Commentary Magazine


The Web of Subversion: Underground Networks in the U. S. Government, by James Burnham

The Web of Realism
The Web of Subversion: Underground Networks in the U. S. Government.
by James Burnham.
John Day. 248 pp. $3.75.

 

A few years back, the French periodical Crapouillot issued a special number devoted to La Farce des Services Secrets, which rambled through the underground of history with a jaundiced eye and frivolous pen. It made very funny reading: how, for instance, before the First World War, the French and German High Commands had succeeded in stealing each other’s most secret military plans, but could never make their minds up whether each knew that the other knew, and if he knew, whether he would change his plans or stick to them because the other expected him to change them, etc., etc.—just like the convolutions of self-consciousness in a novel by Henry James. Those were the good old days, when British firms built German warships, when spies worked for money, glamor, and the simple hell of it (and not infrequently for both sides); and when the stakes, though high, were somewhat less than the future of civilization.

That era ended with the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of world Communism. Instead of the glamorous and gay Mata Hari we have the grim tricoteuse Ethel Rosenberg. The profession has become overcrowded, and standards have deteriorated. Above all, the business has become too serious.

In inflating espionage in all its dimensions, however, the Soviets have also magnified its stupid and absurd sides. They have wasted valuable talents in the accumulation of economic data they could have got simply by spending a few hundred dollars for subscriptions to the right magazines. They have disbelieved in their own successes—all during the war they received daily from a still unidentified agent in Berlin the complete battle orders of the German army in the East, but it was only after a fantastic delay that they brought themselves to make use of them. In the course of intrigues within the Kremlin, highly successful networks abroad have been shattered to gain a factional advantage at home—the Slansky trial was an incident in such a case. And because of the separate and rival operations conducted in this area by the Red Army, the secret police, and the Soviet Foreign Office, misunderstandings are always taking place—one can easily imagine the Soviet embassy in Washington sending back analyses of the American economy based on United States government surveys tendentiously edited by secret Communists.

But, unfortunately, Soviet espionage is not a silly business of the past, but a serious danger in the present, and it is with its unpleasant successes rather than its ludicrous failures that we, and James Burnham, are concerned.

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In The Web of Subversion, Mr. Burnham presents a terse and lucid summary of what has been discovered by various investigating committees about Communist espionage networks in the United States government. Since he knows his subject thoroughly and has a very orderly mind, his book is a useful one; those who wish to get a clear picture of the extent of Communist infiltration of the various government agencies, of the kinds of people these infiltrees are, of the kind of evidence that has been adduced against them, will find The Web of Subversion very much to their purpose. None of the material is new, but some items (the case of Arthur Adams, for example) are not so well known as they should be, while others make a fresh impression when collated so carefully. Random bits of information then fall into place, giving off shocks of illumination. Thus, when Mr. Burnham traces the careers in government service of the members of the original Communist cell in the Natonal Research Project, a great deal of what had seemed at the time like pointless Senatorial inquisitiveness about promotions, recommendations, etc., finds its justification.

Those Who prefer to regard Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as pathological liars, and who believe that to plead the privilege of the Fifth Amendment is the first refuge of a scholar and a gentleman, are not likely to be influenced by Mr. Burnham’s book, despite the fact that he has meticulously avoided all sensationalism, and has at times even tried to be persuasive. Such people are incorrigible by now, one supposes; Mr. Burnham is scarcely open to criticism for failing to move them. But he is open to criticism in other respects. For, though The Web of Subversion is a good book, there are far too many rough passages in it, when the mind reels and the ground seems to slip beneath one’s feet. Moreover, one feels that these are, as Mr. Burnham would say, “no accident,” but are inherent to his approach to politics.

Mr. Burnham is a man of many talents, none of them bent particularly in the direction of politics. His mind is that of a scholastic for whom the world is populated by such abstract substances as “power,” “vigilant action,” and “swift counteraction,” which bump into one another like ghostly billiard balls and ricochet into their predetermined pockets. If he is a “realist,” it is only in the medieval sense. His reasoning is legalistic, never judicial; strong on first causes, weak on contingent ones—for the study of these latter is a nominalistic art, having to do with unrepeatable singularities. When his emotions are stirred, his “realism” becomes a form of political romanticism. The genuine philosophers of Realpolitik—Burke, Madison, Bagehot—do not interest him; he prefers the doctrinaire type of Machiavelli and Sorel, who might have passed their days in a monastery for all they knew of the affairs of men.

Here are two specimens of Mr. Burnham’s unworldliness:

(1) On the question of Communist infiltration of the armed services, he remarks:

No systematic public enquiry has ever been made concerning military infiltration. We can be certain only that the armed forces and their technical auxiliaries have been—and still are—heavily penetrated. . . . Earl Browder, while he was secretary of the Party during the war, said publicly that the Party had more than 13,000 members, including officers, in the armed forces. . . . Every Communist, unless he is assigned to the most extreme secret work, is a propagandist and recruiting agent. Moreover, the influence of disciplined Communists in the armed forces, as elsewhere, is dynamic, and far greater than it appears on mere arithmetic comparisons.

So the Communists who, like everyone else, were drafted into the armed forces, were really engaged in mass infiltration. . . . Mr. Burnham has a most innocent vision of military life; he may even think that soldiers talk politics in their idle moments. It is true, of course, that after the war a few dozen Communists got important positions in military government in Germany and Japan and were able to do some very useful work, from their point of view. We should like to learn about them, but we do not, because Mr. Burnham is too hypnotized by the spectacle of Mr. Browder’s 13,000 subversive stalwarts sweeping their barracks, peeling potatoes, rotting away in reinforcement depots, or actually daring to shoot at (enemy) non-Communists.

(2) Where the ordinary man tends to look at politics in a limited perspective, establishing the connections among things in a crude and sensible way, Mr. Burnham prefers to sight along an infinite series. As in this sentence: “Every trial and every investigation dealing with specific members of the underground have led to the conclusion that those members were linked to an indefinite number of others still undetected.” The italics are not Mr. Burnham’s, for if attention is called to the word, one realizes at once how strange a choice it represents. An “indefinite” number is, in common usage, certainly a large number, and probably a very large one. An “undetermined” number, on the other hand—well, that’s simply a number one doesn’t know. Mr. Burnham doesn’t know the number, or even whether it is large or small. But he obviously would prefer to have it large, for if it were small he would have to count, and that is a menial task for a political philosopher.

A final word on an unpalatable but urgent issue: McCarthy. In a passing reference, Mr. Burnham asserts that the Senator has “uncovered” a secret espionage cell that “has operated, and may still be operating” at Fort Monmouth. He gives no evidence for this claim, leaving one to assume that he has deduced it from—if one may say so—underground premises.

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