IN THE PAST TWO WEEKS, much has been made of the announcement that the US National Archives has released 600 boxes of previously sealed records from the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, including material pertaining to their famous 1940s investigation of Communism in Hollywood, civil rights and antiwar activists from the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan, and the investigation of Alger Hiss.
An Associated Press story by reporter Deb Riechmann, dated August 24, stresses that "what witnesses told the committee in executive session has been sealed until now." Reichmann quotes from the testimony of various friendly witnesses before the Committee, including screenwriter Jack Moffit, Warner Brothers executive Jack Warner and unfriendly witness, composer Johannes Eisler. The only problem with her report is that her comments are all from the one box currently available not from an assumed treasure trove of 600.
It just so happens that the same day Riechmann looked through that box, I was at the National Archives going through the same material, and putting in a request for material from other boxes. I was informed that all the material has to first be vetted by the staff, and that was a process that could take months until the material was made available. What the archivists have done is release one single box of material they thought would be most interesting to the public and indeed, that one box actually contains few if any surprises. Historians have long known that the Congressmen who composed HUAC were most often publicity seeking clowns, and that much of their investigations backfired. As Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, author of Hollywood Party and a contributor to these Web pages told Riechmann, "the hearings were a circus…they discredited themselves and… gave the Communist Party a real publicity coup." And Billingsley correctly pointed out that their big mistake was to wrongly focus on the content of movies, rather than on the Communist Party’s attempt to coopt the entire film industry.
If the AP story was misleading, the August 20 New York Times was even more egregious in the attention it focused on the archives. The paper featured a very long oped piece by historian Rick Perlstein, titled "A Look at the Architects of America’s Red Scare." As a historian, Perlstein should be the first to know that evaluation of documents and archives has to be based on what is found in them. Perlstein, it turns out, has not examined the new socalled archive, not even the one open box. Comparing the new release of HUAC material to that of the release of the Venona papers the former top secret Soviet decrypts released by the CIA and NSA Perlstein writes that "this unsealing may have lacked the ceremony of the first. It should share its import."
He then continues to quote from long available transcripts of HUAC sessions transcripts that have been mined to the hilt and quoted over and over by historians of the McCarthy era material that he admits is from "documents already available." Yet somehow this scholar divines that "if Venona was about the heroic quest of divining how Americans helped the Soviets build their atomic bomb, HUAC shows the cold war at home in its everyday dress."
Actually, Venona, as readers of the magisterial work by John Haynes and Harvey Klehr know, is about much more than how the Soviets got the atomic bomb. That is only the tip of the iceberg, material made available in the very first Venona release. It is, rather, really about how Soviet espionage successfully penetrated the highest levels of the American government, and how it recruited willing agents from the ranks of the American Communist Party. It also, as Perlstein notes, included the names and cover names of 200 American spies, as well as others who to this date have still not been identified. Venona, in other words, was real news for the first time, it confirmed what the anti antiCommunists never acknowledged, that there was a successful Soviet penetration and espionage network operating in the United States in the 1940s, and that by deduction this meant good reason existed for viewing the American Communists not just as members of a regular albeit unpopular political organization, but as potential spies in waiting.
Venona was indeed big news. Yet Perlstein, given a tremendous and unusual amount of space by our paper of record, writes with disdain of the "outpouring" of comments about Venona. "Books issued forth, and magazines covered the debate’s every twist," he writes, "They still do." Indeed, he asserts that as a result of Venona’s release, the popular culture has "cemented" the conclusion that "long derided coldwarriors" should be honored. Would that were so. His evidence: one column by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman and one unusually atypical episode of "West Wing," in which a character on the program has his liberal faith challenged when he learns that a Hiss type figure was in fact a Soviet spy. Naturally, Perlstein leaves out of his account the scores of films, documentaries and programs extolling the virtues of the old Communists and the Hollywood Left. Perhaps he somehow missed these in the past ten years.
Calling for a "more complete view," Perlstein’s point is that by turning the focus of our attention on HUAC rather than on Venona, he asserts that "for those who care about America’s achieving a more mature and complete understanding of our own past, HUAC matters more." Its records, he assures us, will "be a window onto the vast complexity of the cold war at home, while Venona is only a peephole."
Some peephole. An actual archive that has proved that the testimony of long discredited and condemned exCommunists like Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley was essentially correct despite the years of protestations and arguments of the leftliberal community is seen as of minor importance, while the already existing transcripts of HUAC’s years of investigations, hearings which often worked only to foment a large popular rebellion against the Committee and eventually led to its demise by vote of Congress, is seen as somehow more important. If, as Haynes and Klehr put it, "the CPUSA was indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War," doesn’t that mean that a staple of the leftwing argument, that it was simply a group persecuted for its noble and well intentioned ideas, is in fact what was essentially wrong, and that hence our understanding of the nature of Communism and the response of antiCommunism has to be reexamined? Doesn’t that fact even suggest that in spite of its grandstanding and often corrupt and publicity seeking members, HUAC in fact was on to something? After all, who is it who nailed Alger Hiss? It certainly wasn’t the Truman administration. Doesn’t the evidence from Venona indicate that the loyaltysecurity program of the Truman administration, as well as Congressional looks at Communism, had a rational basis? After all, the Communist Party, as Venona revealed, did indeed assist the Soviet espionage apparatus. That was part of the Soviet Union’s "unrestrained espionage offensive," as Haynes and Klehr put it.
What, then, of equal import or more import does HUAC’s record show us? Perlstein and others would have us see a system of institutionalized political repression, including Statewide "little HUAC’s," bodies that investigated those fighting segregation or those opposed to atomic testing, etc. To Perlstein this was a "system," one that includes private groups such as a Chicago body that held its own files of suspected subversives. And Perlstein argues that with the new release of HUAC files, we can finally find "how this whole system worked." As a historian, Perlstein should know to hold his conclusions until such time as he looks at what the files show. Unlike Venona, in truth he has no idea at all, aside from his own wishful thinking. He writes that the new "behindthescenes HUAC records will be far more revealing, and damning, than the hearing transcripts and official reports we already have." Perhaps Perlstein is a futurist fortuneteller, and not a historian. More likely, the HUAC files closed sessions of friendly witnesses who testified first before their public appearances will only reveal these people saying essentially the same story they told when they went public. After all, most unfriendly witnesses were hostile in both closed and public appearances, and refused to answer any questions put to them by Committee members.
Hedging his bet, Perlstein concludes that "HUAC has had intelligent defenders," and that some will still argue that "HUAC is just a historical distraction to the main story of decent, necessary, Trumanesque liberal antiCommunism." Sure, but clearly, this historian’s own agenda is to denigrate liberal antiCommunism as the moral equivalent of McCarthyism something he manages to do by proclaiming the import of the new files before he actually knows what is in them. In his very last sentence, Perlstein admonishes that debate "did not begin with the Venona cables and certainly should not end with them." Wouldn’t it be a start for Perlstein and others to first acknowledge what the Venona cables have revealed, and integrate their findings into the picture they paint of the socalled McCarthy years? Maybe if they did this, I would have less trouble listening to some of their other points.