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Portrait of Denial: ‘The Nation’ and Communist Spies

Revelations about the content of the former Soviet Union’s archives about spying in the United States ended some long-running intellectual arguments. After decades of denying that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or Alger Hiss were guilty and pretending that the Communist Party of the United States was not a Soviet front, a lot of people on the left had to shut up. The anti-anti-Communist point of view about the Cold War was discredited, but for the publishers of The Nation, the impulse to wave the old red flag is still strong. That often leads them, as well as some other sectors of the left such as the New York Times, to pretend as if backing the totalitarian, genocidal, and anti-Semitic regime that ruled Moscow was an innocent romantic phase that all true liberals went through. But as bad as that deplorable tradition might be, the decision of The Nation to publish material about Communist espionage as if the Venona Files had never been published is nothing short of bizarre.

That’s the only way to regard their recent publication of a review of a history of the post-World War Two Bretton Woods economic conference that devotes a considerable amount of space to defending the lost honor of Harry Dexter White. White, the senior Treasury Department official who led the U.S. delegation to Bretton Woods, was exposed as a Soviet spy a long time ago. As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, the pre-eminent academic experts on Communist spying and the Soviet archives, write on their Washington Decoded blog, James Boughton’s effort to vindicate White is embarrassingly short on evidence if not completely mendacious. There isn’t any reasonable doubt that White provided information to Soviet intelligence and did what in plain language amounts to spying for Stalin.

Which leads is to ask why The Nation even bothers engaging in this dead-end argument. The answer tells us something interesting about the role the past plays for the contemporary left.

You might think that having the most liberal president since Jimmy Carter would free The Nation from their commitment to keep fighting the old ideological battles. There are, after all, a host of contemporary arguments to engage in that, notwithstanding the weakness of the left-wing case, are not vulnerable to disproof by incontrovertible historical evidence as is the case with the delusional effort to defend White. Yet after so many years of pretending that Soviet infiltration of Washington in the 1930s and 1940s was a figment of the imagination of demagogic right-wing anti-Communists, keeping the flag of denial flying is their way of asserting that being left wing means never having to say you’re sorry.

Doing so can be dismissed as a mindless loyalty to their past as a publication, but one suspects there is also something else at work. Admitting the truth about Communist espionage doesn’t validate contemporary conservative critiques of other traditional left-wing positions on the economy like the minimum wage or the folly of socialized medicine and its forerunner, ObamaCare. But at The Nation, the notion that any cracks in what in another era would have been called party solidarity undermines all their beliefs still seems to prevail.

Why else would they bother beating the dead horse of espionage denial if not for the fact that doing so somehow bucks them up in the idea that the right is always wrong, even when it is obviously right.

Liberals often accuse conservatives of living in the past and acting as if the Cold War never ended. Sometimes they have a point on that score, but what this episode teaches us is that the left is far more addicted to their Cold War anti-anti-Communism than anyone on the right has ever been. Being honest about the past requires conservatives to admit that not everything done in the name of anti-Communism was correct or even honorable. At the very least, it should also require liberals to drop the pretense that American Communism was a benign faith that was untainted by its association with Stalinism. It’s too bad The Nation isn’t grown up enough to do even that much.



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