Monday, June 22, 2015

Rewriting the Cold War’s History

For decades, a small but well-organized group of writers sought to downplay the dangers of the Cold War. They worked to deny that the United States faced a serious threat from a coordinated espionage network of operatives placed within various agencies of the U.S. government.

They also sought to direct suspicion away from American Communist Party (CPUSA). This group was not merely interested in articulating a point of view, but was rather dedicated to a “violent” revolution inside the United States, and to obtaining classified military information and forwarding it to Moscow.

The CPUSA’s insistence on violence - its printed internal documents used the word ‘violent’ as defining characteristic of its anticipated revolution - brought it to the attention of law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Its coordination with the KGB, NKVD, and MGB meant that it was stealing U.S. government secrets and giving them a hostile enemy power.

One example of an effort to deny or downplay the dangers which faced the United States during the Cold War is a 1978 book by David Caute titled The Great Fear. The thesis presented by Caute and others is that concerns about threats of a Soviet espionage network inside the United States were baseless and irrational.

In 1995, the ‘Venona’ project was declassified and some of the information which U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted and decoded became public. These were encrypted cables between various members of the Soviet intelligence establishment.

These post-Cold-War revelations refuted claims made by Caute and others that the CPUSA was not operating a spy network inside the United States. An editor for the University of Michigan’s Michigan Law Review wrote:

Contrary to Caute’s preposterous claim that Communists were innocent idealists, the American Communist Party was linked to Stalin like an al-Qaeda training camp to Osama bin Laden. As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr wrote in their book Venona, the American Communist Party was “a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War.” The cables “expose beyond cavil the American Communist party as an auxiliary of the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union.” They said, “While not every American Communist was a spy, hundreds were.” It was a striking admission coming from Haynes and Klehr. In their earlier book on American Communism, they had stated matter-of-factly that “few American Communists were spies.” The disgorging of decrypted Soviet cables forced the professors to revise that assessment.

The Cold War is often defined as lasting from the mid-1940s to the fall of the Soviet Union around 1991. An argument can be made for a starting point a decade or two earlier, inasmuch as the USSR was operating an active spy network inside the United States in 1930s. The Soviets had also been involved with a general strike in Seattle in 1919; an alleged labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was actually communist front and took the residents of the city hostage for several days.

In addition to infiltrating the United States government, the communists also operated a variety of such ‘front’ organizations: cultural clubs, academic foundations, artistic groups, and political and labor committees. These seemingly innocent groups, apparently promoting noble humanistic causes, were facades behind which communist agents carried out their work. Historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:

Communist covert actions against the United States and other target nations were relentless and effective, far more than most historians have imagined. The Kremlin used such tactics in systematic fashion, made them key elements of state policy, and devoted enormous resources to them. The data also show the manner in which the West fought back against this challenge, though in most cases we were on the defensive, playing catch-up, and far less practiced in secret warfare. We thus for many years experienced more defeats than triumphs, though with some victories to our credit.

Since the end of the Cold War, evidence has been released which details the scope, breadth, and depth of the espionage network operated by the Soviet Union inside the United States. It is clear that during the Cold War, few Americans understood the size of communist spy system, and the gravity of danger it posed.