Cold War Ghosts
When the New York Times Op-Ed page called and asked whether I thought the death of Gus Hall, the perennial US Communist Party candidate for President who served time for "conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force," marked the end of an era, and would I like to write about it, I said yes I did, and yes I would.
Arthur Miller once observed that "an era may be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted." It occurred to me, as I typed my 750 words, that during his lifetime Hall, who criticized Gorbachev's reform program and remained a hard-liner to the end, never seemed to give up his illusions. But I also thought to use the occasion to observe that even as Hall passed from the scene, a new cadre of cold war historians seems obsessed with perpetuating a counterillusion--seizing fragments from cold war archives, ambiguous intercepts from cables between Moscow and its US-based operatives, and other ephemera to prove that the CPUSA had indeed not been a bona fide political party but rather was control-central for a nest of spies, as "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy had charged--that McCarthy, despite his bad press, had been right after all.
"The matter, I would suggest, is still in dispute," I wrote, and I went on to say that although most illusions about Soviet-style Communism may be exhausted, the paranoia left over from those years persists.
As if to prove my point, no sooner did my piece appear than cold war historian Ron Radosh and former New Left journalist David Horowitz, not to mention the center-liberal New Republic, serially attacked the New York Times for...well, let me quote The New Republic: "[for allowing] a prominent writer [me] to play his tiresome and sickening games with history" in its pages.
I of course took the opportunity to ask in a letter to the editor of The New Republic whether it was possible to be both "tiresome and sickening" at the same time. But more seriously, I expressed curiosity as to whether that magazine really believed that the incorruptible one-man-band, maverick journalist I.F. Stone, "in the end agreed to work for the NKVD"; that J. Robert Oppenheimer was a "conscious collaborator with the Soviet secret police"; and that Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt's intimate friend and White House adviser, was a "Soviet agent." These were among the conclusions of the latest book drawing on cold war archives, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors, by Herbert Romerstein and the late Eric Breindel. Did The New Republic really contend that such claims are beyond dispute?
Replied The New Republic: "Victor Navasky...only confirms his desire to continue playing 'games with history.' He ignores the consensus among historians that the Venona project files confirm the guilt of many accused in the 1950s of spying for the Soviet Union in the previous decade, including Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg...and [others]."
Now what is going on here? On the surface it appears to be either a fifty-year-old dispute about the guilt or innocence of various alleged American spies for the Russians and the nature of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and 1940s, or a new dispute about whether, given the newly available evidence, the old dispute is now beyond dispute. But just beneath the surface lurks a contest over the image of the man whose name has come to symbolize the era in question, Joe McCarthy himself. An irony, by the way, since the phenomenon we now call McCarthyism came on the scene some years before old Joe burst forth with his fake 1950 boast that "I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party" (later he turned out to have an empty hand). And its legacy persisted long after the Senator departed from the scene, having disgraced himself at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and drowned in alcohol two years later.