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.

Duran entered the final and decisive confrontation. Members of the American embassy in London questioned his British friends, including the military historian Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart, and Henry Walston, whose wife was a sister of Duran's wife. (So, too, was Michael Straight's wife-- McCarthy did not let pass the opportunity to smear the proprietor and editor of the New Republic .)
David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower
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.