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Ron Radosh

A New View of the McCarthy Era Could Shake up the Academy

April 22nd, 2010 - 8:09 am

Today, I am reprinting my article on a new view of the McCarthy era, that appears on the website of the Manhattan Institute’s Higher Education site, Minding the Campus, edited by the journalist and writer John Leo. Following mine is an article on the state of history profession in the academy, written by historian K.C. Johnson, who with Stuart Taylor, wrote a first rate book on the Duke University scandal. Check his article out too.

April 22, 2010

A Fresh View of Cold-War America

By Ronald Radosh

Teaching in the universities about the so-called McCarthy era has become an area most susceptible to politically correct and one-sided views of what the period was all about. One historian who strenuously objects to the accepted left-wing interpretation that prevails in the academy is Jennifer Delton, Chairman of the Department of History at Skidmore College.

In the March issue of The Journal of the Historical Society Delton writes:

However fiercely historians disagree about the merits of American Communism, they almost universally agree that the post-World War II Red scare signified a rightward turn in American politics. The consensus is that an exaggerated, irrational fear of communism, bolstered by a few spectacular spy cases, created an atmosphere of persecution and hysteria that was exploited and fanned by conservative opportunists such as Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. This hysteria suppressed rival ideologies and curtailed the New Deal, leading to a resurgence of conservative ideas and corporate influence in government. We may add detail and nuance to this story, but this, basically, is what we tell our students and ourselves about post-World War II anti-Communism, also known as McCarthyism. It is fundamentally the same story that liberals have told since Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy in 1948.

This conventional narrative of the left has been told over and over for so many years that it has all but become the established truth to most Americans. It was exemplified in a best-selling book of the late 1970′s, David Caute’s The Great Fear, and from the most quoted one from the recent past, Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. My favorite title is one written by the late Cedric Belfrage, The American Inquisition 1945-1960: A Profile of the “McCarthy Era.” In his book, Belfrage told the story of how he, an independent journalist who founded the fellow-traveling weekly The National Guardian, was hounded by the authorities and finally deported home to Britain. American concerns about Soviet espionage, he argued, were simply paranoia.

The problem with Belfrage’s account was that once the Venona files began to be released in 1995–the once top secret Soviet decrypts of communications between Moscow Center and its US agents—they revealed that Belfrage was a paid KGB operative, just as the anti-Communist liberal Sidney Hook had openly charged decades ago, and as turned KGB spy Elizabeth Bentley had privately informed the FBI in 1945. The Venona cables revealed that Belfrage had given the KGB an OSS report received by British intelligence concerning the anti-Communist Yugoslav resistance in the 1940′s as well as documents about the British government’s position during the war on opening a second front in Europe. It showed that Belfrage had offered the Soviets to establish secret contact with them if he was stationed in London.

Facts like these did not bother or budge the academic establishment. Most famously, Ellen Schrecker wrote in her book that although it is now clear many Communists in America had spied for the Soviets, they did not do any real harm to the country, and also most importantly, their motives were decent. She wrote, “As Communists, these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were ‘building…a better world for the masses,’ not betraying their country.”

Schrecker’s views were endorsed by former Nation publisher and editor Victor Navasky, who regularly in different articles argues that the Venona decrypts are either gossip or forgeries, irrelevant, or do not change his favored narrative that in the United States– only McCarthyism was a threat. As Navasky wrote, Venona was simply an attempt “to enlarge post-cold war intelligence gathering capability at the expense of civil liberty.” If spying indeed took place, it was “a lot of exchanges of information among people of good will, many of whom were Marxists, some of whom were Communists… and most of whom were patriots.” As for those who argue against his view, they were trying to “argue that, in effect, McCarthy and Co. were right all along.”

The lens through which McCarthyism has been seen, therefore, is one seen exclusively through the left-wing prism, which regards defense of one’s own democratic nation against a foreign foe as evil, and sees only testimony against America’s enemies as McCarthyite. What is therefore necessary is to look anew at the McCarthy era, not in the terms set by its Communist opponents, but from the perspective of examining dispassionately the nature of the entire epoch. Those who have chosen to do this, however, have been met with great opposition. A few years ago, the editors of The New York Times claimed that a new group of scholars “would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism.” Fearing such a development, the newspaper warned that it had to be acknowledged that it was McCarthyism more than Soviet espionage or Communist infiltration that was “a lethal threat to American democracy.”

If one disagreed with that assessment, the Times‘ editors implied that such scholars were themselves closet McCarthyites. This became a common tactic. Most recently, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev published their definitive volume on the KGB in America, Spies:The Rise and Fall of the KGB In America. They made it quite clear in their book that McCarthy’s “charges were… wildly off the mark. Very few of the people he accused appeared in KGB documents (or the Venona decryptions), and by the time he made his charges, almost all Soviet agents had been forced out of the government and Soviet intelligence networks were largely defunct.” That disavowal did not help them. In the major review of their book that appeared in TLS, Amy Knight refers in passing to “the McCarthyite style of Haynes and Klehr.” Evidently, any argument that American Communists who spied for the Soviets did some real damage and were not victims of repression, is enough to brand the authors as “McCarthyite.”

If they accepted the failure of their old narrative that Delton summarizes so well, it would interfere with their cherished and still held view that all anti-Communism, as Schrecker wrote, “was misguided or worse,” that the anti-Communist or Cold War liberals were just as bad as the McCarthyites of the Right, and in fact served them intelligence agents who identified Reds, and who “tapped into something dark and nasty in the human soul.” If any harm took place “from Soviet-sponsored spies,” she wrote, it was “dwarfed by McCarthy’s wave of terror.”

That is precisely why the new article by Jennifer Delton is of such importance. For the first time, a young historian at a major liberal arts institution has dared to challenge the consensus view, and to declare that it is time for mainstream historians to acknowledge that their old framework of studying the “McCarthy era” was both misleading and incorrect. As she says near the beginning of her article, “New evidence confirming the widespread existence of Soviet agents in the U.S. government makes the Truman administration’s attempts to purge Communists from government agencies seem rational and appropriate—even too modest, given what we now know.” (my emphasis)

That remark alone is quite different from the conventional analysis offered by historians of the period: that it should not be called the McCarthy Era, but the Truman era of repression, since it was Truman who paved the way for McCarthy’s rise to power, by acting as if there was an actual Communist threat. Moreover, Delton continues to argue that even if the Communists were not among those who became actual KGB agents, whether in unions or political groups or in Hollywood, “there were still good reasons for liberals to expel Communists.” Rather than accept the framework of the Popular Front so beloved by the Left and by left-wing historians, who continue to think workers and Americans could not make real progress unless liberals and Communists cooperated in the post-war era, Delton notes that the Communists “were divisive and disruptive,” could cripple the groups they entered, and harm their very ability to attain their desired ends.

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