Cold War Ghosts

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.

Revisionist historians have proposed substituting the term Trumanism for McCarthyism because, they argue, Harry Truman accelerated the domestic witch hunt when he signed Executive Order 9835 in March 1947, which established a loyalty-security program for all federal employees and revived the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. More recently, the historian Ellen Schrecker proposed that it be called Hooverism, after FBI Director J. Edgar, who presided behind the scenes over the anti-Communist crusade. The claims of the new cadre–those we may call the counterrevisionists–matter because, in the first place, until we come to terms with our cold war past we seem condemned to persist in its outmoded assumptions and thought patterns; and in the second, those whom one writer has dubbed “the new McCarthyites” (see below) would use the past to discredit the left-liberal project today. Thus the debate about the domestic cold war–including what to call the repression that was part of it–tells us that while the cold war may be over, its ghosts linger on. And they continue to haunt.

The reconsideration of Senator McCarthy may be said to have been jump-started in 1995, with the unveiling and release by the intelligence community of the Venona Project, nearly 3,000 decryptions of early 1940s cables between Soviet operatives working in New York, San Francisco and Washington, and their masters in Moscow. It has proceeded episodically in reviews and essays, books, documents retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act and from other archives, memoirs and even a novel, The Redhunter, by that old private-sector red hunter himself, William F. Buckley Jr. Much of that output has been made possible courtesy of right-wing foundation funding, although it’s not merely a matter of the right: My friend the iconoclastic Nicholas von Hoffman, anything but a right-winger, has written in the Washington Post, “point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him”; and “McCarthy may have exaggerated…but not by much.” To me, “twenty years of treason”–McCarthy’s famous charge against the Democrats–is “much,” but oh, well.

It surfaced most blatantly with the publication of a new biography, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator, by Arthur Herman, the coordinator of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, which argues, as the New York Times‘s reviewer, historian Alonzo Hamby, accurately summarized, that McCarthy “was an unfairly maligned patriot who ultimately became a victim of the immense conspiracy he was attempting to expose.”

In March of 1999 Joshua Micah Marshall had complicated the matter. Writing in the liberal biweekly The American Prospect, he identified a cadre of middle-aged historians–among them Radosh, Harvey Klehr, John Haynes and the formerly radical journalist David Horowitz–as practitioners of what he called “the New McCarthyism,” which he said “seeks to paint liberalism in general as a philosophy that is careless of the national interest, prone to being hoodwinked by malevolent forces, and even capable of sinister acts of betrayal.” Moreover, “the New McCarthyism seeks not only to discredit Cold War liberalism by revising history, but also to attack liberal internationalism in foreign policy today by using the tactics pioneered by the red-baiters of a half century ago.”

The New York Times Magazine lumbered into the fray some months later, in November, with an article titled “Cold War Without End” by Jacob Weisberg, although it dealt less with the substance of the issue than the psychology of those “obsessed” with these particular culture wars of yesteryear. Weisberg also observes in his Times magaziner that Herman’s book echoes McCarthy and His Enemies, a forty-five-year-old apologia by Buckley, then a fiery young right-winger, and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell. Buckley puts forth a more warty take on the Senator in his fiction, which he calls “a documentary novel.” Weisberg quotes Harry Bontecou, the character who stands in for Buckley, as saying, “It was one of Joe McCarthy’s ironic legacies that it became almost impossible in future years to say that anyone was a Communist because you’d be hauled up for committing McCarthyism.” Weisberg goes on to argue that “what unites Herman and Buckley is the belief that ‘McCarthyism’ is a millstone that shouldn’t hang around the neck of the American right any longer.”

But Weisberg’s most original thought is that the deeper one delves into such battles, the greater the feeling that

these are not primarily arguments about historical fact at all. Espionage charges, initiated by subterranean and frequently unreliable sources, are a way of arguing about the past as if it were still present, a continuation of ideological politics by other means among people who are, charitably put, obsessive. Listening in, you get the sense that these arguments are less a posthumous sorting out of the cold war than a sublimated continuation of it.

The New Republic was nevertheless right about one thing: Most of the historians and journalists cited above–including, by the way, Weisberg and Marshall–share in the “consensus” that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, defendants in the two most famous cold war cases, and scores if not hundreds of others, were Russian spies. Further, they believe that, as Radosh, Klehr and Haynes collectively put it in The New Republic, “the CPUSA was not just another American political party…. Its Soviet ties defined its very raison d’être.” It was, in other words, primarily an instrument of the international Communist conspiracy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rehabilitation. The same cadre of historians and journalists who share the consensus and would seem to be endorsing the von Hoffman proposition that McCarthy was, after all, more right than wrong, still want to distance themselves from McCarthy himself. David Horowitz, for example, took to cyberspace to make clear that neither he nor any of those dubbed New McCarthyites by Marshall deserved the label. Each of those denominated, he complained in a column he writes for Salon,

is on record as a sharp critic of McCarthy and McCarthyism, specifically his demagoguery and recklessness with the facts, his contempt for legal process and his unscrupulous attacks on innocent or half-guilty individuals. Each member of the group, me included, has also been careful in his writings to credit anti-Communist leftists with their actual achievements in the battles against domestic totalitarians and not to confuse them with the pro-Communist factions of the “progressive” cause.

And so they have. Radosh, Haynes and Klehr, for example, wrote in 1998 that “if Americans are ever going to understand their history, it is essential that McCarthyism and anti-Communism be disentangled.”

At a conference on “McCarthyism in America” held on February 9, 2000, sponsored by the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, the Yale University Press and the National Archives and Records Administration, although scores of historians and journalists were present, including many of those mentioned above (but not Herman), not a single one was willing to endorse Herman’s thesis, his attempt, in a book “frankly admiring of his subject,” as Sam Tanenhaus wrote in The New York Review of Books, “to vindicate McCarthy’s claim to being the leader of a serious responsible movement.” Tanenhaus, by the way, is the author of a frankly admiring biography of Whittaker Chambers.

During the darkest days of America’s domestic cold war, many liberals (and others as well) would say of McCarthy, We approve of his (anti-Communist) goals but we detest his methods. What is new about the counterrevisionists is that they would disown the man and his methods but would retain his main contention: that the United States was seriously threatened by an internal red menace. To paraphrase another icon of the period, Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not arguing the merits here. Of course the Russians spied on us, even as we spied on them. And I believe there is much to be learned from Venona and other archives in the way of hypotheses about who stole what from whom in the great game of cold war espionage.

So, let us assume for the purposes of argument that any or all of the above are on to something. I include: Jacob Weisberg’s dismissal of the combatants as better explained by Freud than Marx; David Horowitz and Radosh-Klehr-Haynes’s call for disentangling McCarthyism from anti-Communism; Sam Tanenhaus’s evisceration of Arthur Herman for attempting to refurbish McCarthy’s image; and even Joshua Micah Marshall’s mugging of most of the above as New McCarthyites. What is significant is that much as they may disagree with one another, they have three things in common: (1) They all make absolutist pronouncements about cold war matters that at best are still ambiguous–particularly with regard to the symbolically loaded Hiss case; (2) they all ignore or downplay evidence that contradicts what they increasingly prefer to call the “consensus”; and (3) they all treat those who challenge the so-called consensus with condescension. This is not the place to sift through the voluminous and complicated evidence–new and old–on the great cold war spy cases. It is, however, appropriate to note the fragmentary, incomplete, half-blacked-out, unsourced, out-of-context and ambiguous basis on which some of the more dogmatic claims have been made, and the ways in which inconvenient and contradictory evidence has been ignored.

Take, for example, the Hiss case, which post-cold war historians cite as Exhibit A when they argue that in effect McCarthy & Co. were right all along. Technically, the case had to do with whether Whittaker Chambers was lying when he called Hiss a Communist and produced microfilm of State Department papers that Hiss had allegedly passed to the Soviet Union through him. But the Hiss case is symbolically important, because as his accuser Chambers wrote in his bestselling 1950 memoir, Witness, “Alger Hiss is only one case that stands for the whole Communist penetration of government.” Of what does the new evidence consist? There is, first and foremost, the single Venona cable (out of 2,900) said to implicate Hiss. As Time wrote, “the Venona message seems to remove reasonable doubt about Alger Hiss’s guilt.”

I have in front of me Venona document No.1822, dated March 30, 1945. The message refers to an agent code-named “ALES,” and in a footnote dated August 8, 1969, ALES is identified as “probably Alger Hiss.” On its face, this looks incriminatory, although as I and others have noted, we are told neither who wrote the footnote nor on what basis the anonymous footnote writer made this judgment. Perhaps, in the twenty-four-year interim, some new evidence had come to light. Perhaps it was simply guesswork based on the similarity of the initials ALES and the letters in Alger’s name. Or perhaps the fact that Hiss had served time did the trick, and the footnote was mere speculation by an agent out to make points with his famously and obsessively anti-Communist boss, J. Edgar Hoover. We have no way of knowing. In another Venona cable, however, this one a fragment that is otherwise incoherent, Hiss is mentioned by his own name. Yet, in the world of Venona, spies are supposed to be referred to only by their code names. Typically, Time, along with a battalion of columnists like George Will and Robert Novak and other media heavies who make no claim to having done their own independent research, neglects to mention this possibly exculpatory fact, concentrating instead on the possibly incriminating one.

The omission of inconveniently exculpatory material seems something of a pattern. Thus Allen Weinstein, the new factotum of the Hiss-was-guilty school, omitted from the new edition of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, his book about the Hiss case, the fact that a half-dozen key sources denied his claims in the first edition of Perjury that they had confirmed Chambers’s version of what happened. (He did briefly mention the one who sued and won a settlement and an apology.) Weinstein and his former-KGB co-author, Alexander Vassiliev, refer to but do not reproduce in their methodologically challenged book about Soviet espionage in America, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era, a message that says ALES was one of four members of the US delegation at the Yalta conference “who returned to the US via Moscow.” Because Alger Hiss returned via Moscow on a plane with three others, none of them spy material, on its face this seems an incriminating fact. But The Haunted Wood neglects to mention that there were 110 Americans in attendance at Yalta and surely more than four of them stopped in Moscow on their way home. In 1993 a Hungarian historian claimed to have discovered an incriminatory “bombshell” in the files of Hungary’s Interior Ministry. Typically, Sam Tanenhaus, who relies on Weinstein’s research but like Weinstein neglects to mention the half-dozen critical sources who deny his account, printed all the incriminatory material from the Hungarian archives in his Chambers biography but omitted half of the exculpatory material, relegating the other half to a footnote. Along with most members of the “consensus,” he quotes historian Maria Schmidt, one of two Hungarian scholars granted access to Noel Field’s 2,500-page dossier (Field was imprisoned as a CIA spy in Hungary during the cold war), who read the file as implicating Hiss in spying; he doesn’t mention that Ethan Klingsberg, an attorney and former executive director of the Soros Foundation’s Institute for Constitutional and Legislative Policy, who saw the identical material, contends that at best the files are inconclusive. Similarly, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr in their book (Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America) quote former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who said in a memoir that Hiss was a spy; but (as attorney, filmmaker and Hiss defender John Lowenthal has noted) they fail to quote another KGB officer, Gen. Vladimir Pavlov, who says in his memoir that Hiss was not a spy. And so forth.

When Gen. Dimitri Volkogonov, Boris Yeltsin’s military adviser and overseer of all the Soviet intelligence archives, ordered a search of all Soviet intelligence files in response to a 1992 request from Hiss, he reached the conclusion that Hiss was never an intelligence agent for the USSR. Yet the counterrevisionists either ignored his finding or dismissed it as underresearched. This despite the fact that among others, he had enlisted in his search Yevgeny Primakov, then-director of the Foreign Intelligence Services and subsequently prime minister. When Volkogonov later agreed with a persistent reporter that perhaps he should have qualified his declaration of Hiss’s innocence because it’s impossible to prove a negative, the counterrevisionists proclaimed that Volkogonov had “recanted.”

What is more noteworthy than their failure to consider inconvenient evidence is the counterrevisionists’ condescension toward those who present it. Listen to Weisberg’s voice in The New York Times Magazine, that beacon of objectivity, praising Tanenhaus for not bothering to deal with contradictory evidence: “Rather than obsess about those who fail to accept the obvious conclusion that Hiss was guilty, Tanenhaus ignores them. Instead, he concentrates on bringing to life a historical and human drama.”

Only one more example, I promise. Weinstein asks how “to account for [KGB defector] Oleg Gordievsky’s identification in 1988, over a half-decade before the decoded Venona cable was made public, of Hiss’s Soviet alias as ‘ALES’?” The answer to this rhetorical question may be at hand. As Eric Alterman pointed out in The Nation [April 29, 1996], Gordievsky’s cited source was a New York Review of Books essay by Tom Powers, whose source was a counterintelligence agent who had seen the same Venona cable. So, perhaps Weinstein has the goods or perhaps he is using Venona to confirm Venona. We don’t know which because even though Alterman’s essay was out in time for Weinstein to include, and perhaps even try to refute, in the new edition of Perjury, he forgot to mention it. Help!

On the surface, the new Venona evidence appears to document that Julius Rosenberg, while no atom spy, may indeed have been involved in low-level espionage (in which Ethel was probably too ill to participate, had she been so inclined). Check it out! But Venona won’t resolve, and shouldn’t be expected to resolve, core questions, not to mention existential ones, such as, What was the essence of the Communist Party USA? Yes, as the counterrevisionist scholars argue, Venona half-documents that some CP leaders knew about and may have been middlemen for the receipt of secrets, and perhaps they even recruited some spies. But missing from Venona is the experience of 99.9 percent of the million comrades who passed through the CPUSA during the 1930s and early ’40s–stay-at-homes who contented themselves with reading (and sometimes shouting at) the Daily Worker, demonstrators who sang along with Peter Seeger and social activists who organized trade unions and rent strikes in the North and fought lynching and the poll tax in the South.

In Appendix A to their book on Venona, Haynes and Klehr list 349 names (and code names) of people who they say “had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence that is confirmed in the Venona traffic.” They do not qualify the list, which includes everyone from Alger Hiss to Harry Magdoff, the former New Deal economist and Marxist editor of Monthly Review, and Walter Bernstein, the lefty screenwriter who reported on Tito for Yank magazine. It occurs to Haynes and Klehr to reprint ambiguous Venona material related to Magdoff and Bernstein but not to call up either of them (or any other living person on their list) to get their version of what did or didn’t happen.

The reader is left with the implication–unfair and unproven–that every name on the list was involved in espionage, and as a result, otherwise careful historians and mainstream journalists now routinely refer to Venona as proof that many hundreds of Americans were part of the red spy network.

My own view is that thus far Venona has been used as much to distort as to expand our understanding of the cold war–not just because some researchers have misinterpreted these files but also because in the absence of hard supporting evidence, partially decrypted files in this world of espionage, where deception is the rule, are by definition potential time bombs of misinformation.

Although I don’t underestimate the value code-breaking can play in wartime, I tend to agree with I.F. Stone, who told an interviewer in 1984 that

secrets play a very small part in human history. You don’t come to understand what’s happening by peeping through keyholes…. In writing history or journalism you get to understand by looking at the fundamental struggles, the interests, the classes, the ideas that become facts and you try to make sense of all that.
      The virtue of a free society is that it doesn’t have to depend on spies and secret police…. These people are all paranoid, trained to look for plots, but history is not made of conspiracies, history is made by fundamental forces.

“Espionage” is one of those words that is often out of context when applied to what went on in US left circles in the years leading up to and including World War II. There were a lot of exchanges of information among people of good will, many of whom were Marxists, some of whom were Communists, some of whom were critical of US government policy and most of whom were patriots. Most of these exchanges were innocent and were within the law. Some were innocent but nevertheless were in technical violation of the law. And there undoubtedly were bona fide espionage agents–on both sides. Even as in the 1980s, when our State Department was in high dudgeon over Soviet attempts to bug our embassy in Moscow at the very moment, we now learn, that the United States was building a tunnel to try to eavesdrop on their embassy in Washington. So it goes. For me, the political scientist Michael Rogin captured the essence of the McCarthy era when he wrote of the notion that “some kind of alien external force had entered the body politic and threatensto destroy it from within.” During the 1940s and ’50s the alien force was Communism, and the countersubversive tradition expressed itself by demonizing the American Communist Party (and by extension fellow travelers and pinkos and eventually liberals), making Communism an evil caricature of itself. The most frightening image of the cold war culture was the atom spy, linking the atomic bomb (which stood for ultimate destruction) and spy (which stood for ultimate betrayal). The fact is that whatever espionage went on–even if it were to turnout that Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Harry Dexter White et al. were all guilty as charged–there was no serious internal Red Menace. Communists undoubtedly used undemocratic methods to “infiltrate,” “penetrate” and otherwise influence politics, the trade union movement and the culture; but they never really jeopardized the country’s security.

McCarthyism was but a particularly virulent and nasty example of the countersubversive theme that has been the dark side of the American tradition since the beginning of the Republic–a force that has usually done more damage to our values than the subversion it was mounted to oppose. After the Revolutionary War we had the Alien and Sedition Acts. Before, during and after World War I we had the prosecution of 10,000 people under the Espionage Act, we had the Palmer Raids, and after World War II we had the great red scare, whose legacy is still with us.

Now that the cold war is no more, one would think the old images would lose their power. But no. The same mix of resentment (by Republicans, who had lost five consecutive presidential elections from 1932 to 1948) and triumphalism (by the world’s one and only nuclear power) that informed and fueled America’s domestic cold war may be at work again today: Republican resentment against their exclusion from power during the Clinton years and American exaltation over the meltdown of the former Soviet Union. Back in the 1940s, as Jessica Wang pointed out at the Eisenhower Center Conference, “the widespread presumption of the Atomic bomb as the cornerstone of American national security and the concomitant fear that Soviet-sponsored atomic espionage posed the gravest possible threat to the safety of the US lent an added sense of urgency to the anti-Communist quest for absolute security against the enemy within.” This mentality of the vital secret and a misplaced faith in official secrecy as the best way to ward off the dangers of nuclear proliferation has apparently survived into the present day.

In the 1940s atomic espionage was real. Klaus Fuchs, who served nine years in prison in Britain, and probably Ted Hall, who left Los Alamos for Britain, passed on classified nuclear information to the USSR. What was unreal was the myth of the “vital secret” and the companion hysterical belief that the United States was threatened by an internal red menace. Way back in 1945 three of our leading scientists wrote in Life, “The fact is that a fundamental secret of the atomic bomb simply does not exist.” The belief that if we could stop or prevent atomic espionage somehow America’s security would be guaranteed simply had no basis in fact. Yet a half-century later, our inability to distinguish between real and imagined threats remains, and the image of “the vital secret” continues to exert its weird influence. There is no better illustration of the continuing hold that cold war modes of thinking exert over the American political culture in the nuclear realm than the fiasco surrounding the incarceration, amid wild spying changes, of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born US citizen singled out for vilification because of his ethnic background.

Even as Republican angst fueled the frantic Congressional inquisitions of the McCarthy era, the Wen Ho Lee case had its origins in a Republican-sponsored Congressional committee whose real purpose was to search for political evidence to impeach the by-then demonized President Clinton. The whole episode was eerily reminiscent of the 1940s and ’50s, when, to deflect Republican critics, Harry Truman signed on to their red hunt. The Clinton Administration, recovered from impeachment and mired in a campaign finance scandal (including the charge that Beijing had secretly funneled money to the Democrats), worried that the China issue could be used effectively against Al Gore in the election. Like the Truman Administration a half-century earlier, the Clinton Administration went along. “[It] wanted to prove to its critics that it was tough on Chinese spying, whether or not that spying existed and whether or not it had anything to do with Wen Ho Lee,” as Robert Scheer put it in The Nation [October 23, 2000].

Eventually, when the government’s case against Lee crumbled, it agreed to dismiss fifty-eight of the fifty-nine counts that had been lodged against him, but only after the spy hysteria whipped up by the Cox Committee and the press had taken a terrible toll on the life of the scientist and, as Scheer reported, “cast suspicion over the entire community of Asian-American scientists, many of whom are now boycotting employment in the nuclear weapons labs.” The furor has reflected more than Clinton-era factionalism. It also reminds us that the cold war mentality has not gone the way of the cold war.

Historians of American nativism have long contended that the nativist impulse connects the radical, the foreign or alien, and the immoral, linking them all as the Enemy Other. During the McCarthy era, as Arnold Forester, the general counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, once observed, “There was an evident quota of anti-Semitism in the McCarthy wave of hysteria. Jews in that period were automatically suspect. Our evaluation of the general mood was that the people felt if you scratch a Jew, you can find a Communist.” Fifty years later, where national security is concerned, the Jews seem to have given way to the Chinese. In the policy arena, the reinvigoration of NATO, the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the decision of the Bush Administration to cancel talks with North Korea and the intent of the Administration to go forward with its Strategic Defense Initiative are all of a piece, as China (along with other nonwhite countries) begins to replace Russia in America’s post-cold war demonology.

There is something in the national mood that is a stark reminder of the ugly underside of the McCarthy era. The hysteria over Wen Ho Lee; the expulsion of fifty Russians as possible spies after the discovery that one FBI man had been spying for the Russians; the malicious, inappropriate and disproportionately impassioned Republican attempt to impeach the President for sex-related lying; the blatant disregard for due process, legal precedent and constitutional doctrine by a partisan Supreme Court bent on installing a Republican President; even the incessant harping on and front-page recycling of charges–in the absence of proof–that Clinton staffers committed large-scale acts of vandalism before departing the White House; and the idea that his ill-advised pardon of Marc Rich might justify the removal of the pardon power from the Constitution, are reminiscent of nothing so much as the bullying and power plays of that bygone era when the country temporarily lost its moorings.

None of this is to deny that there are real-world problems out there, that like all countries in the intelligence game we are targets for friend and foe alike. Vide, Richard Hanssen, the FBI agent who still denies that he sold secrets to the Soviets and their Russian successors, while his lawyers bargain for his life; vide, Jonathan Pollard, now serving a life sentence for his espionage efforts on behalf of our ally, Israel; and vide, the brouhaha and continuing diplomatic disaster-potential of our surveillance flights near (or is it over?) China’s borders.

But once again the security dangers proclaimed by the middle, near and far right seem based more on paranoia than reality. It would thus be a mistake to regard the rumblings from the right as solely a partisan matter, just as it would be a mistake to regard the fulminations of the counterrevisionists as solely an academic matter. Party politics and academic politics are both beholden to and work their influence on the surrounding political culture, just as they did in the overheated days of the domestic cold war. Together they send a troubling signal. The cold war is over, but it was never buried. The ghosts of the cold war–its culture and apparatus–live on, perhaps with consequences as troubling as the irrational forces that possess us.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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