Anne Applebaum has published a lengthy review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev in the New Republic. She includes in her review a discussion of the “insane” and inane bickering from the American extreme right and left over who is to be seen as responsible for the entrance of KGB spies into American politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Clearly it’s not just the Kremlin who has discovered that history has its own modern political expediency. The review itself makes for better reading, but this discussion is attracting the brunt the comments so far.
The truth, of course, is that neither Coulter nor Navasky, nor any of the many others who have joined this particular battle, is really interested in history. They and their respective allies instead wish to score points about contemporary politics–points that bear only a tendentious relationship to the events of the 1930s and the 1940s. Coulter and her ilk want modern liberals to be identified with the CPUSA: Hiss = Obama. Navasky and his friends suspect that anyone who investigates Hiss is covertly promoting “the wholesale suspension of liberties”: historical research = Guantanamo. There is something dim and lifeless about this kind of apologetic argument, which is why wading though the writings of the Coulters and the Navaskys is a torment, like watching an endless episode of Crossfire.
Too many people have drained this particular chapter of history of interest by manipulating it for partisan purposes–as, once upon a time, Senator McCarthy did. Perhaps the best way to put McCarthy’s ghost to rest, and to breathe life back into one of the most turbulent moments in American intellectual history, is to follow the example of this genuinely important and darkly fascinating book. Follow the facts, and just the facts, because they might lead you to places stranger than fiction.