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Spinning Harry Dexter White By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 17, 2007

Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case
By P. Bruce Craig

University Press of Kansas, 2004

Spin is the only imaginative exercise for the ideologue as he performs the duties, as Orwell called it, of "the human gramophone."  Since the fall of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago, leftwing spin has been in hyperdrive.  This process is a transparent one: first the scramble to deal with uncomfortable facts validating anticommunism, then the emergence of an interpretation that allows them to cling to their ideology and anti-Americanism.  A case in point is Norman Mailer.  Rather than celebrate or admit past errors during the events of 1989, he instead promoted a blame-America first, pro-Marxist spin: "The Cold War could have been over 20 years ago.  But Nixon and Reagan kept it going to please the military-industrial complex."

Another example of this leftwing spin in action is what I like to call the McCarthy talisman.  When confronted with evidence of Stalin's guilt, they try to wave it away with the evils of McCarthy.  Yes, they admit, Stalin killed people but McCarthy also ruined lives and engaged in a reign of terror.

P. Bruce Craig's study of Soviet courier and New Deal official Harry Dexter White honors both these specimens of spin, while offering a third: the honorable motivation argument.  He admits the evils of the Soviet Union but describes the McCarthy period in the same terms.  He accepts that White gave data to the Soviet Union but qualifies this act until it is no longer classifiable as espionage but "patriotic antifascism."

Here is the classic liberal defense mechanism for dupes: their hearts were in the right place.  As a "Roosevelt internationalist," White was sincere in his antifascist motives in giving information to the Soviet Union.  Craig dilates on these motives but not the consequences.  He tries to extract a kernel of gold and good intentions from White's actions but the effort is strained.  No amount of spin can get away from the fact that White gave data to a ruler that even Nikita Khrushchev described as a "bloodthirsty tyrant."  Craig adopts White's own defense: that he was aiding an antifascist ally.  But this "ally" had instructed agents in 1930s America to await orders for sabotage operations.  This ally was sharing intelligence information with Nazi Germany before and during the 1939-41 Pact period.  And this ally spent a large part of 1940-41 trying to establish a military partnership with Hirohito’s Japan.  White may not have known this, although it's difficult to see how, but Craig, a historian in the post-Venona age, should.

Fifty years ago, liberals, reeling from the implications of the Hiss case, wrote that the dupe excuse was no longer valid, that it was time for them to grow up and accept that behind progressive rhetoric lurks power politics. The lesson of the 20th century is that motivations have consequences and more often than not, noble liberal motivations lead to bad consequences.  Odd that a historian of the 20th century has not learned this lesson.


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Ron Capshaw has written for National Review, the New York Sun, Partisan Review and the Weekly Standard. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and is currently writing a biography of Alger Hiss.

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