In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage
J.E. Haynes & H. Klehr
Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003
“We should recognize the issue of communism and Soviet espionage has become an antiquarian backwater. After all, the Cold War is over.” With these words, a typical leftish US historian, Ellen Schrecker, recommends that a whole sector of an historical era should be ignored and work on it effectively closed down. “It is time to move on,” remarks another academic, using the modern terminology that neither denies nor accepts responsibility, but leaves a mess behind for someone else to clear up. Now historians are, by definition, paddlers up backwaters, investigators of things that are “over” and move in, not move on when invited to examine data never before available. When World War Two ended historians started, not stopped, writing about it, just as an unending stream of books about Napoleon has continued in the nearly two centuries since he was bundled off to St Helena. The idea that, just as enormous quantities of material from Soviet and other archives are being released, work on them should be called off is so ludicrous that it could only have been suggested by those who feel the foundations of their beliefs and attitudes crumbling beneath their feet. However, though public apathy is what they would like, the hard facts, and writers such as Haynes and Klehr, have forced some response.
According to the authors of In Denial, the two examples quoted are not isolated oddities, but characteristic of the mindset of a large, perhaps predominant section of US academic historians. Certainly those they cite, or otherwise mention, whom I list at the end of this review, make up a considerable body. They also must include at least the majority of the editors of The American Historical Review and The Journal of American History which rarely publish articles critical of Communism, or have done for the past 25 years at least. Yet these two must be distinguished from Radical History Review which avowedly “rejects conventional notions of scholarly neutrality and objectivity’ (p. 44)”. The Encyclopedia of the American Left omits such matters as the large subsidies the Soviet Union transmitted to the American Communists, specifically for subversion (pp 70-72), the evidence that Alger Hiss spied for the Soviet Union (p. 106), indeed that American Communists had anything to do with espionage, even after opened Soviet files had massively documented the fact that this was so. After all, if something is in print in an accepted reference work, as the Encyclopedia is, it becomes history – an interesting example of history being written by the losers, for a change. Why, though, did the editors of the “highly prestigious”, 24 volume American National Biography for its entry on the Rosenberg spies commission a Communist academic who then, not surprisingly, brushed aside recent confirmatory evidence of their guilt as “discredited” (p. 104)? Just as with the denial of its acceptance of Soviet subsidies, there has been a strong attempt by leftish historians (termed by Haynes and Klehr “revisionists”) to absolve the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) from the accusation that its policy slavishly followed that of the USSR. In fact, any sign of independence was smacked down by Stalin himself (p. 135) and the leaders who claimed their position by right of election were expelled at his orders from the CPUSA, which published the reason for it in a pamphlet. The Party’s endorsement of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact was unconditional and it opposed bitterly all attempts by Roosevelt to help Britain during the year when we stood alone (p. 133). Perhaps insufficient study has been made (I for one am not aware of any) of British Communist resistence to our own war effort during this vital period.
As evidence mounts of subversion and spying by American Communists on behalf of the USSR, some of their defenders have moved from denial to approval, if not always of their actions, certainly of their motives, while any attempt to stop them, let alone punish them “is part and parcel of vile McCarthyism (p. 207).” The Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White (the last two very high White House officials) are now defended as pure idealists who wanted to make the world safer by sharing secrets with the Soviets – a one-way traffic, of course. Longtime defenders of the Rosenbergs “have reacted to the new evidence with a confused mixture of denial, acceptance and defiance (p. 198)”. In New York there is even an Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies, appropriately filled by one Joel Kovel who proclaims that the United States is the “enemy of humanity (p. 211)”. White is, so to speak, being whitewashed in a forthcoming book by, it is disconcerting to read, someone who has got about as far up as it is possible to get in the directorship of a number of historical institutions (p. 212). Sometimes defenders want to have it both ways – Alger Hiss wasn’t guilty (he still has defenders of his innocence, the case for which Haynes and Klehr still have to demolish on pp. 152-162), but if he was, it was only “in technical violation of the law (p. 195)”. Other, now forgotten persons – such as Lauchline Currie (as highly placed as Hiss) and Theodore Hall (as important a spy as Klaus Fuchs) – get the same treatment. In case anyone thinks that the authors have limited their examination of American Communist spies to those discussed above, I have added a list of all (or perhaps I should say most) they have at least mentioned.
What is it that motivates people obviously intelligent enough to enter elite universities, pass their degree exams, research and write theses and books and gain tenured positions, and yet defend a political philosophy justifying regimes responsible for millions of deaths, aggressive wars, and a command economy inadequate for their needs? Is it too simple a solution to suggest that these are people so conscious of the the shortcomings of their own society that they idealise another? Thus “I wanted the Soviet Union to be a successful experiment in socialist democracy and so I checked my critical faculties . . . I still need that belief even if the particular vision I embraced has turned to ashes, (p. 42)” explains “post-Marxist feminist” Gerda Lerner, emeritus professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. But, though a refugee from Nazism and disillusioned with Communism, this has “done little to mitigate her loathing for the United States” and she has compared “life in America to living under Adolf Hitler.” Incredible though this must sound to most people, it must be taken seriously as evidence of a certain state of mind. Unfortunately we are not given the parallels between her experiences in Austria and in America which might justify it. Others want to make America responsible for all the deaths caused by war since World War II, though including those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki for good measure (p. 49). That the Americans initiated none of these wars seems to be no excuse, nor is the far greater death toll brought about by Communist governments by engineered famines, labour camps and straightforward terror and genocide set against this so-called American guilt.
With nothing left to believe in, the default position of these leftish academics and intellectuals is a sort of nihilistic anti-Americanism. “We need a civil war, class war, whatever, to put an end to US policies that endanger all of us,” declared Professor Robin Kelley after September 11th (p. 49). Who is going to fight whom with what is not explained. Presumably another American Civil War, by this logic, will persuade Al Qaida that terrorism is unnecessary, since America will destroy itself. Over here, Scott Lucas, hired to teach “American Studies” at Birmingham University, by his own confession taught “anti-American studies (p. 48)”. He has not been alone, of course; anti-Americanism is perhaps America’s largest intellectual export – and it is entirely negative. Its missionaries have no substitute to offer; if successful it would leave a moral and political power vacuum which only Islamic fanatics seem willing, if not able, to fill. Is that what those “in denial” want to happen?
The Academics etc:
Leslie Adler, Herbert Aptheker, Rudy Baker, Alexander Bittelman, Ethan Bronner, Michael Brown, Paul Buhle, Nicholas Callather, Michael Carley, Peter Carroll, David Caute, Blanche W. Cook, Bruce Craig, Marion Davis, Michael Denning, Eugene Dennis, Frederick V. Field, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Barbara Foley, Isaac Folkoff, Eric Foner, William Z. Foster, Grover Furr, Dan Georgakas, Marvin Gettleman, J. Arch Getty, Jacob Golos, Robert Griffith, Ruth Hall, Michael J. Heale, Gerald Horne, Jerry F. Hough, Peter M. Irons, Maurice Isserman, Edward Johanningsmeier, Michael Karni, Aaron Katz, Robert D.G. Kelley, Robin Kelly, Bernard Knox, Gabriel Kolke, Robert Korstat, Joel Kovel, Aileen Kraslitor, William Kunstler, Corliss Lamont, Gerda Lerner, Nelson Lichtenstein, Robbie Lieberman, George Lipstitz, John Lowenthal, Scott Lucas, Paul Lyons, Norman Markowitz, Robert Meeropol (ne Rosenberg), Mark Naison, Victor Navasky, Anna Kasten Nelson, Fraser Ottanelli, Herbert Packer, Michael F. Parrish, Thomas Paterson, James Patterson, William Pemberton, William Reuben, Alfred Rieber, Michael Rogin, James Ryan, Roger Sandilands, Bernice Schrank, Ellen Schrecker, Bernard Schuster, Samuel Sills, Gregory Silvermaster, Malcolm Silvers, Mark Solomon, Athan Theoharis, Robert Thurston, Brian Villa, Theodore Von Laue, Alan Wald, Max Weiss.
Iskhak Akmerov, Jacob Albam, Johanna Beker, Joseph Bernstein, Lucy Booker, Raymond Boyer, Harry Bridges, Earl Browder, Morris and Jack Childs, Judith Coplon, Lauchlin Currie, Laurence Duggan, Noel Field, Klaus Fuchs, John Gates, Eve Getsov, Harold Glasser, David and Ruth Greenglass, Gus Hall, Theodore Hall, Maurice Halperin, Alger Hiss, Felix Inslerman, Philip Jaffe, Joseph Katz, Charles Kramer, Harry Magdoff, Carl Marzani, Floyd Miller, Victor Perlo, Jozsef Peters, John Reed, Vincent Reno, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Andrew Roth, Alfred Sarant, Saville Sax, George Silverman, Robert Soblen, Jack and Myra Soble, Henry and Beatrice Spitz, Lincoln Steffens, Arthur and Martha Dodd Stern, William Ludwig Ullmann, Julian Wadleigh, Donald Wheeler, Harry Dexter White, Milton Wolfe, Ilya Wolston, Mark Zborowski, Jane Foster and George Zlatowski.