“The tone and tendency of liberalism . . . is to attack the institutions of the country under the name of reform and to make war on the manners and customs of the people under the pretext of progress.”—Benjamin Disraeli, “Speech in London”
The collapse of the Soviet Union not only ended the Cold War but initiated a revolution in American historiography, if not in American politics and culture. The historiographical revolution consists of the increasing documentation and verification of many of the claims made in the 1940’s and 50’s by the most outspoken American anticommunists—Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, the investigators of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, to name only a few—that the U.S. government and other major American institutions had been deeply penetrated by communists and Soviet agents and that this penetration shaped American foreign policy significantly in the interests of communism in Russia, Europe, and Asia. Today, there is no doubt that these claims were true, though those who advanced them were vilified and often ruined during their lifetimes for making them and have been damned as liars, frauds, or psychotics ever since.
The political and cultural revolution that may follow the historiographical one ought to consist of the discrediting of those political figures and cultural leaders who mounted the crusade of vilification and damnation, who sneeringly ignored anticommunist warnings and evidence, scorned those who voiced them, and consistently denied that internal communist activities posed any danger to national security. Since those who led the crusade were and are part of the dominant elites that have acquired power in the United States since the New Deal-Depression-World War II era, the discrediting of their anti-anticommunism ought to go far toward discrediting their claims to national leadership in general. Their stupidity, greed for power, ideological blindness, partisan obsessions, social snobbery, smug self-delusion, and sheer indifference enabled traitors in government to flourish and to help push Eastern Europe and China into communism, deliver nuclear weapons to Stalinist Russia, and allow the Cold War itself to take place. Enough of the grotesque truth about their blunders has already emerged to destroy forever their reputations as competent political actors, let alone as the heroes and geniuses they are purported to be, and to remove their political and cultural heirs from any access to power in the future.
We know the truth—at least part of it—about the reality of communist treason in the United States through two main sources (disregarding what the anticommunists tried to tell us 40 years ago). In the first place, the fall of the Soviet Union led to the partial opening of the archives of the KGB, the Soviet secret police and foreign intelligence service; much of what we know about Soviet espionage and those who collaborated with it comes from its files. Secondly, after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government began releasing the details of what it had learned from Soviet secret communications. These materials, known by their American code name of “Venona,” also reveal much of what the Soviets and their American collaborators were doing on a clandestine and illegal level throughout the Cold War, from the 1940’s onward.
But the book by British historian Christopher Andrew and his Russian coauthor Vasili Mitrokhin is based on yet a third source, unauthorized by the Soviets and unknown to American intelligence. Mr. Mitrokhin, who worked for the KGB as an archivist until his retirement in 1984, for 12 years without the knowledge of his supervisors squirreled away six cases of secret documents dating back to the Russian Revolution in 1918. The Sword and the Shield is based on those documents, or at least on part of them. Yet even with their disclosure, a vast amount of information remains hidden. As revolutionary as the implications of the available documents are, future revelations may turn out to be even more so.
The burden of the Andrew-Mitrokhin book is to substantiate many of the most nightmarish theories of the anticommunist right during the Cold War. It is now proved that the U.S. Communist Party was financially controlled by the Soviets, who routinely used it for espionage purposes; that the Soviet Union and its leadership were motivated by communist ideology (as well as other fixations); and that the Soviets regarded the United States as their “main enemy” (though Mr. Andrew, a man of leftish sentiments, insists on using the phrase “main adversary”). “The NKVD succeeded none the less in penetrating all the most sensitive sections of the Roosevelt administration,” he writes. By April 1941, agents in the NKVD network in the United States numbered 221; Professor Herman, in his biography of Joe McCarthy, reports an estimate of 350 secret Soviet agents working in this country at the end of World War II. Among the major Soviet spies confirmed in the Andrew-Mitrokhin book are (in addition to the Rosenberg spy ring and those who penetrated Los Alamos) Lauchlin Currie, a top administrative assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt who had a particular influence on Asia policy and helped push China into communism; Treasury official Harry Dexter White, who dropped dead of a heart attack shortly after being named by Chambers; Duncan Chaplin Lee, personal assistant to William O. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services; and Laurence Duggan, head of the Latin American division at the State Department.
Henry Wallace, vice-president during Roosevelt’s third term (1941 to 45), said later that if the ailing Roosevelt had died during that period and he had become president, it had been his intention to make Duggan his Secretary of State and White his Secretary of the Treasury.
Hiss, too, would have stood an excellent chance of becoming secretary of state had he not been exposed.
Andrew is more than charitable to yet another major Roosevelt advisor who was almost certainly a conscious Soviet agent—Harry Hopkins. Andrew claims that Hopkins was “an American patriot with little sympathy for the Soviet system,” but he also acknowledges that the secrets Hopkins gave to the Soviets, including the chief of their illegal network, Iskhak Akhmerox, were so impressive that “some KCB officers boasted that he had been a Soviet agent.” In fact, Akhmerov later boasted that Hopkins was by far the most important spy the KCB controlled during World War II.
Much of this information was known before, at least to those who had tire ears and brains to pay attention; the Mitrokhin documents merely confirm it once and for all. But they also confirm the reality of Soviet support for terrorism in the 1970’s and 80’s (despite the snortings of Western liberals that conservatives who pointed to it were merely mouthing Reaganite propaganda) as well as tire success of Soviet disinformation in repeatedly befuddling the liberal mind. Among the lies that Soviet propaganda injected into the Western media and the heads of those dim enough to believe them was that J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual; that the American right wing and the CIA were behind the assassination of President Kennedy (the KCB forged a note that Lee Harvey Oswald had supposedly written to right-wing oil magnate H.L. Hunt; the New York Times later claimed the note had been authenticated by three handwriting experts, and it regularly pops up in Kennedy assassination conspiracy books), and that AIDS was an invention of the CIA.
Andrew also discusses how the Soviets became disenchanted with Martin Luther King, Jr., and disseminated disinformation about him to African and American Negro news media, though he seems to underestimate the amount of influence that domestic communists exerted on King. Andrew is aware of the role communist Stanley Levison played in advising and writing for King, but discounts Communist Party claims that its agents would be able to direct King’s policies. He also discounts Cus Hall’s claims to Moscow that Andrew Young “himself did not know that several of his close friends in Atlanta were covert Communists, and he listened to them” while Young was ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter. (Hall reported as well that Young’s view of the Soviet Union was basically “negative.”) As for King, the Soviets came to seek his replacement by more militant leaders such as Stokeley Carmichael and then disseminated disinformation that King had been murdered by the U.S. government in collusion with “white racists.”
Andrew has little to tell about the so-called “McCarthy period,” except to claim at least twice that, at the time when McCarthy was talking about the influence of communists in government, “Soviet penetration of the American government was at its lowest ebb for almost thirty years” and that “McCarthy ultimately did more for the Soviet cause than any agent of influence the KCB ever had.” The latter statement, if not also the former, is especially preposterous in light of Prof. Arthur Herman’s brilliant and readable reinterpretation of the Wisconsin senator’s career and achievement.
Whereas the Andrew-Mitrokhin book, for all its devastating documentation of treason in the United States, Great Britain, and other Western governments, is ponderously written and almost pedantically detailed, Mr. Herman’s biography is neither. Less of an authoritative, archivally based study than, as its subtitle tells us, a “reexamination” of McCarthy, it does not replace the heavier academic lifting of Thomas Reeves’ 1982 biography. But the main difference between the two books is that, while Reeves finds the existence of a communist underground almost unbelievable and certainly unimportant, Mr. Herman is well versed in its history and activities. Taking advantage of recent scholarship on Soviet-communist espionage activities disclosed by Soviet archives and the Venona transcripts, Mr. Herman leaves little doubt that McCarthy was substantially correct in most of his claims about the damage done by either communist infiltration or fellow travelers, naive or not. “No hard evidence exists,” he writes,
linking any of the China hands to actual Soviet espionage efforts: their White House liaison Lauchlin Currie and intellectual mentor Owen Lattimore are a different matter. But they were sold a bill of goods on the Maoist cause a little too easily . . . And they spread a profoundly distorted view of what a Communist victory might mean.
He also acknowledges that McCarthy’s frequent lack of caution and his willingness to exaggerate, bluster, and bluff invited hatred and fear of him, exposed him to his enemies, and left him vulnerable to the counterattacks that eventually destroyed him and his reputation. Professor Herman conceals nothing of the less attractive side of Joe McCarthy, but his book often tends to become almost a polemic in showing how McCarthy’s own foes at the time, and liberals both then and since, have engaged in the same or even worse practices. The result of Professor Herman’s approach to McCarthy is a radical reassessment of the figure whom he calls “the single most despised man in American political memory.
What is perhaps most significant about Professor Herman’s reinterpretation, and by extension about all the recent books that substantiate the anticommunist case, is not so much what they toll us about the Soviet Union, communism in general, or even American communists in particular, as what they confirm about liberalism. Joe McCarthy was not hated by American liberals because he exposed communists or even because he launched what they thought (or claimed to think) were false accusations of communism. He was hated precisely because he attacked liberalism itself saw through it, and made its fraudulence clear to more Americans than ever before. He exposed liberalism not only by revealing liberals’ willingness to ignore or minimize communist infiltration, to side with the targets of anticommunist accusations rather than with the anticommunists themselves, to protect those targets even when they knew they were guilty (as Harry Truman knew that both Hiss and White were guilty), and to deny or even glamorize the brutalities of communist government and foreign policies, but by showing in a highly rhetorical and metaphorical way that, in Professor Herman’s words, American liberals “were infected with the same materialistic, secularist virus” as communists: “hence the strange affinity between the Communist and the New Dealer; between the progressive and the totalitarian visions of the maximalist state.” McCarthy, in other words, was suggesting that the “affinity” between liberalism and communism was not just an accident, owing to personalities and circumstances. It was inherent in the worldview that both ideologies shared.
What McCarthy was telling the American people in the early 1950’s, and what the American people were beginning to listen to, was that the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and “Alger (I mean Adlai)” Stevenson was really not so very far from the communism of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tsetung; that their philosophical proximity was the real reason liberals found it so hard to tell the difference between themselves and communists like Hiss, White, and the rest of the gang and why they found it so hard to explain why the difference was important. Hubert Humphrey came close to grasping and disclosing this secret when he said that “McCarthy’s real threat to American democracy [is] the fact that he has immobilized the liberal movement.” Liberals “just don’t talk about anything else any more.”
But McCarthy immobilized liberalism in a deeper sense than merely preoccupying its energies, in the same WAY that conservatives’ obsession with Bill Clinton has immobilized them. McCarthy was the first on a mass political level to challenge its credentials to serve as the philosophical framework of American government and civilization. In part because liberalism had no effective reply to his challenge and in part because he expressed it in forms that could not easily be refuted, the only response liberalism could make to McCarthy was one of personal destruction and demonization.
This is why the cliche that Professor Andrew repeats—that McCarthy “discredited” anticommunism and “did more for the Soviet cause than any agent of influence the KGB ever had”—is so absurd. It was precisely because McCarthy was so effective that he had to be destroyed and salt poured over the ground on which he had walked; he was effective not only in the actually rather trivial sense of exposing internal communism (most of what he did in this respect was largely a kind of police work) but in the far more important one of debunking the dominant ideological orthodoxy of the American ruling class that allowed communism to prosper, because it was closely related to and often indistinguishable from communism. Professor Andrew himself acknowledges that the government repression of communism initiated during the “McCarthy period” “dealt the CPUSA a blow from which it never fully recovered.” The legal, judicial, and administrative extirpation of the treason that liberalism had permitted to fester would not have been possible had Joe McCarthy not helped popularize a deep public animosity toward communism and its agents. Blaming McCarthy for discrediting anticommunism misses the point that it was the lies about (and the demonization of) McCarthy concocted by his liberal enemies—not McCarthy himself—that harmed anticommunism among those gullible enough to swallow the liberal propaganda about it.
The sheer irresponsibility of American liberalism toward communism in the era of Roosevelt and Truman is what really emerges from both Mr. Herman’s biography and the Andrew-Mitrokhin history, and it is an irresponsibility that should itself serve to discredit both the ideology and those who mouthed it. Unfortunately, by the time of that era, liberalism had become the dominant political formula of a new elite that used it to justify its own dominance and the ever-increasing expansion of state power on which it relied; the same elite continues to make use of it for the same purposes today. McCarthy’s enduring importance in American history is likely to lie not so much in his exposures of internal communism as in his challenge to the dominance of liberalism and the ruling class it served, and also his efforts at the mass political mobilization of the postwar middle class against the new elite and its ideology. The same challenge exists today, despite the continuing hegemony of liberalism and its neoconservative allies; all the secret things that have now been revealed may yet help push it closer to the victory that Joe McCarthy and the other martyrs of American anticommunism were denied during their lifetimes.
[The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (New York: Basic Books) 700 pp., $32.50]
[Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator by Arthur Herman (New York: The Free Press) 404 pp., $26.00]
Leave a Reply