Liberals and Communism: The “Red Decade” Revisited
The Communist Controversy in Washington from the New Deal to McCarthy
Fairness requires a historian to resist easy judgments after the fact. Yet his eagerness to avoid the temptation to condemn the past by “hindsight” may only deliver him into a form of neutrality in which he excuses everything on the grounds that our predecessors were too benighted to be expected to arrive at the truth; they must be judged “by the standards of their own day.” What looks at first like historical “objectivity” reveals itself as a particularly insidious kind of condescension, compared to which even “hindsight” begins to seem preferable.
It is easy to see why the history of the Thirties and Forties—the “red decades” of American politics—should so often have been approached from one or the other of these perspectives. The sudden reversal by which the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, became a national enemy made heretical sympathies that had lately been not only tolerated but, at times, encouraged. In the late Forties and early Fifties the question of “loyalty” dominated American politics, giving rise to a debate that has not yet exhausted itself; a debate that the books by Warren and Latham, regrettably perhaps, will help to perpetuate.
On the one hand, the liberals of the Thirties and Forties were accused by their critics of moral blindness to the crimes of Communism, or worse, of knowingly abetting them. On the other, it was said in their defense that the monstrous character of the Soviet regime did not reveal itself until the end of the war, that everyone had been equally deceived (just as one party to another debate holds that everyone was deceived about Hitler); and that in any case those who spoke well of Stalinism were more interested in reforming America than in promoting the fortunes of the Soviet Union, indeed saw very little connection between the two. These judgments are almost equally unfair. The first, by reading back the conditions of the cold war into the period of the Popular Front and the Second World War, misrepresents the flavor of those years and makes it impossible, short of positing a conspiracy, to understand why so many people should have been attracted to Communism. The other clears liberals of conspiracy only to endow them with an almost unlimited simplicity about politics that is hardly flattering, and, flattering or not, is no more plausible, on so grand a scale, than the theory of a global design in which American liberals faithfully carried out the parts they were assigned.
THE ALTERNATIVE to all this would seem to be the achievement of a perspective that will minimize the importance of a particular type of moral judgment—the attempt to fix blame, the search for personal villains—without, at the same time, imagining we have rid ourselves of judgments altogether. The books by Warren and Latham, one dealing with liberals who in one way or another sympathized with Communism, the other with actual Communists, show what can be gained, and what cannot, by scrupulous scholarship and a determination to avoid the double dangers of hindsight and condescension, and to be as impartial as temperament permits. In both cases, important things have been achieved. Liberals and Communism is a far better book than, say, Eugene Lyons’s The Red Decade, the first of many works to accuse liberals of defecting wholesale to the Soviet Union. By carefully exploring The New Republic, The Nation, Common Sense, and other journals of opinion, Warren shows that Lyons’s picture is a caricature, that many liberals—Lippmann, Dewey, Villard, and Beard, to name a few—saw the repressive features of the Soviet regime and opposed them, and that even those who apologized for Stalinism arrived at their conclusions independently of the Communist Party. Likewise Earl Latham’s study of Communist influence in Washington is superior to such tracts as James Burnham’s The Web of Subversion and Ralph de Toledano’s Spies, Dupes, and Diplomats, which set forth the theory, popularized by Senator McCarthy, of “twenty years of treason.”
Given the requirements of American politics, it would be too much to hope that Warren and Latham have disposed of the Communist conspiracy as a political issue, but they have disposed of it, certainly, as an issue for scholarship. Warren shows that liberals who supported Communism in the Thirties cannot possibly be regarded as Communist agents or even as “dupes.” Latham, whose study deals more directly with the question of conspiracy and is therefore particularly convincing on this point, concludes that neither espionage nor “subversion”—that is, Communist influence over policy—had anything like the influence many people suppose they had. Whittaker Chambers himself believed that espionage was “a magnificent waste of time” and that Communist control over policy posed the real menace to security; but Latham, without disputing Chambers’s estimate of the value of espionage, shows that “in the great questions of policy, the Communist position either accorded with an already prevailing conception of desirable American policy, or it was defeated.” Latham’s study is not only exhaustive—it is largely based on the numerous Congressional investigations and the large, tedious literature of ex-Communist confessions—but it can hardly be accused of bias in its choice of sources. Latham treats both Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as reliable witnesses, a procedure which has already caused at least one reviewer to complain. Even so, he comes to the conclusion that Communist influence was negligible. He does not minimize the considerable Communist activity in Washington during the late Thirties and early Forties—the activities, for instance, of Harry Dexter White, never very easy to understand—but he denies that these activities had any important results.
NEITHER OF THESE STUDIES, in short, will comfort those who still wish to believe in a Communist conspiracy that explains Yalta, the fall of Nationalist China, and all our other difficulties. But the question of conspiracy, in this crude form, after all, has very little intrinsic interest. That it is of any interest at all only reminds us that American politics is in many ways grotesque. One has to ask more of these books than that they dispose of the theory of Communist subversion. One has to ask whether they are, in a larger historical sense, fair and accurate accounts of the events they depict. Is it true, for instance, that the intellectuals of the Thirties, by embracing Communism, betrayed their function as social critics and committed themselves to a total view of politics and history? This judgment, offered by Warren as the conclusion to which his study unavoidably points, is an easy over-simplification of the period. It makes anti-Communism the only criterion of political virtue whereas in fact men have found it possible to make the same kind of total commitment to liberalism that Warren accuses his victims of having made to Communism. The emergence of a messianic liberalism, indeed, may turn out to have been one of the most important developments of the Thirties and Forties. In any case, the Communists did not have a monopoly on total political commitments.
Nor were they automatically wrong, by definition, about every question on which they took a stand. In a number of cases they were surely right, whatever their motives and whatever the gyrations that the faithful had to perform in order to keep up with the latest directive from Moscow. In particular, the Communists were right, once they finally saw the danger, about the need to oppose Fascism, at a time when the Western democracies were still attempting to appease it. Only if we remember that the Soviet Union, in the mid-Thirties, was the only major power unequivocally committed to an anti-Fascist foreign policy, can we begin to understand the question this raised for Americans who saw Fascism as an immediate and unmitigated menace. As William Phillips has said, in a recent symposium on the radicalism of the Thirties;
In one way or another, in varying degrees, we felt that the Communist party was a bad influence, organizationally and ideologically. At the same time it seemed to us to be the only party capable of doing anything, the only party capable of providing some kind of central force around which to organize…’The question seemed to be: to what extent would it be desirable to cooperate and suppress some of our critical feelings, some of our critical sense, in the name of some larger cause?
Granville Hicks, another veteran of the Thirties, makes the same point: “In the Thirties I thought the situation was terribly urgent, and therefore I was willing to commit myself to the rather desperate measures of which, even then, I didn’t really approve.” These statements may serve as rationalizations (although neither Phillips nor Hicks now denies that “we may have done some foolish things”), but they suggest a political awareness considerably more complex than anything Warren’s account even hints at. Communism too often presented itself to American intellectuals as an answer, the ultimate answer to a variety of difficulties both personal and political; but we should not forget that it also presented itself as a question: Is it wise, in the face of what appears to be an overriding emergency, to support a movement many of the tactics and objectives of which one does not approve? At what point is it appropriate to announce one’s reservations, and at what point is it appropriate to suppress them? Whatever the proper choice, it is not a simple choice except in retrospect.
IT HAS TO BE ADMITTED that many liberals not only supported the Communists’ stand against Fascism but apologized for Stalinism as well. It may be that in doing so they objectively aided the Stalinist tyranny, as Warren maintains. But to insist again and again on the ulterior purposes behind Soviet foreign policy, purposes to which American liberals are supposed to have lent themselves, tells us very little about the policies themselves and about the intellectuals who supported them. The editors of The New Republic, Warren says,
raised no basic question as to the Communists’ aims in advocating, collective security…The editors generally accepted the Communist support of collective security at face value. They acknowledged that the Communists were supporting it because of Russian interests, but did not acknowledge that they were under “orders” to support it.
That may be so, but the question remains: Is a policy automatically discredited because it happens to coincide with Russian interests? If so, there is very little hope of peace in the world.
One has a right to expect a historian of the Thirties, before handing down judgments, to make explicit the view of the period on which he bases those judgments. Were there no arguments in favor of a Popular Front against Fascism? If not, does that mean that our participation in the Second World War must also be condemned? Warren never faces these questions; he does not even raise them. Instead he argues that the Popular Front, aside from aiding the Communists, rested on the “myth” that Communist and Fascist totalitarianisms were distinguishable; therefore, presumably, it was a mistake. But the identity of Communist and Fascist dictatorships is not, as Warren seems to think, a self-evident truth; it raises another question, the most important, possibly, that one could raise about this period of European history. Warren, however, feels no compunction to pursue it. Instead he trails off into further baffling judgments, unexplained and, one concludes, unexamined. He observes that the Popular Front rested on “a simple Manichaean view of the world, indicating that it was also a substitute for thought. It was closer to an emergency technique for fighting Fascism than a carefully developed ideology.” Would a carefully developed ideology have pointed toward some other policy? Warren does not say. The worst thing about his preoccupation with showing that liberals intentionally or not aided the Communists—even if this could be demonstrated—is that it acts to absolve him of the need to reflect any further on the political history of the Thirties.
The same evasiveness characterizes Latham’s book on the Communist controversy. In spite of its virtues, it too brims over with unexamined assumption, innuendo substituting for argument, and mindless anti-Communist rhetoric. Elizabeth Bentley is introduced as “a simple school teacher working for ferocious goals of world domination.” The Soviet Union, during the war, engaged in espionage (as other countries, we are left to conclude, did not), “one hand extended in the rough hearty candor of international friendship while the other picked over files and rifled desks.” The Russian demand for a second front in 1942 “would have matched the Nazis at their greatest strength with the allies at their lowest”—an insidious trick, therefore, rather than a military demand of the sort allies customarily make of one another. (In this case, the demand was one to which all parties had already agreed, so that the repeated postponement of the second front looked to the Soviets like an American trick.) Elsewhere we read that Marxism was an “esoteric doctrine”—a perverse, not to say parochial judgment, if it means what it seems to mean—and that “the Communists,” in general, “were seeking to take democracy from the democrats and, by preempting its values, to monopolize—and to make squalid with ulterior intent—the decent impulses of democracy and humanism in the American culture.” In this way Latham dissolves in righteous moralizing the disturbing facts which confront us today, and which Americans find it so difficult to deal with. Not only does Communist rhetoric confusingly parallel our own, but it unmistakably appeals to people whom our American talk of “freedom” leaves unmoved. Communism, however “squalid,” has usurped the revolutionary role that we still regard (with little reason) as rightfully ours—an unforgiveable sin indeed.
THESE SAMPLES of Latham’s prose show that he has accepted without much question the official anti-Communism which is thought to be the only politics Americans need to have. But they would not be worth mentioning if Latham’s anti-Communism did not lead him into an important historical error which, in turn, colors his entire book. Precisely because he does accept the official view of things, Latham believes that the Communist issue, so explosive in the early Fifties, has “subsided” or “disappeared.” He offers an elaborate explanation—something called “the stress of government,” which aligned Congress and the executive “in adversary stance,” eased somewhat when the Republicans took over—but he takes the “disappearance” of the issue for granted. This interpretation, of course, is widely entertained; but consider the evidence against it. Consider, for example, the way in which liberals like Dean Acheson, himself one of the early victims of McCarthyism, changed their minds about the fall of China, which Acheson and others were accused of having failed to prevent, and argued that instead of a revolution the communization of China was actually a Soviet conspiracy (the Russians having “thoroughly indoctrinated” the Chinese leaders, according to Acheson, “so that they returned to China prepared to resort to any means whatsoever to establish Communist control,” thereby taking over China “at a ridiculously small cost”). The “hard line,” and the conspiratorial view of revolutions which it implies, shortly became the established policy of both parties, and far from subsiding, it has survived to become the justification of the land war in Asia which liberal Presidents used to insist we would never make the mistake of fighting. In this matter as in others the Center has merely appropriated the program and something of the outlook of the Right, while taking credit for delivering the country from McCarthyism. Similarly Truman and then Eisenhower, in response to attacks from the Right, instituted loyalty programs which incorporated the major McCarthyite premises—the existence of a Communist menace in the United States and the appropriateness of combatting it by means of security programs instead of by counter-espionage. Latham barely mentions these programs, and then only to imply that as rational measures against subversion, they helped to destroy McCarthyism by eliminating the activities which gave McCarthy’s accusations a shadow of justification. But in fact these programs, put into effect by liberal Presidents, were as irrational as the ravings of demagogues. Not only did they turn up no spies, but two spies, later apprehended by counter-espionage, had earlier been cleared by the system, for the security program is really concerned not with security at all but with “loyalty”—ideological purity. The crowning piece of evidence for the persistence of the Communist issue, if any further evidence is required, is of course Goldwater’s nomination by the Republicans, followed by Johnson’s adoption of Goldwater’s foreign policy. Only by defining McCarthyism out of existence—as a spy-hunt and nothing more—can one argue, in the face of these events, that “the tension about Communists and their activities in Washington…seemed to vanish with the condemnation of McCarthy by the United States Senate in December 1954.” If the great spy-hunt subsided (and even this is questionable, as soon as one looks beyond the Senate), it was largely because the central component of “McCarthyism”—anti-Communism as a way of life—had been taken over by the very men who claimed to have vanquished McCarthy.
THESE BOOKS, THEN, are written from a point of view too confining to allow accuracy, except in an elementary sense, or even the fairness for which they both strive. The larger truth about this period will have to wait for a historian who is prepared to see American anti-Communism not as an issue foisted on the rest of us by the “radical Right” but as a continuing obsession, national in scope; and who is prepared to admit, moreover, that not only McCarthyism but our “liberal” bipartisan foreign policy since 1945 can be understood only partially as a response to the real threat of Communism abroad. The obsession with Communism has to be explained principally as a manifestation of certain developments within American society itself. One of these is the failure of liberalism, particularly in the Forties and Fifties, to offer an alternative to the cold war. The defense of Stalinism by some liberals in the Thirties is important, not only because it points up their shaky commitment to democratic values, but because their infatuation with Communism helped to prepare the ground for the orgy of apology that followed. But it is the latter development, the capitulation of liberalism to the demand for a hard line against Communism at home and abroad, against anything, in fact, that remotely resembled Communism, that will be seen as the more decisive event of the period. When they began to compete with the Right in their unremitting anti-Communism, giving “containment” of Communism priority over everything else, American liberals deprived themselves of any effective grounds on which to resist the absurdities to which that policy so easily led. In effect, they appropriated the major demands of the Right and then caviled at the outcome.
Liberals & Communism December 29, 1966