Ron Radosh

Eric Alterman- the Left's Most Dishonest Journalist-and the Controversy over "Spies."

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.

This is the passage I wrote that Alterman objects to:

Eric Alterman wasted no time rushing to the web, on the site of Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast, to declare, as the headline puts it, “I.F.Stone Was No Spy.” Alterman argues that Stone could not be a spy, because the dictionary definition of a spy does not fit Stone!  Spies, according to the dictionary, have to give military or naval secrets.  So talent spotting, acting as a courier for other spies, relaying information to KGB agents, and giving the KGB information he found that the Soviets might find useful is not spying.

And he particularly objects to the following:

Alterman ends up saying he will not argue that what Klehr, Haynes and Vasiliev found “does not affect the historical record at all.” But Alterman finds it hard to believe, since he writes that “Stone and I were close friends during the final decade or so of his life and he never mentioned anything of this to me.”  This means, in other words, Alterman believes that if it was true, Stone would have told him!

Alterman writes that “Radosh misread my comment…and claimed …that I had argued that Stone could not have been a spy because he never mentioned it to me.” He then attacks Michael Moynihan of saying the same thing and of “endorsing what Radosh wrote.” But anyone reading Moynihan’s blog will find that he also quotes Alterman directly from his own column, not from me. Nowhere in his article does he even mention my blog. Nor should he have. Indeed, I heard first about Alterman’s claims from Moynihan, who e-mailed me what Alterman wrote and commented how silly it was. That was what prompted me to do my own comment! At any rate, readers can now see Alterman’s claims and his and my remarks exactly as they appeared, and decide on their own whether I was misreading Alterman.

None of this surprises me. I went back to the Nation archives (unfortunately there is no on-line link to provide for what I will cite, but you can pay for it on their website for a nominal fee) and looked again at an April 29, 1996 article by Alterman that appeared in The Nation, titled “I Spy With One Little Eye.” In that article, Alterman did precisely what he now accuses me of doing to him. Alterman referred to a book I co-authored with Harvey Klehr, The Amerasia Spy Case:Prelude to McCarthyism. According to Alterman, who notes that six of the people associated with the magazine Amerasia were arrested as spies; the grand jury refused to indict them, and two paid fines on minor charges. He then concludes: “Lo and behold, the authors [Klehr and I] declare the accused spies guilty as charged.”

In fact, as we said at the time, Alterman clearly did not bother looking at our book. For we said clearly, especially in the case of John S. Service, the old China hand who had the case fixed for him by Tommy Corcoran, was not a spy- despite the charges of McCarthyites that he was. We do argue that several other indicted were in fact toying with espionage, and that the FBI even had wiretaps of them boasting of that.

Reading Alterman’s 1996 article, in light of what we now know from Venona and the Vasiliev notebooks, makes for rather amusing reading. On the Rosenberg case, Alterman claimed —referring to me then with the  description of me he has recycled today as a man transformed from “obscure New Left historian to well-funded…right-wing hatchet man during the Reagan era-as one who falsely claimed that the Rosenbergs were recruited out of the Communist Party for Soviet espionage. He wrote that “Radosh, however, only proved once again his ability to read into documents what he wished to believe in the first place.” Venona, he says, proved Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in espionage and that the intercepts did not prove “that Julius operated a spy ring on the order necessary to have carried out the plot for which he was executed.”

Of course, as Anne Applebaum explains, most of the American spies “were either open or secret members of the American Communist Party.” Although, she writes, “it was long a taboo subject on the Left, the extraordinarily close relationship between the American Communist Party and the KGB should nowadays surprise no one, given what we know about the CPUSA…and about communist ideology.” In fact, when I wrote The Rosenberg File, I specifically said the Rosenbergs had broken their party affiliation before becoming spies—something that Venona proved not to be the case! It was only the new documentation that caused me to change my mind, and therefore Alterman was completely wrong to argue that I was making a false charge about the Rosenbergs CP ties, by implication to justify a witch-hunt that was then supposedly carried out against the CPUSA. As Applebaum puts it, “To the truly dedicated Marxist, the goals of the KGB and the CPUSA would have seemed very similar indeed.” She adds that both Earl Browder, the major CP chief during the war years, had a sister and wife who were both KGB agents, and that “the line between loyalty to the CPUSA and loyalty to the Soviet Union was very muddled.”

One must also add that it is further proof of Haynes and Klehr’s fidelity to history that when they discuss the case of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American a-bomb, they conclude  that the sources establish that while he was a secret member of the American Communist Party, he never did become a Soviet spy or agent. This flies in the face of those like Herbert Romerstein and M. Stanton Evans, (whom Alterman begins one of his articles by putting me in the same group as them), who believe that he was a spy because he was a Communist. It also differs from the view of the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and biographer of Oppenheimer, Martin Sherwin, who believes that Oppenheimer was neither a spy nor a Communist. Indeed, at the very conference a few weeks ago on the book held at the Wilson Center,  which Alterman describes as  a conference that made “wild and unsupportable allegations about Stone,” but which Alterman did not attend and yet writes about what happened based on the recollections of I.F. Stone’s most sympathetic biographer, his Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan.

At this program, the papers of which will appear in the next issue of Harvard’s Journal of Cold War Studies, edited by Mark Kramer, is called by Alterman a program meant to “provide a forum for the series of wild allegations leveled by their authors.” And horrors. He notes: “Radosh was actually invited to chair a panel.” He also complains that at a morning panel, Guttenplan was asked to stop talking when he attempted to read a 15 minute statement he had prepared and was “summarily cut off by the moderator.” But later, he notes, “Guttenplan was given a few minutes to state his objections.” He fails to inform his readers that the panel at which Guttenplan was allowed to speak was the one I chaired- and that I called upon him to present his case. Indeed, if he checks the video feed of the meeting, he will find Guttenplan saying that “perhaps I should have tried to read my comments at the Radosh panel instead of the one in the morning.”

Yet, Alterman is nervy enough to conclude that all of us- Haynes, Klehr, myself, Max Holland, Steve Usdin, the late Ed Mark and others, are all people who “desire to place their own personal and political agendas above and beyond where any careful historian would go based on the available evidence.”

This is yet another case of the pot calling the kettle black. If anyone is guilty of being in denial and ignoring what the evidence shows, it is none other than Eric Alterman. Let me end by quoting again Anne Applebaum, who puts it best. She writes: “The truth, of course, is that neither [Ann]Coulter or [Victor]Navasky, nor any of the many others [pace Alterman] who have joined this particular battle, is really interested in history. They…instead wish to score points about contemporary politics- points that bear only a tendentious relationship to the events of the 1930s and the 1940s. Coulter and her ilk want modern liberals to be identified with the CPUSA: Hiss= Obama. Navasky and his friends [like Alterman] suspect that anyone who investigates Hiss is covertly promoting ‘the wholesale suspension of liberties,’- historical research=Guantanamo.”

She says that wading through their writing is “a torment.” She should try Alterman next time. That is akin to trying to swim through a tsunami.