Still “in denial” ten years later?

This post discusses the Haynes/Klehr book In Denial, before moving on to consider Anne Godlewska’s charge that Neil Smith downplayed Stalin’s murderous regime.


Ten years ago John Earl Haynes (a historian at the Library of Congress) and Harvey Klehr (a political scientist at Emory University) wrote a provocative book called In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage. Their main thesis was deliberately meant to be troubling to a strand of historians they dub “the revisionists” in contrast to their own position as “traditionalists.”

Haynes and Klehr accuse the revisionists of denying historical facts, because of a reluctance, driven by ideology, to properly assess the negative and damaging consequences of communism, especially communism in the United States. In other words American leftists can’t accept the failures of communism, and that some figures on the left were active spies for the Soviet Union during WWII and the Cold War.

The evidence is now in, they say, to show conclusively that figures such as Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Dexter White, Maurice Halperin, Lauchlin Currie, and I.F. Stone were Soviet agents. This is in addition to confessed agents such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, the latter of whom named some 80 people in the US as Soviet agents, some of them in government. Others were also accused but either not convicted or there was never been any evidence of spying; Owen Lattimore, one of the so-called “China hands” is a case in point. (Bentley does not mention him in her list of accused agents, and when questioned by HUAC, had very little or no information about him.)

The Institute of Pacific Relations and Amerasia occupy a middle ground; some of their employees or members were arrested. In the latter case, since the OSS had broken into their offices, Watergate style without a warrant, the cases did not come to trial.

Lattimore is particularly fascinating given his importance in the McCarthy hearings (he was famously labeled the top Soviet spy in America by McCarthy at one point). But his case also shows the “small world” of scholar-intelligencers at the time. Hired at Johns Hopkins in 1938 by Isaiah Bowman, when the HUAC hearings were taking place in the early 1950s the subsequent head at Hopkins, George F. Carter, privately opposed Lattimore, and  even “ran to McCarthy with [a] story about Lattimore declassifying secret documents in 1950” (Robert Newman, 1992, Owen Lattimore and the ‘Loss’ of China, p. 411). Carter was a former OSS officer who worked on the Far Eastern desk in R&A (with Chauncy Harris; the section was headed by John Appleton). Newman notes that “Carter became a pariah at the Johns Hopkins campus and in the 1950s moved to Texas” (Newman 1992, p. 135) (this latter comment attributed to Abel Wolman,  the father of geographer “Reds” Wolman who was also at JHU).

If the accusations against Lattimore fizzled out, and certainly never lived up to McCarthy’s expectations (he’d said he was prepared to stand or fall on this one case alone)–there are also no records in Venona or the Vassiliev files–it is still the case that Lattimore and many of the others named here had their lives and careers profoundly affected. (I’m currently focusing on Maurice Halperin, but wish to return to Lattimore and Carter before too long.)

For quite some time the evidence they allude to was sealed in various archives or held secretly by the NSA, but beginning from the 1990s, and in many cases due to the work of Haynes and Klehr themselves, fresh evidence has become available to the public, and to scholars. This includes the Venona cables, nearly 3,000 partially and fully deciphered Soviet messages sent during the war to agents in the US, now declassified b y the NSA. Also during the 1990s for a brief time the Soviet Union’s KGB archives were opened, as well as the archives of the Comintern (they have since been closed again). Finally, in the late 1990s, the personnel and Security Office documents of the OSS were released to the National Archives. Since some of the people identified above were at the OSS (eg., Halperin, see my previous post on Soviet agents in the OSS) these records may contain internal OSS reports on its own staff.

So how does Haynes and Klehr’s argument stand ten years later? Reading the book recently for the first time was a rather dislocating experience. Although it carries a 2003 copyright, the book could well have been written in 1993. Many of the cases it dwells on hark from a previous generation of scholarship. John Lowenthal for example, who was a Hiss defender (and brother of the geographer-historian David Lowenthal) died in 2003 at the age of 78. Another of their favorite targets, Ellen Schrecker is, according to her Wikipedia page, now 75 (her last book was published in 2010 on the corporatization of academia).

It would be interesting to see how historians of communism, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War regard these cases today. In some cases, it’s a matter of emphasis and of understanding the full historical context in which these espionage activities took place. The facts themselves are not necessarily sufficient; they must be interpreted and given meaning (even if both sides were operating from the same facts, which is not always the case). For example, does one understand what was going on, and therefore emphasize, as anti-Fascism or as Soviet infiltration and control? If Hiss and White are more settled there are always others who might still be contentious: I.F. Stone is perhaps the best example of this. Spy or not a spy?

There is also a distinction between seeing oneself working for the general aims of communism, and working for the Soviets (even if at the expense of your country, in some way). Is it possible or desirable to separate the two like this? This is a central issue in these matters, and was felt even by those directly involved. See this cable on Elizabeth Bentley for example, which describes her conflicting attitudes about her activities and who she was working for (cipher cable to KGB from the US):

Mer [Iskhak Akhmerov, illegal KGB officer in USA] re Clever Girl [Bentley cover name] 15.06.44

In her work and conversations she usually behaves like our operative, in her comments she says “we,” implying our organization and including herself in this concept. I’ve written you that since my first meeting with her she has known perfectly well that she’s working for us. As a rule, she willingly carries out my instructions and reports everything to me about our people. Her behavior changes, however, when I ask her to arrange a meeting for me with “Pal” [Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, leader of a major spy ring] or to get any of the probationers [Soviet agents in USA] in contact with our operative. She becomes a completely different person and, apparently restraining herself, declares that she isn’t our operative, that she works for “Helmsman” [Earl Browder, head of CPUSA].

She tends to distinguish between us [USSR] and the fellowcountrymen [CPUSA] and bitterly notes that we only have a professional interest in certain issues. She says that we all care little about Americans, that the USSR is the only country we love and for which we work. I tried to explain to her that she is wrong, that both I and our other operatives think the same way as “Pal,” “Raid” [Victor Perlo, leader of another major spy ring] and the others, that by helping the USSR, we are working out of deeply held ideological motives and we don’t stop being Americans. I told her that “Pal,” “Raid” and the others who are consciously helping us love America just as before, and that she must understand that we are doing important work for our cause.
(Source: Vassiliev White Noteook #2, pp. 5-6, emphasis added)

Now, one would be justified in seeing Bentley’s attitude as naiveté. To separate out Soviet interests, regardless of your intent, is to not see the full picture. This is also the basis of accusations against Edward Snowden (variously called a traitor and defector).

In geography there is one similar case I can think of, and it’s worth recalling it here. At the “Author meets the critics” session at the AAG on Neil Smith’s book American Empire, Anne Godlewska made some fairly critical remarks on Smith’s failure to account for Stalinism’s murderous history (she accused Smith of making a “historical misrepresentation” (see Godlewska, Pol. Geog. 2005, p. 260). She went on the note that “most historians have argued for over 25 million Russians killed” by Stalin and remarked that Neil suffered from a “peculiar blindness vis-a-vis the Soviet empire” (p. 261).

At the session itself (which was well-attended so perhaps others can check my memory) Smith appeared completely taken aback by these comments, and said to his former co-author “we need to talk about this over a drink!” In his published response Smith said:

As someone whose vision of the Soviet Union is influenced by the  political critique of one of Stalin’s victims, Leon Trotsky, it is disappointing– actually preposterous–to be so misread as to be dubbed an apologist for Stalinism.

But there is a further aspect to this. I have to say that this was not a book about Stalin, actually, but a book about Isaiah Bowman and the American empire.

This exchange encapsulates the difficulties of studying these issues and of making charges of “denialism.” Was Smith “in denial” or was his book about other matters? Were Bentley and her fellow Soviet agents in denial? Is Snowden in denial? Were leftists during the second half of the 20th century in denial? To pose the question is to see its limitations.

Bentley and others in her circle knew full well they were working for the Soviets. Snowden’s case is more complicated but I think he cannot be seen as a traitor or Soviet agent. Smith’s case is also ambiguous but he does not deserve to be seen as a denialist or apologist (and Godlewska does not use these terms). As he noted:

On the question of how many people died in the USSR between 1929 and 1945,then, I nonetheless stand corrected. Recent scholarship does place the figures in the millions although of course there is massive ideologically driven disagreement about the actual figures.

It is this ideology which is driving both Smith in his downplaying of the Soviet role, and Haynes and Klehr in their over-emphasis on the same thing. In a way, both are guilty of still fighting the Cold War (both books were published in the same year), whereas with ten years’ hindsight we can more clearly see the need for a complexified and contextualized understanding of motives, political contexts (including political persecution and abuse of power), and historical tensions.

The use by Haynes and Klehr of the terms “revisionist” and “traditionalist” in fact betrays their own partisan position, even as they would have us believe that they are reporting objectively. A revisionist is someone who wants to revise how history occurred (as in revisionists and denialists of the holocaust; a parallel they use themselves). One chapter in fact is called “revising history” implying that history happens and then the revisionists come along and want to revise what actually happened. A “traditionalist” on the other hand, is someone who wants to hew to the way the historical chips actually fell. All three terms: denial, revisionist and traditionalist are kind of false terms here, introduced whether deliberately or inadvertently, to divert us from a complexified and properly contextualized understanding.

Thanks for reading this far! Obviously I’m just starting work on these events and issues, but there will hopefully be something on scholar-intelligencers or whatever you would like to call them, that will emerge from this.

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