THE ANTI-COMMUNIST MANIFESTOS: FOUR BOOKS THAT SHAPED THE COLD WAR
By John V. Fleming
Norton, $27.95, 368 pages
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
Any objective person familiar with the record will conclude that Soviet Communism received a free ride from American “intellectuals” and the media during the 1930s and beyond. As John Fleming writes in this absorbing book, “We say that seeing is believing; in fact it is just as true that believing is seeing. Many early reporters and visitors [to the USSR] were partisans of the socialist ideal who filtered what they saw through the fine mesh of their own hopes and desires.”
Fortunately, the four books addressed by Mr. Fleming in “The Anti-Communist Manifestos” breached the ignorance barrier: “Darkness at Noon,” by Arthur Koestler (1940); “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin (1941); “I Chose Freedom,” by Victor Kravenchko (1946); and “Witness,” by Whittaker Chambers (1952). All were written by one-time communists, all became enormous best-sellers and all put their authors at risk of assassination by Soviet intelligence assassins. And all documented the true nature of the communist system.
You likely read one or more of these volumes in past years. Scanning them again, at the remove of decades, brings that special warmth of reassurance, “Hey, I was right all along about communism.”
The messages, in brief:
The supremacy of the party over the individual: Koestler’s “Darkness” is the story of Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who enthusiastically supported Stalin’s infamous “show trials” of the 1930s, which purged the party of foes, perceived and otherwise. Many persons in the west accepted the legitimacy of the sham proceedings, including U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies, perhaps the dumbest goat ever to don a pair of striped britches. Koestler puts Rubashov on trial for unspecified offenses, and we hear his anguish about the necessity for personal sacrifice on behalf of the greater good of communism.
The Soviets’ worldwide control of an espionage network: The reread that I enjoyed the most was Valtin. The German-born author (his real name, Richard Krebs) was a communist street fighter, a seaman, a Moscow-trained agent of the Communist International (Comintern); he also served prison time in California for an attempted murder. He details how Comintern director Georgi Dimitrov used the German party to help Hitler come to power, per a 1931 instruction: “United action of the Communist Party and the Hitler movement to accelerate the disintegration of the crumbling democratic bloc which governs Germany.”
The many persons the party betrayed included Valtin’s wife, imprisoned by the Nazis. Disgusted, he fled to the United States and hooked into a group of anti-Communists including Isaac Don Levine and Eugene Lyons, and exacted his revenge through print. Mr. Fleming, who is professor emeritus of literature at Princeton, writes with professional authority that the book “is among the more compelling and exciting adventure stories one will encounter in a lifetime’s reading.… It is replete with concrete and engaging details of political conspiracy, of life in the merchant navy, of techniques of street fighting, and numerous other arts and crafts probably unfamiliar to most people holding suburban library cards.”
There is also abundant spice, which surely helped sales in an era when wags described a best-seller as “a book with a shapely wench on the jacket, and no jacket on the shapely wench.” Although Valtin was very much a sexual athlete, he looked askance at wife swapping among members of the Norwegian Communist Central Committee. As Valtin wrote, “Anyone desirous of an abundant supply of bed companions of the opposite sex simply had to join the Party,” which he likened to a “red harem.” (If you are moved to buy this book online, look for the edition published by Alliance Book Corporation, which contains the full 749 pages; the Book of the Month Club cleaved some 100 pages from its version.)
The Soviet wartime betrayal of the United States: Victor Kravchenko was an army engineer assigned to a Soviet trade mission in Washington that oversaw the supply of billions of dollars of war materials to Moscow. The mission was run by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, and espionage dominated its agenda. Disgusted with the two-faced nature of communism, and the oppression of the Soviet people, Kravchenko “resigned” via a public blast that an anti-communist reporter friend at the New York Times splashed across the front page. Given that he spoke no English, Lyons and Levine helped him craft what Mr. Fleming calls “an eyewitness account of important events spanning the whole history of Bolshevik power, made by a Russian communist of consequence, experience and authority.”
A Soviet spy network in the United States: Readers of this paper are surely familiar with the Chambers story, which Mr. Fleming calls “the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-communism.” Among persons doing the Soviets’ bidding were America’s supposed “best and the brightest,” such as Alger Hiss. A sobering theme is that “in the great scheme of things, the Communists are winning,” and that he realizes that he was switching to the losing side. History worked out otherwise, of course.
The communists, predictably, did their dirtiest to smear all four authors. In the instance of Kravchenko, they went a lie too far. He sued a French publication for libel and produced Gulag survivors to give firsthand testimony about the Soviet system. He won, and wrote another best-seller, “I Chose Justice,” which expanded on his original indictment. Taken collectively, these books are “whistle blowing” at its best.
• Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.