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.