- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

In early 1919, radical leftists disgusted with the perceived moderation of the Socialist Party decided to heat up politics with a ringing “Left Wing Manifesto,” which Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of the book at hand, termed “a call to arms for America’s militant working class … to demolish and replace the American government.”

The manifesto was written by Benjamin Gitlow, soon to be a leader of the Communist Labor Party. It stated, “Revolutionary Socialism does not propose to ‘capture’ the bourgeois parliamentary state, but to conquer and destroy it… . by annihilating the political power of the bourgeois.”

How serious were these radicals? Standing alone, the manifesto was leftist meeting hall babble — impassioned, to be sure, but safely within the bounds of free speech. Then came a sobering aftermath.

Late the evening of June 2, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer sat reading in the bedroom of his home on R St. NW between Sheridan and Dupont Circles. A car paused on the street, and then there was the sound of footsteps. “I heard a crash downstairs as if something had been thrown against the front door,” Palmer related. “It was followed immediately by an explosion.” The blast jarred Palmer’s wife, Roberta, from her bed. He heard sounds of cracking walls, shattering glass, crashing furniture and the wails of teen daughter Mary.

Neighbor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the Navy, and wife Eleanor were returning from dinner when they heard the blast. They raced to their home — the front of which was shattered — then went over to comfort the shaken Palmers. Blood and bone littered the streets; the bomber had succeeded in blowing himself to bits. Their own home suffered damages as well.

About the same hour, eight other bombs exploded across America. Each intended victim was connected with recent crackdowns on socialist radicals, including federal and state judges, the Cleveland mayor, and a garment manufacturer. A handbill found at each site was headlined “THE ANARCHIST FIGHTERS,” and the text preached “death, destruction, class warfare and social revolution.”

The story of these bombings, and the famed “Palmer Raids” that followed, are sprightly related in Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties (Carroll & Graf, $28.95, 472 pages, illus.). Mr. Ackerman served 25 years on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch; he now practices law in Washington.

I confess to having an ongoing problem with any book whose sub-title includes the words “red scare.” Such works generally overlook the premise that a government has the obligation to protect itself from violent overthrow. Thus some context is in order here.

Start with the fiery manifesto quoted above. Throw in the newly formed Soviet Union’s strident calls for world revolution. Consider the violence that swept much of Europe after World War I ended. As the chief law enforcement officer of the land, Palmer would have been derelict to sit idly in his office and ignore the bombs exploding all about him.

So Mitchell mobilized the Justice Department to round up immigrant radicals — the core of the socialist movement, with some notable exceptions — and toss illegals out of the country. As Mr. Ackerman observes, many of the arresting raiders behaved with brutality, and such legal niceties as warrants were often overlooked. But Palmer acted with broad public approval: “Free speech has been outraged long enough,” thundered The Washington Post. “Let there be a few free treatments in the electric chair.”

The field marshal of the campaign was J. Edgar Hoover, only 24 at the time, who had earned a reputation in the War Alien Enemy Bureau, tracking German residents in the United States. Working with immigration agents, in short order, officers working under Hoover’s command packed 249 seized aliens — the most prominent being the feminist Emma Goldman — aboard an aging troop transport ship named the Buford and shipped them off to the USSR.

The raids continued for weeks, and Mr. Ackerman estimates that some 10,000 persons were arrested. But there was a noisy backlash from prominent lawyers, including future Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Harlan Frisk Stone, about repeated abuse of due process.

The bombers were never caught. But Palmer’s hopes of using the raids as a springboard to the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination vanished (although he led on the first convention ballot) and he slipped into obscurity. Hoover, conversely, flourished; in 1924 he became the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Ackerman claims that this early episode has been overlooked by Hoover biographers, and that the Palmer Raids were somewhat of a prelude to what is happening today. Well, perhaps. A good read, despite an often-annoying political slant.

* * *

Many years ago, as the Vietnam War heated up, correspondent David Halberstam of the New York Times alerted Neil Sheehan of United Press International about an American-trained Vietnamese reporter for Time Magazine named Pham Xuan An. Halberstam said An was a major figure on the Saigon scene “because of the extent to which he influenced American journalists. And when David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times arrived in Saigon to cover the war, he was told, “Go see An over at Time [magazine].”

What no one in the Saigon journalistic community realized at the time was that “reporter” An was in fact a spy for North Vietnam, and a very valuable one at that. The remarkable story of his double life is told in Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy (Smithsonian Books, $25.95, 328 pages, illus.). Not until long after the war ended, when the Vietnamese gave An the rank of general and proclaimed him a “Hero of the Revolution,” did his dual role become known.

An insisted in extensive interviews with Mr. Berman, a left-leaning historian at the University of California-Davis, that he was never anti-American, only pro-Vietnam, and that he was motivated by patriotism. Many of the Americans he befriended agree. These persons included Rufus Phillips of the CIA (who was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his work in Vietnam), who remarked, “I just don’t think he could ever have bought into the Communist Party propaganda line. I knew him as a patriotic nationalist and not as a Communist, and that is how I will always remember him.”

To be sure, a vast number of American journalists who relied upon An for guidance in a strange land reject any notion that he misled them. (Who in our egotistical trade would admit to being a dupe, conscious or otherwise?) One strong dissident is Arnaud de Borchgrave, a Newsweek correspondent during the war (and later executive editor of this newspaper) who told a Senate committee, “He [An] was in charge of relaying disinformation to the U.S. Embassy and to journalistic colleagues.”

To be sure, some correspondents needed no guidance from An. When Robert Sam Anson arrived in Saigon to report for Time, he already considered the war to be “murderous and immoral.”

In terms of American and South Vietnamese lives lost, An’s major intelligence coup was perhaps his disclosure of evolving use of U.S. helicopters into the war — culminating in the assault on the village of Ap Bac in late 1962. Information supplied by An enabled communist forces to repel the attack, which ended in a bloodbath, and as An would relate, “I was there as a reporter, helping my colleagues understand what had happened.”

As I read Mr. Berman’s book, the thought kept crossing my mind, “Would the journalists who now praise An as a patriot be equally forgiving of a colleague who turned out to be working for the CIA at the same time he was reporting on the war?” Think about it.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book in Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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