Before calling the reader’s attention to a year-old Claremont Review of Books article which compares Donald Trump to Joseph McCarthy, I should first make clear that I do not regard this comparison to be such an unambiguous condemnation of the president as those steeped in liberal mythology might think. Admittedly, Senator McCarthy had some negative traits now frequently associated with President Trump: an opportunistic streak, a predisposition to make reckless allegations, a willingness to further his political career by exploiting prevailing anxieties. Yet while Hollywood may teach the public that the most important Cold War story is that of celebrities persecuted under McCarthyism, the historical record suggests otherwise. So too do documents pointing to the active collaboration of liberal intellectuals in a Communist project based upon forced labor camps, torture, and mass-murder. McCarthy’s claim was that the American elite of his day was riddled with Marxists and Marxist sympathizers bent upon overturning America’s moral, cultural, and constitutional order. However flawed the senator may have been personally, who would now say that his grasp of the situation was entirely wrong?
In his Claremont Review article, William Voegeli notes of McCarthy that
the full measure of the senator’s historical defeat is revealed in the received wisdom about his fundamental transgression: not falsely accusing many non-Communists, but presuming to attack Communists at all. McCarthyism, in other words, has come to be understood as much worse than recklessness. It was, rather, the adamant refusal to accept that Communism was a manageable global problem and, at home, harmless, essentially benign, and perhaps even idealistic and kind of noble.
As historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr argue in books like In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, the generally-accepted myth of innocent people wrongly persecuted by McCarthyite anti-communists is at best a grotesque oversimplification. Undisputed investigations have shown, for instance, that Franklin Roosevelt’s Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White was indeed a Soviet agent – a revelation of no small significance, given White’s pivotal role in crafting the Bretton Woods financial model adopted throughout the West following World War II. And as it turns out Alger Hiss – another famous and key player in the Roosevelt administration – also worked for the Soviets. Meanwhile, in the world of letters, we find publication of the wayward socialist George Orwell’s Animal Farm delayed by Jonathan Cape, a British literary agent … and Soviet operative.
It is also worth pointing out that The New York Times has not always been so vigilant about Russian penetration into America – or, for that matter, into its own offices. As an AP article blandly relates years after the fact, there is evidence that the Stalin-friendly, Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist Walter Duranty “deliberately ignored in [his] coverage the forced famine in the Ukraine that killed millions of people.” In extreme cases, Soviet influence upon American life was even out in the open. Upon Stalin’s demise in 1953, the now-iconic author W.E.B. Dubois composed an obituary containing the following remarks:
Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity […] He was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance […] His judgment of men was profound […] Such was the man who lies dead, still the butt of noisy jackals and of the ill-bred men of some parts of the distempered West.
It is interesting to imagine the effect upon any contemporary public figure’s reputation, were he to go around heaping such extravagant praise upon Russia’s current leader, or to characterize critics of Russia’s current government as “noisy jackals.”
All this highlights the extraordinary irony of these past few months. Wild speculation about Russians “hacking” the election has become so frenzied as to make McCarthy look temperate in comparison. Indeed, from the 1950’s to today, the Western elite class’s attitude toward Russia has undergone a total inversion. Around the time when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were actually passing on information about US nuclear weapons to the Soviet vice consul in New York City, talk of infiltration by the Reds was typically mocked in the best circles as mere right-wing conspiracy theory. Now, unsubstantiated stories like the one about the alleged Russian cyberattack against Vermont’s electric grid are uncritically and breathlessly circulated by major news networks. Neither the possibility of war between superpowers nor the debunking of the Vermont hack-that-wasn’t seems to have made anyone have second thoughts about inflammatory anti-Russian rhetoric.
Not long ago, for example, when Rand Paul opposed a move to expand NATO, his fellow senator John McCain declared that “the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.” It should be noted that this startlingly uncollegial remark comes from a supposedly “moderate” Republican, one who nearly got elected president himself. Likewise, continual vague insinuations about Trump’s staff and Wikileaks should be set alongside the fact that the widely-revered FDR, whose New Deal normalized the welfare state, had a team of advisors infested with spies. And just to be clear, spies does not here mean people who have been to Russia on business, or who might like to see America and Russia cooperate in fighting ISIS. It means people who served as active agents of Soviet intelligence, and whose first loyalty was to the Communist Party.
From the perspective of political theory, the Western establishment’s shift from an apologetic, pro-Russian stance to a fervently Russophobic one makes a certain kind of sense. While the Cold War was going on, many intellectuals saw the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as the embodiment of a utopian future and the champion of worldwide liberation. From the liberal viewpoint the USSR warranted a sympathetic eye, for espionage or no, its heart was in the right place. Today Russia represents “the wrong side of history.” Whatever its occupants’ true sentiments may be, the Kremlin is widely perceived as standing for everything the intelligentsia hates, from national sovereignty to religious presence in the public square. When DuBois supported a mass-murderer and the Rosenbergs handed over atomic secrets to a foreign power, so the implicit reasoning goes, at least they were motivated by a commendable allegiance to the revolutionary left. We cannot expect academics and journalists to so easily absolve right-wing villains like McCarthy or Trump of their respective sins – real or imaginary.