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Out of the public eye and far from the daily headlines, a fierce verbal battle is currently being waged about the course of American policy in the long death struggle with Moscow that we call the Cold War.
At ground zero of this new dispute is author Diana West, whose recent book, American Betrayal (St. Martin’s), is a hard- hitting critique of the strategy toward the Soviet Union pursued in the 1940s by President Franklin Roosevelt, his top assistant Harry Hopkins, and various colleagues. Ms. West in particular stresses the infiltration of the government of that era by Communists and Soviet agents, linking the presence of these forces to U.S. policies that appeased the Russians or served the interests of the Kremlin.
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For making this critique, Ms. West has been bitterly attacked by writers Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz, Roosevelt biographer Conrad Black, and a considerable crew of others. The burden of their complaint is that she is a “conspiracy theorist” and right wing nut whose views are far outside the mainstream of historical writing, and that she should not have presumed to write such a book about these important matters.
Though the professed stance of her opponents is that of scholarly condescension, the language being used against Ms. West doesn’t read like scholarly discourse. She is, we’re told, “McCarthy on steroids,” “unhinged,” a “right-wing loopy,” not properly “house trained,” “incompetent,” purveying “a farrago of lies,” and a good deal else of similar nature. All of which looks more like the politics of personal destruction than debate about serious academic issues.
From my standpoint, however, what is going on here seems to be something more than personal. Having delved into these matters a bit, I think I recognize the process that’s in motion: the circling of rhetorical wagons around a long accepted narrative about the Second World War and the Cold War conflict that followed.
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This narrative sets the limits of permissible comment about American Cold War policy, bounded on the one side by Roosevelt and Hopkins, representing generally speaking the forces of good (appeasing Moscow, e.g. only in order to win the war with Hitler), and on the other by Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, the supposed epitome of evil. Between these boundaries, variations are allowed; but woe betide the writer who goes beyond them. Ms. West has transgressed in both directions, sharply criticizing Roosevelt/ Hopkins and speaking kindly of Joe McCarthy.
(Full disclosure: I provided a cover endorsement for Ms. West’s book and wrote a book of my own some years ago examining the myriad cases of McCarthy. Based on that background, I can testify that conventional views about him are almost totally devoid of merit, based as they are on extensive ignorance of the archival record.)
Especially galling to West’s critics is her contention that Washington in the war years was so riddled with Communists and Soviet agents as to be in effect an “occupied” city — an image that seems to have sparked the greatest anger and most denunciation of her thesis.
By using the “occupied” image, Ms. West is of course not saying Soviet tanks were patrolling the streets of Washington, or that Red martial law was imposed on its cowering citizens. What she is arguing instead is that Soviet agents, Communists, and fellow travelers held official posts, or served at chokepoints of intelligence data, and from these positions were able to exert pro-Soviet leverage on U.S. and other allied policy. Though ignored in many conventional histories, the evidence to support this view is overwhelming.
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It is for instance abundantly plain, from multiple sources of Cold War intel, that Communist/pro-Soviet penetration of the government under FDR was massive, numbering in the many hundreds. These pro-Red incursions started in the New Deal era of the 1930s, then accelerated in the war years when the Soviets were our allies and safeguards against Communist infiltration were all but nonexistent. The scope of the problem was expressed as follows in an FBI report to Director J. Edgar Hoover: It has become increasingly clear… that there are a tremendous number of persons employed in the United States government who are Communists and who strive daily to advance the cause of Communism and destroy the foundations of this government. Today nearly every department or agency is infiltrated with them in varying degree.. To aggravate the situation, they appear to have concentrated most heavily in departments which make policy, or carry it into effect… Pro-Red penetration was especially heavy in such war-time agencies as the Office of Strategic Services and Office of War Information, which were thrown together in a hurry at the outset of the conflict, with little thought for anti-Communist security vetting. But the problem was acute also in old-line agencies such as the State and Treasury departments, both of which by war’s end were honeycombed with Soviet agents. (Making matters worse, anti-Soviet officials and diplomats were in the meantime being purged from their positions.)
Far from being lowly spear carriers on the fringes, pro-Soviet operatives in case after case ascended to posts of great power and influence. Among the most famous-though only three of a considerable number-were Alger Hiss at the State Department, Harry D. White at the Treasury, and Lauchlin Currie at the White House. All of these, as we now know, were Soviet agents, well positioned to affect the course of American policy in matters of concern to Soviet dictator Stalin.
A prime example of such policy impact occurred during the earliest wartime going, in the prelude to Pearl Harbor. At this time, Soviet agents White and Currie maneuvered to prevent a truce between the United States and Japan, which might have freed up the Japanese military for an assault on Russia, an attack Stalin was desperate to fend off while he was embroiled in Europe with the Nazis.
In this maneuvering, White worked with the Soviet intelligence service KGB and in parallel with the efforts of a Soviet spy combine in Tokyo, headed by the German Communist Richard Sorge. The Sorge group sought to persuade the Japanese that there was no percentage in attacking Russia– that there were much more inviting targets to be found down south in the Pacific. One such target turned out to be the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
In the State Department, while Alger Hiss would become the most notorious Soviet agent of the war years, he was far from going solo. According to a long concealed but now recovered report compiled by security officers of the State Department, there were at war’s end no fewer than 20 identified agents such as Hiss on the payroll, plus 13 identified Communists and 90 other suspects and sympathizers serving with him.
Like the FBI report saying “nearly every department” of the Federal government was infiltrated by Communist apparatchiks, these staggering numbers from the State Department security force look suspiciously like the description of a de facto “occupation” given in Ms. West’s supposedly unhinged essay.
At the Treasury, there were at least a dozen Communists and Soviet agents, headed by Harry White, who exerted influence on a host of issues. In late 1943, to cite a prominent instance, White and his fellow Soviet agent Solomon Adler, Treasury attaché in China, launched a disinformation campaign to discredit our anti-Communist ally Chiang Kai-shek, deny him U.S. assistance, and turn U.S. policy in favor of the Communists under Mao Tse-tung.
This campaign, aided by Adler’s State Department Chungking roommate John Stewart Service and other U.S. diplomats in China, succeeded, with results that we are still living with today. Meanwhile, an identical propaganda campaign was waged by U.S. and British pro-Red officials to discredit the anti-Communists of the Balkans, in order to deliver control of Yugoslavia to the Communist Tito. This, too, succeeded, resulting in the communization of the country and capture and murder by Tito of his anti-Communist rival, Gen. Draza Mihailovich.
In the summer of 1944, White and his pro-Moscow Treasury colleagues played a crucial role in devising the so-called “Morgenthau plan” for Germany, which would have converted the country into a purely agrarian nation. They were involved as well in plans to turn two million desperate anti-Soviet refugees over to the Russians, and a slave labor proviso that would herd millions into the Soviet Gulag.
All these projects would be promoted in the run-up to a 1944 Roosevelt-Churchill summit in Quebec, later becoming American policy in Europe. At an in-house meeting just before the summit, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. met with a group of his staffers and praised them for the excellent plans they had developed. Of these advisers, no fewer than six would later be identified under oath and in secret security data as ideological Communists or Soviet agents. That amazing line-up of pro-Moscow assets at a single U.S. Treasury meeting would once more seem to justify the “occupied” description.
As to how such improbable things could happen under FDR, a postscript to the above is suggestive. Though Roosevelt signed off on the Morgenthau plan at Quebec, when he was later challenged on it by War Secretary Henry Stimson, he said he didn’t know how he could have done so — that he “had evidently done it without much thought.” As that response implied, the President at this time was failing badly in his powers (and would fail even more dramatically in the months to follow.)
Which leads to a provisional wrap-up of this discussion. The culmination of the policy debacle of the war years occurred in 1945 at Yalta, where the American delegation headed by FDR made innumerable concessions to the Russians: slave labor for the Gulag as post-war “reparations” to the Kremlin, turning anti-Soviet refugees over to Moscow, and Soviet control of Manchuria’s ports and railways-presaging the Red conquest of China. A leading member of the American delegation that agreed to all of this was none other than the now famous Soviet agent, Alger Hiss.
In court histories and Roosevelt biographies, we’re told that Hiss at Yalta was no big deal-an insignificant figure without substantive influence on the proceedings. As the archival records show, this is grossly in error. In fact, Hiss in the Yalta discussions was a ubiquitous and highly active presence, dealing as a virtual equal with British foreign secretary Anthony Eden and speaking out on numerous issues — China prominent among them — voicing the “State Department” or “United States” position in backstage meetings. Scanning these records, it’s obvious that Hiss was far more conversant with issues and events at Yalta than was his inexperienced nominal chieftain, Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius Jr. (all of two months on the job). As with Joe McCarthy, our historians might be advised to consult the primary data on such matters, rather than recycling “Hiss-was-no-problem” comment from secondary sources.
Granted, getting at the primary data takes some digging, as many relevant records have been buried, censored, or omitted from official archives. Presidential secrecy orders, disappearing papers, folders missing from the files, two manipulated grand juries (that we know of) used to cover up the extent and nature of the penetration; all these methods and more were employed in the 1940s to keep the shocking story from Congress and the public. And, sad to relate, in some considerable measure, the cover up continues now in court histories that neglect archival data to repeat once more the standard narrative of the war years.
Diana West’s important book is a valiant effort to break through this wall of secrecy and selective silence. Her work in some respects touches on matters beyond my ken-such as Soviet treatment of American POWs—where I am not competent to judge. But on issues where our research coincides-and these are many-I find her knowledgeable and on target, far more so than the conventional histories compared to which she is said to be found wanting. As the above suggests, her notion of wartime Washington as an “occupied” city, and the data that back it up, are especially cogent.
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