Haunted by the Cold War
We regret that space considerations permit us to print only a few of the many letters we received on Martin Duberman's "A Fellow Traveling," his review of Ronald Radosh's Commies, and Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," an essay on the new McCarthyism, both in the July 16 issue. Among those we're unable to print (but which may be read on our website) are letters from victims of McCarthyism, letters on the merits (demerits, actually) of the Hiss and Rosenberg convictions, scholarly letters filling in missing pieces of cold war history (including one from a Navy veteran who served in the Office of Strategic Services) and a letter finding a "cold war ghost" in the actions of "those who rule the National Pacifica Radio Board." Radosh invites readers to his website to read his answer to Duberman's review. We accept, and we invite readers to our special website letters page to read more on this topic. --The Editors
I would like to thank Martin Duberman for trying to be evenhanded and fair in his discussion of my memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. I suspect that many Nation readers will be angry that he did not deliver the hatchet job expected by so many of them. Nevertheless, I have many points of difference with both him and Victor Navasky, whose piece appeared in the same issue. Rather than take up the limited space allotted in the letters column, which would not allow for a substantive answer, I refer interested readers to my archive at frontpagemag.com, where they will find my answers to both Duberman and Navasky.
I thank Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman for their sane and cogent analyses of the new anti-Communism. As a veteran of union organizing during the Great Depression and of military service in World War II, I long ago concluded that Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd. They are absurd in being essentially theological, in the outdated mode of the Crusades or of Cromwell's Puritanism. Both Communism and anti-Communism derive tests of faith syllogistically from shaky first principles. Thereupon their opposing heresy-hunters are off and running. Heretics are judged to violate vague notions called loyalty and security. Our nation's Founding Fathers omitted these notions and defined treason narrowly and precisely. Later the notion of loyalty tests died with rejection of the Alien and Sedition Acts; died again with revulsion against the Palmer Raids; and died a third time with the deserved unpopularity of Joe McCarthy. (Espionage is another matter. Insofar as there really are national secrets, they must be protected, but only with strict observance of due process.) I began to recognize Stalin's paranoia and cruelty with Trotsky's murder and the "treason" trials. Nevertheless, I must raise a query about Sidney Hook's dictum that "the first priority" of our time has been "the defense and survival of the West." Did not the Red Army, despite Stalin's crimes, help to meet that priority?
JOHN M. PICKERING
Martin Duberman and Victor Navasky leave out one important point. During the cold war many anti-Communist liberals and leftists, with some very few honorable exceptions, spent more time inveighing against "domestic totalitarianism" on the left than they did agitating for peace and social justice. For all of their well-meaning ideals, those anti-Communist liberals did no more to advance progressive causes than did the right-wingers who were using anti-Communism to impede those causes.Meanwhile, rank-and-file Communists, as well as other leftists, without regard to who did or did not do what and with which and to whom, were among the most dedicated, passionate and successful people working for peace and social justice. And they and their political descendants remain so today.
Chevy Chase, Md.
The Soviet Union is no more, nor, effectively, is the CPUSA; yet the indefatigable experts on the Red Menace keep clambering over old battlefields and, with the help of such imperfect tools as the Venona Project, constructing new ones.
Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman adumbrate admirably the pathological nature of this quest, the dishonest methods employed by its practitioners, the absurdity of regarding Communism solely as a security threat and the American CP as just a tool of Soviet foreign policy. But both writers are guilty of some serious inaccuracies. Thus, while Irving Howe objected to Ronald Radosh's portrayal of the Sandinista regime as composed of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists," it is absurd to suggest, as Duberman does, that Howe would warn Radosh not to criticize the Sandinista regime while they were "under attack by the American empire." I happen to know something about it, as I was close to Howe and wrote a few pieces for Dissent after visiting Nicaragua and interviewing some of its leading players.
In general, terms like "Marxist-Leninist" and "Stalinist" are often used incautiously vis-à-vis Central American revolutionary parties. There were certainly Marxist-Leninists among the Sandinistas, but the Sandinistas were a motley lot, and "anti-imperialism" or "anti-Yankeeism"was more relevant to their collective ideological makeup than the verities of Marx and Lenin: It could hardly be otherwise. Nor is it true that the Sandinistas simply followed the "Castro model." Rather, they tried to combine it with those of Eastern Europe's "people's democracies" and, curiously, with more authentic stress on democratic principles. Even the Polish elections of 1989, which brought Solidarity to power, stipulated that 65 percent of all seats in the new Parliament would be held by Communists and their allies.
As for the American CP, however small the number of members Moscow tried to recruit--successfully or not--few of them were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice, organizing unions (as long as they could control them) and joining Pete Seeger in singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." Almost all desperately believed that the Russian CP was always right and that frequent changes in the party line were explainable by the Russian comrades' superior wisdom. (Doubts and hesitations would be suppressed--though luckily not altogether banished.)
Hence the outrageous justifications of Stalin's heinous crimes, hence the inquisitorial means used against suddenly out-of-favor figures, and the groveling mea culpas by those who had, poor souls, defended the new enemies when they were still revered leaders.
During my many years as a Sovietologist, I got to know not a few ex-Communists, some of whom (Joe Starobin, for instance) became good friends. It was precisely their original commitment to a noble cause that made many realize that they had been serving false gods. Still, for a long time they had belonged to a party that was, in the words of French CP head Maurice Thorez, "unlike any other political party," a description that fits the American CP as well as the French. Exposing one set of simplifications is no reason for espousing another.
Washington Township, N.J.
Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts" was as cogent and historically focused as anything I have read on this topic in a very long while. The old left, social idealists like me whose beliefs were contoured by the Depression and World War II, made mistakes, but we were never ideological "shills," as a Nation essayist recently called us. We believed in fundamental human rights for all Americans and, yes, in peace, and we put our youthful energies and our hearts into trying to move our country toward those goals. Espionage was never part of it. We bore harsh criticism for our efforts and some of us suffered severe punishment. It was not that we were wrong but that we underestimated the enormous power of the right wing, which distorted and misrepresented who we were to the American people. By raising the specter of espionage, they were able to successfully market their own antihumanist agenda and have been doing it ever since.
Misjudging the right was a mistake as destructive as the misplaced trust we put in our own demagogues, but at least our efforts were honest. That is not true, I believe, of most of this era's facile-tongued critics with their skewed hindsight, dishonest representations and scrambled historiography.
Victor Navasky is right that historians obsessed with Communist Party espionage have been unable to offer a convincing answer to the question, What was the essence of the Communist Party USA? The Comintern, Profintern (Red International of Labor Unions) and CPUSA archives in Moscow are vast, and are perhaps even more riddled with difficult problems of evidence and verification than most historical archives. It still seems to me, as someone who has done extensive research in those archives, that to focus selectively on some documents implicating certain CP leaders in espionage seems wildly misdirected and disproportionate. Even at the level of leadership cadre, the emphasis on espionage does not hold up very well. After all, even CP leader William Z. Foster (whom Harvey Klehr himself identified in his book Communist Cadre as the single most influential leader in the party throughout its history because of his degree of involvement with its everyday governance) has not been identified as connected with the espionage apparatus, nor has he been implicated in the Venona dispatches. Significantly, Foster, despite his shortcomings as a party spokesman, was primarily involved in labor organizing, the party's self-declared most important mission. Productive research into the party's goals and mission must begin by rejecting the functionalist and unilluminating "spies or dupes" dichotomies of the McCarthy era.
Pine Plains, N.Y.
The Haunted Wood was formed under conditions that should be known: The co-authors are not really co-authors. There was the researcher, Alexander Vassiliev, who spent two years in the KGB archives gathering the material, and the editor, Allen Weinstein, who put the book together. Vassiliev had virtually no say on what went into the book. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Vassiliev, an ex-KGB colonel, seems to have been overwhelmed by Weinstein's reputation, his rhetoric and by the prospect that Weinstein kept dangling in front of him of making big bucks from the book. Also, he was in England, and Weinstein was in the United States, dealing with editors and publishers.
The uneven collaboration unfortunately weakens the book in more ways than one. The heavy anti-Hiss slant is pure Weinstein; the substitution of Hiss's name wherever Vassiliev wrote "Ales" was not Vassiliev's idea. Victor Navasky (and everyone else) should know that Vassiliev told me that in the KGB files "I never I saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen. It might be important for you." Ah, yes. Just slightly.
Left out of the final copy is the list of code names that Vassiliev found in the archives. It is, according to Vassiliev, a list of names and code names of US sources and Soviet operatives who worked in the United States. Besides names that have been noted in various other books, such as Silvermaster, Bentley and Golos, the following appear: Alger Hiss, given the code name Leonard, noted as a former official of the State Department; Harry Dexter White, "Lawyer," noted as dead; Whittaker Chambers, code-named Karl. A measure of the limits of Vassiliev's understanding of US political history (and this underscores how Weinstein took control of the book) is that, according to Vassiliev, this list "was composed in connection with Bentley's defection," and of course Bentley defected in 1945, Hiss resigned from the State Department in 1947 and White died in 1948.
Also on the list, according to Vassiliev, is Noel Field, code-named Ernst, an idealist of whom much has been written, most of it wrong. Field was an authority on disarmament, an idealistic "Quaker communist" who, offered the German desk at the State Department in 1936, turned it down to work for the League of Nations in Geneva (not exactly the smartest thing to do if you are a Russian spy). By the late 1940s Field was in Europe working for world peace and by 1949 had been picked up by the Russians and thrown into a Budapest prison, accused of being an American spy.
But back to The Haunted Wood. Accompanying a photo there's a caption that reads, "Three high-ranking Soviet agents in policy-making position in the wartime Roosevelt Administration--Laughlin Currie, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White--all provided Moscow with crucial documents...." Vassiliev says he never saw a document, or reference to a document, supplied by Hiss in the files.
Am I the only one who thinks that "Ales" might be almost anyone except Alger Hiss? Without any special knowledge of the field, it seems unlikely that any competent espionage organization would assign a code name so easy to decipher. (Not to mention Alger's willingness to identify himself this way.) Have the readers of the Venona files found other cases of similarly transparent anagrams? If not, maybe they should wonder why an exception was made in this one case, or if in fact "Ales" continues successfully to conceal the true identity of the real spy: Bill Buckley, perhaps, or Fala.
ROBERT M. FLANAGAN
I make no claim to be either a historian or an intellectual. But after reading Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," I wondered, Why would Hiss's name be mentioned at all in the Venona communications if he were innocent? To excuse that use of his name by saying the spies were not supposed to use real names is begging the question.
THOMAS BRYAN WARREN
Another "cold war ghost" occurred to me while reading Victor Navasky's article: To this day, civilian federal government agencies spend millions each year on security clearances that invade the privacy of career federal employees who have absolutely no access whatsoever to national security information. These costly and intrusive investigations are based on an Eisenhower executive order that created a cottage industry for the FBI and the OPM, who conduct the background checks.
New York City
Thanks to all who sent their thanks. Here I'll only say to Thomas Warren that my point was not that "spies were not supposed to use real names" but rather that under the informal rules of Venona, real spies were never referred to by their real names, only their code names. Thus the cryptic Venona reference to "Hiss" by his real name gives rise to the inference--to be weighed along with other evidence pro and con--that he was not a spy.
And to Abe Brumberg, whom I admire, I'll say only that while I may indeed be guilty of "serious inaccuracies," I can't find them in his letter. I didn't suggest that hard-core Stalinists and Moscow-recruited spies sang along with Pete Seeger (although they may well have), but rather that 99.9 percent of the CPUSA were not spies, and many of them did row the boat ashore (Hallelujah!) with Peter. I don't doubt that some of them were apologists for the party line.
New York City
To John M. Pickering: In insisting that "Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd," you're equating Communism with Stalinism and ignoring communism with a small c. Those who did and do believe in lower-case communism are part of a complex lineage--an intertwined, shifting mix of Fourierist, anarchist, Marxist and socialist traditions--whose first principles, far from being "shaky," as you blithely state, are solidly rooted in the belief that (to employ one common formulation) the "highest social priority should go to the needs of the least fortunate." Nothing theological about that: It's about the distribution of opportunity and wealth right here on earth.
To Abe Brumberg: I knew Irving Howe only slightly, but through the years I read (and agreed with) his extended, sophisticated critique of Stalinism--which makes me suspect that you're right in saying it would have been out of character for him to warn Ronald Radosh (as Radosh claims) against attacking the Sandinista regime while it was "under attack by the American empire"; but I can't prove it one way or the other.I also accept your corrective that the Sandinistas combined a "Castro model" with that of the Eastern European "people's democracies," though I'd still question how much "democracy" that represented.
We agree that only a small number of those who joined the American CP became spies for Moscow, but I don't share your certainty that among them only a "few...were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice." How can you know that for sure? Where is the evidence to back your claim that "almost all...believed that the Russian CP was always right"? I doubt we'll ever have the documentation needed to prove or disprove such statements, given how many CP members are dead and how inordinately difficult it is to measure and quantify human motivation. In saying this, I acknowledge that my own opinion is also impressionistic--based, that is, on a selective list of readings and interviews that I could never prove are "representative."
And finally, to Ron Radosh: Yes, I've caught some hell from fellow leftists for being "too soft" on you in my review. That didn't bother me overly much until I went, as you directed, to your far lengthier response online. It contains so many startling misstatements about what I believe that I have to wonder, after all, whether I didn't give you too much credit for veracity. I never thought I'd have to set this particular record straight, but here goes: I've never believed, let alone "still" believe, that the Soviet Union was on the "right side of history." Nor do I believe, as you suggest, that "only apologists for Stalinism are true black people." Really, Radosh, that is a bit much!--even for someone who can claim that the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua "was comparatively moderate and merely authoritarian" when compared with the Sandinistas! To prepare me for your kind of "history," I'd better start reading more novels.