Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Brief Chance to View the Soviets Critically

Until June 1941, the USSR and the Nazis were allies. The “Hitler-Stalin Pact” was the name given to the treaty which solidified the friendship between the two nations.

Also called the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” or the “Nazi-Soviet Pact,” the agreement showed the rest of the world that these two regimes were essentially brutal socialist dictatorships who were happy to work with each other to inflict misery on the rest of the world.

Americans saw this team as a serious threat. The Soviet government was Hitler’s friend, and was also planting its operations inside the United States.

The Communist Party in America, known as the CPUSA, was not an independent organization, but rather an agency of the USSR. The CPUSA was not a political party, advocating platforms and nominating candidates, but rather a terrorist organization, which explicitly stated that it sought the “violent” revolution which would overthrow the government of the United States.

In the political jargon of the era, ‘Brown’ referred to the Nazi party, and ‘Red’ referred to the Soviet Socialist government, as historian Stan Evans writes:

While it lasted, the spectacle of Brown and Red dictatorships in common harness spurred Congress to decisive action, including stern new laws that treated the two as equal dangers. Foremost among these measures was the Hatch Act, adopted in 1939 and further toughened in 1940, which outlawed the hiring or retention of federal workers who advocated the “overthrow of our constitutional form of government,” a rote phrase officially said to mean members of the Communist Party. In May 1941, Congress would adopt a bill of even broader scope, requiring scrutiny of federal workers involved with any “subversive” group whatever. This was Public Law 135, directing that the FBI investigate “the employees of every department, agency and independent establishment of the federal government who are members of subversive organizations or advocate the overthrow of the Federal government,” and report back to Congress.

When the partnership between the Nazis and the Soviet Socialists came to an end in June 1941, Stalin quickly joined the western Allies against the Nazis. This required the United States to set aside its knowledge that Stalin had planted an espionage network in America.

Certain elements inside the U.S. government - elements which had already turned a blind eye to Soviet infiltration in the 1930s - again deliberately ignored growing activity on the part of various Soviet intelligence agencies inside the United States.

While cooperation with the USSR may have been necessary to defeat the Nazis, this cooperation led some to drop their guard concerning Stalin’s intent to undermine the U.S. government.

Between August 1939, when the alliance between the Nazis and the Soviet Socialists was formed, and June 1941, when it ended, there was a period of time when U.S. intelligence agencies could view the USSR and its espionage network more critically.

Prior to that time, and after that time, there were various political influences which prevented a major effort to stop Soviet spy network inside the United States.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Soviet Spies Shape U.S. Policy

Between 1919 and 1990/1991, one of the chief ways in which the Soviet Union made its presence in America felt was an organization known as the CPUSA: The Communist Party USA. The smaller part of this organization was visible to the public: its rallies and conventions, its print publications.

The larger part of the CPUSA was invisible: secret memberships, clandestine meetings, encrypted messages to and from Moscow. “Among important features of the Communist apparatus,” write historians Stan Evans and Herb Romerstein, “was its interactive, global nature: the degree to which it collaborated with its sponsors/paymasters in the Kremlin and pro-Red forces in other countries.”

The USSR, through a vast and often successful propaganda effort, portrayed “the CPUSA as a well-meaning indigenous outfit.” In fact, it was a terrorist organization.

The group acted in multiple ways. On the one hand, it was “a domestic menace.” As such, it sought, in its own words, a “violent” revolution: it hoped for a “coup d’├ętat or revolution in the streets, as happened in Russia.” This resulted in “the prosecution of its leaders for violation of the Smith Act.”

Historians debate “whether there was any realistic chance of similar dire events occurring in a U.S. context.” There probably wasn’t.

On the other hand, a more serious threat was posed by “the CP’s far more important Cold War role as fifth-columnist agent of a hostile foreign power.” The CPUSA was better at espionage than at whipping up the masses to overthrow the U.S. government.

The CPUSA’s covert operations fell into several categories. First, there was “spying — the theft of military or diplomatic secrets.” Second, there was “the overarching Communist goal of influencing U.S. policy in favor of the Soviet interest.” A third task was using the group’s hidden influence to shape the media’s reporting about the Soviet Union.

The visible CPUSA was laughably small, and some segments of the public dismissed the organization as harmless lunatics. But, although it did not succeed in overthrowing the U.S. federal government, it did inflict real damage when it influenced U.S. policy makers: bungled responses to Soviet aggression cost lives in several countries.

The CPUSA’s action led directly to the deaths of innocent civilians.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Effective Spying Requires Patience

Although textbooks often define the ‘Cold War’ as lasting from the end of WW2 until the fall of the USSR in 1990/1991, the years from 1917 until 1945 were also significant for the widespread Soviet espionage effort inside the United States.

As soon as Lenin took power in November 1917, the USSR began to think about its opportunities to spread communism inside other nations, although this would not begin until Soviets consolidated their power over Russia by eliminating resistance during the Russian Civil War, which lasted from November 1917 until October 1922.

(The communist takeover is cited as the ‘October Revolution’ because the Russian calendar in 1917 was not synchronized with western Europe and North America. Although the Russian Civil War ended in 1922, guerilla bands continued to offer resistance in the following years.)

By 1919, the Soviets had strengthened their hold on Russia enough that they could begin sponsoring subversive activities in other nations. After infiltrating various labor unions, they organized the Seattle General Strike of that year.

An entire major American city was held hostage for several days, with thousands of citizens being held captive in their houses when the strike leaders declared a curfew, and the freedom of movement eliminated when only strike leaders were allowed to drive on the city’s streets.

Decades before the traditional starting-point of the Cold War, Soviet agents were able to disrupt daily life for thousands of people in North America.

The USSR was patient in its quest to impose dictatorships on other countries. The planting of spies can take years. Once enlisted with one of the Soviet intelligence agencies, operatives often did no espionage for several years, and worked simply on gaining good reputations and access to sensitive information in their places of employment, as historian Stan Evans writes:

Communist penetration of the American government was a long-term process that ebbed and flowed but never ceased entirely. As with other infiltration targets, such as schools, media outlets, civic groups, or labor unions, the purposes were several: to influence policies and programs, make propaganda, disrupt or sabotage things from time to time, and — where chance presented — engage in “intelligence”-gathering operations, otherwise known as spying.

Until 1939, the Soviets enjoyed two decades in which they could plant spies inside the United States with relative ease. But then came a year-and-a-half long period in which the USSR accidentally showed its nature.

During the time when Hitler and Stalin were allies, it was clear that the Soviets and the Nazis were quite comfortable together. This alerted Americans to the dangers of Soviet Socialism.

As noted, such infiltration at the official level developed mostly in two phases — one in the depression years, the other during World War II. The net effect of these twin incursions was a sizable Communist presence on the federal payroll, far greater than most histories have suggested. However, in the trough between the rising waves (August 1939 – June 1941), the Hitler-Stalin pact exploded, shattering the Communist Party’s anti-Nazi image and setting back the penetration effort that prospered in the 1930s. Though these losses would later be recouped, events during the heyday of the pact would have profound effects long after it had ignominiously ended. ended. The seeds of conflict over U.S. security policies for years to come would be sown in the wild zigzags and contradictions of this era.

When the alliance between the Nazis and the Soviet Communists came to a sudden end in 1941, the Soviets worked to repair their image, and slowly convince the United States that the USSR would be a faithful ally.

Both the United States government and the public struggled with cognitive dissonance as they worked to harmonize the incompatible images of Soviet Socialism being both an ally to the genocidal Nazis and an ally to the free nations of western Europe and North America.

Inside the U.S. government, there would be a split between those who trusted the Soviets and were willing to work un-skeptically with them, and those who felt that Americans should keep an eye on the USSR’s underground spy operations in North America. This tension would continue during WW2, but was kept out of sight because of the wartime need to cooperate with the Soviets.

When the war ended, this tension became more visible, and the emergence of skepticism toward Soviet Socialism, along with the awareness of its espionage activities inside the United States, marks the traditional beginning of the Cold War.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Puritans: Victims of Inaccurate Historians?

In the Capitol rotunda, visitors see an 1843 painting by artist Robert Weir. It shows the Puritans, some of the earliest permanent settlers in North America.

Viewers are surprised to see them dressed in rainbow of colors - garments are yellow and red, green and beige, blue and purple. The image is historically accurate - and the Puritans were not always dressed in black and white.

Diaries, journals, and letters described such colorful clothing. Commercial records recorded transactions of colored and dyed cloth.

The Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. They are not to be confused with the Pilgrims, who settled at Plymouth in 1620. As their name indicates, the Puritans hoped to “purify” the Church of England: to improve and reform it, returning it to what they perceived to be the original and foundational concepts of the faith.

In the case of the Puritans, “purifying” the faith did not mean the introduction of strict rules, but rather an emphasis on joy in daily life.

Happy people wearing brightly colored clothes - this might not correspond to the cliches and stereotypical images of the Puritans which modern media present. How did these cheerful people get a reputation for being “drab, glum and pleasure-hating,” as Mark O’Keefe phrases it?

Through distorted versions of history, people seeking freedom from restrictions placed on their expression of religion came to be seen as

religious zealots whose idea of fun was burning someone falsely accused as a witch, or narrow-minded prudes best described by the adjective they spawned: “puritanical.”

Take the witches as an example. Fewer witches were accused or tried in North America than in Europe, both in absolute numbers and as a percent of the population. Yet the Puritans get the blame, much more so than Enlightenment-era Europeans. Why this misconception?

Part of the answer is popular fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 and adapted several times into film, is a perennial favorite, as is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a 1953 play adapted for the cinema.

While dramatically powerful, neither work is accurate. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that

Most of my students are quite surprised by what I have to say about Puritan sex and Puritan life in general because they bring preconceptions they've absorbed.

Novels and theatrical works are entertaining, powerful, and emotionally moving, but they often do not reflect the actual evidence about the events as they occurred. Yet because of their dramatic force, the images they present remain in the collective consciousness, despite the fact that such images conflict with data about the people and places in question.

Exemplifying the Zeitgeist of the 1920s, H.L. Mencken began using the word ‘puritanism’ in a negative sense - in contrast to the upbeat image associated, until 1850 or a bit later, with the Puritans.

Colorful clothing, dancing, music, beer, wine, and a healthy dose of romantic attraction between men and women - these are the characteristics of how the Puritans actually lived. The images handed to viewers by the media are simply sadly wrong.