Ann Coulter's Betrayal of the Anti-Communist Historians

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Schwartz is a senior policy analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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Normally, I would have no interest in the writings or talk-show appearances of Ann Coulter, and I will stipulate that I have not read her latest contribution, a volume titled Treason. However, I have felt myself drawn into the controversy over the book, because of its reliance on scholarship analyzing, and based on, the Venona traffic. This, as a wider section of the public will now come to know, is a series of several thousand clandestine Soviet intelligence messages intercepted and decrypted by American military personnel, beginning in the second world war. Ms. Coulter has used the Venona traffic to make the argument that Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, has been unfairly defamed by liberal public opinion. She has intimated that liberals in general, meaning many Democrats, social democrats, and anti-Communist union leaders, were soft on the former Soviet Union, and therefore traitors.

These are immensely complicated historical issues, which continue to be treated subjectively by most commentators, and on which I don't wish to expend a great deal of energy right now. Nevertheless, I have had a minor role in the analysis of the Venona decryptions, and wish to point out certain obvious problems with Ms. Coulter's claims.

First, one of the main lessons we must derive from the Venona traffic is that Soviet clandestine agents in the U.S. and in the West in general did not operate in a rational fashion, and did not, in fact, consistently concentrate their main efforts on infiltration of the U.S. government for purposes of influencing its foreign or domestic policies. Rather, a considerable amount of the Venona traffic is concerned with Soviet persecution, harassment, surveillance, and infiltration of the tiny group of supporters of Leon Trotsky, murdered in 1940. It is a major paradox of Soviet clandestine operations in the era of Alger Hiss that influence over American policy was very often a less important goal for the Kremlin than persecution of obscure heretics. Hiss himself used his high post in the Roosevelt administration, as revealed in the Pumpkin Papers made public by Whittaker Chambers, to further such nefarious activities.

My contribution to the discussion of Venona included a discussion of messages transmitted to Soviet agents in Mexico. I will defer to Arnold Beichman, writing in the Washington Times of August 24, 1997, to describe my work on this topic and the content of the materials I analyzed:

The decryptions have been analyzed in a long article by Stephen Schwartz, an expert on Soviet espionage and Comintern history, in the August 1997 Spanish language monthly, Vuelta, published in Mexico. The magazine [was founded] by Octavio Paz, poet and critic, and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for literature. Mr. Schwartz describes Soviet activities as constituting "a gross violation of Mexican national sovereignty."

"The Mexican communications disclose the remarkably obsessive nature of Soviet clandestine operations," writes Mr. Schwartz, "and the extent of their penetration and manipulation in Latin America, involving the Spanish Republican exile community and many prominent intellectuals, in addition to the communist parties of Mexico, Chile, Cuba and other countries."

[Quoting Schwartz:] "Venona" makes clear the criminality of international Soviet agents, who acted throughout the world, on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. no less than in Mexico and Colombia, as if they were on their own territory. They hunted down, kidnapped and killed Russian nationals who had escaped Stalin's reign of terror, looted the secrets of industrial and scientific enterprises, and corrupted foreign political and military personnel.

In the ‘Venona’ dispatches, code-names are used for almost everybody. Some of these aliases were neutral; others, like Zionists, were given pejorative epithets [– Zionists being referred to as ‘rats.’] Followers of Stalin's hated enemy, Leon Trotsky, were code-named ‘polecats.’ Trotsky, himself, was living in Mexico as an exile when he was killed at the age of 61 in 1940 by a 26-year-old KGB operative, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who was convicted of the crime and given a 20-year jail sentence. Mercader was the son of Caridad Mercader, who was herself a KGB agent.

From the beginning of the KGB rezidentura’s [Mexican] operation in 1943, Stalin had one objective: springing Mercader. Despite all kinds of KGB conspiracies, the assassin served 20 years in jail.

In keeping with KGB encoding style, the first message about the Mercader escape effort, sent from Mexico City to Moscow Dec. 23, 1943, described it as a "surgical operation" from the "hospital," meaning jail, specifically Penitenciaria de Lecumberri where Mercader was held. The noun "scientist" was a code name for Mexican agents or for Mexicans who were Soviet sympathizers ready to follow Moscow orders.

(I would add that my commentary on the Mexican Venona and related issues discussed below--having to do with Stalinist intellectuals recruited to secret police terror tasks--appears in my book, Intellectuals and Assassins (London, 2000). In addition, in another of my books, From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind (New York, 1998), I included work on Venona and the pattern of Soviet espionage in the Manhattan District atomic bomb. Much of this latter work is cited in Greg Herkens's Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller.)

Thus, with regard to Venona and what it tells us about Soviet operations in the U.S., a knowledge of the ins and outs of the Roosevelt New Deal is often much less useful than a study of the hidden and largely forgotten history of Trotskyism. One of the most significant Soviet agents discussed in Venona was the infamous Mark Zborowski, militant and anthropologist, who infiltrated the Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s in Paris. Zborowski was involved in the murder of Trotsky’s son Lyova Sedov and other revolutionary militants whose names would doubtless mean nothing to Ms. Coulter: Andreu Nin, Hans Freund, Kurt Landau, Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, Erwin Wolf, and Rudolf Klement, as well as plots to murder the author Victor Serge and the labor leader Henk Sneevliet. Zborowski was very likely also involved in the mysterious deaths of men named Samuel Ginsberg (Walter Krivitsky) and Otto Ruhle. I emphasize my conviction that Ann Coulter does not know most of these names, although she may have heard of Krivitsky, and cannot imagine what significance they have, and would doubtless not care very much about them. They were not American patriots, believers in the Republican party, or admirers of Protestant fundamentalism. They were ultra-revolutionary activists who lived and died, often young, for an ideal today universally held in contempt – that of proletarian socialist revolution.

And yet it was the deaths of these men and others like them, including some women, that moved Whittaker Chambers to break with Stalinism, and others to fight the Soviet Union and everything it had come to represent, in conditions of danger and obscurity that Ann Coulter could never imagine.

And that is an important part of the Ann Coulter problem – for there is such a problem.

Ann Coulter has turned the struggle over historical memory about Soviet clandestine activities in the U.S. into a comic-book morality play about good Americans and bad aliens, on television programs like "Crossfire," with the assistance of equally narrow-minded individuals such as Robert Novak. In doing so, Ms. Coulter has dishonored the sacrifices of those without whom no such struggle could have taken place.

It is not merely a matter of gross vulgarity in the attempt to rehabilitate, and transform into an American civic hero, the demagogic McCarthy, whose antics deeply undermined the combat against Stalinist influence undertaken in America by ex-Communists, social-democrats, anti-Communist labor leaders, and, yes, liberals. It is not merely a matter of, as I have been told, Ann Coulter making the grotesque mistake of defaming Walter Reuther, a tough union man who rescued one of America’s great labor organizations from Soviet control.

There is also an issue of motives here, on which I am not inclined to cede a single inch to Ann Coulter, her possible ghost-writer (because it is very difficult for me to imagine that she did all this herself), or her admirers.

Ms. Coulter was quite properly criticized a week or so ago by Ronald Radosh, a hero of our time for his exposure of the truth about the Rosenbergs – that they were fanatical Stalinists and guilty of the espionage charges brought against them. Radosh commented, to Andrew Sullivan writing in the London Times, “I am furious and upset about her book.” Radosh pointed out that Ms. Coulter has used his work, as well as that of Harvey Klehr and John Haynes, and Allen Weinstein, to distort their arguments and advance absurd, propagandistic claims.

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Ms. Coulter has now answered Radosh, in effect, by penning a column in which she holds Radosh up as an intellectual paragon for his work to expose the Rosenbergs.

This is what must be said: I, like Radosh, and for that matter David Horowitz, come from a Communist background. I, like Radosh and Horowitz, now stand in defense of America, its democracy, its free enterprise system, its values, and its leading role in the world. I, like Radosh and Horowitz, now dedicate my energies to exposing and memorializing the crimes of Communism.

But there is something that separates us from Ann Coulter – something more than suspicion and contempt for the figure of Joseph McCarthy. Those of us who put so much into this struggle did not bear this burden lightly. Some of us learned difficult foreign languages, some of us traveled to distant and hostile locations, all of us devoted many, many hours of unpaid labor to this cause. But above all, as Walter Krivitsky said to Whittaker Chambers, “One does not come away easily from Stalin.” Because we began in the Communist movement, we had to come to terms with our own misguided beliefs and motives; we had to let go of an idealism that we had nurtured and that had nurtured us; we had to break with friends, family, colleagues, a whole world. We had to ask ourselves a million times if we had made the right decision. We had to face the dreadful accusation, with which Ann Coulter will never have to contend, that we were renegades and opportunists who had sold out our comrades out of craven self-interest. We had to live with the charge that we had taken the side of the world’s oppressors against its victims – after we had spent long years living by our promise never to desert the battle against oppression.

I cannot speak for Radosh and Horowitz when I say that in engaging with the issue of Venona I did so more out of a deep and abiding anger over the forgotten martyrdom of young and courageous men of heart, men of fire, men who had committed themselves to a perhaps hopeless, probably meaningless, and doubtless lonely battle, rather than out of loyalty to my land of birth and citizenship. Men like Nin, shot to death after he was tortured for days, gravely ill with a kidney ailment, but refusing to say yes to Stalin – and my comrade Victor Alba affirmed that Nin’s fortitude, through incalculable pain and suffering, saved thousands of Spanish revolutionary militants, who were unafraid to be called anarchists, communists, and Trotskyists, from the Stalin murder machine. Men like Hans Freund, snatched off the street in Spain and never seen again; Kurt Landau, betrayed and kidnapped from a place where he thought he was safe, and never seen again; Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, machine gunned to death in the snows of Switzerland, after he was betrayed by a woman “friend”; Erwin Wolf, another who disappeared into the void and of whose fate we know nothing, and Rudolf Klement, his tortured, decapitated body fished out of the River Seine. And men like Trotsky’s son Lyova, murdered by Zborowski, who made himself Lyova’s best friend.

I have spent much time in Barcelona and Paris in winter, and whenever I read these names, and recall the pages of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I think of cold winters in Europe, and cold sweeps me for a moment: the frigid wind of Stalinism, that swept across a continent, and swept these men away.

I will not forget them, even as I affirm my loyalty to America. The heritage of Joseph McCarthy is one that asks us to forget the suffering, the torment, the terror, the ignominious end of those who fought on the front line against Stalin, in history’s coldest hour. That is a heritage Ann Coulter has chosen to embrace. I believe I speak for Radosh, and some others who share my position, in saying it is a heritage we renounce.

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