Printer Friendly
The Free Library
23,375,127 articles and books


Radical history.

In Israel's war of independence in 1948, American Communists were deeply involved in the covert shipment of arms to the new state of Israel, and Communists were prominent among those Americans wounded or killed in battles protecting Israel from Arab attack. How do we know this? It says so in a standard reference book found in hundreds of American libraries. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, published by Oxford University Press, was selected by Choice and Library Journal as one of the ten best reference books published in 1990. It sold so well that a second edition appeared in 1998. Reference books are expected to summarize the scholarly consensus and to present reliable information. In fact these claims about the role of American Communists in Israel's founding, made in the second edition, have no basis whatsoever in any historical literature. Yet this and other distortions in this reference work have gone unchallenged by the historical profession.

This last year has not been good for the reputation of American historians. The first exhibit: Joseph Ellis, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, winner of a National Book Award for his biography of Thomas Jefferson and the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers. The Boston Globe discovered that, contrary to what he told his classes and claimed in interviews, Ellis had never fought in Vietnam, worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, or even been a high-school football hero. Embarrassed by revelations that Ellis had lied to his students, Mount Holyoke after some hesitation suspended him for a year without pay and lifted his endowed chair.

Ellis's classroom transgressions were bad enough, but at least no evidence has come forward regarding irregularities in his books and scholarly works. But not long after Ellis had been identified as a fantasist, the best-selling author and historian Stephen Ambrose was exposed as a plagiarist. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard noted the disturbing similarity between passages in The Wild Blue, his popular account of B-29 combat missions over Europe, and a previously published book, Thomas Childers's Wings of Morning. Sleuths quickly unearthed four additional Ambrose books with substantial borrowing from other writers dating back to 1975. Coming just weeks after the considerable success of the World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers" based on his book, the charges received considerable attention. Ambrose, a former professor at the University of New Orleans, admitted the unauthorized borrowing, explained that his books are researched and written by a team of employees, expressed mild remorse, and suggested that the plagiarism issue was something that academics took too seriously. His publisher did not seem overly concerned that its best-selling author repeatedly used other writers' words.

While journalists were scouring Ambrose's books, another high-profile scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, came under fire for the same offense. Formerly a professor of government at Harvard, the best-selling author of The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys and a Pulitzer Prize winner for No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt still serves on the Board of Overseers of Harvard University, an institution that takes student plagiarism very seriously. Goodwin confessed to extensive, unattributed, and improper use of material and to making a private financial settlement to Lynne McTaggart, author of a biography of Kathleen Kennedy. Goodwin's embarrassment was compounded not only because she was forced to admit to additional acts of plagiarism in other books but also because she had previously publicly chastised Joe McGinness for improperly borrowing from her own work. She attributed the plagiarism to her sloppy note-taking methods. Goodwin stepped down from service as a commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but, despite calls from The Harvard Crimson for her removal, she remains on the Harvard Board.

The most serious recent charges of academic fraud, however, were leveled at the Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles. In 2000, reviewers hailed his Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture as a major work of scholarship destined to change the terms of the debate on firearms in American life. Bellesiles claimed that he had demonstrated that gun ownership was a far less common phenomenon in early American life than had been widely assumed, and his publisher advertised the book as a direct challenge to the National Rifle Association and its values. In addition to a glowing front-page review in The New York Times, Arming America was praised by academic historians and pundits and received the prestigious Bancroft Prize, awarded by Columbia University for the best book in American history. Within a year, however, disturbing questions about Bellesiles's use of sources and data began to emerge. Critics were unable to find not merely some of the documents he cited, but some of the document collections he had claimed to have examined. Skeptics also discovered he had not quoted accurately from records they did unearth, and they were unable to verify a number of his claims. Quantitative historians demonstrated that figures he had calculated about the percentages of colonists who owned guns were mathematically implausible and based on flawed sampling techniques. By the end of 2001, Emory University had undertaken an investigation to determine if he had committed fraud, and, if so, how he should be penalized.

The charges against Bellesiles are of a different magnitude than the sins of Ellis, Ambrose, and Goodwin. Whatever their culpability, none has been accused of inventing documents or deliberately misquoting or mischaracterizing historical evidence in the service of an ideological cause. But such actions, while certainly not common among historians, are, unfortunately, not once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences.

Paul Buhle is a faculty member in American Civilization at Brown University and one of the luminaries in the study of American radicalism. Like many of his colleagues in this area, he has impeccable radical credentials. He attended the University of Illinois, where he became a socialist and an activist in Students for a Democratic Society during the 1960s. At a brief stop-over at graduate school in Connecticut he started Radical America, a journal devoted to American history and popular culture, before arriving at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1967 for further graduate training. While his S.D.S. colleagues turned to violence and increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric, Buhle nurtured Radical America, which was supported by grants from left-wing foundations and devoted to "throwing monographs at an intellectually keen audience" instead of bombs.

Even before he received his Ph.D. in American history in 1975 for a dissertation entitled Marxism in the u.s. 1900-1940, Buhle had made a mark as a prominent figure among New Left historians. Since then he has written, co-authored, or edited at least eighteen books and innumerable articles. He writes for such journals as Radical History Review--a publication that plainly states it "rejects conventional notions of scholarly neutrality and `objectivity' and approaches history from an engaged, critical, political stance"--and contributes regularly to Tikkun. As the history profession has become increasingly politicized in recent decades, Buhle has increasingly written for more mainstream journals, including the prestigious Journal of American History, and has contributed to the Organization of American Historians' professional Newsletter. He founded and continues to direct the Oral History of the American Left at the Tamiment Library of New York University, an ambitious effort to develop an extensive archive of interviews with hundreds of radical activists. Along with his wife, his fellow Brown historian Mari Jo Buhle, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," and Dan Georgakas, Buhle co-edited the Encyclopedia of the American Left.

There is no reason why radical historians cannot do good history; one can disagree with the conclusions another historian has reached, dispute the significance he places on certain facts, or challenge the interpretive framework he uses, and still recognize that he has illuminated a problem, or uncovered new information, or challenged old preconceptions. Years ago, in Radical America, Buhle himself insisted that radical historians had to be scrupulous about their facts. Criticizing the discipline of history, he nonetheless praised many of its practitioners by noting: "The most important positive feature we see is that, through imposition of fairly rigorous standards of evidence, the profession has helped to produce a great mass of historical writings which, although they may often ask trivial questions, nevertheless provide data that is generally reliable."

Where he once gloried in standing on the margins of the historical profession, Buhle now claims to inhabit the middle of a broad stream. In a featured essay in The Newsletter, he wrote: "Every scholar has a perfect right to political and personal views: rigidly anti-Communist, Communist or (for the great majority of us) `other.'" Leave aside the less than perfect balance--anti-Communists are rigid while Communists are just, well, Communists. Focus instead on the suggestion that Paul Buhle works in the mainstream of some wide scholarly consensus that lies between the rigidities of anti-Communists and Communists. In fact, the span of acceptable politics in Buhle's worldview is far left of center. He is willing to put Stalin on the left as an extremist, but only if one agrees that Harry Truman is an extremist of the right. Writing in Radical History Review in 1994, Buhle judged Truman as "America's Stalin" and went on to declare, "when the judgment of the twentieth century's second half is made, every American president will be seen as a jerk. After Truman, Nixon yields only to Reagan--still another Truman heir--as the jerkiest of all."

Apart from the coarseness of the writing, how accurate is the radical history produced by Paul Buhle? A review of some sections of the Encyclopedia of the American Left shows that it is about as accurate as The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Take the issue of the funding of the Communist Party, U.S.A. by the Soviet Union, by now about as established and uncontested a "fact" as one could imagine. (Among other evidence are the receipts signed by the party leader Gus Hall for millions of dollars handed over to him by K.G.B. couriers.) The first edition of The Encyclopedia of the American Left gave little attention to the issue of Soviet funding of American Communism. When the second edition appeared in 1998, after abundant documentation of Soviet subsidies had been published, Buhle felt compelled to offer a convoluted and deceptive account of the issue.

He first noted that secret ties between immigrant radicals and their homelands were not unusual. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Germans, Irish, and other ethnic Americans were constantly sending money back to comrades in their homelands and "inevitably, legal niceties were avoided." Of course, this was money from America to foreign countries, not the other way around. He did allow that the Bolshevik revolution had changed this pattern in some ways. But, while there were Soviet subsidies to American Communists, he insisted that most of the money still flowed the other way--from Americans to the U.S.S.R.; "the overwhelming flow of money went from American shores to the Soviet Union, mainly for specific campaigns, such as food support in the early 1920s and war relief in the 1940s." But this deliberately confuses apples and oranges. The huge amounts of funds, openly raised and openly sent to the U.S.S.R. for famine relief in the early 1920s and war relief in the 1940s, cannot be compared to Moscow's clandestine subsidies to a revolutionary political movement within the United States. Further, the bulk of the famine and war relief was not even from immigrant radicals as Buhle implies but from a broad spectrum of Americans motivated by humanitarian concerns. For example, Herbert Hoover, no friend of Bolshevism, spearheaded the Russian famine relief campaign in the early 1920s.

As for the specific monies transferred to the C.P.U.S.A. by the K.G.B., Buhle is silent. Instead, in another entry written with fellow co-editor Dan Georgakas, he attributes the C.P.U.S.A.'s ability to support a daily newspaper, despite a lack of advertising and a paucity of members, not to Soviet subsidies, but partly to "the strength of library subscriptions in the Soviet Union and its bloc." In contrast to these relatively benign-sounding library subscriptions, Buhle tries to divert attention by pointing to C.I.A. funding of an ex-Communist leader: "Heavily funded by C.I.A. sources, ... Jay Lovestone, now fervently anti-Soviet, used his personal network of associates to shape labor's own counterintelligence agency. Millions of dollars were passed to friendly labor officials in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. Later, connections between the C.I.A. and heroin gangsters reputedly began in a complex alliance against French Communists."

East bloc libraries and institutions did purchase thousands of subscriptions to C.P.U.S.A. publications. But these were a lesser indirect subsidy of American Communist activities and were not in the same league with Soviet delivery to the C.P.U.S.A. of millions of dollars in cash subsidies, subsidies that go unexamined in The Encyclopedia of the American Left. Moreover, whatever the merits or morality of the C.I.A. funding of Jay Lovestone's anti-Communist activities, there is far less documentary evidence to support the charge that the C.I.A. was linked to "heroin gangsters" than to evidence demonstrating Soviet subsidies to the C.P.U.S.A. to support espionage.

Diverting attention to the C.I.A. is Buhle's favorite tactic when confronted by stories of Soviet money. He is not careful whether the stories are true or not. In one essay published in the Newsletter, he linked the C.I.A.-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom to the "highly prestigious scholarly series `Communism in American Life.'" According to Buhle, the `Communism in American Life' series "was secretly planned by the board of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, with generous funding arranged for a handful of scholars." The `Communism in American Life' books were critical of the C.P.U.S.A., and linking them to the C.I.A. was Buhle's way of discrediting them. Yet Buhle's cited source, Sigmund Diamond's Compromised Campus, made no such charge. Diamond, a vociferous critic of the A.C.C.F., discussed the attempt of the A.C.C.F. to play a role in the `Communism in American Life' project and its recommendations for authors. But Diamond also wrote that the Fund for the Republic, creator of the `Communism in American Life' project, rejected the proposals from the A.C.C.F., and he says nothing about C.I.A. funding of the project. Contrary to Buhle's assertion, there is no evidence that the series was planned by the A.C.C.F. or that the C.I.A. arranged the funding.

It is not only on the issue of funding that the Encyclopedia of the American Left engages in falsification and obfuscation. The new evidence from Moscow archives has documented not only extensive Soviet financing of the C.P.U.S.A. but also direct Party participation in espionage against the United States. Those like Buhle who have devoted their lives to trumpeting a distinctly American, independent radicalism have been discomfited by these revelations. Rather than confront the issue, they have dissembled.

The first edition of The Encyclopedia of the American Left did not have an entry for "Secret Work." Enthusiasts for American Communism long had ridiculed stories of a party underground and Communist involvement in espionage told by ex-Communists such as Whittaker Chambers, Louis Budenz, and Elizabeth Bentley. By the time the second edition appeared in 1998, the documentary material emerging from Russian archives had established that the C.P.U.S.A. had an underground secret apparatus that cooperated with Soviet intelligence. The Venona documents, deciphered cables between K.G.B. spies in the United States and Moscow, began to appear in 1995 and further confirmed the widespread participation of American Communists in espionage. The issue had to be confronted, so for the 1998 edition Buhle wrote an entry on "Secret Work."

Buhle admitted that some top-level Communists were aware of Soviet espionage but found a convenient scapegoat: the same Jay Lovestone, party leader in the late 1920s, who had also served as his foil on the issue of funding. Lovestone was a handy villain because he indeed had connections with Soviet intelligence, but chiefly because after the mid-1930s he became a leading anti-Communist and in the 1950s assisted the C.I.A. "A handful of trade union officials--most prominent among them, Jay Lovestone, former Communist Party leader and future associate of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.)--and some liberal intellectuals apparently traded secret communications with the Soviet regime in the 1930s, but the substance of them involved personal information without any great importance or high-level security connections." Buhle loathes Lovestone because he became an anti-Communist. By implying that the only Communist leader who spied for the U.S.S.R. also spied for the United States, he tried to suggest that the whole issue was at least morally equivalent. But, of course, when Lovestone aided the C.I.A., he was an American citizen helping an American security agency, hardly the same thing as an American citizen assisting a hostile foreign power such as the Soviet Union.

Nor was Lovestone the most significant C.P.U.S.A. leader to participate in Soviet espionage. Earl Browder and Eugene Dennis, who led the C.P.U.S.A. from 1930 to 1959, a period during which the party was far more important than it had been during Lovestone's brief reign in the 1920s, were closely connected to Soviet intelligence. Buhle never names the "liberal intellectuals" he says also engaged in Soviet espionage, possibly because there were none. Nor does Buhle explain why they or anyone else would use espionage channels to provide, as he writes, "personal information" to the U.S.S.R.

When he turned to the issue of espionage in the 1940s, Buhle's essay in the Encyclopedia first justified spying and then trivialized it. Buhle first stated that the Office of Strategic Services, America's chief World War II intelligence agency, gave a new dimension to left-wing secret work by hiring radicals and thus "unleashed an unprecedented flurry of left-wing spy activity, some of which inevitably continued into the Cold War era." But he never explained why it was "unprecedented" or why it "inevitably" continued. Likewise, he noted that the employment of so many left-wingers on the atomic bomb project "virtually ensur[ed] the passage of some highly classified information to a power which at the time was a formal ally." Once again, he eschews any effort to explain who spied, or why any left-winger would inevitably be a source of information for the U.S.S.R. One obvious implication is that the American government was responsible for whatever espionage took place because the atomic bomb project and the O.S.S. hired left-wingers. Buhle does not seem to recognize that his assumption that left-wingers would "inevitably" want to assist the U.S.S.R. by turning over secret information provides a very powerful rationale for the Truman administration's Loyalty-Security Program that Buhle himself despises.

Regardless of the inevitability of Communists spying for the Soviet Union, Buhle dismisses the significance of the espionage issue. "Such intrigues had almost no role in the day-to-day activities of the American Left, save for the need of Communists to deny the existence of spying by or for the Russians and for anti-Communist socialists to insist upon its central importance to American Communists at large." But how can what Buhle calls "an unprecedented flurry of left-wing spy activity, some of which inevitably continued into the Cold War era," be irrelevant to historical debates over whether the C.P.U.S.A. was a legitimate participant in domestic politics during the Cold War era? Further playing down the importance of espionage, he reduces the "secret apparatus" to "rumors circulated within and without the Left concerning possible Russian agents" and adds speculation that "American Communist leaders may have informally assured members that the Russians could penetrate the renowned American security state.... Garrulous old-timers who had served in the Spanish Civil War and World War II sometimes hinted and even bragged about what they might be able to do in a moment of international crisis."

Immediately after belittling the significance of "such intrigues" involving the Soviet Union, Buhle suggests that there was more significant "secret work" committed on behalf of Israel by American Communists: "Little was said within the Left or outside it concerning the largest incident of illegal activity: the shipment of arms and assorted war materials to the new state of Israel." Apart from its irrelevance to the issue of Soviet espionage, the question of American Communist covert assistance to Israel in 1948 is presented without any supporting evidence. Neither of the two sources Buhle provides at the end of his entry says a word about the issue.

His further claim that "among those Americans wounded or killed in battles protecting Israeli gains from Arabs, Communists played a prominent role" is unsupported by any evidence. Yehuda Bauer, the distinguished Israeli historian, called the claim "sheer nonsense." The former national president of the American Veterans of Israel, Simon Spiegelman, labeled it "absolutely false," noting that most of the forty Americans and Canadians who died in 1948 were actually connected to one of the right-wing Israeli political movements The most thorough account of the Jewish role on the American left does not mention any such volunteers. American Communists would have trumpeted this sacrifice in the late 1940s, but there is no evidence they ever did. Jewish Currents, a magazine founded by ex-Communists whose writers and editors have run innumerable articles about Israel and Communism, has never mentioned "the prominent role" played by American Communists fighting and dying in the Israeli War of Independence.

We contacted Jewish Currents regarding Buhle's claim of Communists fighting in the Israeli war of independence. The magazine in turn got in touch with several veteran radicals, including the Daily Worker's correspondent in Palestine in 1947-1948, who unanimously dismissed the assertion as laughable or outrageous.

We also contacted Professor Buhle directly and asked for the documentary basis for the claim. Buhle responded that it was based on oral history interviews but he could remember only the name of one of the interviewees and was not sure if that was the correct one. We obtained a copy of the interview from the Tamiment Library at New York University. It contained no support for the Encyclopedia's assertion. Additional inquiries to Professor Buhle requesting the documentary basis for the published claim in the Encyclopedia produced no specific sources.

It was Labor Zionists and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that coordinated the vast majority of the fundraising and arms shipments that went to Israel in 1947-1948, not, as Buhle implies, American Communists. The Czech Communist government shipped arms to Israel, and there are rumors of I.R.A. contributions. Some stray American Communists might even have been involved. But how could this constitute the "largest incident of illegal activity" on the part of the Left? Even if one or two oral history interviewees claimed to know a stray American Communist who fought and died in Israel, how could a responsible historian accept it as the truth in the absence of any documentary evidence? And even if there were one or two such obscure people, how did they become transmogrified into playing "a prominent role"? A handful of American radicals immigrated to Israel in the 1950s to escape McCarthyism in the United States. But there is no evidence of how many were Communists or how many were killed or wounded in subsequent Israeli wars. By 1950, the C.P.U.S.A., which had supported the founding of the state of Israel in large part because the Soviet Union had done so, was actively hostile to Israel and all manifestations of "Jewish nationalism," in parallel with a similar Soviet shift.

Nor, of course, are the two cases--American Communists secretly spying against the United States for Stalin, and American Communists secretly working for Israel--comparable, even if the latter were true. An American Communist who moved to Israel and fought in its armed forces was not violating any American law. An American Communist who secretly turned over classified U.S. government information to representatives of another government was breaking the law and betraying his country. Buhle's unsupported and spurious claim functions in The Encyclopedia of the American Left as a distraction from the issue of secret work by the C.P.U.S.A. on behalf of the U.S.S.R.

Buhle concluded his exercise in damage control by speculating that the collapse of both the U.S.S.R. and "the Cold War leadership of the American labor movement" might turn up new "documentation of secret relationships between Americans and either the K.G.B. or the C.I.A." Only in the mind of a left-wing extremist who equated Harry Truman with Joseph Stalin could American trade unions assisting an American government agency be equated with American Communists assisting Stalin's U.S.S.R. Buhle added, "as of the late 1990s, documents examined in the Soviet Union or reprinted for scholars offered little that was new in regard to illegal or secret work by Soviet sympathizers." In fact those documents have revealed a great deal that was both new and illuminating to anyone with eyes to see. It was simply that Buhle did not want to see, and so he shut his eyes and pretended nothing was there.

Buhle is not the only contributor to the Encyclopedia of the American Left whose ideological enthusiasms are far stronger than their analytical abilities or truthfulness. The editors display a penchant for authors whose preferred method of dealing with unpalatable material is to ignore it. One entry on Finnish-American radicalism reports on the thousands of American Finns, mostly Communists, who moved to Soviet Karelia in the early 1930s but conveniently forgets to mention that hundreds of them were murdered by Soviet political police during Stalin's purges. No Holocaust denier could do better. There has been no uproar about the lies and distortions in this mendacious reference work and no one has called Paul Buhle to account for his peculiarly creative facts about American Communists fighting in the Israeli war of independence. If he truly does inhabit the mainstream of the historical profession, it is in deep trouble.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion

Title:

Comment:



 

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Encyclopedia of the American Left
Author:Klehr, Harvey; Haynes, John Earl
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:4401
Previous Article:The fortunes of permanence. (The survival of culture: X).
Next Article:Steinbeck's myth of the Okies.
Topics:



Related Articles
The American Radical.
Africana, and Encarta Africana.
Encyclopedia of American Business History.
Bron R. Taylor et al, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.
American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Homes Through American History.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters