Diana West should be a familiar name to anyone who has studied the operation of the American Communist movement. Two of her books, America Betrayed: The Secret Assault on our Nation’s Character (2013) and The Red Thread (2019) examine the influence of Communist party members and fellow travelers on American politics and civic culture, and argue that Communist subversion is alive and well in this country. While America Betrayed focuses on subversive Communist activities from the Bolshevik Revolution onward, and most controversially on Communist infiltration of the United States government before and during World War II, The Red Thread carries West’s investigations down to recent leftist efforts to undermine the Trump presidency.
West painstakingly traces the careers of John Brennan, Christopher Steele, Nellie Ohr, and other figures who have tried to overthrow Trump back to their early Communist associations. West became interested in the McCarthy era at least partly by reading M. Stanton Evans’ massive tome Blacklisted by History (2007). This controversial work elicited a vitriolic response from neoconservative historian Ronald Radosh in National Review, which made me eager to read Evans’ book. It also made me aware of the gulf that existed between the post-World War II conservative movement and what had taken its place by the early 21st century.
National Review was founded in 1955 partly in order to defend Senator Joseph McCarthy by one of America’s most fervent McCarthyites, Bill Buckley. But the magazine has drifted leftward in its assessment of McCarthy’s anti-Communism as well as on a host of other positions. Like West, I was blown away by Evans’ research accomplishment. Although one may quibble about some of McCarthy’s accusations and certainly about his bullying manner, Evans shows that the junior senator from Wisconsin usually had good grounds for investigating government officials assumed to have Communist associations.
Radosh, however, assailed Evans and West for misidentifying some accused Communists whose names were revealed from the Venona Project, an American counterespionage effort to decrypt Soviet communications. West came under especially heavy fire for misnaming “Source 19” as known Communist agent Harry Dexter White, when the agent in question was someone else. Most of all, Radosh and other neoconservative critics of Evans and West were upset, as historian Jeff Lipkes rightly points out, that hard-core anti-Communists were again indicting FDR’s administration for not taking the necessary steps to deal with Soviet subversion. These critics further noticed that the longtime progressive icon’s successor, Harry Truman, only reluctantly addressed the danger of Soviet infiltration under pressure from the right.
Lipkes is also correct that Radosh and other neoconservative critics of West and Evans were driven by a misplaced affection for FDR. They therefore defended or glossed over grave mistakes in his wartime policies, such as his call for the unconditional surrender of Germany, concealment of Soviet mass executions, and unwillingness to aid the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during the War. All these policies were supported by Communists in the government and clearly aided Stalin, who intended to move Soviet borders westward.
This criticism seems valid, even if the mistakes in question were not directly attributable, as West asserts, to Communist agents. The establishment conservative newspaper baron Conrad Black, who has published a laudatory biography of FDR, has also rallied to his hero’s defense against West’s indictment. Moreover, the two scholars who have written the most extensively about the Venona Papers, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, have joined the attack. Both researchers identify strongly with the politics of Truman; and it is hard to imagine that either of these historians would give much help to the pro-McCarthy side in this debate.
The problem, however, as West has pointed out, is that once you have shown the extent of Communist infiltration, it is hard to abstain from judging those under whom it occurred. One may deplore some of McCarthy’s tactics, but even a cursory look at the Venona Papers makes one wonder how and why so many Soviet agents got into high places in government when they did. Black and Radosh make it sound as if FDR never had a choice but to do what he did vis-à-vis Stalin in order to defeat Hitler.
During the War, FDR spoke out against Stalin’s deceit and aggressiveness in mostly veiled language, and his only explicit censure came in a “private” conversation to an official in the Office of Defense, Anna Rosenberg. Here, as West observes, we see FDR avoiding any sign of disrespect toward someone who murdered millions of victims, and who had been allied to Nazi Germany up until Hitler decided to invade Russia. In fairness, it should be said that some of the Republican politicians who went ballistic about Communist infiltration under the Democrats had been no more vocal than the Democrats on this subject. After the War, however, the Red danger became a useful partisan football. Perhaps even more relevant than her examination of Communist infiltration at an earlier point in our history are West’s devastating revelations about the Communist backgrounds of some anti-Trump celebrities. West has labored vigorously to prove that many key anti-Trump actors in government and the media identified themselves at one time with Communism, including Ohr, Comey, and Brennan.
My own interpretation of the expressions of Communist sympathy among some of the subjects of The Red Thread is admittedly different from West’s. I don’t think her subjects ever had much interest in Marx’s economic theory or his historical materialism. At most we find out that, for example, Ohr took a very indulgent view of Stalin’s mass murders because of the Soviet dictator’s putative efforts to create a more egalitarian society.
What West is presenting are (to use the phrase of the late Paul Hollander) “political pilgrims,” who were looking for an alternative to a society they despised. They scorned all Trump’s “Deplorables” who dared to exist without their permission. They wanted a world in which technocratic experts like themselves would be able to apply “scientific” methods to social problems. It would also be a world in which “prejudice” and “discrimination,” that is, the characteristic attitudes of those whom the political pilgrims looked down at, would be banned. This snobbish elitism combined with appeals to social guilt belong to what I call the post-Marxist left, and it can be easily recognized in the U.S. Intelligence Community personalities whom West investigates. Communism for them is not the blueprint for an American, French, or German future, but the beginning of a social experiment in a new form.
National identities will have to go as this experiment proceeds, because like the Communists, their latter-day sympathizers are proudly internationalist. Strobe Talbott, former president of Brookings Institution and close friend of the Clintons, published a telling feature essay in Time in 1992, entitled “The Birth of the Global Nation.” According to Talbott, “nationhood as we know it will be obsolete: all states will recognize a single, global authority.” Presumably it will be Talbott and his buds who will rule this global empire.
This is not being stated as an exoneration of the people whom West goes after. They may represent for us a far more dangerous left than authentic Communists ever did. The post-Marxist left has corrupted our political culture and educational system, as well as public administration and the “Deep State.” Today’s left doesn’t have to infiltrate; it’s all around us.
What West shows is the extent to which Communist loyalties and sympathies were the forms taken by this left in an earlier period. Admiration for Communist dictatorships was always part of this leftist package. When President Obama went to Communist Cuba and spent days doting on Raúl Castro, that was something one might have expected from a politician with his connections to American Communists. Although Obama went on to trendier causes, like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, his heart has remained with his Communist mentors.
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