Post-Modernist Red-Baiting: Sean Wilentz's Pop-Gun Attack on Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
February 15-17, 2013
It was only a matter of time before the N.Y. Review of Books launched an ideological drone strike against Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “Untold History of the United States”. And who better to sit behind the control panel directing the missile than Sean Wilentz, who aspires to be the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of our generation.
In its early years the NYR featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun”–accompanied by David Levine’s marvelous do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.
As the magazine’s editors grew older and more attuned to the needs of the permanent government, it found new causes and new contributors to promote them. Chief among the causes was the superiority of capitalism to socialism and America’s duty to resist any challenges to the global status quo. More and more the NYR began to occupy the ideological niche once held by Encounter, the journal edited by Melvin J. Lasky and funded by the CIA.
Now we don’t know if the CIA is funding the NYR but there’s little doubt that the editors understand their responsibilities to big business. Why else would they have selected Sean Wilentz who clearly seeks to establish himself as one of the more oleaginous redbaiters on the scene today? Wilentz is on the editorial board of Dissent Magazine, referred to by Woody Allen in this priceless moment from “Annie Hall”, back when he was funny:
Alvy Singer: I’m so tired of spending evenings making fake insights with people who work for “Dysentery.”
Alvy Singer: Oh really? I had heard that “Commentary” and “Dissent” had merged and formed “Dysentery.”
During the early days of the witch-hunt, Schlesinger promoted a “Vital Center” against extremists of the right and the left. For Schlesinger the left meant the Henry Wallace campaign that supposedly was riddled with commies. It is the same obsession on display in Wilentz’s NYR article, written as if we were still living in 1948 and Uncle Joe breathing down our neck and sending agents into the PTA.
Wilentz, like Schlesinger, would never advocate putting Reds in prison but he is not above the kind of crude redbaiting that if successful would exclude them from the political arena. Just as his co-thinkers in the League for Industrial Democracy put pressure on SDS to exclude socialists from the 1965 March on Washington organizing committee, Wilentz expressed a desire to purge the antiwar movement of subversives during the early days of the war in Iraq.
As a guest panelist on David Horowitz’s FrontPage website, Wilentz had this exchange with the creepy redbaiter:
Horowitz: What exactly does it mean that a North Korean-adoring Communist sect is running the “peace” movement? Does this matter?
Wilentz: It means that, as ever, Communist sects are extremely diligent and clever at mobilizing large numbers people to march in demonstrations by exploiting those peoples’ concerns and hiding their own politics.
Yes, the commies are diligent and clever. Where’s that new J. Edgar Hoover when we really need him?
The affinities between Schlesinger and Wilentz are pronounced. Both historians are Andrew Jackson enthusiasts. Schlesinger wrote a bouquet to the Indian-killer in 1945 titled “The Age of Jackson”. Wilentz came out with an Andrew Jackson biography in 2005 that was savvy enough to point out that killing Indians was probably not such a good thing. There’s a review of the Jackson bio in the November-December 2006 New Left Review (unfortunately behind a paywall) by Tom Mertes, who can barely disguise his disgust with Wilentz’s spin on behalf of the Indian removal policy:
Far greater exertions are required to burnish Jackson’s bid to construct a Herrenvolk republic free of Indians. Here Wilentz’s contortions are truly exemplary. His Jackson is a ‘sincere if unsentimental paternalist’, who simply wished for the good of the indigenous peoples, killing them only when ‘provoked’—though he lets slip a few pages earlier that he was a ‘fire-eating hater of unyielding Indians’. Yielding Indians were those who agreed to ‘voluntary’ removal from their ancestral lands, for their own protection, to ‘safe havens’ (Kurdistans for the 19th century?), so rescuing them from the ‘obliteration’ that would otherwise have befallen them. If these operations did not go quite as ‘smoothly and benevolently as Jackson had expected’, this was an unfortunate outcome he had in no way intended. His main fault lay only in too much financial rectitude. ‘Determined to minimize federal costs and extinguish the national debt’, he scanted on funds for ‘the care and protection of the relocated’. Criticisms of his actions at the time—to which Wilentz devotes only a few paragraphs, also understating the fierce resistance from the Indians themselves—were rife with hypocrisy and pseudo-philanthropy, unable to see, as Jackson did, that the existence of independent sovereign nations like the Cherokees was unconstitutional. Certainly, ‘in order to save the Indians, Jackson’s policy also destroyed thousands of them’, but to attack him unduly on these grounds is to ‘confuse tragedy with melodrama’.
Given this tawdry background, it is shocking to see Wilentz try to assume the political and moral high ground in the NYR article titled “Cherry-Picking Our History”.
The gist of Wilentz’s attack is to simply refer his readers to the latest and greatest “scholarship” that proves them wrong.
In making this case, Stone and Kuznick simply ignore the scholarship that contradicts their basic assumptions. It is hardly clear, for example, that the Japanese government was close to surrendering on the Allies’ terms in the summer of 1945. American analysts believed that, short of a bloody invasion of its shores, Japanese leaders would fight hard, holding out for a much milder negotiated settlement, which negates Stone and Kuznick’s contention that Truman was misleading about his motive for using atomic bombs: that they would spare the lives of untold thousands of American GIs.
Against the preponderance of evidence that the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary (Eisenhower told Newsweek on November 11, 1963: “… the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”), Wilentz advises us to read Max Hastings’s “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45”. That will clear everything up.
Hastings can best be described as a military historian of the sort that works as a consultant for those dreadful documentaries on the History Channel. Now I would not wish it upon my worst enemy to read Hasting’s 688-page tome but it is worth pointing out that the author was much closer to the revisionists than he is to a laptop bombardier like Wilentz. In a July 29, 2005 article in the Guardian titled “What Would You have Done?” he advises: “There is little doubt that if Washington had explicitly promised that the emperor might retain his throne, Japan would have bowed.” In other words, all those Japanese lives could have been spared if American imperialism had made this modest offer. Of course, it never made the offer because the real goal was as Secretary of State James Byrnes put it: “The bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”
Anxious to defend American foreign policy as a reaction to Soviet aggression, Wilentz cites Anne Appelbaum’s recently published “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945–1956”. Like Wilentz, Appelbaum is an unreconstructed Cold Warrior who has carved out a career as a Kremlin basher in the style of Richard Pipes, all the more remarkable given the fact that the USSR collapsed over 20 years ago.
The book blames the Soviet Union for provoking the peace-loving West into launching NATO,putting nuclear missiles in Europe, pouring millions of dollars secretly into Italian elections, etc. in order to stave off the commie hordes from advancing Westward. It is the image you see in those old newsreels from the 1950s with a red tide embossed with a hammer-and-sickle pouring toward the U.S. like an upended bucket of paint. It is the same mindset that gave us Vietnam.
I first ran across Appelbaum’s ravings in her July 5, 2003 review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism” in the London Telegraph, which starts off: “Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.” I was so stunned by her description of Allende as a “murderous communist leader” that I dashed off a rude note to her:
I wasn’t aware that Salvador Allende was a murderer, or a communist. Is this your own heterodox interpretation or something that the neo-McCarthyite movement has cooked up while I wasn’t paying attention? I honestly can’t keep track of all the nutty things coming out of the Weekly Standard, the NY Post editorial page and David Horowitz’s website nowadays. It is like trying to keep track of car commercials during a football game. Can you refer me to an article that makes the case that Allende was rounding up free-market ideologues and throwing them into concentration camps or cutting off their noses? In sorry times such as these, a good laugh always helps.
All this self-serving nonsense about the need to nuke the Japanese and how Stalin started the Cold War is preparation for the main point that Wilentz seeks to make, namely that the Henry Wallace campaign was a commie plot.
Stone and Kuznick’s idolization of Wallace and demonization of Truman similarly inspire their gauzy coverage of the Progressive Party campaign four years later. In the intervening years, Wallace’s opposition to Truman’s policies had broadened to include a defense of the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. “The men in Moscow, from their viewpoint, would be utter morons if they failed to respond with acts of pro-Russian consolidation,” he declared. When Wallace finally ran against Truman as leader of the Progressive Party, the president’s supporters noted Wallace’s convergence with the Kremlin’s party line. Stone and Kuznick—echoing Wallace’s supporters at the time—repeat Wallace’s contemporary denials that the Communist Party USA had any involvement with his campaign.
I have a completely different take on the CPUSA from Wilentz, and very likely one that is different from Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, for whom my admiration is unbounded.
But I think the CP’s involvement with the Wallace campaign was the best thing they ever did. After this brief fling with a third party, the CP reoriented back to the Democrats and have slavishly backed every Democrat since, including the wretched Barack Obama who they see as the Second Coming of FDR. Herbert Hoover is more like it.
If there’s anything we need now, it is something like the Henry Wallace campaign. The closest we came was the Nader campaign that people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin tried to torpedo, if you’ve ever seen their remarks in the must-see documentary “An Unreasonable Man”. (Wilentz wasn’t in the film but took pot-shots at Nader here.)
While most people are aware of Wallace’s resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.
Early in the campaign Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party’s principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace, the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:
The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: “As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.” If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.
(Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze)
If only the CP had stayed the course with campaigns like this, America might look a lot different today.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at http://greenhouse.economics.utah.edu/mailman/listinfo/marxism.