Volume 9, NO. 7 October 1999
A historian on the trail
BY SCOTT SHERMAN
In the fall of 1976, New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote a scathing denunciation of two new works about the 1950s-era Hollywood left: Lillian Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time and Woody Allen's film The Front, both of which, he said, upheld an image of "perfect Communist innocence." In letters to the Times, eminent historians and critics were effusive in their praise for Kramer's article. But one letter writer, a pugnacious young historian named Ronald Radosh, was harshly critical of Kramer's views. Radosh rushed to Hellman's defense. "In her estimate that the Cold War liberalism of the 1950s led straight to Vietnam and Watergate," he wrote, Hellman "proves to be a better historian than Mr. Kramer."
Fast forward two decades. In late 1997, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the blacklist, The New Criterion, edited by Hilton Kramer, published a withering appraisal of the 1950s-era Hollywood left--written by none other than Ronald Radosh. "The Communists were persistently dishonest," Radosh declared, "and hardly the heroes portrayed today in films such as The Front." In the same article, he pilloried Scoundrel Time as a "mendacious memoir" and concluded: "Is it not time to look back and gain some judgment about who the real scoundrels were, and to hold them accountable?"
Radosh's ongoing search for "scoundrels," especially of the communist variety, has put him at the center of a widening debate about early Cold War history. While the dispute is far from resolved, its momentum, thus far, seems propelled by one side: Last November, Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, acknowledged that recent literature on American communism and Soviet espionage is "creating a new consensus among historians that many 'Cold War' accusations made by the Right were at least factually true." Radosh has done much to advance that consensus. Whether he is tackling the question of "Was Joe McCarthy Right?" in an NPR debate with Yeshiva historian Ellen Schrecker, or assailing CNN's twenty-four-part Cold War series in The New York Times, or convicting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on the Today show," Radosh, with indefatigable zeal and polemical dexterity, hammers away at his thesis about "the real nature" of American communism and "how many of its cadre served the espionage apparatus of the Soviet Union." Radosh is no stranger to the world of spycraft. After weathering years of criticism, his 1983 book, The Rosenberg File, is now considered the definitive work on the subject.
But Radosh's prosecutorial tone and belligerent demeanor have raised a few hackles. Last October, a New York Times editorial declared that "a number of American scholars would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism," but, the newspaper assured its readers, such efforts were "ideology masquerading as history." No scholars were identified in the editorial, but a few weeks later in a Times Op-Ed essay, Joseph McCarthy's biographer, Rutgers University historian David Oshinsky, fingered two "neoconservative" academics: Emory University political scientist Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh.
If Radosh, who believes that McCarthy's antics defiled the worthy cause of anti-communism, has drawn liberal fire, neither has he been exempt from conservative vitriol. When Slate asked him to assess William F. Buckley's The Redhunter, a new novel based on the life of the Wisconsin senator, Radosh penned a quietly devastating appraisal, accusing Buckley of seeking the "resurrection of old Joe" and reminding him that "the very term McCarthyism is now a synonym for everything ugly in American life." Perhaps Buckley expected better treatment from a historian who has written for National Review. "There is no point in Radosh, burdened by his mind-set, reading [the book]," he wrote, "because it would necessarily be uphill for him, as hard going as an impotent locked in all night with a whore."
Who is this scholar who inspires such invective on both sides of the ideological divide? Is he, as his detractors insist, a turncoat and a Red-baiter? Or, with his fearless iconoclasm and his antipathy to "old Joe," is he a throwback to the liberal anticommunist tradition of Walter Reuther, Reinhold Niebuhr and Sidney Hook? One thing is certain: Radosh, a onetime Marxist-Leninist, is on a crusade to destroy the sacred cows of the Old Left. Though he acknowledges that "most of the mythology of the left has broken apart," he believes that "the last great myth of the left" still remains to be examined: the Spanish civil war.
In what may be his most controversial project to date, Radosh is finishing a book, based on newly excavated Soviet documents, that sheds a jaundiced light on Spain of the 1930s. It is an undertaking unlikely to win Radosh many friends. British historian Eric Hobsbawm speaks not only for himself but for a generation of leftist activists and luminaries when he calls the Spanish conflict "the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and compelling as it did in 1936." That cause was the democratically elected Spanish Republic, a beleaguered coalition of liberals, anarchists, communists, and socialists that held out for nearly three years against the superior manpower and weaponry of Francisco Franco, whose uprising was supported by Mussolini and Hitler. But Radosh likes to quote another British historian, Paul Johnson, who believes that "no episode of the 1930s has been more lied about than this one, and only in recent years have historians begun to dig it out from the mountain of mendacity beneath which it was buried for a generation." Radosh, a relative newcomer to Spanish history, is digging away furiously.
Radosh believes "the last great myth of the left" still remains to be examined: the Spanish Civil War.
On August 23, 1918, in the heart of New York's Lower East Side, a small group of Yiddish-speaking anarchists dropped some leaflets off a tenement rooftop. They were arrested by the New York bomb squad and, following a trial, deported to the Soviet Union. But Leninist Russia was hardly a safe haven for its own anarchists, let alone for the deportees. One of them, Jacob Abrams, fled to the comparative tranquility of Mexico, where he plied his trade as a Yiddish publisher, played chess with Leon Trotsky, kibitzed with exiled revolutionaries, and, in 1951, took his beloved twelve-year-old cousin from Manhattan, Ronald, to meet his friend Diego Rivera. Two years later, stricken with throat cancer, Abrams returned to the United States for medical treatment, and Radosh has never forgotten the FBI's shabby treatment of his dying relative. "The U.S. government," he once wrote, "uncomfortable with the thought of the dangerous anarchist, perhaps anxious that he would use the occasion to drop another leaflet from another rooftop, had detailed two armed agents to watch the steps of a man who could barely move."
A self-proclaimed red-diaper baby, Radosh was raised in a lost world, the one chronicled by Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers: a realm of Yiddish theaters, red summer camps, May Day parades, and utopian politics. His mother, Ida, was an independent-minded anarchist active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; his father was a left-wing hatmaker who, in the 1920s, ran for union office on the Communist ticket. In the late 1940s, those youthful exploits clashed with the political imperatives of the blacklist; faced with diminishing employment prospects, Reuben Radosh went into business for himself and managed to obtain a lucrative contract to manufacture hats for Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 presidential campaign.
In 1955, Radosh arrived at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was drawn there by its reputable history department, but also by the fact that Wisconsin was "the only college in the country that allowed an organized Communist youth group on campus." During the first week of his freshman year, in a seminar taught by historian George Mosse, the fiery young activist denounced Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon as "an anticommunist diatribe; a phony tract." (He also extolled the Soviet Union and "the great advances of world communism.")
Weary of peddling The Daily Worker to Madison's factory workers, Radosh eventually abandoned the drab young communists for a new cohort: the history graduate students clustered around Studies on the Left, a journal whose impact on the founding members of Students for a Democratic Society was profound. Studies in general, and Radosh in particular, were deeply influenced by Wisconsin professor William Appleman Williams, the maverick diplomatic historian whose intellectual finger prints appear on Radosh's doctoral thesis as well as on his first book, American Labor and United States Foreign Policy (Random House, 1969). That book, which indicted the U.S. labor movement for its steadfast anticommunism, gained an enthusiastic review from John Leonard in The New York Times and cemented Radosh's reputation as one of the New Left's most formidable young voices.
By 1970, Radosh was living in New York, raising a family, teaching U.S. history at Queensboro Community College, and working with the New University Conference, a version of SDS for young faculty. The bloodshed at Kent State, and the nationwide student revolt that followed it, took Radosh and his associates by surprise. "We saw this," he recalls, "as proof of Rosa Luxemburg's theory of spontaneous revolutionary movement by the working class, and our vanguard rushed to catch up with our masses." At a rally to protest the Ohio killings, Radosh unleashed what he later described as the "most demagogic speech of my career":
Quoting lyrics from a recently released Jefferson Airplane album, I said the enemy was the System. By closing down the school, we would strike a blow against the System. In perfect Waiting for Lefty style, I raised my hand in a clenched fist and yelled 'strike, strike, strike, strike!' The students responded in unison. Some approached the stage, held me on their shoulders, and marched out of the building.
But Radosh's political views were soon to take a sharp turn. In the summer of 1973, he travelled to Cuba. Prior to his departure, he was in full agreement with the famous declaration by New Left guru C. Wright Mills: "I am for the Cuban revolution. I do not worry about it. I worry for it and with it." At first, dining on lobster with Regis Debray and Che Guevara's relatives at the Havana Hilton, Radosh found Castro's island perfectly palatable. But as his stay wore on, he became appalled by the overcrowded buses, the Dickensian factories, the posters of Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the incarcerated homosexuals, and the way Granma, the official newspaper, routinely spelled Richard Nixon's name with a swastika instead of an x. One afternoon, wandering through the old section of Havana, Radosh and his friends photographed some Cubans waiting in line for food, and were immediately arrested and held in police custody for several hours. Upon his return, he wrote a gloomy essay for David Dellinger's magazine Liberation, inspiring a flood of angry letters.
By the early 1980s, following several trips to Central America, Radosh thought he saw the Cuban Revolution being replicated in Nicaragua, and detected in Sandinista rule "the same betrayed hopes, the same shattered dreams." His ultimate break with the left occurred when he read an exchange between the radical British historian E.P. Thompson and the Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski in Socialist Register; he experienced a shock of recognition at Kolakowski's conclusion that communism was "a skull that will never smile again." By 1987, Radosh was a natural speaker for David Horowitz's "Second Thoughts" conference in Washington--a gathering, wrote Horowitz, for people who "were fed up with the anti-American passions and totalitarian romances of the left and ready to say goodbye to all that."
Despite his other changes of heart, Radosh remained convinced, well into the 1970s, that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had been wrongly convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. In a sense, Radosh had grown up with the Rosenbergs, and their execution carried with it symbolic import. It was, for him, an old- fashioned witch-hunt, "another lesson in the failure of American capitalist justice." He served on the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case and attended numerous fund-raisers for the cause, all of which put him in close political proximity to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol.
In 1976, the Meeropols sued the government in an attempt to obtain all the relevant FBI files. Anticipating that the material released under the Freedom of Information Act would exonerate the doomed couple, Radosh decided to write a book based on the new primary source materials. In 1983, after poring over 200,000 pages and interviewing major figures in the case, Radosh, along with his co-author, Joyce Milton, published The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. The book documented that Julius Rosenberg was at the hub of a Soviet espionage ring during World War II, but it also showed that the case against Ethel was flimsy--that the government, in effect, had used her as a "lever" to force her husband to capitulate. Furthermore, Radosh and Milton argued that contrary to the government's charges, the Rosenberg spy ring "was never the primary conduit of U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets"; that Judge Irving Kaufman was guilty of judicial transgressions; and that "the government's zeal [in prosecuting them] led to questionable tactics and eventually to a grave miscarriage of justice." (The revised edition of The Rosenberg File, published by Yale in 1997, offers a different view of the legal proceedings: "Although we continue to feel that use of the death penalty was...improper, and unfair...overall, our justice system functioned with integrity under trying circumstances.")
The reaction to The Rosenberg File was so divided and intense that in October of 1983, The Nation and The New Republic co-sponsored a debate titled "Were the Rosenbergs Framed?" Three thousand people, including Woody Allen, Irving Howe, and William Kunstler, packed New York's Town Hall for what The New Republic's correspondent, Harvard professor Robert Nozick, called "this final event of the 1950s." On stage, Radosh and Milton faced off against the Rosenbergs' most vociferous defenders: Walter and Miriam Schneir, whose 1966 book Invitation to an Inquest maintained that the case against the couple was a hoax and that they were executed for a crime that never occurred. Nozick took note of Walter Schneir's "barely suppressed rage" and "absolute self-righteousness," while he found Radosh and Milton "a bit too cheerful for this occasion, recalling their smiling dust jacket photo, which hardly depicts people who have reluctantly reached an unwelcome conclusion." In a wry dispatch for The Village Voice, J. Hoberman detected something "weirdly familiar" about Radosh: "With his thick glasses, smudgy mustache and know-it-all attitude--good grief, he looks like Julius Rosenberg!"
Twelve years after the Town Hall debate, Radosh claimed a decisive victory. In a 1995 New Republic article, he wrote: "'We may wake up one morning,' I.F. Stone wrote in 1956, 'to learn that the Rosenbergs were guilty.' July 12, 1995 was that morning." Radosh was specifically referring to the newly released Venona papers--decoded messages exchanged between the United States and Moscow in the 1940s--which, he reported with pride, corroborated the basic argument of The Rosenberg File. A few weeks later, writing in The Nation, Walter and Miriam Schneir admitted that the new documents "contain so much amazing, sad, disturbing material, one hardly knows where to begin." Accepting Venona's authenticity, they conceded that "during World War II Julius ran a spy ring composed of young fellow Communists," and concluded: "We know that our account will be painful news for many people, as it is for us. But the duty of a writer is to tell the truth."
Radosh and Milton's book documented that Julius Rosenberg was at the hub of a Soviet Espionage ring during World War II, but it also showed that the case against Ethel was flimsy.
The Rosenberg debate languished in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as did Radosh's career. Hired by Queensboro Community College in 1963, the young professor was initially enamored of the two-year institution. "When I started teaching there, the students were great," says Radosh. "Then open admissions comes in, and standards go down and down and down. This was not because of blacks. Queensboro's open admissions mainly brought in working-class Italians. The standards started slipping." The new demographic, combined with bigger classes and exorbitant teaching loads, made Radosh's life "unbearable," he says, his voice rising in anger. "They were so stupid. In one class I was talking about the Cuban missile crisis, and somebody raises his hand and says, 'What's Cuba?' You were dealing with complete illiterates."
Radosh's fortunes changed in 1992, when, at a Christmas party in Manhattan, he met Peter Diamandopolous, then president of Adelphi University. It was a propitious encounter, for Diamandopolous was recruiting scholars for visiting professorships underwritten by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, and Radosh, having just accepted an early retirement package from Queensboro, was looking for a new academic post. So he went to Garden City, Long Island, where for two years he taught history and politics to Adelphi's honor students. Radosh wistfully recalls his "sumptuous office, state-of-the-art computer, and beautiful oak desk," but Diamandopolous's penchant for expensive cognac and luxury apartments, and his willingness to defy the faculty union by hiring outsiders like Radosh, plunged Adelphi into crisis, and it wasn't long before Olin withdrew its funding.
With his job in limbo, Radosh approached the Olin Foundation directly. "I said, look, Adelphi's collapsed, Diamandopolous is out, but my work is good. If you funded me there, why don't you fund me somewhere else? So they said, 'Fine.'" Boston University was interested in him, but Radosh wanted to live in the Washington area, where he had recently purchased a house. George Washington University was a logical choice, and Radosh gave a presentation to the history department, at which he felt "great animosity." The department eventually voted seventeen to three against him, with some members of the faculty apparently resentful of what they viewed as Olin's attempt to foist an outsider on them. Radosh dismisses that argument as a "ruse." "If the Ford Foundation put up money to bring in Angela Davis as a professor of black studies, they would jump to get her," he says. "There wouldn't be one squeak of opposition." Rather, he bluntly affirms, "These people hate me because of The Rosenberg File."
Radosh was not alone in feeling that GW had turned him away for political reasons. Amitai Etzioni, who directs GW's Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, told Radosh over lunch at the faculty club: "I know a witch-hunt when I see one." Etzioni agreed to give Radosh an institutional base from which he could channel his grant monies, which together total about $100,000 annually. Three years later, Etzioni has no regrets about the arrangement: "As a refugee from Nazi Germany," he says, "the notion that somebody with whom you disagree will not be allowed to do their research--that offended me."
Today, comfortably ensconced in Etzioni's Institute, Radosh lives quietly in Brookeville, Maryland, in a spacious home whose down payment came from a Diego Rivera painting Jacob Abrams bequeathed to Radosh's mother, and which the son auctioned at Sotheby's for $45,000. Driven and cantankerous, Radosh spends his days in a cluttered basement office, commiserating with his allies by telephone, writing his memoirs, listening to Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, doting on his Maltese, Sam, and churning out an endless stream of books, articles, and polemics.
In addition to numerous reviews and essays, he published two books in 1996: The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism (North Carolina), co-authored with Harvey Klehr, reconstructed a 1945 espionage case that created a political firestorm in Washington and prompted fears that American wartime security apparatus had been penetrated by Communist spies. Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party 1964--1996 (Free Press) charted how "women, blacks, Hispanics, young people, and gays" came to dominate--and weaken--the Democratic Party in the crucial years between the Atlantic City convention in 1964 and George McGovern's defeat in 1972.
"It's a great gig," Radosh says with a smile. "I don't have to teach." These days, his work is focused on Spain and the conflagration that engulfed it six decades ago.
For liberals and radicals in the West, and particularly in Britain, the Spanish civil war was one of the century's most emotionally charged ideological crusades. Luminaries and activists, including Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, and André Malraux, found Spain a matter of intense concern, a case study of fascist imperialism on the march. In 1937, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Pablo Neruda circulated a petition proclaiming that "the equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do," and posed a blunt question to fellow writers: "Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the People of Republican Spain?"
From Ford Madox Ford ("I am unhesitatingly for the existing Spanish government") to Samuel Beckett ("UP THE REPUBLIC!") the answer was overwhelmingly "for." There were a few dissenters--"You are all had," fumed Ezra Pound. "Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes." But the dominant mood of the intelligentsia was captured by the playwright Sean O'Casey in 1937: "I am with the determined faces firing at the steel-clad slug of Fascism from the smoke and flame of the barricades."
Today, the Spanish civil war is still with us: It reappears in films like Ken Loach's Land and Freedom, in novels like David Leavitt's While England Sleeps, in songs by the Clash, in a steady stream of university press monographs and campus art exhibitions, and in polemical outbursts in The New York Review of Books and The Nation.
In 1986, Radosh himself penned one of those outbursts: a full-page article in The Washington Post titled "My Uncle Died in Vain Fighting the Good Fight." Radosh recounted the story of his relative Irving Keith, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a corps of American volunteer soldiers, and was killed in Spain in 1938. Radosh recalled growing up with the heroic myth of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as a group of brave young men who were the "flower of the American left." But lately, he wrote, he had become persuaded that "the story of the Lincoln vets, rather than being a tale of heroism and virtue, is a story of how good people were manipulated by the Soviet Union for its own ends."
Hilton Kramer, who admired the Washington Post essay, invited Radosh to review several new books about Spain for The New Criterion. Arguing that "for most Left intellectuals, Spain in the Thirties is a cause to be reaffirmed rather than investigated," the article did not depict a Manichean contest between fascism and democracy, but rather a morally ambiguous war in which "both sides were responsible for unspeakable and equally repugnant atrocities." Of course, the Spanish Republic's Stalinist taint had been noted before, by George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, John Dos Passos, and Noam Chomsky, among others. But Radosh insisted that the Republic had not been fully recognized as a communist slaughterhouse and a laboratory for Stalin's cynical realpolitik.
The essay provoked an avalanche of criticism. Alfred Kazin expressed his displeasure over the telephone; the eminent Bernard Knox, himself a civil war veteran, took Radosh to task in The New York Review of Books; and in the pages of Dissent, Irving Howe charged into battle. What particularly rankled Howe was the moral symmetry Radosh asserted--his portrait of "two camps more or less equally repressive and equally guilty of atrocities." But Howe took the opportunity to remind Radosh that "the whole of progressive Spain--the democrats, the unions, the left, most intellectuals--had rallied to the Republic" in an ill-fated attempt to check Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini. In response to Radosh's suggestion that Orwell later repudiated the side for which he had fought, Howe, with evident pleasure, cited a passage from Orwell's 1943 essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War":
When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war... there is always the temptation to say: "One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral." In practice, however, one cannot be neutral.... The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, Blimps and what not would in itself be enough to show how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened.Auden and fellow petitioners asked, "Are you for, or against, the legal government and the people of Republican Spain?"
As in the case of the Rosenbergs, new archival discoveries may help to resolve long-standing battles. In 1992, while exploring the Russian military archives in Moscow, Mary Habeck, a young military historian at Yale, stumbled across a huge trove of documents pertaining to the Spanish war. She approached Jonathan Brent, the director of Yale University Press's multivolume Annals of Communism series, who signed her up for the series and urged her to collaborate with Radosh. Yale will publish their book, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War, in the fall of 2000. This May, at the annual convention of Eugene Genovese's Historical Society, Radosh and Habeck unveiled some of their findings at a sparsely attended session.
The paper combined a handful of new revelations with a slew of vague but provocative morsels concerning a much debated question: the nature of Soviet intervention in Spain. All these years later, the nuances of Russian policy are murky; in The Spanish Civil War, the historian Hugh Thomas refers to Stalin's "crablike caution" and the "one decision he reached about Spain: He would not permit the Republic to lose, even though he would not necessarily help it to win." Was Stalin's aid to the Spanish Republic a sincere effort to defeat Franco or a self-serving machination? And, by extension, was the Spanish government a bastion of heroic resistance to fascism or a helpless pawn in Stalin's game?
One disclosure offered by Habeck and Radosh throws new light on this matter. Until now, historians have generally believed that the leaders of the Republic only begged for Russian military assistance after they were rebuffed by England, France, and the United States. Radosh and Habeck, however, claim to have a letter, dated July 25, 1936, written by José Giral, the Republic's Prime Minister, to the Soviet Ambassador in France, urgently appealing for armaments. Says Habeck: "Just one week after the civil war began, Giral was already asking for weapons from the Soviet Union, long before he knew that France, Britain, and the U.S. were all going to refuse him weapons, which totally contradicts the view that the Republic was forced into Communist arms because they were rejected by the West."
An additional revelation concerns a watershed moment in the civil war: the strife, vividly rendered in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, that erupted in the Republican stronghold of Barcelona in early May 1937. It began with a clash between anarchists and Catalonian government forces at the city's anarchist- controlled telephone exchange and quickly led to three days of street fighting and five hundred deaths. The Barcelona troubles brought to a climax the burgeoning conflict between the Communists and the anarchists. The former sought a moderate Popular Front regime with strong middle-class support, as well as a unified regular army with which to fight Franco, while the latter favored voluntary militias and social revolution. The fighting in Barcelona ultimately led to a reorganization of the Republican government along communist lines and the eclipse of the anarchists. The roots of this "civil war within the civil war" have long perplexed historians. In The Spanish Civil War, Hugh Thomas cautioned against assuming that the communists provoked the anarchists; in a country with a powerful anarchist tradition, he believes, it "was the one contest which the Communists could not have been sure of winning." But Habeck and Radosh have unearthed a Comintern document urging the Spanish communists to establish "political hegemony" over the "proto-fascist" anarchists, and insisting that the former could not wait for a crisis but had to "hasten it, and if it will be necessary, to provoke it."
Not only did the Soviets encourage the suppression of the anarchist movement, Radosh and Habeck contend, they also infiltrated the International Brigades that came to the aid of the Republic. For years, Radosh has endeavored to demythologize the individuals who, in Auden's words, "floated over the oceans" and "walked the passes" to offer their lives to the Republic. In the Russian archives, Habeck discovered documents suggesting that, in many instances, the brigades were commanded not by homegrown antifascists from around the globe, but instead by Red Army officers. "So that there could be no charges of Russian Soviet participation in the actual fighting," they stated at the conference in Boston, "these were always men who had been born outside the current borders of the Soviet Union. Thus Emilio Kléber, the head of the 11th Brigade, was actually Moshe Zalmanovich Stern, a native of Bukovina who had fought for the Reds in the Russian Civil War and became a staff officer in the Soviet army." The presence of such men, they stated, transformed the International Brigades into nothing less than "a Soviet army within Spain."
The origin of the split between the Communists and the anarchists, and the question of Soviet involvement with the Spanish Communists, are both issues that lie close to the heart of a key historiographic debate: What sort of regime ruled the Spanish Republic in 1936? For historians such as Gabriel Jackson and Paul Preston, the Republic, despite its mistakes and shortcomings, was ultimately a pluralistic, democratizing entity--an "attempt to provide a better way of life for the humbler members of a repressive society," as Preston put it in The Spanish Civil War (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986). In The Spanish Republic and the Civil War (Princeton, 1965), which has become the standard liberal account of the conflict, Jackson highlights the political moderation of the Republic, noting that "no Spanish government has done as much for the people since the time of Charles III in the eighteenth century."
Scholars such as Stanley Payne and the late Burnett Bolloten counter that the Republic was a cauldron of instability, chaos, and fratricide--a case study in "leftist extremism." Payne notes that between 1936 and 1939 "there were no elections, little or no attention to constitutional law, little attempt to achieve a government fully representative even of all the left." Furthermore, wrote Payne in The Spanish Revolution (Norton, 1969), "There was nothing in Franco's zone to equal the almost constant interparty murder that went on under the People's Republic." Bolloten, a California real estate salesman who spent fifty years preparing his nearly eleven hundred page opus, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counter-revolution (North Carolina, 1991), writes at considerable length about the communist takeover of the Republic and the suppression of the anarchist revolution. Radosh and Habeck promise to vindicate and augment Payne and Bolloten's views.
Radosh believes he and Habeck will provide a needed antidote to a still- virulent strain of leftist mythology surrounding the Spanish Republic. He is still fuming about the television coverage of the war's fiftieth anniversary in 1986. "All the major networks had big stories eulogizing the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that could have been written out of Communist Party headquarters in the 1940s," he scoffs. "They were totally pro-communist. I actually wrote letters to the president of CBS, the president of ABC. They've never heard of Homage to Catalonia."
At present, Radosh seems unconcerned that, with fifteen thousand books and pamphlets already published on the Spanish civil war, he is venturing into a historiographical minefield, one that remains deeply infused with political passion. His view of Franco, for instance, is certain to draw fire from scholars of twentieth-century Spain. "I think it's fine that Franco won," Radosh says casually. "His repression was fierce, but not as fierce as it probably would have been under the Red Terror." In fact, Radosh argues, Franco's regime had so mellowed by its end that it actually "paved the way for a transition to a truly democratic and popular republic." Paul Preston, author of the highly-regarded Franco: A Biography (Basic Books, 1994), would no doubt balk at such suggestions. Preston, who recalls that Heinrich Himmler visited Spain in October 1940 and "was taken aback by the scale of the post--civil war repression," writes: "Judged in terms of his ability to stay in power, Franco's achievement was remarkable. However, the human cost in terms of the executions, the imprisonments, the torture, the lives destroyed by political exile and forced economic migration points to the exorbitant price paid by Spain for Franco's 'triumphs.'"
"I think it's fine that Franco won," Radosh says. "His repression was fierce, but not as fierce as it probably would have been under the red terror."
It is a cool summer morning in suburban Maryland, and Radosh is recounting the life of his uncle, Irving Kreichman, who joined the American Communist Party, changed his last name to Keith, enrolled at the Lenin School in Moscow, and perished in Spain in the spring of 1938. Spread out on the dining room table are a series of letters Keith sent to Radosh's parents from the war zone. The letters make for melancholy reading. "I am really anxious to meet your son," Keith wrote Reuben Radosh, "but that will have to wait until the war is won." "After some nineteen months of war," he writes in another, "the main political problem is...that of strengthening the unity of the working class," by which he presumably meant the independent-minded anarchists and socialists. But he remained optimistic even as the Republic crumbled, writing in his final letter: "I'm happy--happier than I've ever been or than I know how to explain."
Reviewing these letters, Radosh sees Stalinist traits in his uncle, declaring at one point: "I think, based on his time at the Lenin school, he would have been recruited by the NKVD had he survived the war." Did he die in vain? "They all died in vain," insists Radosh. "Anyone killed in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade died in vain. They were not fighting for a democratic Republic. They were fighting for Stalin's foreign policy goals and for a Soviet Spain."
Was this true of Radosh's uncle? It depends on how you interpret the crumbling, weather-beaten letters. To some readers, they might depict an idealistic young man fighting against Franco and the German Condor Legion, and for an egalitarian Spain. To Radosh, they reveal a brainwashed apparatchik. Still, his fury recedes and his voice softens when he reflects on Irving Keith and his comrades in the Lincoln Brigade: "A lot of them were used, as Hemingway said. I would have much preferred that they didn't go, that they didn't fight for the Comintern. It didn't make any difference historically, and he would be alive."
Radosh's proclaimed desire to demolish "the last great myth of the left," his marked preference for Franco, and his insistence on interpreting the Spanish civil war as an episode in the history of communism--rather than fascism--will no doubt lead some of his critics to wonder if he has jettisoned scholarly detachment for polemical combat. And in doing so, they might wonder whether Radosh stands in the tradition of liberal anticommunists or of Red-baiting reactionaries. Like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., he frets over the soul of the Democratic Party. In Divided They Fell, which Bob Dole cited in his televised debate with Bill Clinton in 1996, Radosh laments the demise of the New Deal coalition that reigned supreme in the era of Franklin Roosevelt. But he is also a regular contributor to Heterodoxy, David Horowitz's right-wing magazine in whose pages nostalgia for FDR is scant and whose cover is routinely emblazoned with headlines such as why did aids happen to gay men?; nitwit feminism; and lesbian rape. Radosh, who is in favor of abortion rights and trade unions but opposed to affirmative action, calls himself a "conservative Democrat."
Radosh's hero? "Sidney Hook is the man I admire most," he says. "He was right about everything: about the entire trajectory of the Cold War, about American foreign policy, about anticommunism." There are, indeed, instructive similarities between Radosh and Hook, a pragmatist philosopher who attempted a groundbreaking synthesis of Marx and Dewey in the 1930s before devoting much of his life to the anticommunist campaign. In a review of Hook's 1987 memoir, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. praised his intellectual contributions to politics, education, and philosophy, but criticized Hook's relentless anticommunism, "which consumed his life to the point that, like Aaron's rod, it has swallowed up nearly everything else." Concluded Schlesinger: "He is like Hawthorne's Hollingsworth, one of those men 'who have surrendered themselves to an overruling purpose.'"
The same might be said of Radosh. Whether he is making sarcastic remarks about Angela Davis, or bellowing about Stalinism at Town Hall, or grumbling about the benevolent treatment bestowed upon communists by the obituary desk of The New York Times, or fulminating about a "Soviet Spain," one feels the inexorable drive of an "overruling purpose." Like Hook, Radosh has put his considerable intelligence to work for a cause he deems noble. But what Schlesinger observed about Radosh's hero may also apply to Radosh: "There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the anti-Communist philosophy."
Scott Sherman's work has appeared in the L.A. Times, the New York Observer, and other publications. His profile of Jay Rosen, "The Public Defender," appeared in the April 1998 LF.
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