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Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Richard Nixon and Soviet Espionage in America

J. Bradford DeLong


>Yet some of our most distinguished
> colleagues on this list apparently do not find it easy, even
> twenty-five years after the Levine memoir appeared, to credit
> everything he wrote. Levine reminds us, for example, that in 1939
> Chambers also informed Berle that Assistant Secretary (later Under
> Secretary) Harry Dexter White of the Treasury was collaborating
> with the Soviet underground. Three years ago the Venona documents
> appeared confirming White's discussions with his Soviet controller
> in parked cars and on park benches. Even so, the former deputy
> assistant secretary of the Treasury has intimated on these pages
> recently that he finds the proof insufficient. It would
> appear that the sequelae of the last generation's culture wars
> still make it difficult to examine Soviet espionage in America
> purely as a historical problem.

My Comment:

I'm trying to examine Soviet espionage in America purely as a historical problem. It's hard. But I don't think that what makes it hard--for me at least--is the last generation's culture war. What makes it hard is the character of the right-wing anti-communists of the 1950s.

For example, consider Richard Nixon, as taped by himself, on pages 7 and 8 of Stanley Kutler's _Abuse of Power_, talking to H.R. Haldeman, and Henry Kissinger in the White House at about 9:00 AM on July 1, 1971:

Nixon: "...This is what I want. I have a project
that I want somebody to take it just like I took
the Hiss case, the Bentley case, and the rest....
And I'll tell you what. This takes--this takes
18 hours a day. It takes devotion and dedication
and loyalty and diligence such as you've never
seen, Bob...

Five minutes later Nixon returns to the personality type he wants for this project:

Nixon: "...I wish you could get a personality
type, oh, like Whittaker* who will work his butt
off and do it honorably. I really need a son
of a bitch like Huston who will work his butt
off and do it dishonorably. Do you see what I
mean? Who will know what he's doing and I want
to know too. And I'll direct him myself. I know
how to play the game and we're going to start
playing it....I mean, I can't have a high-minded
lawyer like John Ehrlichman or, you know, Dean,
or somebody like that. I want somebody just as
tough as I am for a change.... These Goddamn
lawyers, you know, all fighting around about,
you know--I'll never forget...."

And again, a few minutes later:

Nixon:" These kids don't understand. They have no
understanding of politics. They have no
understanding of public relations. John Mitchell
is that way. John is always worried about:
"Is it technically correct?" Do you think,
for Christ's sake, that the _New York Times_
is worried about all the legal niceties? Those
sons of bitches are killing me. I mean, thank
God, I leaked to the press. This is what we've
got to get--I want you to shake these
[unintelligible] up around here. Now you do it.
Shake them up. Get them off their Goddamn dead
asses and say, now, 'That isn't what you
should be talking about.' We're up against
an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any
means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?"

Nixon: "Did they get the Brookings Institute
raided last night? No? Get it done. I want it
done. I want the Brookings Institute's safe
cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way
that it makes somebody else responsible."

Nixon segues from the Hiss case to the need to be tough and not worry about "legal niceties" to the demand that his subordinates use "any means" against his political opponents to burglarizing the Brookings Institution to planting evidence pinning the burglary on his political adversaries. Thinking about the Hiss case leads Nixon by association to the thought that he needs a "son of a bitch" who will "work his but off and do dishonorably"; then to the thought that he is in a war and needs to use "any means" against his opponents; then to the thought that he is surrounded by fools who have not yet carried out his orders to burglarize the Brookings Institution and plant evidence that the deed was done by somebody else.

I conclude from this that--unless Nixon's personality took a significant turn for the worse between the end of the 1940s and the end of the 1960s--that if Nixon had had the opportunity to forge evidence and frame Alger Hiss, he would have. I think that Nixon at the end of the 1940s didn't have the power and resources to do so, that any conspiracy to frame Hiss would have been too large to be credible, and as a result I think that Hiss was guilty--but there remains a nagging doubt because of the involvement of this guy whose desired modus operandi was to have his people break into (and firebomb?) the Brookings Institution and plant evidence to blame it on his political adversaries. Were it not for Richard Nixon's presence, I would think Hiss guilty of espionage beyond a reasonable doubt. As it is I can only believe Hiss guilty of espionage by clear and convincing evidence: a reasonable doubt remains.

Similarly, before VENONA, I used to think that the case against Harry Dexter White deserved the Scottish verdict: Not proven. I used to think that in large part because of Whittaker Chambers. Coming from a Democratic political family (some of whose members used to be strong supporters of Helen G. Douglass) the fact that Chambers could write of Nixon in terms like: "My children have caught him lovingly in a nickname. To them, he is always 'Nixie," the kind and the good, about whom they will tolerate no nonsense..." is sufficient to conclude that Chambers was either highly mendacious or desperately mentally unbalanced.

And then there is that interesting passage early in _Witness_ (pp. 33-34) in which Chambers says that espionage is not the issue:

The first impact of this blueprint of Communist
penetration is likely to be shock at the espionage
revealed. That is not the important point.... The
deeper meaning of the Soviet underground apparatus...
was the fact that they were a true Fifth Column,
the living evidence that henceforth in the 20th
century, all wars are revolutionary wars, and
are fought not only between nations, but within

The men and women Communists and fellow
travelers who staffed this Fifth Column
were dedicated revolutionists whose primary
allegiance was... to a revolutionary faith
and a vision of man and his material destiny....

Neither power nor money moved them. Nor was
adventure a factor.... Faith moved them, as,
in the final conflict, only equal faith can
overcome them.

The terrible meaning of the Washington
apparatus is that, even in the United States,
that stage of the revolution of our times
has been reached, "that decisive hour"....
very late in the night of history, and in
the life of nations.... Security shatters...
because the men naturally trusted with the
keys and combinations are themselves the

The picture implicitly painted of Harry Dexter White is of a man who, when the Day comes, will lead the submachine gun-armed Red Guards through the tunnel from the Treasury to the White House--someone whose every move and every policy position is calculated to bring closer the final economic crisis of capitalism, the greatest depression, and the overthrow of the constitution of the United States by force and violence...


>We tried to clarify the issues and stressed that virtually no one
>doubts that Joe McCarthy "was a bully and a political opportunist." But we
>continue to argue that "it is essential that McCarthyism and
>anti-communism be disentangled,"

My Comment:

Well, go read your _National Review_ if you are looking for the "virtually no one" who approves of Joe McCarthy. You'll find him.

Consider Elliott Abrams's article back in early 1986--Elliott Abrams, "McCarthyism Reconsidered," National Review February 26, 1996, pp. 57-60. [A review of the reissue of William McCarthy and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies (Regnery).]

In it Abrams advances on his own or approves Buckley and Bozell's advocacy of the theses that:

(1) The key issue in assessing Joe McCarthy was whether the State Department was running its security policy poorly. Senator McCarthy did not need to demonstrate that there were spies in the State Department. Instead, all he needed to do was to show that there was some evidence the State Department had overlooked that an employee was a security or loyalty risk.

(2) In most of his cases McCarthy adduced persuasive evidence; the State Department's efforts stood condemned; and the screams of 'Red Scare' were efforts to occlude the truth.

(3) That in spite of some blunders--for example, the accusation that George Marshall was a Maoist traitor--McCarthy's record for truthfulness was, given his metier, extremely good. After all, McCarthy was not in physics but in politics, a business that permitted a certain latitude.

(4) Buckley and Bozell's book, _McCarthy and His Enemies_ deserves special praise for standing up to the liberal anti-McCarthyist hysteria of the 1950s. It challenged the liberals' claim to the moral high ground. Buckley and Bozell were right to reject the argument that McCarthyism was in its very essence evil because it was an effort at censorship and thought control. Instead the essence of McCarthyism was to defend liberty from Communism.

(5) McCarthy fell not because he was a bad man working for a bad cause but because he was smeared by the iron triangle of liberal journalists, liberal bureaucrats, and liberal politicians. To quote Abrams:

As [Whittaker] Chambers had predicted, [Joseph]
McCarthy's blunders became capital crimes for
which his cause would be punished. His opponents'
capital crimes became blunders that were not
newsworthy. Thus the many hearings about McCarthy
focused not on whether State Department procedures
really were adequate, but first on whether McCarthy
had offered legally persuasive proof that Mr. X
and Mrs. Y were indeed espionage agents, and then
on whether McCarthy was behaving himself. What
neither McCarthy, nor Buckley and Bozell, could
have known in 1954 was that this new pattern
would take hold in our public life.... [I]t was
in the McCarthy era that the iron triangle of
liberal bureaucrats, a liberal press, and liberal
Democrats in control of Congress was first
evident.... But from the early 1950s on, the
pattern unveiled in the McCarthy era reigned
supreme, reaching its apotheosis in the
Watergate and Iran/Contra hearings.

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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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