Many universities have set up centers to examine the history of the Cold War. The Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington D. C., for example, created an offshoot called The Cold War International History Project. That institute has over the years hosted many conferences, with panels of scholars representing all points of view. Two years ago, I was an active participant in a two days session at the CWIHP about Soviet espionage, that was based on the new book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.
The sponsors were fully aware of contending views on the issue of the role of Soviet espionage in America during the Cold War and carried out the meeting with great fairness. Compare that with the Tamiment Center at New York University, which cares little for fairness, academic rigor or diversity of views. Its inaugural event four years ago, “Alger Hiss and History,” left no mystery about its agenda. As I wrote in the New Republic, the conference
was intended to resurrect Old Left myths about the innocence of those accused during the so-called Red Scare in the 1950’s, and in particular, to re-open the case to prove Alger Hiss’ innocence. The only reason Hiss was indicted, their announcement made clear, was to “discredit the New Deal, legitimate the Red Scare, and set the stage of Joseph McCarthy.” Mark Kramer, who heads a similar Cold War center at Harvard, commented that the meeting “consists of diehard supporters of Hiss whose attempts to explain away all the new available evidence are thoroughly unconvincing.”
Indeed, future meetings they announced in their first year included a panel on the history of the American Communist Party, in which all the panelists were, without exception, current Communist Party members or fellow travelers. Another panel was another biased session on the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, a panel that was composed of three pro-Communists all whom had the same position on the Soviet role in Spain.
None of the criticism I offered mattered. Two weeks ago, the Tamiment Center announced its new schedule of forthcoming Cold War Center programs, and again, it provides more clear evidence that propaganda, not scholarship is its goal. The first, to be held tonight, is a reconsideration of the Rosenberg case. The speakers are Miriam Schneir—who with her late husband, wrote a new book, Final Verdict, that again tries to prove the essential innocence of the Rosenbergs, whom she treats as victims of Cold War repression. Another speaker is the elderly Miriam Moskowitz, a woman who was peripherally involved with the case, and who agrees with Schneir’s assumptions. Commenting is the Rosenberg’s older son, Michael Meeropol, who continues to carry on his lifelong campaign to vindicate his parents as American heroes.
There was no attempt by the sponsors to invite anyone with a different perspective, myself for instance. I know they are aware of my 1983 book The Rosenberg File because they attack it so often as fraudulent. Nor are they interested in inviting Steven Usdin, the science writer whose book Engineering Communism treats the full story of the Rosenberg ring’s espionage accomplishments, or Allen Hornblum, whose new book, The Invisible Harry Gold, tells the story of the man who served as courier for both Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother. Clearly, the purpose of the event is to promote one political view.
I should mention that on June 22nd, a group of us are sponsoring a one-day conference on the Rosenberg case, to be held at George Washington University. We are inviting those who do not believe that the Rosenbergs were guilty, as well as any actual participants in the case from both the prosecution and defense side that are still alive. We realize that if the case is to be openly discussed on a serious level, only one side cannot be offered.
Other sessions reveal more of the NYC Center’s approach. Ruth Martin presides over one called “The ‘Seven’ Lean years: Defending Civil Liberties during the McCarthy Era.” Another session is termed “Naming Names in New York City: Teachers, Morals and the Anti-Communist Purge.” The title tells you all you need to know about the approach of the presenter, Marjorie Heins. Then there is an ode to the late Communist novelist, the popular writer Howard Fast, who is heralded as a “political Subversive.”
Finally, on May 4, there is a panel on a rather obscure pamphlet printed by the New Left radical historian Jesse Lemisch in the year 1969. The pamphlet was a harsh, rhetorical, and a rather nasty attack on the luminaries of the historical profession at the time: the giants like Arthur M.Schlesinger Jr. and others of his generation. It was titled “On Active Service in War and Peace,” and was a thorough condemnation of all historians who supported the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
It was filled with vitriol, sarcasm and hostility, not the kind of serious criticism historians are supposed to engage in. And who is the Center inviting to discuss this? A panel of four left-wing historians with the same viewpoint: Blanche Weisen Cook, Rusti Eisenberg, Staughton Lynd and John McMillian. All are old New Leftists, or in the case of McMillian, a young historian of the 60’s who is dedicated to making the myths of the time live on.
I know about the Lemisch pamphlet quite well, because when it appeared, I was its biggest booster. A rather volatile New Leftist back in those days , I reveled in Lemisch’s harshness and attitude toward the profession’s elders, and therefore, urged him to publish it, and when he did, I wrote a blurb that unfortunately adorns the back of the pamphlet. Now, as most people know, I have grown up, and over many long years, have reevaluated my old views, and even written critiques of some of my own older New Left historical articles of the time.
If the Center was interested in real comment, why didn’t they ask me to participate, and explain in my comments why I now think Lemisch’s pamphlet is not only wrong-headed, but was so at the time he wrote it? After all, few of those speaking were among Lemisch’s public supporters then, except perhaps for Cook and Lynd. Wouldn’t even one voice with a critical and different perspective add to understanding? The answer to this rhetorical question is yes, and it is rather obvious. It is clear that contrary views, rather than a celebration of the pamphlet’s argument, is not what the Center wants. I now take this opportunity to let them know I am ready and willing to come and to comment, if they give me equal speaking time to the others who will all celebrate Lemisch, as well as pay my expenses for traveling to the session.
If you are not sure about my assessment , take a look at the programs they held during Fall 2010. The radical activist Tom Hayden is the only speaker on the story of the Port Huron statement and the birth of Students for a Democratic Society. Couldn’t they have asked Paul Berman, a man who is also affiliated with NYU and who has written devastating criticisms of Hayden and SDS, to participate and give his viewpoint? Berman is himself a man of the Left, but of course, his kind of approach is obviously not welcome. Berman years ago wrote a critique of SDS, in which he emphasized that its later turn to extremism was apparent right at the start, when under Hayden’s guidance, the organization refused to exclude Communists from participating in its founding, and argued that those who opposed them were Red-baiters. Wouldn’t Hayden have been able to handle and respond to the critique of Berman, who is an editor of Dissent, the leading social-democratic journal of opinion?
Look at this session, “‘Only Such Emotion as Fear’: Bella Abzug and the National Lawyers Guild’s Legal Challenge to Cold War Repression” with a presentation by Leandra Zarnow, a graduate student at University of California, Santa Barbara. The title alone tells us a great deal. Bella Abzug was a member of the Communist front American Student Union, and a lifelong fellow-traveler of the YCL and later the American Communist Party, and a charter member of the NLG, which was founded by the CPUSA as a legal arm to defend the Party before the courts. The name of the session is yet more of an indication that the paper is a hosanna to both Abzug and the Guild—and was anything but forthright about the Guild’s origins and raison d’etre.
In 2008, they featured Robert Goldstein, who lectured on “The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations: A Key, Under-studied Aspect of the Post World War II Red Scare.”
Again, there was evidently no commentator on Goldstein’s presentation who might have critically responded and disagreed with his analysis.
To be fair to the Center, there have been a few- but only a few times,- when they broke with their own outlook and featured speakers with an anti-leftist position. In the Fall of 2009 they did have John Earl Haynes, the co-author of Spies, speak about the importance of ex KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev’s copies of KGB documents, which were the basis of their new book. But this kind of presentation is an aberration for the Center, and perhaps serves them the purpose of rolling out when they want to show that they provide balance in whom they invite to speak.
Most of their programs, as I argued in 2007, seem to be an attempt to use scholarship to resurrect the reputations of the Left’s activists who were members of the totalitarian wing of the American Left. For a university that seeks to be a place in which genuine scholarship and intellectual debate takes place, the continuing programs of the NYU Center gives great cause for concern.
All those people who are appearing there have the right to their point of view, and to espouse their views on programs and panels they create. But a great university should have the obligation to allow the public, especially in advertised programs open to everyone, to hear contending points of view on controversial issues, rather than to run one-sided partisan events that are passed off as scholarly contributions. Or does NYU really want to have the reputation of vindicating the charges made by some conservatives like David Horowitz, who has argued that radical faculty have “turned America’s classrooms into indoctrination centers for their political cause”?
The late Sidney Hook, the great NYU Professsor of Philosophy, wrote a letter in 1949 complaining about an academic conference that had as its aim what Hook called “the goal of furthering Soviet foreign policy.” Hook was furious, because, as he put it, while the conference included “more than ninety well known-fellow-travelers of the Communist Party line,” he noted that one had to “insist that the point of view I have expressed in my paper be presented at the Conference and that a place be made for me on the program.” Hook did not get such a place. Were he still alive, he would no doubt be dismayed that his own University is now partaking of the same kind of practice he dedicated his life to fight. He might wonder whether NYU is pleased with itself for sponsoring these closed-door seances of the old left.