American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character
By Diana West
(St. Martin's Press, 416 pages, $26.99)
There is no statue of Elizabeth Bentley at her alma mater, Vassar College, nor is there any memorial to her at Columbia University, where she received her master’s degree. Bentley’s career as a Communist spy could be the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, complete with a romantic interest in the form of her lover, Soviet intelligence agent Jacob Golos.
Yet Bentley is nearly forgotten today for the very reason that she became famous: She quit the Communist Party in 1945 and went to the FBI with the names of nearly 150 Soviet agents -- including such prominent officials as Victor Perlo, chief of the aviation section of the War Production Board -- and subsequently testified before Congress about the Communist espionage network she supervised.
Hollywood and academia don’t celebrate anti-Communists, but as Diana West points out, there is a professorship at Bard College named for arch-traitor Alger Hiss. This perversion of history, in which the heroes and villains are reversed in accordance with liberal myth, has important consequences, as West explains in her new book, American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character.
The book examine the lost history that, as West told me Tuesday, “is not taught to Americans and is not known to Americans,” because “the people who do know it would never be permitted to teach it on our campuses,” which West describes as “occupied territory.” This misunderstanding of Communism is the result of a dishonesty that entered American discourse after 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended diplomatic recognition to Josef Stalin’s totalitarian Russian regime and, as West says, “we as a society learned to tell lies.”
American lies about Soviet reality -- including Stalin’s terror-famine in the Ukraine and the bloody purges of the infamous Moscow “show trials” -- flourished in the Popular Front era of the 1930s, even as Soviet agents burrowed into the U.S. government in FDR’s New Deal programs. The lies continued through World War II, when the West’s alliance with Russia against Hitler’s Germany was promoted through U.S. government propaganda that portrayed Stalin as a benevolent figure (“Uncle Joe”) and suppressed information about Soviet atrocities, including the 1940 slaughter of Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest. Not only was it during the war that Communist spies obtained top secret information about the atomic bomb, enabling the Russians to develop their own nuclear weapons within four years of the Hiroshima bombing, but the influence of Soviet agents on U.S. wartime policy helped Stalin conquer Eastern Europe and also helped spread Communist revolution to China.
Even while we were allies with the USSR, the Stalinist regime and its American agents were “engaged in a secret war against us,” West says, and when witnesses like Bentley and Whittaker Chambers came forward to tell the truth, they were vilified and maligned in much of the press. Not only were these ex-Communists smeared, but officials who sought to investigate Russian espionage and subversion (including both Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy) were also smeared and, in many cases, these smears originated as Soviet propaganda funneled through Communist-controlled organizations and disseminated by sympathetic liberals. So powerful was the counter-attack that, nearly six decades after Joe McCarthy’s death and more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, popular understanding of Cold War history is still hopelessly confused. Many Americans have been taught to think of anti-Communism -- mocked as a hysterical “Red Scare,” and condemned as “McCarthyism” -- as more dangerous than Communism itself.
The record should have been clarified during the 1990s, when information from Soviet defectors -- including Vassily Mitrokhin, who smuggled thousands of pages of KGB archives out of Russia -- and the declassification of the so-called “Venona” intercepts of Soviet intelligence cables confirmed the truths told by Bentley and Chambers. Indeed, as these ex-Communists testified, and as McCarthy and other anti-Communist investigators had tried to prove, the U.S. government during the Roosevelt presidency was penetrated by scores of officials who took their paychecks from Uncle Sam but were secretly working for Uncle Joe.
Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie -- guilty! guilty! guilty! -- were prominent among the Stalinist agents in FDR’s administrations whose identities were confirmed by Venona decryptions. These post-Cold War revelations and others contradicted the “Red Scare hysteria” narrative that had treated as preposterous the suspicions aimed at well-credentialed liberals like Hiss (a Harvard Law alumnus) and Currie, a graduate of the London School of Economics who was a key financial policy adviser to Roosevelt.
“With so much confirmation of Soviet infiltration and subversion now in hand,” West says, “not only is a major rewrite of history in order, there are some major wrongs that need to be righted.”
Among the Cold War wrongs in need of correction are not only restoring the smear-damaged reputations of McCarthy and other anti-Communists, but also rescuing from obscurity some other truth-tellers who were demonized for the truths they told. Consider, for example, Army Maj. George R. Jordan, who during WWII worked at an air base in Montana where military supplies were sent to Russia under the Lend-Lease program. In 1949, Jordan told a congressional committee that these supplies included materials like uranium necessary to the development of nuclear weapons, and also testified that the Soviets used Lend-Lease shipments to smuggle secret U.S. documents back to Moscow.
As West details in her new book, Jordan was mocked and denounced by liberals at that time, and he is nearly forgotten now, but nearly all of his testimony has since been confirmed. And one of Jordan’s most controversial claims points to just how high up in the Roosevelt administration the hidden hand of Soviet influence reached. Jordan testified under oath that he got a phone call in April 1943 from top FDR aide Harry Hopkins who gave him direct orders in regard to a shipment of “special” chemicals that were about to arrive at the air base in Montana. Jordan said Hopkins instructed him to make no record of this shipment, which proved to be uranium from Canada. Officials at the top-secret Manhattan Project had ordered an embargo of U.S. uranium shipments to Russia, but according to Jordan, Hopkins had intervened to help the Soviets bypass that obstacle to their own atomic ambitions by arranging the Canadian shipment via Lend-Lease through Montana. Jordan’s account of the phone call from Hopkins was one element of his testimony that congressional investigators were unable to confirm, but there is other evidence -- including testimony of a KGB defector and documents from KGB archives -- that points toward the conclusion that Hopkins was a willing agent of Soviet influence.
“If Harry Hopkins, the top aide to President Roosevelt, was indeed a conscious agent … what does this say about Roosevelt?” asks West, posing a question fraught with implications for what we know, and still don’t know, about the direction of American policy and the meaning of American history.
Unfortunately, academic historians seem little interested in those questions, and the liberals in charge at Vassar College and Columbia University would probably rather erect a statue of Stalin than to pay tribute to their ex-Communist alumna who told the truth about Soviet espionage, Elizabeth Bentley.