In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage
by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
Encounter. 280 pp. $25.95
If we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and scores of other American Communists were spying for the Soviet Union, it is in large part thanks to John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Their research in Soviet KGB and Comintern archives and the Venona files of the U.S. National Security Agency has resolved many previously open questions about the nature of the American Communist party (CPUSA). In a series of books recently published by Yale, Klehr and Haynes brought to light a mass of documents proving that the CPUSA was, from start to finish, subordinate to Moscow, and that its most consequential activity from the 1930’s through the 1950’s was a number of espionage operations that significantly compromised the security of the United States.
One would think that, with the abundant evidence these scholars have presented, the issue would be settled. Far from it. Their books have ignited a firestorm of criticism from left-wing “revisionist” scholars and journalists who refuse to accept the findings themselves and denounce Haynes and Klehr as McCarthyite reactionaries. Hence In Denial—a lengthy rebuttal of these critics, and an indictment of the historical profession for tolerating pro-Communist historians who deny or defend the treason committed by hundreds of American Communists.
To Haynes and Klehr, revisionist writings on Communism are the intellectual and moral equivalent of Holocaust denial by the Nazi sympathizer and pseudo-historian David Irving. They first level this charge at American Sovietologists like J. Arch Getty and Robert Thurston, who low-balled the number of victims of the Stalinist purges or questioned the existence of mass terror in Stalin’s Russia. This brand of revisionism, write Haynes and Klehr, operates in tandem with the whitewashing practiced by historians of American Communism, who have been oblivious to the conspiratorial nature of the CPUSA and its slavish obedience to Moscow’s dictates.
Going over ground covered in their previous books, Haynes and Klehr adduce multiple documentary sources to show that in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Kremlin handpicked the leadership of the CPUSA and the party then unquestioningly accepted every twist in the Soviet line, from the murderous show trials of the 30’s through Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler and beyond. For over a half-century, the American Communist party received millions of dollars in annual subsidies from the USSR, some portion of which went to the “secret apparatus” that carried out missions for Soviet foreign intelligence. American Communist-party members kept tabs on Russian émigrés and the Orthodox Church, infiltrated Jewish organizations, kidnapped defectors, and helped arrange the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
For their part, the Venona cables—Soviet intelligence telegrams of the mid-1940’s decrypted by American code-breakers—confirm the reliability of the ex-Communists Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee against their erstwhile comrades involved in espionage operations within the U.S. government and atomic-weapons laboratories. In great detail, Haynes and Klehr recapitulate the overwhelming evidence of spying by Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and two high-ranking American officials: FDR adviser Lauchlin Currie and Harry Dexter White, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury appointed by President Truman to head the International Monetary Fund.
Yet, as Haynes and Klehr show, most revisionist scholars either ignore the “dirty tricks” of Soviet espionage or twist the meaning of the evidence beyond recognition. Thus, according to Bernice Schrank of Memorial University in Newfoundland, what was involved was not spying but merely the “unauthorized technological transfer” of atomic secrets to the deserving Soviet defenders of humanity. Others, less honest, dismiss the evidence of treason as fraudulent or simply omit mention of anything that would tarnish the reputation of their heroes.
Indeed, instead of confronting the issue of espionage, these historians harp on the evil of American anti-Communism. For Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University, this “longest-lasting episode of political repression in our nation’s history”—she uses the catchall term of McCarthyism for any and all detractors of the CPUSA—“tap[ped] into something dark and nasty in the human soul.” To Joel Kovel, holder of the Alger Hiss professorship at Bard College, America’s obsession with anti-Communism during the cold war led the U.S. to become “the enemy of humanity.”
Predictably, the revisionists lump the McCarthyites together with every other kind of anti-Communist in an imaginary coalition of retrograde elites; these they accuse of thwarting the egalitarian social transformations that, they are certain, the CPUSA would have brought to post-1945 America. Believing that the sins of anti-Communism were far greater than any committed by American Communists, they conclude that, to quote Schrecker again, “whatever harm may have come to the country from Soviet-sponsored spies [was] dwarfed by McCarthy’s wave of terror.”
In Denial thoroughly dissects this revisionist literature. In doing so, it also defends the record of anti-Communism, which Haynes and Klehr show to be a perfectly legitimate position enjoying broad support across the American political spectrum. Conservatives and socialists alike understood the serious threat posed by domestic Communism, and the anti-Communism of the postwar era, was, Haynes and Klehr write, “a rational and understandable response to a real danger to American democracy.” As in all their writings, they make a clear exception of McCarthyism, which they unequivocally condemn as a “wild and irresponsible” impulse that resulted in untold damage to anti-Communism itself.
In sum, In Denial convincingly demonstrates that the revisionist historians are for the most part not historians at all but propagandists who ignore basic truths about their subject, pay little heed to standards of evidence, and express a hatred of the American political and economic order. If Klehr and Haynes had stopped there, this book would have been a significant contribution to the historical record. Unfortunately, they do not stop there.
In Denial opens with a description of the way graduate students are reputedly taught history these days: in “boring seminars” that fail to explore the “actual events and people that make history interesting and dramatic,” they learn to engage in “tedious discussions of sources” and in “carping about interpretations.” This caricature is followed by an attack on the supposed “gatekeepers” of the historical profession—namely, the editors of the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History—who have allegedly “silenced debate” by refusing to publish articles about the CPUSA written from an anti-Communist perspective.
True enough, these journals do not publish such articles. But it is also true that, preoccupied as they are with a variety of faddish historical approaches, they publish very little on any traditional political subject, be it American Communism or the American Civil War. That is why most scholarly articles these days appear in specialized journals, the proliferation of which ensures that there are no gatekeepers in the historical profession. In any case, the fact that Haynes and Klehr have themselves been published by Yale University Press suggests that their point of view is hardly being suppressed.
One must also challenge the authors’ assertion that “the enormous human cost of Communism barely registers in American intellectual life,” or that “a sizable cadre of American intellectuals now openly applauds and apologizes for one of the bloodiest ideologies of human history.” This may or may not be true of American intellectuals in general, but if Haynes and Klehr are speaking about historians, they are wrong. There are approximately 25,000 historians in the United States. Focusing on a handful, In Denial tars the entire lot.
One could tar the entire lot—or at least a highly vocal portion of it—for many things, from the obsession with the politically correct mantra of “race, class, gender” to the theoretical gobbledygook of post-modernism. But the vast majority of scholars are not soft on Communism. Neither are they hard on it. They simply do not think about it—which may, indeed, explain why the revisionists have gotten away with their gross distortions of the historical record.
It is a pity that Haynes and Klehr exaggerate the sway of the revisionists. It would be an even greater pity if their overstatements in this regard were allowed to obscure their perfectly valid refutation of the pernicious junk now being published about the American Communist party—and their invaluable correcting of the record.