Historians in denial

Posted by Helen Friday, August 07, 2009 , ,

This review is part of a series on books that might be of interest to those interested in conservative history. “In Denial” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr deals with the shock the American historical establishment received when the brief opening of the KGB’s archives and the publication of the Venona documents showed that the accusations about the CPUSA and Communist infiltration in the American government were true; it shows the largely dishonest and bullying manner in which so many historians tried to deny the truth and to continue to produce propaganda rather than history in order to “educate” the younger generations in their own mindset.

Though the story starts in the nineties when temporarily the KGB allowed some western historians limited access to its archives and the Venona decryptions were finally declassified and released for public consumption, there was a long prelude to it.

There were the post-war revelations by people like Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, Hede Massing and other Soviet agents who had recanted for various reasons. There were the investigations, HUAC sessions, Senatorial sessions and trials such as that of the Rosenbergs and of Hiss. All in all, enough evidence came out despite the ferocious fight-back by the left, organized mostly by the CPUSA, to influence public opinion and government policy. The CPUSA lost ground, Communist agents diminished in number and subsequent spies had to be paid for by the Kremlin. (Whereas, throughout the thirties and forties it simply channelled millions of dollars to the CPUSA.)

Above all, most historians took what is now known as the traditionalist line about Communism though many hummed and ha-d about the domestic variety of it. As against that, the supposedly serious media and some parts of the intellectual community continued to proclaim the innocence of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and anyone else who had been shown to be a Soviet agent.

Then in the late seventies a determined and growing group of younger academics who, as they became more senior, made sure that only people who agree with them followed them up the ladder, decided to “revise” the study of the Soviet Union. According to this (and I recall not only reading books and articles but hearing people solemnly proclaiming the new trendy ideas) there was really not that much difference between Western democratic and Communist systems. There were bureaucracies in both and both had a kind of pluralism. Mind you, the Communist pluralism was somewhat different in that it meant different organizations agreeing with the party line.

Old-fashioned historians like Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest were attacked and abused and their findings dismissed. There could not have been that many people murdered in the Soviet Union; Stalin could not have ordered the purges – it was a bureaucracy getting out of hand; and so on. Sometimes it proved to be necessary to disregard certain events such as the Katyn massacre.

This was not, as the authors point out, “a perverse pastime”. After all, there was never the slightest attempt on the part of a single reputable historian, department or publication to “normalize” views of the Nazi regime. The revisionist historians who came out of the various New Left movements deliberately wanted to underplay the notion that Communism was a totalitarian system. Even more importantly, many set themselves the task to re-write the history of the CPUSA, its links with the Soviet Union, total obedience to the Comintern line and the various Soviet agents whose work it organized and facilitated.

For some years they could scream abuse at all those who pointed out that Chambers’s account was well supported in court by material and personal evidence and, indeed, repeat the canard that he was completely neurotic and unbalanced (as described by two psychiatrists called by Hiss’s lawyers who had never met him). They could pour contempt on the likes of Elizabeth Bentley and insist that every single person who had ever testified about Communists must have been evil, venal, hysterical or pathological. Sometimes all of those things.

Then some really nasty things started happening. First of all, with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was ever more information about what really happened in those seventy years and, unsurprisingly, the truth turned out to be much closer to the accounts given by the “Cold Warriors” than by the revisionists. Famously Robert Conquest said, when asked what he would like to call the updated version of his classic “The Great Terror”: “How about ‘I told you so, you f***ing fools’?”

Then the archives of the former KGB were briefly opened and western researchers were allowed to look at documents, write histories and even reproduce those documents in original and in translation. Oh dear, dear, dear. It appeared that much of what the CPUSA and the various spies had been accused of was actually true. Yes, dear children, Alger Hiss was, indeed, a spy, though he worked for the GRU not the NKVD, later KGB. And the Rosenbergs, together with Ethel’s brother, who has since given fairly accurate accounts of what had happened, were successful Soviet agents. Harry Dexter White, Lauchlan Currie, Laurence Duggan, they were all spies. And there were many more.

Finally, came the Venona documents, decryptions of some of the heavy Soviet exchange between the embassy and the various heads of espionage departments back in Moscow during the war, when the two countries were supposedly allies.

The bulk of “In Denial” is taken up with the various methods used by the revisionists (some of whom recognized and acknowledged that they had been wrong) to evade the truth, dismiss evidence, lie about facts, pervert historical studies. In the process the various academics (most of whom are not particularly well known outside their own establishments), supported by the media and, always, Hollywood tried to reduce the importance of the CPUSA at the same time as pretending that it played an important part in the development of the American left while trying to deny its absolute allegiance to the Comintern.

Through it all runs the one mantra endlessly repeated by these academics – however bad Communism was, however dishonest the agents might have been, the worst and most evil of developments in American history has been “McCarthyism” by which they designate all opposition to Stalinism and Communism, whether it came from the right or the left. In fact, in true Stalinist fashion, these people hate left-wing opponents far more than the right-wing ones.

Klehr and Harvey compare this dishonest and destructive approach to Communism, domestic and foreign with attitudes to Nazism with the usual results we have all noted. But they also, interestingly, compare the last-ditch supporters and glorifiers of American Communists to those who have attempted to create a romantic image of the Confederacy, arguing that just as one can never quite get away from the problem of slavery the other can never quite get away from the problem of Stalinism.

Revisionist historians have openly explained that they do not consider it necessary to be objective or to look at facts. History, in their view, is a method of indoctrinating the next generation to continue the fight for a socialist America. To that end they can use Soviet methods in their debates and discussions though, to be fair, there are times when even the worst of them have to admit some of the truth, hard though it is. To what extent have they succeeded is an important question. Or have Klehr, Harvey, Weinstein and others put a spoke in their collective wheel and we shall see a new generation of historians reverting to their proper activity?


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