Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCarthy, Chambers, Bentley and their unforgiveable sins

I broached the subject of Joseph McCarthy and how the Leftist Liberals and even some of the not so leftist Liberals refused to recognize that McCarthy has been vindicated. The Venona records vindicated by KGB declassified records prove that there really were Communists in the State Department and Army just as McCarthy said there were. Much to my surprise, some of the conservatives I have communicated this to were, and remain, as anti-McCarthy as any Liberal. High on the list of McCarthy’s sins was the Hollywood Blacklisting by HUAC. It did no good to point out that McCarthy was a Senator and had nothing to do with HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee). McCarthy’s reputation was beyond repair.

Is this true? Historians seem well on the way toward repairing McCarthy’s reputation – from an historical standpoint. The first step was the discovery and declassification of the Venona papers. The Venona project was authorized during WWII to decipher Soviet political dispatches. We feared that the USSR might make a separate peace with Germany which would put our own war effort on a precarious footing. The war was over before the Soviet code was deciphered, but when it was deciphered and they looked back through the dispatches they were astounded to discover that they had to do with the operation of an elaborate spy network in America. The FBI took control of the (Army’s) project, but kept it secret so that the Soviet’s wouldn’t change their coding procedure. The FBI took action against spies only if they could do so without disclosing the fact that they had broken the Soviet code.

The public disclosure of the Venona project is less than ten years old. John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr wrote Venona, Decoding Soviet Espionage in America in 1999. The first historian to address its effects on McCarthy was Arthur Herman who wrote Joseph McCarthy, Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator, in the year 2000. McCarthy was right after all, but at the time he worked, he didn’t have the evidence (although the FBI did) to prove it. Furthermore his attack on Communists was taken as a political attack on the Democrats and they responded by helping to ruin his reputation.

I suppose it is difficult to let go of a hatred. If you have hated McCarthy for several decades, perhaps you go right on hating him even if it turns out that the reason for the hatred has been undermined. Eventually the McCarthy myth will be destroyed by the facts, but this may not occur in the lifetime of the present McCarthy haters. McCarthyism is in the dictionary and his haters don’t want to see it removed.

Another book on this subject is Clever Girl, Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era by Lauren Kessler. The FBI had to be secretive about the Venona project, but they had no reason to be secretive about Elizabeth Bentley’s defection. Elizabeth Bentley had been an active spy for the USSR, but then her handler and lover died. His replacement made her see her situation in a new light. Her patriotism was reawakened and she went to the FBI and told all. The FBI had evidence from the Venona project that she was telling the truth, but the Communists (as a matter of propaganda strategy), and the Democrats (as a misguided matter of belief) dismissed Bentley’s testimony as another Republican Red Herring. The FBI stood by Elizabeth Bentley, but almost no one else did. She “died in 1963 in obscure and painful circumstances.” Stephen Schwartz in a January 26th 2004 Weekly Standard Review, Stephen Schwartz wrote, “Although Lauren Kessler did her best to defend her subject’s honor, the weight of American popular memory remains against her. No one who reads Lauren Kessler’s Clever Girl will come away satisfied that America did right by those who put loyalty to country ahead of personal interest – nor will anyone be inspired to emulate her.”

The last clause is probably true, and sobering. If a threat existed here in the U.S. and some young participant suddenly had his patriotism awakened and realized that he didn’t want to continue on to the detriment of his country, his choices would be difficult. What a huge penalty Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley paid for doing what was patriotic (belatedly though that might be). And McCarthy with very little support presented a series of unpleasant truths about the USSR spies and was destroyed for it. McCarthy was a patriot and for that he became “America’s most hated Senator.”

When I add up McCarthy, Chambers, and Bentley, I sometimes wonder if the predominate view in America isn’t too intractable to allow America to survive. The situation has changed, but who will believe it? As Charles Jones says, you cannot change their minds through argument. Truman is no longer talking about a Red Herring and McCarthy, Chambers and Bentley are all safely dead. But look at our present situation. We seem to be doing okay against the Islamists, or is that really true? Maybe there was never a “terrorist threat” to begin with. Maybe what the Republicans called an “Terrorist Threat” was just another Red Herring – something they used to scare the American people into electing them.

Perhaps Truman and Acheson had some excuse. They had no hard evidence that there were spies in the State Department. J. Edgar Hoover did not trust Truman and never told him about the Venona project. And Acheson went to school with one of the people being accused. In regard to Alger Hiss, Acheson was not the sort of person to abandon an acquaintance just because he was in a spot of trouble. Acheson was not the sort of person to give an inch to a political opponent, and Truman admired Acheson’s courage. Do our modern Leftist politicians have some excuses like that? Probably.

And so today, “patriotism” is a dirty word to some extent because of what went on during the McCarthy era. Historians are busy writing books that vindicate McCarthy, but who is vindicating patriotism?

Lawrence Helm

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