Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Hiding Oscar's Guilt

Academic freedom is a special subset of the freedoms of speech, of the press, and of belief. Like all such freedoms, it involves an internal tension: it can be used against itself if it is used to promote totalitarian efforts.

To be associated with the Communist Party (CPUSA) was not merely to be engaged in the free exchange of political ideas. The CPUSA’s stated goal was, at least during key Cold War years, a “violent revolution” to overthrow the United States government.

To be a member of the CPUSA, or to be a supporter or sympathizer of it, was to advocate death and destruction as inevitable and necessary - the death of United States citizens and the destruction of infrastructure on U.S. soil. The CPUSA was involved in espionage, smuggling classified information out of the country to the Soviets; involved in subversion, influencing policymakers inside the federal government to weaken the security which protected the lives of U.S. citizens; and involved in sabotage, preparing in various ways for the anticipated violent revolution.

Soviet agents - ‘moles’ - obtained significant posts within the government. Alger Hiss, for example, advised President Franklin Roosevelt on foreign policy matters, nudging FDR to make decisions which were against the interests of the United States and in the interests of the Soviet Union.

The CPUSA was quite clear about its goal. In its own printed materials, it stated:

The communist party will systematically and persistently propagate the idea of the inevitability of and necessity for violent revolution and will prepare the workers for armed insurrection as the only means of overthrowing the capitalist state.

Thus being a member, supporter, sympathizer, or ‘fellow-traveler’ of the CPUSA was not a matter of holding various beliefs or expressing political opinions. It was an act of violence, a disregard of human life, and a deliberate effort to reduce the liberties of U.S. citizens.

Cataloguing examples of how the notion of “academic freedom” was subverted and exploited by Soviet agents, historian M. Stanton Evans, also known as “Stan” Evans, writes:

One further instance in this vein is worth a bit of notice, as it illustrates not only the ignorance problem but the unwillingness or inability of some who write about such matters to get the simplest facts in order. In this case the offender was the New York Times, which in May 2000 published an obituary of a recently deceased New York professor with a domestic Cold War background. This ran on the Times obit page under a four-column headline.

The narrative presented in this obituary proceeded to mangle the facts about Oscar Shaftel, a known communist sympathizer. Shaftel had cooperative working relations with known communists, and testimony had been given under oath concerning his involvement with the CPUSA.

Although Oscar Shaftel was, at the very least, a security threat, the obituary attempted to depict him as a victim:

This article said Shaftel, once a teacher at New York’s Queens College, had lost his job back in the 1950s when he refused to answer “some questions” about alleged Red connections posed by the “investigations subcommittee of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee.”

Instead of noting that Shaftel was fueling efforts toward a violent revolution which would cause the deaths of United States citizens and a reduction in their civil liberties, the obituary dwelt on the alleged hardship endured by Shaftel as a result of his choice to voluntarily identify with a group of violent extremists.

The text of the obituary more than plays into the hands of the international communist conspiracy which maintained a substantial espionage network inside the United States between 1919 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 / 1991. The reader may well wonder why, a decade after the fall of Soviet communism, efforts were still made to protect, hide, and justify the efforts of Stalinist operatives working in the U.S.

Perhaps the momentum of the Soviet spy network outlived the Soviet Union itself. Although the Soviet regime had collapsed and disappeared, its operatives still needed to cover their tracks to escape the legal consequences of their actions. Although Oscar Shaftel was now beyond the reach of the law, perhaps his associates feared detection if his facade were to fall.

So the obituary deflects the reader’s attention from Shaftel’s relevant activities, and instead works to generate sympathy for him.

The obit then went on to offer a lengthy tribute to Shaftel, describe his lonely years of exile, and suggest that, despite this ill treatment, his gallant spirit had remained unbroken.

If, however, the reader sets aside the emoting of the text, and examines its propositional content, then the text quickly collapses under the weight of its own errors and misrepresentations. Stan Evans notes that “the errors in this story were stunning, starting with the bedrock fact that” alleged sufferings of Shaftel were impossible. Shaftel was depicted as the victim of non-existent organizations.

Oscar Shaftel was not a noble hero for the principle of academic freedom. He was, knowingly or not, an instrument of Soviet aggression.

The text contains flat violations of fact. It named a committee which did not exist. It wrongly identified the senator of another committee. The people, events, and processes listed in the obituary

had nothing to do with the late professor, the committee that brought him to book, or his alleged hardships. Indeed, there was no such thing as “the investigations subcommittee of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee.” The security unit, as the name clearly says, was itself a subcommittee (of the Judiciary Committee), its chairman at the time of the Shaftel hearing Sen. William Jenner of Indiana.

Attempting to set the record straight, Evans then contacted the newspaper about the errors in the obituary. The sluggish bureaucracy of a large institution - the Times has shrunk since the date in question - always makes such corrections difficult.

Was there more to the delay in correction than merely the sluggishness of a large bureaucracy? Was the misdirection about Oscar Shaftel deliberate?

Almost as odd as the obit itself were the events ensuing when, in my self-appointed role as part-time ombudsman on such matters, I wrote the Times about it, giving the facts above related, plus some pertinent data on the case the Times account omitted. Over the course of a month and a half, I sent the Times three different missives on the subject without having a letter printed or receiving an answer, made two references to it on C-SPAN talk shows, and enlisted the aid of the late media critic Reed Irvine, who wrote directly to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger trying to get the thing corrected.

As is always the case with news media, retractions do little to repair the damage created by the original published error. Corrections of factual error are not given prominence in electronic or print media, and create little interest among readers.

For historians, however, the retraction did create an acknowledgement that the newspaper had printed a collection of factual errors.

This apparently did the trick, as the Times at last provided on September 1 (the Friday of the Labor Day weekend) an obscure retraction, tucked into a corrections box between two numbingly soporific items (confusion of Mexican local politicians in a photo, misidentification of birds in Brooklyn). This confessed in bare-bones terms that the Times had erred as to the name and chairman of the committee that heard Shaftel. It thus took six weeks, half a dozen efforts, and the labors of two people to get a terse, nit-sized correction in no way comparable in scope or impact to the original mammoth error.

A narrative about a single, error-ridden obituary and its retraction is not a major piece of world history. It remains obscure, even to specialists in Cold War espionage.

But the facts accumulate to indicate a puzzling pattern: a decade or more after the fall of the Soviet Union, a coordinated effort continues to minimize the total threat posed by the Soviet espionage network which operated inside the United States prior to 1989, and to conceal the activities of individuals who were agents, knowing accomplices, or unwitting dupes.