Ron Radosh

The Nation's Continuing Denial of Soviet Espionage during the New Deal Years

Harry Dexter White, the assistant secretary of the Treasury and the man who created the postwar financial structure and the International Monetary Fund, was arguably the top Communist spy working in our top government agencies during the New and Fair Deal days. As I argued in these pages a while back, economist Benn Steil’s new research not only revealed that White was a Soviet agent, but also brings to the mainstream what many of us have known for years — that the New Deal administration was heavily penetrated by Soviet spies, many of them American citizens who were working for Stalin’s intelligence agencies.

This truth, no matter how documented, is something that the left-wing intellectuals and journalists who inhabit Nationland (which is what I call the climate in which they inhabit their own set of truths centered in Manhattan’s Upper West Side) never can accept. They continue to be what John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr term “in denial.” In a recent issue of The Nation, the flagship of the left in America, the publication ran a review of Benn Steil’s new book on White by James M. Boughton, in which the author accuses Steil and others of McCarthyite “guilt by association” and claims that those who say White was a Soviet agent are only speculating.

What The Nation has done has been well described by Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary. He writes:

The anti-anti-Communist point of view about the Cold War was discredited, but for the publishers ofThe Nation, the impulse to wave the old red flag is still strong. That often leads them, as well as some other sectors of the left such as the New York Times, to pretend as if backing the totalitarian, genocidal, and anti-Semitic regime that ruled Moscow was an innocent romantic phase that all true liberals went through. But as bad as that deplorable tradition might be, the decision of The Nation to publish material about Communist espionage as if the Venona Files had never been published is nothing short of bizarre.

Like their counterparts on the far-right fringe, the Nation left also ignores evidence, even though it has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that White was indeed a Soviet agent. For those who doubt this, one has only to look at the scrupulous investigation of the evidence by Haynes and Klehr, which you can find at Washington Decoded.   

Few can match the precise and careful attention to evidence that both reveal. Reading their dissection of the evidence, it amounts to irrefutable proof that White was a Soviet spy. Why, they ask, do seemingly intelligent people ignore the facts? They believe that it is not because they are dishonest, but because “we are dealing with intellectual ‘true believers,’ ideological zealots who are mentally incapable of accepting or processing information that undermines their historical world view.” (Klehr and Haynes have also written about those on the right who ignore evidence and make assertions that new evidence refutes, and who continue to make arguments that have been disproved.)

As David Horowitz has often said, being left-wing “means never having to say  you’re sorry.” To accept the truth means that they might have to reevaluate the belief system they have adhered to for almost half a century. That system demands a consistent anti-Americanism, a belief that although Stalin might have been bad, the system he built was nevertheless progressive. Indeed, if you acknowledge that there were Soviet spies, maybe that means that in the 1950s the concern for Communist agents in our midst was not really irrational. Maybe they live in fear finding out that anti-Communism was valid and that a witch-hunt never really existed.

It turns out that Benn Steil wrote a very good letter to the editor that, somehow, The Nation never saw fit to publish. Limited to a short 500 words, Steil nevertheless managed to skewer Boughton’s review and demolish it. Not content to wait for its publication, he turned to Forbes, where he wrote a longer rebuttal. He writes that “Boughton is now virtually alone among contemporary chroniclers of White in exculpating him – in spite of overwhelming documentary evidence, the authenticity of which Boughton does not challenge – of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.”

As he goes on to point out, the Venona decrypts proved that Harry Dexter White proved his complicity in espionage. Yet Boughton insists that “the cables reveal nothing more than White engaged in ‘indiscreet gossip’ with official Soviet contacts.” In fact, the 18 cables that mention White show him passing “confidential strategic information to Soviet intelligence through American moles, as well as directly to Soviet operatives, and expressing grave concern over whether and how his activities can continue to be kept secret.”

It turns out, and both Steill and Klehr and Haynes offer the information about what White really did, that Whittaker Chambers was completely accurate when he said that White was writing down and distributing classified information. As one cable from an NKVD agent said in mid 1944, “J [White] knows where his info. goes, which is precisely why he transmits it in the first place.”

Of course, even if White did it for ideological reasons — a commitment to the Soviets — his wife saw it as a way to monetarily benefit her family. Thus did the Soviets agree to give gifts to the Whites, including, it seems, paying for their daughter’s education, expenses which “may come up to two thousand a year” — a lot for the 1940s!   As for the daughter, she wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting an op-ed that Steil had written. She wrote of “old allegations of espionage against my father,” which, she added, “are once again repeated as fact.”

Perhaps White’s daughter can be excused for defending her father. Or perhaps she is embarrassed to have found out that good old Joe Stalin paid for her education because he wanted to keep the family happy so that her late father would keep on spying for the Soviet tyranny.

Will the liberal/left residents of Nationland ever learn to accept the truth? One of the main journalists who live in denial, Victor Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation, is now chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, the George T. Delacorte professor in magazine journalism at Columbia University, and one of the leading defenders of Alger Hiss. I somehow don’t think that at his perch, he is teaching his students that the magazine he once ran still subscribes to the old left-wing shibboleths he holds so dear.

With their review of Benn Steil’s book by James Boughton, it is clear that The Nation remains devoted to teaching an entire new generation all the old rationales of the old Communists and their fellow-traveling allies.