When Allen Weinstein wrote Perjury:The Hiss Chambers Case, which was published in 1978, and when the late Joyce Milton and I wrote The Rosenberg File which was published in 1983, the response of both the academic and the political Left was the same: these books were a parody of real history, were written to justify the witch-hunt of the FBI and the McCarthyites in the 1950′s, as well as to give ammunition to the attempt of Ronald Reagan to start a new Cold War. Both Weinstein and I were assaulted with major attacks on our scholarship, our integrity, our politics, and our personal honor.
We were told that we wrote on behalf of Right-wing foundations that sponsored our research; that we tailored our conclusions to fit the assumptions of our Right-wing sponsors that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty, and to retroactively justify the climate of suspicion and paranoia that existed in the McCarthy years. We were told, over and over, that we were the new McCarthyites, doing our best to dishonor those heroes who stood up for civil liberties in terrible times, and to defame the memory of those who were truly innocent and sought only to carry on both the legacy of the New Deal and to fight for peace at a time of a phony war scare against the Soviets.
Now we are living in the 21st Century, and these fights about Hiss and the Rosenbergs have all but ended. When Morton Sobell, the Rosenberg’s co-defendant confessed in 2008, and when Venona and other documents from the former Soviet Union proved Alger Hiss’s guilt, most reasonable people accepted the verdict. They were indeed, as we argued back then, Soviet spies. As if to make this point clear, the June 8th Daily Beast website links to an op-ed I had about this very argument a while back.
So the question arises. What accounts for the uproar and clamor about the new magisterial book co-authored by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.? To read about this essential book, the best thing to do is go to this review by Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist who won a Pulitzer for her book on the Gulag. Applebaum captures its essence and summarizes the author’s great accomplishments. Applebaum understands the irrationality of both the true believers on the Left, like the Nation magazine former editor Victory Navasky- who she writes shows “a pathological inability to believe that there really were Soviet spies in America,” and far Right columnist Ann Coulter, who shows a similar inability “to make distinctions between liberal Democrats and paid foreign agents,” and who implies all liberals are guilty of “treason”.
The Klehr-Haynes-Vassiliev volume, then, provides the final word on the extent and nature of Soviet espionage during the KGB’s heyday in America, during the 1930′s and 40′s, to the collapse of its American network after the defection of Elizabeth Bentley in 1945. But strangely, despite the fact that their 703 page book contains only seven pages on the case of journalist I.F. Stone, a plethora of so-called “reviews” have appeared that discuss only those few pages, and concentrate the reviewers’ fire only on their attempts to prove the opposite of the conclusion reached by Haynes and Klehr, that I.F. Stone was, from 1936 to 1938, a Soviet agent who did work for the KGB. Yet, as John Haynes writes in a soon to be published manuscript, “those associated with The Nation have denounced Spies with the combination of rage and maliciousness that marked past assaults on Weinstein and Radosh. To our surprise, however, the defense of Hiss and Rosenberg, while not disappearing, has taken a back seat to the defense of I.F.Stone.”
I would suggest that the reason for this is that the Left has finally come to abandon their forlorn effort to prove the innocence of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Rather than publicly acknowledge this, however, they skirt around the subject and have shifted their firepower to defend the honor of their one remaining hero— I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone. After all, by the 1950′s and 60′s, especially in the latter years, Stone had become something of a non-Communist man of the Left; who at times departed radically from the CP line and who made the kind of hostile comments about the Soviet Union that once came only from dedicated anti-Communists. Now, in their eyes, if it turned out that Stone was at one time not only rabidly pro-Soviet but a man who was willing to use his journalistic endeavors to help them on a formal basis, they believed the integrity and honor of Stone as an independent thinker would be forever soiled.
Why Stone might have done that, however, is nailed by Applebaum. She writes: “Stone…still had a faith in the essential goodness of communism. Mistakes had been made, but between 1936 and 1938 he still believed that only Stalin could save Europe from fascism. He would hardly object if the agents of Stalin asked him to pass on some messages or to recommend a few friends. In fact, it is hard to think of a good reason why he would not do so, given what he was writing and saying at the time.”
The journalist who has gone all out in an assault is Eric Alterman, columnist for The Nation He is, as anyone who has read his columns know to expect, a man who combines ad hominem smears with self-righteous defenses of the indefensible. He has written two different versions of his defense of Stone for his magazine, the first in the June 22 issue; the second on the magazine’s website. Alterman redresses all the old familiar smears: the work was funded by Right-wing foundations-”the campaign to smear Stone bears the hallmarks of a foundation-funded campaign of right-wing media manipulation.” The authors were given “generous funding from the ultra-right-wing Smith-Richardson Foundation,” etc. Of course, he does not mention that their grant was simply to pay translators of the documents all of which were written in Russian. And Alterman includes the reputable mainstream Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and the Cold War International History Project as part of the Right-wing cabal. The latter is too silly to even attempt to answer.
In his second web essay, Alterman takes after yours truly in particular, and with his usual venom. First is his identification of me as a “one-time historian turned right-wing polemicist;” and not content with that, later he says I was “once a respected historian.” [I assume he has not checked the blurbs for the recent book I co-authored with my wife from the likes of the well known neo-cons Sean Wilentz, Michael Oren, Ron Rosenbaum and Cokie Roberts.]And he puts me in what is actually quite a distinguished list, when he calls me “just another Neocon ranter in the style of…Horowitz [and] also Martin Peretz, Norman and John Podhoretz and their acolytes on the blogs of The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Commentary and National Review.”
I wonder first when it was that Alterman thought I was a respected historian; I assume it was for the brief time half a century ago when I was called a “New Left historian,” never an accurate term, but nevertheless one that was often used when someone discussed me. What he accuses me of this time is “misreading” what he wrote. To satisfy readers, here is the exact citation made by Alterman that I wrote about. It appeared in a posting on The Daily Beast. He wrote:
I would not argue that what the authors have found-assuming it is both accurate and authentic-does not affect the historical record at all. Stone and I were close friends during the final decade or so of his life and he never mentioned anything of this to me. He knew I was a strong anti-Communist and I assume he would have expected me to disapprove. What’s more, he kept it secret from everyone, insofar as we are aware (and again, assuming it is accurate). I can understand and forgive this.