A useful reminder to paranoiacs

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.

Chambers and Hiss

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.

12 thoughts on “A useful reminder to paranoiacs

  1. I just read about the spy-swap in the local rag. What I think is interesting, good points you brought up by the way, all that was B.J.E.(Before Jesse’s Era), is how varied spies are used. Not just the exciting copied computer core and silenced pistol stuff. That they may be used as unofficial cultural translators. Gov’ments know they are horses of the same draft if not different colors. So they know they B.S. each other. It takes someone inside to get that proper discourse of interpretation.

    1. I have only one spy anecdote that comes from a personal acquaintance. A much-beloved, now deceased friend, an epidemiologist, spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s at various postings in Africa. One day (I think he was in the Congo at the time), he rolled into the American embassy and casually mentioned that Arafat’s visit sure was causing a lot of fuss. Immediately, embassy officials sent him to the resident spooks for deprogramming. How did he come by this piece of information? Who was his contact?

      “There are banners hanging over the highway from the airport welcoming him,” he replied. None of the spies spoke French. In those days, the only intelligence that anyone cared about had to do with the Soviets.

      Those were the days when Robert Philip Hanssen, the Soviet’s man in the FBI, was most active. And they were also, unbeknownst to just about everyone on either side of the Iron Curtain, the last days of the Soviet Union.

    1. Your grandfather was a great writer–and a more complex, nuanced thinker than so many of his admirers on the right allow him to be. Your website is amazing…. What an incredible resource!

      1. Thank you very much.

        The formatting is a bit simplistic, and the quantity of content far exceeds it… Should relaunch it in new format before year’s end.

        Since you’re an NYRB veteran, you might enjoy my review of Dr. Tony Judt’s latest book (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/may/21/book-review-ill-fares-the-land/). I also reviewed the new Koestler biography (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/20/books-koestler-literary-political-odyssey/).

      2. Interesting stuff, all of it. So was your review of Susan Jacoby’s book. Shortly after I read WITNESS I had a job interview with someone who asked me what I was reading. When I told her I’d just read WITNESS she gave me a dark look. My father, she said, was Alger Hiss’s attorney; I knew him well. Needless to say, I never heard from her again.

  2. Great entry, it’s good for people to be more nuanced in their political thinking. Too often people are all or nothing with their politics or even personal life. Look at Mumia Abu-Jamal,
    me personally I think the guy’s guilty but got a bad trial & should be re-tried. However I don’t feel that he should be released & treated as a matyr for the cause, whatever that is.
    My leftist politics don’t solely rely on the innocence of the Rosenbergs, they weren’t. While there were Soviet spies here McCarthy and all the other little local McCartheys never uncovered one.

  3. Shortly after I read WITNESS I had a job interview with someone who asked me what I was reading. When I told her I’d just read WITNESS she gave me a dark look. My father, she said, was Alger Hiss’s attorney; I knew him well. Needless to say, I never heard from her again.

    Quite ironic isn’t it? To be refused a job on the grounds of having read “McCarthyite” literature.

    1. well, I can’t say that’s the only reason I was refused the job. But it certainly didn’t help our chemistry. I think of myself as a “person of the left,” just as Chambers identified himself as a “person of the right.” But not unlike Chambers, I seem to have a way of pissing people off on both sides of the spectrum.

  4. One of our nation’s foremost scholars about the McCarthy period (Dr. John Earl Haynes) has written several articles which compare Sen. McCarthy’s assertions to newly available data including, for example, the Venona papers and material in KGB archives.

    See for example:

    (1) Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Lists and Venona
    http://www.johnearlhaynes.org/page62.html

    (2) Exchange with Arthur Herman and Venona book talk
    http://www.johnearlhaynes.org/page58.html

    With respect to Joe McCarthy:

    Whittaker Chambers summed it up pretty well in his 1/14/54 letter about McCarthy to conservative book publisher Henry Regnery, when Chambers observed that….

    “All of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.”

    FBI security informant Herbert Philbrick told a Boston newspaper reporter that:

    “He [McCarthy] harmed the cause of anti-communism more than anybody I know.”

    And in 1952, Philbrick observed:

    “According to the Communist leaders, McCarthy has helped them a great deal. McCarthy’s kind of attacks add greatly to the confusion, putting up a smokescreen for the Party and making it more difficult than ever for people to discern who is a communist and who is not.”

    FBI Supervisor, Robert J. Lamphere, supervised the investigations of some of the biggest espionage cases of the cold war, including those of the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs and Kim Philby plus he was intimately involved, in conjunction with Meredith Knox Gardner of the Army Security Agency, in using deciphered Soviet cables to build espionage cases.

    Lamphere wrote on pages 136-137 of his 1968 book The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story that:

    “Senator McCarthy’s crusade which was to last for the next several years, was always anathema to me. McCarthy’s approach and tactics hurt the anti-Communist cause and turned many liberals against legitimate efforts to curtail Communist activities in the United States, particularly in regard to government employment of known Communists…McCarthy’s star chamber

  5. Thus Harry Truman, in a press conference in Key West, Florida, in the spring of 1950, sounding uncannily like he’s responding to the latest installment of Glenn Beck’s TV show:

    “The Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year. They tried ‘statism.’ They tried ‘welfare state.’ They tried ‘socialism.’ And there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to dig up that old malodorous dead horse called ‘isolationism.’ And in order to do that, they are perfectly willing to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States. And this fiasco which has been going on in the Senate is the very best asset that the Kremlin could have in the operation of the cold war. And that is what I mean when I say that McCarthy’s antics are the best asset that the Kremlin can have. “

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