With the demise of the Soviet Union and the piecemeal opening of the KGB and other intelligence files to a variety of scholars, journalists, and political activists from abroad, we have entered upon a period in which the rewriting of history—our history, here in the United States—is once again going to be a top priority for the intellectual Left in this country. Now, as before, the goals of this endeavor are to discredit the policies and institutions of the American government, to cast the worst possible doubts on American and Western motives in the conduct of the Cold War, and, most important of all, to acquit the Left itself of any wrongdoing in the long and ignominious history of its support of Communist causes.
The central assumption governing this project in the rewriting of history is the fiercely-held belief that the Communist threat to the West during the long years of the Cold War was at once a malevolent fantasy and a deliberate smokescreen devised by the American government and its courts to disguise the real political objective, which is alleged to have been the destruction of the radical movement in America and its “progressive” program for American society. Or, as a spokesman for the Left wrote in The Nation last summer, “to the right wing and its corporate allies [in America], the Soviet Union was never more than a stand-in for the real enemy: home-grown radicalism.”
We had occasion to quote this remarkable utterance in our September issue when we discussed the reports then circulating in the press that the late I. F. Stone, a journalist well known for his hard-line espousal of leftist causes, had been accused by a former KGB officer of having been a paid agent of the Soviet government. “We frankly do not know whether the charge against Stone is true or false,” we wrote at the time, “for no hard evidence has been produced by either side in the debate.” Yet in the absence of hard evidence, Stone’s allies on the Left joined in a loud chorus of denial, denouncing the report as a vicious libel. If they protested a little too vehemently in Stone’s defense, never pausing to consider what it might mean to their cause if the charge had proved to be correct, they nonetheless had every right to question an accusation that remained unsupported by even a pretense of documentation.
General Volkogonov made this declaration in a taped interview with John Lowenthal, one of Alger Hiss’s staunchest American defenders.
It was not to be expected, of course, that there would be any comparable display of skepticism or indignation by the champions of the Left when, in a sequel to the I. F. Stone affair, we were promptly treated to yet another sensational episode in the ongoing saga of post-Soviet intelligence “revelations” —the claim put forward by General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, the current chairman of the Russian government’s military intelligence archives, that neither Alger Hiss nor Whittaker Chambers had ever served as spies or agents for the Soviet Union. General Volkogonov made this declaration in a taped interview with John Lowenthal, one of Alger Hiss’s staunchest American defenders. In support of this remarkable statement, the general offered absolutely nothing to back it up—not even a cursory description of the kind of archives that were consulted or the scope of the research project that might have led him and his staff to reach this preposterous conclusion. The only detail he could positively confirm, the general declared, was that Whittaker Chambers had indeed been a member of the American Communist Party—a fact well known the world over for many decades and for the verification of which no search of the Soviet archives was necessary. Everything else he said in his interview with Mr. Lowenthal was to be taken on faith.
The euphoria with which the faithful Left has greeted this extraordinary episode was in most respects predictable, yet certain expressions of the euphoria set a new mark for rhetorical obfuscation even in the literature of Hiss’s defense. Not surprisingly, the prize for the most shameless sentimental twaddle must go to Tony Hiss. His lachrymose reflections on the Hiss case, “My Father’s Honor,” in the November 16 issue of The New Yorker succeeded in reducing a historical tragedy of large dimensions to the level of liberal soap opera—which, incidentally, is pretty much the standard that the “new” New Yorker seems designed to meet. “When people have asked me over the years what it has felt like to live through the Hiss case,” Tony Hiss wrote, “I’ve always said that it has been like living inside a fairy tale, with a curse that couldn’t be lifted.” The real fairy tale, however, is the incredible series of distortions, half truths, and worse with which the younger Hiss fills this exercise in the rewriting of history. Mirabile dictu, Alger Hiss emerges as the immaculate hero, long-suffering and falsely accused, while Whittaker Chambers appears as a paranoid liar motivated chiefly by envy. A fairy tale, indeed.
Elsewhere in the liberal press, Hiss’s advocates joined in similar misrepresentations of the historical evidence in their celebrations of their hero’s “innocence.” It never really mattered to them that General Volkogonov had not produced a single item of evidence to support his claim. But then, the evidence of two trials and an enormous literature had never meant anything to them, either. Hiss had to be thought innocent because their cause was believed to be innocent of all wrongdoing, and all the evidence in the world would never persuade them otherwise.
There is, of course, a much larger issue than the fate of Alger Hiss’s reputation at stake in this episode. It is the issue of how the history of our country and the history of our century are to be written: on the basis of what evidence, what sources, what facts will these stories be told? For more than seventy years, Soviet “archives” served as a source of the most mendacious histories ever written about the modern world. Never was there any shortage of intellectuals on the Left in this country to lend credence to these ideological fictions. It was in the nature of Soviet historiography to lie about everything, to create a fantasy world that bore little or no relation to the political and social realities of Soviet life and Soviet actions abroad.
General Volkogonov, who purports to be a historian himself, has by no means remained untouched by these deeply entrenched habits of mind. Anyone who has looked into his recent book, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, and who is familiar with the literature on the subject, will instantly recognize that he is not (shall we say?) the most disinterested of historical scholars when it comes to tracing the course of Soviet history. Our own favorite detail is his citation of Louis Aragon and Anna Louise Strong, who were surely among the West’s most notorious apologists for Stalin, as reliable sources of information. And the book itself is yet another exercise in the effort to beatify Lenin at Stalin’s expense. There is even a suggestion that Trotsky’s assassination came as something of a surprise to Stalin. And there is no account of the worldwide spy-network that was established under Stalin. Is it any wonder, then, that the author of Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy could find no evidence that Hiss and Chambers had served Stalin’s international apparatus?
It is imperative that we in the West do not allow the lure of the labyrinthine Soviet archives—or “archives”—to sucker us into easy and mistaken conclusions about the history that we seek to write by consulting them. These so-called archives are likely to contain as much falsehood as truth—perhaps, given their provenance, even more falsehood than truth. The Soviet Union is gone, but the era of disinformation it initiated on a global scale is far from over. The “revelations” about Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers are a salutary reminder that we have entered a new chapter in the history of the falsehoods that have emanated from this tainted source, and a warning that we cannot allow the former servitors of the Soviet disinformation network to determine our own standards of historical verification.
Meanwhile, the evidence of Alger Hiss’s guilt—and Whittaker Chambers’s, as well—stands completely unchallanged. Not a single fact has been adduced by General Volkogonov to alter that fundamental truth.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 4, on page 1
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