Ron Radosh

The Debate over Soviet Espionage: What Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker Gets Wrong

I last wrote about the controversy over the book Spies some time ago.  Now, once again, it is time to turn to the ongoing debate once more. It seems that it never ends, despite the belief of some people that questions like whether or not Alger Hiss was guilty is of interest only to people over 60.

Of particular interest is the continued use of the term “McCarthyism” to describe serious historians who have concluded, based on careful research, that a lot of people accused of being Soviet agents in the 1950’s turned out to have been the real thing. This is the tactic I mentioned that was used by the writer Amy Knight in a lengthy review of their book that was in the Times Literary Supplement on June 26th.(not available on line) Knight referred in passing to the “McCarthyite style” of John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. As Knight saw things, Haynes and Klehr were trying to retroactively punish Cold War dissenters by branding them as Soviet agents, and she wrote, “to silence those who still voice doubts about the guilt of people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, I. F. Stone and others”.

The authors of Spies replied in a brief tough letter, which you can read for yourself. It is a model of how Haynes and Klehr use the facts and documents as a basis for making judgments, not ideological agendas for which they bend facts for their own purposes.  As for the charge of McCarthyism against the two authors, anyone who has read their work knows that they have consistently argued over the years that to prove that evidence is what convicts people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White and others as spies in the court of history, is not to vindicate the campaign of the late junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

In the review of their book by Christopher Andrew, the dean of British historians of Soviet espionage, Andrew makes the following  point:

As well as attracting well-deserved praise, the US edition of Spies has provoked outrage from those who claim that it smears the reputation of some American radicals. The outrage reflects the fact that, thanks chiefly to the malign legacy of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, “Stalin’s Americans” remain a far more sensitive area of research than “Stalin’s Englishmen”. President Truman was right to claim in 1951: “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.” McCarthy ultimately did more for the Soviet cause than any agent of influence the KGB ever had. His preposterous, self-serving ­crusade against the “Red Menace” made liberal opinion around the world skeptical of the reality of Moscow’s intelligence offensive against the United States.

McCarthy’s antics, his scattershot attacks on liberals as Communists and some Communists as spies- when no evidence existed for his charges- allowed those truly guilty to win public sympathy by claiming that they too were simple victims of a McCarthyite witch-hunt. Nothing served their purpose better. Venona and other Soviet documents prove, for example, that the journalist Cedric Belfrage, a British subject living in America, was a KGB agent. Yet Belfrage, who started the fellow-traveling newspaper The National Guardian (which began the campaign in America to exonerate the Rosenbergs as innocent) had the gall to write a memoir decades later he titled The American Inquisition, in which he depicted the so-called era of McCarthyism as a witch-hunt against dissenters who were falsely accused of being Soviet spies. 

But perhaps the most recent influential essay on what the issue of Soviet espionage is all about comes from Nicholas Lemann, a staff writer for The New Yorker and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. It appeared in the July 27 issue of the magazine, and unfortunately, has not been made available on line for readers.

Yet, Lemann, a sophisticated and knowledgeable writer, falls into the same trap as those coming before him to largely deal with the new evidence about Soviet espionage by bringing up the bugaboo of McCarthyism. Lemann writes:

The fierce arguments about Soviet espionage are barely disguised arguments about the Red Scare of the fifties–whether it was irrational and hysterical or justified and protective. Even with the Cold War long over, the debate has bite. A book like Spies supports a conservative view: America inhabits a world full of dangerous enemies, and liberals are incapable of understanding this. President Bush’s “global war on terror” implicitly tapped into a wellspring of such conservative conviction. When Bush, in his second term as President, appointed Allen Weinstein archivist of the United States, it sent a message. Bush isn’t President anymore, but these issues have hardly been put to rest. Although Barack Obama has steered away from the hot-blooded rhetoric about America’s enemies, he knows that our political culture is, quick to charge liberals with a perilous naiveté about bad guys from abroad.

Let me dissect the above paragraph. To be candid, I discussed this issue both on the phone and via e-mail with Lemann, and he argued that I had misinterpreted what I took that paragraph to mean.  I have since read it over a few times, and still find Lemann’s words wanting.

First, I do not think the argument over who might have been a Soviet agent is a disguised fight over the Red Scare. Lemann posits an either-or situation: irrational or justified. Could not the era have revealed elements of both? McCarthy and some of his supporters made false and harmful charges. (The anti-Communist editor of the New York Post, James Wechsler, was not a hidden Communist, as McCarthy charged when he brought Wechsler before his Senate sub-committee. ) But scores of people thought by many to be innocent, such as Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, and William Remington—were in fact Soviet agents.

Second, Lemann undermines the concluding sentence in his own essay in which he writes that “As for the extent of Soviet spying, [Allen] Weinstein, Haynes, Klehr and others are right to say that their case has been supported by most of the evidence that has emerged since the Soviet Union collapsed.” Why, then, does this support “a conservative view?”  Cannot someone who sees himself today as a political liberal acknowledge that his liberal ancestors might have had a blind spot in the late 1940’s about the extent of  Soviet espionage in the United States ? If they answer in the negative, they are substantiating the claim of Ann Coulter who continually argues that liberals are incapable of understanding that America has real enemies.

Next, Lemann cannot refrain from bringing up the irrelevant argument surrounding the former Bush administration.  Could not have a person been a critic of some Bush policies, and still have supported a war against Islamic radicalism? If Lemann answer in the negative, he too is arguing in favor of the Coulter position, without realizing it.

Finally, Lemann presents a bizarre statement about Prof. Allen Weinstein, who resigned recently as Archivist of the United States for health reasons. He suggests Bush appointed him because having done so “sent a message.” The implication is that because Weinstein was author or the path breaking book Perjury:The Hiss-Chambers Case, which proved to most people’s satisfaction that Hiss had been a Soviet agent, Bush made him Archivist to subliminally gain support for his unnecessary war on terror.

He ignores that Weinstein had strong bi-partisan support in the Senate for his appointment, and had managed to win over backing of professional organizations whose left-leaning membership was at first opposed to his appointment. Moreover, those who work in the Archives will point out that during his tenure, Weinstein was a strong and professional leader, who did more to restore the Archives to prominence than previous purely political appointees. He is a scholar who had worked in archives himself, who took positions that in fact differed on points favored by the Bush administration, and who among other things, took the Nixon Library out of private hands and made it part of the Presidential libraries run by the Archives. Is Lemann suggesting that perhaps Weinstein should not have been made Archivist, because his own research led him to conclude Hiss was guilty? Many leftists opposed his gaining the post because Weinstein’s research led him to this conclusion about Hiss. Does that mean that others backed him because of this conclusion? There is, in fact, no evidence for this assertion.

I do not think I am wrong in reading Lemann in this manner. Indeed, so does Eric Alterman. In a recent posting on the website of The Nation, Alterman more or less endorses and recommends Lemann’s essay as one that seconds his own position. Like myself, Alterman views the Lemann essay as “an extremely valuable contribution to the historical debate,” but the real reason he cites it is to emphasize Lemann’s judgment that the finding by Haynes and Klehr that I.F. Stone had been a Soviet agent for two years- 1936 to 1938- to be “unproven accusations.”

 Lemann does argue that Hanes and Klehr set the bar for “being a ‘spy’ or an ‘agent’ awfully low,” and  writes that they do not show that “Stone was paid.” Of course, nowhere do the authors ever assert Stone was paid; that is in Lemann’s imagination. Lemann also writes that the authors “let Stone’s softness toward the Soviet Union- and the ardor of his defenders- enter the courtroom.” Why is it then, that when they issued their book on Venona in 1999, Haynes and Klehr wrote that documents mentioning Stone only showed that he was “flirting with the KGB,” not that he was or had been an agent. They wrote: “There is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB,” (my emphasis) although they conclude that one had to leave open the possibility that he may have met with KGB agents at other times.

What changed between 1999 and 2009 is simple. The new Vassiliev documents revealed KGB messages that Stone had “entered the channel of normal operational work.”  In other words, he had formally agreed to work with the KGB. The evidence, in other words, led them to change their opinion. In 1999, Klehr and Haynes took a position that was the opposite of many on the Right, like Herbert Romerstein, who argued vociferously that Venona did indeed prove Stone was an agent. So Lemann’s charge that they reached their judgment because they let Stone’s softness towards the Soviet effect their judgment is unfounded.

In my earlier entry I quoted the following passage from Anne Applebaum, who wrote the following in her TNR review of Spies: “The truth, of course, is that neither [Ann]Coulter or [Victor]Navasky, nor any of the many others 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.”

I’m afraid that despite his seriousness and erudition, Nick Lemann comes close to making the same mistake as Coulter and Navasky that Applebaum refers to: changing a discussion about history and the past to one of present politics. For if one takes him at his own words—anyone not a conservative will think twice about what the evidence about Soviet espionage reveals. That would mean that only conservatives can accept the truth about the past. I do not think that is an outcome Nicholas Lemann would approve of.