It takes one to know one
The irony behind liberal Jacob Weisberg's smear of conservative scholars who have documented Communist spying in the U.S. is that he is using the tactics he wrongly charges them with -- "neo-McCarthyism."
Winston Churchill once remarked that there was nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result. Perhaps that’s why he enjoyed being a conservative — it guaranteed he would frequently be a target.
Recently, I dodged my own political bullet when columnist Jack White smeared me as a “racist” in Time magazine. In fact, it was only a week ago that I was able to pinch flesh and confirm that I had survived, when a favorable review in Time of my new book on race, “Hating Whitey,” called it “indignant sanity.” This was a kind of imprimatur that allowed me to be readmitted to Time’s definition of decent society.
But even as I was savoring my resurrection, I opened the New York Times Magazine a week ago to see myself smeared by author Jacob Weisberg as one of a group of conservatives on an alleged mission to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy. After the epithet “racist,” the term “McCarthyite” is the one most likely to inflict mortal wounds in our political culture.
Weisberg’s article was, in fact, almost a carbon copy of a piece by Joshua Micah Marshall that had appeared in the American Prospect a year earlier. His screed, called “Exhuming McCarthy,” slandered the same small group — Ronald Radosh, Harvey Klehr, John Haynes, Allen Weinstein and me — labeling us “New McCarthyites.” Like Weisberg’s piece, it failed to provide the slightest evidence for this charge.
The occasion for these attacks is the controversy surrounding the efforts of a few conservative scholars to bring to light new documentary evidence of domestic Communist spying contained in the recently released Venona transcripts and in Soviet archives. Haynes and Klehr are engaged in a series of groundbreaking studies in this field for Yale University Press; Radosh has co-written definitive books on the Rosenberg and Amerasia spy cases, and is writing a study of the Spanish Civil War based on the new sources; Weinstein is the author of the definitive book on Alger Hiss’ guilt and has published a voluminous text on domestic Communist spies called “The Haunted Wood.”
Weisberg added another conservative, Arthur Herman, who has just published a book, “Joe McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator,” which also relies on the new sources.
But me? I have never claimed to be a scholar in the area of Soviet agents and Cold War spying, nor have I written anything about spy cases. I’ve never even read the Venona transcripts, nor visited the Soviet archives. What am I doing in this piece?
I had put this question to Weisberg when he’d called me for an interview for his piece. His answer had been hesitant and vague in a way that aroused my suspicions at the time, but he did say that the article would not be merely about the controversy, so I agreed to cooperate.
When the article appeared, however, it was obvious that Weisberg had lied to me. My inclusion was solely for the purpose of smearing the other four authors — or, more precisely, making the smear of them seem plausible. My utility lay in the fact that I am known as a tough moral critic of the left, and have made a point of answering attacks from that quarter in the same uncompromising language as the attacks themselves.
That I write in a polemical, in-your-face style, rather than in a scholarly, hedge-your-bets style, helped provide the necessary “gotcha” quotes that Weisberg was seeking.
In preparing his American Prospect piece last year, Marshall hadn’t read enough of my actual work to come up with a clinching quote, but he introduced me as “the prime example” of someone who “excoriate[s] the entire progressive tradition for the misdeeds of the extreme left.” Weisberg (who found one) merely varies this description: “Having despised liberals from the left, Horowitz came to hate them just as violently from the right.”
In other words, I was a good candidate for the McCarthy stand-in that Weisberg was looking for. This authorial device produces an irony that eludes both writers. Odd, is it not, that two men who claim to be horrified at attempts to conflate the innocent with the guilty should lump together three non-ideological scholars (Haynes, Klehr and Weinstein), a social democrat (Radosh), a traditional conservative (Herman) and a libertarian conservative (me), to accuse them of working together to rehabilitate McCarthyism?!
Weisberg’s profile of what he alleges to be my libero-phobia may puzzle many readers of Salon. Gripped by such demons, why would I want to write columns for a Web site founded by liberals and leftists, and why would I defend them (as I have) from attacks by the right? Surely this is strange behavior for an ideologue possessed by undiscriminating hatred of all things left.
And why would I write a defense of Christopher Hitchens — a proud tiger of the progressive tradition — when he got what a radical presumably deserves: betrayal by his leftist friends for telling tales out of school on White House deviant Sidney Blumenthal? Why would I publicly excoriate Jerry Falwell as a “conservative jackass” for detecting a homosexual plot in the show “Teletubbies”?
The Marshall and Weisberg reports are not only an offense to the facts, but a 180-degree reversal of the truth — a projection of their own ideological agenda to excoriate the entire tradition of conservative anti-Communism for the misdeeds of an extremist named Joe McCarthy.
Although Weisberg and Marshall strain bravely to pretend otherwise, the cause of the current controversy was the indisputable import of the evidence brought to light by the Soviet collapse. These facts inconveniently vindicated the old anti-Communist right, and discredited the partisans of both Old and New lefts who have put up a fierce rearguard action to deny them.
The agenda of “Third Way” liberals like Weisberg and Marshall is to make the best of a bad situation. Since their brand of liberalism has portrayed McCarthy and his conservative allies as far bigger domestic villains than the Communists themselves, that liberalism is implicated in the behaviors of the left that have now been exposed.
To manage their defense, the authors’ first task is to dispose of the specter that the facts have dredged up — the internal threat of a subversive left. This includes the Stalinist left of the early Cold War and its genetic heirs, the anti-Amerikkka left of the Vietnam era and its politically correct successor in the Clinton years.
Today, this left dominates the liberal arts faculties of the nation’s elite universities and thus the historiography of the Cold War itself. The Weisberg-Marshall strategy is first of all to belittle the importance of this left, which they dismiss as “powerless” and “irrelevant.”
Since such a diminution precludes the necessity of reevaluating conservatives’ role in containing this “threat,” the pair can move on to re-demonizing them for contemporary battles, which is accomplished by hanging the albatross of “McCarthyism” around their necks.
As it happens, each of the individuals targeted by Marshall and Weisberg is on record as a sharp critic of McCarthy and McCarthyism, specifically his demagoguery and recklessness with the facts, his contempt for legal process and his unscrupulous attacks on innocent or half-guilty individuals. Each member of this group, me included, has also been careful in his writings to credit anti-Communist leftists with their actual achievements in the battles against domestic totalitarians and not to confuse them with the pro-Communist factions of the “progressive” cause.
While these achievements of anti-Communist liberals and leftists are real, Weisberg dramatically overstates them. For Weisberg, anti-Communist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr represent “the one group that basically got Communism right.”
But if this is the case, Weisberg doesn’t explain why the pursuit of domestic spies like Hiss and Communist agents like Owen Lattimore were predominantly — though not exclusively — the work of the anti-Communist right (which included in those days Democrats as well as Republicans). Then as now, the right was the consistent and perdurable champion of the anti-Communist cause. A satisfactory explanation of the dynamics of the internal Cold War would have to explain these facts. Weisberg does not even try.
While Weisberg notes that the anti-Communist liberals he favors have been strangely silent in the current controversy, he doesn’t examine the reason for their silence. Does it have something to do with liberal politics itself? Could the off-again, on-again popular front between liberalism and leftism explain the paradox? Is there not some truth in the conservative charge that liberals and leftists share goals and differ only in the means to achieve them?
On these provocative questions Weisberg takes the Fifth. Instead of confronting them, he diverts the reader’s attention by suggesting that the “real” issues in the controversy are psychological, not political.
“Radosh,” he writes, “exemplifies a kind of Whig Fallacy in reverse — viewing the present through the lens of one’s own painful past.” For Herr Doktor Weisberg, Radosh’s alleged attachment to the melodramas of his youth explains his refusal to understand “the way in which Communism, long irrelevant in American politics, has become not just powerless but absurd.”
(Interestingly, the same issue of the Times features an op-ed piece titled “The Next Dialectic,” by a bestselling liberal author who writes that Marx “foretold the present cyber-age” and that “writing about globalization in ‘Principles of Communism’ in 1847, Engels sounds very 1999.”)
Of course, Weisberg doesn’t bother to provide evidence for the claim that Radosh is suffering from a case of arrested development (let alone for the assertion that the left lacks influence). Instead, his text shifts quite abruptly to me: “Radosh is a mild and temperate critic in comparison with an old friend of his from the New Left, and a fellow red-diaper baby, David Horowitz.”
As Weisberg proceeds with his Horowitz file, it is quickly apparent that I am indeed the rabbit in the hat — that the reason for my appearance in his text (since I am not a historian and have played no role in this controversy) is to provide the DNA that will make the prosecution’s case.
Since I am the only member of the group to have written an autobiography that is both personal and political, my work could provide the raw material to prove that a psychological matrix defines them, distorts their analyses and causes them to exaggerate their arguments.
“For those most deeply invested in this universe [of Cold War politics],” Weisberg continues, “clinging to anti-Communism is as much a personal as it is a political phenomenon. What comes through vividly in Horowitz’s memoirs is a fierce Oedipal struggle entwined with radicalism. Horowitz wanted to antagonize his Communist father; in later years, when he was ailing, Horowitz would bait him by raising the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”
When the Times’ fact-checker read this final sentence to me, prior to publication, I told her it was such a misrepresentation of what I had written that it amounted to a falsehood, and that Weisberg should reconsider including it. Of course he didn’t (and couldn’t) change it, because doing so would destroy his thesis. Here is the actual passage from “Radical Son” in which I describe this encounter with my father (the time frame is the mid-’70s, when I am in my 30s and have begun to have second thoughts about the left):
“When our discussions veered into the areas of our political disagreements, I was made to feel the spine of his being. It was as though we were back in the house on 44th Street [20 years before], arguing over the Times again. Yet these new eruptions were quickly muted by my decision not to press them. I would raise the issue of Solzhenitsyn’s new book to see that he had not changed. But when the expected response came, I did not push him to the wall, as I once had. He was too weakened, too beaten for that. When he dismissed Solzhenitsyn as a reactionary doing the Americans’ work, I let it pass. Sometimes I would pare down my quest until it was a simple demand for respect. What I wanted was my father’s recognition that I, too, had won a few hard truths.”
In other words, the reality is exactly the opposite of what Weisberg alleges. Far from wanting to antagonize my father, this passage reveals my pain as a frustrated son who wanted to connect with him in an area that was important to us both, and failed. When failure proved undeniable, I backed off. But this mundane filial effort to make contact with an aging parent did not suit Weisberg’s purpose, which was to portray me as irreconcilable, and my antagonism a neurosis affecting my entire political perspective. “This sense of acting out of personal injury,” Weisberg sums up, “permeates everything Horowitz writes today.” What an efficiently ruthless way to dismiss an intellectual career!
Other misrepresentations follow. Having set up a straw man, Weisberg moves directly to the thesis-clinching trope: “This explains Horowitz’s penchant for depicting Clinton Democrats in terms borrowed from the era of high Stalinism. In the online magazine Salon, where he has a column, Horowitz wrote recently, ‘It is as though the Rosenbergs had been in the White House, except that the Rosenbergs were little people and naive.’
Here is the DNA — the proof that behind the whole intellectual controversy is the resurrected witch-hunt of the past. For unreconstructed Cold Warriors like Horowitz and his red-diaper friend Radosh, the Clintons are the Rosenbergs.
The quote that Weisberg uses to confirm guilt in the case is actually lifted from a three-part series of articles that appeared in Salon and dealt with the unprecedented breach of America’s national security interests during the Clinton administration. This catastrophe is described as the result not only of lax security leading to the theft of nuclear weapons by China, but the calculated lifting of controls by Clinton that allowed the transfer of vital satellite, missile and computer technologies to the Communist dictatorship.
Only readers of my actual text, however, will know that the reference to the Rosenbergs was not intended in any way to draw a parallel between Clinton’s motives and those of the Communists. I did not invoke the Rosenbergs as an explanation of why Clinton allowed these breaches to take place, but as an indication of the magnitude of the loss. When the passage is read in full, it is obvious even to the most obtuse reader that I actually used the analogy to differentiate Clinton’s actions from the actions of Communists like the Rosenbergs — in other words exactly the opposite of what Weisberg claims.
Weisberg’s rancid fantasy is not only irresponsible toward the facts and destructive to the individual scholars under attack (here the author provides an ugly parallel to his notorious subject), it is ahistorical and anti-intellectual. Weisberg’s whole effort is designed to erase the questions that provoked the argument in the first place. Whose view of this historical epoch was/is correct? Why are such powerful voices, including the New York Times, seeking to trivialize this debate and treat it as a mere rehash of dead issues, or worse yet as an attempt to resurrect a disreputable politics of the past? The answers to these questions have obvious implications for one’s view of both the progressive/liberal tradition and its conservative rival, and thus are hardly as irrelevant to present American politics as Weisberg claims. Indeed the claim itself is part of the argument.
Discounting the internal Communist threat in the Roosevelt and early Truman years and the external threat in the post-Johnson era have been the hallmarks of modern liberalism and its irregular alliance with the fellow-traveling and pro-Communist left.
The summary moment of this strange bed-fellowship occurred in 1939, when Whittaker Chambers went to Washington to warn Franklin Roosevelt that his close aide Alger Hiss was a Communist and a Soviet spy.
When the message was conveyed to Roosevelt by Adolph Berle, the president merely laughed and then elevated Hiss to even higher levels of policy and responsibility. Weisberg’s Times piece follows the party line of this tradition quite faithfully, as has the Times’ own treatment of the post-Communist revelations.
The Times, for example, buried the Venona story when it first broke, has remained skeptical to the bitter end on the question of Hiss’ guilt, and has continued to cast a more-than-tolerant eye on the anti-American radicals of the Vietnam era.
The liberal temperament reflected in these choices is well-illustrated by Weisberg’s treatment of Owen Lattimore, a figure from this history to whom he makes a passing reference in his text. Owen Lattimore was a famous McCarthy target and — in liberal eyes — a still more famous McCarthy victim.
Yet despite all that Venona, the Soviet archives and the latter-day memoirs of repentant Communists have revealed, Weisberg still describes Lattimore as “the China hand absurdly named as the Soviets’ ‘top spy’ in the United States.”
It is true that this McCarthy claim was false, and every conservative scholar in Weisberg’s crosshairs has emphasized the fact, deploring McCarthy’s demagoguery and the damage his reckless accusations did to the legitimate anti-Communist cause.
(Indeed, no one at the time was more furious with McCarthy for this over-reach and the discredit it brought than J. Edgar Hoover himself.) To this day, Lattimore has never been proven a spy and does not appear in the Soviet documents thus far released. But the image of wounded innocence that surrounded Lattimore then and does to this day in Weisberg’s report is even falser to the reality of both the man and the period than the McCarthy smear itself.
In fact, the professorial Lattimore was a devious, unscrupulous, self-conscious betrayer of his country and a willing servant of the Soviet cause who worked hand-in-glove with its underground spy apparatus in the United States.
As the editor of Pacific Affairs, and intimate of Lauchlin Currie (the White House liaison to the Department of State), Lattimore was one of America’s most influential China experts during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, a period that marked the crucial stages of the Communist revolution, whose triumph in 1949 preceded McCarthy’s crusade by a mere eight months.
We now know that Currie, Lattimore’s intimate friend and patron at the White House, was a Soviet spy. Lattimore’s own pro-Soviet outlook was clearly expressed in a memo he wrote to the executive director of the Institute for Pacific Relations, a think tank financed by the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, which published his magazine: “For the USSR — back their international policy in general, but without using their slogans and above all without giving them or anybody else the impression of subservience.”
On Currie’s advice, Lattimore hired a KGB collaborator named Michael Greenberg as his assistant at Pacific Affairs, and then on his own initiative, Chen Han-shen, a Chinese spy, as his co-editor. Lattimore put his request for the co-editor through the channels of the Comintern. Yet, in the battle with McCarthy, Lattimore was the put-upon hero in the eyes of liberals and Democrats (with important exceptions like Arthur Schlesinger).
As one of Weisberg’s targets, Arthur Herman, reminds us in his book on McCarthy, Herbert Elliston of the Baltimore Sun, Al Friendly of the Washington Post, Drew Pearson, I.F. Stone, Eric Sevareid and Martin Agronsky all supported Lattimore.
The New York Post editorialized, “All those who believe in freedom in this country are in the debt of Owen Lattimore.” McCarthy was painted by the same political forces as the devil incarnate, while his bid to expose Lattimore as the traitor he was, was successfully thwarted by the congressional Democrats.
The release of Soviet documents has allowed us to see that in the Cold War battles of this era: 1) The anti-Communist forces of the right were correctly concerned about the internal threat to American security (as were their liberal and socialist allies); 2) the pro-Soviet left was treacherous and subversive; and 3) the Democrats, for partisan reasons (they were covering up the security failures of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations), often harbored and protected the Communists who had infiltrated their ranks.
In obscuring these historical realities, Weisberg and the Times are playing a role that has undeniable parallels to that played by their liberal and fellow-traveling counterparts at the time.
This includes turning a semi-blind eye to the stranglehold exerted by New Left Marxists and Soviet sympathizers — the intellectual heirs of Owen Lattimore — on the teaching of history in American universities, whose two main professional organizations this year are headed by David Montgomery, an unrepentant former Communist, and Eric Foner, a New Left apologist for the Rosenbergs.
Sympathizers of the old Communist left now dominate the writing of the historical record in both the academic fields of Soviet studies and domestic communism. The leading academic authority on the McCarthy period, for example, is Ellen Schrecker, a full-blown apologist for American communism. Schrecker’s books do not even bother to dream up new defenses for the Communists’ treachery but merely rehash the disingenuous arguments the Communists made for themselves at the time.
A typical Schreckerism explains that American Communists spied not because they were traitors, but because they “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.”
In discussing Schrecker’s work, Weisberg treads lightly over this reality of the left’s hold on the historical record. To treat this reality for what it is would require recognizing that conservative scholars have been pushed to the fringes of their profession by a political juggernaut in the universities more powerful in excluding dissenters than McCarthy ever was, and that a handful of them have nonetheless courageously struggled to present a balanced view of this past.
But to acknowledge this would mean recognizing the power and relevance of the left in the present, and “rehabilitating” the role that ex-Communists like Elizabeth Bentley, conservatives like William F. Buckley and institutions like the FBI played in defending America against the Communist threat. Instead, Weisberg’s plea is that the story of American Communists should be approached “in a less judgmental fashion,” while his conclusion is that even intellectually “the Cold War is history now.”
It is more likely, however, that (in Irving Kristol’s phrase) the Cold War has merely come home.
For although Weisberg affects a posture above the fray, he is himself a partisan in this Cold War. Just three years ago he wrote a cover story for New York magazine called “The Un-Americans,” a peculiar reprise of the McCarthy-era stigma that he applied to six conservatives whose photos were also featured: Phil Gramm, Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms.
Their collective thought crime was to have criticized the federal government and their subversive “act” to have used words like “revolution” in connection with Newt Gingrich’s “contract with America,” and thus — in Weisberg’s tendentious argument — to have provided an ideological rationale for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.
When Weisberg called to interview me for his Times piece, I brought up the article. I told him I didn’t trust his ability to treat conservatives like me fairly, because I remembered how he had smeared conservatives as “un-American.”
His reply was evasive. He didn’t remember if he had written such a story, he said. Like the Communists who were questioned about subversion by McCarthy’s committee in the 1950s and presented themselves as liberal patriots and defenders of the First Amendment, Weisberg defended himself by pretending not to know what I was talking about.
David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.More David Horowitz.
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