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The Persistence Of Anti-Anti-Communism By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 11, 2001


EVERY TIME I WANT to turn to another topic, The Nation magazine gets in my way. Its editors persist in trying to keep alive already old and discredited myths; especially the one whose practitioners argue that anti-Communism is the same thing as McCarthyism and that those who are seeking to validate McCarthyism in the past are doing so for one reason alone, "to discredit the left-liberal project today."

The above quote comes from Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, a man who also is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University’s prestigious School of Journalism. Now, this writer thinks that one hardly needs McCarthy or his ghost to "discredit the left-liberal project today." Indeed, that "project" has suffered irretrievable damage from some of its most favorite schemes such as an enlarged welfare system, the harmful policy of affirmative action, the opposition to educational reform the list can go on and on. But Victor Navasky evidently needs a picture of rampant McCarthyism as an excuse on which to pin the failure of his project. Hence his new article, "Cold War Ghosts: The Case of the Missing Red Menace," which appears in his publication’s July 16th issue.

One can say clearly, however, that his real purpose is apparent. At the end of his discussion, Navasky mentions his belief that current fears of security leaks argued by the "middle, near and far right" are based "more on paranoia than reality," just as they were in the 1950s. Supposedly, any concern that the Chinese Communists are trying to ferret out our military and industrial secrets will only be of concern if conservative historians can try to convince people that in the 1940’s and 50’s there was any genuine threat to American security. So Navasky reasons it is important to prove that there was never any Communist threat; hence there is no threat to American institutions today. So for Navasky, it is not "solely an academic matter;" and as he attempts to prove when discussing the past, those historians who believe that there was a genuine Communist threat had manufactured this purely to find an excuse for waging Cold War.

To prove his view of the past, however, Victor Navasky engages in so much distortion, obfuscation and dishonest argument that it is almost impossible to deal with and answer virtually every one of his claims. Let me attempt to take up some of his most important arguments, however, and show how he handles them. First, on McCarthy himself. It is true that in a much-noted column, liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote that "point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him;" and later, historian Arthur Herman wrote his book Joseph McCarthy:Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. Herman’s book in particular was an attempt to spell out what von Hoffman only hinted at, and actually to defend McCarthy as a man wronged by a vast left-wing conspiracy. Navasky tries to link myself, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and David Horowitz with Herman’s view, and he invokes Joshua Micah Marshall’s 1999 article in The American Prospect called "the New McCarthyism" in order to gather support. Quoting Marshall, he agrees that the purpose of us supposed new McCarthyites is to both "discredit Cold War liberalism by revising history" as well as attacking liberal internationalism "in foreign policy today by using the tactics pioneered by the red-baiters of half a century ago."

But, as Navasky knows, because we have answered these charges in various places, time and time again, particularly in The New Republic, none of us can rightfully be called defenders of Arthur Herman’s thesis. Indeed, in my case, Navasky fails to inform his audience that I wrote a lengthy and detailed and largely negative review of Herman’s book in TNR, in their January 3, 2000 issue, which may be found in the www.tnr.com archives. A similar review by the biographer of Whitaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus, followed shortly thereafter in the pages of The New York Review of Books. And writing in the pages of TNR on Dec.16, 1998, Klehr, Haynes and I answered the allegation of the editors of The New York Times that "a number of American scholars armed with audacity and new archival information… would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism." We responded that "McCarthy was a demagogue whose reckless, irresponsible charges slandered innocent people," and that his charges allowed actual Communists who engaged in and contemplated espionage to claim the status of victims, using McCarthy’s recklessness to fool people into believing that anyone accused of harming America’s national security was an innocent victim of the Senator’s wrath. Indeed, we concluded in that article that "one bizarre feature of the myths… is that persons who betrayed the United States and assisted Stalin’s Soviet Union through espionage are portrayed as heroic victims." This, in fact, is precisely what The Nation editors and Victor Navasky in particular always do.

Second, Navasky takes on the meaning of the now famous Venona Project releases, the thousands of decryptions of 1940s cables between the KGB in Moscow and its agents in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC and elsewhere. For most people, Venona has succeeded in proving the guilt of both Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss, as well as revealing that Soviet spies had infiltrated every major agent of the U.S. Government during the war years, from the State and Treasury Departments to the Manhattan Project. Among other much noted revelations, it proved that high government officials, including Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White; the chief of the State Department’s Division of American Republics Laurence Duggan; the head of the State Department’s Latin American division Maurice Halperin; and Lauchlin Currie, administrative aide and State Department liaison to both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, all gave secrets to Soviet agents.

This is not the case for Victor Navasky, who might rightfully be called the David Irving of the Left. For Navasky, Venona is so ambiguous that its releases may be almost entirely discounted. He spends a great deal of space on the Venona cable which implicates Alger Hiss, and writes that the message that says ALES (Hiss’s code name) "was one of four members of the US delegation at the Yalta conference ‘who returned to the US via Moscow’" seems "an incriminating fact." But Navasky argues that there were "110 Americans in attendance at Yalta and surely more than four of them stopped in Moscow on their way home." This is, to put it charitably, more than ridiculous. In fact only four US delegates to Yalta went to Moscow from the conference and NO ONE has ever claimed that any other of the attending Americans did so! If Navasky has evidence that any of the other 110 actually went to Moscow, let him bring it forward. Moreover, we know about who the four who traveled to Moscow were. The Venona decrypt and Navasky knows this specifically notes that a small party of four State Department officials flew to Moscow to finish some details with the Soviets, and after a short stay, went on to Washington. Three of those traveling to Moscow were Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Director of the Office of European Affairs H. F. Matthews, and Wilder Foote, Stettinius’ press aide. The fourth individual was Alger Hiss. No one has ever accused any of these men but Hiss of having been a Soviet agent!

Later, Navasky continues with his distortions when he misstates the story that appeared in 1992, that General Dimitri Volkogonov, a former Soviet officer and historian turned anti-Communist, had ordered a search of Soviet intelligence archives and according to Navasky, "reached the conclusion that Hiss was never an intelligence agent for the USSR." In fact, Volkogonov, old and ailing, had been approached by John Lowenthal, a Hiss apologist, with the admonition that Hiss was falsely accused, much as many of Stalin’s victims, and that he could clear up the record by searching KGB files to see if any information could be found about Hiss. Volkogonov indeed released a statement that he had found nothing in the KGB files indicating that Hiss was their agent. Navasky and the Hiss defenders proceeded to make a big deal about this.

But a short while later, Volkogonov released another statement that Navasky not so cleverly ignored. What the General said is that in fact, he had not, as Navasky claims, searched "all Soviet intelligence files." He had only looked through a small amount of select KGB files, which of course, had nothing in them about Hiss. It was quickly pointed out to the General that Hiss had been a GRU (Soviet military intelligence) agent, and never worked for the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB. Volkogonov had not looked through or had been given access to these files. Therefore, it was clear that his findings from KGB files proved nothing. It was not simply a case, as Navasky writes, of Volkogonov agreeing with a "persistent" and obviously anti-Hiss "reporter that perhaps he should have qualified his declaration of Hiss’s innocence."

Similarly, Navasky casts doubt on the much-cited material found by historian Maria Schmidt, who found that in the Communist spy Noel Field’s 2500-page dossier from the Hungarian secret police, he had implicated Hiss as a spy whom he knew in Washington DC as part of a secret Communist espionage cell. Of course, Navasky fails to inform readers that Noel Field’s late brother, Herman Field, who spoke in Washington DC last year a short time before he passed away, stated publicly that the dossier was accurate, and that after Noel Field was released from prison and was in a hospital bed, he had told his brother the exact same thing that Hiss was a spy.

Navasky acknowledges that as a group, we "counter-revisionists," to use his term, disavow Joe McCarthy. But his point is that we "disown the man and his methods" while we "retain his main contention: that the United States was seriously threatened by an internal Red menace." He writes, for example, that Venona does show that "Julius Rosenberg, while no atom spy, may indeed have been involved in low-level espionage." Venona, he says, sheds no light on this and "won’t resolve" the doubts he and others have about any major guilt of Julius Rosenberg. Look at that term "low-level espionage." Actually, as readers of Klehr and Haynes Venona know full well, the espionage the Rosenberg ring conducted is fully documented, and was anything but low-level. Key members of his group, Joel Barr, Al Sarant and William Perl, the latter who gave the Soviets complete blueprints of Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star, the first American jet fighterand 5000 pages of details; Barr and Sarant gave material from one hundred different classified programs. And Rosenberg himself handed over a complete proximity fuse, a top secret device that exploded automatically near an airplane, and which the Soviets used years later to shoot down Francis Gary Powers’ famous U-2 spy plane.

Of course what really upsets Navasky is that all of this implicates the American Communist Party, from whose ranks Rosenberg and others were recruited by the KGB. He acknowledges that "perhaps they even recruited some spies." Notice that adjective "perhaps." Navasky cannot admit that, in fact, they were a recruiting ground for Soviet espionage agents. Instead, he prefers to cite the "99.9 percent of the million comrades" who passed through the CPUSA in the 30s and 40s who "sang along with Pete Seeger" and who "organized trade unions and rent strikes…." How touching; how innocent. But what Navasky does not realize is that if, as the evidence shows, the CPUSA did serve as a recruiting ground for the KGB these same idealistic singers with Pete Seeger when asked, readily accepted the "secret work" for the USSR then that in and of itself is valid grounds for the insistence of Harry S. Truman that a major and serious loyalty-security program be established; one that would keep all Communists out of sensitive military, political and diplomatic positions as well as jobs in defense plants.

Like Martin Duberman and Ellen Shrecker, Victor Navasky seems to believe that the motivations of this small group who became spies was good; that we should have compassion and understanding of what drove them to espionage I mean, they thought serving Stalin was serving world humanity, after all and as Schrecker put it, they did not have "traditional" notions of patriotism that we uncouth patriots a bad name in the Left’s lexicon hold. But he does not grasp that if this rationale is the one he advances, then that indeed proves that a loyalty-security program was more than necessary, and that it makes perfect sense to exclude such people from access to sensitive government jobs. Once again, by calling this conclusion McCarthyite, Victor Navasky ends up with the same old stale argument that anyone who acknowledges that Communists were a threat to American security as indeed they were are McCarthyites. There is no ability to win against such circular reasoning.

Navasky, however, is correct that most American Communists were not spies. After all, the NKVD only recruited those from its ranks who could do something for them like Julius Rosenberg. But a large number of spies, indeed, came from the Communist ranks. And when it came to spying for the USSR, they only came from the CPUSA’s ranks. For that reason alone, it made sense for the FBI to carefully watch and monitor all their activities. In other words, the Red-baiters, and not the Reds, were right. Nothing Victor Navasky says can change this truth.


Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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