McCarthyism, Past and Present
In Victor Navasky’s piece “McCarthyism & Trump” [April 24/May 1], the author quotes from a New York Post column by my father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., on July 7, 1950, in which he sympathizes with the proposal that the US government name the Communist Party a “criminal conspiracy,” with its members subject to prosecution as “co-conspirators.” According to Navasky’s own authoritative book, Naming Names, my father was, in fact, musing, as columnists sometimes do, about somebody else’s idea, in this case the notion put forward in a judicial opinion written by an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Robert Jackson.
In his own book The Vital Center, however, my father writes that “the traditions of free society…[restrain it] from outlawing the Communist Party,” and “it is hard to argue that the [Communist Party] in peacetime presents much of a threat to American society.” Further in the same book, he praises the fact that, as regards racial segregation in the United States, “in countless small ways across the country Communists performed commendable individual acts against discrimination.” My father also took other actions at the time, for example openly denouncing the practice by students at Harvard University of barring Communist speakers from the campus. Of course, all this does not change the fact that his views of Communism in general, shared with other members of Americans for Democratic Action like Eleanor Roosevelt, were strongly distrustful. But for all of this, Senator Joseph McCarthy himself in 1952 twice publicly denounced my father as being a Communist because, as he claimed, Schlesinger “would ridicule religion and advise that Communists be allowed to teach in our schools, just as he has.”
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Victor Navasky Replies
I’m pleased to accept Stephen Schlesinger’s view that his father was “musing” rather than advocating. However, my larger point was that during the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War years, too many liberals, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., forgot their liberal humanism when it came to Communists and their so-called “fellow travelers.” For example, in the early 1950s, when The Nation’s Carey McWilliams and other left-liberals signed the call for a civil-liberties conference, Schlesinger wrote that “none of these gentlemen is a Communist, but none object very much to communism,” and further called them “typhoid Marys of the left”—leading McWilliams to say in the New Statesman that “Schlesinger speaks the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent.”
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Subject to Internal Debate
I take Katha Pollitt’s good point [“It’s Not McCarthyism,” May 8/15], but remind her of my main concern: As I wrote, “If Trump and his associates were indeed guilty of collaborating with the Russians by interfering in the American election, then they broke the law and should be held accountable. But in a world threatened by nuclear weapons, ISIS, and climate change, it seems to me more important than ever that we talk to our adversaries (especially Putin) and work toward détente.”
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Katha Pollitt’s most recent column takes issue with certain terms: “McCarthyism,” “Cold War,” “Kremlin-baiting,” “hysteria,” “distraction.” None of these is as problematic as she makes out, and all but the last share a virtue: They are historical signifiers giving access to a usable past. Pollitt’s column is striking in its resistance to the history behind “Russiagate.” No grasp of the past, none of the present.
This may be why Pollitt doesn’t register Russiagate’s genealogy and the realities of power one finds in it. Have we so soon forgotten that the Pentagon and the spooks piled on Trump as soon as he questioned NATO’s purpose and proposed to renovate relations with Russia? It wasn’t obvious that Clintonians saw a twofer when Robby Mook, instantly after the first e-mail leaks, referenced “experts” fingering Russia and purporting to know Russia’s motive?
Pollitt’s piece poses many questions but misses the most important: What do we think of a renewed détente with Russia? James Carden, whom I take to be among those Pollitt writes against, said in a note the other day: “The position we’re taking is at its heart an antiwar position.” What do we think now that this prospect is dead?
“What worthy projects,” Pollitt asks, “does ‘Kremlin-baiting’ attempt to derail?” Parity between West and non-West is the century’s most pressing imperative, and—no flinching—Russia’s on the right side. How about countering our liberal interventionists? Or standing against US-supported Salafist jihadis in the name of secular government? Or simply for international law, which the United States breaches daily? These are what Pollitt’s parents, surely, would know as primary contradictions. The rest is secondary in the order of things.
No, it’s neither hysterical nor irrational to “want…to get to the bottom of…a lot of strange things.” With history at our disposal, irrationality lies in accepting “the intelligence community’s” ever-couched assertions without evidence. Bernays-inspired manipulations will follow, and it’s then we must talk of hysteria.
Pollitt takes me to task for writing that the liberals’ response to Trump’s election is worse than Trump’s election. I see no other conclusion: Too much of what has occurred (or not) since November 8 justifies the sentiments of those who plumped for Trump. Moreover, standing with those who cultivate fever-pitch hostility toward Russia is unacceptable.
Sure, investigate. Of course. But the problem with the way the mainstream of the Democratic Party and its allies on MSNBC are framing the issue is not that it is a distraction. It’s a trap. Short of finding a smoking gun in the form of kompromat or hard evidence that Trump himself—not his son-in-law or other hangers-on—asked Russia to intervene to hand him the election, Trump’s presidency will survive, as Ronald Reagan’s survived the Iran-contra scandal. As the investigations drag on, and on, and on, Trump will shed more of his fringe advisers, just as Reagan shed his Iran-contra consorts. He’ll replace them with “serious” people, and his presidency will become normalized. Worse, those betting the farm on proving that Trump is treasonous are doing so by embracing a catastrophic national-security state and international-warfare regime. At this point, Rachel Maddow should just be appointed supreme allied commander of NATO, given how much air time she spends lauding that institution. Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn are gone, and Katha Pollitt calls that “fighting to win.” Really?
It’s easy enough to see how Trump slips out of this. Already, his bombing of a near-deserted Syrian airstrip earned him acclaim by the leading lights of the liberal resistance. Imagine what will happen when he goes after Iran and/or North Korea. I’m all for anything that handicaps Trump, but those who believe they can bring him down over Putin—and by saber rattling over Russia—are laying the groundwork for Trump 2.0. I hope I’m wrong.
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Katha Pollitt Replies
Victor Navasky, Greg Grandin, and Patrick Lawrence want peace. Well, who doesn’t? I don’t see why that means minimizing the likelihood that Russia put its thumb on the scale for Trump or why it is not important if these efforts were known to, and possibly worked out with, the Trump campaign. To me, that sounds like “Let sleeping dogs lie” (in both senses of the verb). It should be possible to get to the bottom of Russiagate without setting off World War III. The alternative is to ignore whether our election was compromised, even though we are now in the hands of a racist, misogynist bully who lost the popular election and wants to destroy the progressive gains of the last 50 years. The above writers say an investigation is fine with them, but they spend all their energies attacking those who are calling for one and pooh-poohing any smoke that suggests fire.
For some reason, some Nation writers have been in the grip of a belief that Trump, although awful in every other way, was some kind of “peace candidate” (unlike evil Hillary). This was always a highly selective and wishful reading of Trump’s public remarks—“I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody” is not what our magazine usually describes as a call for détente—and showed a strange willingness to trust an ignorant and impulsive con artist.
Still, I can understand the disappointment that those hopes were unfounded. I understand less well the apparent conviction that Trump’s supposed pacific proclivities have been thwarted by Democratic dwelling on Russiagate. Because he has to prove he’s not in Putin’s pocket? This is a pretty speculative and feeble basis upon which to castigate the many people who are disturbed by Russiagate and do not automatically wave away all the claims because they come from intelligence sources and indict a nation that is a familiar folk bogeyman.
If Putin is indeed the smart, sensible grown-up portrayed in much of The Nation’s Russia coverage—waging only defensive war in Ukraine out of justifiable fears of NATO, for example—he should be able to live with whatever slap on the wrist Rachel Maddow metes out.
As for Patrick Lawrence’s conclusion that postelection events justify his confidence in Trump, I can only say it is good to have him on the record in a forthright way. A Nation columnist who supports the most reactionary president in living memory! Now that is definitely something that would have amazed my parents.
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