New York Times: Rethinking McCarthyism, if Not McCarthy

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at
Thu Aug 3 22:41:57 MDT 2000

The following article came out at roughly the same time Wen Ho Lee was fired
for "treason" (I believe the charge was) regarding the alleged stealing of
nuclear technology for China. Lee has since sued the US government, nothing
has come forth on his case. China responded by providing links to websites
readily available to all of us for the exact technology that they and Lee
had allegedly conspired to "steal".

(I for one, wish China had successfully done so. But not on these flimsy
charges, being used for part of the anti-China bogeyman.)

see also:
for information about defense of Wen Ho Lee, and other materials about his
charges and indictment.

There is ample reason to note that similar tactics, less directed at
Communists than before, will be used to purge the US for loyalty and
cleanliness soon.

October 18, 1998

Rethinking McCarthyism, if Not McCarthy

"I have here in my hand a list of 205 -- a list of names that were made
known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and
who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State
-- Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Feb. 9, 1950, Wheeling, W. Va.

It is one of the most infamous speeches in American politics. Delivered just
months after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device -- a replica
of the American bomb right down to the bolts -- and months before the
Communist North invaded South Korea and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were
charged with selling nuclear secrets to Moscow, Senator McCarthy's words set
off a period of political hysteria. It would be some time before the nation
grasped that he not only had no scruples but that he also had no list. By
then, many honorable Americans whose sentiments leaned to the left -- among
them, teachers and actors, journalists and Government functionaries -- had
lost their jobs in a witch hunt.

But half a century later, with Soviet-era archives open, it turns out there
was a list.

Not the fake one brandished by McCarthy before a group of Republican women,
but a real one, with code names and salary receipts and carbons of sensitive
messages on the Manhattan Project and American diplomatic strategy that were
passed to the Soviets.
Associated Press
This pumpkin patch at Whittaker Chambers's Maryland farm figured prominently
in the espoinage case of Alger Hiss. Mr. Chambers led Federal agents to
films of documents hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin.

The appearance of the Soviet evidence starting in the early 1990's, after
the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the 1995-1996 declassification of
American intelligence files on the interception of Soviet spy cables -- now
widely known as the Venona decryptions -- has unleashed a flood of
scholarship. In a replay of old battles, it is a debate over American
Communism and McCarthyism with two challenges.

Sullied Icons

One side is asking: If the left was so wrong so recently, why should it be
listened to at all? The other side counters that when the right is given a
chance, as it was in the early 1950's, it becomes vicious. And with the cold
war won, it argues, there is a whiff of right-wing triumphalism in the air
that must not go unaddressed.

The new documents certainly sully many icons of the old left. Julius
Rosenberg, it is now clear, was guilty (though there is still debate about
his wife's complicity). Alger Hiss, according to respected new scholarship,
was probably a Soviet agent and the American Government in the 1930's and
40's harbored hundreds of Communist spies and even more fellow travelers.

And there is more to come. Next year, Ronald Radosh, a senior research
associate at George Washington University, will publish what he says is a
devastating picture of the Spanish Civil War -- as a gruesome example of
Soviet imperialism dressed up as anti-fascism, rather than as the epic,
noble battle the left has always said it was.

Extreme Measures

It is no surprise that, given the ferocity of the political struggle at the
time, the scholarly struggle over the new data is raw and impassioned.

"On the one hand you have scholars showing that many members of the
Communist Party were motivated by a legitimate desire to fight social
injustice," said Jonathan Brent, editorial director of Yale University
Press, which is publishing 25 volumes on the new material titled "Annals of
Communism." "But at the top of the party they were controlled by Moscow. How
do you reconcile the two?"

The new evidence has appeared so quickly and so forcefully, and at a time
when Communism is so bereft of defenders and intellectual capital, that some
have flirted with the rehabilitation of McCarthy himself.

In 1996, The Observer of London stated: "McCarthy has gone down as one of
the most reviled men in U.S. history, but historians are now facing the
unpleasant truth that he was right." In The Washington Post, Nicholas von
Hoffman wrote, "Point by point, Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was
still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him."

Such assertions send chills down the spine of Ellen Schrecker, a historian
at Yeshiva University, whose new book, "Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in
America" (Little, Brown), argues that whatever harm may have come to the
country from Soviet-sponsored spies is dwarfed by McCarthy's wave of terror,
which crushed livelihoods as well as any alternative political discourse.

She said social developments like government-provided health care and strong
labor unions -- things commonplace elsewhere in the West -- were stymied in
America. And, she added, the China hands in the State Department who could
have fended off the disaster of the Vietnam War had been purged for
suspected Communist sympathies.

The gush of new scholarship from the archives is less rigorous than it
appears, say Professor Schrecker and others, including Victor Navasky,
publisher of The Nation, who wrote "Naming Names" (Viking, 1980), a book
about Hollywood blacklisting.

The scholarship relies heavily on the boasts of Soviet-paid agents in
America eager to impress their Moscow masters. And, they say, it is
scholarship with an agenda.

"What is happening today is an effort to deny the legitimacy not just of
those who favored the Communist Party but the entire left-wing political
movement in the post-Berlin Wall moment," said Nelson N. Lichtenstein, a
history professor at the University of Virginia.

"The whole anti-racist, anti-capitalist impulse in American life, which
reached its apogee in the 1930's and 40's, is on the line. If it turns out
these movements were the results of Communists advancing their goals, are
they still legitimate? People like Ron Radosh want to discredit not only
that historical episode but the moral legitimacy of the left in the United
States today."

Mr. Radosh says he has little patience for these arguments. "I deal with
issues of historical truth," he said. "The left's inability to accept this
truth is what discredits the left."

Perhaps, too, something more is at stake. Many of the most passionate
advocates on both sides of this struggle, including Mr. Radosh and Professor
Schrecker, were "red diaper" babies, weaned on the left. The debate pits
those upholding the honor of their idealistic parents against those who
believe their honor requires them to expose the deceptions on which they
were raised.

William F. Buckley Jr., whose new novel on McCarthy is due out next summer,
said many Americans looking back on the espionage dismiss its significance
because there is so little threat from Moscow today that to them it is hard
to remember how serious the peril was.

"The notion of stealing secrets is seen today as a kind of misjudgment, a
form of eccentric behavior," said Mr. Buckley, who was an early friend and
defender of McCarthy.

How much damage was done is a matter of some contention. No one suggests
that a Communist coup was afoot or that the nation was in existential
danger. But the Soviets did build the bomb a year or two earlier than they
would have -- no small feat -- and it is not hard to imagine other damage
that might have resulted from unchecked spying.

Color Them Red

Harvey Klehr, a historian at Emory University and co-author of a new book
"The Soviet World of American Communism" (Yale University Press), has
pointed out that if Franklin D. Roosevelt had died in his third term, Vice
President Henry Wallace would have become President. Wallace had once said
that as President he would make Laurence Duggan his Secretary of State and
Harry Dexter White his Treasury Secretary. Evidence in the Venona messages
suggests that both were Soviet agents, Professor Klehr said.

That is why people like Mr. Buckley argue that McCarthy has been maligned by

"McCarthy's excesses have to be taken in the context of other work he did,"
Mr. Buckley said. "For example, his concentration on security loyalty
practices was absolutely correct."

Timothy Naftali, a senior fellow at the Miller Center of the University of
Virginia, said McCarthy gave anti-Communism a bad name, but that a fair
examination of Communist activity during and after World War II would show
that anti-Communist paranoia was understandable.

"The F.B.I. and military officials had lists of hundreds of unidentified
code names that appeared in Soviet intelligence traffic and had every reason
to believe that many of those names belonged to agents still operating," he
said. Many of the code names have yet to be identified.

The Soviets became aware of American interceptions by the end of the
1940's -- thanks to Kim Philby, then a Washington-based double agent of
British intelligence -- and shut down their operation just as McCarthy was
coming on the scene and American counter-intelligence was swinging into
action. By the time McCarthy was hunting Communists, most of the agents were

As the century draws to a close, Communism and Nazism are being increasingly
grouped as 20th-century paradigms of totalitarian horror. But once the
Soviets were seen for what they were, were those who insisted on waiting for
"true" Communism fools? Or knaves?

It was Hitler who said people prefer a big lie to a small truth, and the
proponents of Soviet Communism certainly understood that. It was the very
depth of their betrayal that made it so hard for American Communists to
grasp the deception.

"When we realized that what we thought was heaven really was hell, we fell
into silence," said Robert Schrank, a former Communist and union leader who
has just published a memoir titled, "Wasn't That a Time? Growing Up Radical
and Red in America" (M.I.T. Press). "We were overwhelmed with shame."

That explains, in part, the uncivil nature of today's dialogue and why it
will likely be some time before a full accounting can be offered.

"As these first documents come out, we are having a debate," said Mr. Brent
of Yale University Press. "But it is a slow historical process, something
involving our national consciousness, and I think it will be at least five
to 10 years before a historian arises who can really put this all in

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Macdonald Stainsby.

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