Early Cold War Spies.
By Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes.
During the Kennedy-Nixon debate, a moment occurred that unbeknownst to those not in the loop, symbolized perfectly the unique frustrations caused by the Cold War. JFK, briefed by the CIA days before on the upcoming Cuban invasion, pressed Nixon as to why the Eisenhower administration wasn’t doing more for the anti-Castro Cubans. Nixon refused to compromise the operation and instead took a political and rhetorical hit that may have cost him the Presidency.
This theme of allowing the other side its theatrical moment rather than taking one’s eye off the ultimate goal of winning the Cold War is highlighted in Haynes and Klehr’s Early Cold War Spies. Like good historians rather than bad pundits, they’ve refused to stay mired in the tired old debates about re-built Woodstocks and anti-semitic Roy Cohns (Haynes’ History of Communism blog, H-HOAC, has contributors who routinely, and one hopes, unknowingly, revive arguments for Hiss and company that were offered 50 years ago by the then-still vibrant American Communist Party) and instead have asked fresh questions about this period of history. Now that we know Army intelligence had cracked the Soviet code used by American espionage agents, why weren’t more spies prosecuted? Haynes and Klehr provide the intriguing and frustrating answer: Trials demand the admission of evidence, and Venona, displayed as Exhibit A, would have been compromised; hence the West would have suffered a severe, perhaps irreversible blow on the Cold War’s real battlefield, the intelligence theatre.
Re-reading each case reveals how much more suited the Left was for the trial atmosphere than anti-communists. For a decade, the American Communist Party used every podium to portray itself as alternatively both victor (“the American Communist Party boasts every worthwhile writer in America,” Earl Browder, 1938) and victim (“This is the beginning of an American concentration camp,” Party member Dalton Trumbo to HUAC, 1947). Such martyrdom was more at home in the courtroom than the presentation of sober fact. Rather than dispute the documents, Alger Hiss focused instead on the character issue of himself (stalwart New Deal progressive backed by Adlai Stevenson and Felix Frankfurter) and Chambers (traitorous, maladjusted, sexually suspect writer). The Rosenbergs wrapped themselves in the flag of the New Deal in the face of damaging testimony. While their pundits took to the streets chanting about fascism and anti-Semitism, the undramatic fighters of the Cold War worked behind the scenes, cracking codes, monitoring phone conversations and mail drops, squeezing potential assets.
If both sides were about winning the "fight" and not just a few rounds, then hindsight shows the anticommunists left a more impressive record. Hiss may have become a matry/hero to future leftists, but he was forever cut off from sensitive information. With the Communist espionage apparatus all but obliterated by the sober, clandestine work of anticommunists, the Soviet spy evolved from one motivated by faith to one motivated by greed--a victory, I suppose, of sorts for capitalism. This change from Alger Hiss to Aldrich Ammes hurt the Left at its strongest point: its theatricality. Many would take to the streets for a New Deal matryr but none would wave fists and placards for someone who did it all for profit.
Fifty years later very little has changed with the Left. They still opt, as in the case of the New York Times revealing the bank surveillance program of the government, for political advantage rather than what is best for national security. Then as now, both seem either not to have the attention span required for a long struggle or not to believe in its validity.