Assignment America: Cartoon commie history

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter at Large  |  May 7, 2003 at 3:11 PM
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NEW YORK, May 2 (UPI) -- So the transcripts of the secret McCarthy hearings were released this week, after 50 years in cold storage, and less than 24 hours later we have the official pronouncement of The New York Times: "Historians who have reviewed the documents say they do not support McCarthy's theories that, in the 1950s, communist spies were operating at the highest levels of government."

First of all, what kind of speed reader can figure that out when there are 117 transcripts to go through?

Second, why does it say "historians say"? Why doesn't it say "New York Times reporters who have read the transcripts say"? The New York Times covered the hearings in 1953 and 1954. They've got all the information everyone else has. They can read. By putting the judgment on "historians" instead of journalists, they're shifting the verdict to a high priesthood of academics who presumably have arcane specialized knowledge but are more likely to be tied to whatever thesis anchored their last book.

What's the purpose of that? Did somebody lose the keys to the morgue?

But this is what we've come to expect any time the words "McCarthy" or "McCarthyism" or "McCarthyite" are used. We have this cartoon history of the period that's as simplistic and high concept as the O.J. trial. Could it just possibly be more complex than that?

Nawwwwww, I guess not. After all, "historians say."

First of all, there WERE communist spies in the government. We don't have to search through the McCarthy archives to know that. We've known that since the mid-1990s when the Mitrokhin archive was brought to London by a KGB defector. There were spies in the State Department, the Treasury Department, the National Security Agency, and the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, not to mention lesser places like Hollywood. (I mention Tinseltown because there's always an assumption made that the witch hunt was worst there.)

Second, the fact that the McCarthy archives were kept secret for 50 years indicates that someone on the committee thought that some of the flimsier witnesses should be protected. Did Roy Cohn have a heart after all? I doubt it, but there should be some credit given here. They actually shielded the identities of people they thought were innocent and could possibly be harmed if they were forced to participate in the public hearings the following year.

Third, the fact that McCarthy himself was such a buffoon doesn't mean that ALL efforts to root out communist sabotage were mean-spirited, or that everyone accused of being a party member was automatically NOT. I was shocked, for example, to find out that many of the blacklisted "Hollywood Ten" were actually communists. (You can't call them card-carrying communists, because Stalin had a policy that film-industry members should keep their membership secret.)

For years I'd received invitations to various Hollywood get-togethers where these guys were honored for being the victims of a groundless vendetta -- only to find out later they WERE commies.

They never stood up at the banquets and said, "Yes, I was a proud member of the Communist Party, and they persecuted me for that."

Instead the whole thing was portrayed as some kind of groundless libel in which they were accused of being communists but weren't.

(The reverse of that was the freeze-out of Elia Kazan, who had named names before the committee, and was forever persona non grata in Hollywood as a result. He thought communism was dangerous and a threat to the nation, and for saying, "Yes, that guy told me he belonged to the party," he's reviled to this day.)

Fourth, how is what McCarthy did any different from what we do today when we suspect al-Qaida membership? The six defendants in Buffalo were condemned and sentenced so swiftly you have to wonder whether the mere fact of their visit to an al-Qaida training camp was not the sole reason for their imprisonment.

Judged by this standard, the McCarthyites showed more mercy. Those defendants who explained their communism as "a youthful enthusiasm that I outgrew" were generally allowed to pass on through. But if you've attended an Osama bin Laden training camp -- even in the late 1980s or early 1990s when he was still part of the U.S.-trained mujahedin -- you're branded for life.

Finally, shouldn't the record on McCarthy be softened a little based on what we now know about KGB activities in the 1930s, '40s and '50s? Yes, he was a blowhard and a bully, but you can dismiss all his theatrics and still agree that there were some shocking penetrations by communist agents.

After all, Whittaker Chambers WAS a communist agent, and when he confessed, he fingered a dozen or so other agents.

Alger Hiss WAS a communist agent. And he was still part of the American delegation at the Yalta conference.

Julius Rosenberg was not only a communist agent, he was a controller of several other agents involved in the Manhattan Project.

Or how about the agents controlled by Robert Goldfus, who appeared to be a self-employed painter in Greenwich Village, but whose real name was actually Vilyam (Willie) Genrikhovich Fisher?

We know Goldfus ran at least four agents inside Los Alamos, including Ted Hall, the Harvard physicist, whose code name was MLAD, the Russian word for "young," since he had started spying when he was 19 years old.

Or let's go back to the 1930s, when we know that the top NKVD agent in the U.S. had at least three agents inside the State Department. One of them, we know, was Laurence Duggan, who supplied hundreds of documents to the Soviet Union and continued to spy into the post-war years.

How about Martha Dodd Stearn, code-name LIZA, the daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and the wife of millionaire Alfred Kaufman Stern (who was also, by the way, an agent)? Congressional candidate William E. Doss Jr., Treasury Department honcho Harry Dexter White. Someone in the Justice Department we've never identified but had the KGB code name MORIS.

The Hollywood producer Boris Morros, of "Laurel and Hardy" fame. Mary Wolf Price, the secretary to syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann. Lauchlin Currie, a presidential aide in the Roosevelt administration.

Duncan Chaplin Lee, code name KOCH, personal assistant to Gen. Wild Bill Donovan, head of the OSS during the war.

The list goes on, in both high AND low places. Legendary among spy buffs is Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, a communist agent who was almost invisible as a statistician in the Farm Security Administration. He was not just an agent but a controller of agents, but he was eventually betrayed by his courier, the sexy but flighty Elizabeth Bentley.

The fact is, the 10 years prior to the McCarthy hearings were LOUSY with communists in high positions. Here's what we know about just how effective the KGB was:

The first Los Alamos scientist was recruited by the KGB in April 1943, just one month after Los Alamos opened. The best estimates are that they had at least 12 agents inside the facility, including two at the very highest level -- Ted Hall and Klaus Fuchs -- and one Army sergeant who had virtually unlimited access to documents. We also know that Soviet spymaster Levrenti Pavolovich Beria had in his hands ALL information necessary to building an atomic bomb on Feb. 28, 1945 -- five months before the first bomb was exploded. In fact, we know that so many documents were arriving in Moscow that the KGB's biggest problem was having enough time and personnel to digest them all.

Here's something even more frightening. Henry Wallace, vice president under Roosevelt, once said that if he had been vice president at the time of Roosevelt's death, he would have named Laurence Duggan secretary of State, and Harry Dexter White the secretary of the Treasury. If FDR hadn't replaced him with Harry Truman for his fourth term, we would have had two communist agents in the Cabinet.

The truth is that we've always blamed Great Britain for the security lapses of the Cold War, because double agents Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Harold (Kim) Philby and the rest were better known stories. But we had our own skeletons -- like Aleksandr (Sasha) Grigoryevich Kopatzky. He was a principal CIA agent in West Berlin from 1951 to 1957, when his cover was blown and he was retrained and reassigned. However, all the years he worked as a CIA agent -- more than a decade -- he was actually a KGB agent as well, and he continued to spy for the Russians until his death in 1982, even though he had come under suspicion as early as 1961. (He spent the last 20 years of his life operating a picture frame gallery in Alexandria, Va.)

Or how about the two National Security Agency employees who defected to Russia in August 1960? Bernon Mitchell and William H. Martin were entirely undetected until they showed up at a news conference at Moscow's House of Journalists. That's six years AFTER McCarthy was discredited, and three years after he was dead.

McCarthy was an idiot. But that has nothing to do with the situation he was addressing. We WERE leaking like a sieve. The fact that his paranoia made us look in the wrong places shouldn't obscure the fact that we were compromised and weakened. It serves no purpose to continually bash McCarthy like some kind of straw man. The real lesson should be that these types of spy matters should be handled with instruments less blunt than congressional committees. In espionage matters, things are not what they seem.

McCarthy was a convenient way to dismiss the very real problem.

(John Bloom can be contacted at

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