The Right's Cold War Revision : CURRENT ESPIONAGE FEARS HAVE GIVEN NEW LIFE TO LIBERAL ANTICOMMUNISM

By Schrecker, Ellen; Isserman, Maurice | The Nation, July 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Right's Cold War Revision : CURRENT ESPIONAGE FEARS HAVE GIVEN NEW LIFE TO LIBERAL ANTICOMMUNISM


Schrecker, Ellen, Isserman, Maurice, The Nation


It could have been the late fifties in the wood-paneled auditorium at the National Archives in Washington, DC, during a daylong conference in February commemorating the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It had been fifty years since McCarthy first gained national notoriety at Wheeling, West Virginia, by charging that 205 Communists infested the State Department. The conference began with a keynote address by the venerable vital centrist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and continued throughout the day, with nearly every speaker delivering some variant of the standard wisdom of cold war liberalism, circa the Truman and Eisenhower years: Yes, Joe was wildly irresponsible, never found so much as a single spy, did more harm than good to the nation's security. But, on the other hand...

Nobody was defending McCarthy, despite talk heard in other quarters of the former junior Senator from Wisconsin's impending "rehabilitation." The conference organizers had pointedly not invited McCarthy's current champion, historian Arthur Herman, whose new book argues that recent revelations in US and foreign intelligence files have gone "a long way to vindicate McCarthy's original charges." Herman attempts to bolster this claim with citations from the "Venona project" (Soviet diplomatic cables intercepted by US intelligence during World War II and deciphered in a decades-long, top-secret effort) and documents from the selectively accessible official archives in Moscow. Such sources have indeed reinforced the cases against some individuals previously accused of espionage, including Julius Rosenberg and most of the men and women fingered by the so-called "Blond Spy Queen," the unstable but not always unreliable professional witness Elizabeth Bentley. They also identify some hitherto unnamed Soviet agents as well as scores of other people who at the very least had contact with KGB agents, whether or not they were consciously participating in espionage activities.

Still, the new materials in Washington and Moscow cut both ways. They do not reinforce the unfounded charges of espionage against physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer or journalist I.F. Stone. As for what they tell us of McCarthy's record in tracking down the red menace, consider the case of Owen Lattimore. He was a distinguished China scholar at Johns Hopkins University, and an occasional consultant to the State Department, before he was accused by McCarthy of being nothing less than Moscow's top spy, Alger Hiss's alleged boss. For years thereafter Lattimore was pilloried before various Congressional committees, indicted twice for perjury and, though ultimately cleared, was so stigmatized by his encounter with the witch hunt that he left the country for good. But Lattimore is conspicuous in his absence from both the Venona files and the Moscow archives.

There was a good reason McCarthy never produced any genuine spies in four years of frenetic accusations. By the time he came on the scene, there were no more to be found. In a March 1, 1951, memorandum discovered in the Moscow archives by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, and quoted in their 1999 book The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America- The Stalin Era [see Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24, 1999], KGB operatives in the United States offered a glum assessment of the state of Soviet intelligence at the height of the McCarthy era: "The most serious drawback in organizing intelligence in the United States is first of all the lack of agents in the State Department, intelligence service, counterintelligence service and the other most important U.S. governmental institutions.... Our U.S. stations did practically nothing to acquire agent-recruiters. Nor did stations in other capitalist countries accomplish the [KGB's] instructions on this matter. [They] acquired no agent-recruiters for work in the U.S."

If Tail-Gunner Joe still remains discredited within mainstream intellectual circles, the liberal anti-Communism of fifty years ago is enjoying a resurgence-ironically enough, thanks to the same issue that McCarthy used to bludgeon the liberals of his own day: Communist espionage and subversion in high places. …

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