The Magazine

War of Necessity

The anti-anti-Communist perspective on anti-communism.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Both of these arguments parallel, and are as morally offensive and factually obtuse as, the one offered by the Nazi apologist David Irving, who asserts that most of those who died in places like Auschwitz simply succumbed to illness—that Hitler never had a deliberate policy to exterminate the Jews, and that the Holocaust has been used for narrow political purposes. 

During their years in power, Communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, North Korea, and Vietnam have murdered and starved to death tens of millions of people, targeted for death because of their ethnic origin or economic status. They have herded millions more into brutal concentration camps. But Wiener isn’t sure what this has to do with the Cold War or with Communist ideology. If America had been wise, he writes, it would have used its power not to defeat its “enemies,” but to negotiate “to maintain the status quo.” While the Cold War might have been “bad news for the Eastern Europeans,” the Soviet Union and, presumably, Communist China posed no threat to American interests, either at home or abroad.

Some commemorative efforts do elicit Wiener’s approval. He is delighted by the Truman Library’s willingness to consider that president’s decisions at the dawn of the Cold War as possibly mistaken. Maybe Henry Wallace was right after all! Also, CNN’s 24-part series on the history of the Cold War is lauded for giving equal time to the Soviet perspective, enabling the network to produce a “universal, not a partisan story.” Wiener defends CNN from conservative charges that it equated McCarthyism with Stalinist repression: The Gulag and the senator were both examples, he writes, of how domestic affairs were affected by the Cold War rivalry. Both topics got an equal number of minutes from CNN, prompting complaints from conservatives, but Wiener notes that their whining can be dismissed since the narrator clearly mentioned that the number of victims was not on the same scale.

Wiener is not nearly as complimentary about the ways in which museums have remembered major cases of domestic communism and espionage such as the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss. He criticizes the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Museum for not sufficiently highlighting the Venona Project, which broke Soviet codes and revealed that hundreds of Americans had spied for the Soviet Union, including the atomic physicist Theodore Hall. But he misinterprets the decrypted cables to claim that the FBI “decided to pursue Julius Rosenberg and let Hall go,” ignoring the fact that the FBI was able to develop admissible evidence that Rosenberg was a spy, while Hall escaped prosecution because the only evidence against him came from decrypted cables that could not be used in open court.

Wiener also falsely claims that the Venona cables and subsequent evidence have confirmed that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of espionage. In fact, KGB files reveal that she was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage! Wiener continues to clutch at the left-wing myth that Alger Hiss was framed by the FBI’s use of a forged typewriter, and, more seriously, he peddles the discredited—and McCarthyite—myth that an innocent State Department employee named Wilder Foote was the real spy in the department. Of course, he does not consider what Venona and other revelations from long-closed American and Russian archives tell us about Communist subversion in Cold War America, or the rationale they provide for an extensive loyalty-security program.

The lack of interest in Cold War history, the low attendance at many historical sites and museums, and the gaping holes in many exhibits are all the evidence Wiener needs to conclude that the public is suspicious of the argument that, like World War II, “the Cold War was a good war,” and that it represented an ideological conflict between communism and freedom. He never considers the possibility that decades of deeply dishonest books by such popular historians as Howard Zinn have contributed to Americans’ moral amnesia about the defeat of the second totalitarian enemy of liberal democracy in the 20th century. (On the same note, Wiener recently added his hosannas for Eric Hobsbawm, the British Communist historian who famously agreed, a few years ago, that the murder of millions of innocent people was justifiable if it could have brought about the promised Communist utopia.)

The Cold War was not a simple battle of good against evil, and historically accurate memorials need to recognize that fact. It entailed moral compromises, American support of unappetizing regimes, and the abandonment of countries and peoples to decades of brutality and mass murder because a prudent strategy to overthrow communism was not available.