Monday, May 01, 2023

McCarthy and History: Tainted sources and rotten fruit

The first draft of the history of McCarthyism was written by people whose own history has been ignored and covered-up.

Historian David Greenberg makes an interesting point about Watergate and the resurgence of anti-anti-communism in the 1970s:

Nixon's mendacity in Watergate and kindred crimes had the perverse effect of making all his previous victims seem virtuous -- even the scoundrels.
While Watergate helped rehabilitate Stalinists and traitors like Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and Lillian Hellman, VENONA and the Soviet archives did nothing change the image of Joseph McCarthy.

The calcified narratives of McCarthyism are especially puzzling given the weak and corrupt sources which created it. The anti-McCarthy movement embraced lock-step Stalinists and actual Soviet spies. It then turned them into martyrs and victims of a “Red Scare”.

This smacks of desperation. But then the anti-McCarthy crusaders had good reason to be desperate.


Can you smear a real spy?

A striking aspect of our ossified “history” of McCarthyism is that the declassified documents do not just shed light on the senator and his targets. Perhaps even more interesting (and important) is what we have learned about the journalists and pundits who shaped the first draft of that history.

The one-time owner of the New Republic, Michael Straight, wrote a book about the Army-McCarthy hearings. Trial by Television appeared in the bibliographies of all the best and most fashionable books on the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

The book had a special piquancy because McCarthy had attacked Straight during the senator's investigation into Gustavo Duran who had married Straight's sister.

Then, in 1983, Michael Straight admitted that he had been a member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring.

That is, by any standard, quite the plot twist. Yet it made no discernible difference to the narrative.

Old habits die hard and much of journalism is little more than habitual pronouncements affirming the conventional wisdom.

The narrative, after all, “is controlled in the retelling of the story.”

BTW, McCarty was right about Duran as well.

Gustavo Duran "was a firmly committed Stalinist operative, serving the apparatus so flawlessly that he soon graduated to secret police work, in which, he quickly became a favored protege of the Soviet NKVD chief in Spain, Alexander Orlov, the man who, on Stalin's direct personal order, murdered Nin."
Stephen Koch, The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passons, and the Murder of Jose Robles


Cedric Belfrage was another self-proclaimed “victim” of McCarthyism.
But the case which most forcefully demonstrated the government's refusal to tolerate criticism from the far Left was that of Cedric Belfrage, cofounder of the ALP's National Guardian, a resident alien of British nationality who had served briefly as an Allied press officer in Germany and had been named by Elizabeth Bentley as a wartime Soviet 'courier'. In 1950 Belfrage had been summoned to Immigration Service headquarters, where he refused to answer questions concerning his writings, views and associations.
David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower

McCarthy ordered an immigration officer to be present when an alien of long standing took the Fifth Amendment. The alien was Cedric Belfrage, an author who wrote for Hollywood fan magazines, had been Sam Goldwyn's press agent, and who had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1936. After taking the Fifth, Belfrage was arrested on a deportation warrant, held at Ellis Island, and then deported to Great Britain.
Haynes Johnson, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism
Belfrage later wrote a book about his ordeal at the hands of paranoid Americans. When VENONA and Soviet documents revealed that he did, in fact, pass secrets to Moscow, it changed nothing in the minds of journalists and popular historians.

The Belfrage case also illustrates how government secrecy often puts traitors and bureaucrats in a tacit alliance. MI5 and MI6 were not keen to pursue Belfrage because it would have revealed clandestine British activities before Pearl Harbor.

Cedric Belfrage, the WW2 spy Britain was embarrassed to pursue
Further, after the embarrassment of Burgess and Maclean's escape, the intelligence bureaucrats were not anxious to air additional dirty laundry.


Nigel West describes, in his study of MI6 chiefs At Her Majesty’s Secret Service, how senior MI6 officers were concerned that the pursuit of moles might harm the chances of getting their gongs.
Drew Pearson's syndicated column was a mish-mash of political gossip, official leaks masquerading as investigative journalism, and wild invective aimed at his long list of enemies. He cut corners, relied on bribery and blackmail, and was rarely troubled by the need to verify or fact-check a juicy and useful “scoop”. Yet, in the Red Scare narrative, he is a hero because he attacked McCarthy early and often.

Anti-McCarthyism is the left-wing's St. Crispin day. Bashing Joe gentled their condition “be they ne'er so vile”.

The Senator struck back by pointing out Pearson employed as a “leg man” one David Karr who had formerly worked for the New Masses-- the newspaper of the CPUSA. Pearson dismissed this as a youthful indiscretion of a kid who was eager to gain experience as a sportwriter.

Historians and journalists trusted the muckraker and chalked up another example of slander by McCarthy.

We now know that not only was Karr literally a card-carrying member of the CPUSA, but that he also had a history of contacts with Soviet intelligence. Those contacts went on for decades after Pearson vouched for his probity and loyalty.

Drew Pearson also represents a key faction of the anti-McCarthy cabal. Most of the Senator's opponents took great pains to present themselves as dedicated anti-communists. They maintained that they were opposed McCarthy because he was reckless, crude, and attacked innocent people. They insisted that people like themselves were better anti-communists because they were wiser and more thoughtful than the bumptious senator from Appleton, Wisconsin.

Historians have accepted their self-appraisal with little skepticism. It is probably worth re-evaluating their assessment.


Sunday, April 09, 2023

Rejoice! He is risen!

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

And they remembered his words,

And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Luke 24: 1-12

Friday, April 07, 2023

"Wood, and nails, and colored eggs"

First Posted 22 March 2005 ​

This passage from Martin Bell's remarkable little book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images seems especially timely this Easter season.

God raised Jesus from the dead to the end that we should be clear-once and for all-that there is nothing more important than being human. Our lives have eternal significance. And no one-absolutely no one-is expendable.

Colored Eggs

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all-and so it will be necessary to color the eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is a hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then he simply raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs

Saturday, February 18, 2023

McCarthyism: Historiography frozen in time

When Facts cannot overcome the narrative

In his (very good) biography of Sen. McCarthy (1982), Thomas C. Reeves summed up the verdict of history:

Perhaps no other figure has been portrayed so consistently as the essence of evil. He is our King John.
Forty years later this remains largely true. Despite all the revelations about Soviet espionage and subversion, McCarthy remains a litmus test for historians and journalists alike. Even scholars who explore the communist's secret war against America usually conclude with a ritualistic declaration that these disclosures do not prove that McCarthy was right or mitigate the evil that was McCarthyism.

To be anti-McCarthy is part of the catechism of faith that one must proclaim in order to be accepted in academia or “prestige journalism”.

Ann Coulter:

McCarthyism is one of the markers on the left's Via Dolorossa. It is their slavery, their gulag, their potato famine. Otherwise, liberals would just be geeks from Manhattan and Hollywood.
And what great evils did McCarthy perpetrate to become this linchpin of liberal faith?

Did he imprison thousands of American citizens who had committed no crime?

No – that was FDR and he remains a liberal saint in good standing.

Did he enforce segregation in federal employment and do nothing during the rise of the second KKK?

That was Woodrow Wilson. Again-- a liberal icon.

After all the moaning and wailing, the verdict ends up being anti-climatic:

He was not a would-be dictator. He did not threaten our constitutional system, but he did hurt many who lived under it.
David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense
How did the senator hurt them? He questioned their loyalty, honesty, and/or competence.

Oddly enough, that standard was never applied to Adam Schiff and the other Russian hoaxers. Historical black holes: When Facts cannot overcome the narrative

Only a handful of historical figures get the McCarthy treatment. Usually, historians want to present a measured, nuanced view of any prominent figure. Only a few receive unalloyed opprobrium.

Like McCarthy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur has wound up in that category. He is routinely included on lists of the “worst generals” of WWII or the “most over-rated generals” American history.

Both men's historical standing is impervious to revision. Other figures, Ulysses Grant, for example, see their image rise or fall with changing mores and unsealed archives. For the two Macs reappraisal is treated as heresy.

Another similarity is that the enduring reputation is heavily based on their personality flaws as conveyed by journalists and enemies. Real accomplishments are treated almost as an afterthought while warmed-over gossip takes center stage. The Battle of the Bimarck becomes less a smashing victory and, instead, is an example of MacArthur's PR mania. Soviet spies in the White House and the Manhattan Project are less important than the denigration of Adlai Stevenson.


Wednesday, February 01, 2023

McCarthy and the intellectuals: Not that innocent

In the Standard Received Narrative of McCarthyism, the junior senator from Wisconsin did incalculable damage to American civil liberties. His wild charges, we are informed, cast a pall over our intellectual life. The best minds of a generation were hounded and blacklisted for uttering unpopular truths, for their youthful idealism, for their naivety in choosing friends and associates.

And it was all for nothing. True Communists were rare and even they were never a real threat to America.

Except that is not the way it was.

Robert Warshow:

For the intellectual, however, the Communist movement was the fact of central importance; the New Deal remained an external phenomenon, part of that 'larger' world of American public life from which he had long seperated himself-- he might 'support' the New Deal (as later on, perhaps, he 'supported' the war), but he never identified himself with it. One way or another, he did identify himself with the Communist movement.
The 30s intellectuals were anything but naïve.

Robert Conquest:

One of the things that gave even Stalinism its prestige in the west, even (or especially) among those who recognized that its methods were immensely ruthless, was the abstract, utoptian notion that there was a certain horrible grandeur in what was going on. Men of ideas, who had profoundly considered the laws of history, were creating a new society and taking upon themselves the guilt of the necessary merciless action.
Nor were they drawn into the Stalinist orbit because they were pacific do-gooders.

Tony Judt:

Western intellectual enthusiasm for communism peaked not in the time of 'goulash communism' or 'socialism with a human face,' but rather at the moments of the regime's worst cruelties: 1935-1939 and 1944-1956. Writers and professors and teachers and trade unionists admired and loved Stalin not in spite of his faults, but because of them. It was when he was murdering people on an industrial scale, when the show trials were displaying Communism at its most theatrically macabre, that men and women were most seduced by the man and his cult. Likewise the cult of Mao in the West.
Noel Annan:
The poets of the thirties were intoxicated with the idea of violence. You could not be sincere unless you were prepared to have blood on your hands. For Day Lewis it was the hour of the knife, for Spender light was to be brought to life by bringing death to the age-long exploiters. 'We're much ruder,' boasted Day Lewis writing to his scavenger press baron, 'and we're learning to shoot.'
Donald Rayfield
Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits-- often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between between the symbolist poet who aimed to epater le bourgeois and the checkist who stood the bourgeois up against the wall.
Owen Lattimore, one of McCarthy's first “victims” – he was, really, he wrote a book about it – was so concerned about civil liberties that he defended the Moscow show trials and praised conditions in the Soviet Gulags.

Hemingway did not become the darling of the intellectual Left until he went to Spain and befriended one of Stalin's willing executioners. When he told Dos Passos in Madrid, “Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or against us” he spoke for the large numbers of American intellectuals.

Dos Passos, who really did care about liberty and the dignity of man, saw his literary reputation destroyed and his character maligned because he preferred to think for himself rather than let Stalin do it for him.

He was the exception.

In the 1930s to be an intellectual was to be on the Left, and to be on the Left it was necessary to be Stalin-friendly if not an outright Stalinist. One might not support the party line in public, but one never opposed it publicly. Dos Passos dared to do it, and paid the price.

Many of the journals that wailed about McCarthy in the 1950s joined in the politically motivated “literary execution” of Dos Passos in the 1930s.

Intellectual life, for the intellectuals shaped by the 1930s was defined by willful blindness.

Richard Wright:
They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand, and doctrines they could not pronounce.
Edward Dmytryk:

I found out that I couldn't read a book by Koestler because he was an ex-Communist. I remember saying to Adrian [Scott] 'I've been reading a very good book.' He said 'What?' I said, 'Koestler's Darknes at Noon.' He said, 'Oh my God! Don't tell anybody that!' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'He's an ex-Communist-- you're not supposed to read him!

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Thursday, January 19, 2023

McCarthy and the New Deal: Target-rich environment

In his essay, Irving Kristol chides Sen. Joseph McCarthy for erasing the distinction between liberals and Soviet agents – of treating every “New Dealer as being by nature an embryonic Communist.” McCarthy and other anti-communists deserve to be called to account for their recklessness when they fail to distinguish between their political opponents and communist traitors. But we must also note that in the years since the “Red Scare” an equally wrong-headed idea has taken hold: that McCarthy, et. al. had no reason to criticize the FDR/HST administrations and had no evidence to back any of their charges.

In 1940, FDR himself told Martin Dies of the newly reconstituted House Committee on UnAmerican Activities:

I do not agree with you. I do not regard the Communists as any present or future threat to our country. In fact, I look upon Russia as our strongest ally in the years to come. As I told you when you began your investigation, you should confine yourself to Nazis and Fascists. While I do not believe in Communism, Russia is far better off and the world is safer with Russia under Communism than under the tsars. Stalin is a great leader, and although I deplore some of his methods, it is the only way he can safeguard his government.
Gary Kerr, A Death in Washington
This attitude permeated his administration and even his family. Eleanor, for example, intervened in 1944 to prevent the deportation of Raissa Browder – the Russian-born wife of the head of the CPUSA and a Stalinist operative in her own right. Son James happily rubbed shoulders with communists in Hollywood and China.

FDR and his administration actively covered up the Soviet's responsibility for the Katyn Massacre. The president himself colluded with Stalin to hide from the voters that the dictator was to have a free hand in post-war Poland.

It must be said that when McCarthy accused the New Dealers of being “soft on communism” he did not know the half of it. The VENONA files were still top secret. The soviet documents were still locked away in Moscow.

That's the thing that is often overlooked in the historiography of McCarthyism. The senator may have selected the wrong targets, but he was addressing a real problem. His critics, on the other hand, often defended the wrong targets and denied that there was or ever had been a real problem.


Saturday, January 14, 2023

The essence of “McCarthyism”: The Administrative State strikes back

In the March, 1952 issue of Commentary magazine, Irving Kristol gave the best explanation for the continued appeal of Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist investigations.

For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.
“'Civil Liberties,' 1952—A Study in Confusion”

The American people had good reason to distrust the spokespeople for American liberalism. By 1952 there was plenty of evidence that communists agents had operated in the heart of government for two decades. The testimony of Krivitsky, Chambers, Gitlow, Gouzenko, and Bentley had laid it all bare. Yet liberal leaders and ex-New Dealers continued to stridently deny this manifest truth.

Kristol pointed out that by denying the obvious, those leaders were helping to make McCarthy's case for him.

Mr. Biddle, like Mr. Barth, refuses to admit what is now apparent: that a generation of earnest reformers who helped give this country a New Deal should find themselves in retrospect stained with the guilt of having lent aid and comfort to Stalinist tyranny. This is, to be sure, a truth of hindsight, an easy truth. But it is the truth nonetheless, and might as well be owned up to. If American liberalism is not willing to discriminate between its achievements and its sins, it only disarms itself before Senator McCarthy, who is eager to have it appear that its achievements are its sins.
The rise of Joe McCarthy was propelled, in large part, by the refusal of progressives and New Dealers to admit to any mistakes. Having claimed that social scientists and academic experts were better guides than the Founding Fathers, they were now revealed to be inept at the most important obligations of government.

In short, McCarthy and other congressional investigators were an existential threat to their public standing and newly acquired power.

Stephen Koch:

Any very public housecleaning of the Washington penetrations would have handed the populist right an all-too-powerful blunt instrument for attacking Yalta, containment, and their own position in power.
Double Lives

Why bureaucracies fail (II): Can experts admit to mistakes?

Hoover, McCarthyism, and the FBI

Friday, December 30, 2022

Hoover, McCarthyism, and the FBI

When we understand that J. Edgar Hoover was an OG of the Administrative State, it opens up new avenues of interest into the history of McCarthyism and the red-hunting senator from Wisconsin.

Hoover and his FBI are usually anathema to the Left. The three exceptions are telling. Hoover is praised for stiff-arming the Nixon White House which wanted aggressive investigations into leaks like the Pentagon Papers. ((This is the genesis of Watergate). His deputy Mark Felt is lionized for leaking (and lying) about the Watergate investigation. Finally, Hoover is cited as the good type of red-hunter in order to portray McCarthy as reckless, unscrupulous, and demagogic.

Hoover dismayed by McCarthy's methods
As serious an anti-communist as FBI director was, he felt name-calling senator damaged the cause

Surprisingly, someone who came to grips with McCarthy's detrimental effect early on was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, then perhaps the most prominent anti-communist in the country. Hoover's own personal experience with McCarthy led him to doubt the senator's claims and eventually realize that McCarthy's approach had the potential to do incalculable damage to principled anti-communism.

What if I told you that Hoover's opposition to McCarthy was not simply a matter of protecting progressives from wild charges of subversion?

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed in his book Secrecy, the FBI has consistently maintained a cult of secrecy, obstructing concerned citizens, scholars and even government policymakers with a tight-fisted retention of all levels of information, from the trivial to the vital, under imperiously interpreted rubrics of national security and protection of personal privacy.
Gary Kern, A Death in Washington
McCarthy biographer Arthur Herman makes the key point that the senator was not primarily concerned with finding spies and subversives. His main focus was exposing the lax way the bureaucrats tasked with security carried out their duties.

The 200 or so Soviet espionage agents working in the government had been captured, expelled, or neutralized. That included the most dangerous of them all, the State Department’s Alger Hiss. But McCarthy understood that those who had allowed this disgraceful and dangerous situation to develop had to be held accountable. That meant, above all, the political party that had been in power during the years leading up to and during World War II: the New Deal Democrats.
McCarthy, then, presented a clear and present danger to Hoover, his bureau, and the progressive ideal of bureaucratic supremacy. Moreover, Hoover had a great deal to lose: the spycatcher had failed repeatedly catch Stalin's agents. The Rosenberg ring, the spies at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, the agents of influence throughout government – all of these carried out their plots under the nose of the original G-Man. (And then there is the little matter of Pearl Harbor.)

For years Hoover had boasted that foreign spies posed no threat to America, because none could possibly penetrate the Bureau's steel nets. But Krivitsky described Soviet agents effortlessly entering the United States on forged passports, spending large rolls of counterfeit money, and using assassinations to keep American communists in line. The idea that Moscow-dispatched assassins could gun down Americans in their homes -- even if they were communists -- was a public relations debacle for the FBI.
Verne Newton, The Cambridge Spies

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Thursday, December 29, 2022

Worth noting

The essence of the administrative state.

The trouble with tyranny

Frank Goodnow, a leading Progressive and the first president of the American Political Science Association, explained to an audience of leading Boston citizens in 1916 that science had delivered up the fully rational state. Empirical knowledge about the historical process had rendered the people’s “superstitious” attachment to the Constitution an impediment to competent administration. The founders’ outmoded theories about checks and balances and separation of powers had been adopted “at a time when expert service could not be obtained, when the expert as we now understand him did not exist.” Abetted by new and objective insights from sociology and other empirical disciplines, “social expediency, rather than natural right,” would now guide bureaucratic government, freed from constitutional inhibitions.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-14

Saturday, December 24, 2022

A real life George Bailey

Not really a Christmas story, but it is history in the spirit of It's a Wonderful Life.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury was the greatest reformer of the nineteenth century and one greatest men England has ever produced. At his death the great preacher CH Spurgeon was moved to say:

During the past week the church of God, and the world at large, have sustained a very serious loss. In the taking home to Himself by our gracious Lord of the Earl of Shaftesbury, we have, in my judgment, lost the best man of the age. I do not know whom I should place second, but I certainly should put him first—far beyond all other servants of God within my knowledge—for usefulness and influence. ... Take him whichever way you please, he was admirable: he was faithful to God in all his house, fulfilling both the first and second commands of the law in fervent love to God, and hearty love to man. He occupied his high position with singleness of purpose and immovable steadfastness: where shall we find his equal?
But this post really isn't about Shaftesbury – even though his story is remarkable and fascinating. I'm more interested in Maria Millis, a simple servant in the household when Ashley-Cooper was a child.

He received a fairly typical upbringing for an aristocrat of the Georgian/Regency period. His parents were distant, almost indifferent. The child was ignored when he was not being punished. The bright spot was Maria Millis, a simple, pious woman who showed the boy kindness and love and shared her Christian faith.

What did touch him was the reality, and the homely practicality, of the love which her Christianity made her feel towards the unhappy child. She told him bible stories, she taught him a prayer.
Geoffrey Best , Shaftesbury
A small thing at the time, and yet an important inflection point – for Shaftesbury, for Britain, for millions of the most miserable subjects of Queen Victoria. As he matured, the future earl eschewed the Regency amusements of gambling, drunkenness, and fornication: he was drawn to the Evangelical movement. Instead of the arrogance of privilege, from an early age he possessed a deep empathy for those not of his class.

He went into politics and worked for reform-- of working conditions, of child labor, and end to the opium trade, the treatment of the insane, the education of the poor. He did not always accomplish his goals and success rarely came easily. Nevertheless, he persisted.

One biographer argues that “"No man has in fact ever done more to lessen the extent of human misery or to add to the sum total of human happiness". His was, without a doubt, a great and consequential life and career.

And it began, in a very real sense, with the faith and charity of a nearly unknown servant.