Just Too Fine for This Lousy Country

April 20, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- One of the long-running lies of modern American history, that of the innocence of Alger Hiss, would long ago have suffered the death of a thousand cuts if mere evidence could kill a fiction so useful to the consoling myth of the American left.

That myth is today constantly nurtured and embroidered by historians on America's campuses, where the left has gone to earth. The myth is that the left's political futility testifies to the fact that it was just too idealistic for a nation as vicious, reactionary and paranoid as America.

However, the left's sentimentality about itself and nastiness about this nation suffered another wound last week, when the Yale University Press published ''The Secret World of American Communism,'' a selection of documents from the archives of the former Soviet Union pertaining to the Communist Party of the United States. Annotated by Harvey Klehr of Emory University, John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, a Russian archivist, the documents demolish the romantic notion that the party was just a manifestation of political idealism, perhaps naively and imprudently extreme, but still an institution in the American tradition of populist protest:

''The documents in this book demonstrate with unmistakable clarity that the common perception that 'American communism was a Soviet weapon in the Cold War' was indeed well founded, and they reveal the process through which the CPUSA became an instrument of Soviet espionage. . . . [The CPUSA was] a conspiracy financed by a hostile foreign power that recruited members for clandestine work, developed an elaborate underground apparatus, and used that apparatus to collaborate with espionage services of that power.''

Highly pertinent to the Hiss case is the fact that some of the documents confirm the story of clandestine activities in Washington in the l930s as told by Whittaker Chambers, the former Soviet agent who became Hiss' accuser.

The documents, say the authors of the book, demonstrate something that Hiss' defenders scoffed at, the fact that ''a thriving Communist underground was in place in the l930s.'' For example, documents 32 and 33, found in CPUSA files that had been sent to Moscow for safekeeping, demonstrate the theft of confidential information from the State Department, including a letter to President Roosevelt from the U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

Chambers supported his accusations against Hiss by producing similar documents -- memoranda that had crossed Hiss' State Department desk, documents in Hiss' handwriting and copies of confidential documents that had been typed on Hiss' typewriter. And documents in the new book further support Chambers' credibility as a witness by showing that Soviet intelligence agencies were interested in some of the people that Chambers later named as participants in clandestine Communist activities.

The evidence against Hiss was sufficient to convict him of perjury, and since then additional evidence (see Allen Weinstein's definitive history of the case) has forced his embattled defenders to adopt what is now known as an ''Oliver Stone defense.''

The premise of Stone's movie ''JFK'' was that a vast conspiracy produced the Kennedy assassination, and proof of the vastness is that the conspirators left not a shred of evidence of their conspiracy. Hiss' defenders say many individuals and government agencies conspired to frame him, even producing a flawlessly forged copy of his typewriter. (O.J. Simpson's lawyers are mounting a modified ''Stone'' defense, arguing that the night of the murders the Los Angeles police instantly organized an elaborate conspiracy to frame Simpson, but bungled it.)

The Klehr-Haynes-Firsov volume is important, not because the U.S. Communist Party ever was politically important, but because of the relentless romanticizing of it. That romanticizing serves the vilification of American anti-communism as 1/8 1/8 TC symptom of a constant American ''paranoia.'' The American left's dislike of America is not news, but it still strongly colors the teaching of history, so discrediting the left is still important.

It has been said that a paranoiac can be right about many things but is wrong about everything. That is, paranoiacs can have real problems and enemies, but not for the reasons suggested by their weird view of how the world works.

Postwar anti-communism committed excesses and occasionally partook of paranoia. However, that did not vindicate the anti-anti-communism of many intellectuals. The people who portrayed the American Communists darkly got it essentially right, although they rarely portrayed it darkly enough.

And the deepest paranoia was -- and is -- among those who continue to consider America paranoid because they cannot face the fact that the left was on the losing side of history, and deserved to be.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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