The arrest of a U.S. citizen, Abdullah al Mujahir, or Jose Padilla, and the round-up of other U.S. citizens allegedly trained in al Qaeda terrorist camps raises the specter of a fifth column of Americans supporting international terrorism’s war on the United States. News reports claimed that Padilla was an attractive recruit due to his American passport and his ability to move through the U.S. without challenge.
But even mention of the term “fifth column” evokes a whole set of negative, “painful” images of America’s past?the Hollywood Ten, the Hiss case, and McCarthyism with its putative legacy of destroyed careers. At least it does for the New York Times, which recently published a Week-in-Review piece by Richard Gid Powers. Powers has written?not unsympathetically?of anti-Communism in post-war American history and urges us to understand better our past so that we may deal more effectively with these new challenges of potential internal subversion.
But for Powers, that past consists of “guilt by association, smear politics, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, McCarthyism, and of zealous FBI agents defining the limits of political orthodoxy.” Powers’ bottom line on America’s experience dealing with fifth columns: “What most of the searches [for subversives] had in common was that the damage they did was far greater than the theoretical damage they were meant to deter.” Really?
It is hard to believe that, what with the publication of the Venona transcripts, the Mitrokhin files, and the critical re-examinations of this period of American history. Only reflexive anti-anti-Communists like the Washington Post, still referring to the “possible Communist associations” of the Hollywood Ten, or the New York Times, speaking of the “unreasonable and unreasoning terror of Communist subversion,” dismiss the reality of subversion and betrayal of American secrets and lives by a Communist fifth column in the 1930s and 1940s. Who, besides Richard Rhodes, believes that Soviet nuclear scientists did not benefit significantly from access to Los Alamos secrets? Who can doubt the role played by Kim Philby, Guy Burgress, and Donald Maclean in undermining U.S. efforts to counter Stalinist expansion after World War II? Who, besides Bill Clinton’s nominee to run the CIA?Tony Lake, doubts that Alger Hiss was a Soviet military intelligence spy? The Evil Empire even had agents inside the White House?Harry Hopkins, FDR’s confidante who lived there and Lauchlin Currie, an assistant to the President.
Equally noteworthy is the fate of those “blacklisted” in Hollywood or in academia for their communist sympathies. Derek Leebaert, in a critical analysis of America’s conduct of the Cold War, reports that at least one of the Hollywood Ten bragged that his income actually increased while he was on the blacklist. Others went on to win Oscars, become graduate school deans, or have academic chairs named in their honor. Forgotten are the Hollywood anti-Communists who could not get work when Stalinist influence was at its heights in tinsel town. As Whitaker Chambers wrote, “Most of the Communists in the Hiss Case…are going about their affairs much as always. It is not the Communists, but the ex-Communists who have co-operated with the government, who have chiefly suffered.”
How much of this history is taught in our schools or ever finds its way into the nation’s media? Judging by the reception of Leebaert’s book, The Fifty-year Wound, not all that much. Most commentators have focused on Leebaert’s assessment of just how much fighting the Cold War “cost” American science, technology, and culture and ignored his larger conclusion that the struggle was necessary and ultimately had to be waged…and won. So AIM agrees with Powers’ call for studying and understanding our history with fifth columns. Maybe this time around, we’ll get it right. Then the FBI might not be hamstrung by such bogus issues as “racial profiling” in pursuing legitimate leads in the war on terrorism.