The warm weather hasn’t stopped the wind from blowing or the foliage from turning gold and red and orange. As the leaves fall, and the trick-or-treaters prepare to make their rounds, here in Baltimore it’s also “Pumpkin Papers” season. Recalling this fascinating chapter of the Cold War is as much a part of an anticommunist’s autumn as little kids dressed like ghosts and storefronts decorated with dried cornstalks and hay bales.
Even for those who have not been through an undergraduate academic program, the figure of the biased historian is well known. In the hands of biased historians, the past morphs into an ideological axe to grind. Methodology is the tool that forces the facts to conform to their theory, and that jettisons any stray facts that don’t fit.
But this was not always so. Once upon a time, there were historians whose intellectual probity led them to follow the evidence no matter where it led, even if it damaged their own “side.” Professor Allen Weinstein belonged to this almost extinct group. Weinstein, who taught at Smith College, Georgetown, and Boston University, and who was for three years the National Archivist in Washington, died last week at 77.
In the 1952 election, the Republican Party theme was “20 years of treason,” which, whether sincerely believed or cynically exploited, perfectly tapped into the public perception that the FDR and Truman administrations had been honeycombed with communist spies. For Americans, panicked by the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons and the communist takeover of China, this slogan answered so much. Why did FDR endorse Stalin’s imperialist designs at the conference at Yalta in 1945?
In 1948, when confronted with a cache of damning documents in his handwriting and typescript collected a decade before by his then-comrade Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, a lawyer, State Department official, and a Soviet spy code-named ALES, responded in the following fashion: “I immediately directed that the papers be turned over to the Department of Justice, as it was evident that they were copies and summaries of State Department documents which warranted inquiry.”
Contrast this with Chambers’ response when the documents’ authenticity was challenged. His government benefactor, Rep. Richard Nixon (R-Cal.), submitted the microfilmed portions of the cache to a photographic expert to determine their date. Chambers’ claim that they were from the time, in the 1930s, when he and Hiss worked for Soviet military intelligence, was rejected by said expert, who determined that the kind of film used was a new product. In other words this particular evidence, at least, had to have been faked. When a worried Nixon threw that at Chambers, his response was that “God must be against me.” (It turned to be a temporary setback, for the expert had been wrong that such film wasn’t being manufactured in the 1930s.)
Last week, our ruling Progressive class cheered New York Democratic mayor de Blasio’s disbanding of an NYPD intelligence unit that had been keeping watch over the city’s Muslim community. Republican President George W. Bush’s mantra that “Islam is a religion of peace,” in response to 9/11 and Muslim terrorism in general, had drawn similar plaudits from the same Progressives. But this protectiveness does not mean that Progressivism is Islamophilic. Nor are the words and actions from on high that minimize Islam’s relationship with the terror that has struck America in the last generation attributable to ignorance.
Cass Sunstein recently published two short essays-here and here-on the current political struggles between “tea-party” conservatives and progressives. In the first essay, Sunstein attempts to link our current political fracturing with the famous standoff between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. His second essay, which compares Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand’s divergent philosophies and then links their disagreements to various tendencies within present-day conservatism, is much better.