Both John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are truthful and courageous analysts of treason and spying by American communists during the middle decades of the last century. A specialist in manuscripts at the Library of Congress and a professor of history at Emory University, respectively, they were the first American scholars to enter the archives of the Russian Communist Party, secret police, and state after the fall of the Soviet regime. They are also the leading experts on Venona, the now-famous decryptions by the American military’s codebreakers of secret messages transmitted to Moscow by spies and other functionaries on American soil.
Their necessary, morally exemplary new book, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, examines the continued rejection, by tenured extremists, of the truth about Soviet Communism. It is a story with immense importance, one I fear anticipates how future academics may seek to impose the same anti-American revisionism in the study of Islamist terrorism. As such, this book should be read by every American.
The comfortably situated protectors of Stalinist legendry in American historical studies are well-known to anybody who is concerned with these topics, as are the objects of their relentless apologetics. Messrs. Haynes and Klehr neatly dissect all of them. Tillie Olsen, for instance, was an American Communist writer and has since been transformed into a feminist idol, her dull short stories taught on nearly every campus. She described Stalin’s Russia, in the middle of the massacres of “rich peasants” and engineered starvation of the Ukrainian nation, as “a heaven brought to earth.”
Even when this idiocy is cited in classes where students are compelled to read her, it is explained away with the claim that American Communists thought up such lies on their own. Thus Fraser Ottanelli, a particularly obnoxious Stalin-worshipper teaching at the University of South Florida, has argued that American Communist politics was “shaped by a homespun search for policies which would make [Stalinists] an integral part of the country’ society” more than by Moscow’s orders. That “homespun search” (a poorly mixed metaphor) led the American Communists to justify the Russian famines and purges, to abet the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico, and to assist in the murder of revolutionary dissidents in Spain during that country’s civil war. These “activists” praised the Stalin pact with Hitler, the execution of Jewish leaders in Moscow during World War II, and the anti-Jewish purges in the Communist bloc after that conflict.
Other champions of the revisionist view of Stalinism include the infamous Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University, author of a volume of unabashed propaganda titled “Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America” (1998). Ms. Schrecker has proclaimed her rejection of any form of objectivity in dealing with the history of American Communism and anticommunism. With incredible arrogance, she declaims her “sympathy” for American Stalinists and “agreement with much (though not all) of their political agenda.”
Intellectual objectivity does not require neutrality, but it does call for accuracy. In dealing with the evils of Soviet Communism and its American partisans, most revisionist historians are simply liars. They not only suppress uncomfortable truths, but also fabricate a sentimental, positive leftist saga that never was. Ms. Schrecker has spun out a counterhistory in which a “left-labor coalition” after World War II might have imposed “an expanded welfare state” in America, had it not been derailed by McCarthyism and the Cold War. As Messrs. Haynes and Klehr point out, the work of Ms. Schrecker and others like her, such as the “labor historians” Robert Korstad of Duke University and Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California, offers a vision of a leftist America that “should have been.” This, they note, “is not history, but radical-left wish projection.”
Messrs. Haynes and Klehr brilliantly compare the pro-Communist “myth of a lost cause” prevalent on American campuses today with the similar distortion that handicapped writing about the American South after the Civil War. Just as the “lost cause” of the Confederacy was founded on slavery, that of the pro-Soviet “Popular Front” was erected on the blood and bones of the gulag’s victims. But nostalgia for Stalinist totalitarianism is much more dangerous than that associated with the rebel yell. While for years it was said “the South will rise again,” it was never considered normal or respectable to advocate a new secession or the restoration of slavery.
By contrast, revisionist historians of the Stalinist left often preach an exceptionally violent and irresponsible hatred against today’s America. Robin D.G. Kelley, who teaches at New York University, responded to the horror of September 11 by pretending he was a scandalous surrealist of the 1930s, and calling for a new “civil war” on our territory. I believe the original surrealists, some of whom were neoconservatives before the term was invented, would have corrected him with vehemence.
As the latter instance shows, defenders of Soviet totalitarianism are handily transformed into promoters of Islamist extremism, and in this context the present volume is of particular cautionary value. Ann Coulter, for one, is profoundly wrong to say that the Truman administration, the majority of Democrats, and such labor leaders as Walter Reuther were complicit in Communist treason to America. Anticommunist liberals, social democrats, and trade unionists were front-line fighters for America and against Moscow. Similarly, traditional and mainstream Muslims in America will be indispensable to the victory of a democratic future in the war against terrorism. But Tillie Olsen, Mr. Ottanelli, Ms. Schrecker, and their cohort, have succeeded in writing the struggles of the legitimate anticommunist liberals and left out of our history. Such developments bode ill for the future of the Western intellect.