I faithfully read the New York Review of Books as a prime source of hilarious writing and self-parody.  Sometimes though, the absurdities reach such a height as to demand comment.

Recently, a Gail Collins rant in NYRB described “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” claiming that the economic power of that state’s educational system forced publishers to kowtow to the allegedly primitive and superstitious standards prevailing in that benighted region.  The article is wholly predictable, but one passage did bring me up short.  Complaining about the far-right mythologies that supposedly permeate the Texas Board of Education, Collins laments that,

If the students were going to study the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, they were also going to contemplate “how the later release of the VENONA papers confirmed suspicions of Communist infiltration in US government.”

From the context, Collins means the board’s statement to be read as self-evidently absurd, and herein lies the problem.  Not only are the Texas standards precisely correct in their demands in this particular matter, but it is incredible that the NYRB would cite this criterion as an ultraright perversion of sober history.  If you do not know about VENONA, you have no right whatever to comment on the anticommunist “witch hunts” and on America’s role in the Cold War.  If you don’t consider VENONA, your view of U.S. history between about 1935 and 1970 is likely to be dominated by exploded mythologies, and an utterly perverse account of Cold War history in which Ethel Rosenberg was crucified for our sins.

Briefly, VENONA was a hugely successful effort by U.S. intelligence agencies, together with British, Canadian, and Australian allies, to decipher the secret communications of their Soviet counterparts from the mid-1940’s onward.  The project netted a vast trove of information that pointed to legions of Soviet spies operating in the West.  In virtually every case, agents were identified only by code names, but these could be penetrated easily enough by incidental information about times, places, and travels—by the fact, say, that Agent X traveled by train from Chicago to Kansas City on a specific date.  Even so, many cables remain unbroken, and hundreds of agents’ names still cannot be convincingly associated with named individuals.  Most presumably died undetected and unpunished.

VENONA went public in 1995, and the project has since been the subject of major books by such scholars as Ronald Radosh, Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes, and Hervey Klehr, and any reputable historian wishing to explore the Cold War turns naturally to these decrypted materials.  The VENONA materials are readily accessible, and no one has ever challenged their authenticity.

Collins’ language reflects the familiar liberal myth of the Cold War, that anticommunist campaigns were witch hunts directed against nonexistent bogeymen, entirely the work of monomaniacal demagogues like Senator McCarthy.  VENONA demonstrates the utter falsity of this picture.  From VENONA, we know that the Soviet Union did mount a massive espionage effort against the West, and particularly against the United States, and that Soviet agencies recruited large numbers of Americans, including some at high levels of government.  We also know that, as anticommunist campaigners alleged at the time, Western Communist parties were wholly owned subsidiaries of Soviet agencies, and that they could not have existed without heavy financial subsidies.  VENONA even confirms a charge once seen as wild right-wing paranoia—namely, that communist parties ran lists of clandestine members, individuals of high importance, whose affiliation was known only to high party officials and to their Soviet controls.  As McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover declared, the CPUSA was a Soviet espionage front.

Based on VENONA, there is no doubt that the Rosenberg ring was quite real, and that dozens of other “atom spies” were operating on American soil.  Alger Hiss assuredly was a Soviet spy in the State Department.  If FDR had died before 1944, his successor would have been Vice President Henry Wallace, who had identified Laurence Duggan as his favored candidate for secretary of state, and Harry Dexter White as his treasury secretary.  Both were Soviet spies.  So was senior OSS officer Maurice Halperin.  So was FDR’s aide Lauchlin Currie, whom the Soviets code-named PAGE.  Is that highly placed enough for you?

If you are teaching students about America’s Cold War, and you do not make full use of VENONA, you are teaching garbage.  If the state’s Board of Education demands that this material be taken into account in any study of that era, then the only appropriate comment is God bless Texas