Notes & Comments May 1996
On Gary Wills’s & Nicholas von Hoffman’s recent articles on American Communism.
What a difference a year makes! A year ago, on the occasion of the publication of The Secret World of American Communism in Yale University Press’s “Annals of Communism” series, we raised the question of “whether, in today’s intellectual climate, [the] disclosures contained in The Secret World of American Communism will prove to be sufficient to reverse ‘the dominant perspective among academic historians for the past twenty years’ on the subject of the Communist movement in America… . For this ‘dominant perspective’ has been based more on ideology than on an interest in knowing the truth.” (See “Revising the Revisionists on American Communism,” in Notes & Comments for May 1995.)
Yet a year later, while an entrenched anti-anti-Communist perspective no doubt remains dominant in the nation’s classrooms, elsewhere there have been some remarkable shifts of opinion—particularly on, of all places, the American political Left. One stunning example was a column by Garry Wills, who, some twenty years ago, eagerly played the dupe in defending Lillian Hellman’s Stalinist lies in Scoundrel Time. In his column for March 19 in the New York Post, however, Wills warned his comrades on the political Left that it was time to abandon the pretense that Alger Hiss was innocent of the charge of spying for the Kremlin. Or, as the subhead in the New York Post put it: “It’s time for the Left to admit that Richard Nixon was right.”
Then, on April 14, came a blockbuster of an article in The Washington Post that asked the question that had been forbidden on the Left for nearly half a century: “Was McCarthy Right About the Left?” The author was yet another disabused liberal, Nicholas von Hoffman, and he addressed the anti-anti-Communist issue with the kind of candor, bluntness, and passion that recalled, amazingly, the eloquence of the late Sidney Hook in the days of his pitched battles with the political Left on precisely this issue. Mr. von Hoffman is worth quoting at length, for his article was clearly intended to spark a historic revision of the anti-anti-Communist revisionists. Its tone was set in its opening paragraph:
The American Left has an unexamined past. Like the French conservatives, who went into deep denial about their collaboration with the Nazis a half century ago, American leftists and some of their liberal allies have refused to sort out their own intimate connections with Marxist-Leninism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Quoting, with approval, from Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Mr. von Hoffman observed that
For decades after Chambers wrote [Witness], liberals and leftists held the high ground in the dispute over whether a Communist conspiracy actually existed in the United States or was simply a by-product of “the paranoid style in American politics.”
In the upmarket universities and other places where the dominant form of polite liberalism thrived, the accusers, who had named names and had pointed out the Communist spies, were scorned as despicable vermin. Among the mainstream scholars, like Richard Hofstadter, the forces of domestic anti-Communism were described largely as manifestations of social underdevelopment and popular irrationality, not legitimate concern.
“Was McCarthy Right About the Left?” exaggerates nothing while recalling a period of unacknowledged political shame.
As the 1960s wore on, the savagery and futility of the Vietnam War discredited the anti-Communist cause. By the end of the 1960s, the demonization of anti-Communism had gained currency, and not just on the far Left.
Yet, as a result of the opening of the Soviet archives and the more recent release of the National Security Agency’s Venona transcripts from the 1940s, the anti-anti-Communist cause has indeed been exposed to be as much an example of “deep denial” as the French denial of collaboration with the Nazis. As Mr. von Hoffman further observed:
The Age of McCarthyism, it turns out, was not the simple witch hunt of the innocent by the malevolent as two generations of high school and college students have been taught.
There was more to Mr. von Hoffman’s article than can be adequately summarized here, including his reflections on the damage that McCarthy inflicted on the anti-Communist cause as the result of irresponsible charges against people who were not, in fact, Communists at all. Mr. von Hoffman’s conclusion nonetheless remains historically important as a statement of liberal guilt on the anti-anti-Communist issue.
Enough new information has come to light about the Communists in the U.S. government that we may now say that point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.
In his column for the New York Post, Gary Wills said that he was prompted to write about Hiss by a curious omission in the long obituary that The New York Times ran for the art historian Meyer Schapiro in March. Although the obituary was of a length and fulsomeness that the Times usually reserves for important world leaders. (“One would think,” Mr. Wills quoted a friend as saying, “that the Pope had died.”) But despite the length and detail of the obituary, the Times somehow failed to mention that Schapiro, despite his own left-wing commitments, had come to support Whittaker Chambers against Hiss. This is how it happened: Chambers had been told by his Communist bosses to reward four agents with an expensive gift. He decided on Oriental rugs and asked his friend Meyer Schapiro to help him pick out four Bokhara rugs. As Mr. Wills explained,
Hiss admitted getting a rug from Chambers, but said it had been given to him before the end of 1935—an important date because all of Hiss’ spying activities took place after 1935… .
The problem with Hiss’ story is the rugs were purchased in 1937—a fact established by records of purchase as well as by Schapiro’s memory.
Since Hiss still had the rug when he was tried, it would have been a simple matter to ask Schapiro to testify and ask him whether the rug in question was the one he had picked out for Chambers to give to Hiss. Had Hiss been telling the truth, Schapiro’s testimony would have totally discredited Chambers’s charges. Yet Hiss refused to have Schapiro called. Why? He said that the prosecution would have hidden the truth. But for Mr. Wills, the story of the rug was “one of many things that convinced me that Hiss was lying.” What Mr. Wills calls “the myth of Hiss’ innocence” has indeed been a perennial dogma on the Left. Which is one reason that Mr. Wills, despite his long association with the Left, concluded that “not even Nixon was infallibly wrong” when it came to naming Communists. This, by the way, is something that The New York Times has yet to acknowledge —and it will be a while, too, before the Soviet penetration of the American government from the 1930s onward for several decades will be widely taught as an important chapter of our history in American classrooms. But the times, if not yet The New York Times, appear to be changing in regard to the myth of Communist innocence in the Stalinist era.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 9, on page 1
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