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An Interview with John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr

Following is an interview with John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, authors of In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage (2003). The interview was conducted by historian Jamie Glazov, the managing editor of frontpagemag.com, where the interview was first published.

Glazov: I have to admit gentlemen, In Denial touched something very deeply personal for me. Forgive me for starting the interview with a little bit of a tangent, but perhaps it will serve as a good foundation for our discussion.

As an émigré from the Soviet Union, whose parents were dissidents and were persecuted by the KGB, I grew up in this society completely bewildered and baffled by the Left. From a very young age, I was shocked to observe leftists minimizing the evils of communism and painting their own society as not only just as evil, but even more evil than the Cold War enemy.

Throughout my life, I argued with myriad leftists about communism, trying to convince them of its perniciousness. During my doctoral years in the field of Cold War History, I spent an inordinate amount of time debating with my colleagues about who was responsible for the Cold War.

My colleagues, of course, always howled with one another about my views.

I remember how they reserved special mockery for Reagan’s reference to the Soviet system as an “Evil Empire.” As I continue to reflect on what happened to my own family under communism (i.e. both of my grandfathers were murdered by the Soviet secret police), and what it means that communism extinguished 100 million lives in the twentieth century, I remain befuddled by what exactly was so laughable about Reagan’s reference.

In any case, when the Soviet archives were opened after the fall of the Soviet tyranny in 1991, I hungrily devoured all the information inherent in the revelations in declassified documents, disclosures from former Soviet officials, etc. They all confirmed and substantiated what conservatives had been arguing for decades -- and what common sense had long ago instructed -- that the Soviets were totalitarian, power-hungry and expansionist brutes that started and prolonged the Cold War.

When I approached my colleagues with this new evidence, ranging from everything from the issues of the Korean war, Berlin, Soviet espionage, American communists’ links with the Soviet regime, etc., I showed how I had been correct on every issue that we had argued about for years.

And yet, instead of hearing a mea culpa, a stated regret or admission of some kind of lesson learned, all that I witnessed, in a manner that remains extremely eerie for me to remember, was a callous indifference and smug contempt for the issues at hand. Some of my colleagues articulated a few incomprehensible justifications of their positions; others just switched topics with remarkable speed and ominous neglect. All of them condescended to me for being interested in something so “old” and “ancient.” They patiently counselled me, with a disdain and arrogance that I will never forget, to stop chasing “old ghosts” and “engaging in necrophilia.”

And these were historians.

I have to say, I left the world of academia somewhat shell-shocked and angry. There was something very frightening that I had been exposed to, but I wasn’t completely sure what it was. I felt as if I had been poisoned and it took me awhile to get those people out of my system.

In having witnessed first-hand this mindset in academia for so many years, I ultimately came to believe that there was enough material here that could warrant an entire psychiatric conference. That conference never came, but your book did. Thank you.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are my counsellors, and that I have come to you for therapy after having endured this experience. Give me some help. First off, what happened to me? What was I dealing with? Was I wasting my time arguing with these people? Who were these individuals and why didn’t they care about the truth behind the things we argued about for so many years?

Haynes: Jamie, many of those you speak of live in a different reality from that of the rest of us. Psychologically, they do not see what you see. They see the present and the past through a special lens. What is overwhelmingly clear to them is an imagined future collectivist utopia where antagonisms of class and race have been eliminated, the economic and social inequalities that have driven people to crime have been removed, poverty does not exist and social justice reigns, world brotherhood has replaced war and international strife, and an economy planned by people like them has produced economic abundance without pollution or waste. Coupled with this vision of the future is loathing of the real present which falls woefully short of these goals and hatred for anyone or anything that stands in the way of their illusion of the radiant future.

At Solovki, one of earliest Gulag camps, Soviet administrators put up a sign that expressed the Communist program: "With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness." That slogan captures the murderous nature of the utopian vision of the hard left.

Jamie, you look at Soviet history and see the Gulag, the executions of the Terror, the pervasive oppression, and the economic failure. Psychologically, the leftists you speak of see little of that. They see a Communist state that articulated their vision of the future and which sought to destroy the societies and institutions they hated. They cannot see the horror that communism actually created. They look on that horror and see something else because they cannot admit to themselves that their vision is beyond human grasp. The German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, when challenged that thousands of innocents had been sent to the Gulag by Stalin, replied, "the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die." To you or I this remark is disgusting, but to the hard left it reflects their eager willingness to kill any number of persons without concern for innocence or guilt if it might assist in bringing about the socialist future.

The idealized future that has not happened is more real and more important to them than the past that really did happen. Because the imagined future is more real and important to them, they seek to remold history (human understanding of the real past) to the service of the future. In his distopia 1984, George Orwell gives the Ministry of Truth of his totalitarian state the task of rewriting history. Orwell's point was that those who control the politics of the past (history) also control the politics of the present and thereby the future. The academic left, like the Orwell's Engsoc ideologists, believe that history is malleable and can assist in legitimating current politics and bringing about the utopian future.

You will get few mea culpas from hard left academics because they feel no guilt. You think they should regret getting the facts of history wrong. They care not at all about the facts of history, only about the politics of the future. They feel they got the politics right and so no mea culpa is due.

The facts of history that they got wrong can be, in their view, rationalized, redefined, minimized, or otherwise set aside in service to the idealized future they seek. Many have learned no lessons from the failure of communism; they will ardently pursue the same goals by the same means, albeit under new names.

You note the incongruity of hearing historians who are supposed to care about the past dismiss new information from Soviet archives as useless concern for "old ghosts" and "engaging in necrophilia." But those who say such thinks are not really historians, they are propagandists for the future left utopia who camouflage themselves as historians. They are interested in the past only when it can be put to the service of the future they seek. The flood of information out of Communist archives does not serve their goals, thus they define those matters as, as you noted, "ancient" and of no interest.

I would recommend to you Aileen S. Kraditor, "Jimmy Higgins": The Mental World of the American Rank-and-File Communist, 1930-1958 (1988) for a detailed discussion of the separate reality inhabited by Communists and other hard left partisans.

Klehr: Jamie, I think your colleagues need the therapy far more than you do. In the slice of the historical world that we have discussed in our book, something very strange has occurred in the past thirty years.

Among historians of the Soviet Union there was a small but influential group of revisionists who attempted to "normalize" the Soviet regime. This involved a number of different tacks- some of them minimized the number of victims of Stalinism and Leninism or denied that there was any mass terror. Others deflected responsibility for terror away from Stalin and onto a bureaucratic process that spun out of control. And others apologized for the mass murders by claiming that they were necessary accompaniments to a process of modernization.

While we discuss this trend in our book, our major focus is on historians of American communism who have attempted to rehabilitate the CPUSA as an admirable and heroic band of democrats unjustly persecuted by a reactionary American state and society. Lots of these historians are veterans of the New Left, people who were active in attempting to transform American society in a radical direction in the 1960s and 1970s. Their effort having failed, they have attempted to rehabilitate an earlier American radical movement. Some of them are themselves red-diaper babies- they are the children or grandchildren of people who were in the CPUSA, so in some way they are writing not only history but their family history as well.

Why does it all matter? Why should people care about arguments among historians about American communists or whether spies like the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss and Lauchlin Currie and Harry White were innocent or guilty? Because this concerns the history that gets taught in the high schools and colleges and the view that American students have of their country's past. Take Joe McCarthy. He's the poster boy for the view that anticommunism led to horrible persecution in post WWII America. A few years ago the proposed National History Standards for High School mentioned him more times than any other American in that era. He was a demagogue. But how many students understand that hundreds of American communists did spy for the Soviet Union? That there was a serious problem of subversion?

And these issues are not "merely" historical. Many of the historians we discuss in our book make very clear that their goal is to indoctrinate a new generation of students in order to build a new radical movement.

Look at the denunciations of the war on terror as some kind of McCarthyite plot. Historical analogies can be weapons in a contemporary ideological battle.

All that being said, I think you are right, Jamie, when you bring up psychiatry. For some of the historians we discuss there is a disconnect with reality. They are unwilling to deal with evidence; they are unwilling to employ logic. Instead they retreat into a fantasy world.

The real world is too unpleasant- after all, the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, the political system they admired collapsed, documents proving some of their heroes were spies and so they pretend that the documents must be forgeries. It's like that old line about a defender of Alger Hiss being asked what evidence it would take to convince him that Hiss was guilty. He answered, "If Alger Hiss himself told me he was a spy, I wouldn't believe him."

Glazov: All of this is pretty depressing. I remember when the Soviet regime collapsed and some statues of Soviet murderers fell, there was a brief ecstasy in my family and among many of our Russian and dissident friends. We were momentarily naïve enough to dream of justice. We dared to hope.

For a brief moment in time, we fantasized of some kind of Nuremberg-style trials that would, at least, bring a face, a memory, to the millions of tortured souls who perished in Stalin’s gulags, who starved to death under his forced famine, who lost their loved ones for reasons that no sane person on earth could rationally understand.

It was personal for my family. We wanted to see our personal torturers, and the torturers of our people, publicly tried and brought to justice. But this never happened.

Hitler’s executioners got their day in court – and their much-deserved death certificates. But the monsters who engineered the Soviet killing machines never got theirs. Why? Is it, in part, because the Left in the West, which controls the cultures of its societies, was able to block the delegitimization of its ideas?

What a shame, because wouldn’t Nuremberg-style trials in post-Soviet Russia have powerfully discredited the socialist fairy tale that continues to have such a powerful hold on so much of the world’s imagination – despite the horrifying historical record? Wouldn’t it have done much damage to the efforts of the gulag deniers that you describe in your book? What do you make of all of this?

Klehr: I agree that there should have been some kind of legal reckoning. Many of the perpetrators are dead of course, but the old age of Nazi war criminals has not hindered the effort to find and prosecute them. One example; in our book we mention the Katyn Forest massacres; in the closing years of the Gorbachev regime, he instituted an effort to issue a report on it and several of the KGB executioners were interviewed and discussed how they murdered POWs in cold blood. Those were war crimes and it would have been both morally and politically proper for either Poland or the United Nations to demand the convening of a tribunal to punish those men responsible for the killings of more than 20,000 POWs.

Or, take a case that we discuss in our book--the murder of at least a thousand American Finns in Soviet Karelia in the late 1930s. These were American citizens, falsely accused of espionage and shot. We have the list of names--a list that includes men, women and children. Why has the American government never demanded that some effort be made to find out who was responsible for these crimes? Is this any different from the murder of American citizens by the government of Libya? Or Nazi war crimes?

Haynes: Jamie, all of the former Communist nations would have been well-served by a bringing to justice of those who committed criminal acts or, at a minimum, a "truth commission" that allowed amnesty only on a candid confession of crimes and an acceptance of responsibility. But, as you note, serious pursuit of criminals of the Communists regime has been limited: some in Germany and, I believe, a few cases in Poland but little elsewhere. A "lustration" process of excluding former Communist functionaries and collaborators with the Communist secret police from the upper reaches of the civil service, the police, and the military has worked with considerable success in Germany and the Czech Republic but with less success and some abuse elsewhere.

The major responsibility for the limited pursuit of justice or even truth telling about the Communist regimes rests in the old East Bloc itself where the realities of the collapse of the former regimes made pursuing such matters inexpedient in the short-run. But whatever the temporary advantages of closing the door on the past, in the long-run the social and political health of those societies requires them to squarely face what happened in the Communist era. There are those who are trying to do so: the Memorial organization in Russia, the Museum of Terror in Hungary, and others.

But, and here is where your question comes in, the West, particularly too many Western liberal and left opinion leaders, have been indifferent to bringing the criminals of the Communist regime to justice, and are adamant against any "lustration" process. I have read more than one article in academic journals denouncing excluding collaborators and even officers of the old Communist security services from positions of public trust as a "witch hunt" as if these persons were figments of imagination rather than all to real oppressors and wielders of state-sanctioned torture and cruelty.

The wealthy philanthropic liberal foundations of the West give only token grants or nothing at all to organizations such as Memorial and the Museum of Terror which seeks to documents the monstrous crimes of the Stalin era. The liberal foundations of the West prefer to give funds to those allied with the "reform Communists" who for obvious reasons want to draw a curtain at 1989 or 1991 and think too much has been said of what happened before. The indifference of Western opinion leaders to the need to ideologically de-Communize the old East Bloc as a condition to building healthy democratic societies has weakened domestic support for such action in the old East Bloc and embolden the recalcitrant former Communists.

But not all of the news is depressing. The Museum of Terror, targeted for extinction by the reform Communists who came to power in the last Hungarian election, shamed the government into retreat, albeit losing some public funding. And in Russia, despite all of the barriers, a younger cohort of historians are turning out book after book on the crimes, oppression, and failures of the Communist era. Most of these have not been translated into English and are little know in the West, but Russians, younger ones, read them. These younger Russian historians are treated with patronizing arrogance by American revisionist historians but this cannot last.

The new Russian historians command the language, understand the culture, and have far more access to documentation that the reigning revisionists of the West. The new Russian historians also have come to understand that a large segment of the Western academic world are fools or charlatans when it comes to the history of communism and go their own way. In time, the weight of their research and writing will overwhelm that of pro-Communist Western revisionists. The task we face in the West to make that "in time" as short as possible.

I am optimistic on these matters. I well remember that until the late 1980s I did not expect Soviet communism or the East Bloc satellites to collapse in my lifetime or that I would even sit in a Moscow archive reading the long-secret records of the Comintern and the CPUSA. The situation today is immeasurably better that it was twenty years ago. There is more to be done. But it is not a matter of seeing the glass as half-full: the glass is three-quarters full. The Cold War on the ground has been won. Only the Cold War in history remains.

Glazov: As the Cold War is being waged in history, In Denial will, hopefully, serve as one of the thundering bolts that will destroy the Berlin wall in this war. Has the reception to this book been what you expected? What did you hope to achieve? What future battles are you preparing? Will In Denial trigger a de-Stalinization and, maybe, a glasnost within the academic milieu in this Cold War?

Klehr: I think it's still too early to tell if In Denial will have an impact and exactly what kind. So far, I've been a little disappointed that such papers as the New York Times have avoided reviewing it, but perhaps that is still in the works. If the liberal gatekeepers in professional journals and the media ignore the book, that would be an unfortunate confirmation of its main thesis--that while they properly pay attention to the Nazi Holocaust and its horrors and castigate those frauds who try to minimize its historical importance, they avert their eyes from the equally offensive horrors of the Gulag and the Soviet regime and tolerate the faculty members who apologize for it and minimize its costs.

One of the scandals of American higher education is that there are more than a few academics who are the equivalent of Holocaust deniers--they defend Joseph Stalin, they defend mass murder and they ignore or distort clear historical evidence. And they teach at respected institutions of higher learning where their faculty colleagues politely ignore their views instead of treating them as the moral pariahs they should be. Just imagine the uproar if any American college or university harbored a historian who misused documentary evidence to support his thesis that the victims of Nazism had been vastly overcounted or that the wonderful achievements of Hitlerism should not be overlooked.

John Haynes and I want to call attention to the shoddy history that is being done by many- not all but many- of the revisionists who study American communism. They need to decide if they are historians or ideologues. If they are unwilling to face the new evidence that has emerged from American and Russian archives, they need to be exposed as incompetent historians and called to account by other academics. They are distorting the past and making appalling moral judgments. That is not a healthy situation.

As for our next project, John and I have discussed some ideas but we'll first have to see if we have to enter the witness protection program!

Haynes: Jamie: It is still early to judge what impact In Denial will have. Thus far the only reviews have been in conservatively-oriented journals of opinion. There have been none in liberal and left journals and no academic reviews.

Debate in the academic world on this issue is limited. Anyone whose knowledge of the historical literature was based on a reading of articles published in the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review, the two leading journals in the field, would believe that there was nothing to debate. Not a single article published in the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review in the last thirty years has taken a critical stance regarding the American Communist movement or a benign view of domestic anticommunism. In the same thirty-year period dozens of articles in these journals have taken a reverse stance: a benign view of the CPUSA or depicting domestic opposition to communism in highly negative terms. In these journals there has been no debate: only one side is heard from.

Only in less prestigious and more specialized journals can the interpretive stance that Klehr, or Theodore Draper, or I take (often called the traditionalist point of view) be expressed. Given the revisionists' influence on the leadership of the historical profession and their willingness to stifle other views, this condition may continue for some time.

What would be healthy would be engagement, but that requires a willingness to debate by the revisionists. Thus far, most are unwilling. And also thus far most historians outside the field have acquiesced to the revisionist veto over what may be discussed in the leading journals in regard to communism.

Revisionists use silence as a weapon. That is why we referred to the status in the historical profession regarding the historical treatment of domestic communism and anticommunism to constitute "an intellectually sick situation."

In the long run, however, I think there is reason for optimism. We are intellectually on the offensive, not them. Revisionists have strength in numbers and in institutional power in the academy but in their writings they are increasingly taking a defensive tone and abandoning some of the more outrageous of their claims. Younger historians are increasingly dissatisfied with the revisionist paradigm, less willing to accept silence as the appropriate response to intellectual challenge, and far more willing than their elders to consider alternatives and to take seriously the interpretations put forth by traditionalists.

I am confident that even if senior historians refuse to debate these matters and pretend that In Denial does not exist, many junior historians will read it and consider the points we raise. By the way, let me note that the situation in the fields of Soviet history and Cold War history was never as bad as that of the field of domestic American communism and anticommunism. I think one can already see faster progress in Soviet history and Cold War history than in the domestic field. It is just Klehr and my ill-fortune to be interested in the most benighted of these arenas.

Additionally, as time passes, more and more archival resources will open up. The weight of evidence will increase, ambiguity will decline, and the intellectual fatuousness and moral bankruptcy of a far too large section of the academic world in regard to communism will become overwhelmingly obvious. Good scholars, whether in their personal politics of the left or the right, need not worry about archival "revelations." History is not a science driven by theory. It is an empirical craft that rests on the accumulation of documentary evidence interrogated by refined common sense and reasoning (certain technical field excepted). As new evidence accumulates real historians adjusts their understanding and interpretation to accommodate the total body of evidence. Certainly new evidence has required me to shift my views on certain matters.

Real historians, not being slaves to a vision of the future, are free to understand the past. Historians as historians are not prophets and are not soldiers in a struggle to shape the future. Historians should be looking to the past and, to the extent they can, intellectually living in the past in order to understand it. Karl Marx once wrote, "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Too many academics have adopted that stance, making their interpretation of the world subordinate to their vision of the future. In doing so, they have abandoned scholarship. Looking to the future and shaping it is an important task, but it is not the historian's task. Because they have made their scholarship a slave to a particular ideological vision of the future, some of the reigning figures of the current historical establishment are likely to be regarded as embarrassments or figures of ridicule within a generation.