Posted: August 30, 2004
n the late 1970s, the history of American Communism began to be written by a new generation of scholars. Looking beyond the confines of the institutional history of the American Communist Party (CPUSA), an area already well explored, they put the CPUSA in a new context. That context was Cold War revisionism, which to varying degrees blamed the Cold War on the United States.
The new historians (Paul Buhle and Maurice Isserman, for example) were at once innovative and traditional, practicing a form of political history just when it was losing favor among their young colleagues, who were turning to social, cultural, and gender history. But the intellectual excitement of the new account of American Communism came from its attempt to capture the idealism (and occasionally the ideological blindness) of rank-and-file Party members and of the intellectuals and writers who joined up. The revisionists sought to separate the progressive ideals of the Communist Party from the Kremlin leaders who exploited those ideals for their own purposes. Although they disagreed concerning the Kremlin's degree of control over the CPUSA's leadership, they agreed that the Party rank-and-file, like most of its fellow travelers, were motivated by high ideals of economic justice, social and racial equality, human rights, and world peace.
This view implied, in turn, that the repression of the Party and its members following World War II set back social and political progress in America, allowing an assault on organized labor; a Democratic retreat from civil rights; the squelching of political dissent; and an unrestrained Cold War, including imperialist misadventures in Korea and Vietnam. The new history taught that McCarthyism was reprehensible, the Cold War unnecessary, and political repression in America rampant.
Writing in the New York Review of Books in May 1985, Theodore Draper scathingly criticized the revisionists for misunderstanding and misrepresenting the nature of Stalinism. He argued that the Communist Party in the United States was a disciplined, tightly controlled, centralized party that insisted on its members' ideological conformity. Deviation from the party line demanded either public self-criticism or expulsion from the Party as a class-traitor. The CPUSA remained subservient to the Kremlin for its political positions and financing. Draper maintained that it was incredibly naïve to assume that the Party rank-and-file, or even the Party intellectuals, were naïve about what it meant to belong to a Party that proclaimed itself a vanguard of revolution. They well understood that proletarian morality differed from bourgeois morality, so "breaking a few eggs to make an omelet"—to use Walter Duranty's often quoted phrase—was acceptable.
Draper's criticism hit the mark; yet revisionist histories continued to pour off the academic presses. The release of the Venona papers, and other material from the Soviet archives in the 1990s, cast a dark shadow over this revisionism. Documents revealed that from its beginnings the Communist Party in the United States received huge clandestine subsidies from the Soviet Union; that Moscow dictated Party policy; that large numbers of Americans who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War were executed by Soviet agents under direct orders from the Kremlin; and that, yes, many of those accused of spying during the early years of the Cold War actually were spies, including Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, Victor Perlo, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Strong circumstantial evidence from various sources confirmed that Alger Hiss was in fact a Soviet agent. Most importantly, this new evidence revealed that Soviet intelligence and military intelligence successfully penetrated the highest levels of the White House staff, the State Department, the Treasury Department, as well as lower levels of the Office of Strategic Services and the National Security Administration.
Under the weight of this evidence, some revisionists retreated, announcing that they had been wrong. Most notably, Maurice Isserman, a highly productive and serious scholar who had been the focus of much of Draper's early criticism, admitted that new evidence confirmed the guilt of many of those previously accused of espionage and revealed that others were active agents or had been compromised by their contact with Soviet agents. But most refused to recant, and though avoiding a frontal attack on the new evidence, proceeded to strike back through a series of maneuvers.
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John Earl Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress, and Harvey Klehr, a political scientist at Emory University—co-authors of The Secret World of American Communism (1995) and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage (1999)—provide a detailed account of what they see as the intellectual contortions of the historians who tried to minimize these revelations. As Haynes and Klehr show, revisionists attacked the "triumphalism" of the reactionary forces that seized on this new evidence to support McCarthyism and the Cold War, American militarism and imperialism, and economic and social injustice. The authors quote one historian who maintains that an endemic, pathological fear of a classless society led to a Cold War nightmare in which "millions of innocents lie dead, whole societies have been laid to waste, a vigorous domestic labor movement has been castrated, and the political culture of the United States has been frozen in a retrograde position." Other revisionists pointed to the financial support that Yale University Press has received for its Annals of Communism series from conservative organizations such as the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
They picked fights over arcane details. They argued that the evidence against Alger Hiss was merely circumstantial. While conceding that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent, they insisted that his wife Ethel's guilt had not been proven and that she had been executed as a result of Cold War hysteria. They called for putting these spies into their "historical context": why, these Communists saw themselves as patriots, providing information to a wartime ally, or laying the groundwork of postwar peace. In short, they were not spies at all, but good New Dealers, seeking a better, more humane world.
Reading the revisionist historians who continue to deny the extent of Soviet espionage in the Roosevelt Administration, one is reminded of the famous chapter on owls in Bishop Erich Pontoppidan's 18th-century history of Iceland. The entire chapter consisted of a single sentence declaring that there were no owls in Iceland. Of course, the essential difference between the good Bishop and these historians is that Iceland in fact does not have owls, but the U.S. government in the 1930s and '40s had many Soviet spies infesting its highest levels. The extent of information they turned over to the Soviet Union was massive and the full extent of the damage has still not been evaluated.
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Haynes and Klehr argue that scholarly standards have been evaded or subverted by the revisionists. The issues raised by In Denial are important and deserve a serious reply; yet this detailed brief against revisionist history has been largely ignored by the mainstream press as well as by the revisionists themselves.
Nor have the Venona transcripts and other revelations worked their way into general histories of the period and classroom textbooks. For example, the two most recent monographs of the prestigious Oxford History of the United States, volumes which cover the New Deal years and the early Cold War era, do not incorporate materials found in the Venona papers or from the Soviet archives. The authors, David Kennedy and James Patterson, respectively, highly competent and distinguished historians, appear to have concluded that the verdict is still out on this issue of Communist infiltration into government. In his volume on the years 1945 to 1974—a solid and often insightful history—Patterson describes Whittaker Chambers as "emotionally unstable to the point of frequently considering suicide," with no explanation as to the political reasons he considered suicide, which are eloquently described in his memoir, Witness. As to Hiss's guilt, the author concludes that "whether Hiss was innocent in fact remained a much disputed matter years later." What was clear, the author continues, was the legacy of the case, which "refurbished the façade of the HUAC," enabled Richard Nixon to advance his political career, emboldened anti-New Deal opponents, and, after the Klaus Fuchs atomic spy case, made it "easy for people to imagine the existence of a vast and subterranean conspiracy that had to be exposed." Accusations of spying against Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie, which are confirmed in the archival materials, are not mentioned at all.
Despite all this, Haynes and Klehr's book remains cause for hope. Serious works are being published that challenge the prevailing leftist orthodoxy. When I began graduate school twenty-five years ago, the number of historians of the U.S. who declared themselves conservative could be counted on one hand. (There were more conservative historians outside of American history, then and today.) Though still small in numbers, many more American historians now consider themselves conservative or just plain contrarian. Their challenge to the historical establishment is expressed more often in books than academic journals, which are dominated by the Left; but their scholarship is beginning to have an impact. Many historians, particularly young ones, are listening and do care about historical truth, a goal reached only through genuine scholarly debate; a goal perhaps never reached, but worth striving for nonetheless.