s legacy. “But Mao’s legacy is not all bad.” Kristof supplies a last-ditch defense for the many Western admirers of Mao and Maoism. The terrible things he did amounted to “a catastrophe at the time.” But now we understand that his killing of seventy million people (Or did we agree on sixty?) must be balanced against, and was perhaps necessary to, the good fortune of China today. It is not a matter of a good having emerged from Mao’s legacy of unmitigated evil. The judgment is that “Mao’s legacy is not all bad.”

As I said, Nicholas D. Kristof is a journalist whose writing is usually marked by a keen moral sensibility. In reviewing Mao: The Unknown Story , he perhaps did not mean to say what he said. But what he said is morally repugnant.

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