“Zeus gives no aid to liars.”
Richard Gid Powers’ history is a powerful, even brilliant, piece of scholarship which documents one of the most bizarre political phenomena of the 20th century.
While Soviet communism, in its 70-year dictatorship, was probably guilty of every conceivable crime against humanity, it was yet able to escape the kind of principled censure which befell anticommunism. In fact, it is regarded as tasteless in academic circles even today to suggest that the United States won the Cold War. An “avant-garde” historian will say that the United States really lost the Cold War. An “objective” historian will say that nobody won the Cold War. An honest historian, like Professor Michael Howard, the distinguished Yale historian, in an essay in the Times Literary Supplement, wrote, “The Soviet Union lost.” Even more, said Professor Howard, “the policy of the West has been ultimately vindicated, not only by our victory, but by the fact that the War remained Cold; and that we are alive to tell the tale.”
President Roosevelt, a great war leader and a worse than inept peace leader, gets high marks from mainstream historians. However, President Harry Truman, who undertook to resist Soviet designs, is treated as a villain for supposedly beginning the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan, having won a great victory against totalitarianism, is being airbrushed out of history by unforgiving Establishment historians. Professor Powers, though he describes the Iran-Contra conspiracy as “one of the most clearly presidential misdeeds in history,” has restored Mr. Reagan and his anticommunist policies to their rightful place in history.
To grasp fully what Professor Powers’ book is about, the reader must remember the power which ideas such as communism and revolution had over people of all classes and professions, including noncommunists. Powers admits that “writing this book radically altered my view of American anticommunism. I began with the idea that anticommunism displayed America at its worst but I came to see in anticommunism America at its best.” Professor Powers is acutely aware of what has been going on in American historiography, a field now bossed by feminists, deconstructors, multiculturalists, pseudopopulists, Afrocentrists, and Marxists, crypto and not so crypto. A monumental revisionist sweep of the contemporary past is at work: American communists are being classified as little worse than misguided idealists, thus worthy of our indulgent admiration; anticommunism remains the villain.
In a recent essay, “Communist History as Soap Opera,” in the New York Review of Books, historian Theodore Draper argues that “communism, as all the world knows, with the exception of a cadre of American professors, disgraced the largely democratic tradition of socialism and strangled democracy wherever it came to power.” He then asks: “What explains this perversion of socialism and democracy?” This is Mr. Draper’s answer: “It is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate communism by making it part of the larger family of socialism and democracy. No one would think of doing this favor for fascism, but communism with even more millions of victims and a much longer life span is the beneficiary of this sustained effort of historical rehabilitation in—of all places—American colleges and universities.”
Since the beginning, serious criticism of the Bolshevik Revolution has been widely dismissed as uninformed, an abysmal betrayal of all that was good in mankind. From day one of that revolution, Lenin’s political system, to quote Robert Conquest, “had as one of its main characteristics falsification on an enormous scale,” an attribute that was to have as its result what Vaclav Havel later called “the culture of the lie.” It was, for example, impermissible “red baiting” (synonymous with anticommunism) to suggest that Stalin’s Moscow trials were frame-ups of innocent people. Or to say that the American League Against War and Fascism was a communist-sponsored front. Or to announce, as Americans for Democratic Action did in the late 1940’s, that they would not allow communists, who opposed democracy, to become ADA members. The liberal media could accuse President Reagan of risking World War III when he called the Soviet Union an evil empire, but thought it high-minded statesmanship when former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance said: “Leonid Brezhnev is a man who shares our dreams and aspirations.” Could Mr. Vance have said that about General Pinochet or Jonas Savimbi? The question answers itself.
Had Alger Hiss spied for Hitler instead of Stalin, could there be an Alger Hiss chair of social studies as there is today at Bard College? (The occupant of that chair. Professor Joel Kovel, by the way, has argued that anticommunism is an irrational illness.) Had Corliss Lamont worked for the global triumph of fascism, would there be a Corliss Lamont chair of civil liberties as there is today at the Columbia University Law School, honoring this indomitable veteran defender of Stalinism and financial angel for communist fronts? If endowed chairs exist at any American university for George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Sidney Hook, Robert Conquest, James Burnham, or other renowned anticommunist intellectuals, I haven’t heard of them.
It has been said with justifiable hyperbole that Hitler told the truth about what he was doing and nobody believed him, while Stalin lied about what he was doing and everybody believed him. With regard to the books and monographs about the Cold War written by mainstream historians, this gullibility is substantially the case. How could so many intellectuals have found Camelot in Hell, future Utopias in existing gulags?
In her mordant essay on J. Robert Oppenheimer, Diana Trilling wrote that “a staunch anti-Communism was the great moral-political imperative of our epoch.” So commanding a precept laid down by an American intellectual at the zenith of Soviet power would today be viewed with contempt by mainstream liberalism for being tastelessly “anticommunist.” As Orwell once wrote: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” Connected with today’s lapidary liberal ideology is the slogan, first heard during the French Revolution, pas d’ennemis à gauche. The Soviet Union long profited from that slogan.
Even today, the young historian Michael Kazin cannot bring himself to speak truthfully about communism. In a review of Powers’ book in the Nation, he trots out that old baloney about how the communists “battled Jim Crow laws and racist prosecutions.” Of course they did; but selectively, only when the Party line permitted such battles. With the invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June I94I, there could have been a dozen Scottsboro Boys or Sacco-Vanzetti cases thereafter, and the communists couldn’t have cared less. They were under orders from Moscow to discourage civil rights agitation; winning the war came first, and nothing should be done that might, as the cant phrase went, “rock the boat of national unity.” Kazin talks rather patronizingly about “rational and irrational” fears about communism, but I doubt whether he would make such a distinction of rational and irrational fears where nazism is concerned. Kazin says that communists “did valuable political work, despite dishonest habits and thick ideological blinders.” Tut-tut. Were communists doing “valuable political work” when they bitterly opposed FDR’s reelection in 1940 and then supported him in 1944, in keeping, as always, with Stalin’s orders? Kazin says that American communists “behaved quite differently than did Communists who possessed a secret police, an army and a Five-year Plan.” Does Kazin really believe that American communists were free spirits, that they ignored Kremlin ukases whenever it suited them? Doesn’t he, a scholar, know that overnight the veteran communist leader Earl Browder in 1945 became an enemy of the Party at Stalin’s orders and was purged? It was only an accident of geography that worse didn’t happen to Browder and other purged American Communists.
Professor Powers takes care to distinguish among different categories of anticommunists. He is critical of what he calls “counter-subversive anticommunism”—the anticommunism of congressional committees and conspiracy theoreticians like Joe McCarthy. In actual fact, not all of these committees were anywhere near as bad as they were depicted by the left; neither were they exemplars of McCarthyism. The “counter-subversive anticommunist” operated on the principle that a communist conspiracy, directed and financed by Moscow, existed. And while it was quite the intellectual fashion in those days to sneer at exposes of “Moscow gold” financing the international communist movement, the opening of Soviet archives, thousands of its documents now reposing on microfilm at the Hoover Institution library, has confirmed that the Kremlin spent perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars on its Western affiliates: aboveground, underground, and camouflaged.
There was also the anticommunism of American labor—of men like George Meany and David Dubinsky. There were those intellectuals who had been close to, or actually became. Communist Party members, and then had defected for all kinds of reasons—the Moscow trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin’s seizure of Eastern Europe, the attack on Hungary in 1956, Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin speech. Something was always sure to happen that would test a party member’s faith in Stalinism.
The dominant force in American anticommunism, says Professor Powers, was the foreign policy of liberal internationalism going back to Woodrow Wilson, who rejected the Bolshevik Revolution; to President Truman; and, finally, to President Reagan, who like Truman regarded appeasement or detente as defeatist compromises with an esurient Soviet Union. In fact, Mr. Reagan wore his anticommunism as a badge of honor. On the very day he left the White House, he said: “I am proud to say that I am still an anticommunist.” And, above all, there was what is too often patronizingly called the good sense of the American people, who knew without much instruction from their betters that communism was bad; bad for themselves as wage-earners, for their children and their children’s ambitions, for family values— for their country.
Anticommunism got a bad name in the 1960’s owing to Vietnam, and in the 70’s, according to William F. Buckley, thanks to President Nixon’s detente policies. Powers quotes Buckley as saying that under Nixon’s “tutelage, the entire anti-Communist constituency was disarmed.” Anti-anticommunism became a rallying slogan for the liberal left. Powers singles out Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary, as the man who “summoned the will, the strength and the imagination to commence the giant task of rebuilding the anticommunist coalition.” Powers also credits the Committee on the Present Danger for having brought back the liberal internationalism ethos which had been so effective in organizing anticommunist policies. What is striking about the political scene in the 1970’s is that while anticommunism in the United States weakened, it was, as Powers puts it, “reborn in the heart of the Soviet empire” as a result of the bravery of Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and other dissidents.
There was a moment back in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two years later when the Soviet Union disintegrated into a collection of 15 independent states, when anticommunists could empathize with Othello: “O! now, forever, / Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content! / Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Who would have thought that a few years later they would be wondering whether it were really gone?
I am writing this essay in early March, By the time it is published, we may see a communist president of the Russian Federation. And if by a miracle Boris Yeltsin is reelected, he will probably be a prisoner of a resurgent Communist Party. So once again the anticommunists will have to reorganize, although this time they may have a different kind of communist adversary; even one, perhaps, without a driving ideology like Marxism-Leninism.
[Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism, by Richard Gid Powers (New York: The Free Press) 554 pp., $30.00]