Klehr & Haynes: Why Has Their Book Accusing Historians of Denial Not Had More of an Impact?

Historians in the News

Jacob Gershman, writing in the NY Sun (Jan. 5, 2004):

The book was called “an indictment of the historical profession.” It was hailed as an “explosive expose” that would “send shock waves” through American history departments.

But four months after it was published, “In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage” hasn't generated much of a reaction in academia.

Far from igniting a firestorm of debate, John Earl Haynes's and Harvey Klehr 's 316-page condemnation of “revisionist” historians of American communism has fallen victim to silence.

The authors say they have received little response from the scholars they criticize in the book for glossing over communism's crimes and the American Communist Party's involvement in Soviet espionage.

Liberal mainstream publications largely ignored the book, with reviews mostly appearing in conservative newspapers and magazines, such as the Washington Times, Commentary Magazine, and the Weekly Standard.

“I anticipated there would be more reaction than there has been,” Mr. Klehr, a professor of history and politics at Emory University , said. “I thought we made some fairly serious charges against a large number of historians. We accused some of these people of being the equivalent of Holocaust deniers.”

The lack of reaction to “In Denial” is a reflection of the difficulty that anticommunist historians, such as Mr. Klehr and Mr.Haynes,have had in challenging the academic establishment on its assessment of American communism.

“Those who disagree with it are at the margins of the profession,” Mr. Haynes,a 20th-century political historian in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, said.

In recently written books, “The Secret World of American Communism” and “Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America,” Mr. Klehr and Mr. Haynes used information they collected from newly opened Soviet archives to show how the American Communist Party was heavily involved in Soviet espionage.“In Denial” takes aim at historians who “have failed to confront new evidence.”

A number of the historians targeted by Messrs. Klehr and Haynes say they haven't read the book.

Several said the authors misrepresented their views, but few have offered a rebuttal.

Some expressed surprise they were mentioned at all.

“It amazed me that anybody would devote that much attention to my work,” Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University , said.

The book quotes her stating that anti-communism “tap[ped] into something dark and nasty in the human soul” and that “whatever harm may have come to the country from Sovietsponsored spies is dwarfed by Mc-Carthy's wave of terror.”

In an interview with The New York Sun, Ms. Schrecker said the history of American communism was no longer a “live issue.”

“Where is communism today? Where is the contemporary relevance?” she said.

Ms. Schrecker said she is “as anti-Stalinist as the next person.”But she remains opposed to anti-communism, which she says has “tended to support a lot of political repression.”

The book accuses Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer at Brown University , of making up claims that American communists provided military assistance to Israel in 1948.

Mr. Buhle told the Sun he hasn't read the book. “I'm not fretting about it,” he said. “To be attacked by neoconservatives is a badge of honor.”

Mr. Klehr and Mr. Haynes also go after Victor Navasky,publisher and editorial director of The Nation and a professor of journalism at Columbia University , accusing him of justifying Soviet espionage and “excusing those who engaged in it.”

They quote Mr. Navasky stating that most those who spied for the Soviet Union were “patriots.”

Mr. Navasky called the book “wrong and just false. [The authors] were factually incorrect. Of course, I believe there was Soviet espionage.”

Mr. Haynes maintains his book's accuracy.

Another target, Eric Foner, a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction at Columbia University who has written about American communism, says he hasn't read “In Denial.”

“I don't even know why they are picking on me,” he said.

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More Comments:

Van L. Hayhow - 1/26/2004

actually I don't have anything to add, I just want to see if I am signed up.

Terry Walbert - 1/20/2004

Ellen Schrecker's comment ""Where is communism today? Where is the contemporary relevance?" is amazing for a historian. One could as easily ask where is the Third Reich? the Confederate States of America? the Second French Empire? the Holocaust? Custer's Last Stand? Saddam Hussein? What is the contemporary relevance of any of these?
Aside from the proposition that the truth of history matters or ought to matter to a historian, the history of Communism shows that the hard left was not misguided idealists but murderers who should never be given a chance to hold power again. Oops, sorry, there I go again with hysterical anti-Communism. Sounds like Joe McCarthyite "terror," although I'm not aware that Joe McCarthy killed any American.

Van L. Hayhow - 1/17/2004

I haven't read this book, but their prior books (the one and one-half) that I have read are well documented and moderate in tone. For example, in their Venona book they take Senator McCarthy to task for his wild accusations against people, such as Dean Acheson, who didn't deserve it. I think their position (based on interviews I have seen) is that they expected the history of American Communism would be taught differently after professors absorbed the information coming from the records. Yet they claim many people are still teaching that the American Communist party was not Stalinist and was not involved in espionage. I don't know what history professors are teaching these days since I have no connection to the history profession, but if a professor is still teaching the American communist party was not dominated by the Soviet Union, etc., then they are in denial.

Michael Green - 1/17/2004

One of the concerns that all of us should have is whether a history book is ahistorical. If one of the co-author says critics of anti-communism and those deemed guilty of being too kind to American communists can be compared with those who deny the Holocaust, the book may be getting just the amount of attention it deserves. I hope that the authors are not pulling an Ann Coulter and ignoring overwhelming historical evidence.

Van L. Hayhow - 1/16/2004

I haven't read the book either, but I have seen interviews with the authors and have also read one of their earlier books (The Secret World of American Communism) and am currently part way through their book on the Venona cables. These two books appear to be very well documented. They do not deal with the Communist Party of the 1970's but with the party from its founding around 1920 through the thirties and forties and somewhat into the fifties. Therefore your comments on the 70's is not relevant to their books. What is relevant is that there appear to be many people who still do not believe that Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs were guilty of spying which these books make clear they were. From interviews I have seen with H and K it seems the latest book is a result of their impression that there are still historians of 20th century American history that are still teaching that the Communist Party in the US was independant of the Soviet Union and not engaged in spying. That's the relevance of the book.

Josh Greenland - 1/14/2004

I haven't read the book and don't know what all it says, but I'm less than impressed by the Venona "revelations", always presented with a flourish, that the CPUSA was spying for the USSR. So what? It was common knowledge on the US Left by the early 1970s if not well before that the CPUSA was massively infiltrated by US intelligence agents and that some CPUSA political events were majority-attended by agents. So if the CPUSA was doing espionage for the USSR, the feds had it infiltrated with counterintelligence people and it became a big spy versus spy game. (Or, the feds had it infiltrated with COINTELPRO provocateurs and snitches who were too stupid or misdirected by their handlers to spot the Soviet agents.) So why should we feel so aghast and threatened at Soviet spies in the CPUSA if the feds had the party massively infiltrated, supposedly protecting the USA from it?

I agree with Ellen Schrecker's comment:

"In an interview with The New York Sun, Ms. Schrecker said the history of American communism was no longer a “live issue.”

"“Where is communism today? Where is the contemporary relevance?” she said."

Really and truly, who cares now? If the anti-communists during the time of the USSR were so reactionary, imperialistic, bigoted and abusive of domestic rights that they blew their own credibility on the "red threat," who really do they have to blame? The red-baiters and anti-communism haven't dissipated in the United States, but among some circles of people communism as an issue doesn't matter anymore. It appears that historians are one such group and I'm glad to see it.

Van L. Hayhow - 1/8/2004

I guess the book still isn't having any impact as there are no posts here, at least until now. I did think Professor Buhle's comment was weak. Whether criticism is a badge of honor would depend, it seems to me, on whether the criticism is valid or not.