Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Alger Hiss and the Battle for History by Susan Jacoby
Attitudes toward government itself- the activist government embodied by the New Deal-have played just as an important a role as attitudes towards communism in the struggle over history that has polarized intellectual politics since the Reagan administration. The lasting resonance of the Hiss case is due, in no small measure, to his and Whittaker Chamber's involvement in the dispute over the domestic as well as international legacies of the Roosevelt era.
One reason why the anti-communist fever of the late forties and early fifties burned out so quickly was that the prosecutorial hunt for domestic communists could not be disentangled from right-wing hatred of the New Deal. But centrist Republicans, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower largely accepted the domestic legacy of the Roosevelt years, including Social Security, federal aid to education and the GI Bill. They understood that the public was not about to embrace an anticommunism based on a premise that a large proportion of the leaders in Roosevelt's administration had been disloyal to their country. People like my parents may have seen Hiss as a traitor, but they were not about to swallow the right-wing thesis that the New Deal was dominated by communist sympathizers attempting to further communist goals. Liberal anti-communist historians, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made an effective case of a U.S. government policy based on the principle that while Soviet Communism was a threat to America, communism was not a significant threat in America.
The New Deal was seen, except from the far right, not as an ideologically driven attempt to shift the balance of power from unrestrained business to government but as a pragmatic effort to correct some of the worse evils of unrestrained capitalism, such as the lack of regulation that had caused millions to lose their life savings in the stock market and failed banks.
The last major government program with origins in the reformist spirit of the thirties was Medicare, and the widespread public enthusiasm for what the right-wingers darkly portrayed as the first step toward "socialized medicine" only confirmed what centrist historians and politicians had long believed about the pragmatism of the New Deal- and about the public's approval of government safety nets that protected the middle class as well as the poor.
During the Reagan years, however, the idea that the New Deal had really been a centralized plan to restructure the American economy along anticapitalistic lines began to make a comeback. In spite of his economic conservatism Reagan-unlike his ideological descendent George W. Bush- was too adept a politician to frighten the public by insisting on big changes in programs like Medicare and Social Security. But the younger generation of right-wing ideologues, whose ideas were not disseminated to mass audiences until Bush's campaign in 2000, was already intent on the long-term goal of reversing many of the assumptions and programs originating in the New Deal. The shift to the right was evident not only in the eighties but during the Clinton years, when financial markets were deregulated to a degree that would have been unthinkable in other post-New Deal Democratic administrations. The mainstreaming of once-conservative ideas produced a new generation of "neo-liberal" politicians and intellectuals who did not share the assumption of Schlesinger's generation about the ways in which government might be used as a force for good.