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.


  1. "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History" by Susan Jacoby; Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009

    Arthur Schlesinger , Jr.'s son (the 3rd if I recall correctly) and I were classmates at Browne and Nichol's school in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Buddies, sort of, along with one of the nephews of Alfred North Whithead, and the son of the future president of Yale University.

    We both left the school at the same time. His father went to Washington to serve in the Kennedy administration. When his associate dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education- Francis Keppel- also went to Washington to serve as head of the Dept. of Education- my father accepted a job at Washington Unversity in St.Louis.

    Although my paternal grandfather was a high school principal, he died on the operating table while my father was a very young and the family fell on exceeedingly hard times. The effects of malnutrition- called miasma those days- made it impossible for my Dad to walk for nearly a year. But he was fortunate to be able to attend Girard College, a segregated secondary school in Philadelphia, where he earned a scholarship to Harvard University.

    During W.W. II, because his older brother was already in the service ( later killed in the Battle of the Bulge) my father was allowed to perform alternative service. He was an air-traffic controller for Pan Am Airways in the South Pacific. He remained with Pan Am for a short time after the war but, as the result of attempting to organize an air-traffic controllers union was assigned to a dead-end position on Long Island. He then decided to return to Harvard for an advanced degree in clinical psychology, writing his PhD thesis on the effects of absent fathers in the pre-adolescent boys. He worked for a time in the office of admissions where he tried to overturn the long-standing quota set for Jews. He then became associate dean in the graduate school of education, involved in the school board of Cambridge , Ma. and worked for many years as an educational advisor to the legal department of the NAACP, in which capacity he helped integrate his old alma mater Philidalphia as well as schools in many other parts of the country. He also worked for the Ford Foundation on public education in the West Indies, Nigeria and Chile.

    My mother claims that in the early days of their marriage my dad was politically conservative, voting for Dewey rather than Truman in the first national election after the war. She claims to have converted her new husband to 'the liberal cause" but this seems a bit far-fetched. Although he did willinging submit to the loyalty oaths that were foisted upon many people in public life during the brief though notorious anti-communist witchhunts, and served on the committee which drummed Timothy Leary out of Harvard on the grounds of plagerism, he was a man with ambitions and most likely viewed these matters as exercises in the ridiculous,and electoral politics with considerable indifference.

    My mother was ( and continues to be) strictly a partisan Democrat- in total, knee-jerk rebellion against her Republican parents whose political roots, never-the-less, went all the way back to the Party of Lincoln and whose main complaint about FDR as that he hesitated so long in enagaging the U.S.against the Nazis.

    We always argued politics at home and I can't remember any time in which he agreed completely with her. In company he tended to qualify her outrageous generalizations which he later claimed were a great embaressment to him.

    I probably do not need to say that my "political consciousness" was raised at an early age: in the car-pool to nursury school during the Ike-Stevenson election campaign! I was the lone hold-out for Stevenson- that "pointed-headed" intellectual. Today, this is the earliest distinct, childhood memory I possess.

  2. The conflicting attitudes and styles of my parents had an unfortunate effect on my developent as a scholar. On the one hand I was driven to spontaneous rhetorical outbursts 'from the gut" with great conviction and feeling. On the other had, subsequently restrained and cast into considerable doubt as to the actual veracity of what I said. Trying to combine both trajectories at the origin of a composition produced many rather too vague, incomprehensible, pointless and just downright queer compositions, which few of my professors could view as an entirely satisfactory completion of any given assignment. I never acquired the perfect confidence and ease that is required to succeed in an academic environment

    Never-the-less, this experience allowed me to appreciate some unusually complex philophical narratives- such as those of Kierkegaard or Zizek- which might otherwise have been impossible. Thus, though obviously born into "the intelligentia" (a soviet term right-wingers apply maliciously to their 'liberal" enemies- though they themselves are the offspring of intellectual parents, often converted 'fellow travelors'), yet fated to shlepp bread, my life as a whole is not all that boring. I spend many fruitful and satisfying hours getting to know shit.