American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character
by Diana West
St Martin’s Press, 2013, 416 pages, US$26.99
I have long known Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics, of which the third had always been something of a mystery. One and two I have seen for myself, but the third remained unclear:
1. Everyone is conservative about what they know best.
2. Any organisation not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
3. The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
The mystery has now been more than cleared up, and if I have learned anything in reading American Betrayal by Diana West, it is that Conquest may not have gone far enough. My own rewrite of Rule Number 3 would be: assume any organisation with actual power will almost immediately be taken over by a cabal of its enemies. That may even have been what he meant but was too polite to say.
No book has ever frightened me as much as American Betrayal. The only thing wrong with reading it is that you find yourself so surrounded by impossible odds that it seems there is no way you can go that isn’t in the wrong direction. Trying to fix things is as bad as just leaving them alone. But because the story the book tells is so incredible, you realise just how unbelievable her thesis would be unless you had read the book yourself. I will therefore first bring to your attention a number of the reviews that were put up on the Amazon website. I’ll only say that none of them gives you anything like the flavour of what the book is actually like. So first read through these and then let us continue from there:
“This explosive book is a long-needed answer to court histories that continue to obscure key facts about our backstage war with Moscow. Must-reading for serious students of security issues and Cold War deceptions, both foreign and domestic.”—M. Stanton Evans, author of Blacklisted by History
“Enlightening. I give American Betrayal five stars only because it is not possible to give it six.”—John Dietrich, formerly of the Defense Intelligence Agency and author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy
“Diana West masterfully reminds us of what history is for: to suggest action for the present. She paints for us the broad picture of our own long record of failing to recognize bullies and villains. She shows how American denial today reflects a pattern that held strongly in the period of the Soviet Union. She is the Michelangelo of Denial.” —Amity Shlaes, author of Coolidge and the NYT bestseller The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
Remember Alger Hiss? He was a Soviet agent in the American State Department who was eventually exposed by Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon, and therefore has ever since been presented as a martyr to the red-baiting McCarthyism of the 1950s. The evidence against Hiss is so overwhelming that there really is no point in denying any of it, but socialist tactics are never to abandon a comrade in the field. Admit nothing and count on the stupidity, ignorance and culpability of the academic community and media. You cannot enter into these discussions without tempting the furies of the Left.
Diana West’s book American Betrayal, about the infiltration of Communists into the government of Franklin Roosevelt and others afterwards, has emerged as the most controversial book of the year within conservative circles in the USA. As Steve Kates writes in this review, the interest generated comes almost as much from the subsequent debate as from the book itself.
Click here for a summary of that debate by Roger Kimball, editor of one of the American journals most involved, The New Criterion.
That the State Department and the American government had been riddled with Soviet agents—either actual devoted Communist Party members, or those of the fellow traveller variety, or just, in many cases, “useful idiots”—ought by now to be universally known. One way or another there were a significant number of people willing and able to use their knowledge and position to advance Soviet interests in the West. And until recently, most of the ways in which the problem has been discussed have been to show how the Soviets used their agents to gain intelligence which would allow them to know what the Americans were thinking and planning to do.
Of late, however, there has been a shift towards an even more sinister interpretation: that Soviet penetration went to the very heart of the policy process in the United States. It is one thing to argue that American secrets were being betrayed to the Soviets, but quite another to argue that the Soviets had so deeply penetrated the American political process that they were able to influence the policy-making of the United States directly. And not just policy-making in general, but the conduct of the Second World War almost throughout, beginning even before the United States entered the war.
Who can know what is true from this distance? The evidence might tell more than one story, and be subject to a range of interpretations, or misinterpreted to explain events in ways that fit in with the overall thesis presented but are not a correct reflection of the underlying facts. Some facts are left out; others are made to fit. And then there is the charge that what an author has found are a series of conspiracy theories, an accusation which is supposed to raise suspicions about the author’s judgment. There is the frequently repeated pseudo-rule, that if the choice is between a conspiracy and a screw-up, choose the screw-up every time—a handy maxim for conspirators to foster.
But the combination of ideology and money goes a long way in explaining many things in life. Those who would deny that there really was an international communist conspiracy—by which I mean attempts by communist governments in possession of immense financial resources to subvert the free communities of the West by placing their undeclared agents in positions of power and influence—are either ridiculously naive, fantastically ignorant, or part of the conspiracy. Let me quote from Diana West in discussing her reaction to people who raise the issue of anti-American subversion:
I have come to believe the apathy and especially the laughter are conditioned responses, trained responses designed to short-circuit the thinking process and other natural reflexes. Who or what did the conditioning? Who or what taught us to yawn at or mock overtly anti-American subversion? Did I just say “anti-American subversion”? That’s another howler for most of us postmoderns. So howl at this: Barack Hussein Obama, by associations, by actions, by stated beliefs—by rights—should not have been given a government security clearance. Short of having been elected president, the shocking paradox is, it is extremely unlikely he would ever have received it.
Those of us who recognise that reality have had to deal with others who deny either the facts or their relevance. So into this comes Diana West with a story so incredible that whatever one might have thought possible before is a dim shadow of what she asks us to believe now. And she patiently builds a story outlining a network of subversion so bizarrely immense that to write it down will seem too fantastic to anyone without the book’s detailed breadth and depth. It all adds up to a story so disturbing that it has changed my attitude to almost everything I think about how the world actually is.
But let me go back a step. I read M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History when it was published in 2007. Its subtitle tells you what you need to know about the subject: “The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies”. It’s a depressing book about the way in which the very name McCarthy has been turned into the epitome of deceit. McCarthy, who was one of the best friends freedom ever had, who tried to alert America to the subversions that were taking place across the world, in Eastern Europe, in Korea, in China and elsewhere through the complicity of communist agents inside the American government, is now discredited in a way no other politician alive or dead has ever been. McCarthy, who only sought to reveal the truth, has had his name blackened by history. Even among genuine anti-communists, since almost no one at this late stage knows most of the relevant facts, many find it impossible to defend McCarthy. To do so, as I do here, invites only trouble.
And at this point let me mention my own personal history. I love my parents, but both to their dying days were dedicated communists and I grew up in a house where the communist conspiracy was the meaning of life. All of my parents’ friends were comrades, hardcore Stalinists to a man or woman. Even after all this time I feel a personal betrayal in putting these words on the page, since I was brought up to understand that to reveal any of this to anyone outside the house could invite disaster. In all the years growing up in their home I never mentioned a word, but as a “red diaper baby” I was fully indoctrinated before the arrival of the New Left in the 1960s which emerged on university campuses just as I was arriving myself. I don’t wish to romanticise any of it, but let me merely say that the result of my journey from the campus Left to the hippie enclaves of Vancouver to my years as a proletarian gardener in London (by then holding an MA in economics), was that I became as anti-socialist as I had once been pro.
And while I know many who are anti-socialist because that is what they have always believed, those such as myself, who have gone through the process of thinking these issues through in their own minds but starting from a deep Left perspective, have an understanding unavailable to others of both the stakes and the nature of the enemy that socialism represents. If you say you were once on the Left but have crossed over and you do not thereafter see it as one of your life’s missions to proselytise against socialism, you either haven’t abandoned your previous beliefs or never had them in the first place. Read Whittaker Chambers’s Witness or the fascinating Radical Son by David Horowitz for accounts of what it is like to be a socialist on the far end of the scale and then cross from Left to Right.
Having read Blacklisted by History I looked forward to seeing what National Review would make of it, which turned out to be an extended piece written by Ronald Radosh, an author whose name and background I was quite familiar with. Radosh, from the deepest of leftist motivations, had co-authored a book in the 1980s about the Rosenbergs in which he was hoping to defend them but was compelled by the evidence to conclude that they actually had been Soviet spies. Unexpectedly for him but not for me, his friends on the Left immediately drove him out and would no longer associate with him. No principle of his had changed, only the people who were now willing to talk to him. Thus under the my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend principle, that if you are shunned by the Left then you must be something else, the assumption has grown that he is one of us. Could be, but I don’t see it. In his own words:
I tried to swallow the doubts about the Left I was beginning to harbor as a result of my encounter with the unquiet ghosts of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but that experience stuck in my craw. Although I didn’t want to be excommunicated from the church of the Left where I had worshipped all my life, I had in fact started to question the whole project of the Left. Soon I would learn what so many in similar circumstances had seen before me: that there is a straight line leading from doubt to apostasy.
The excommunication came first and the apostasy later. Well, this same Radosh wrote a review of American Betrayal that was so scathing I knew the book had to be worth reading, working from the assumption that if he didn’t like it I would. And so it turned out to be. A story that is guaranteed to put fear in your heart and leave you, like Whittaker Chambers, with the conviction that we are on the losing side. But history plays tricks on us all, so who can say for sure? But it is a book that does make you think how hopeless it is.
As you can see, I’m reluctant to tell you what the book is about, in large part because its canvas is so broad and the story too incredible. My fear is that if I tell you too much you will think it so far-fetched that you will not wish to bother with it.
Yet you do need to know something, so here is my summation. The Roosevelt you come across in the book is an airhead chief executive with very few hardcore beliefs on foreign affairs. He surrounds himself with the kinds of people the New Deal attracts, the centralisers who see a major role for governments in all aspects of the economy. These are, by nature, the kinds of people who in the 1920s and 1930s are attracted to the Soviet experiment, who see in Russia the way of the future. And some of them are actual Soviet agents, many of whom become close confidants of the president.
While their infiltration has an almost immediate effect on American foreign policy, it is not until the Second World War that their influence truly begins to be felt. But by 1941 it is eight years since Roosevelt was elected and each of these advisers is now well established in the government and trusted by the public. American Betrayal shows how a small number of these advisers wielded their influence. By the time you put the book down, you have a very different view of America’s war aims and strategies. The core question is, did the USA follow a strategy that served its own best interests, or Stalin’s? And it’s not that it was Stalin’s that is so compelling, since you knew that had to be the answer, but the evidence in detail that West provides that makes this a book you cannot ignore.
West ever so often presents the alternative perspective of Winston Churchill. What Churchill must have thought has never been revealed, but there can be little doubt he would have had grave suspicions about what was happening around him.
By the time I had finished the book, my view of the United States had so comprehensively changed that I am somewhere I have never before been in my political leanings. The USA and the principles of its political and economic freedoms are the core values of the world I want to live in, and this has not changed. But as I now assume, following my amendment to Robert Conquest’s third rule of politics—that since any organisation with actual power will be immediately taken over by a cabal of its enemies—that is what has happened to the United States, the first instance having occurred under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.
As a result of reading West’s book, I now look on the United States as a big dumb ox, led around by a cabal of its enemies whose intent is to take the beast out to slaughter. It is a very large beast and will not go quietly. But given what you will learn from this book, you will be in some despair in trying to work out what can be done. This is a very troubling book which I nevertheless encourage you to read.
Steven Kates teaches at RMIT University.