It was a surprise to many when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced early this year that it would bestow a lifetime-achievement award on the director Elia Kazan. The only thing predictable was that a storm of protest would ensue. Kazan, after all, had chosen to name the names of members of the Communist party (CP or CPUSA) when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. Ever since, and despite his many brilliant films, he had been treated as a pariah by much of Hollywood.
At the award ceremony itself, when the eighty-nine-year-old Kazan was finally handed his special Oscar, some of the assembled glitterati, led by the actor Richard Dreyfuss, expressed their outrage by ostentatiously declining to stand or to applaud. Outside the hall marched a large crowd bearing signs like “Elia Kazan: Snitch” and “Elia Kazan: Benedict Arnold.” There was also a group of counter-demonstrators, quite a bit smaller, whose spokesman gamely hailed the director as a “moral giant.”
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cold war, it would appear, is still alive on the home front. Nor is the skirmish over Kazan the only sign of combat. Quite the contrary: in the past year alone, newspapers, magazines, and books, have brought us a whole series of controversies and debates not just about Communism but, especially, about the nature of the foothold it did or did not establish in the United States. Although positions on the major questions have shifted a bit from where they were twenty or ten years ago, the territory is still under dispute, and some of the old battle lines remain surprisingly visible.
Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the Soviet Union was still vigorous and growing, attitudes toward the workers’ state on the part of politically engaged Americans tended to fall into three camps. There were, first of all, the admirers, many of whom took the step of formally joining the Communist party while others expressed their sympathies in different ways, participating in organizations aligned with the party or generally making their voices heard as “fellow travelers.” Standing against the admirers at the opposite end of the spectrum were the anti-Communists, who understood that even as Stalin invoked the new and better world being built in the Soviet homeland, he was in the process of murdering millions of his countrymen and immiserating the rest. This camp, which encompassed a broad political range, included a fair number of intellectuals on the Left, some of whom had themselves formerly been members of the CP but, having become disenchanted and disillusioned, now dedicated themselves to fighting it by every means.
In between the pro-Communists and the anti-Communists was the great uncommitted middle, composed of those, primarily liberals, in whom the Soviet Union inspired neither fierce adulation nor fierce hatred but who strove in their own minds to balance Communism’s failures with what they were convinced were its successes. Throughout the decades, pro-Communists and anti-Communists fought to gain the allegiance of this center.
Ironically, the pro-Soviet camp in the United States was at its apogee during the Soviet regime’s bloodiest days, when the purges of the 1930’s were filling up the concentration camps and millions were being starved to death in a man-made famine. Only in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, as the USSR subjugated Eastern Europe and detonated first an atomic and then a hydrogen bomb, and as Communists seized power in China and launched a war in Korea, did the anti-Communists in America gain the upper hand, and then only in the political arena (the cultural realm remained largely under the influence of the Communists and their epigones and fellow travelers). They were aided by revelations that America’s atomic-bomb secrets had been stolen by Soviet spies, and that high-ranking officials in Washington had harbored covert loyalty to the Kremlin even as they were helping to shape U.S. policy.
As new laws were passed to tighten security, and both executive and legislative bodies initiated investigations into charges of treachery, the response of the pro-Soviet camp was twofold. First, it threw up a stone wall of denial. Registered Communists denied membership in the party, while the party itself scoffed at the idea that it or any of its members had ever engaged in espionage. The so-called “Hollywood Ten”—a group of prominent figures in the entertainment industry, nine party members and one fellow traveler—went to jail for contempt of Congress rather than testify before HUAC. Numerous witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions about their own political affiliations and activities.
Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official accused of espionage, denied the charge, denied he was a Communist, and denied he had known his accuser, Whittaker Chambers. In 1950, he went to jail for perjury—and came out still denying all. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the USSR, went to the electric chair, leaving their two young sons orphans rather than admit to what they had done. Others fled the country: scores went to Mexico, still others to the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia. Even in exile, most of them continued denying.
But denial was only one half of the Communist strategy; the other half was to claim victimization at the hands of a proto-fascist campaign, spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, to suppress dissent or to injure Jews, other minorities, and the foreign-born. This was not an unwise or ineffective move. If, as the leftist historian David Caute has written, “the pro-Communist Left began to scream ‘Fascism!’ at the first subpoena,” it found its perfect foil in the demagogic McCarthy, who, even as he tapped into a rising national fear, had neither the wit to keep his facts straight nor the sobriety or scruple to care. By the time McCarthy’s antics finally ended in his censure by the Senate in 1954, he had managed to create the impression that anti-Communism itself was nothing but a pastiche of false and flimsy charges in the service of a reactionary politics.
Indeed, thanks in no small measure to McCarthy, the American Communist movement was on its way to riding out the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s when it was left reeling by a blow delivered by none other than Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In 1956, at the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist party, Khrushchev launched an electrifying reassessment of Stalin. Overnight, the man who had ruled the Communist universe for three decades was “demoted,” in the sardonic words of one American radical, “from the office of greatest, wisest, and most adored leader in recorded history to the lesser office of maniacal mass-murderer.” The impact on American Communism was devastating, and party members, overcome by confusion and doubt, quietly left in droves.
With the party on the wane, and with the Kremlin continuing to provide periodic displays of its brutal nature (invading Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979), Communism in the U S. steadily declined until it all but disappeared. But to say that Communism itself declined is not to say that pro-Communist sentiment also declined. Starting in the 60’s, the ardor that once attached itself to the Soviet Union found new objects of desire in Communist China, Castro’s Cuba, Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and a host of other experiments in compulsory utopianism. In many quarters of American intellectual life, moreover, a phenomenon emerged that came to be known as anti-anti-Communism: the view that anti-Communism was a scourge almost as great as Communism itself, and that all talk of Communist perfidy or subversion was part and parcel of a McCarthyite “witch hunt.” Today, this view remains deeply entrenched, if not dominant, in the social-science and humanities departments of many of the nation’s universities.
Still, the wheel has also begun to turn. Just as Khrushchev’s revelations shook the American Communist movement to its core, so the collapse of the Soviet Union has, over the past decade, shaken some of the basic premises of anti-anti-Communism. The opening of the Soviet archives has permitted scholars in both Russia and the West to document the crimes of the Soviet Communists in all their horrific detail. And these same archives have also confirmed two other facts long denied: first, that Communist parties around the world, including in the United States, were not independent movements but wholly under the dictatorial control of the Kremlin; and, second, that Communist subversion in the United states was no figment of the McCarthyite imagination.
How this news has been met on the American Left is another matter.
Espionage is the issue that has received the most attention lately, thanks to the Venona files. These are some 3,000 highly secret communications between Moscow and Soviet agents operating in the U.S. that in the 1940’s were intercepted and decoded by the National Security Agency. The facts contained in this trove of documents have now been brought before us in all their stark detail by two indefatigable scholars, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.1 They are impossible to dismiss.
Consider, for example, the light the Venona files shed on the Alger Hiss affair, the most controversial espionage case in American history. Even among those who have long conceded that Hiss was a Soviet spy, there has been considerable dispute over just how long he served his masters in the Kremlin. His principal accuser, Whittaker Chambers, had left the Communist underground in 1938, and it seemed plausible to some that Hiss ceased his own activities shortly thereafter, possibly following the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939.
Not so, the Venona documents demonstrate: Hiss remained an active conduit to Moscow throughout the war. From a cable bearing a 1945 date, we learn that this high-ranking American diplomat (referred to by his code-name Ales) had been feeding information to Soviet military intelligence (GRU) “continuously since 1935.” We also get a glimpse of how much the Kremlin valued Hiss from the information that he and a small group of fellow spies organized by him all received decorations from the GRU. When Hiss visited Moscow as a member of a State Department delegation, the deputy foreign minister took the trouble and risk of contacting him directly to express again the GRU’s gratitude.
Julius Rosenberg, to take another notorious example, emerges from the Venona documents as even mcre active than was previously thought. Over many years, the intercepts show, he ran a network of a dozen agents—most of whom he either recruited directly or helped to recruit—that methodically delivered atomic secrets and other highly sensitive military-technical information to the USSR. In Rosenberg, wrote one Soviet case officer, “we have a man devoted to us, whom we can trust completely, . . . a capable agent who knows how to work with people and has solid experience in recruiting new agents.”
The Venona files also shed light on cases that have received far less attention than Hiss and Rosenberg. For nearly a decade, for example, a man named Laurence Duggan headed the Latin America division of the State Department; in 1948, immediately after being interviewed by the FBI about his contacts with the Soviet Union, he threw himself out a window to his death. After his suicide, many influential American liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Edward R. Murrow, and the Attorney General Tom Clark, expressed complete confidence in Duggan’s probity, and so have many others since.
In an earlier book, The Secret World of American Communism, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes referred to Duggan as a “Communist source . . . in the State Department,” a phrase for which they and their publisher were severely reproached in the New Republic by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But the Venona decrypts conclusively resolve the issue (as Schlesinger has conceded): Duggan was indeed illegally passing information to the Russians.
Not only were many individual Communists engaged in espionage, but the American Communist party as an institution turns out to have been much more directly involved than previously suspected. Take the case of Earl Browder, the leader of the CP from 1930 until 1945. Browder has long enjoyed the image of a moderate, in part because he was expelled from the party by Stalin himself in a leftward shift after World War II. The Venona intercepts make clear, however, that throughout his tenure in party office, Browder was orchestrating espionage operations on behalf of the USSR. And not only was Browder himself “an eager and productive” agent, according to a new analysis of Soviet intelligence archives by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev,2 but his wife was also an agent, and so were his brother and his brother’s wife.
Seven years ago, on the basis of exhaustive research, Klehr and Haynes concluded that “few American Communists were spies,” and that “espionage was not a regular activity of the American CP.” Today, they write, this assessment can no longer stand:
As our computers . . . printed out the names, not of “few,” but of hundreds of American Communists who abetted Soviet espionage in the United States; as we read the deciphered messages showing that regional CPUSA officials, members of the party’s most powerful body, the Politburo, and the party chief himself knowingly and purposely assisted Soviet spies, it became clear that espionage was a regular activity of the American Communist party.
What, then, has been the effect of these revelations on liberal and left-wing opinion in the United States? In some cases, what can no longer be denied has in fact been acknowledged. Thus, to the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman, the new disclosures show that “point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.” Echoing von Hoffman, Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, finds that “McCarthy, for all his unpardonable excesses, was mainly right about the extent of Communist influence.” And the columnist Garry Wills (who twenty years ago wrote a fawning introduction to Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman’s meretricious account of her confrontation with HUAC) has chastised his fellow liberals who still cling to their faith in the innocence of Hiss and Rosenberg.3
Still, if a shift is under way, it is not yet a decisive one. Not only do the heirs of the old hard Left, from the editors of the Nation to revisionist historians, continue to glorify the “achievements” of American Communism, but even those willing to entertain seriously the gravamen of recent disclosures insist on qualifying what it means for their understanding of the past. For example, the historian Maurice Isserman has admitted that his views regarding the involvement of American Communists in Soviet espionage “have changed dramatically”; he no longer doubts the guilt of Hiss or Rosenberg. But the key fact on which to focus, Isserman now maintains, is that only a trifling fraction—300 out of some 50,000 party members—have been shown to be spies. And in any case, what induced them to cross the line “from sharing sympathies to sharing secrets with the Soviets” was a genuine threat—namely, the rise of European fascism. Thus, says Isserman, nothing in the new revelations shakes his previous argument that American Communists were not mere puppets of Moscow but rather something far more complex: “human beings who held and discarded illusions, learned some lessons from their mistakes, and failed to learn others.”
A similar line has been taken by Ellen Schrecker, the author of a recent revisionist history of the McCarthy era.4 To her, the new evidence suggests only that, while the Communist party’s top tier may have obediently followed Moscow’s bidding, at the middle and lower levels the party retained its character as a “progressive” and autonomous social movement. Moreover, if the party had a penchant for secrecy, this was only natural in light of the persecution it faced in America. Finally, to the extent that members of the party engaged in spying, they did little harm. “Were these activities so awful?” Schrecker asks. Did they justify the establishment of the “politically repressive security system” that we came to have in the United States?
Such arguments, whatever else one might say about them, attest to the remarkable power of cherished dogma to withstand the assault of facts.
A few such facts are these. To begin with, all ranks of the Communist party were equally slavish in their devotion to the Kremlin throughout the Soviet era, as is amply demonstrated by the zigs and zags cut by the party whenever the Kremlin changed its line. Without a peep of dissent from the ranks, the CP obediently followed where Stalin led it, even when he led it in a direction 180 degrees opposite to the previous year’s. And if the party’s behavior in general gives the lie to any notion that it represented an independent political force, its behavior in the particular period surrounding World War II shows beyond a shadow of doubt that anti-fascism could hardly have been a primary motive for people joining the cause: many Communists spent those critical years following orders from Moscow that had the practical effect of helping fascism to thrive, and that even directed the party to proclaim its relative indifference to fascism as just another form of capitalism.
Nor does Maurice Isserman’s acknowledgment of Communist espionage go nearly far enough. For one thing, the number of known Communist spies is undoubtedly higher than 300—though even 300 agents in key positions would make for a network of extraordinary potency. For another thing, the Venona documents cover only a year-and-a-half of intercepted communications, and there were certainly many others who had left the fold before then or who joined it later.
In any case, a much more telling fact is that there is no record of any American Communist ever refusing a request to spy and reporting it to law-enforcement authorities or publicly denouncing it. One cannot plausibly hold that party members were unaware of what was going on. Just as the Venona documents show that CP officials were orchestrating the espionage, so they record that the majority of individuals being recruited to do the dirty work were rank-and-file members. Thousands of other members must have noticed that comrades from their own units were slipping away without fanfare as they entered the underground apparatus.
But perhaps the most outrageous distortion of all is the idea that Communist espionage did little or no harm. Spies recruited from within the American CP made it possible for the Soviet Union to obtain atomic weapons years earlier than would otherwise have been the case. This alone—and it was hardly the only Soviet espionage coup—greatly heightened the terrors and human costs of the cold war, enabling Stalin to pursue a far more aggressive policy in Europe and in Asia. His authorization of North Korea’s invasion of the South, a conflict in which tens of thousands of Americans and a great many more Koreans died, may have owed its origins in part to the atomic espionage successfully conducted by members of the American Communist party.
So, despite their “illusions” and their “mistakes,” were the Communists basically fine, well-intentioned people, as the last-ditch line of defense of the apologists would have it? One can freely posit that some of them must have been. But Red Diapers,5 a new anthology of reminiscences by children of party members, casts doubt on that, too. A considerable number of these now-adult children recount lonely and unhappy lives in the company of parents who thought first, last, and always of their obligations to the party. A startling number also recall being terrified for years that their mothers and fathers would be taken from them by the police, put on trial, and executed in the electric chair. For their parents had shared with them the lie that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been framed merely for their idealistic political convictions.
In the end, why so many people clung so persistently and for so long to such a false and murderous god is something of a mystery. But if the Communist mentality remains difficult to comprehend, the nature of the Communist party and the role it played in American life are coming into ever clearer focus, at least for those willing to look. As Klehr and Haynes sum it up:
[T]o say that the CPUSA was nothing but a Soviet fifth column in the cold war would be an exaggeration; . . . the CPUSA’s chief task was the promotion of Communism and the interests of the Soviet Union through political means. But it is equally true that the CPUSA was indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the cold war.
Which brings us back to the protesters who refused to applaud or who picketed Elia Kazan at the Academy Awards. Far from being the “Benedict Arnold” that he has been labeled by today’s anti-anti-Communists, Kazan was a patriot, and his decision to name those who stood ready to betray the United States was both courageous and morally unimpeachable. In a newspaper advertisement he took out shortly after testifying to HUAC, Kazan called Communism a “dangerous and alien conspiracy.” This was on the mark back then, and, as a retrospective verdict on that dark period, its truth has been reinforced by every new fact that has come to light since the end of the cold war. If we cannot get straight the rights and wrongs of the struggle between Communism and anti-Communism, itself perhaps the greatest moral struggle of this century, then it is hard to see what other issues we will ever be able to address intelligently.
1 Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. Yale University Press, 487 pp., $30.00.
2 The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era. Random House, 401 pp., $30.00.
3 The new climate may explain why The View from Alger’s Window (Knopf, 256 pp., $24.00), a recent, loving portrait of Alger Hiss by his son Tony, has met with a decidedly cool reception. Lance Morrow’s review in Time was typical: Tony Hiss, Morrow wrote, “makes a case for his father’s innocence . . . so heartbreakingly sweet that one struggles (though unsuccessfully) to join in the son’s self-deception.”
4 Many Are the Crimes (Little, Brown, 1998), reviewed by James Nuechterlein in the June 1998 COMMENTARY.
5 Edited by Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro. University of Illinois Press, 320 pp., $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.