How Not to Learn from History

Carol Iannone

Editor’s note: This article looks at how the case of Alger Hiss illustrates the Left’s readiness to stifle “embarrassing” facts of history and turn anti-Americans into martyrs and heroes. NAS has often been accused of academic McCarthyism because we seek to hold the university accountable to a standard of integrity. Our interest in higher education reform is sometimes labeled meddling—but the real meddling occurs when truth is obscured and interested parties take it upon themselves to construct what happened. This is why we believe that the academy must flee these political edifices and look with diligent, objective inquiry for the facts.

From its birth in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to its death in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics inspired a range of positions on the American Left regarding the nature of the Communist brand of socialism. There were the hard-core believers who refused to abandon their faith in the greatness of Communism as conceived by Karl Marx and carried out by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, even after revelations of gross and murderous repressions, especially under the latter, emerged. Next were those leftists who, as a result of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, in which even stalwart Bolsheviks were tortured into false confessions of crimes against the state, reluctantly admitted that the Soviet Union may have become an oppressive regime, but insisted that this was not because of the Marxist-Leninist ideology, but because of its betrayal and perversion under the “cult of personality” surrounding “Uncle Joe.” Further developments, however, such as the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939; or the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 at the hands of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Kruschev; or the military repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 under Kruschev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev; made this stance problematic, causing succeeding waves of leftists to turn in disappointment away from the Soviet Union and toward Marxist-socialist revolutions in other countries, such as China and Cuba. 

The next great defection from the Communist faith was triggered by the publication of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970s, documenting in riveting detail the systemic cruelty and inhumanity of the Soviet system and its roots in Marxist-Leninism. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, leading to the joyous liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination, and making it absolutely clear how much those living under Communism wanted to be free of it, many more admitted how misplaced their socialist hopes had been. Finally, when the Soviet Union itself fell in December 1991, belief in the Soviet Communist project was pretty much abandoned. 

One constant remained across the range of positions, however, which was that, regardless of how bad Communism may have been, America’s opposition to it was worse. “Anti-anti-Communism” became the stance pretty much of the entire Left, including those who claimed that they held no brief for Stalin, Lenin, or Marx, but who deplored whatever America did in opposing the system these men had created. Especially on the domestic front, any effort to uncover Communist infiltration, subversion, or espionage within the United States was met with furious cries of “fascism” and accusations that America had itself had become a repressive system, needlessly and unjustly persecuting its own citizens, and deliberately violating constitutional rights.  

Still, what with the fall of the Wall and the gradual unraveling of the USSR, coupled with the movement toward democracy on the part of its newly freed satellite countries, any thought whatsoever that Communism may have been at any point a humane and viable alternative to the systems of the Free World, came into relief as rather foolish if not wicked. There was perhaps a brief period of chastening on the American Left, as awareness grew that the regime that they had supported for whatever length of time not only was not the brave new frontier of human brotherhood for which they had hoped, but had caused untold human pain and suffering over many decades. And there certainly should have been some level of chagrin at the recognition that America’s stance against Communism, a stance the Left had vociferously opposed, had been noble and a service to humanity at large. 

Furthermore, with the fall of the Soviet Union, documents became available that settled longstanding Cold War disputes. It turned out that American anti-Communists had been largely correct about a number of famous domestic cases that had been angry zones of contention in American intellectual life for decades following the Second World War. Among these cases is that of Alger Hiss, a high-ranking lawyer in the Department of State who had been a secret member of the American Communist Party and had spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lied about his activities under oath before a congressional committee and had been convicted of perjury in a jury trial in 1950. He served 44 months in prison. Transcripts of decoded messages that came to light with the fall of the Soviet Union confirmed further that Hiss had indeed been involved in anti-US espionage and had had the code name “ALES.”     

Even with irrefutable proof of Hiss’s guilt, however, the Left clings to the view that the actions of the anti-Communists were as bad if not worse for the United States than the actions of Communist spies. Take Susan Jacoby's new book, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, just out from Yale University Press. I have not yet read it, but the first review I came across, by Glenn C. Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Lithwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell, in the New York Observer, March 24, 2009, gave me a feeling of déjà vu. 

While she does accept that Hiss was guilty, Jacoby finds the real significance of his case elsewhere, as Altschuler summarizes: 

Conservative scholars of history, she writes, continue to use the Hiss case to link power-hungry intellectuals with anti-American liberalism; to raise questions about their loyalty, patriotism and commitment to national security; and to portray the New Deal, and the Great Society, as insidious attempts to replace free enterprise capitalism with state-sponsored socialism.

After decades of leftwing delusions about Hiss, then, the real problem once again, according to Jacoby, is not with the Communists, but with the anti-Communists, not with the long-denied truth of Hiss’s espionage against the U.S., but with the fact that once his guilt was definitively established, conservatives could use it to support their views. Somehow conservatives are the villains for believing that the Left’s spectacularly wrong positions during the Cold War might compromise the validity of what left-liberals say about national security today. Or that their long and tenacious love affair with Communism might taint their current criticism of capitalism. 

I will read this book eventually, but forgive me for feeling a certain familiarity with its premises and procedures, for thinking it another example of the Left avoiding history, and never having to acknowledge the truth long enough to change the essential patterns of thought that have prompted so many mistakes and missteps in the past. 

“Who cares about that anymore?”, Jacoby’s 86-year old mother retorted when she learned of her daughter’s intention to write about Hiss. A curious thing to say about a pivotal and intensely dramatic event in American history, pitching Alger Hiss, the tall, suave, handsome product of Harvard Law School, against the homely, thickset, gnome-like college dropout Whittaker Chambers, the man who exposed him. Far from having been exhausted, it seems rather that the books, plays, films, novels, documentaries that could be made about the Hiss case, with its contrasting dramatis personae, its tension-driven Cold war setting, its colorful courtroom theatrics, and its satisfying resolution, have scarcely even begun to be written. After all, Inherit the Wind, the famous play based on the legendary Scopes Trial of 1925, has had countless productions from Broadway to community theatre to high school, and has seen no less than four film adaptations. Yet no one on the Left ever says, “Who cares about the Scopes Trial anymore?” Perhaps what Jacoby’s mother really meant was, “Who cares about Hiss now that we can no longer argue for his innocence?” And that means that instead of learning from their mistakes, the Left will keep looking for other Alger Hisses, other innocent victims of American perfidy.  


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