I haven’t followed the Russian spy scandal closely, but I loved this line in Charles McCarry’s New York Times op ed this morning: “The present case, involving lovable Russians instead of ruthless Americans, is a useful reminder to paranoiacs that they sometimes underestimate the extent of secret mischief while grossly overestimating its effect.”
When my mother first graduated from college, she worked in the first US delegation to the UN, where Alger Hiss had been Secretary General. Her boss used to drop his name all the time–until it was never heard again. My father was a civilian employee of the Army Signal Corps, where McCathy’s inquisition came to a crashing halt (and it was a good thing for my father that it did; he’d gone to City College with Morton Sobell, plus, his sister and brother-in-law were card carrying Communists). I grew up assuming that Hiss had been railroaded, that the Rosenbergs were, if not exactly innocent, not all that guilty either, and, in general, that the Red Scare of the 1950s was a mass delusion, fueled by right wing politics and unsubtle anti-Semitism.
I felt faintly disloyal when I picked up Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time six or seven years ago, and not a little disreputable. It was introduced by Robert Novak, it had a Regnery colophon on its spine, and featured a blurb by William F. Buckley on its back cover–I might as well have been reading pornography. But once I started reading it, I was literally bowled over by its power–it was as if Oliver North or Monica Lewinsky or G. Gordon Liddy, someone whose celebrity stemmed solely from their association with a public scandal, had cashed in with a memoir that read like The Confessions of St. Augustine.
I told Barbara Epstein, my old boss from the New York Review of Books , about my new interest and she gave me a copy of Lionel Trilling’s roman a clef, The Middle of the Journey, which New York Review Editions had just reprinted. A thinly disguised Chambers is one of its characters (Trilling had known him when they were students at Columbia). The novel was published in 1947, the year before Chambers testified before HUAC. Trilling wasn’t exploiting Chamber’s notoriety; his Communist past hadn’t become public knowledge yet. But it was well-known to Trilling and presumably to many of his other Upper West Side friends.
There were indeed Communist spy cells during the Roosevelt and Truman years. Some of their members were shadowy and louche, like the impoverished, bisexual Chambers was in the 1930s, before he came out of the cold and made his name as a writer at Time. Some, like Hiss, were very much as McCarthy described them in his Wheeling, West Virginia speech: “those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.”
But if Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, my parents’ instincts were basically correct: McCarthy and his minions were dishonest and demagogic to their rotten cores. Reading Chambers’ utterly believable account of his exertions for his Soviet masters in the 1930s, it’s hard to imagine that he or anyone else in his cell (even Hiss) did all that much significant damage. Real life is messy and complicated and contradictory enough that it is possible to over-estimate both the extent of “secret mischief” and its ultimate effects.
And vice versa too, it should go without saying. And every other possible iteration as well.