Willamette University

Covering Conflict

By Erik Schmidt’05

The letter is just as weathered as it should be given its age. Its three paragraphs of Russian have faded unevenly as the paper has yellowed over time, and two old folds cross at the center of the sheet, a thin, government- grade page cut to fit a metric standard. The signature at the bottom of the letter, the focal point in deep red ink, belongs to Joseph Stalin.

The letter was addressed in 1933 to a worldly Willamette alumnus named Ralph Barnes ’22. Since 2008 it has resided on the top floor of the Hatfield Library with university archives, an office whose quiet job is to catalog and maintain the documents that represent Willamette’s history. Barnes’s daughter, Suzanne, decided several years ago that the archive would be the best home for such an artifact; aside from a remarkable piece of history, she also gave the university an incredible story of an alumnus, a worldwide conflict, and the tricky business of reporting it.


Ralph Barnes was born in Salem at the turn of the 20th century and stayed through graduation from Salem High School in 1917. Within several months he had begun military training at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc., but he returned in 1918 to study at Willamette and finished according to schedule without rejoining the military permanently. He completed his degree in history, married longtime sweetheart and fellow Willamette graduate Esther Parounagain ’23, and quickly found a job reporting the news in New York. The couple moved across the country and life began to speed up.

The worldwide political climate of the 1920s demanded new kinds of international reporting on the part of the American media; this is where Barnes found his niche. He found a position as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, and in 1926 he was transferred, with Esther, to his first overseas post in Paris. Once the boat arrived, the couple settled in and Ralph covered what were to be some of his tamer assignments: He was there for Gertrude Ederle’s historic English Channel swim, and he was among the first to interview Charles Lindbergh after he crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The Herald Tribune headline on May 22, authored by Barnes, was striking: “Lindbergh Tells of His Flight; ‘Not Really Sleepy,’ He Says; Was Within Ten Feet of Sea.”

Movement Abroad

Barnes’s career was characterized by impermanence. From Paris he began what was to be a whirlwind tour of Europe: The first move was to Italy to chase down stories of Benito Mussolini’s government and observe the war clouds building once again in the region. Meanwhile in Rome, the couple’s first daughter, Joan, was born in May of 1930; a year and a half later, Suzanne came along to complete the family picture. While Ralph continued to trek the globe as a correspondent, his daughters made the trip to Oregon to spend their earliest years in a safer environment. They would experience prewar Europe in due time.

Ralph was transferred to Moscow in 1931 to open a bureau of the Herald Tribune there, but he had some worries about the kind of reception he would get on arrival. Several Englishmen had recently been convicted of espionage while employed at a Soviet electrical company, arousing skepticism among westerners about Soviet law enforcement practices. Barnes, assertively enough, wrote Joseph Stalin before his arrival to get to the bottom of the issue. He received a reply.

“The USSR,” Stalin wrote, “is one of the few governments in the world where the manifestation of national hatred … toward foreigners … is punishable by law. There has not been and cannot be an instance where anybody at all can stand in the USSR as an object of persecution on account of his national origin.”

Stalin went on to assure Barnes that the Englishmen in question had been prosecuted because of their actions, not their nationality. He signed off the letter with a confident “Ready to serve you.” The Barneses went to Moscow.

The trip was enlivening just as it was frightening. Ralph and Esther saw new territory; they met with peasants in the countryside who taught them about their jobs, the many changes throughout the country and their Communist government. Ralph composed a series of dispatches from Moscow chronicling the end of Stalin’s first five-year plan, a huge government program aimed at reinventing the Soviet economy and, among other things, pushing formerly agrarian workers into new industrial centers.

“Soviet Russia’s ‘Five-Year Plan’ officially ended yesterday,” Barnes wrote on Jan. 1, 1933. He noted that industrial output during the plan had stalled at half of previous estimates and that “quality [was] far inferior to that of other nations.” He was witnessing, as he cheerily referred to it, Russia’s great national experiment.

By the end of 1936, Ralph and Esther had relocated to Berlin — the real epicenter of the European political conflict — along with their daughters, who returned to Europe from Salem in time to witness the 1936 Olympics. Tensions were high. Within three years, the family headed to London for a reprieve.

Suzanne, the younger of the Barneses’ daughters, recalls learning to swim in the English Channel. It was 1939 and artillery crackled a few miles away on the French side of the water. “I could run on the pebble strand as if it were sand,” she says. “We moved down on the Sussex coast to a village called Lancing — Joanie and I started the second grade there.” Ralph and Esther were active and involved parents, and they encouraged the girls to play sports and join in the weekend social gatherings that brought Ralph’s coworkers out to the coast from London. “I might say I picked up the party bug,” Suzanne says. She muses that her father, raised by straight-laced parents, took all the creative chances he could to lighten the load with family and friends. At one point while in Berlin, she says, he made a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game out of scraps and invited a German military officer to join in. The upright officer was utterly confounded — but entertained.


In June of 1940, Nazi Germany was quietly positioning itself for an armed conflict with Russia, and the tenuous alliance Hitler had struck with Stalin was breaking down. Barnes, who by now had returned — alone — to the hot spot of Berlin, did his best to manage the awkward political rules he needed to observe for his own safety. His one folly was to employ historical perspective (he commonly fleshed out stories with relevant historical notes and clarifiers) to predict something that nobody in the Nazi leadership wanted written down.

In a dispatch dated June 20, Barnes wrote of “ire at Russia” and insinuated that a recent gathering of Soviet military assets in the Baltic might end up compromising existing agreements and lead to a German invasion.

“As France waited for armistice terms and Great Britain faced possible invasion,” Barnes wrote in the article, “a drama was being unrolled today in eastern Europe which, under other circumstances, would have attracted primary attention.

“Assuming a Hitler fully victorious in the west, it is not difficult to picture what could happen. The very acts of Moscow today … even though they were envisaged theoretically in the Soviet-German arrangement, might be used later by Berlin as a pretext for a settlement of accounts with the Soviet Union.”

Barnes treaded lightly from there and stopped short of making specific, immediate war predictions. “These movements,” he made sure to add, “do not imply anything like an immediate clash between the Soviets and Germany.” But just mentioning that it could happen — even in a year or two — was enough. Barnes was ordered to leave Germany within 24 hours, and he complied.

According to Nazi leadership, Barnes had “indulged in false, hateful, and sensational reporting.” Their order to leave the country said that Barnes’s ideas were capable of “disturbing the friendly relations of Germany and other states.” Barnes had no interest in a battle over the issue, of course — he had spent enough time reporting in Germany to know better — so he left dutifully, along with one other correspondent who was implicated in the controversy. By the time of his expulsion, Barnes’s family members had made their way homeward and arrived safely in New York. Hitler would invade the Soviet Union starting on June 22, 1941.

Final Assignment

Barnes was a pioneer of sorts, moving around new and risky political front lines. By virtue of his connections and experience as a correspondent, he was able to get a ride as an observer during a British Royal Air Force night-bomber raid originating out of Greece. It was mid-November, 1940, just after the Battle of Britain had ended a few hundred miles to the north. Barnes had moved south after receiving his Berlin order.

The weather was moody that night. The bomber pilot had taken his aircraft, lumbering with its bomb load, over Yugoslavia, and that was as far as the crew could get. The bomber crashed into a mountain range, and nobody on board survived. Ralph Barnes became the first war correspondent to be killed in World War II.

Several years later, after Barnes’s story had made its way up though U.S. military ranks, the Navy christened one of its liberty (cargo) ships the SS Ralph Barnes. To someone who knew Barnes and had followed his career, it was a fitting name choice: By the end of World War II, these liberty ships had come to symbolize the strength and steadiness of U.S. industry because of their impressive production numbers during the conflict.

Present Day

Suzanne Barnes Morrison says that the letter from Stalin and the many other products of her father’s experiences will always inform her family’s collective identity. “I only really knew him for a few of my first nine years,” she says, “but I’ve put together some sketches of what he was like as a father. He was really a boy at heart. Our whole family, even today, talks about these experiences and the incredible times from which they came.”

The full collection of Barnes’s work and correspondence — which includes numerous letters written home, chronicles from Esther, photos and article clippings — has been catalogued for safe keeping inside the archive at the Hatfield Library. Visitors to the collection might include relatives, friends of the family and, undoubtedly, curious professors. Each can contribute to giving Ralph and Esther’s story the coverage it so amply deserves.

About the Archives

Staff members at the university archives are happy to talk with alumni or friends of the university who would like to contribute Willamette-related artifacts, documents, or special collections. Interested parties can begin by contacting Mary McKay, university archivist, at mmckay@willamette.edu or 503-370-6764.


“Ready to serve you,” Stalin wrote. Then the Barneses went to Moscow.
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White


Barnes in Paris with Esther and young Joan.


Messages penned onto the above photo:“The first story ever written on Red Square (and probably the last),” and, not pictured, “To ‘Scoop’ Barnes, Red Square, Moscow, 1932 — poor photo of a swell correspondent.”


Photos above and right: Esther and the girls, circa 1940, newly arrived in New York.


Suzanne in Salem, 2010


Barnes’s story is chronicled in an Oregon Book Award-winning biography by former Willamette staff member Barbara Mahoney. The book is called Dispatches and Dictators: Ralph Barnes for the Herald Tribune (2002).