Why I Wrote a Take-Down of Diana West's Awful Book
Today, my review of Diana West’s new book, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character, has been posted at FrontPageMagazine, the website of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. I urge PJM readers to go and read it, and to consider the arguments I make about why I find her book to be a betrayal, but not the kind she charges existed in our past. Indeed, what I argue in the review is that her book is actually a betrayal of serious and honest history, an ideologically bound argument that ignores real evidence, distorts our past, and creates a mythical counter-narrative to understanding decisions made during WWII.
Here is my concluding paragraph:
Conspiratorial theories of history are easy to create once you are prepared to ignore the realities on the ground, or regard those who do take them into account as part of the conspiracy too. This is the path that Diana West has taken in her misconceived and misleading book. Why did the U.S. and Britain not prevent the totalitarian USSR from taking over Eastern Europe after it had defeated the totalitarian Nazis? It had nothing to do with the Rubik’s Cube of diplomatic and military considerations, a calculus that had to take into account the willingness of the American and British publics to continue to sacrifice and their soldiers to die. No, it was a conspiracy so immense, as West’s hero Joe McCarthy might have said, that it allowed Western policy to be dictated by a shadow army of Soviet agents. It is unfortunate that a number of conservatives who should know better have fallen for West’s fictions. It is even more depressing that her book perpetuates the dangerous one dimensional thinking of the Wisconsin Senator and his allies in the John Birch Society which have allowed anti anti-communism to have a field day in our intellectual culture.
What I want to discuss is why I took upon myself the job of writing a lengthy and detailed critique of West’s book.
First, as a historian and a conservative, I believe that my responsibility is to the truth. I cannot countenance conspiracy theories, whether they come from those on the Left or those on the Right. On these pages and elsewhere, I have regularly written about the corruption of history by writers such as Howard Zinn, and the team of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. I have also written a great deal about Soviet espionage, the influence of Communism on American life, and the fallacies of anti anti-Communism.
When self-proclaimed conservatives echo the methodology and conspiratorial type thinking of those on the Left, because they consider themselves conservatives means that those of us who want a responsible, sane conservative movement, and a vibrant conservative intellectual culture, have the responsibility to speak out and to criticize, no matter what source it comes from.
An analogy can be made with the dilemma William F. Buckley Jr. faced when, in 1962, he decided to take on first Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, and later the Society itself. At the New Republic last year, Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote the following:
Having spent the better part of a decade doing research in Buckley’s archives, I can attest that it was no easy matter for Buckley to take on Welch and his Society. Many of the financial backers and readers of Buckley’s National Review magazine admired Welch and his organization; Buckley’s own mother was a Bircher. His editorial colleagues warned that criticizing Welch risked splitting the conservative movement. Buckley’s position as movement leader would be jeopardized by the liberal plaudits that predictably would follow his editorial condemnation of the Birchers; as Buckley put it privately, “I wish to hell I could attack them without pleasing people I can’t stand to please.”
Nonetheless, in February 1962 National Review ran a six-page editorial against Welch, arguing that he was damaging the anti-Communist cause by “distorting reality” and failing to distinguish between an “active pro-Communist” and an “ineffectually anti-Communist liberal.” It would be several years before Buckley excommunicated all Birchers from the conservative movement, but his editorial emphasized that “There are bounds to the dictum, Anyone on the right is my ally.”
Two years later, Buckley finally wrote his famous editorial condemning the Society. The conspiracy theories of the Society, Buckley wrote, made conservatism seem “ridiculous and pathological,” allowing liberals to portray conservatives as extremists. Conservatism, he wrote, had to expand “by bringing into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate left…If they think they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch, they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals.”
As his biographer John B. Judis wrote in 2001, Buckley and National Review,“drew the line when the John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch, began to maintain that the American government itself was being run by Communists rather than liberals. Such a position not only ran directly counter to that of National Review; it also threatened to cast the Right into what [James] Burnham called ‘crackpot alley.’” As readers of Diana West’s book know, she argues that during World War II and the early Cold War, the American government was “occupied” and run by Stalin’s secret police, through its agents who controlled the White House. This is, indeed, thinking that echoes Robert Welch.
Of course, Buckley was talking about a movement, and not about a book. But the analogy holds. Diana West’s thought pattern indeed bears a strong resemblance to that of the Birch Society and Robert Welch. As Buckley himself wrote in Commentary in March of 2008, Birch thinking went like this:
The fallacy is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence; we lost China to the Communists; therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.
Readers of Diana West’s tome will no doubt quickly see the similarity in what Buckley attacked as the method of the conspiratorial mind. West believes that since Eastern Europe was lost to the West and conquered by Stalin, it meant that the American and British leaders, including FDR and Winston Churchill, were presiding over an “occupied” and controlled government. As I write in my review, West thinks that “The Roosevelt administration [was] penetrated, fooled, subverted, in effect hijacked by Soviet agents… and engaged in a ‘sell-out’ to Stalin” that “conspirators of silence on the Left…would bury for as long as possible, desperately throwing mud over it and anyone who wanted the sun to shine in.” According to West, it was only because Washington was “Communist-occupied” that the United States aligned itself with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and, later, that the President allowed Stalin to gain Eastern Europe.
The other question I wondered about is why so many conservatives, who I believe should really know better, have responded so favorably to her book. I think the answer is that they are fed up with the leftist narrative that there was no threat from Communism in any way; that the 50s were a period of witch-hunts against non-existent enemies; and that, therefore, anyone who realizes this was not an accurate picture of that era must be correct in their analysis about what happened.
As I believe I show in my review, West takes this understanding one step further -- to argue that not only was Communism an actual threat, and not only had Communists infiltrated the government during the New Deal, but that they actually controlled and ran the White House and made the major foreign policy decisions. She also castigates all of those, including me, who have written for decades about Soviet espionage and Communism. While she acknowledges at times that scholars like me, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein have done a yeoman’s job of revealing the extent of Soviet espionage, she condemns all of us for not accepting her judgment and conclusion that American policy was made for the benefit of the Soviet Union, and that the spies literally ran both the American and British governments.
She knocks down straw men continually. For example, on the question of espionage, she argues that all of us view Soviet espionage as a matter of personal conscience and “not as an issue of national security.” This is preposterous, and I point specifically to article Steve Usdin and I co-authored in 2011 that appeared in The Weekly Standard, in which among other things we specifically reveal what real damage the Rosenberg spy ring did to our national security, above and beyond trying to obtain material pertaining to the atomic bomb. Telling the truth, however, would interfere with her narrative in which she is continually trying to show that, in essence, even those who have exposed the extent of Soviet espionage are part of the great conspiracy to cover up the truth.
I end by asking readers to carefully read my review, and to reconsider jumping on the Diana West bandwagon. To continue to give her very bad book credibility will only work to harm the integrity and reputation of conservative intellectuals. After all, it has been decades since William F. Buckley Jr. acted courageously to push the Birchers out of the movement he was building. Do we really want to welcome their successors into it now, after so many lessons have been learned?