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Bohemian Rhapsody

Commie symps? Yes, they're still with us

Last year, New York University announced the creation of a new institute, The Center for the United States and the Cold War. There is nothing surprising about a major university establishing a center meant to explore and shed light on one of the defining periods of the past century. Indeed, a few such institutes already exist. Since 1991, the Wilson Center has run a first rate operation, The Cold War International History Project, which has hosted scores of conferences, with panels composed of major scholars representing all points of view. Similarly, Harvard University is home to the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies, which publishes the invaluable Journal of Cold War Studies. A world-class editorial board supervises the peer-reviewed entries, and the center and journal have earned the respect and admiration of all who value the work of its many contributors.

Unfortunately, NYU's new endeavor seems to have quite a different agenda from its fellow centers of cold war scholarship. A joint project of NYU's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Tamiment Library, the center announced last year that it would run a regular series of conferences "to encourage research on how the Cold War and the red scares shaped domestic political culture and foreign policy." Desirable proposals, the announcement went on, would deal with "political repression and resistance." No proposal, it implied, would be welcome that took as its starting point the belief that, in the 1930s and '40s, American communists just may have posed an actual threat to America's national security, and that does not view the question of how to deal with this problem as anything but repression.

Now that it has published a schedule of forthcoming events, we can see the fruits of the new center's labors. The inaugural event on April 5 will be a conference called "Alger Hiss and History." One might guess that such a gathering would have featured one of the two major scholars and writers who have worked on the Hiss case. Our current archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, ended the debate over Hiss's claim that he had not spied for the Soviets with the publication of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, in 1979. Weinstein proved that Hiss was guilty of perjuring himself in court and before the House Un-American Activities Committee when he claimed he was innocent. More recently, Sam Tanenhaus, now editor of the New York Times Book Review, provided further evidence in support of Weinstein's conclusion when he issued Whittaker Chambers, the definitive biography of the other key figure in the case, who testified against Hiss. Of this book, Christopher Hitchens wrote: "Sam Tanenhaus has closed the case of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, and thus put to rest one of the most persistent (and repelling) myths of the fellow-traveling Left." When Weinstein (as a government archivist) and Tanenhaus turned down their invitations, why didn't the organizers try to find replacements to represent their (well-documented) views? Presently, they have only one such person--law professor Edward White of the University of Virginia. And he will have limited time to make a comment on a panel.

Hitchens's comment gets to the heart of the NYU conference. Clearly, what the institute desires is the resurrection of Old Left myths that have, since the cold war's end, begun to disappear. Thus, rather than a conference about the meaning and impact of the Hiss case in America, it appears to be precisely a one-sided event, meant to rehabilitate Hiss's reputation, spread new myths about his innocence, and take us back to the time before Weinstein's account was written. The center's description of the event praises Hiss as a man who "sat right behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference" and who displayed a "reformist vision" dedicated to FDR's domestic and foreign policy. It goes on to say he was "accused of spying," a phraseology suggesting that Hiss was not any kind of a spy. The Hiss trial, it continues, thus helped "discredit the New Deal, legitimize the red scare, and set the stage for Joseph McCarthy." When I sent the conference program to Mark Kramer, the editor of Harvard's Journal of Cold War Studies, he responded by e-mail that the meeting "consists of diehard supporters of Hiss whose attempts to explain away all the new available evidence are thoroughly unconvincing."

The giveaway is that the center chose as its keynote speaker none other than Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, a man who long has sworn by Hiss's innocence. Since the Venona decrypts, the Soviets' top-secret messages to their American KGB agents began to be released in 1995, the full record of their wartime espionage has been clear. The decoded documents revealed that many who had claimed to be victims of a witch-hunt were in fact spies. Yet Navasky has gone to great lengths to downplay the documents as little more than the exaggerated tales of Soviet agents. And, more than anyone else, he sees no problem with espionage, having written that it was only "exchanges of information among people of good will."

Others taking part in the conference hold views similar to Navasky's. They include Hiss's son Tony and adopted son Timothy Hobson; the left-wing NYU historian Marilyn Young; and Ellen Schrecker, the historian most well known in academic circles for her statement that communists "did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism," because they were "internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries." She has also questioned whether their espionage activities were really "so awful." Also taking part are a whole slew of like-minded pro-Hiss individuals, including John Prados, Kai Bird, Michael Nash, Bruce Craig, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, and NYU law professor Norman Dorsen.

To be fair to the conveners, the conference does include a few token people with either the opposite or a more nuanced point of view. These include the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Oshinsky, Nixon Library Director Timothy Naftali, and White, who assumes Hiss's guilt and wrote an interesting book that seeks to explain how Hiss could continually deny the truth and act as if he were innocent. But where are scholars like Harvey Klehr or John Haynes, both of whom have written at length about Soviet espionage in Hiss's day? Their book Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America offered a complete summary and analysis of what the Soviet decrypts proved--that a few hundred American communists and fellow travelers were willing to engage in espionage for the Soviets. Klehr tells me that, when he declined his invitation, he suggested to the organizers that Haynes go in his stead; Haynes never received an invitation.

Where is historian Eduard Mark, who has recently written in scholarly journals about new evidence pointing to Hiss's guilt? In particular, Mark's work bears directly on the talk by Kai Bird. Judging by his title, "Who Was ALES?", Bird's point will likely be that the code name "Ales," used in Venona by the KGB for Hiss--a conclusion reached by many scholars--could not actually have been him. Mark has written particularly on this question, and his participation would have meant that the panel would be one of real inquiry and debate.

The rest of the events on the spring 2007 program are similarly partisan. The March 23 panel topic, originally described as a program on the "archives of the Communist Party, USA," has just been changed. The announcement sent out last Monday now calls it a "Symposium on the History of the Communist Party, USA and Progressive Politics Today: Relating the Past to the Present." The panelists are all, without an exception, either communists or still-believing fellow-travelers. They include a proud, self-proclaimed member in good standing of the American Communist Party, Rutgers historian Norman Markowitz; the historian Gerald Horne, a regular contributing editor to the CPUSA monthly journal, Political Affairs; and the Marxist-feminist-activist Rosalyn Baxandall of SUNY Old Westbury, who calls herself a historian but has no credentials as one.

Markowitz has previously attacked Maurice Isserman, the left-wing historian of communism who judges the party's contribution in America positively but is critical of some of its key history. He described Isserman as one of a "new group of anti-Communist caretakers." As for Horne, he was upset at the work of Mark Naison, another scholar who studied communism in Harlem and who praised the party's role in fighting racism. Naison, however, freely acknowledged the party's subordination to Moscow. Horne thus condemned his book as "rot" and "bad scholarship." When Naison and Isserman declined to attend, conference organizers could have turned to other historians of communism with different points of view, including Richard Gid Powers, Katherine A.S. Sibley; Vern Pederson; James G. Ryan, or John P. Diggins, who has written on the American left. They did not. And, as the Marxists used to say, it's no accident that they did not.

If the lack of balance among serious scholars of communism was not enough, NYU announced that the panel will also include an editor of the People's World, the West Coast communist paper; Jarvis Tyner, executive vice-chair of the CPUSA; and a few fellow-traveling trade-union leaders and politicians. The program will also include a tribute, a "dramatic reading with music: 'Jesus Colon and the Communist Party in East Harlem.'" All this makes it apparent that the purpose of the panel is not to examine Communist Party history, but to show how the party's experience can serve as a guide for "progressive" activists today. It is a political call to action from pro-communists in the academy and not the kind of program that any self-respecting university should host and pass off as scholarly.

Another event is an April 27 symposium on the Spanish Civil War and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The panelists include Peter Carroll, who runs the Brigade archives and is an unreconstructed and uncritical defender of the communists in Spain (and whose book I reviewed unfavorably in The New Republic); a pro-communist historian, Fraser Ottanelli; and Gabriel Jackson, a serious historian who supports the older, traditional interpretations of the war that accepted the politics of the Popular Front. Why, one wonders, did they not think of inviting one of America's most distinguished historians of the Spanish Civil War, University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Payne? His most relevant and recent book for this panel is The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union and Communism. Perhaps it is because his argument--that Soviet intervention in Spain was hardly benign and that the International Brigades were in fact Comintern-created shock troops meant to help in the Stalinization of the Republic--runs counter to the views of the organizers. Nor, if I may be personal, did they invite me or Mary Habeck, with whom I wrote Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War. Our book, however, provided documentation from once unavailable Soviet archives about Stalin's agenda for the Spanish Republic. Could it possibly be that they only want one point of view to be heard?

And there's more. There's a celebration of the life of Morris U. Schappes, a noted Jewish communist; a session on anti-communism in the U.S. labor movement (undoubtedly this will be condemned); a panel on May Day, "America's Forgotten Holiday"; and one on the recollections of left-wing publisher Andre Schiffrin, again with comment by Ellen Schrecker. On June 19, the anniversary date of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the center will screen a film by the couple's granddaughter together with the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case. The panelists for the accompanying discussion have not been announced, but it's a very good guess that they will all be supporters of the Rosenbergs who still believe they were innocent victims of a government frame-up. They did not ask me, although I am co-author of The Rosenberg File, the first book to establish that the Rosenbergs were involved in espionage. Nor have they invited Sam Roberts of The New York Times or Steve Usdin, both of whom have written essential books about the case.

It is ironic that the co-sponsor of the new center is NYU's Tamiment Institute, inheritor of the Socialist Party's old Tamiment Library, an institute that was the heart of the old social-democratic anti-communist left in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Its old activists would be nonplussed and shocked to find how, in their name, a new generation of young Americans are using scholarship to resurrect their old political opponents on the totalitarian left. And for those who desire the American university to be a place where genuine scholarship and intellectual debate takes place, the program and intent of the new NYU Center for the United States and the Cold War gives great cause for concern.

Of course, all the participants have their right to their point of view, and to espouse their arguments in print and on panels. But a great university has the obligation to allow students and the public to hear contending points of view on contentious issues, and not to run completely one sided and partisan events, and pass them off as scholarly contributions. Perhaps they are seeking to provide evidence for the assault on the universities by the conservative activist and author David Horowitz, who argues in his new book, Indoctrination U, that radical faculty have "turned America's classrooms into indoctrination centers for their political causes." NYU, it certainly seems, sadly wants to do precisely that.

By Ronald Radosh